- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2006

I was 22, Fidel Castro was 23 that tropical August night of 1949 when I met Fidel (Cubans never called him Castro) for the first time. We were sitting at your typical state park picnic table at Puerto Rico Beach in Banes, in Cuba’s Oriente Province, when Fidel approached with Mirta who was two months away from delivering her first child, Fidelito. I stood. Mirta gave me a long, warm hug, while planting a warm kiss on my right cheek.

“Hola guajira,” I said, “estas bien” (hello peasant girl, you look well). Mirta then introduced me to her husband Fidel who said while shaking hands, “So this is the famous Jackie Skelly.”

Mirta, 21, a gorgeous green-eyed, honey-colored blond, was the daughter of Dr. Rafael Diaz Balart, the lawyer for the United Fruit Sugar Company(today the Chiquita Banana Company). Headquartered in Boston, the firm operated two huge sugar cane plantations located about 80 miles from the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, in southeast Cuba. Mirta’s brothers, Rafael Jr., 23, Frank, 22, and Waldo, 18, made up part of the gang at the picnic table. The Diaz Balarts had been our neighbors for almost 20 years. My father, from Norwich, Conn., was head of the company’s railroads.

Fidel’s home was 35 miles from Banes. His father, by Cuban standards, was a wealthy farmer who sold his sugar cane to the company (known as “mama unay” by the left in Cuba and wherever the company operated — Central America, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador.) Rafael and Fidel became good friends at the University of Havana. It was Rafael who introduced Mirta to Fidel, much to his regret, for they became bitter enemies and he encouraged her to divorce Fidel, which she did in 1955 when Fidelito was six.

Fidel knew about me, for in the summer of 1944 when I was a junior at Mt. St. Joseph’s High School in Baltimore, Mirta and I had a “puppy love” affair. Being close neighbors we grew up as almost sister and brother, playing the usual childhood games, until that summer when, upon my arrival from Baltimore for the annual summer vacation, I took one look at her and said to myself: “wow.” My sister Marjorie, who was kind of a big sister to Mirta, taught her English, and later was a member of her wedding party, warned me in a letter: “You should see Mirta.”

Fidel was staying at his in-laws beach house, a five-minute walk from ours. He was already known as an adventurer — a member of one of the “happy trigger” groups at the university who settled their differences with pistols. The main reason he was at his in-laws was he was hiding from one of the happy trigger boys from another group who was out to kill him because Fidel had killed one of theirs.

He had he participated in the historic “Bogotazo” riots in April 1948, when leftists almost burned down the city of Bogota. Fidel was also on the 1947 expedition to overthrow the Dominican Republic’s dictatorial regime of Rafael Trujillo. The Cuban Navy intercepted the ship in Nipe Bay. Fidel and others escaped capture by jumping into the shark-infested waters and swimming ashore. Two well-known U.S. journalists from major newspapers created the myth that Fidel jumped in with a .30-caliber machine gun strapped to his back. (Fidel told me later while laughing, of course, that he did carry a bottle of Felipe Segundo brandy).

For the next three to four weeks of August, the gang gathered nightly by hurricane lamps at my beach house to play canasta — the rage that year — and dominoes, and argue the merits of “Yankee imperialism” and the fact that the company owned so much land. There was a saying: the only thing God does not know is how much land the company owns.

If I remember correctly, Fidel never brought up communism or Marxism. In fact his heroes were Jose Marti, the apostle of Cuban independence, Thomas Jefferson and FDR. I, naturally, had to defend the company and U.S.

Fidel loved to hunt and talk about guns. He was always asking me about what it was like to be in the infantry in the U.S. Army. He thought nothing of shooting pelicans, a sacred bird to the local fishermen.

He had a morbid sense of humor. One morning I was swimming in front of our house when I noticed bubbles in the water around me. When I looked up there was “good ol’ Fidel” on the porch with a .22, yelling “Americano te la voy a pelar”(Cubans never used the word gringo or Yankee) — “I’m going to get you.” He was laughing, of course.

I did not run across Fidel again until 10 years later, January 8, 1959, the day he rolled into Havana on a Sherman Tank with 10-year-old Fidelito by his side, while hundreds of thousands chanted: “Fidel. Fidel. Fidel.” I was on assignment for United Press International. I and four or five of the old Banes gang members watched the spectacle on TV in Mirta’s living room. Another chapter will have to wait until Fidel’s 90th birthday.

Jack Skelly lived in Cuba for 30 years. His book, “I Remember Cuba,” which has just been published, details his memories growing up as an American-Cuban.

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