Freedom Flight Memories

Hilda Fernandez Bertram

Only my father, Benjamin Menendez Fernandez (deceased), appears on the list. However, both my mother (Hilda Candida Rodriguez de Fernandez) and I (Hilda Fernandez) were also on that plane on January 13, 1967.

At 4 years old I was acutely aware of the fear and danger that we lived in while under the Castro regime. I knew how to handle the "miliciano" that would occasionally show up unexpectedly at our door and interrogate me as to who visited our family, identity of our friends, where exactly did my father work, etc.

We left for the airport in the middle of the night to meet the designated "departure" time. Of course, this was just another example of the psychological games the government played. We ended up housed at the Airport (El Lagito) for 4 days in an open airplane hanger with very little food and drink, plus only one change of clothes; mom and I were held in a separate hanger from my father. Finally on the 4th day we were summoned and this time they actually interviewed/searched us before proceeding to board.

During this pre-boarding process my father was denied leaving the country - no reason was given. But it so happens that the Cuban officer that was interviewing us had cut the lining of our only overnight bag and found our secret: it was my dad's coveted Gold Medallion from the University of Havana awarded for Academic and Athletic accomplishment. The officer held it for a bit and then quietly placed the gold coin back in the lining and told my dad he was free to go. I remember my dad sitting down quietly and smoking "un puro" (cuban cigar) and telling me it would be a while before he enjoyed another one in Cuba again. He was wrong, he never got to enjoy his puro again.

We finally boarded the plane and I was so happy but could not understand why my parents were so apprehensive and serious, in fact everyone on board was very quiet. Only after we landed in Miami did the atmosphere totally change and that whole plane broke out with joy and laughter, people hugging, crying and clapping. We were taken on a bus to "Cielito Lindo", our processing center and had a rice and picadillo lunch. I can still close my eyes and see the long tables filled with folks talking and energized, plenty of food being shared and consumed.

After 40+ years and a lot of hard work my parents enjoyed a comfortable life here in South Florida. They always taught my brother and I to have admiration, appreciation and loyalty to the United States for having given us another chance at life.

I strive to pass on my parents' strong beliefs and convictions to my own children and have them understand how incredibly lucky I was to have been on that Freedom Flight back in January 1967.

Hilda Fernandez Bertram