Friday, August 31, 2007

Friends are the Brothers You Get to Choose

Finally catching up - though not caught up as much as desired - after some well-deserved (is there any other kind?) R&R - Rest-And-Recreation, for you acronym-haters. Certainly, there is no expectation you are interested one iota in Old Blog Boy's mis-adventurous adventures, but as said exploits were made possible by one of his best buddies - if not THE best "compadre" ever - from those bygone growing-up-in-Havana days - thought it would be nice to do this post as a way of saying "gracias, mi querido amigo!" and at the same time take the opportunity to delve into more Havana-That-Was lore. And a Havana connection there was, since friend Mario and this now Old Kid started our brotherhood as playmates on the grounds of the Focsa building. Let's see...that would be almost half a century ago. And yet more meaningful connections: Although my dear amigo and the writer were not schoolmates in Cuba, we wound up attending the same school...except in a different time and space, in another plane or dimension if you want to look at it that way. More on that later. You'll have to check in with us and see; annoying, isn't it? Along the lines of "tune in next week for the next exciting episode!"

And the trip came with a bonus, as another excellent friend - another brother I got to choose in my travels and travails through life - joined us; like the writer, another Habanero, a school friend from Academia Baldor days, said friendship beginning in 4th grade and continuing, albeit with a brief interruption thrown in, strongly through the present day. The interruption, by the way, and perhaps you had already anticipated it, caused by evil types to whom love, friendship, and loyalty mean nothing. Be that as it may, nevertheless it takes much more than a dying, inarticulate has-been who has neither known love nor friendship, to keep friend-brothers apart.

Is it possible to have more than one Best Friend? I say "yes indeed!" After all, is it not possible to have more than one beloved brother? And here is a bonus: My Best Buddies bonded well on this adventure, and now my Best Buddies are Best Buddies to each other as well. How about that? Sometimes yours truly does something right.

The rendezvous was in Astoria, Oregon. From there, brother Mario - we shall use the terms brother and friend interchangeably in this post because to the blogger, they are essentially the same, brotherhood and friendship - ably captained his 22-foot StarCraft 400 miles upstream, on the Columbia, Willamette, and Snake rivers, in beautiful Oregon and Washington states. We, his motley crew, appreciated his skill and judgment, christening him "Cap'n," and deferring to him in all matters naval. Because after all, Cap'n Mario was a Navy guy at one time. He's got enough naval stories to do a blog about; maybe someday he will. He knows how to make said stories come alive and many a time ripped his companions' guts with his unique tales.

Now, Mario's connection to Havana came later in his childhood. He started life in the city of Cienfuegos, Cuba; political circumstances forced his family's relocation to Havana in September 1957, due to the turmoil in the aftermath of an uprising at the Cienfuegos naval base earlier that month. His father decided they would all be safer and better off in the capital. And wouldn't you know it, twists of fate like these can lead to beautiful and long-lasting least something positive came out of the turmoil.

And in his, and his family's honor and for all you "Cienfuegueros" out there, permit me to dedicate this Beny More song to you...after all, my dear friend quite understandably still has a soft spot for the lovely city of his birth and of his early, carefree years. I have heard compatriots refer to this wonderful, stirring "guajira" - loosely translated, a country song, that's the genre - as the "National Anthem of Cienfuegos."

  • Cienfuegos - Beny More

  • As we did during our trip, let us take some time, meander off the beaten path, or the liquid path, as the case may be...and travel back in time with some Habaneros you may already know, who appreciated the enchantments of Cienfuegos - "Hundred Fires" - goodness, time flies!...almost six decades ago. This is for you too, Cap'n Mario, in honor and fond remembrance of your birthplace.

    Well, the happy travelers did not get to Cienfuegos by boat, although they could have done so - after all the place is blessed with a nice bay. They were conveyed by dad's faithful '46 Plymouth, the first family car I dimly recall.

    Of course, you have to take time to do the "touristy" thing - although I would classify the young couple as "travelers" not just "tourists." There is a difference. Travelers getting acquainted with their beautiful country. The ornate building? The Casa Velasco, a landmark well-known to our "Cienfuegero" compatriots.

    Tell you what, my brother-friend Mario had already been treated to these images; his reply after receiving them, not quite a year ago, says it best...and most accurately-after all, he is the "Cienfuegero" here:

    "Hey, Quiroga!

    Thanks for the photos re:cienfuegos. Since gmail has been rather slow of lately, I have not been able to open the views larger, but from what I can see it sure all looks rather grand. By the way, your mom IS standing in front of Casa Velasco, with the bowler hat dome, but your dad seems to be in front of el yacht club de cienfuegos...I see you dad has class!! (much Garriga history in that building!!)"

    Yes, mi amigo - much history...much to share - the good, the bad, the ugly. Thank God, the good outweighs everything else. For the good people in this world, goodness wins out in the end, regardless where our travels, planned or otherwise, take us.

    We must not leave Cienfuegos without taking in a view of the bay...after all, you must have figured water plays a part in setting the theme for this post - travel by water, discovering or rediscovering old and new places, reconnecting and renewing friendships, recalling beautiful times and places never to be forgotten.

    Father fondly recalls capturing this image with his hard-working Kodak 35mm, from the balcony of their hotel room that December, soon to be sixty years ago. Seems like yesterday in many ways. They were fortunate they saw Cienfuegos, and many other places in Cuba. Perhaps someday Mario, you, Nelson, I, our families, maybe even mom and dad may pose for the camera in front of Casa Velasco and sail out of the bay - as your dad taught you. We all know before that happens, certain evil winds must cease blowing their poison through the Beautiful Island, forever.

    Back to the reality of the river. The river or rivers of travel, as well as the river of life. And, must say, life was good on the river, or the three ones on which we journeyed. To see the beauty in nature and its workings, as we worked our way upstream, and throroughly enjoy our time and adventure together was something priceless. And, speaking am sure for all participants, more than once this thought worked its way into the Old Kid's mind: "We are so fortunate to be here doing this, free to do so of our own choosing, at liberty to decide the time, the place, and with whom to share the experience; so many others have so little choice, if any." A measure of guilt indeed creeps in and stays there, a small voice nagging you.

    And more than once, contemplating the churning, wavy waters of the Columbia, waters that once almost caused the boat to tip over, and another time made the bow plow into the river with enough force to cause Cap'n to yell, "get on your life jackets!," this river rat could not help but think of the men, women, and children who brave the Straits of Florida, many never to be seen again, for the sake of that priceless concept we call "freedom." Perhaps we might all gain some understanding and empathy if we took on journeys spiced with enough danger to engender appreciation and respect for those who will disregard any and all perils to be free. Freedom ain't free.

    We must move on. Here's the stout and sturdy little craft which took us upstream on the Three Rivers - in case you've forgotten, the Columbia, Willamette, and Snake.

    For the boaters who might perchance be reading this, the sweet vessel is a 22-foot StarCraft, fitted with a 200 hp Mercury outboard. Very reliable, boat and engine; it is equipped for fishing, although the Cap'n says "she'll never be a fishing boat - she's for cruisin'!" For good measure, he lined all the bait wells in thermal foam - you would be amazed to see how many pounds, quarts, indeed gallons of "vittles" she can haul - and how long the ice lasts, keeping brew and bread nice and cool. No complaints, Cap'n! Ah, in case you care to know where she was moored at the time the photo was snapped, it was at the port of Arlington, Oregon. Yes Virginia, there is an Arlington in Oregon.

    As the "swabbies" - nickname for sailors, just in case you're scratching your head and wondering - headed off, the Old Kid, fancying himself some kind of amateur photo journalist, could not help the temptation to engage in a bit of playful photography.

    Nelson on your left, Mario on your right, and never mind the jester in the middle. By the way, "the jester" was the only "civvie" on the boat - Nelson did his duty in the Marine Corps, Mario in the Navy. However, rest assured that in all matters naval the Old Kid always deferred to the Navy and the Marines. After all, he did not wish to walk the plank before the voyage ended.

    Not all things that float are boats, and some folks prefer other means of transportation, for example, the unknown owners of these vintage J-3 Cub float planes on the Willamette near Portland, Oregon. Fly and float, float and fly - that's the ticket. And perhaps you'll be able to avoid those pesky airline delays plaguing travelers these days.

    Speaking of alternate modes of transportation, creative traveling, sightseeing and all of that enjoyable activity, you might be interested to know adventurous Cuban aviators sometimes would take their planes on a beach outing...don't believe it?

    Well, Doubting Thomases, here is an unusual graphic preserving a bit of Cuban aviation lore. Sometime in 1948, the pilot of this Piper J-3 Cub made a perfect landing on the sands of Boca Ciega Beach, east of Havana. Uncle-by-marriage - he was married to maternal aunt Josephine, the lady in the slide image, to your left - Prego, with his precise Leica, preserved the moment for us. Mom and dad surely by now you recognize - get a load of their fashionable beach outfits; they were practical and in the style of the times, of course.

    To this day, father seems to think "there was a problem with the airplane's propeller," explaining the presence of the plane in this unusual setting. However, by coincidence, recently read an article in the Smithsonian's Air & Space magazine, the August 2007 issue, to be exact. In a very interesting article by author Rafael Lima, titled "The Country Where Nobody Flies," whose subject is the world of now-extinguished Cuban private aviation, he quotes Luis Palacios, now 67, who himself soloed in a Piper J-3 at age 19: "You could take off from one town, fly along the coast, and see a beach and land on it. Many pilots used to land on hard-packed sand beaches, have lunch or a swim, and get back in the plane and take off."

    Was that the reason the daring aviator flying J-3 Cub registration number CU N124 landed at Boca Ciega Beach that beautiful day? Perhaps if he - or she?? - is still around and reads this, the mystery will be definitively solved, assuming said aviator wishes to share the tale with us. Still, a heckuva fun way to get to the beach, I say! Sadly, those free, carefree days are over - if a pilot today were to even think of landing his craft on a beach, anywhere one can think of...the authorities would quickly clip his or her wings.

    Well, the River Travelers cannot soar like the eagles, or even like a J-3 Cub - but our trusty hull nevertheless gets us to our destination. We may not be able to land on a beach, but we can certainly beach our boat on one.

    One of the most impressive features to be found on the Three Rivers were the systems of dams and locks, most built in the 1930s, mainly for the purpose of taming the wild Columbia and improving navigation through this important waterway.

    Here is a "boat's eye" view of the Bonneville Dam lock on the Columbia, very near the Oregon town bearing a name inspired no doubt by aforesaid locks - colorful Cascade Locks.

    The capable Cap'n always ensured the lockmasters would be ready for us upon arrival, allowing the craft and crew safe passage through the lock system. The engineering and design skills required to build these structures and keep them functioning properly and smoothly are nothing short of amazing.

    At Cascade Locks, where we spent one night in more comfortable circumstances, that is, not sleeping on the boat, we took in and appreciated some of the local color.

    Such as these hydrangeas, sitting pretty near the river; one of many beautiful sights enjoyed during our fluvial travels.

    We also enjoyed some of the local amenities, the Best Western in particular, where we lodged for the night; roughing it a la Lewis and Clark it was not, but no doubt their daring exploratory party would have enjoyed such a restful, restoring opportunity.

    And where the opportunity to replenish some vital supplies was taken. Hardware and liquor? An interesting mix - recommend you keep your tools, tool-intensive tasks, and spirits other words, not a good idea to hammer away if you are tipsy. But Cubans gotta have their rum ration, mate.

    Mention was made earlier about a somewhat hair-raising experience on the Columbia. In Lewis and Clark days, the river was wilder, narrower, much more tumultuous than it is now. It has been somewhat tamed by the lock-and-dam system but must still be respected; failure to do so can come back and bite you. Near Hood River, in Oregon, the Columbia almost got the better of us.

    Not long after this view of a tumultuous, roiling river was captured by the amateur journalist-cameraman, a wave caught the boat on the port side; the hardy vessel rolled about 45 degrees, but felt like a heart-stopping 90; that was when the able Cap'n yelled, "Get on lifejackets!" Yes, feel free to criticize - we should have been wearing them at that point. But the boat handling skills of Cap'n Mario saved the day. That Navy service came in handy...well, let me add it was a good thing his naval skills were not FULLY tested, since Mario specialized in rescue operations during his service. No doubt the last thing he wanted to do was fish out floating Cubans on the Columbia!

    Another time the boat's bow plowed into the greyish water, as if the little craft had decided to metamorphose into a submersible - but the stout bow popped right out of the waves and all was well. The most amazing thing was, throughout the trip and despite the rockin', rollin', and shakin' goin' on, no one became seasick. Perhaps we're not such landlubbers after all.

    Eventually, our upstream travel took us into the Snake River, and we said our goodbyes to the Columbia. We learned to respect the "mighty Columbia," as the cliche goes, and understood better the daring exploits of the Lewis and Clark party, making their way in primitive conditions, through hitherto unexplored areas, when these rivers were truly untamed and far less forgiving.

    More beautiful sights were to be had in Washington state, as we proceeded on the Snake, in the Kennewick-Richland area, the waters now calmer, allowing the crew to take in the natural beauty surrounding us, such as this painted-in-pixels view at dusk.

    All good things must come to an end, it is said. Hopefully so do bad things. Our good trip, the Travels of the River Brothers, came to an end in Burbank, Washington after we went through Ice Harbor dam and lock, and we moored our faithful craft to the dock in Charbonneau Park. The Cap'n and his life mate have the pleasure to daily gaze at the park's greenery and the flowing Snake from the vantage of their cozy home.

    Ah, yes. We did make one more OBLIGATORY stop before heading back to the Sunshine State, obligatory in our collective opinion, given the wonderful vineyards gracing this quarter of our adoptive country.

    The Connoisseur Cap'n, who tends to go ballistic when he can only find California wines on the menu when dining in his current home state, capped off the trip with a stop at the Three Rivers Winery of Walla Walla. There, the gracious staff allowed us to taste their good product, and good it was so we made OBLIGATORY purchases, with no regrets.

    What better way to celebrate this friendship, this rite of passage, this Brotherhood Of The River than with the earthy convivial taste of the vine? Speaking for myself, a bottle has been reserved to celebrate - mutedly and quietly, but with inner joy - another rite of that will hopefully not be long in coming, one that, for the people of Cuba, will mark if not the end, at least the beginning of the end of their nightmare.


    At 11:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Great story Al, wonderfully conveyed as always. I'm glad to see you back on land, both from your river adventure and in cyberspace. I almost heard the flowing water and birds chirping. I’m curious, was there much traffic on the rivers, and did you see wildlife?

    Keep that bottle chilled and ready....

    At 12:24 PM, Blogger Albert Quiroga said...

    Thank you for the compliments, friend Ziva; traffic was not as heavy as expected, although towards Astoria, close to the Pacific, there was a fair amount of commercial shipping - and at Hood River, Oregon, we had to watch out for hordes of "wave boarders" - lots of wind for those who enjoy that sport. Wildlife? Guess that could apply to us...just kidding! Wildlife was mostly of the flying kind - lots of Canada geese, gulls, and other species.

    The bottle is chilled and ready...the corkscrew and glasses are ready as well.

    At 11:28 AM, Blogger Charlie Bravo said...

    Great post, Albert.
    Hail to the Captain, I was born in Havana and lived for almost a year in Cienfuegos, and I spent a lot of time by the bay....
    I happen to love the west coast, and the Pacific northwest in particular.
    Boats... well, maybe there's one in my future.
    Keep up the great blogging, this is a river of life, your blog.

    At 12:39 AM, Blogger The Captain said...

    Y por que yo no sabia que tu habias puesto tan bellisimas palabras acerca de nuestro viaje?? Hey, Albert all I can say is "Thanks for the memories...."

    The Cap'n.

    At 1:14 AM, Anonymous DennisH said...

    The aviation stories are wonderful. I have to read it again. It's very interesting.

    Also, I noticed a picture with a boy sitting on a stone wall topped with a serious inward pointing fence. I saw no mention of the location. As a native New Yorker I can say this is the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building


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