Gitmo Nine

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic

Caribbean Cuisine




CHOWTIME  (Caribbean Cuisine)


Guantanamo Bay was a restricted base. We couldn’t just leave the base to go to the store. Even if we could have, there weren’t any stores to shop at. Our main source of groceries was the Navy Commissary. Supply ships came in twice a month. The fresh foods would leave the shelves almost as fast as they were stocked.


I was 12 years old before I learned that spaghetti doesn’t always come out of a can.


Military people are resourceful. We had plenty of food. In fact, I never missed a meal. We just didn’t eat the same kind of stuff most folks stateside got to enjoy. We learned to improvise. Each day before school, Mom always made sure we took our daily salt tablets because of the heat. 90 degrees was considered a cold snap. We didn’t have air conditioners in those days, just a ceiling fan with one speed, slow.


It got so hot every day that you couldn’t touch anything made of metal without caution because you would get sun blisters in an instant. The daily temperature was around 110 degrees. We were let out from school every day for a two hour lunch break. A siesta, so to speak. During these times when everyone else was napping, my brothers and I would take advantage of the opportunity to run wild.  When the cat’s away, the mice will play.


Our maid Sylvia was from Port au Prince, Haiti. She was a whiz at concocting Caribbean dishes using bananas, plantains, mangoes and other tropical fruits that you never heard of such as momasitos, tamarind tea, pomegranates, avocados, and papayas…so many more I can’t list them all. Black beans and rice with red snapper, hmmm! She even made prickly pear jelly from cactus apples. 


If we were out and about and decided we wanted a snack, we had our own stash of C-rats.  C Rats aren’t very tasty, they were sometimes hard to swallow. We would wash it down with drinking water from our Navy issue canteens or coconut milk. There was an abundance of coconuts, the fruit was delicious, at least the milk was wet. Shucking a coconut isn’t so hard once you learn how to do it.  No not a green coconut, yuck.  The brown ones were ripe and easy to husk.

Lunch was always something light because of the heat. Sylvia would serve a variety of soup and sandwiches for lunch. We usually drank Kool Aid for our beverage. There was plenty of sugar available always, but there were times when we had to be thrifty with our water. You never could predict when Castro would cut water supplies to the base. 


Our milk arrived from the States frozen solid. My parents would get two cases every payday. Six half gallons in a case to last us two weeks. On school days, cereal was our mainstay for breakfast. The milk wouldn’t last that long with a family our size.  Dad would set out a half gallon of frozen milk at night to thaw out and mix it with powdered milk to stretch it out. If you’ve never had to drink powder milk, you don’t know what you’re missing.


Cuba was in the Tropic of Cancer Zone. The sun rose early, peaking above the horizon about 0505 every morning. At 0515 we had a small tremor, just a little earthquake to wake everybody up. No need to set the alarm. The windows would rattle, dishes in the cabinet would shake a little for about 5 to 10 seconds and then it was over. Rise and shine, reveille, all hands hit the deck.


The bus for school didn’t arrive until 8 am which left my brothers and I plenty of time before breakfast to get up and scurry down to the water's edge.  We were anxious  to see what treasures the tide had washed up on the beach from the night before: a single flip flop, a broken pair of sunglasses, broken sea shells, a wooden box with Czechoslovakia stenciled on the side - a virtual gold mine for pre-adolescent boys.  The place where we shopped for toys.


Our usual destination was the man-made reef that extended out past Radio Point  designed as a breakwater for the Navy ships that docked to unload, or were seeking shelter from open seas of the Bay.


Once we got to the reef, depending on the ebb of the tide, we would search the tidal pools for sea life that had been left high and dry. Sea urchins galore, starfish, small fish that we could gig and put on a stringer. Standing on a mound of coral with our gigs, we had to keep a watchful eye peeled for moray eels, they were hungry too. Sometimes we dug for clams or would catch fleeing crabs. A rare moment would be the find of a coconut crab, a delicacy for a cook as gifted as Sylvia..


We were told not to go out on the reef without permission. When we had permission, Mom would walk down to Captain Ball’s house on the cliff and observe us through his mounted binoculars. She could see clear across the Bay with them. A ringing on the ship’s bell hanging from a nearby frame was our signal to bring it home with the quickness.


Almost any time we needed them we could dig for turtle eggs, always in abundance. Fresh eggs were in short supply. Turtles lay two to three hundred eggs at a time. Following their tracks in the sand, we would get a small basket full and cover up the rest.


Turtle eggs taste just like chicken eggs if you hold your nose. Silvia would break them into a bowl first to make sure they weren’t yet developed, then mix them with a formula of our powdered milk. On weekends when there wasn’t any school, she served them for breakfast along with some fresh oysters or fried bananas. She called them “mystery omelettes.” When I asked her what was in it she would change the subject with her rich French accent, “Come, you must be very hungry, eat, growing boys must eat.” You know, once you got used to the color green, eating turtle eggs, well, they weren’t that bad.


Family fishing outings supplemented our diet. Several nights a week, after Dad came home from work, we would load up our gear and find a good fishing spot.  Usually by the water’s edge beneath the cliff leading to the hospital. Our favorite catches of course, were langostino and red snapper. We gigged for flounder and sometimes caught grouper. Dad threw the grouper back most of the time. He said that they were bottom feeders. They ate the trash that other fish wouldn’t. We caught mullet and shrimp for bait using a cast net. Yellow Jacks and Jack Crevalle we didn’t keep, not good to eat, too many bones.


My brothers and I found out that the Filipino population on the base would buy almost any animal that was fresh killed. The fresher the better. In fact, they preferred them alive. We would sell them the small game that we caught and take their orders for more.


Snakes of all kinds were popular with the Filipinos but Dad would tear our butts up when he found out we were hunting pythons and boas. He knew where to find us when we went into the jungle because we would leave our bikes near the mouth of the trail. We would look for them sleeping on a branch in the sun, wrapped around a branch. One of us would grab it by the tail while the other two would try to pin the head to the ground. We would put our captured prize in a burlap sack. More often than not, Dad would be waiting for us when we emerged from the jungle. He usually had switches cut and would be waiting for us. Mom would try to keep us out of the jungle by telling us about the jungle monster, “Yahooty.” No one had to tell us to leave the Coral snakes alone.


We got to be pretty good hunters. There was a plentiful supply of Caribbean fauna. We looked for hummingbirds with a nest. The older Filipino men would boil them alive, nest and all. There were plenty of bats, banana rats (up to three feet long), javelina pigs, lizards of all sizes, chukka (wild chickens) and iguanas. I even raised pigeons, when they got big and fat. Dad would butcher them and we ate roasted squab.


It tastes like chicken. Ever hear that? Well that’s what iguanas taste like. There are many different kinds. Big and little, tree climbers, rock climbers and ocean dwellers. Yes, we even caught iguanas that would swim down to the bottom of the ocean floor to eat the green slime off the rocks. Our favorite method of catching iguanas was using homemade bolas. Some sailors that worked for my Dad showed us how to make and use them. We would toss our bolas behind them as they ran away, tying them up in knots.


Iguanas like to hang out around rock and coral formations, places where they could bathe in the sunlight or find a hiding spot quickly if they needed it. Our favorite spot to hunt them was near the golf course. It was surrounded by rocks. I got to caddie for Bob Hope a couple of times during his stay for his annual USO kickoff tour. He fainted when a pretty good-sized iguana ran up to his golf ball after he made about a 10 foot putt. Before it could escape to its hidey hole in the rocks, I was able to capture the giant iguana with my bolas. Mr. Bob didn’t get a chance to see it. He had fainted. He told everyone that it was because he had been drinking rum at the clubhouse, the hot sun was too much for him.


Almost every weekend, the base would sponsor a cookout at one of the two available beaches, Kittery Beach for the officers and their families or at Windmill Beach for the enlisted men and their families. Dad was a Division Officer, we were invited to the enlisted men’s cookouts too. Hotdogs and hamburgers, along with plenty of cold drinks.  I don’t remember drinking Coke or Pepsi but there was always plenty of orange, grape and root beer sodas that were chilling in the cooler. 


The Officer’s Wives Club would sponsor a Luau about once a month with roasted pig, decorated with sliced pineapple and seasoned with plenty of rum on a spit, and Japanese lanterns for decoration. The luau included a performance by the Navy Steel Band, a Caribbean form of entertainment. Sometimes sailors would wear grass skirts and mimic Hawaiian dancing girls in the name of entertainment.


I can’t say we didn’t get a chance to eat, because we ate plenty. It just wasn’t the same type of food everyone stateside is used to eating. Speaking of which my wife Bonnie is calling me to breakfast. Sure smells good. It’s been better than fifty years since I had to hold my nose to eat a “mystery omelet.”


It looks like it might be a scorcher today so don’t forget your salt tablets.

Submitted: April 16, 2021

© Copyright 2022 mike frailey. All rights reserved.

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