Freedom Flight Memories

Jorge L. Rios

Great story today.I came to the U.S. on the Freedom Flights on Dec. 7, 1967 and settled up north. Five years or so after arriving, my family and I down to Hollywood, Florida. I went to Cooper City High and in 1974 went to work for the City of Hollywood and retired as an Engineering Inspector in 2005 and moved to Vermont for a while. I wrote a letter to my US born half-sister a couple of years ago describing my memories of those pre and post flight days. I just started a letter and kept going, and going... I arrived Dec. 7, 1967 on the 7 a.m flight, Varadero to MIA.) Hey Rosie.This last December 7, 2006 was a different one. It was my "Happy America Anniversary" and it has come around about 4 times in 39 years again on a Thursday. For some weird reason, I noticed it more last year. Actually, t here's no weird reason; this time I'm back up north.

I remember that last week in El Diezmero. My parents allowed me to stay home from school for the last three days there. Who would care anyway? "Oliamos a jamon" already. It was an exciting time since the household "inventario" the prior week. I remember on Tuesday the 5th going a couple of blocks away to my one-room schoolhouse, I don't remember why, but it must have been to say goodbye to my classmates and teacher and to get my report card. I remember walking home and seeing some of the kids, whose names sadly I do not remember, in the school waving goodbye out of the side window. I can still see their faces in my mind's eye.

I was on top of the world. I was going to get to see family that I hadn't seen for some years who had gone to El Norte. Dario, Hilda, Salvador y Pura, Sergio y Coloma. They all seeme d to be having a good time in the photos that we used to get in letters and I was excited about joining them in that life. I was also get to see Lisardo, and meet Oraida, Rosemarie y Lisardito. I had a photo of you two and the old man wearing coats on an (apparent) winter day from the prior year or so then. You and Lisardito were little kids. The photo came in a letter that old man Lisardo had sent me. Your mom must have shot the photo since she wasn't in it. Lisardo had squinting eyes and the trademark slightly tight, unsmiling lips. You remember that look. You were standing next to him and he was holding Lisardito. He looked larger than life. I really don't know whatever happened to that photo, but I'll do some detective work to see if it came with us.

Wednesday the 6th went quick, or at least the morning did, and it came time to leave. We had to be in the airport in Varadero for processing at 7:00 pm. A crowd of around 40 well wishers, mostly immediate neighbors, were there in front of our house. "Alfredo El Loco's" sister, another forgotten name, gave me a surprising kiss on the cheek and smiled a "good luck" smile for me. Alfredo was a long time childhood friend from down the hill but I don't remember him seeing me off. I think that my other childhood friend, "Willie", may have been there as well as another Alfredo. That later Alfredo's last name was Molina, and his father ran a a small grocery store, also down the hill (coincidentally across from Alfredo El Loco's house). Alfredito Molina had been my good friend and classmate for the last couple of years before leaving. I remember him having a larger than normal forehead than most kids his age. Some kids called him Jose Marti in school.

But I don't remember him there. Or did time just "black hole" on me on that afternoon?

I remember my mother's saddened yet dignified face wearing dark shades, looking around taking it all in and peering in all directions of the neighborhood before getting in our ride. I wonder if she knew that it was for the last time. So many Cubans have taken the same gaze. It was around 4:00 o'clock in the afternoon. We got in a baby blue 1952 Ford sedan that everyone called "el huevito" and headed off. The huevito owner and driver was a friend of my uncle Vicente.

On the way out of Diezmero, I cried for my aunt Leonor, Vicente's wife, but then focused on the excitement of things to come. One of the regrets that I felt was not to get to know this girl that lived down the road from us and seemed very sheltered by her (older than normal parents). She was a blonde and hazel eyed girl of around 11 year s old at that time. She had ended up at my class only for the last couple of years as I remember. I wonder what life has brought her and if she's still there. She was one of the ones waving goodbye from the school.

The other regret was, having always been a dinosaur fan since I first discovered Apatosauria (back in those days, Brontosauria), missing "Journey To The Center Of The Earth"- the one with James Mason, Pat Boone and Gertrude, the duck with the "circle around it's eye". It was playing in the local cíne the weekend after our departure. And I had waited to see that flick! I had been told by Willie that it had dinosaurs (actually propped-up iguanas and monitor lizards, but I didn't care...) and I immediately wanted to see it. It was rated "para mayores de 12 años" and you needed a "carnet de edad", or age ID card to get in some movies. When I turned 12, I got one, I real ly don't remember where, but I did.

I felt so adult flashing my carnet to the ticket booth seller, eyeing him askance in what I thought would be the look of a grown up. I had waited all year for "Viaje al Centro de la Tierra" to come to the Cíne del Diezméro!

But more about that movie later.

Heading east along the north coast past those beautiful beaches that I played in as a child, I remember hearing a song for the first time by a Spanish singer called “Marisol Reyes”. It was called "Chiquitina" (Chiquitiiina, chiquitiiina..." ). My brother Luisito, 7 at the time, seemed to like it, judging by his smile and his singing and swaying along with it, sitting on my mother's lap.Having always loved music, I was surprised that I had never heard it before and Luisito had. That song and moment have been with me since. I have not heard that song ever again.

We arrived in Varadero and I turned to see my uncle's Vicentes eyes tearing in the darkness behind me in El Huevito.

We then entered the airport facility, waited and received immunizations, and entered a room filled with rows of folding chairs at around 9:00 pm. We sat and waited. I was glad that the dreaded questioning of young kids by the milicianos didn't come. It was either rumors or fact that prompted my mother to coach me in the possible questioning and conning by government people; "¿Are you sure that you don't want to stay in Cuba with Fidel and la revolucion?" I was to answer "No gracias. Yo quiero ir con mi papa y mama a donde ellos vallan". It was a good drill.

Before the restless sleep in the folding chair, I met a girl about my age who was traveling with her mother and were to go to her relatives' in Chicago. Beautiful girl with light skin and long brown hair. We chatted for a while. Again, sadly, I don't remember her name.

The next morning came with the excitement of the American Airlines prop plane landing at about 6:00 am and the blonde American (crew? G-man?) in plain clothes coming in through the door from the runway and sitting on top of a desk just to the left side of the runway exit door. I thought that it was pretty relaxed of him and assumed that everyone that worked there must have known him from coming in from Los Estados Unidos a twice a week to pick up refugees. He said something to me that I didn't understand, as evident by the inquisitive "twitch of the nose" expression that I gave him. You know... ¿que? (twich of the nose).

After take off at 7:00 o'clock in the morning, I saw my parents crying, along with a few other elders. It was a poignant moment, but the trip turned out to be a beautiful one. Forty five minutes long, and on a partly cloudy day. I remember seeing the Florida Keys as green patches on a purple, green and blue ocean with US 1 appearing as a pencil line going through them. The stewardesses were Spanish speaking Americans and were real nice to us.

It was wondrous to land in MIA flying past a four lane Palmetto Expressway and seeing the newer American cars pass by below. In MIA, I remember seeing a large sign above the entry door stating "Bienvenidos Cubanos". We then entered into... another room full rows of folding chairs, sat and waited for the heads of household to return from their secret service interviews. During that time I had the first taste of Kellog's Corn Flakes (in travel boxes) and whole milk (that as a kid I used to find disgusting, but out of that pint-carton tasted not too bad) in a long time. The brown haired girl and I found each other again and talked some more.

The rest of the families, including us, were grouped according to religious denomination and which way we were going (staying in Miami, or going elsewhere) and boarded into a shuttle bus and driven to a temporary boarding house. It seems as if that place had been an old hotel at one time. I remember it being two stories, pink and located on the northwest corner of the (then) MIA runways, I believe in the corner of NW 16th St and NW 69th or 70th Ave. It had a little shop in the lobby that was tended by an old Cuban man. At around noon, my old man Luis, along with the rest of the heads of household were returned from their interviews, and he produced some... American coins! I never knew where he got them, but after examining my newfound bounty, I promptly ran to the little shop to get what I'd been dreaming of having for years: chewing gum and Life Savers!

I remember that afternoon standing outside of the refugee center watching the jets take off and land with a mouthful of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit and Chiclets Peppermint gums. I had never seen jet planes before, except in old Spanish language Reader's Digest magazine ads, and was amazed by the "whisper jet" type 3-exhaust planes (you know, the ones with a jet engine on each side in the rear of the fuselage and one single one on the tail wing). I could see them taxiing up the runway slowly, and they reminded me of strutting, roaring cats. They would then turn around and take off eastward. I couldn't believe the take-off speed and fast climb in the far distance. And the noise those things made when they retro-jetted at landings!

It was a surreal early afternoon. I don't remember when I said goodbye to the brown haired girl who went to Chicago. I wonder if she still lives and if she wonders the same as me about that day. And does she remember my name?

That afternoon and evening we spent with a family whose head was nick-named "barrilito" Almost everyone in Cuba had a nick-name) due to his barrel-like girth and was an auto mechanics customer of my old man Luis in the island. I was surprised to see him in Miami, and hadn't realized that he had left Cuba about a year before us. I had ham slices that his wife gave me (kind of a newly-arrived-Cuban ritual, I guess). I was amazed at the size of the bananas. We ate dinner there and were driven back by barrilito to the pink boarding house hotel.

Each room in the boarding house had one main bed and a bunk bed. I took the top bunk above my brother Luisito, Caridad, being two years old, slept with my parents, and the next morning awoke to see the sunrise through the window. I remember thinking to myself "I can't believe that I'm here". It felt as if my prior life in Cuba had only been a dream. Coincidentally, a Google Earth check of the site reveals that it's not there anymore. Sad...

That day, barrilito picked us up and after dropping my mother off at his house, were driven by him around downtown Miami, then went to a shopping center somewhere in the northwest side, which I found amazing. We went into a supermarket- a new experience for me- and was stunned by all the goods but specially by the variety of olives. In Cuba, olives would come in from Spain only during Christmas (back before Fidel took that away) and of only one type, with pits. The aisle that I walked past as I followed my old man Luis and barrilito had rows of jars of cocktail olives, stuffed olives, big olives, small olives, pitted olives, slice d olives, salad olives, black olives. Olives all over the place, all different. In different size jars! I stopped to look at all those olives and thought coñoo!. It was like in "Moscow On The Hudson" when Robin William's Russian defector character went in a supermarket and as he walked walked past the coffee aisle, dropped to the floor hyperventilating (well, except for the dropping and hyperventilating).

We were to board a plane to Newark, New Jersey that night at 10:00 pm, so we again had dinner in barrilito's house and watched the Batman TV show for the first time (, na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, Batmaaaan...). Having been a comic book fan for years, I was struck by how ridiculously wimpy Adam West looked in that outfit.

Later than night, back in MIA, I saw through one of their big windows into the plane that were were going to board. It was one of those scary, feline, loud whisper jets that I had been gaga about at the prior afternoons from the north side of the runway, during my chewing gum gluttonial.

And off we were. Realizing now that the US east coast is bows to the west somewhat, I now know that flights from Florida to the northeast travel temporarily over the Atlantic Ocean. And at 11:00 at night everything was very dark outside of the plane for a long time. I was on the left side, and would look out of the window to the west every once in a while to see if we were going to land already. I kept thinking and reassuring myself that a "sky hook" was holding us aloft.

Suddenly, I saw some lights in the distance. "Ya casi llegamos"... I thought to myself. I saw those City lights come and pass. "Mierda", I thought, and kept the sky hook thought alive. Then another city... passed. Then more and more cities appeared. Washington?, Baltimore?, Philadelphia? Trenton? Then lights were everywhere. We're finally going to land, I thought, after hearing a mechanical sound on the outside and looking out of the window to see the wing flaps rise. The plane was all lit up then. It touched down with a screech and breaked with the roar of reverse jets. The prop plane from Cuba was smoother in the landing, but a little bouncy during flight. I followed the line out of the plane with my parents and stepped outside... bang! the icy cold hit my face. Another coño! flashed in my mind. There was no concourse, so we walked into the open.

Once inside, we were on our own for a while without English. As my parents were struggling with a non-Spanish speaking airport person, out of the sky drops this woman that was bilingual. Some Cuban woman with blonde hair blue dress pants and a black leather jacket. She translated for us and even helped us with a taxi driver. It seems as if the dates were crossed as to when we were arriving (Saturday at 2:00 am, as opposed to Friday at 2:00 am.), so no one was there to receive us. I remember the taxi driver's face when my mother, going through her black address book, produced Salvador's and Pura's address in Lawrence, Mass. That black man's eyes widened. Masachussetts...! he says. Hell we didn't know what the hell Mass was anyway. I could have been a nearby address. The woman translator pointed that out ("noo... muchacha... Massachusetts es muy lejos...") so my mother produced another one. Lisardo Rios, and it was located just on the southwest side of the Newark runways, according to the cabbie.

I remember us getting to your apartment and meeting you and Lee (in your pajamas) for the first time. Y ou all may not remember this but I do.

A couple of hours later Dario, Hilda and Sergio and Coloma (I think they were there...) picked us up and rode us to Dover. What a weird ride that was up Route 3. We arrived at Dario's house in Dover and there was cafe con leche, toast and butter, jelly, cream cheese. You know... Cuban breakfas, although it was the first time that I had fruit jelly. It was around 4:00 am. I ate and went to sleep.

Later on in the day, everybody came to see us. It was cool to see all those relatives (I admit that I haven't seen most of them for years). I remember you all stepping out of the Ford Fairlane down in the street below. It was a great day. Dover looked like what I had always imagined a town in El Norte would look like. And the fact that we came in around Christmas made it all the grander.

My grandfather Vicente remained in Cuba temporarily and would arrive a few weeks after us.

The rest, well, I will again be inspired to write about it some other time.

By the way... some two weeks after our arrival, "Journey To The Center Of The Earth” was aired on NYABC television! I watched it while still living in Dario's house and ate it with a spoon, commercials and all, neither of which I understood.

But man... what eye candy it was even in black and white!