Jamaica to Cuba: A Story of Guantanamo Bay
NOTE: A hitchhiker I once picked up told me this tale. He even gave me the pic! I have no idea about accuracy or veracity.
I met Jerry while living in Negril, Jamaica – I was there for nearly a year. He showed up at Rick’s Cafe one evening during the sunset happy hour and we met it took about five minutes to figure out what he was up to. I wanted in immediately.
He left the country and returned a few months later in a 30 ft. trawler. I’d been scanning the ocean every day from my beach house, waiting for the vessel to appear over the horizon.
Beach at Negril with the horizon in question
In Negril we loaded up with square groupers for commercial sale back in the States and some frozen lobster for personal use. The plan was to head for Florida. Coherency was not considered a desirable personality trait, but we normally avoided BUI, at least. Months passed before we actually raised the hook to get out of Negril as we dawdled in the tropical waters.
We departed Jamaica at last and made the passage from Jah to the east coast of Cuba upon which the engine conked out, toasted like us. I was monitoring the VHF and heard the Cubans commenting upon our presence, drifting aimlessly just outside their coastal waters. The thought of them coming for us was not our idea of a good time, although as a Canadian I probably would have been treated better than Jerry and our other crew member, an African-American.
So we called the Navy base at Gitmo for a tow. Upon which we thought, well we better get rid of the groupers. Chucking them overboard, we neglected to realize that groupers, dead or not, float, especially when compressed and shrink-wrapped. Within minutes a destroyer roared down on us, groupers lapping quietly in the calm sea around the boat. Naval personnel called down from the deck to invite us on board while they prepared the tow into Gitmo, but Jerry and I declined. The last thing we heard when our other crew-member climbed the ratlines to the deck was “Cuff the nigger!”
The tow lasted a couple of hours and we pitched and yawed in the destroyer’s wake, trying to destroy the frozen lobster while our vessel was bathed in spotlights from the naval boat. We heaved the last of it over the side just as we arrived in harbor.
Naval personnel immediately brought dogs to the boat while we waited on the dock. My first remark was, “Say, I can’t find my sandals. If you happen upon them down there could you bring them up to me?” They found nothing. Additional groupers had been built into a false compartment in the hull, rather professional fisher work if I do say so myself.
They threw us into solitary after a perfunctory processing. The brig at the time was a low one-story building with a main rectangular room. A guard station controlled access at the door, and solitary cells were lined up against on wall. I was placed in one of these while my friends were put in cages that lined another wall.
I was told not to lie on my bunk during the day, but a diet of frozen lobster had left me sleep-deprived so I ignored the order. They removed the bunk and told me I could only stand or sit in the wooden chair. I lay on the floor and passed out, after referencing flying leaps at rolling donuts.
I was shaved bald for my comeuppance.
THEN a guard came up to the cell with his hands behind his back. He showed me one appendage; at its extremity dangled a bottle of Crown Royal. Would you like a shot, he said. Why sure, I answered. He then produced a rubber truncheon with his other hand and said, one more word from you and I’ll beat you senseless but I’ll revive you in style.
I decided to clam up.
My Black neighbor in the cell next door- a guy from the regular military – had gotten 30 days on bread and water, a diet that produces painful cramping after a few days, having been caught in bed with the (legal) daughter of a white officer. We were not supposed to communicate but managed to do so surreptitiously, late at night when the cell block was quiet. The guards later confirmed his story, outraged that a “nigger” would take advantage of a helpless white southern belle. It seemed that no one had told the troops at Gitmo that Dixie’s glory days were over.
The guards kept telling me my buddies had spilled the beans so I’d be better off admitting what we had been up to. Dying for a cigarette I said why not? I was led into the office of a JAG and I told them first I needed a few smokes and then I’d sign whatever they wanted. After feeding the nicotine bunnies I shrugged and said, so sorry, I’ve changed my mind. They were not too pleased.
After four days in stir we were allowed to make a phone call. I phoned my best friend, whose dad had gone to law school with Pierre Trudeau, and shouted to him on the bad connection, “Send lawyers, guns, and money!” providing more entertainment for the screws.
But the strategy worked. Twenty four hours later we were sprung, on the orders of John Lehman himself, Secretary of the Navy at the time.
We were put up in BOQ and had the run of the base for a week while waiting for a flight Stateside. We were also given an audience with the base commander (his secretary pleaded with us to sell her some pot). He said, “Boys, I admire your pluck but you shouldn’t be dealing in square groupers. What we do is load up planes every week with duty-free booze and fly it to the States. We’re making a fortune!” He bade us good luck and told us to enjoy the rest of our time in Gitmo but to stay out of enlisted men’s bars. So we hung out with the brass.
That’s the story. As an interesting footnote, an article appeared in STARS AND STRIPES (shortly after we returned to Norfolk and drove through the gate to freedom) stating that we had been officially charged and would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I reckoned it would be in poor taste to write to the editor and ask for a correction.
A month later the Navy flew Jerry back to Gitmo to retrieve his boat. They had thoughtfully rebuilt the engine, and so the rest of the square groupers finally made it to market when he drove the vessel back to Florida.
NB: That’s what the hitchhiker told me. Corroboration of his story would be impossible.