A few days after my sixteenth birthday and before Christmas in 1958, my parents, my sister and I mounted the gangplank of the M.S Italia, anchored in the Hudson River. We were sailing on the Christmas-New Year’s cruise to the Caribbean, in the days before Caribbean cruises were affordable for middle-class families like mine. But we were guests of the cruise line, which regularly doled out freebies to travel agents like my father, the would-be bon vivant who happily left behind his egalitarian instincts and enjoyed the first-class rooms, the food, and the drink.
Sailing past the New York City skyline and the Statue of Liberty was awe-inspiring, the North Atlantic in mid-winter, less so. But by day three, we could enjoy the lavish dinners and by day four the water was like turquoise glass and the sun was shining. First stop, Nassau in the Bahamas – everybody ashore to buy straw hats. Next day, Port-au-Prince, colorful, French, and with the grinding poverty invisible to tourists. Then Kingston, Jamaica, where a group of us posturing teenagers hung around a beach bar that served anyone.
But these ports were the appetizers. The main course was to be New Year’s Eve in Havana. Havana! The decadent playground of the rich, famous, and disreputable, where for one glorious night the passengers from the M.S. Italia would drink and dance and gamble and gawk. That is, most of the passengers. Night life was not for my parents. Nor were they inclined to be a party to the corruption of the Batista regime. They were aware – and I was dimly aware – that there was unrest in Cuba. We knew the word “guerilla.” We knew the rebels were in the mountains, led by a patriot and workers’ champion named Fidel Castro. But that was far removed from New Year’s Eve in Havana. So while our fellow passengers, dressed to the nines, went ashore to celebrate, we had a quiet dinner at anchor in the harbor and went to bed.
In the morning, the quiet was shattered. Loudspeakers blared in two languages. We could hear the boom of cannon fire. We ran on deck to learn that in the early morning hours Batista had fled to the Dominican Republic. Castro’s forces were marching toward the capital to take control of the government. The rebels had won! Viva la revolución! We hung over the deck rails cheering and waving to the Cuban sailors on the warship anchored alongside.
I looked at my parents. They were political activists of the far-left-wing variety but they weren’t cheering or waving. Hadn’t they been working for this all their lives? They looked worried. The United States had backed Batista until the end. Maybe this wasn’t a good time to be Americans in Havana, whatever your political leanings. The loudspeakers confirmed it. We were leaving. Immediately. Members of the crew were dispatched to round up the passengers still in the casinos and hotels and within the hour we steamed out of Havana harbor, leaving the revolution behind and leaving Cuba behind for almost sixty years.
A native New Yorker, Abby moved to Boston to be among her people: family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.