Gitmo Ten

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

USO, Bob Hope, Zsa Zsa, Voo Doo


Mr. Bob and Ms. Prissy Boots


My mother liked to entertain and Sylvia enjoyed her role as a member of our family so much that she would cheerfully work when she didn’t have to, to ensure Mom’s parties a success. All officers’ wives thrive on the need to entertain. Mom was no different.


Bob Hope and his USO tour would use Gitmo as a shakedown cruise to get the bugs out before they entertained the troops overseas. When they came down every year, their quarters were across the street from us at the Bachelor Officers Quarters called the BOQ. The BOQ was like a luxury motel for single officers and visiting dignitaries. The first year we were there, Mom sent me over to “borry” some olives for her martinis.


In the Caribbean everybody drinks rum. I guess because it was so cheap. I remember my parents bought a quart of Don Q for 95 cents. To maintain their social status they kept their own reserves of whiskey, scotch, gin, vodka, brandy, and plenty of ginger ale, vermouth and cocktail glasses, with a collection of cute little napkins and swizzle sticks. Once a month the Officers would send a plane to San Juan, Puerto Rico to restock. What was referred to as a "booze run."


Mom already knew that the BOQ didn’t have much supply as far as refined liquors went. That’s why she sent me over to "borry" some olives, just to get her foot in the door. After a few minutes Mom would come looking for me saying, “Where is that boy?” One story leads to another and it wasn’t long before Mom sweet talked Bob Hope and most of his USO entourage to walk across the street to our house.


On this night we had a houseful. Zsa Zsa Gabor, Bob Hope, Sandra Dee, Andy Williams and Ms. Prissy Boots. (I won’t mention her name in case she finds my story offensive).  These were famous people. I was just a little kid but I knew who they were. There wasn’t any scheduled TV available on base in those days but we got to see movie stars in newsreels.  We watched their movies every week on the big screen. Gitmo may have been a small base but we had four movie theaters.

Mom shooed us boys out of the way. She had Sylvia put us to bed. We stayed in bed about five minutes to give them time to forget about us. Then we were out the window, via the tree limb, climbing to a perch so that we could see the show through another window.


Mr. Bob liked his gin. The more he drank, the more he liked to cut up, practicing his dance routines and telling corny jokes. "A man came up to me the other day. He said he hadn't had a bite in days, so I bit him." (Yeah, I know, corny). His wife Dolores accompanied him. She carried a small notebook he would use to jot down anything that he thought was funny, to be used later. He used Mom’s umbrella as a cane and did a soft shoe tap dance around the mahogany bar. He was a real character. 


Ms. Prissy Boots may like to tell everybody nowadays that she is a teetotaler but let me tell you she was drinking plenty that night. She played the guitar and the accordion, sang songs and joined everyone else in getting bombed. She sure could play that accordion.


Sandra Dee sat at the dining room table. This was about the same time she was married to Bobby Darren. She had a telegram from him that she kept reading over and over. She occupied her time with a cigar box full of crayons and one of my brother's homemade coloring books.


Dad interacted with Andy Williams; they seemed to hit it off. I would say that they were the more serious people in the crowd. Dad always had to watch his alcohol intake as he wanted to be in control of things, the "O in C" (Officer in Charge). They discussed performing in a Homer and Jethro act.


I couldn’t help but notice that Ms. Zsa Zsa could hold her liquor better than anybody else. Her glass was always empty.  She was like my Mom, both those women could drink. Ms. Zsa Zsa and Sylvia would speak to each other in French. She tried to make a big show, talking about her diamonds but Mr. Bob would cut her off short and tell everyone, “Don’t let her fool you, they’re all glass, the real ones have been in the pawn shop for years.” Then he would go on to tease Ms. Zsa Zsa about how many ex-husbands she had. They went back and forth. I think it was part of their act. She was very glamorous. She would come back with, "I love men and men love me."


Dad and Andy Williams practiced the routine that they were going to use in the Carnivale Charity event for the Navy Wives Club. They wore straw hats, rubbed burnt cork on their face and black wax on their teeth. The idea was to raise money for Navy Relief to help the families of enlisted men. I can still remember the tune they practiced, “Fascination.”


"She had nine buttons on her nightgown, but could only fasten eight.” (I guess you had to have been there.)


The women folk got together between rounds of drinks discussing their dance routine, using Mom's sewing machine to adjust their costumes. Laughing, drinking and telling jokes ‘til the wee hours of the night.


My brothers and I were awestruck with Sandra Dee, she was something to look at all right. Some of the others played pinochle while a few others played “acey-duecy.” They were all having a good time. Since the Carnivale was a charity event to raise money for Navy Relief, the good folks from the USO had volunteered to help.  They practiced their dance routines in our living room. Our house was pretty big, four bedrooms, three baths, 10 foot ceilings. I remember that it was awful hot and the high ceilings and opened windows helped to keep it cool. No one on the base had an air conditioner in those days.


Sylvia would see to it that everyone’s glass was full when she made her rounds and she acted as a dance coach. It seems the more they drank, the better dancers they were. Sylvia told everyone that when Caribbean women dance, they don’t think about what they do first, but rather let their bodies think for them. Swaying and reacting to the music.


That night, Sylvia was an eye full, tall, graceful, with very black skin. She was wearing shiny bracelets, with skull-like charms that made her jingle when she danced. She wore a colorful skirt, one of Mom’s old dresses slit up the side so it would fit. A yellow scarf was wrapped around the top of her head like a turban.


Someone remarked how pretty she was. Mom said something like, “You better tell her she’s pretty or she’ll put the Hoo Doo on you." (In Haiti the population is 70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, but it's 100%  Voo Doo.)


Hearing this opened up a new topic of conversation for everyone. It seemed like they all had a ghost story they wanted to tell. Ms. Zsa Zsa told us that in her home country of Hungary there were many spooky stories of haunted castles and people told tales of Count Dracula and the spirits of the dead that float in the wind.


Someone asked if we had a Ouija board? Mom said no, but she dug up a deck of Tarot cards, saying maybe Sylvia could read their fortune. Sylvia was standing in front of Ms. Prissy Boots, who was by this time pretty well lit. Ms. Prissy Boots was being kind of snooty to Sylvia. She might have been a little racist or a little jealous, but I’m sure it was just the cheap rum. 


“Can you conjure up spirits?” Ms. Prissy Boots asked Sylvia sarcastically.


Ignoring the contempt in Miss Prissy Boots voice Sylvia replied in her beautiful accented voice, “That’s up to you, but if that is what you want, I will try.” 


Excitedly, after hearing this, everyone got geared up for a séance. Sylvia asked that everybody who wanted to participate sit in a chair around the dining room table. 


“No thanks, I’ve got enough critics,” said Mr. Bob and he watched the goings on from the other side of the room. He and his wife, Dolores, played gin rummy and took notes.


A large candle was lit and placed on the table. After lighting several other candles around the room, the lights were dimmed.  The willing participants sat around the table and joined hands.


Sylvia spoke to no one in particular, but said that as a guide it was her job to tell them that everyone inherits their spirits from their blood lines, from previous generations of family members. She told everyone that most white people have lost their connection with their ancestors after many hundreds of years of neglect. She said that the people of Haiti stayed in constant contact with their ancestors and that she herself was a descendant of an African princess.


Where it came from I don’t know, but Sylvia placed two bowls of what I remember to be chicken blood and salt. Then using a forefinger, she dabbed a spot of blood on everyone's chin. To me it seemed almost comical seeing a bunch of adults facing each other, holding hands with chicken blood smeared on their chin. In the semi-darkness you could see the reflection from the light of the candle dancing in their eyes. She got everyone to join in as she started to chant, the same words over and over.


Sylvia started swaying back and forth, setting the mood. I believe her chants were in French so I don’t know exactly what they said, perhaps no one else did either. Each verse got louder and louder. What she said didn’t seem to matter to anyone, they were just repeating what they heard her say. Copying her, they started swaying back and forth in unison.


Sylvia started asking questions of each individual.  Sometimes she would say that someone wishes to talk to you, stuff like that. There were times when suddenly without warning she would unclasp her grip and reach into the bowl of salt and get a pinch in her fingertips and throw it over the shoulder of someone and say, “Sacre Bleur, scat, not you, get out of here.” Even her dark complexion turned pale. Now that got to me. She was making me feel spooky.


At first, I thought it was an act, but if Sylvia was scared, so was I. That got me to feeling kind of eerie. Sylvia would ask the spirits a question for someone. While she was waiting for the answer, the candle would sometimes flicker or the light would get dimmer. When it was Ms. Prissy Boot’s turn, Sylvia’s eyes rolled back in her head till all you could see was the whites of her eyes. I don't know if she did it on purpose or what, but she started to shimmy, spilling the bowl of blood across the top of the table. It sure looked real to me.


A gust of wind came through the open French doors behind her and unfurled the curtains that blew up to the ceiling and the light from the candle went out. The only light was coming from a candle on a shelf in the next room.

Suddenly, Ms. Prissy Boots rose from her chair. She grabbed the bowl of salt. Her shadow danced on the wall from the dim candlelight as she threw all the contents through the doorway into the night. Then she went into a fit, spouting off at the mouth. Yeah, even though she was slurring her words, I could hear every word. Loud enough to wake the dead.  She could out cuss a sailor, all right.


Everyone got up and scattered. After crawling around to the side of the house so that we could see better through the open French doors,my brothers and I were drenched in a shower of salt. After seeing Miss Prissy Boots in action, we decided it was a good time to beat feet back through our bedroom window and get in back in bed where we were supposed to be.


The séance was over. You know, that could have been the night when Ms. Prissy Boots swore off alcohol for good.


Sylvia left us soon afterwards. We were told that she failed a TB test and was shipped back to Haiti. Mom always swore that Ms. Prissy Boots had something to do with it. None of us had to take a TB test. As far as I know, we never did hear from her again.


Mom acted differently after that. Every year when the USO returned, everybody would bring mom party favors for her bar.  Some would ask about Sylvia. She would stare off into space and respond with vague answers. The members of the USO troupe would vary from year to year, (the next year it was Connie Francis and Connie Stevens) but there was always someone that would remember to ask about Sylvia. At times like this, Mom would just smile and stare out the window, our curtains now pinned to the wall, watching the wind gusts blowing across the bay.


Until the day she died, my Mom was always terrified of haints. She was leery of an open window. If she walked by and the wind blew the curtain up in the air, or if it even moved, she was out of the house and down the street saying, “Somebody go in the house and shut that damn window.”

Submitted: April 16, 2021

© Copyright 2022 mike frailey. All rights reserved.

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