Monday, December 31, 2007

December 31st, 1957...GROUNDED!

Lil' Albert shoulda been there...he coulda been there...he would have loved to have been there...

The happy gathering took place at the New Year's Eve party hosted by the Focsa condominium Homeowner's Association, at the garden and pool level; yes, unfortunately the photo is blurred - it is a photograph of a photograph, taken by compadre Mario Garriga - he's sitting there, on the right - when he visited his sister, who keeps the original, earlier this year. There was no time to get a better copy, but this will have to do. In a way, the nebulous image symbolizes the blurred memory of a fun night.

Next to Mario is another good and close friend, Jorge Soto, now settled in Clewiston, Florida. Either memory fails or the eyes do, because yours truly cannot remember the young man in white - unless that is Jorge Luis Pintos - who, sadly is no longer with us. The next one might be Sanchez...darn, how can one forget names? We were a pretty tight bunch! Then there is - am I sure? - Eduardo Zayas, acting the part of a typical New Year's reveler. The kid on the very left, arm around Eduardo - who was he? Cannot remember, except he was not a regular around our group...when Mario and the writer examined the image and reminisced, he asked: "Hey, remember that kid? He was a character!" "No," replied the blogger-with-failing-memory, "I do not." Weren't we all rambunctious characters anyway, dear Mario?

You might be surprised to learn that, at Focsa, kids were welcome at many of the events, parties and celebrations hosted not only by the Homeowners' Association, but also by many of the homeowners themselves. Don't get it wrong, things were still done according to "age-appropriate guidelines," such as no alcohol drinks for minors, but the kids were made to feel part and parcel of the Big Focsa Family.
Said Association, the umbrella of the Big Focsa Family, being ably led by the classy gentleman in the at the time fashionable white suit, seen sitting in the first row during a homeowner's meeting, May 23, 1958 - Dr. Agustin Aguirre. Mom and dad are in the picture, sitting in the fourth row, about the middle, their faces partially blocked by other faces of friends and neighbors, still recognized...behind them, wearing sunglasses and sitting next to her husband, Rafael Aguirre, also sporting a white suit and, coincidentally, Dr. Aguirre's nephew, is Olga Rueda - known stateside as Olga Aguirre. They'll figure further in this story as you shall see.

Thus came to pass the jolly good gathering of Focsa's version of the "Little Rascals," imbibing the night away - dancing too, perhaps? - for there was music. The imbibing part, ahem, forgot to explain. It was Coke only, don't go around accusing Cubans of getting their children plastered!

Having found out the Focsa "Lil' Rascals" were invited to participate in the evening's doings a few days before, the arrival of the last day of the year was eagerly anticipated. Mother's "rules of engagement" for the party are still recalled: "Now, you know you will have to wear a suit, right?" "Yes mom! That's OK, that's OK!," enthusiastically replied the Little Big Man About Town. She added: "You'll have to be on your best behavior if you want to go." The seven more-than-halfway-to-eight year-old replied: "I promise - I'll behave!"

My partners, in the following days, as the party date approached asked if their buddy was going to be there, and confidently he advised them he would be and all would have a great time. He thought of the free-flowing Coca-Cola in genuine glass bottles; being with the buddies, dressing up and transforming into Big Sophisticated Habaneros; listening to the music and watching the adults dance, laugh, sing - maybe even dance ourselves? Now, THAT was the scary part, being (1) Mr. Little Big Man couldn't dance and still cannot, by the way - somehow his genome did not include, sadly, the Cuban Rhythm Gene; (2) if one danced, one had to dance with a GIRL...we didn't like GIRLS at our age - it just wasn't done!! We did "man stuff" at that age, and girls were to stay out of the way. Funny - once Little Big Havana Man entered the Age of Liking Girls, they made him nervous to the point of inducing pathological paralysis in their presence, the prettier they were, the greater the paralysis. Eventually, he more or less got over it, but just barely. Con las muchachas, nunca supe ser "muelero." With the ladies, I never learned to be a "smooth talker."

But, have no fear, that particular fear would not rear its fearful head for Party Boy that night. Because, at just about the last minute on the day of the happy event...he was grounded by his mother.

The cause, as best remembered, had to do with mouthing off to someone about something. Was it running the mouth with mother, or perhaps with nanny Maria - "Mari," as we affectionately referred to her? Cannot remember that. Of course, the offending party did not see the supposed offense as deserving such drastic punishment and, needless to say, he tried talking his way out of it to no avail. "Ahora si que no vas a la fiesta esta noche!" - "Now you definitely are not going to the party tonight!," decreed Maria Teresa Granja de Quiroga, and there was no appeal possible, nor court of appeal available anyway. Empress Maria Theresa of Austria no doubt would have approved Maria Teresa of Havana's disciplinary approach towards her short subject.

Thus, Little Man About Town's dream of partying with the guys was dashed; doubly embarrassing was the fact that after assuring the gang "he would be there," he would not be - talk about losing face with your buddies. Who, of course, later interrogated him about the unforeseen absence, to which interrogatories he replied curtly, with much shoulder-shrugging.

He and little sister Marta were left in the able and affectionate care of Mari, as consolation. Still, it was disappointing, even bitter for him to realize his First Big New Year's Eve Party was not to be. Friend Mario, recently speaking with blogger and his Better Half, reminiscing about those times including that night as well, put it best: "You know, they kept Albert on kind of a tight leash." Perhaps it was necessary, but why, oh why did it HAVE to be so that last night of the year 1957??

Mari - 1957 - still remembered by two grown kids with love. We'd love too, to find and reconnect with her...last known to be in New York but by now, who knows? Sis and I certainly pray life treated her beautifully, being she was a beautiful person, inside and out. A "gallega," from, of course, Galicia in Spain.

The party went on as scheduled, and the band played on into the night - no doubt the participants, including the Focsa Lil' Rascals, had a wonderful time.

Mother and father joined their friends and neighbors, the Aguirres for a good time and good cheer. Left to right: Olga Rueda de Aguirre, Rafael Aguirre, their daughter Yvonne and her escort, "Talo" Socallanes, standing - and last but not least dad and mother, The Enforcer. No Cokes on that table - seems the drink of the evening was Cerveza Cristal.

Mom and dad danced the night away, and rightly so - mother especially is a good dancer, which trait she passed on to her daughters but not to her little boy; however the son's own daughter apparently picked up the Cuban Rhythm gene her father missed out on, so that skill shall be carried on to another generation. No doubt they had a fantastic time in the company of their friends and acquaintances, that night. Please do not interpret this as sour grapes or sarcasm on the writer's part. After all, parents have privileges and that is one thing which motivates little boys to wish they may grow up fast "I wanna do what mom and dad can do!" Then one grows up too fast, and the inevitable question becomes "Wherever did the time go?!" Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.

Meantime, of course, a sore and dejected little guy twiddled his thumbs 25 or so floors above, notwithstanding Mari's ministrations to soothe his wounded pride and ego. The next day, the Sore Little Boy heard a report what a great party that had been, and "how his friends even danced!" Well, he thought, "the dancing I could have done without," trying to rationalize how perhaps missing the festivities had not been so bad after all.

Before you think evil thoughts about parent-child relationships damaged by seemingly unjustified confinement, gotta tell you and this is from the heart: I love mother dearly and all is forgiven even if not forgotten. Too bad the one and only shot at being a Havana Big Shot was aborted. There was no big New Year's Eve party December 31, 1958. The band of spoilers - you know who they are - was playing their deadly tune, getting close, disrupting the rhythm of life with the bombs and bullets which made up their complement of deadly instruments.

Forward ten years later...a teen with much growing up still ahead of him was invited by his Miami compadres to a New Year's Eve party - Hialeah was the venue, a small - not so small anymore - town or municipality. The partners in crime hatched a plot to liven up the party - well, at least liven up their participation in the party. Said one - was it Eduardo "Eddie" Acle - yeah, probably - "Listen guys, we're gonna take some booze to the party. We're thinking Colt 45 Malt Liquor; each of us takes a six-pack." That would have been twenty-four cans of the more potent than regular beer brew. The graphic below, sourced from, brings back memories of, ah shall we say a "wild and crazy night of fumblin' and stumblin'."

How could a nice ?? - former classmates may disagree - studious young man attending Catholic LaSalle High School get caught up in such doings? A reaction, perhaps, to unconscious memories of frustration at missing party time ten years earlier? Or perhaps a celebration of life...after all, just a week before that 31st of December, 1967 he had found himself airborne and upside down in his '67 VW Beetle, the result of a tipsy compatriot's T-boning the Beetle with a 1965 Chevy Impala. You can imagine the physics involved in the collision. No, you had to be there - but am glad you were not. God and a seatbelt saved the future blogger's hide, so perhaps he felt compelled to celebrate with abandon, with his band of LaSalle Rascals, a week later. Mention should be made he knew who to thank for the Gift of Life that Christmas Eve, and did so at Midnight Mass that day. Credit must also be given to cousin Fernandito who, heavy into auto racing at the time, and finding his younger cousin's Beetle was lap-belt equipped, admonished: "Always buckle up!" Wise advice, then and now. Thank you, dear cousin - perhaps you helped me be here to recall and write this.

By the way, the Beetle in the photo was not the late, lamented blogger's Bug. It belonged to friend and classmate Orlando Martinez - coincidentally another of the Quiroga's Focsa neighbors - who captured the image.

These were my partners in the plot - the question is, who thought of the plot? Who admits to it? Was it you, "Eddie?" Somehow, that seems to fit.

Nelson - left; Jorge - right. That's right! Taken during a visit to the Quirogas, circa 1975.

And then, there's Eddie - back in '71. Doesn't he look like someone who would hatch such a devious drinking scheme? Just kiddin' Eduardo. Rest assured all of us have been on our best behavior since then. And if you believe that, no doubt you also still believe in the Tooth Fairy.

The plan evolved by the four amigos - Nelson Orta - you met him before, that is if you read this blog - "Eddie," Jorge Pastoriza and you know who - was deceptively simple. First, the "fuel" was procured at a little market run by another compatriot, believe it was a Mr. Silva, who shall we say looked the other way and did not ask for identification. Those were the times; not saying you should approve. The packs were duly encased in brown bags. Next, transportation. No, we had no intention of drinking and driving. Besides which the one available car, a Java Green '67 VW Beetle now rested in pieces in some forlorn junkyard. Only the driver's manual remained to remember it by.

And of course, that would not suffice to get us to where we needed to go. Our parents were otherwise engaged in preparing to attend their New Year's parties, so a ride from that quarter was out of the question. Never mind they would also have questioned what we had in the bags, quickly bringing an end to the planned drinking spree and general carousing we anticipated with glee.

The Miami-Dade County bus system was our salvation. We took the requisite buses, making transfers as needed, and duly arrived at the party with our fuel packs. And the festivities were fun - we eyed the ladies, this guy even getting up the courage to dance with one or two...pausing here and there to imbibe our Colt 45s. At one point someone found the stash, and hid our treasure, causing distress and making us think all kinds of evil thoughts regarding the retribution we would visit on the perpetrators. But one of our own - was it you, Nelson? - found the goods and the liquid lubricating of the evening continued unabated. Yeah, believe it was Nelson - the leadership qualities of the future United States Marine Corps 2nd Lieutenant were already in evidence.

We expected no less than that from you, Gunny! The poster image comes from

You know you are in trouble when the horizon no longer stays level, the earth moves under you, and suddenly, your innards no longer feel at peace. You also know you are in trouble when one of your buddies - won't say which one - plops down on a lounge chair, and proceeds to "baptize" his nice suit with juice from disturbed innards. And it came to pass, we all got to that point although some of us "held" it better than others. The ladies, needless to say, no longer wanted anything to do with us and besides it was past midnight. So, we were starting from scratch January 1, 1968. Add to that the problem of somehow getting all of us back home know you are in trouble. Curse you, Colt 45 Malt Liquor! Haven't cared for it since then.

Ah, but salvation was at hand. Fortuitously, mom and dad had been invited to a party nearby, at the home of a family friend. Mother and father had graciously offered us a ride back home "should you need it." Well - we needed it! We needed an ambulance, but father's '68 Olds, acquired a few weeks earlier, would do fine. So we were picked up by our saviors, except we had to go back to their party for a little bit - one recalls being offered food and drink, but being in no mood for any more of it. After the party ended, as the "Quiroga bus" went on its way to drop each of us off, the fella who lost his lunch on the lounge chair lost it again over the rear seat of dad's brand spanking new '68 Olds...but mom and dad as you know do not hold that against you. After all you have been their primary care physician for years.

By the time a future blogger hit the bedsheets, he was shivering and sick as a dog - and the next day felt like one, for most of the day. Thank God for forgiving parents! Now, you tell me: Should a young boy have been grounded in '57, or would it have been better to ground a foolish teenager in '67 instead? Things would have gone better with Coke instead of Colt 45 Malt Liquor, rest asssured! Cerveza Cristal in moderation would have been OK too - unfortunately by 1967 it was no longer available, at least in Miami, and not much in Cuba either.

And speaking of hangovers, one wonders how much longer it will take unfortunate Cuba to wake up from the hangover induced by drinking the toxic political brew she was seduced to experiment with, January 1, 1959?

Tonight we - meaning Mrs. and I - will head out to a neighbor's New Year's Eve block party. Although within walking distance from home, nevertheless the libations will be in moderation - might have a couple Blue Moons; that's a nice brew, brewed in the Belgian style. But that is about it. Colt 45 days were left behind a long time they even make the stuff anymore? Mrs. Q will ensure her Worst Half is on his best behavior. After all, now that he is a father, he must set an example of sobriety and good judgment for the benefit of his daughter - who exhibits at 14 far better judgment and sense than her father-to-be did forty years ago.

Time to close and, in closing, dedicate this to mother and father - no hard feelings, mom!; to my sisters and their families, of course to my suffering Better Half and dear daughter and my North Carolina kin; to my beloved friends from Focsa days, the ones lost, the ones found, the ones no longer with us - needless to say, this applies to our family's friends and neighbors from those days - the Aguirres, Sotos, Garrigas - too many to mention; to both my dear Baldor and Miami-LaSalle band - we may not see each other much sometimes, but we stay tightly connected; to all fellow bloggers, wherever you are. Last but not least: To the people of Cuba. If a Happy New Year is only a future dream for many, at least may I wish all of you a God-Blessed, Safe, Sober, Healthy and Prosperous one.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Best Christmas Gifts

One could argue - indeed, this is my belief - at least among Christians, that there is only one Best Christmas Gift - the Gift of The Redeemer. As has been said: "Keep Christ in Christ-Mas." But this sinner would also argue that the same Redeemer, the Essence of the Season, brings with Him, and freely hands out, many other Gifts towards which sadly, mankind sometimes appears oblivious. All too easy to fixate on that iPhone or Wii..."weep if you can't get a Wii."

But some of us, and please do not take this as Pharisee-like sanctimoniousness, do appreciate and cherish the Gifts from the God-Gift. One of them is the Gift of Friendship and Brotherhood. Speaking of which, remember this post from September 2006?

On Sunday, December 16 Anno Domini 2007, the Gift of Friendship and Brotherhood was freely shared among a certain "Band of Baldorians" - sounds like something out of Beowulf, I suppose - at the Rusty Pelican, a waterfront venue in Key Biscayne. That, should you wish to find the place, is in the Greater Miami area - and not Miami, Ohio either.

Jeez! I suppose a certain Baldorian-blogger coulda smiled a little more, given the conviviality, warmth, and good time had by all attendees. Finally, we who had found each other over the last few years were together again, celebrating our good fortune and rightly so.

This is now, and that was then, before the Grinch of Havana decreed an end to Christmas, to family, friendship, brotherhood, indeed to Love itself.

There we were...50 years earlier, during the 1956-1957 school year; the acquisition of that academic year's Yearbook was an early Christmas present to myself. Can you find us? Alright, no teasing the readership. Here's a "connect the dots" type aid, enabling you to link the faces from past and present. Refer to the "this is now" graphic...from left to right you have hmmm...Frightful, then Wilfredo or as we know him, "Willy" Hernandez, followed by Carlos Cueto, Nelson Orta, and The Other Carlos, Bidot. One of the Band unfortunately missed our fraternal reunion, Warren Chambless, although we know you were there in spirit, Warren - and will make the next one. And, to confuse you further, you will NOT find Nelson in the 1956-1957 Baldor yearbook when we began our journey through First Grade. Nelson did not come into the picture until the Fourth Grade. That, however, does not make him a Lesser Baldorian Brother, by any means.

If you examine the yearbook image and zero in on the future blog author, you will be amazed to realize he once had a fair crop of hair! What is less obvious is, then and now, he was and remains, proudly, the Shortest of The Baldorian Band. Well, good things come in small packages. So does poison.

Although Warren could not make it to our brotherly table at Rusty Pelican, he has made it to some of our sociable get-togethers since being "found" by bloggin' "Sherlock Holmes" about a year ago.

Such as, back in September, when he and Mrs. Chambless accepted our invitation to join the Quirogas for a night of partying in honor of my dad's 88th birthday. Warren sported a neat tropical-themed shirt; we certify that "a good time was had by all."

Unfortunately, do not as of this writing, have a Baldor School yearbook with Brother Nelson's face in it. The next best thing available is this quaint classroom depiction of our Seventh Grade class at Saints Peter and Paul parochial school in Miami - as in Florida.

Nelson sits with trademark smile and Elvis-ish hairdo - a "mota," Cubans would call it - in the first seat, first row on the right - and, in the very same row, the kid with closed, or closing eyes, fourth from the back of the class, is the future blogger and ex-Baldor cub. Nelson and I were the first to "reconnect" our friendship in style. We're talking 1962-1963 here. It has been a long time, brother! And yet, where did the time go? That is the scary part. The Gift of Time - now that is another precious one from the Creator.

Sister of St. Joseph Mary Anthony stands guard back in the corner. You did not want to incur her disrespect meant, but somehow that brings to mind the opening minutes in The Blues Brothers movie. If you wanna know what I mean, rent it or buy it - the great music in it alone is worth it. Belushi's and Aykroyd's antics are a bonus. Our antics at Sts. Peter and Paul were suitably dealt with by the good nuns, somewhat as Jake and Elwood's were rewarded in the aforementioned flick.

Shoot! Just realized we found another former Baldor guy in the Sts. Peter and Paul class photo! Gabriel Rodriguez, sitting in the row next to ours, second from back of the class - he's in the Baldor yearbook First Grade group. Bidot is always after me to look our friends up, so guess Gabriel is the next subject of our sleuthing. How about that for another Christmas bonus; we may yet find another member of the Baldor Brotherhood.

Nelson and his frightful friend continued their adventures and misadventures together through our years at LaSalle High School in Miami, from where we both graduated in '68, and shared part of our college years as well. We were the first of this Band to band together, but we will certainly not be the last.

Our friend Bidot informally presided over the gathering, and said some beautiful words for the ocassion, reading them from his script, the emotion coming through loud and clear.

Don't worry - you don't need to crank up your translation software; I will translate the words for you, to the extent of my non-professional translating ability, always with the goal of translating the words as accurately as skills allow, the main goal being to capture the true spirit of the original statement.

"Dear Friends:

Just some lines to express what has meant to me this re-encounter with my first friends, those I lost suddenly in an April afternoon in the 60s, when we barely were 9-10 years old. Nevertheless, their names always appeared in my mind and heart with the certain hope of finding them again and share moments such as those we are sharing today. How many anecdotes relived and yet how many not lived among us! I give thanks to God first, then to all of you for maintaining alive the flame of our friendship which began in our beloved Baldor School, who I also thank for instructing me and giving me the principles which make an honest man.

To all many thanks for making my dreams reality.

Albertico (literally-and accurately-"Little Albert"): You were the first to initiate this re-encounter, thank you brother, for this and for inspiring me to improve my spelling skills, which were not bad but not as excellent as yours.

Carlitos: dear friend and study companion, of mutual academic competitions, of friendly knowledge and escapades to eat raw oysters.

Willy: dear friend from our Vedado neighborhood, picaresque and witty, who always managed to create something different and amusing out of our times together.

Nelson: although the last to join us and subject to complications due to your social activities and, if memory does not fail, one of the most easygoing in our class, for you our welcome to our dear reconnection of "Baldoristas."

So happy you were able to speak these wonderful words without a hitch, brother Bidot; speaking for myself, would have choked up during delivery. Maudlin, sentimental, all of that it may be, but so it is and glad it is so.

We did a gift exchange, nothing fancy, but a nice touch. During said exchange, Christmas cards were also given and received. Here is what amigo Bidot wrote on the one for the Quirogas.

Again, not to worry - free translation provided; hopefully it captures the words and the feeling behind them accurately.

"Dear Little Albert:

You were the first to initiate this re-encounter. You cannot imagine how grateful I am to you, for in my mind all of you were always there. Today my dreams from childhood have become reality, but I invite you to continue finding and gathering more friends from what was then Baldor School.

Of course I remembered you, even as you had forgotten your 'hundreds (100 pts)' in spelling. Brother, a hug and once again thanks.

Merry Christmas and a Prosperous 2008! The Bidot Family 12/16/07"

Well brother Bidot, truth be told, I may have scored "hundreds" in grammar and spelling, but always I envied your and Carlos Cueto's mathematical and analytical minds. Over time skill in these areas improved for yours truly. Nevertheless, am willing to swap brains - or at least part of brains - with you. The others are no slouches either. You guys "done good!" and am very proud of that. But then, that is what we expect from Baldor School students.

Back to the gift exchange for a moment. Nelson gave us all a very especial and unexpected present...

The wonderful gift is the medal on the left - an award for "Aplicacion," or Scholarship; when given by your Baldor teacher back then, it meant you were an "A" student. And "A's" were not freely given in those days. Our brother-friend scored a coup and found these almost mint condition pieces, together with their original ribbons. "I cleaned out the stock where I bought them," said our buddy, smiling broadly. Now this piece will proudly accompany the other well-loved relics of my Baldor days - the "Conducta" or Good Conduct medal acquired at the annual Cuba Nostalgia event almost two years ago, and the little lapel pin, spirited out of Cuba and once worn proudly by the writer during his Baldor years. To others, these may seem like insignificant baubles; to us, these golden objects, though not made of gold, are worth their weight in gold for both the happy and sad memories of a lost childhood and a lost time they evoke so well.

Medals and awards, worn proudly by those who earned them through hard work, scholarship, good conduct, civic duty, and love of God and country.

As did our friend and Baldor-brother Carlos Bidot, during the 1956 school year.

I am confident I speak for all when I say to you, Brother Nelson, in describing how we feel about this incredible gift: Te la comiste, hermano! That is Cuban slang, and literally translated means "You've eaten it, brother!" When a Cuban tells you "te la comiste," it means you've done something fantastic, great, incredible, first class, and all that sort of thing.

By the way, if you wish to explore the place where our most thoughtful brother-friend acquired these, take a peek - more than a peek, really...set aside some time to take it in, and head to
You will be amazed with the many interesting pieces Mr. Valdes has on display, and for sale too. A history of Cuba captured in the objects, literature, and graphics within the walls of the Cuban Historical Museum. In case you wonder, this is not an advertising is just an invitation for you to take the opportunity to drink in some Cuban history. "Drink in" is appropriate - Mr. Valdes even displays still-filled bottles of Cuban beer from the 50s! Wouldn't recommend imbibing the contents at this point, however. Might turn you off beer.

All good and beautiful times and things must inevitably come to an end. After a few hours of fraternal camaraderie, anecdote telling, reconnecting and becoming reacquainted, the gathered Baldorian Band and their families had to say their goodbyes - for now. But there was still time for some photography to remember the event, and someday, via these images, pass on the beautiful memories to our children, and our children's children.

Well, how about that! The blogger can smile after all. How could he not, as he ponders the priceless value of the Gift of Friendship, which he thought was lost 47 years ago as he and his family celebrated their first Christmas in exile, with little but with love, in the cozy Westchester home of our beloved friend Delia Carballo and her gracious mother, who unhesitatingly took us in when we had nowhere else to go. A little guy, in the depths of sadness that Christmas, did not realize it, but besides the Gifts of Love and Friendship, he was given the Gift of Freedom. These are the ones that matter, the ones that endure and can never be taken away.

This Christmas, remember the Reason for The Season and give thanks to God for the Gifts that really matter. We have touched upon just a very few here - there are many. As for the Grinch of Havana, the one who sought to take away that which he hates because of his own self-hate - Love, Friendship, Freedom and so much more, alas, when it comes to our little group you failed miserably. When your time comes to leave this world, you will weep and gnash your teeth when you realize - too late - you rejected the Gift of Redemption.

From us to all of you out there, including but not limited to our other Baldor School friends and acquaintances, and to other dear and very close friend-brothers - "Cap'n Mario" comes to mind, but you all know who you are - A Very Merry and Blessed Christmas!