Prerevolution Mariel was a bustling little town, largely because it was home to the island's only naval academy, a magnet for Cuba's best and brightest.
High on a hill, the academy resembled a Moorish castle. Completed in 1908 by American lawyer Horacio Rubens, a friend of Cuban patriot Jose Martí, it was intended to be a casino. Palacio de Rubens sat on top of the hill called El Vigia, or the town's lookout. It had a spectacular view of the bay, and the Mariel countryside made it an ideal location for lovers.
But there was tragedy linked to the building; locals say that after his daughter took a fatal fall from the hill, a heartbroken Rubens sold the property. In 1916 it was turned into the Naval Academy, the place where future navy officers would be trained, my father included.
The main, four-story building housed classrooms and offices. Dormitories, auditorium, workshops, library and other buildings stretched behind the castle. It had two entrances, one by a road snaking up the hill, the other a climb up 266 steeply pitched steps that the cadets used for a drill.
There was excitement in Mariel every year at the arrival of several hundred new cadets.
On weekends, they found success with the local girls while promenading in uniform in the town's only park. Many Marieleñas had their hearts broken by these officers, who would take to the seas after graduating.
My father graduated in August 1957 and married my mother the following week at the Church of St. Teresa, Mariel's patron saint. The marriage long outlasted the uniform -- 53 years today.
In the 1980s, just after the Mariel boatlift, the academy complex was abandoned and the school was moved to the province of Havana.
Despite the passing of time, here in ``exile'' there remains a spirit of brotherhood among graduates. The officers still gather whenever possible. My father never misses a reunion.
Today, although the naval academy is in ruins, it does justice to the hill where it sits, still a guardian of Mariel and its bay.
To my father, it's still the place where he learned to be an officer and a gentleman.