Monday, May 28, 2007

They were there, and that is why I am here...

Sunday evening while channel surfing, happened upon a wonderful program on the local Public Television station about the reunion of the carrier Lexington's Air Group 16 at the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. Many of the now frail survivors of the Air Group believed this would be their last reunion. One recurring theme of their determination to reunite at least one more time was to honor their service, sacrifice, and to bond again, not only with the living, but also with their brothers who had been cruelly claimed by war. For one thing this civilian has learned from veterans of different conflicts is that there is a brotherhood and kinship forged from the sharing of a common purpose infused with danger and demanding sacrifice which cannot be duplicated in any other way.

I also learned that, sadly, we are losing our World War II veterans at the rate of 1,500 a day. Not much time left to thank them for all they did, and indeed, have done for the past 60-something years. A simple "thank you" should not be by any means limited to just World War II servicemen. All servicemen-and-women deserve our thanks, our gratitude, today and every day.

And if you are reading this while enjoying Memorial Day off, you are probably wondering what this has to do with Havana themes, anecdotes, and related history. And the answer is: directly, nothing. Except that yours truly is convinced that if these men-and many a woman too-had not been THERE - at Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal, Oran, Kasserine, Licata, Salerno, Iwo Jima, Pusan, An Loc, Hue, Basra and Baghdad - I would not be HERE in digital space bloggin' in your face. Pardon me - don't mean to get in anyone's face. You are free not to read these poor words. That is what the sacrifice of these veterans has bought - freedom.

So, the Havana Connection is: This ex-Havana Boy wishes to thank the veterans who, he is convinced, made his freedom possible, as he and his family thankfully landed in a land of freedom quite a few Memorial Days ago. My family and I are truly thankful for your service, and stand in awe when contemplating your sacrifice.

I am also grateful for the opportunity, over the years, to know and love three of these veterans, all of whom had significant influences in my life; thought it appropriate that in remembering all who fought the good fight for freedom this Memorial Day, these three should be especially remembered and the good memories about them cherished. All served in World War II - but by no means should anyone think only World War II veterans should be honored. ALL require our humble thanks and our determination to never forget them, their service, their sacrifice. "Sed miles, sed pro patria."

First, and for obvious reasons, I remember my late father-in-law, a wonderful guy, from whom I learnt much and yet not enough - Carroll Lamon Sheppard, originally from Hickory, North Carolina. The Tarheel State.

The young Tarheel was called to war in 1944, when he joined the United States Navy, eventually becoming part of the crew aboard the carrier U.S.S. Lake Champlain, CV-39, where he attained the rank of Coxswain and specialized in radio communications/communications intelligence.

Carroll L. Sheppard, USN 1944

This was his ship...

And this was his duty station, or "office," if you wish to think of it that way...

His "boss," the carrier's Captain, Logan Ramsey...

Apologies are made for the quality of the image - at the time, was attempting a last minute copy at my mother-in-law's with a digital camera and the results were less than optimal. Carroll once provided an interesting anecdote about his Captain, which revealed a bit of the pugnacious Ramsey's character.

"We were summoned to the deck, and our Captain addressed us. I knew he had the hots for the Japs, as he'd lost a couple ships to them. He spoke to us: 'I'm gonna take her [the Lake Champlain] in right into Tokyo bay - I'm gonna be the first in Tokyo bay!' We thought we were all going to be killed..."

But a Fat Man and a Little Boy ensured that daring dash into Tokyo would not be necesary. And after peace came, the "Lake" helped bring back troops from Europe. "We also spent about three months cruisin' around the Caribbean, and I saw Cuba," said my father-in-law.

With unidentified shipmate, 1944-1945 - perhaps looking forward to returning home?

The war ended, he returned to his native North Carolina, where he married, raised a family, and did well in everything he set out to do. Of course, your blogger here was a direct beneficiary of Mr. Sheppard's achievements! He passed away in 1993. I still miss him.

The Navy has been honored. Now it is time for the Air Force - or should I say Air Corps? Well, the Air Corps was the Air Force by the end of W-W-II.

We - my immediate family and I - were blessed and privileged to know Paul Brestel. He was our friend, neighbor, and really, adopted family member for eight years when we lived in West Palm Beach. Paul was an Air Force veteran, serving as navigator in a B-24 bomber group. He was attached to the 98th Squadron, 344 Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force, based at Lecce, Italy from June to December, 1944.

Wish there was another graphic to share besides this one, since it was made for his funeral service in 2005 and carries great sadness with it. But you should have known Paul and unfortunately this is as close as it gets.

Much like Carroll Sheppard, he was modest, self-effacing, gentle and indeed, "gentle-man" is the word to describe him. Handy like I never could be, he saved me from the consequences of my ill skills more than once.

Ocassionally, one was fortunate to be within earshot as he shared some of his experiences; some were actually quite humorous. Let us allow Paul to tell some of these stories, reconstructed from deep memories of good, entertaining conversations with him.

"We flew a lot of missions over the Alps, hitting targets in South Germany and Austria. You know, we had no 'facilities' in our airplanes, so when you had to go, you went as you could. We used empty .50 ammo boxes for toilets. So on this mission, it was decided to 'flush' the contents over enemy territory, the bomb bay doors were opened and the load discharged. Then we heard some commotion over the intercom - it was our ball turret gunner, Don Benoit. He was yelling, 'Hey, hey! Have we been hit?! Have we been hit?! I can't see! I can't see for SHIT! There's oil or grease all over the plexiglass!' Well, he couldn't see for shit, because it WAS shit, all over the plexiglass. It wasn't that funny because that meant his guns would be useless if we were attacked, but fortunately the mission ended without incident and then we had a good laugh about the whole thing." He chuckled and smiled impishly as he told this tale.

This is the type of Sperry ball turret Mr. Benoit would have been cramped into, basically in fetal position. This one hangs from the belly of a B-17 owned by the Collings Foundation, photographed by the Roving Blogger at the Boca Raton, Florida, airport Feb. 27, 2005. It is clear (no pun intended) it would not have taken a lot of "material" to smear up the glass and blind the gunner.

It takes a lot of ball...turrets to get a mission accomplished.

A few years ago, it was the early '90s, I believe, our Nebraskan friend and neighbor said he was going to Colorado for a reunion with his crew. "We haven't seen each other since the war." Off he went; but before he left, I pestered him and asked he and his buddies autograph this book which savvy Mrs. Quiroga had given her Worst Half being she kinda understands his psyche.

Paul, being a very observant and precise type - which are the qualities a good navigator should possess, looked at the book and said, "Now, Albert, you know we weren't in the 8th Air Force..." And Albert replied, "I know Paul, but this is all I've got." He smiled. "Sure, I'll get the guys to sign it for you." Later he told me they had all enjoyed poring through the book and talking about their experiences.

And, yes, they did sign it. Other Air Force vets have signed it as well over the years. I feel like a pest when I approach one of them to ask for an autograph, but they all seem well pleased to give one.

This is Your Day, Paul. Have no fear, he undoubtedly and successfully "navigated" himself to his final destination, the Heavenly Air Base. "Mission accomplished, Sir!" "Well done, my good and faithful servant!"

Now it is time for the Army, the Ground-Pounders, the Sloggers, the Infantry. I met John William English when I reported to work, fresh out of college, at a certain Federal government office in West Palm Beach, Florida. The future Blogger Boy was then an unfinished 24-year piece of work. he's merely an unfinished 57-year piece of work. You know, when you first start out you might think you know everything, but deep down you're scared poop-less. You're convinced you are going to screw up and get fired or perhaps flogged and fired.

But another quiet, self-effacing, yet confidence-instilling gentleman helped me get over youthful fears. John William English, veteran of the U. S. 84th Infantry Division - "The Railsplitters" - informally took me under his wing and a friendship began, which regretfully lasted only four short years before cancer did what the Germans could not, and John was taken, too damn young.

He was quite capable in his position, and he radiated confidence, which he shared with yours truly. "There's a good brain in there, Alberto," he would insist. I don't know if that is true, but he definitely had one, and many other good qualities as well. He was not only a great friend, he was like an uncle, the kind you might want to design and build if that were possible. Perhaps our affinity grew from his postwar experiences, when he went to find work in the Florida Keys. "I worked with a lot of Cubans in the Keys, back then. They were great people, and I made many friends. They took up for me more than once and I won't forget that," he said to me one time. Had you known John, you woulda taken up for him more than once, rest assured.

Sadly, there isn't a single photograph of the man to display, just a very blurry one taken in poor conditions at an office party back in '75. His and his date's features are virtually unrecognizable, and the image is practically useless.

Although he shared a couple of anecdotes about his service before his death, his mother, who outlived him - she was a little lady, literally, but tough as nails, shared the best ones. Such as this one, and again, her thoughts and statements have to be pulled from the vault of memory, since no recordings were made. Mrs. Q was present when Mrs. English regaled us with these stories, and she graciously consented to review and vet the retelling.

"Well, John told me about the time they were already going through Germany. They were somewhere by a river; the river current was strong and the water was rising. John spotted a German sniper perched up in a tree, drawing a bead on two officers across the river bank. All he had was his pistol, a .45 Colt and it was going to be a difficult shot - he was 75-100 yards away. But he took the shot and hit the sniper; the German tumbled into the river but because the current was so fast, he was swept away and never found.

After someone realized what had happened, John was called in to be congratulated by the grateful officers he had saved. One of them said: 'Your father must have taught you to shoot so well.' 'No sir,' John replied. 'It was my mother. You see, when I was a kid and we lived in Texas, she'd take me out into the desert and there we'd practice shooting rattlesnakes with our revolvers.' I think they were pretty surprised," said Mrs. English, slightly smiling with obvious pride.

Well, he definitely got another rattlesnake - except this one was dangling from a tree.

He was attached to the 557th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battallion of the 84th, sailing from Southhampton, England to France in August 1944, serving until the end of the war and, fortunately, without a scratch. The way he spoke about his service in the 84th, it was obvious he was justifiably proud of his outfit. He was more than justified, because the 84th did some serious butt-kicking, "from Louisiana to the Elbe."

One treasure he left for me was a book about the 84th, documenting the history and the war service of "The Railsplitters" - "The 84th Infantry Division in the Battle of Germany," by Lt. Theodore Draper. Here is the inside cover page, signed by John.

The book is dedicated "To The Railsplitters Who Never Came Back." Nothing more need be said - except today we remember those Railsplitters, honor and mourn them, and whisper a prayer. "Well done, my good and faithful servants!"

Today, when you are having a good time, enjoying your beer and barbecue, or whatever, at least take a moment and remember a Railsplitter who once had to gulp down his chow in the snow...he was there for you, even if neither he nor you thought about it, then and now.

Mention had been made that John was fond of Cubans. There was one "Cuban," however, who irritated the hell outta him. Towards the end of his life, but while he was still able to get around, he asked me to drop by one evening. He had some personal items he wanted to leave with me - "I don't have anyone else to leave them to, and can't think of anyone better to leave them with." I did not want to take them, and even offered, if he insisted I have them, to pay him, but he would not hear of it. I did not want them because I realized, deep down, it was his way of saying goodbye "Not ready for that!," I thought to myself.

As I was getting ready to leave, he said: "I was thinking - suppose I could find someone who would plant some plastic explosive in my chest cavity, where my lung was; then a detonating device, maybe something resembling a pacemaker. Maybe I could convince the Cuban government to extend an invitation to visit castro. I could say I was a dying American veteran who much admired him, and my dying wish was to meet him."

"Then maybe as I approached him to shake hands, I could embrace him tightly and blow both of us up..."

I was horrified, not at the thought of this ingenious yet quasi-insane scheme to take out the hitler of Havana, but at the notion my dear friend would wind up splattered all over the place for the sake of destroying that scumbag. I think I said something like, "John, he is not worth your sacrificing yourself like that, even if you could do it." He just smiled, and said "well, I don't think I could find anyone to rig me up like that anyway." Shortly after, he passed away, in October 1978.

Once in a while, I wonder if this mad plan might actually have succeeded; leave it to a Railsplitter to think of such an ingenious tactical solution to this particular problem.

On this Memorial Day we are blessed to celebrate in freedom - which isn't free - take a minute to remember these brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen-airwomen too, past and present, who were there doing what needed to be done, for you, for me - so that I could freely post these words and images unmolested by petty, cowardly tyrants. If you are fortunate to come across one of our veterans today - or any day - thank them for, and honor their service. Do not forget them, ever.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Let them eat cake!

And cookies, and other sweets - "pastelitos," perhaps - delicious little flaky pastries stuffed with savory sweet fillings of guava or other tasty things, ground meat and such. You can find them at Cuban-style bakeries in Miami and other places filled with the Cuban presence, still.

Wash it all down with Jupina - tilde over the "n" - a sweet pineapple soft drink; or Materva, or Maltina, Coca-Cola, Pepsi,Cawy - another native soft drink; now made in the USA-whatever you like.

What is this leading to? Well, Cuba Nostalgia 2007 is "taking off" next week in Miami; inspired by that, and a significant anniversary for yours truly, decided to "gift" the long-suffering readership with a little personal "Cuba Nostalgia" of my own.

For, you see, this photograph, depicting an almost seven-year-old and his sister was taken at the garden level of the Focsa building on May 12, 1957.

Exactly 50 years ago as this is written, to be precise.

Then the party was on; I see little sis had her finger on the cake even before "Happy Birthday" was sung and the candles were blown out. Yes, we sang "Happy Birthday" at birthday parties in Havana and other Cuban places in those days. Whatever we wanted to sing, without frowning looks from bearded types.
Cousin Manny was nattily dressed in his white, long-sleeved shirt that day; cousin Gina, to my right-that would be your left, from your perspective, looks as if she's ready for the photo session to end so she can begin to party. Then there's the nice-looking lady in the spotted dress, smiling - Maria, or as we knew her, "Mari." From Spain she was; took excellent care of us - just like having another mother, and a beloved part of our family, though not related to us either by blood or marriage. In fact we "lost" her when she married, a couple of years later. And many years later, birthday boy heard she was in New York. If she could ever be found, it would be the greatest birthday present of all time - at least to this old kid and his sister.

The cake probably came from "La Gran Via," a well-known Havana bakery catering to the capital's sweet tooth. Any reader who has a copy of the 1958 Cuban Telephone Company directory should find this fine purveyor of cakes, breads, pastries and palatable delights within its pages. "La Gran Via" had a second - and successful - life in Miami, after the original enterprise was squelched by frowning, bearded types who hate it when you sing "Happy Birthday." Ah, well. Their loss, our gain.

Perhaps the cake was homemade and concocted with a set of fine Wecolite cake-making and baking aids, but this is unlikely; am pretty sure "La Gran Via" did the honors that 12th day of May, 1957. At least, there is no recollection of mother making a mess in the kitchen in the process of baking a cake.

The young 'uns sang "Happy Birthday," ate cake, drank soft drinks, ran around, screamed, smashed the pinata (tilde over the "n" again!) - yes, there was a pinata with those little flimsy favors inside we who have smashed one know so well. I wish I could get hold of our Time Travelers - you know, those guys and gals flying around into the Past and the Future, the Once and Future Cuba, in their unusually-equipped Delorean - if you have been reading this blog carefully you should be able to locate them - and travel with you back to that fun-filled day, fifty Mays ago. We'd have a great time. The kiddies would have to forego the beer for a day, though - since we'd all be under age. Then again, you might prefer Cawy, Materva, or Maltina.

Happy birthday, Tauruses of Havana and other provinces, the 50 states, and the whole world, for that matter. May someday another group of happy Cuban children and their loved ones celebrate their special day and sing "Happy Birthday" with abandon, or whatever they want to sing in whatever language they desire to sing it, on the once-again green grounds of the Focsa building.