Mornings in the fields outside of Havana were something special. I had been arising before the Sun since I became a teenager, largely because any day there was a school holiday I would have to work with my father. My Bar Mitzvah coincided with him leaving his job at Faber’s Ham Shop in the Grand Central Market to strike out on his own as a peddler of luncheon meat. Every check I received for my thirteenth birthday was immediately signed over to him so he could purchase the truck he needed in his new venture. Until I graduated High School and moved on, I was his “swamper” whenever I wasn’t required to be in school.
At first I hated getting up that early, but I eventually learned to love and appreciate being awake before sunrise. I still enjoy the sights and the smell of the early morning, though I don’t see – or stop to see – it as frequently as I did earlier in my life. But outside Havana, in the campo, seeing the sun rise in mid spring surrounded by tall, swaying palm trees was a sight to behold.
The year was 1973 and I was a member of el sexto contingente de la Brigada Venceremos (the 6th contingent of the Venceremos Brigade). Me and 99 of my best friends from the U.S. and Canada, traveling to Cuba to deliver books and medical supplies, working construction (with one-half day cutting sugar cane – whew!), and attending numerous cultural, historical, and political presentations.
Most every morning we were there, the day would begin quite some time before sunrise, when we would awaken to a breakfast of cafe con leche and pan. After eating, as we filed out of the mess tent, there would be three bowls on a table. One bowl contained candy (sugar!) and the other two cigarettes. The only names I can recall for the cigarettes were suaves and fuertes (mild and strong). The suaves were stronger than any cigarette I ever smoked in the states and, needless to say, I didn’t even bother with the fuertes. The tobacco was kind of coarsely chopped and in almost every pack there was at least one cigarette that would “flower” when the heat reached a piece of tobacco that was tightly compacted. It was mildly entertaining – mostly annoying.
This one morning came at the tail end of a couple of days in which one of my fellow brigadistas had been riding me hard. I couldn’t figure out what was bothering him, and didn’t have a clue how to deal with it. Although the group of people I was with ranged from members of the Democratic Party to card-carrying Communists, we were all there to show our support for the Cuban people, to protest the economic blockade of Cuba, and to learn what we could of their economy and politics. A large part of what we did was to provide labor, mostly for construction of some small homes and an elementary school.
So there I was, standing out in the middle of the countryside on the outskirts of Havana, getting ready for the workday to begin. I was enjoying the fresh air, made palpable by a slight breeze, and taking in the effects of the rising sun on the slightly swaying palm trees. It was refreshing and I was very content.
I heard a noise that didn’t sound familiar and looked in its direction to see what it was. To my chagrin, it was my so-called camarada, charging at me with his arms flailing. Now this guy was a Pinto, an ex-con and – as I said – he had been messing with me for days. He outweighed me by about twenty pounds, which didn’t make him all that big since I only weighed about 170 at the time.
Part of the reason I was in Cuba with the Brigade had to do with my political activity for the past few years, most of which was within the anti-Vietnam War movement, though some was in the general Peace & Justice movement as well. I had been studying Hapkido with a group of people who became the premier providers of security for most demonstrations, concerts, and other politico-cultural events in the Los Angeles area.
I had done everything from bomb searches to building security to armed bodyguard work. I had been the lead for organizing all of the security for Jane Fonda’s Southern California swing during the run-up to the 1972 Presidential election, including a couple of stints as her personal bodyguard. I was not quite 26 years old and in my prime. I guess he took my silence in dealing with him over the previous few days as intimidation. He was wrong.
As he got close I stepped toward him and placed a side thrust kick into the middle of his chest . . . hard. It drove him back and he fell to the ground, muttering after he hit “What’d you do that for?” There was no answer for so silly a question so I remained quietly in a ready stance. I had seen his friend standing nearby and knew he was a black belt in some form of the martial arts. I had no idea what was going to happen next.
Fortunately, that was the end of it. He got up, dusted himself off, and I never heard about it again. He did stop talking to me, which brought no objection on my part. I had learned long before that just because someone professes to have the same political goals you do, it’s quite conceivable their methodology won’t mesh well with what you think is proper. It’s also possible they won’t respect you based on their perception of you. This was surely reinforcement of those lessons. It’s been nearly forty years and I remember it well.
Aside from the time I had to take out a rooster who was threatening me and, more importantly, the two-year-old boy on my shoulders I was walking with around a farm in Morro Bay, this episode is the only time I have ever used what I learned in the martial arts in seriousness against a living being. The greatest lesson I have ever learned from my studies is that once you actually have to touch someone you’ve lost. I would have preferred it had never reached the point it did. In this case I felt I had no choice. Perhaps he learned something out of it. I doubt I’ll ever know and I’ve not lost any sleep over it.