Life can be unforgivingly ironic and cruel

This is a photo of my dad, Gordon Ward, in 1957 at our home in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba U.S. Naval Base. With him are two Cuban boys, Raul and Luis age 12 (a year older than I at that time.) 

My dad had been stationed as a US Marine there in GTMO in 1941, right after Parris Island and before WWII, for 2 years before being sent to fight in the Pacific (see my sister’s biography titled “Uncommon Survivor” for his history.) After being severely wounded on Iwo Jima on the first day of that ferocious battle, the woman he had met in Cuba 3 years earlier left the island, traveled to his hospital in New York and married him. Six years later he got a job as a civilian on that base influenced by my by-then mother’s parents who still lived in Cuba in the nearby town of Guantanamo (20 miles from the Naval base.) 

Gordon (dad) was an adventurer and after a few years of skin diving and spear fishing took up flying, buying his own airplanes and flying them out of the Guantanamo airport all around the island (he was not allowed to keep the planes on the base.) In that capacity, he began to do charity work, taking a base doctor with him to remote areas and providing some basic medical care for the most needy. On a related trip he learned about Luis and Raul, who were in an orphanage and in very serious need of dental work.

So, in 1957 as the Castro Revolution was in heavy activity he had the two boys come to stay in our house on the base. I met them but left for the Summer to go to my grandparents’ house in New York, so I did not get to know them beyond meeting. So for two weeks he had their teeth repaired on base (I believe, though it’s also possible he took them outside the base.) He provided humanitarian aid to them, as was the case. 

The Castro Revolution escalated and 18 months after this photo, a new government took over the island. The Castros eventually revealed themselves to be traitors to their promises, brutal to their opposition. Dad lost touch with Raul and Luis and we left Cuba that year near mid-1959.

Several years later dad attended a conference in San Francisco and encountered a Cuban he had known, who had also known Raul and Luis. So dad asked him about their welfare. With great sadness, the man told dad that the Castros had had the boys executed as spies, having learned that they had spent time on the base.

Life can be unforgivingly ironic and cruel.

What is unrecognized by most people is how much money GTMO contributed to Cuba until 1959. I have many articles (from the base paper) that showed charity drives, donations, etc. by base personnel to Oriente Province (the most eastern and poorest part of Cuba that surrounded the land portion of the base.) In addition, the sailors and others would take mini trips and spend much money around there, millions of dollars! On the salacious side, there were 3,000 prostitutes in the closest village to the base, Caimanera, were the men from the base and fleet (very few women on base, after all, beyond the dependent school girls and wives of accompanied men.) That town was basically leveled later by Castro and mine fields placed at the fence line.

Frederick  Ward

Summer Reads from the Museum’s Press

A Rough Summer Night

It’s a warm summer evening last night… reminds me of California back in the late 1960’s when my Dad was stationed at McClellan Air Force Base just outside of Sacramento, and we lived in a military suburb known as “Capehart”. I had so much freakin’ fun during that time of innocence and discovery. 

We used to “camp out” a lot when I lived in California which, in reality, meant a few kids in sleeping bags behind the fence of somebody’s backyard, giving us an excuse to run around all night creating general havoc. Harmless stuff, like peeling Crazy Daisies off Volkswagen and sticking them over doorbells; putting frogs in car ashtrays and glove compartments; letting the air out of bicycle tires; trying to elude the MPs …stuff like that. If we were really lucky, there’d be a girls’ slumber party going on and we’d go over and bug them for awhile.

But on the night of August 16th, 1968, things got a little rough.

We were doing our usual Friday night camp out. Earlier that summer, my friend Ricky Smith had swiped a 16 ounce Schlitz Malt Liquor from his old man, and we were so scared of getting caught with it that we’d stashed it on the garage roof to allow some time for the trail to grow cold. But now, Ricky and I decided that the statute of limitations on the Schlitz had probably run out, so we climbed up on the garage to retrieve our ill-gotten booty.

The trouble was, there were eight guys camping out, more kids than even a 16 ouncer could supply, and we didn’t want to share our hard-earned treasure with any of them.

Camp-outs always started late. First we’d run around with our girlfriends, or play a little football, or go to a movie, so it was usually around 10:30 by the time we all started gathering at some predetermined spot to decide where we were going to toss our sleeping bags. Then, somebody would get drafted into running to the vending machine at the Snack Mart for cigarettes. Base curfew was midnight, so going to buy a pack of smokes was an extremely hazardous maze of hiding from patrolling Military Police, and serpentining through a minefield of built in sprinkler heads which were near impossible to see at night and near fatal to trip over. We knew a kid who actually broke his ankle tripping over one of those babies in the dark. But we knew that the cigarette run was our only hope of getting the chance to partake of our treasured elixir, so Ricky and I volunteered.

Our cigarette mission completed, we popped the top on the beer. Now, there’s nothing quite like the taste of a warm Schlitz Malt Liquor that’s been fermenting under the hot California sun for three months. It was… awful, the worst thing I’d ever put in my mouth, really disgusting. So we did the only sensible thing and gulped it straight down, avoiding our taste buds altogether.

About halfway back, we saw the silhouettes of five figures coming towards us. It was a group of the “tough” kids… you know, those yellow toothed, greasy haired guys who wore the same pair of jeans to school every day, and whose sole accomplishment was the fact that they knew how to french curl cigarette smoke. We always tried to avoid these pinheads at school, but well roasted malt liquor has a way of building stupidity and, self-preservation being what it is, we asked them to come back to camp with us.

“Ok, man. We’ll come with you. We usually don’t hang out with wimps like you guys, but you look pretty cool, drinkin’ malt liquor and all. Here, have a shot of this Jack Daniels we stole from Jake’s old man,” one of the tough guys chuckled, tossing the bottle at Ricky. 

We were so proud, standing there with our empty Beer Can Trophy, about to make the leap from Boy Scout to Hell’s Angel. All we had to do was drink a little whisky, and how much could that hurt?

Needless to say, our sober buddies were impressed, though not amused, by our new found courage when we showed up with the rat pack in tow. So, as the rest of my friends did their best cool impressions, complete with appropriate hand and neck gyrations and the all important “Gotta cigarette, Man?”, Ricky and I flopped down on our rolled up sleeping bags and began our little journey into the head spin abyss. The last thing I remember is a voice saying, “So what are you pussies gonna do tonight?”

I woke up about 6:30 the next morning to the sound of heavy engines, the smell of stale vomit, and surrounded by cigarette butts. A lone figure stood over me, his outline enveloped by the breaking sunlight. Oh, God! It was Jesus. I’d overdosed on stagnant malt liquor, and Jesus had come to carry me to heaven! The figure raised his arms, and I waited for the soothing words that would ease my troubled soul and welcome me through the Pearly Gates.

“Get up kid… you’re in some deep shit.”

Hmmm. Not exactly what I had in mind. But who was I to argue with Christ?

“Come with me, boy.”

Slowly, things were coming into focus, and as I reached out to touch the hem of Christ’s robe I noticed that he was wearing black, shiny combat boots with white laces. Peering through bloodshot eyes, I sluggishly raised my head to discover that either Jesus had enlisted, or there’d been a military takeover in Heaven. Either way, I was indeed in deep shit.

Everyone else was gone. All that was left of Ricky was one tennis shoe. I followed officer Jesus through the bushes and around the corner to the front of the house, to find a small crowd gathered around a fire truck. A long hose was stretched from the truck, down the street, and into the front door of the house next door. Must have been a fire while I was asleep. Funny, I hadn’t heard any alarms or smelled any smoke. “Did they put it out in time?” I asked.

The MP never even looked at me. “They’re not pumping water in, kid, they’re pumping water out. Guess you and your buddies had a good of time last night, huh? Yeah, sticking that garden hose in the mail slot of the front door and letting the water run all night was real fun, huh kid? Hope you’re still laughing when your old man gets a hold of you.”


“Yeah, but is right, kid. That’s what your old man’s gonna kick after I drag your happy ass home. Sure hope y’all can afford to live on less money, ’cause the military doesn’t take kindly to dependents flooding an Officer’s house. Probably gonna cost your old man a rank or two.”

A rank or two? A rank or two! Deep shit was an understatement.

I pleaded my case all the way home in the police jeep, “I didn’t do it!”, all the way up the walkway, “What do you think, I’m crazy?”, up to the moment my Dad opened the front door. “It was some other guys!”

My Dad stood in the front doorway. “Thanks. I’ll take it from here,” was all he said. I used to hate it when my parents stood in the doorway and made me slither past them to get into the room. I just waited for the hand up the backside of my head …their little way of helping me inside. But Dad didn’t do anything and, for the longest time, didn’t say anything.

“Dad, I didn’t flood that house, I swear! Ricky and I were on our way back from buying some cigarettes…”


“Uh…yeah, and we ran into these guys who had some Jack Daniels…”

“Jack Daniels?”

“Uh…yeah. And they came back to camp with us and Ricky and I passed out…”

“Passed out?”

“Uh huh… and that’s the last thing I remember. But I know I didn’t have anything to do with that house being flooded.”

Finally, following a lengthy, parental, thoughtful pause, the old man spoke. “Ok, Michael, we’ll see.”

We’ll see? The worst possible scenario. Now I had to live in limbo until it was all sorted out. It occurred to me to pray, but the thought of Officer Jesus was still fresh in my mind, so I opted just to go to bed and wait it out.

The next few days were the longest of my life. The Military Police came by that afternoon to hear my story, and attempted to get me to rat out my friends. Having passed out prior to the actual deed, I was really very little use to their case, and knowing this I held out for a good, oh, fifteen minutes before breaking down and giving them the name of every kid I’d ever known. Mom was going bananas. The “incident” was the talk of base housing, and she just knew everyone was thinking ill of her. I was restricted for life without parole.

On Monday, my Dad was summoned to the Base Commander’s office. While I never did hear what was actually said, I’m still alive, so I assume they believed my story.

What I mostly remember from the whole experience are the calm words of wisdom my Dad shared with me upon his return. “If you ever do that again, Michael, I’ll break both your arms.” 

Both my arms. Couldn’t argue with that.

Michael Ritter