Today, I decided to mow the lawn. It was hot and the humidity was high without any breeze at all. I started at 7:00PM, and remained at the task until 9:00 PM, sweating like I have not done in many years, maybe more than at any time before.
It may sound silly, but I like sometimes to do these things, to prove to myself that I can. In this case, I did it in spite of the fact that I really hate extremely hot and humid weather. While I was doing it, in my head I heard a vendor's cry, again and again:
"Cambio nuevas por viejas....Cambio nuevas por viejas.!!"
It was a clamor I had heard many, but many times, and it never caused me to feel cross or irritated with the crier, the person calling out, patiently and constantly, but on this last occasion. The one carrying on the tradition was not Cuban, but a Spaniard, a tradition that scattered throughout the world, had all but disappeared from my island. Some from the last few generations still remember, but I doubt they have heard the sound since those days.
Yes, It bothered me, because it distracted me from an adventure program I was listening to on the radio, and I know that many of those that were seated there, in front of La Bodega de Manuel, "El Chino," as we all called him, who had a standing appointment night after night, five days a week to hear the Adventures de "El Spirit...A Man Against Adversity," they had to be bothered listening:
"Exchange new ones for old ones....new for old."
I knew the needs of that salesman to make his pitch. It was his way to bring food to the table of his home, where his wife and children shared a humble existence with him. Everyone knew him and respected him, or anyone who tried to earn an honest living, searching for his daily bread.
Finally the peddler and his vendor's cry faded into the distance and we were newly wrapped up in the radio drama, until some new vendor with his wares might pass along the street.
Suddenly that momentary tranquillity was lost, the whistle from the steel foundry sounded, joined a siren wailing from the fire station. Other sounds mingled with these.
It was already so late, how was it possible? Instinctively, I looked to the west, and there in the warm afternoon sky I was able to see the cerulean blueness of sky, bordered in the orange sunset of a fading day.
The advancing coolness of evening made the afternoon's heat retreat. Yes, It was late, very late. "El Spirit" started at 7 in the evening and lasted thirty minutes with a small intermission for commercials. The commercial had been broadcast so it was now no later than 7:20.
Why then was there such a commotion? I could barely hear the radio actors anymore!
Soon, like a giant that had been abruptly awakened, a booming voice could be heard, not of the heroes from the adventure series, but of someone screaming, again and again:
"Japan has surrendered. The war is over....Japan surrendered."
For a brief moment, I thought it was a new street vendor's cry, one that I had never heard before. The people who heard this were jumping for joy, and hugging each other, and laughing and crying. And from the houses, the women and the men were congregating, all of them screaming out as well, blending with the foundry's whistle and the fire station's siren.
It seemed as if the world had come unhinged in a delirious jubilation, and all this because the war was over?
I knew the war was near its end.
Daily, on this same radio, interminable broadcasts related news of the latest events at the front. The broadcasters spoke of the "allies," and I knew, I don't know how, that I was one of those allies. On the other side was the enemy, and Japan was one of those enemies.
The enemies were bad.
They harmed the children of the allies. They threw them up, so they would fall on the bayonets that soldiers held. I hated them, and in the solitude of my home prayed that the Spirit would help me and not permit that I be one of those thrown up, only to fall, pierced by their bayonets.
I knew they would lose the battle, because I always heard reports of the previous day's battle, how thousands of enemies had died but only a few allies. It seemed only a matter of time before all the enemies would be eliminated and I could not understand why the adults around me had not come to the same conclusion.
What I did not understand was the cause for the extreme emotion and happiness. Even the show that I had heard with the rest of the men, young and old, had been suspended, no longer holding anyone's interest. And no one noticed or cared. The hysteria has spread all over. But it mattered to me.
Was it possible that after today there would be no more newscast? Sure, the war was over, and all the news services did was talk about it. Maybe with the end to the hostilities, there would be no more newscast.
No war, no news. A good thing.
Now someone was saying that there would be alcohol again. My mother used it to cook, but it had been hard to come by lately, they had taken it for the war. Also hard to get was soap. The soap they made across from my house didn't smell of soap and didn't form any lather.
Some were exclaiming that the worst was over, our problems were solved and that now, in this time of peace we could have all the things we needed. I thought.
It seemed that even now we could have everything. At least we would have bread for breakfast everyday and that was what mattered to me most. It meant a lot to have a piece of bread with my "cafe con leche." Who knows, maybe now we would have butter too, or maybe this was too much to ask. People were saying that now there would be electricity, because there would be petroleum. What does petroleum have to do with electricity, I thought?
Of course if the adults said so, then it must be true. My mother told me that whatever your elders say is true. We would have everything we needed and in abundance. Suddenly I felt my happiness dampen. If there would be more of everything, what would happen to Pancho? His cries: " New for old....new for old," would we cease to hear them? And his children, who were friends of mine, at least the younger ones were, they would not have bread to eat unless their father worked. What would happen to them?
Pancho always told them, and he told me too, to go to school, to study, to use our minds not our hands the way he did half the day and part of the night bluing irons, the other half of the day in the street "selling" them, as how he called the trading the "new" ones for "old" ones. For this he charged two cents.
Because of this, I thought, it would have been better if the war had not ended. Who knows how many persons like Pancho would now die of hunger, along with their children, my friends. After all, even though we did not have much, there was always something to eat, not to silence the hunger that nothing seemed to placate, but how could we know that could be accomplished if we had never experienced a full belly, never had the opportunity.
But in the months that followed, things continued as they always had. The war was over but the newscast went on. Pancho kept selling his wares, his newly laminated irons and bread seemed a king's treasure to its scarcity, (at least in my house.) But yes, there was an abundance of alcohol in all the bars, at least. We continued to listen to our broadcaster of the Spirit. The chaos had only been for a few days, and soon my town, with its 30 thousand inhabitants, returned to normal.
But one day, there was a commotion.
The people congregated again, raising their voices and talking quickly. They were pointing to an ice cream cart, pushed by a Chinese man. I looked, and noticed how the other children were running away from the ice-cream vendor. This was very unusual. I shrugged my shoulders and kept going. But my path brought me closer to the ice cream man. None of the children were going to buy ice cream that day. Up to that point, that was all I was aware of. I was only thirty feet from the ice cream cart and felt someone grab me by the arms. My forty eight pounds of humanity, the majority of it bone, seemed to fly away, and I was face to face with a Negro named Felipe.
"Listen," he said, "Are you crazy?"
Sincerely, I thought that at that moment he was the crazy one, but since he was older, I could not respond. He kept talking.
"Don't you know that the ice cream man is Japanese?"
I did not respond because I couldn't. I felt goose bumps rising and falling along my spine. A few feet away the Japanese ice cream man was ringing his bell. I could hear that he drew nearer, but I did not dare look. Curiosity overtook my fear, and I broke free of Felipe, turned and looked toward the sound of the bell.
There was the cart and the ice-cream man. I was staring intently at the wheels of the cart and at the shoes the man wore. They were not big, and were not even made of leather. Little by little I raised my eyes, until my gaze collided with a smile... and some eyes that barely opened, but seemed to smile as well.
The man did not scare me, but I could still feel my heart beat faster than usual. I kept looking at him, trying to see him as "the enemy," but I could not picture it. He reminded me of Manuel, "El Chino."
The Japanese ice cream man was the first to look away. He turned and put his bell on top of the cart, opened one of the metal doors and from overhead of the cart, took in his left hand a cone, while with his right he gripped a metal scoop which he sank into a bucket of ice cream, again and again like a fist, and in this way he filled the cone to overflowing. Then he turned and extended to me the hand wielding the ice cream and did not say a thing. I indicated NO with my head but he kept insisting.
I said, " don't have money'', but he still insisted. I was a boy but I understood the barrier of language, and I knew I could not communicate with him. I emptied my pockets of their contents, they were empty of anything but a piece of string, a small rock with a streak of "gold" and a cap of Pepsi, and I signaled to him.
He smiled. No, he laughed and he drew closer to me, grabbed my hand with his left and in it he put the ice cream cone, took a step back and bowed as if in deference, like a salutation and picked up his bell anew, continuing on his way.
There I was with the ice-cream cone in my hand. I didn't know what to do. My heart was pounding, part happiness for the treasured delicacy, but mostly by fear. I turned and looked at Felipe, but didn't say anything.
Then he broke the silence and said, "eat it kid, it's OK."
That was my first encounter with the feared enemy.
This is what I was thinking about today, while I was mowing the lawn, and I decided to write about it, to share with you the experience had by a ten year old boy on August 14, 1945.
That is how I learned that W.W.II had ended. That is what it meant to me at the time.
I can remember it clearly.
I can remember how I used to live. I knew the meaning of poverty...to the extreme.
But I was not unhappy.
I was not unhappy because I was living a reality, and I had my imagination to fly with, to a fantasy world, to another world.
In the years to come, I kept the habit of escaping into the fantasy of my own and private world, while I worked to reach it.
One day I finally did. It was on December 7, l959. I was on top of the world. Health, Fortune and Fame I had conquered.
I was looking from the window of my suite at the Havana Riviera Hotel, across El Malecon, into the infinite beyond to the Bahia of Havana. There, a few feet away, sat my wife of a few hours. We had just wed at the Parroquia del Vedado in the afternoon.
She came into the balcony and spotted my watery eyes.
?"Are you crying?" she asked, in a concerned tone.
"No, it must be the salt coming in off the breeze," I responded.
But she asked a second question, a question that I could not lie about it.
"Are you happy?" and added before I could reply "Don't you have everything you want?"
"Indeed, I have 'anything' and more of what I ever dreamed about....but I am losing my country," was my reply.
And you know something? At that time, I was more scared than when I faced the 'enemy'.
Santiago de Juan and Maria Cuervo