We are all aware that Fidel Castro passed away on Nov. 25, 2016, over the Thanksgiving weekend.
We may see photographs and videos of Fidel Castro for decades to come, but we will not see him any longer. I have seen news clips of Cuban-Americans dancing in the streets with great joy on their faces, as well they should.
My parents were from “The Greatest Generation,” as Tom Brokaw describes those who were born in the early part of the 20th century, living through the Great Depression and World War II. My parents married later in life and had children in the baby boomer era.
Long before World War II, my father’s mother died suddenly, right after the Great Depression began. This left my father with no mother and no brothers or sisters. My grandfather left dad in a boarding home to fend for himself, except for meals, by mid-1930. This was a challenging life, but my grandfather stopped in on occasion.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Dad was moved to new schools a number of times, which he described as very challenging. At times, in a new school, the bully would find him.
In general, however, Dad developed an ease in making friends wherever he went. Not only did he make friends, he generally kept them.
Dad was drafted during World War II before the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941. He was in Louisiana, and was eventually called home to care for his very ill father, and his single aunt, then in a care facility. She passed some time later, and Dad was drafted again. This time he was sent to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
He was in the Army Air Corps, and worked as a mechanic on planes going east. Dad had plenty of stories to tell from his war days.
When he left the service, he had to hitchhike his way home. When I heard that as an adult, I will admit that I was not happy with Uncle Sam leaving Dad sort of stranded. Couldn’t they afford a train ticket? Thankfully, he got home safely.
Dad was trained as an electrician with the help of the GI Bill. (Okay, thank you, Uncle Sam.) He didn’t date my mother until late 1949 or very early 1950, as they had to save from scratch before they married.
My parents were living in their second house by 1957. My father felt a great urgency in 1962, based on the nightly news, to build a bomb shelter in our basement. Recently, I heard from a prior neighbor who was 8 years old when I was approaching 4. She heard about our bomb shelter, and asked her father, a World War II vet with higher ranking, why they weren’t building one.
Word got out in our Chicago neighborhood. This project, unlike others my father took up, became known as “Jim’s White Elephant.” He continued building it until he was satisfied that this one room had enough space for us, and just enough concrete to give fall-out protection.
Despite the neighbors’ label of this project, a new trend developed in the fall of 1962. On Sept. 4, 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued a public warning against weapons in Cuba. By October, the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were heating up. Reconnaissance showed bombs stored in Cuba.
As the neighbors started talking more and more about the bombs being so close to home, and the frightening disposition of a young Fidel Castro as seen on the news, their tune was changing.
Neighbors started to “stop by” our home, one family at a time. People summarized their unexpected visit by asking if their family, please, could benefit from our bomb shelter as well. As I have heard it told, Dad didn’t turn anyone down.
Our house was sold almost 20 years ago. I have no doubt that the well-known bomb shelter bit the concrete dust.
Dad, here’s to dancing with our Cuban-American neighbors, whether in Chicago, in Miami, or anywhere they can be found.
Tell us your story
HistoryMiami invites you to share your Miami Story.
To submit: Submit your story and photo(s) at www.HistoryMiami.org. Your story may be posted at MiamiHerald.com/miamistories, published in Sunday’s Neighbors print edition and archived at HistoryMiami.org/miamistories.
About Miami Stories: This project is a partnership between HistoryMiami, Miami Herald Media Co., WLRN and Michael Weiser, chairman of the National Conference on Citizenship.