Fidel Castro was a figure, there in the background, in the lives of most early wave Baby Boomers.
With his beard, cigar, and fatigues, he was something of a comic figure for a while there in the late 1950’s, maybe up until 1961. Boys dressed up and went out as Castro for Halloween. I remember seeing high school girls wearing Castro garb scrubbing the steps of Worcester’s City Hall with toothbrushes, as some sort of initiation rite for a high school sorority. Then there was a picture of my Aunt Kay, a Chicago teenager who would have looked right at home on American Bandstand, wearing some type of Castro outfit for some gag and/or hazing event.
Fatigue jackets and caps were pretty easy to get your hands on in that every-guy-gets-drafted era, given that most of us knew someone in the Army: older brothers or cousins, guys from the neighborhood. In my case, my Uncle Bob was the supplier of Army gear, as, in his late teens, he became a soldier at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The Christmas Bobby went in, all the nieces got swell white silk babushkas embroidered with an eagle, the flag, and FORT LEONARD WOOD MISSOURI. And the nephews got those caps that GI’s, Gomer Pyle, and Fidel Castro wore.
So at first – at least to kids – Castro was just this sort of laughable figure. The nuns raged on about what a bad Catholic he was, and told us that his nickname was bola de grasa – greaseball – because he was so filthy. All this nun criticism made us enjoy him all the more.
Then Bay of Pigs rolled around, and he wasn’t such a laughing matter, even for kids. He became even less so during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was not quite thirteen, and the Crisis pretty much went over my head, but I knew that our wonderful, Irish Catholic, non-bola de grasa president had vanquished Castro. And Khrushchev. A bad buy two-fer.
Worcester actually ended up with quite a few Cuban refugees, thanks to the welcome mat put out by the Diocese of Worcester. One summer, I worked with some of them at a shoe factory. Because I had a smidgeon of Spanish, I was appointed by the foreman to inform the Cubans when no hay trabajo mañana – no work on Saturday, which, despite the fact that we were churning out paratrooper boots for both the US military and South Vietnam’s army, was most of the time. Other than hello and goodbye, that was about the extent of my conversation with the Cubans, other than with Deysi, with whom I shared a worktable. Deysi and I would have rudimentary chats on occasion. She was very pretty and in her early twenties. Her husband also worked at HH Brown, and would stop by our area to kiss Deysi when he was on a break. (Or when our foreman was.)
Over the years, I didn’t think much about Castro or Cuba, other than getting vaguely drawn in to a lefty glorification of it at one point in the late 1960’s. (Venceremos.) After all, free health care was good. And all those cool old 1950’s cars. And they liked baseball. Plus Castro’s opposition in the US were a bunch of right-wing old farts. I wasn’t going to side with them.
Later, it was hard to ignore all the desperate refugees trying to make it to Key West on a raft.
Cuba was poor. And repressive. Thanks for the free health care, but wouldn’t it be nice if the average Cuban had access to aspirin.
In any case, I was happy to see things easing up in Cuba. I welcomed the normalization of relations with the US. And I figured that Fidel Castro wasn’t going to live forever.
Whether that signals further loosening up or not remains to be seen, but as MLK reminded us when he paraphrased Theodore Parker,“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Always a good thing to keep in mind, both home and abroad.
Cuba has been on my bucket list for a while. A friend went last year with Road Scholar, and that’s probably how I’ll go, too.
Adios, Fidel Castro. I’m sure that there are some who will miss you. I won’t be one of them. But I hadn’t thought for a while about how the initial impression – at least among children – was that he was someone to make fun of, not take seriously. Always best to be wary of buffoons when they get into power. You never know where it will end up.