Vail Valley Voices: Grateful for life in the U.S.
Ryan Summerlin November 23, 2012
The daily Pan Am flight from Havana to Miami arrived late. Each passenger-unaccompanied minors and a few families-was traveling on a one-way ticket and an exit permit from the Cuban government valid for a 39-day stay in the United States, a requirement that the passengers would honor in the breach. All had very little luggage and no money at all, not even loose change.
Among the children were my brother, 14, and I, two years older. That was 50 years ago.
That flight from Cuba probably was the only one operated by Pan Am, which left empty on its outbound leg but returned full every single day. The unaccompanied children on these flights were there thanks to Father Bryan Walsh, a young priest from the Miami archdiocese who had managed to obtain visa waivers from the State Department for children in Cuba. The actual names would be entered later.
The visa-waiver we had was a sepia-colored copy of the original document, and on it, clearly visible, was the outline of each of the pieces of correction tape previously applied to the dozens of names that had preceded ours.
This arrangement between a Miami priest and Foggy Bottom lasted from mid-1960 until the missile crisis in October 1962, and allowed some 14,000 children to escape Castro’s Cuba and gain access to a life in a democratic nation. Father Walsh’s great idea facilitated the largest exodus of children in history.
Leaving Cuba was not a simple matter. First, an exit permit was required. Second, an airline ticket had to be purchased, but payment had to be made in dollars even though possession of U.S. currency was illegal. And third, the actual date of departure was arbitrarily decided by the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations, which would advise the applicant by telegram one day before the trip.
We knew the process could take from one to six months but that most telegrams were sent after about three months. We kept a count of the days elapsed, and one morning, the tersely worded message arrived.
Not only were we not allowed to take any money with us, but we could only bring clothing for three days, although friends who had already left suggested bringing more because sometimes the exit customs people did not check all that well.
Once at the airport, we said goodbye to our parents, who seemed a lot sadder than I was, and the lengthy departure process began.
Eventually, we progressed to the runway where a Pan Am DC-4 awaited. But before we could board, we had to present our luggage for inspection to customs officers who were standing behind a very long table on the tarmac.
The officer facing me was not ready, but the one facing my brother started pulling things out of my brother’s suitcase, throwing them in a bin and screaming, “You can’t take this with you!” as my brother watched helplessly and big tears ran down his cheeks.
After this fellow had left, it was my turn. My inspector just opened and closed my suitcase, making a disparaging comment about his colleague. He then touched his shirt pocket, as if looking for a pen to fill out a form, so I, trying to be cooperative, offered him mine. “You can’t take that with you!” he yelled and kept my pen – a small and fortunately last injustice on Cuban soil.
In Miami, a friend of my father met us at the airport, gave us $2 each and bought us a Coke, the first real Coke I had had in a long time. He wished us luck and left as we headed to join the group boarding the van for Matecumbe, the refugee camp on the edge of the Everglades that would be our temporary home.
One might think that arriving in a foreign country as penniless refugees would be a terrifying experience. But what I recall feeling was exhilaration at the promising future before us and a profound sense of relief as the realization sank in that I no longer faced the emptiness and hopelessness endured by every Cuban who remained under Castro’s wretched regime.
Life in the refugee camp was not exactly a bed of roses. The mosquitoes were so large that once, when I tried to send a particularly hefty specimen to my parents, the letter was returned for additional postage.
But we were fine. Within a short time we had located former schoolmates and discovered that one of my father’s best friends, a history professor from our home town, worked in the camp’s kitchen – a key connection that assured some additional goodies from time to time.
After a few months, we relocated to Marquette, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, as far from a tropical island as one can get. The local orphanage had enough room for about 20 of us and became our new home. A real bed in a real building was quite a luxury compared to the cot in a tent where I had been sleeping.
After completing my senior year in the local high school, I attended Michigan Tech, one of the top engineering schools in the country. On my first day, I remember walking down the hill behind the orphanage to U.S. 41 with a cardboard box and my small suitcase, hoping to hitch a ride. A family taking their son to the school picked me up.
When I arrived, I had just $10 in my pocket and had to part with $3 almost immediately for a student-activity fee at my dorm. The next day, at the bookstore, I discovered that the books I needed cost $47. My improvised solution to this cash-flow problem was to tell the store manager that I was there on a special program sponsored by the bishop of Marquette and to send the invoice to Msgr. Gibbs at the orphanage. Two weeks later, Msgr. Gibbs wrote to me saying that the school had mistakenly sent the bill to him. But by then I had a job in the cafeteria and was able to pay the bill myself.
My story is far from unique. Life in a country that guarantees its people the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – the very rights the Cuban government systematically denies its citizens – does indeed provide opportunities for all.
But our success was not only due to the kindness of the people who welcomed and helped us here. Our families deserve our gratitude for their wisdom and courage. I am much older now than my parents were then, and I realize how difficult their decision must have been.
On this Thanksgiving Day, as we give thanks for our many blessings, I will be especially thankful that my parents made the right decision and let me leave on that Pan Am flight that brought me here 50 years ago. And I will be forever grateful to this great nation that welcomed me and provided the opportunities that allowed me to become the person I am today.
Lino Piedra, a retired auto executive, was a member of the U.S. Delegation to the 61st Session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. He divides his time between Vail and Paris. He first skied Vail in 1987.