Gitmo One

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic




FORWARD

Fifty-eight years! Has it been that long? Where has the time gone.? My brothers, Mom
and Dad are all gone. Now it's just me. I’m the only one left. Everything seems so long ago but
my memories are like yesterday. Before they succumb to the ravages of time I want to write
things down before it's too late.


When we arrived on a Military Air Transport (MATS) flight to join Dad in September of
1960 at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, Mom had one large suitcase. Half of it was her
clothes and the other half were our clothes. There was no room for games or toys. There wasn’t
any TV, so we entertained ourselves the best way we knew how.  Boys without toys find ways to
have fun.

 
It didn’t take long to see that growing up at Gitmo was a kid’s paradise. We ran wild,
within limits, especially since we couldn’t go off the base. I was eight just starting the 3rd grade,
Gary was six, and  Duane was four when we got there. Soon we knew every inch of that ten
mile long three mile wide jungly island and the surrounding water. Little did we know that we
would be there for the Bay of Pigs and the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We would be
part of history.
 

CHARLIE ONE

 
September 1960, I was just starting the third grade when Dad was transferred to the U.
S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. By an act of Congress Dad was promoted to
Limited Duty status, or LDO, in early 1960. Part of his promotion to Ensign was a transfer to a
new duty station. That new duty station was Gitmo, located near the center of the Caribbean. Its
placement was key to guarding the entrance to the Panama Canal.


The Naval Base in Guantanamo was a restricted access base. There wasn’t any
American admittance allowed outside the base to Communist Cuba. Access to the base was by
ship via the bay itself or military flights that landed at Leeward Point, the Marine base on an
island nearby.


The election of John F. Kennedy soon brought the simmering kettle to a boil. Fidel
Castro’s record of human rights violations brought secret plots by the CIA and President
Kennedy to have him removed. Each attempt was foiled or bungled which led to an increase in
repercussions against the U.S.


Dad left for Gitmo ahead of Mom, my two brothers and me to secure housing and to
prepare for our arrival. Mom made the arrangements to sell our new house. It was the first
house of our own after living in Navy housing. She hated to give it up. To be able to afford it,
both my parents worked full time jobs. Dad had a side job selling water softeners for Culligan.
Finally, they were able to afford a new home and new furniture. Under the carport, they had a
brand new car. Regrettably, Mom managed to get our belongings put in storage, including our
car, a ‘58 Ford. My parents thought that since the base was so small that we wouldn’t need a
car.


Our flight to Gitmo was in a Military Air Transport. MATs were mostly cargo planes that
had canvas/nylon seats that folded down from the wall. Yeah, they were real bucket seats with a
shoulder harness.


Cloudy skies where all I could see through the rain splattered windows.  Where that wind
kept coming from, I don't know, but that flight sure seemed drafty.  On a day like today I could sit
on a 5 gallon bucket looking out the window with a fan blowing in my face to recreate the
moment.  Mom had her hands full with my youngest brother Duane and tending to us too. Five
hours seemed like an eternity. I listened to the roar of the motor turn into a hum.  It droned me
to sleep.


We landed at Leeward Point, the Marine base located on an island a few hundred yards
from the Naval base. Judging by the water on the runway, it looked like it had been raining all
day. Large puddles lay stretched across the runway.  The wheels of the big DC10 would skid
when they hit the bigger puddles. Hydroplaning 101, scary until it's over. Then you just laugh it
off.


Dad was in a Base Police jeep with smiles to greet us. He had the “Duty” that day.  He
was wearing his white uniform with a black and gold arm band that read “O D.”  Mom went first
down the gangway to greet Dad while Gary and I followed behind her, dragging a very large bi-
fold suitcase. One side held Mom's wardrobe while the other side filled with all the socks, shorts,
T-shirts and school clothes for three young boys. I was eight, Gary six and Duane was five. With
Duane's premature birth, he and Gary were only 8 months apart.


The periodic rain took a break while we made our greetings and loaded up in the jeep.
We rode the ferry across the channel to the main base.


What an entrance! Dad gave us a tour of the base. My brothers and I rode in the back of
the topless Jeep gazing in awe as Dad pointed out the sights.  Kittery Beach, the Officer's
Beach, alongside the fence and Windmill, the enlisted man's Beach.  The Commissary, the
Barber Shop next to the Navy Exchange and across the street, the library.


Oh look, over there, it's a skating rink right next to the ballpark. Oh, it even had a
concession stand. To my brothers and I, that meant popcorn and cokes when we went to see a
game. Dad showed us where he worked, at the Admin Building on Hospital Hill, then he showed
us the hospital next to the Church and the High School, William T. Sampson.
Everything on base was laid out pretty close.  At the bottom of the hill across from the
high school was my new school, Victory Hill Elementary, with the artillery pieces out front,
pointing towards the Bay.


It didn't take much time to cover the base, ten to fifteen minutes. I think Dad made about
three trips back and forth to make it seem bigger. We went to the gun range and to the stables,
then back across to the east side to see the dog pound.  On the way back we cruised down by
the dock to see the sea planes, PBY's.  They were in a man-made lagoon at the foot of Admin
Hill.  Next to the docks, there was an outdoor movie theater. There were four outdoor theaters
on base called Lyceums with bleachers in the back and lawn chairs lined up in front.


Dad made so many trips back and forth showing us everything that I may have lost
count. Finally, Dad spun the little jeep into the driveway of the first house right off Sherman
Avenue, our new home for the next three years at Number 1 Radio Point.


Radio Point was the peninsula where the housing reserved for Naval Officer’s was
located. Surrounded by water on three sides it was located between the Administration Building
and the hospital, located on nearby hills. Almost everything on the base was built on a hill.
Until Dad became an officer we lived in tight quarters.  Enlisted men's housing wasn't
much to brag about, but our new house was spacious: three bedrooms, two bathrooms, ten foot
high ceilings, a separate maid's quarters built on the other end of the laundry room. She had
her own bathroom. This place was huge.


Our house was unique. We didn’t have a floor, no, it was called the deck. Walls were
called bulkheads, doors were hatches, the bathroom was the head and the kitchen was the
galley. Ashtrays were called the buttcan. Listening to scuttlebutt meant exchanging gossip
around the water fountain.


What a yard! I counted fourteen mango trees in the backyard. There were at least a
dozen more trees of different varieties in the front yard.  This place didn't look like paradise. It
WAS paradise.


The right side of our house was near the edge of a cliff. Down below us was the Public
Works Department. It was packed tight with Maintenance Buildings, construction equipment,
trucks, building materials  and barnacle covered pylons that had been salvaged from one dock
to build another.


Directly across from us was the Bachelor Officers Quarters (BOQ). The BOQ was
picture perfect. Palm trees, giant sago paIms and flowering hibiscus were centered around a
circular driveway bordered by basketball sized rocks painted bright white. It was the housing for
officers of higher rank, dignitaries and the lounge.  Behind laid the barracks for the Filipino
sailors that worked as their servants. Further down the point was the rest of the BOQ for
unmarried officers of lesser rank, then the housing area for the families of the married officers
stationed on base.

 
I was only eight years old but I was raised in military housing. Military protocol was
ingrained in my upbringing since an early age. We weren’t allowed to do things the way we
wanted to. No, our paths were laid out by the book.


On base there are rules to cover every situation. Everyone is expected to live by the
rules. That is unless of course you’re eight years old with two younger brothers looking to you
for guidance. Whether the book that we were supposed to live by was the UCMJ or the Blue
Jackets Manual there had to be some sort of leeway. Somehow, my brothers and I managed to
live in the margins.


Mom told us to run outside and play.  The first thing we did was have a mango fight.
Gary was a real stinker, he liked to throw the ones that were over ripe.  Duane would grab the
low hanging fruit off the branches and throw them. The green ones were hard as a brick and
hurt a lot more. Take my word for it.


We discovered our first tarantula in the fork of a mango tree. There next to it was an
empty shell. That was cool.  Do they shed their skin or is this just an old carcass?  
Further up a branch on the same tree was a large lizard staring at us.  Bright green,
about two feet long with lots of teeth. An iguana, wow! This was our first encounter but not to be
our last.

 
Behind our house the cliff turned into a ravine, thick with gnarly brush full of cactus and
briars. It was crisscrossed with small animal trails between the huge chunks of coral jutting out
of the cliff. In the summer, during the rainy season, thick grasses and vines would grow over the
scrawny trees to form a canopy. Near the water, the landscape was green and tropical with lots
of banana trees and bamboo thickets.


 Looking up, I couldn’t help but think that our arrival must have scared the rain away.
The reddish/orange evening sky was picture perfect, the sun setting into the bay.  
Red sky in the morning, sailor’s take warning, but a red sky at night is a sailor's delight.


The first thing I noticed about the base was its lack of trees. Boys without toys climb a lot
of trees. Don’t get me wrong, there were trees, lots of trees, but different from what we were
familiar with. I don’t remember the first pine tree on base. Absent were the camphor trees with
whitewashed trunks that we once climbed and the giant live oaks that we were used to seeing in
Jacksonville.


Instead, we had a small mango orchard in our backyard, a haven for iguanas and
tarantulas. There were tall, thickly foliaged trees in our front yard that looked like giant
overgrown ligustrum bushes with smooth bark. They were near thirty feet high.There were
plenty of other trees on base like palm trees and coconut trees but they weren’t the same as
back home. We didn’t see any thick woods


.The further inland from the water you went, the closer you were to a thick gnarly brush full of
different types of cactus and briars. In the summer months, during the rainy season, thick
grasses and vines would grow over the scrawny trees to form a canopy.

Our house on Radio Point was on the corner of Radio Point Road and Sherman Avenue,
the main drag. Alongside ran a cliff that overlooked Public Works. In the rear was a deep ravine.
The road was gravel, continuing past our house for a half mile. Officers’ houses were lined up
on either side of Radio Point Road. Located in the center of the peninsular was the radio tower
surrounded by a small field.This field was the playground area for officers’ children.

The tip of the peninsular continued on into the bay via a man made reef to provide cover
for small ships during bad weather. The reef was made from large slabs of concrete, broken
blocks of coral, with old sunken barges underneath. At low tide you could walk out about a
quarter of a mile. Parts of the middle would lie submerged beneath the waves when the tide
came in. Believe me, being caught out on the rocks when the tide changed was nothing to look
forward to. To get back to dry land you would find out that those barnacles can be mighty sharp,
but you’ve got to hang on to something.

 
I thought that being driven in the gray Bluebird bus to Victory Hill Elementary was riding in
style. Before, back in the states, I had to walk. My first day at school was a shocker. The class
was held in todos Espanol. Oh no, I thought that this was gonna be tough. We went home for
lunch though and after stressing about it during the two hour break I was relieved to find out that
the afternoon classes were held in Inglise. Ah, it wasn’t as hard as it sounds. Mrs. Espinosa was
a great teacher. I practiced rolling my “r’s.”  Soon I began conversing in Spanish without the
need to hesitate for translation. My brother Gary picked up the lingo too. We were taught a
couple hours a day to learn to speak in espanol but when we tried to practice at home our
parents would remind us not to speak in Spanish at the kitchen table. Asking for the salt, “el sal
por favor” would get you a stern look from Mom.
 


Submitted: April 15, 2021

© Copyright 2021 mike frailey. All rights reserved.

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Comments

mike frailey

I don't know why, but when I transferred my story from Google Docs to Booksie it jumbled up the paragraphs so that the sentences look out of order. I tried to edit it but to no avail. It does make it look like a 10 year boy wrote this. Do the best you can, the story is worth it.

Sat, April 17th, 2021 12:37pm

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