IN THE SPRING OF 2002 DR. STEVE FOSTER AND I STUMBLED INTO AVIATION HISTORY BY BECOMING THE ONLY TWO AMERICAN PILOTS WHO'VE EVER SURVIVED AN UNANNOUNCED LANDING IN CUBA
Our route from Key West International Airport to a dirt path in the Guanahacabibes National Park, Cuba.
Pinar Del Rio Province, Cuba
17 May '02
I was drowning in sweat, every pore of my body was screaming for a snorkel. I lifted my t-shirt away from my chest to allow air in, none came. I flapped the material trying to coax a current over my skin. Nothing. Just hot. Not "Africa Hot". Cuba hot. "Dang Fidel," I thought, "did the bugger ban everything after the Bay of Pigs, even air for gringos?" I pulled my elbows up, felt the scruff of the mattress gently abrade the backs of my arms, and settled into a modified prone position. I gave a slow comprehensive scan to the six flat surfaces of the cell. All the paint had come from the same bucket. It was a hue suggestive of bean bile; a kind of visceral ecru. It was like being inside a piece of rotten fruit.
On the floor at the end of my cot, and much too near my feet, lay an eerily stoic, gargantuan German Shepherd named "Busco". Given his enormity I figured Busco must be the Spanish word for dumpster. Seated rigidly behind him was his handler, also eerily stoic, a stocky, reticent sort in his early thirties whom I called "Senor Busco", an appellation he, for some reason, found offensive. I really didn't know why since he and Busco did favor some, were built similarly, and could have easily shared wardrobe.
Napping not so silently on the shaky cot next to me was Steve Foster, an M.D. I'd met a couple of months earlier. He'd attended a lecture I'd been giving at a college in his home town, and had invited me to join him on a little humanitarian excursion to Honduras. He explained that as a writer I might find his story and his mission compelling enough to scribble about. And he was right. But his story and his mission were eight hundred miles away, on the Moskito Coast in Honduras.
SO WHAT IN THE HELL WAS I DOING IN JAIL IN CUBA!! *
"You ain't gonna make it, not in that." That was the free advice showered upon us by every pilot at the Key West International airport, when told of our plans to fly across the Caribbean to Cozumel. "But the manual-" was usually as far as I got when I tried to offer an explanation. The manual clearly stated, as manuals are supposed to do, that with a proper mixture of fuel and air our little two seat Cessna trainer had 6.2 hours of flying time. Well, it was only FOUR hours to Cozumel, so what WAS the problem?
"Look," Ronnie the old Stearman Biplane pilot said, from the edge of his hangar, "I've flown that route a hundred times and I'm telling ya'll, even if you strip that little can down to the metal on the inside to save weight, and fly it naked, you still ain't gonna make it!"
"Naked?" I asked.
"Naked," he replied. "And besides, that crate of ya'lls is thirty years old, the engine has lost a lot of it's oomph and it's got only about half the paint it came from the factory with...ya'll gonna end up in the drink, period!". And those were his final words on the subject.
I was in a quandary. We'd already flown the plane almost a thousand miles, and all but two hours of that at night, AND over water from Tampa to Key West AND in instrument conditions; conditions none of us were certified for, not me, not the doctor and not the airplane. It seemed to me that we had stretched the rubber band of fate about as taut as any fool should. At that moment the only quote about fools that came to mind was from Shakespeare "Better a foolish wit than a witty fool,"-which I'd always thought could've worked either way, but did little to help me sort out my predicament. There was nothing funny-witty about this, but there was a helluva lot foolish about it.
I'd had that much figured out during the flight down from north Georgia. The plane hadn't been flown in 7 years and had just recently been given a legitimate OKEE DOKEE by a "certified aircraft inspector", who during the times I was certifying him was either inebriated, or lying on the tarmac under the wing. His daily ritual seem to be to tinker with the plane for a hour or two, then head for the nearest spirit center, where he'd purchase a kind of imitation gin, a mixture so cheap the only thing they charge you for when you buy it is the container it comes in.
The remainder of his day was spent commingling those two acts, tinker and drink and tinker and drink. And he was always dressed in the same greasy coveralls, no socks and a pair of hand- me-down wing tip shoes without laces. It was probably the shoes that certified him to work on airplanes.
After about a week and near the end of this "annual inspection" I asked him, "so, do you think this thing will make it to Honduras?"
His head remained inside the engine cowling and he mumbled something like, "probably, long as it ain't too far".
Just what I wanted to here. "Honduras," I said, "is in Central America, below Mexico and Guatemala".
He didn't move for a moment, then lifted his head up and looked across the engine at me, "'at sounds pretty far", was his much too succinct reply.
Another few days passed and another few plastic bottles of gin were emptied before he'd filled out the FAA paperwork that said the plane was flyable. But as I thumbed through the regulations I could find no explanation of exactly what constituted in aviation lingo the phrases, "too far," and "pretty far".
A half dozen or so associates from the Doctors clinic had gathered to bid us farewell on that mid May day at the Dalton, Georgia airport. There was a lot of praying and blessings and reconfirmations that we were on a "Mission from God" and such, and then the Doctor asked me to read "IF" by Rudyard Kipling, a poem that to me was about the most perfect assemblage of words in the English language. Kipling had written it for his son as a manual for life, and the power in it's message had never allowed me to complete it's reading without a tear or two. This day was no different.
The poem was still reverberating in my head as we lifted off into a light rain a hour or so before sunset. Then it got dark, Kipling was gone and his words had been replaced by the foreboding emanations of the Gin Man, "long as it ain't too far".
The darker it became, the further it seem to get, and the more evident it became of just how many of our instruments were unlit. About the time I was realizing this, the doctor removed a penlight from his shirt pocket, and began scanning the panel with it. The only gauges that were lit were the airspeed indicator and the artificial horizon, which tells you whether you're going up or down, and if your wings are level, two things you really need to know when flying a plane in the dark. The duel fuel gauges were barely visible from the greenish glow of the NEW, thank goodness, GPS mounted on the dash in front of me. Another twist in this excursion of lunacy was the doctors "condition", a condition heretofore unknown to me and commonly known as ADHD, which made it almost impossible for him to hold a true course for any sustained period, like five minutes. So, when I wasn't flying, I was constantly giving him new headings..."uh, doctor, we need to be about ten degrees west," yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeawwwwwwwwwww, the planes engine would cry as he would comply, then five minutes later, "uh, doctor, we need to be about fifteen degrees east," then another yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww, and we be back on course. It took us 12 and 1/2 hours to fly to Key West. We used this drunken snake procedure for about 6 of those hours.
We landed at a small field in south Georgia just after midnight to refuel. They were closed. But we finally found a guy with a pick up truck who would ferry us back and forth to the Exxon station a few miles away, to fill the two five gallon red plastic containers that I'd thrown behind the seats just before we left. It took four trips but we finally got the tanks topped off, and then headed on into Florida.
We refueled again in Tampa, and then it was out over the gulf, the shortest distance to Key West International Airport. Thirty minutes into the flight, the doctor tells me he's tired and needs to take a nap, and can I get us into Key West. Before I can say, yeah I think, his head popped against the plexi-glass window and he was dead asleep.
I woke him to get his penlight, because in the three or four seconds I'd been Pilot in Command, I'd realized three or four very unsettling situations that I'd not previously been fully cognizant of.
A couple of the more important ones were: The lights from the Tampa/St. Pete area were now behind us and getting dimmer, and ten minutes from now, when they have faded completely I will have no, that is ZERO ground reference. Further complicating this flight necessity, that is, depth perception, high clouds had moved in and I now had ZERO sky reference. Not being able to discern up from down is about the worst predicament a pilot can be in. Nope, it is the worst. And all this unsettling preponderance of dark had suddenly made me aware of what apparently had been going on beneath our seats since we'd left Dalton. Seems Gin Man had forgotten to check the wiring, because behind my bare calves there was a nice little light show going on, sparks and other such emanations from wires that had either burned in two, or had not been not properly attached to one another to begin with, which I could identify with because if all my wires had been properly attached I wouldn't be here, I'd be back home in my treehouse reading the funny papers.
Since our shoulders were touching in the cramped cabin, I gave the doctor a little nudge, pointed under the seat, and suggested we may have an electrical situation developing. His response was less than I had hoped for. He only came about half way out of his deep doze and yawned, "don't worry about 'em, it's been doing that for years".
Jeesus, I thought, "common sense" and "Mission from God" must be mutually exclusive phrases.
Another half hour passed, the Florida coastline had receded into yesterday, the clouds had thickened and I was flying in a very, very black box. (These kinds of flights are usually the ones you read about in the local papers under the headlines, "Plane Piloted by two Doofuses Disappears)
For the next three hours I did three things very methodically. I shined the penlight at the airspeed indicator, 75mph, then at the artificial horizon to make sure my wings were level, and that I was not climbing or descending, then at the GPS for my course line. And that was all. I never looked anywhere else. Any minor notice of the outside and all that blackness can so disturb your senses, that in an instant you can feel that you're either banking or climbing or falling...and headed for those pages of the local newspaper.
Now, one of the reasons this was even more difficult for me was that all of my flying time had been in experimental, open cockpit type planes, and all during daylight. And most of the planes that I'd flown didn't even have gauges, of any kind.
So, what I did for the next three hours was to teach myself how to fly "on instruments" It was the only time in my life, where I was forced to limit my focus to three simple activities, for almost three continuous hours. Trying to prevent your death can elevate your senses to their absolute zenith. But those who've never taken this test, will have difficulty identifying.
When the sun came up, Key West was just a few miles out. I was completely spent. I nudged the doctor and told him, "you've got the airplane", he woke with a jerk of his head, took the yoke and I pointed toward the field. I hadn't been to sleep in 24 hours, so when we landed I expected at least a half day of rest. But that wasn't to be. The doctor wanted to rent a couple of bicycles and sightsee around Key West. Sleep, had now joined "common sense" in the "no-need-bin" for those on a Mission from God. *
Luckily, two days of bad weather had allowed our batteries to recharge. I spent much of that time reassessing this adventure, and whether or not there was any wisdom in my remaining a party to it. I knew the doctor felt he was on a sanctified mission and I have never been one to question or chastise another's belief system, but what I had no way of knowing was whether or not my name was also on the Mission from God manifest.
The night before our scheduled departure I told the doctor that I'd take a shot at it, if we had at least a 15 knot tailwind. I'd calculated - math wise I'm in over my head after long division - that with that degree of natures assistance we might be able to make it to Cozumel. I also knew that for the last two days while we had waited for the weather to clear, the wind had blown in the exact opposite direction and had never been above 12 knots. So, what I'd done is built a small buffer of sanity between me and the doctor and his mission, but one that would neither offend nor make him think less of me for exhibiting what I considered a semblance of sound judgment.
The next morning the wind was blowing 18 knots toward Cozumel. DoDo, I thought.
Well, deferring my judgment to others had never been a common practice of mine, but my word was sacrosanct.
We topped off the fuel tanks in case any had leaked out, or evaporated in the two days "Paranjo Extreno" or "Strange Bird" (the logo the doctor had painted on the engine cowling) had been waiting on the tarmac. As we taxied by Ronnie-the-Stearman-pilots hangar, I waved to him and tried to signal a thumbs up, but my thumb was more connected to my brain than the rest of me and it refused to extend. As we passed, I looked back and saw him making the sign of the cross on his chest...and wondered which kind of "Mission from God" this was, Catholic or Protestant. We were probably going to need both of them, I thought.
So with the ambitious optimism that accompanies all "do gooder" adventures, we climbed into the blue south Florida sky, leveled at 2100 feet, and leaned the fuel mixture for maximum range, and settled in for the crossing.
The Cuban Coast appeared quickly, or as quickly as it can in a Cessna 150. We skirted their airspace to shorten our route, actually we did more than skirt, we flew until we saw land and then hung a right, and by that time land, Cuba, was just off our left wing. Memory can be an inhospitable companion during these moments of unease, mine was blasting pictures into focus of the number of planes that Fidel had shot down in the last few years - the last two in 1996, planes that had dared fly anywhere near his airspace. I clicked on the video camera, and the little digital pocket shooter, and aimed them down at the coastline, and said something really inane, which was a state I'd been in ever since we'd left Key West. I felt numb dumb. But the adventure, the uncertainty of the moment was beyond titillating...and it was soon to move considerably beyond that.
As I brought my gaze back inside the plane I glanced at the airspeed indicator. 85 mph. Good. Then at the Global Positioning Device directly in front of me. On course. Good. Then at the ground speed indicator, which told us how fast we were really moving, 64 mph.
HOLY MOLY ... SIXTY FOUR MILES AN HOUR! WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO OUR TAIL-WIND!?
We climbed a bit, then a bit more trying to find our friend the tailwind, but she was gone. She'd been replaced by her adversary, a big obstreperous huffing puffing sky filling monster with but one goal-to get us WET!
An hour later the monster was still with us and the fuel needles I was staring at were laid over like a pair of wheat straws in a gale. I checked the GPS for alternate airfields. San Juan Miguel was a military installation an hour back. No way. Below us everything on the land mass was thick, single canopy jungle. We kept thinking we'd find a farm or some hint of civilization with a path leading to a habitat, anywhere we could put this little toy airplane on the ground. But there was nothing. Nowhere.
The view as we made the turn back toward Havana. As far as we could see it was all single canopy jungle.
We did a 180 at the end of the island, the engine skipped a couple of beats as we banked to remind us that our fuel supply was at crisis level, and as we circled the lighthouse-in-progress and scanned the coastline for a patch of white, in my head Dante' reared his pen with the warning, "abandon hope all ye who enter here".
But no matter how closely we scrutinized the terrain, we saw only what we had been seeing for the last hour, mile after mile of jungle connected to water by a continuous line of jagged iron coral; a particularly nasty growth that would rip us and the plane apart if we dared light upon it. Almost simultaneously the doctor and I cinched down our four point seat restraints, silently acknowledging the probability of our soon to be sudden stop in the Caribbean. I reached back into the small compartment behind the seats and fumbled with the life raft, a heavy, non-self inflating hunk of rubber designed for white water rivers, and wondered how we were going to blow this thing up after we hit. And for that matter would we be conscious and unbroken following the sudden deceleration (I'd slept through an entire semester of physics class, except for one day, why did it have to be the day we studied inertia) "Let's see from 60 mph to 0 mph in about a second-hmmm," I quickly deduced, "I bet that's probably gonna hurt".
We had dropped to about a thousand feet, still vainly searching for a small level dry spot, when almost at the same time our eyes focused on a tiny spit of white a couple of miles ahead. It looked like beach. Not much beach, but we didn't need much. A minute or so later it revealed itself to be a road under construction and the 500 feet of white was the only section not enshrouded by jungle. This was our no-room-for-error airfield. I was suddenly reminded of a conversation I'd had with Senator John Glenn back in the 80's, when I was trying to help him win a four year stretch at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It had to do with hang gliding-a sport that I'd been involved in for years-and the absolute necessity for every landing to be perfect; approach, base leg and final, all perfect. "So what do you do if you blow your landing," the national hero asked. I grinned at him, gave my head a half shake and replied, "well sir, you just don't". I looked over at the doctor and wondered if he'd ever flown hang gliders, because this landing was going to be a real booger; one "pervaded with peril" the poet would say.
It was his airplane, his Mission from God, so it was going to be his landing. I was just the coach in this game. The doctor chopped power, shoved the nose over and cross-controlled the little yellow and white bird, crabbing through the sky to quickly bleed off altitude. We were almost at a forty five degree angle to the road, side-slipping our way up behind an old diesel spewing Russian moto grader, that chugged along leveling piles of sand and dirt. We glided almost silently across the road scrape, our wheels not more than a couple of feet above the drivers head. I heard him scream as we passed, jerked my head back in time to see his arms flailing, and his face contorted as if he expected other aircraft to follow, an invasion surely, all the while coaching the doctor, "too high too high too high". A little more side slip and the road hurried beneath us, one wheel down, correct for the side slip, a second wheel down, hard on the brakes, a brief slide on the fresh dirt and stop ... about thirty paces from the tree lined dog leg in front of us.
"Helluva landing Doctor, I mean a helluva landing!" I gushed as we popped the latch on our seat restraints. As our feet hit the ground we couldn't keep the smiles from our face. We were very happy, I mean we were ecstatic!
We were dry and we were unhurt, which just a minute or two ago seemed unlikely possibilities. That we had landed, uninvited, on a dirt road in an economically exhausted communist country, whose deprivation and exaggerated state of paranoia were due largely to the attitudes and policies of the big gringo to the north, i.e., us, well, that was a consideration that would have to wait.
But had we been able to foresee the next five days, the elation we were currently experiencing, would have been greatly tempered.
The road crew was quickly upon us, confused smiles on the half dozen, dirty, weary male faces as they shifted their eyes from us to the tiny aircraft and then back again. But the scrawny guy with the clipboard moving deliberately toward us was without smile or confusion. His blue pant-white shirt uniform disallowed either. He held his palm up, with a kind of stay-put salute, took the clipboard from under his arm and quickly jotted a few notes. After a moment he pointed to one of the old, decrepit dump trucks that lined the new roadway, and motioned for us to climb up into the back, then told one of the still grinning workers to join us. Our guard, I supposed. Then, he tried to open the old truck's passenger side door with a firm yank, nothing, then two more with similar results. I was looking down at him from the dump trucks bed, trying not to laugh. His countenance now wore a frustrated grimace, and some pain from the rotator cuff of his yanking arm. As he reached up for a fourth attempt, a long pry bar appeared in the window. He took the bar and gave the driver a look that needed no translation. "You let me keep yanking on this door knowing it wouldn't open without this crowbar?" That kind of look. He pried the door loose, scrambled up the two steps and gave us a last sneer before disappearing inside the cab. The driver growled the gearshift into first, then, with an unsettling mechanical belch, and a storm-cloud size puff of black smoke, the 60's model Russian hauler lurched away toward the unimproved path, that led off into the single canopy jungle. Venting his frustration, Uniform slammed the door shut as we picked up speed. It bounced back to full open like it'd hit a coil spring, I heard something about "bastardo" and saw his hand shoot out to pull it back. It remained un shut for the duration of our 30 kilometer journey. A journey to the tiny compound, that served as the only outpost, military or otherwise in this part of the country.
Dr. Foster in the back of our "Cuban Limo", a 60's model Russian dump truck, on our way to the detention facility.
Our dusty, bouncing, kidney banging dump truck trek consumed most of an hour. In Dante' mode, it was like a cheap ride at a one-tent-circus one might expect to find on the outskirts of Hell proper. Our conversation during the trip focused on the near future. What were they going to do with us?. Initially our thoughts were controlled by all the endorphins, the brains feel-good messengers, that had been generated by our safe arrival upon terra Cuba. It was this condition that rendered most of our early considerations asinine in the extreme. "Ah, they'll probably just get us some fuel and let us go, we can still make Cozumel by dark". I will not attribute that quote, though it was made, because neither of us had ever before been adjudged to be an idiot-that is, except by Ronnie the Stearman pilot, and his compadres back at Key West International airport.
They knew we both were.
The military compound in Pinar Del Rio province consisted of two pea green colored, concrete block structures just across the road from the shore, and the 200 mile swim back to Florida. A few hundred feet to the east were six or seven "civilian" buildings, all unfinished; no windows or doors, and inhabited by the dozen or so families that were supported by the road construction crew. A third military building, a barracks, sat back further into the jungle next to a fifty foot tall radio tower, that seemed to be of "Bay of Pigs" vintage. The compound was manned by about 20 soldiers; 2 officers and the rest enlisted. It's purpose, I later discovered, was "drug interdiction". They spent all day, every day staring at the water with their bare eyes. There were no telescopes, field glasses, no nothing. There were also no radios. Havana was a four hour, dirt path ride through the national preserve, so if by chance anyone spotted anything that might be suspicious, there'd be about an eight hour delay before the soldiers could be sic'ed on it, which by that time they'd be sic'ing onto something tied up at a pier in Jacksonville.
There were also no phones. Well, there were actually two phones, one in each of the military buildings next to the road. The 300 square foot structures sat about ten feet apart, and the two phones were in offices with windows that were directly across from each other. If one phone wanted to speak to the other, a button was pressed and a buzzer would sound. If you were seated at one desk talking to the person at the other desk in the next building, you had to keep your voice low so it wouldn't drown out what you saying to the same person through the telephone.
It was the sole bit of technology they had available and by Ned, they were going to use it.
Now, since there was no way to communicate our arrival to the soldiers in the compound, when our big rusty multicolored dump truck came to an uneven brake grabbing humpity humpity stop in front of the barracks, we were immediately greeted by ten or twelve green uniforms, each of which was wearing the same mask of confusion we'd seen on every face since landing. It was almost like we were spreading some kind of virulent pox that was instantly contaminating. Everyone we met reacted exactly the same, they'd go rigid, recoil a bit, then their entire face would scrunch up. I finally concluded that the initial reactions were just surprise, the rigid and the recoil. But I attributed the third, the face scrunching, to the foot funk emanating from the doctors old leather running shoes that he'd had on for four days without socks. They'd been scrunching my face up since Tampa.
Foster's Spanish was a step or two above basic, but there was no level of fluency that could be used to explain just why it was we had landed our little airplane on their little island.
The two officers, a Captain and a Lieutenant took charge and led us into the primary building. The Lieutenant was quickly on the phone to a sergeant, in the next building. Like everyone else, Foster and I could hear the conversation very clearly and swapped glances that asked questions neither of us could then answer. And since no one else seem to think this was funny, we decided to keep our laughter in check. The first smart-like thing we'd done since leaving Dalton, Georgia four days ago.
The initial interrogation, jointly conducted, was firm but civil. The doctor explained in his limited, but workable Spanish, what had happened and added a dash of spice in the form of an electrical malfunction. But as paranoid invadees are prone to do, they exhibited enormous skepticism. Foster later suggested they probably thought we were a couple of "double naught spies' ala Jethro Bodine.
After a few hours of the same questions, asked in the same manner and with the same results, they packed us into a really unsafe looking, decades old Toyota van, and drove us the hundred yards to the barracks building next to the radio tower. This vehicle had probably been assigned this duty because whatever it was still able to do, it could only do it about a hundred yards at a time.
They put us in a room with three cots. One for me, one for Foster, and one for Senor Busco and his dumpster size German Shepherd. The sun sat and with it the lights. Seconds later, a generator came on and ran for about three or four minutes, sputtered, and then it went to sleep as well.
On the second day there was a tactical change. Foster and I were now being interrogated separately, hauled one at a time from the barracks lock-up to the "headquarters" aboard the Toyota, with Busco and his daddy in attendance. But every day, the interrogations became a little more forceful, and very subtlely weapons begin to appear.
The exasperation level was heightening, and though I'd treated this whole episode with a certain degree of levity-the same method I'd always used no matter the danger of the situation-I just could always think more clearly with a smile on my face, I sensed in Doctor Foster a looming breaking point. I also was concerned that the longer we remained here, the more likely they were to check into our backgrounds.
Foster was still a captain in the Army Reserve, and I had once held a Top Secret Crypto clearance as a member of the Army branch of the National Security Agency. Add those spices to the simmering pot of paranoia and quite soon you could have a very distasteful stew. But good jeez, I wondered, what could the Castros' be thinking? Why in the world would little Jorge' Bush (40 watt bulb, no filament) even at his dimmest, send two North Georgia Rednecks in a Cessna 150 to spy on their island.
What we didn't know was that no one, I mean no Cuban, no Russian, no tourist, no one had ever landed any kind of aircraft in this part of Cuba. To the FAA we were lost, somewhere in the Caribbean ocean, but to our captors, though we were the enemy, we were also pioneers. Sort of like a combination of Erhardt, Lindberg and Wrong Way McFeeny.
They continued the interrogations at regular intervals, typing our responses on an antiquated IBM Selectric that seemed to have been assembled from the parts of a half dozen others. They repeated the same questions until the interviews resembled a tape recording being played, rewound and played again. When they would pose something unequivocally inane like, "so, why are you really here", I would giggle at its absurdity, unable to contain my appreciation for the situations comically surreal components. Two days ago I'd been sitting in my home, a Treehouse in the tiny north Georgia town of Calhoun, working on a new book and petting Pig, my dog. And now, here I was, four days later, seated in a wobbly wooden chair, in a pitifully decrepit cement room in a Cuban barracks, being probed and picked and paced and stalked by HEAVENS TO ALGER HISS-a herd of pitiable Communists! The only other Commie types I had ever encountered were the Pathet Lao in Southeast Asia, who had tried to kill me, and the Red Brigaders in Rome, Italy, who had also tried to kill me. After a moment or two to reflect on these facts, it occurred to me that maybe this really wasn't that funny after all.
Mealtime had the usual trappings. Usual, that is, for a Cub Scout overnighter. Paper plate, plastic fork (both wiped, not washed from the meal before) and "un pollo con frit un papas", fried chicken and french fries. Four or five tiny fries and a leg/thigh combo from a bird that was either a sickly pigeon, or a chicken that had suffered from a case of extreme anorexia. Even when attacked daintily and consumed with meal extending circumspection, there were never more than about three and a half bites of available meat, and that included the little white piece of gristle at the end of the leg. I hadn't picked a chicken bone that clean since I was a sharecroppers kid a half century ago.
Breakfast didn't exist. We were left to our cots to dream about eggs and sausages until about eleven thirty, when they would take us outside and park us under a blue tarp for lunch. (given the ubiquity of this colorful cover, if we're ever invaded by aliens, they won't say "take me to your leader" but "take me to the man who makes the blue tarp, for he is certainly your king")
And the menu never changed. It was always, and I mean always, the exact same food. "un pollo con frit un papas". Twice a day, every day. After six meals of this more than meager fare I began to lose my appetite for even a single bite of pollo y papas. One day at lunch I looked down at the plate our broken-English-speaking server had set before us, and then up at the dozen or so old Russian dump trucks that were parked a few yards away. "Well," I said to Foster, rhetorically, nodding toward the Russian machinery, "I wonder which one of 'em hit this?" As he walked away the server said without any humor, "da red one".
"Well I'll be sumbitch," I thought out loud, "the little Marxists buggers really are feeding us road kill!" Maybe it was common fare to them, but this was a first for me. (Once I'd eaten a "dog burger" in the Philippines, but it didn't have tread marks on it).
That evening at dinner while staring down onto the paper plate and the greasy Rorschach stains surrounding our victual deja vu, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, some movement across the dirt path the trucks used as a roadway. A wild hog, a nice fat four legged slab of bbq-on-the-hoof waddled along nonchalantly, snorting and grunting and rooting around just like the hogs did back home. Probably looking for truffles, I thought. Then, from my left I heard the roaring rumbles of one of the ten ton vehicles. My mouth was suddenly awash in saliva. The meal-to-be was barely three feet from the tire tracks left by an earlier truck. As the machine neared I couldn't help myself, I half yelled and half whispered, coaxing "here piggy-piggy-piggy, here piggy-piggy-piggy. But alas, the bbq gods frowned upon us, the truck lumbered past and the hog didn't move. I dropped my head in despair as all I could see in our nutritional future was more un pollo con frit un papas.
Our next few days were exasperatingly quotidian. Not unlike this part of Cuba both in geography and activity. As we'd seen flying in, this area was comprised of nothing but mile after mile of uninterrupted single canopy greenery, each mile like a blueprint of the one before-an unchanging snapshot of time and topography.
The province, being a national preserve was populated only with the few folk necessary to maintain the park, the small army contingent, and the employees at "Maria Gordos" (Fat Mary's) a single tiny blip of a euro-luring resort about twenty kilometers west of us.
By the fourth day Doctor Foster had become less and less amenable to our predicament. I'd already had to step between the 240 pound mass of him and one of the Chief Cheeses a couple of times, to prevent a physical confrontation. And these were the Chief Cheeses being driven up from Havana everyday. We were no longer in the hands of amateurs. And because we were joined at the hip here, whatever happened to Foster was going to happen to me. So that night I decided I was going to have to do something to force an end to this, before one or both of us either got hurt, or we just disappeared altogether.
Thursday afternoon just after our mid-day repast of, well, you know, I called for the Cuban FBI rep. Reuben had always been the least surly of the bunch, and was also the one with the best command of my language. He was a lawyer, and though a fervent revolutionary he seemed to possess a degree of civility toward the evil gringos that was not often associated with that mindset. I explained to him that my dad had died just a few weeks back and that my mom was sick, and that I needed to call her on the satellite phone we'd brought with us. I needed to let her know that I hadn't been drowned in the ocean. After some deliberation he said ok, but that someone better versed in English would need to be called in to monitor the conversation.
A couple of hours later a van arrived from "Maria Gordos" with a young interpreter inside. I suppose he was here to insure I was not calling in the remainder of the invasion force, lying in lurk just over the horizon in Sloppy Joes bar in Key West.
They loaded Busco the dumpster and his daddy and me into the Toyota. Mid way into the hundred yard ride from the barracks to the headquarters building, the Toyota quit. So we had to walk the rest of the way.
Just before entering the building I looked out across the watery expanse, shimmering green in the afternoon sun. Jeez, I thought, 200 miles, may as well be 200,000, and how many here, in the last fifty years have entertained a similar thought.
Reuben fetched the phone from our sparse belongings - everything we had was in a couple of knapsacks, and handed it over. I told him through the interpreter that I'd have to toy with this some as I'd not used it before. He nodded and went inside the barracks to stand by the fan. I fidgeted with it for a moment or two before stepping a few feet away from the eave of the front porch overhang. This maneuver had a dual purpose. I needed to get a fix on a satellite, and I needed to put some distance between me and the other English speaker.
After dialing, I increased the buffer zone by a step and wiggled the phone at the sky, as if having trouble making a connection. The interpreter remained on the porch and made no effort to close the distance, as the afternoon sun was on full bake, and he, after 30 years or more, probably felt he'd been baked enough. I dialed the Dalton, Georgia number of the doctor's little private charity, Corazon a Corazon, under whose aegis we were operating. The doctor's friend Gary Crews answered, and I quickly told him that we were in Cuba, and that we were ok, but I needed the number for CNN, now. I stored the number in my head and turned to the interpreter as I killed the North Georgia connection. "Lost the signal," I said, "I'll have to try again". He nodded and remained under the buildings overhang. I quickly dialed the CNN number and eased another step away, again aiming the phone around over my head giving the illusion of difficulty.
When CNN answered I immediately asked for the Latin American Desk and waited interminably for someone to answer, all the while roaming within a small circle to continue the ruse of difficulty. The second I heard the voice at the other end I began. "My name is Sam Edwards, I'm a writer and a former aide to President Carter. Four days ago our plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Cuba. Steve Foster, a Dalton Georgia physician and I are being held in military detention. We've been allowed no phone calls and-" suddenly the phone was snatched from my hand, and I spun around to see the interpreters rather unhappy face.
Three minutes later I was back in the lock up staring into the big brown eyes of Busco the dumpster, and listening to his daddy's elevated breathing patterns, and trying not to look into his eyes...I knew what he was thinking, "kill Busco, and do it like you mean it". Back at Headquarters I figured they were drawing old chicken bones to see who was going to get to shoot me first.
Locked in the next room doctor Foster remained ignorant of what had just transpired. If they decided to shoot us, I thought, I was going to tell him it was his fault. That way, when we got to Heaven, he'd at least try to get me in with him.
I later learned that CNN had called the State Department, the State Department had call the American Interest Section in Havana - we have no Embassy in Cuba - and they had called the Cuban State Department. It was only then that wheels began to turn to secure our release. Had I not made that call, I have no doubt that our stay in country would have been much lengthier...possibly eternal.
The next morning I was loaded into a newer van, with two men I had not previously met and hauled away to the resort, "Maria Gordos" twenty kilometers or so up the coastline. But there was no Busco. I kinda missed him.
My two handlers led me into the registration area and pointed me to a chair. About twenty minutes later I was called to the desk and handed a phone. On the other end was the American Charge' de Affairs in Havana. "Are ya'll ok?" he asked.
For the first time in a week I could speak without challenge, and the words spewed. Faulknarian-like running on and on, expecting to come across a period but capable of continuing if one was not encountered. "Yeah," I ranted, "we're fine, except that our taste buds have been benumbed and our intestinal passages are packed to overflow with fried potatoes and road kill, and if we aren't released pretty soon, I can't guarantee the status will remain quo; Foster is on the verge of trying to swim home and I'm toying with that idea myself..." I inhaled, "and every day after every boo-boo-we're-gonna-shoot-you interrogation they promise us fuel, like if we tell them what they want to hear they'll just let us fly away, well, everybody knows you can't fly an airplane with a bullet in your ear-" He stopped my rant with a louder reply.
"They don't have any fuel!"
"The whole country is dry except for some diesel. President Carter was just here and they got just enough from Venezuela to keep them from being embarrassed. That's the only reason they didn't shoot ya'll down when you flew into their airspace, they didn't have any petrol for their planes".
All of a sudden that "Mission from God" thing reared up in my face again.
"But I think," he continued, "that they might let ya'll go tomorrow, if, and a big if here, they can get their hands on 20 gallons of fuel. And believe me, since that CNN call you made, they want ya'll gone as much as ya'll want to be gone."
"That ain't possible," I told him.
Later that afternoon they ferried Foster over from the military compound. I told him what had happened and that things seemed to be looking better, especially since they're following the international standard procedure of allowing captives a decent bed, bath and meal just before release. He seemed relieved and then he chuckled a bit. He said that morning they had let him out to roam around some, and that he'd made a climb up into the weather station tower at the compound. It was unmanned and crammed with gadgets and gizmos that looked like props from a '30's horror movie. And none of it worked. The weather reports they relayed to Havana by dits-dahs and dashes, came from an old a.m. radio tuned to a station in Miami.
Saturday morning we had our first full bath in a week, which was immediately neutralized when we had to slip back into the same clothes we'd been wearing for the same period. We opened the door to our room and sniffed the air, and the aroma from the restaurant cast a spell over us. It froze our faces, mouths open, eyes unblinking, drool oozing toward our lips. We walked unhurriedly like lock kneed zombies toward the scents.
When we entered the room the Europeans, in a twist of touristic irony probably thought, "My word, they smell worse than we do". We didn't care, we were in a culinary brothel, a steaming, stimulating buffet piled with every imaginable morning morsel. I weighed 190 lbs. and I wasn't leaving this room until I broke 200. We wouldn't trade this moment for a 2 seat Mig with fuel for Rio.
We ate...for a long time. But our stomachs had shrunk over the last week and we could not appease our appetites. I felt like cramming scrambled eggs into my nostrils, so at least I could continue to revel in that scintillating, olfactory rapture.
After a nap I felt so good I took a half hours worth of laps around the resort, which was hemmed in by jungle on one side, and water on the other. A gate-with-guard to the outside kept the tourists and us from feeling too free.
Foster and I strolled down to the gift shop in search of new wardrobe. We collected a few t-shirts and some trinkets and I bought 4 Che Guevara key rings, 2 hats and a book about the Missile Crisis written by, who else, but Fidel himself. I read it in Honduras a few days later, and was surprised to discover that he had a really wicked sense of humor. Well, it was either that, or it wasn't supposed to be funny.
A little before noon, a very nice, pure white Mercedes van arrived from Havana. We quickly dressed ourselves in the new duds from the gift shop-crammed our knapsacks with the remainder of our stuff and hurried outside. Good God, was this really the day? We were almost giddy!
Five or six new faces spilled out of the van's interior. Half dressed in military finery, the rest in mufti of equal quality. In a country where all is supposed to be equal, these guys were obviously from a little higher up on the equal scale. But what riveted our attention was the trio of containers we saw in the storage area behind the vehicles front seats. They were old, grimy plastic six gallon jugs with rags where the lids should've been. But this was one of those rare occasions in life where appearance meant absolutely nothing. It was what was surely inside them that sent a dose of adrenaline to our funny bones. The doctor and I looked at each other and grinned out loud, "GAS-O-LINE!"
The new arrivals greeted us with civil smiles, firm handshakes and then herded us toward the van. It was at this point that we threw the dignitaries a low and outside southern-good-old-boy-curve-ball. And the reason I assign geography and background to this was because Foster and I both reacted exactly the same. They offered us the temporary seating that had been added for the trip, a brand new pair of web-laced lawn chairs placed side by side in the rear of the van. But without hesitation Foster and I both plopped down onto the floor, and motioned for the dignitaries to take the better seats. At first, we thought that they thought we were kidding. The three who had taken seats in the front turned toward us, then to the high Muckety Mucks, the ones who had offered us the seating. They all shared the same expression. They were stunned! After a more than awkward moment, and after it had become obvious that Foster and I were staying put, the Air Force two star general began to smile, and his Intelligence Agency counterparts quickly followed his lead.
After five days of unpleasantness we're in the van headed back to our little plane. With a happy Dr. Foster is "The Eyes of Death" who had been one of the chief interrogators from day one. He really had a bad attitude, and among his peers, was the one least likely to lead a group singalong.
They had all assumed that your average uppity gringo would EXPECT to take the best seats. They had no understanding of the no-protocol mindsets of a couple of Georgia good-ole-boys. What they didn't understand was that at this point we would have made the trip standing outside on the vans bumpers, our fingertips clinging to irregularities in the paint.
On our way to the plane we stopped at the military outpost to have our belongings re-inventoried. I suspect this was conducted for the benefit of the new arrivals. The Cubans were meticulous in their accounting of every item and of every cent, taking both video and still shots of the process. As a group they were considerably more honest than any of their Latin American counterparts we would later encounter.
Following the inventory, about a dozen members of the military contingent piled into their older van, and fell in behind us for the hour trip back to our plane. The first thing we noticed upon arrival was how much more road they had built in just a week. We had landed on 500 feet of runway, and we now had at least 3000 from which to depart.
Foster and Reuben, the Cuban FBI rep-who I'm sure had taken a lot of guff for allowing me to use the satellite phone-climbed atop the little Cessna's wings, and began siphoning fuel from the jugs, while I ran around with the video camera shooting a lot of folk who really had rather not be shot, and even had one of our captors take a few stills of me standing by the plane, holding up a copy of my hometown newspaper, The Calhoun Times. (It ran on the front page a few weeks later under the caption, Calhoun Man lands Plane in Cuba and Himself in Jail)
After emptying the last gas can, Foster and Reuben slid down from the wings. The military group moved to the rear of the plane and pushed it out of the brush. Foster and I climbed aboard and were about to begin our preflight checklist, when Reuben held up his hand. He then ordered everyone behind the plane and they pushed us the half mile to the end of the road, and then spun us around into position for take off..
Our former captors had made a tricky u turn and had now become our best buds. Here they're helping prep the plane for take off. Just in front of the van in the background you can see the change in the road color. All that new "white" is what they had added to the road since our arrival.
We completed our checklist, which consisted of, fuel switch on, hit the starter and PRAY the thirty year old motor cranks. After a few unsettling spits, she fired, we grinned bigger, did a run up, checked the gauges and shoved the throttle forward. We bounced a bit as we came up to rotation speed, our wheels finally lifting just as we rolled past our captors. All I could see were teeth, a dozen or so mouths, each an explosion of shiny white enamel. To use the southern idiom, never had I seen two groups of people so equally happy to be shed of the other.
The Cubans had notified the American Interest Section in Havana of our departure, and they had contacted the FAA ,who had in turn notified the airport in Cozumel to monitor our progress. During the two and a half hour flight across the Caribbean I constantly surveyed the waters for traffic, just in case our 30 old engine quit and or we had, for some reason, lost our Mission from God status.
After landing in Cozumel we taxied up to the fuel truck, climbed out and planted our feet on free soil. It felt really good to be upright and with only the holes we were born with in our bodies. Foster was chewing on a cigar he'd bought at the gift shop at Maria Gordos and neither of us could quit grinning. We ambled into the terminal to find some chow. When we were but a few steps inside we noticed we had become the focus of everyone's attention. Heads nodded in our direction, some were even pointing. Our every move was being monitored by the airports employees, who would then whisper to non employees, who would then whisper to others, and all of a sudden we realized they knew.
We could hear the whispers, "those are the guys who landed that plane in Cuba and were thrown in jail. And they're still alive!
Foster and I began to feel like "Rock Stars". And as we made our way through the terminal toward the snack bar, I know without being conscious of it, or really meaning to assume any affectation, we both probably were wearing grins with a tad too much smug, and our gaits had more strut and swagger than was necessary to get us to our destination.
We took a seat at the little cafe' and a waitress quickly appeared. I looked at Foster and chuckled, and then up at the young lady, "Uh, ma'am, lately we've become accustomed to a particular kind of fare ... do you happen to have anything on the menu that's been run over by a dump truck?"
And then the doctor and I both laughed, big.