Wave After Wave

Wave After Wave

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg, and Carlos Eire is this week’s featured author. Please enjoy this excerpt from Eire’s 2010 memoir, Learning to Die in Miami.

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We’re perched on the edge of the Everglades, about an hour’s drive south of Miami, in Florida City, the southernmost town on the U.S. mainland, right next to Homestead Air Force Base. The next town down Dixie Highway, the only road that leads out of town, is Key Largo in the Florida Keys. I don’t know this, of course. I think I’m in Miami. There’s a whole lot I don’t know, including what awaits me right after I finish this gag-a-thon of a chicken meal.

The three of us who’ve arrived at that camp on the night of the sixth of April, 1962, have just been thrown onto a well-oiled conveyor belt that receives pampered Cuban children every few days, sorts them out, and ships them all over the United States, preferably as far from Florida as possible. Back in Cuba our parents had told us that we’d be sent to great boarding schools, on scholarships, or be taken in by wealthy American families.

Our parents have no clue either. Not one of us airlifted kids would end up at Phillips Exeter, Groton, or Choate Rosemary Hall.

I imagine my parents are calm, even happy. After all, they’ve been so desperate to catapult us off the island, for our own protection. It doesn’t occur to me that they might be weeping and wailing, gnashing their teeth, and rending their garments. Many years later, after I’ve had children of my own, I’ll look back on this moment and think about the gloom that must have descended on them whenever they walked past my empty bedroom, or what awful things they imagined whenever they gave any thought to tomorrow, or the next day, and the day after that. But that will be years later.

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On this night, I’m still a kid, and I still believe what my parents have told me.

Everything will be all right. No te preocupes. Don’t worry.

I try not to think about the fact that my brother Tony and I were separated at the airport, as soon as we cleared the immigration desk, and that he’s been whisked away to a different camp. No one has yet explained why he was taken away in one van and I in another. In a little while I’ll find out that he’s gone to the camp for teenage boys, and that I’ve ended up at the one for girls and preteen boys. No one has to explain the logic behind this arrangement to me. I understand it instinctively. It’s 1962, after all, and everyone knows that girls need to be shielded from pubescent boys and vice versa. I remember being told at some point that this is one of the ten commandments: Thou shalt not bring those with raging hormones unto temptation.

I’m still convinced at this point that the first commandment is “Thou shalt not utter filthy words,” and that the second is “Thou shalt not have any dirty thoughts.” I’d already had several years of Catholic schooling, after all, and learned all there was to learn about sin.

We finish our hellish sandwiches, and I feel extra virtuous. I’ve managed not to vomit, and I’ve even fooled these nuns into thinking that I enjoyed their meal. I think of my mom and dad and how proud and amazed they’d be if they knew that I’d just eaten an entire chicken sandwich and kept it down.

Muchisimas gracias,” I say to the nuns as I leave their well-lit torture chamber. Politeness was always the most important virtue in my household, back in benighted Havana.

I’m taken to my sleeping quarters, and the other two boys to theirs. The camp is a cluster of tiny houses, dotted with a handful of larger buildings including a large one made of steel, which is the mess hall, as I’ll find out soon enough. I’ll also discover that this camp once served as housing for the families of married airmen from Homestead Air Force Base. I’ll also find out quickly that the prefabricated houses are ridiculously small, and that all of them are managed by Cuban couples who live there with their own children and with those of us who keep arriving and leaving in a steady stream, like water through a garden hose.

I’ll find out that boys and girls are carefully segregated there, too, which means that brothers and sisters go to different homes.

When I get to my house, I can’t believe my good fortune: My house parents are people I know, friends of my mom and dad. Familiar faces in a strange place: the Angones family. My brand-new foster father has known my father for many years. My dad called him Panchitín, a diminutive form of Pancho, the nickname for Francisco. But I can’t call him that. Calling him Señor Angones sounds too formal, so I end up trying not to call him anything. Their son Frank had been to many of my birthday parties, back in Havana, before the world changed. I don’t know any of them that well, but at least we’re not perfect strangers. I know deep inside that they’ll look out for me with extra care.

Frank’s mom hugs me, and his dad reassures me that everything will be all right.

I can’t believe how many kids are crammed into this house. We’re packed tight in there, on bunk beds, and Frank has to share his space with all of us. He’d come on the airlift too, without his parents, and had been through all this before. And then his parents came, and they chose to stay at the camp and serve as foster parents for wave after wave of us. So Frank has to wait quite a while before he gets his own room.

We’d come and go through that house and all the others at that camp like heads of lettuce being picked, packed, and trucked away at some top-secret farm. And so did the teenage boys at the other camp, at Kendall, much closer to Miami, but still out in the bush. Kendall was so remote back then that the teenage boys cracked jokes about Tarzan being their closest neighbor. No one would notice us. We’d dribble in, invisibly, noiselessly, and be ferried out in the dark of night to camps in the jungle. Journalists would have no clue this was happening, or they simply didn’t care. We were only Cubans, after all, aliens from an exotic location that most Americans couldn’t even locate on a map. Who would want to read about us back then, in 1962? Nothing would change later, either: To this day, hardly anyone in the world knows that all of this happened.

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Learning to Die in Miami
by Carlos Eire
Where to buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | RJ Julia

Image, photographed by Dan Mims, depicts Carlos Eire in Yale’s Hall of Graduate Studies.

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