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Finding Mañana - Page 6

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Finding Mañana, by Mirta Ojito (continued)

In the rush to escape Cuba, overcrowded boats were common. The idea was to get to international waters, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Mike could barely sleep that night. He feared that his mission had failed. Either he followed the orders of the Cuban government or he would have to leave without his people. The Cubans played hardball, he realized. They had their guns and their laws on their side, as well as the manpower to carry their threats out. Intimidation had worked for a few minutes that afternoon, but Mike doubted it would work again.

The following morning, May 10, just as he was mulling over what to do, a boat full of soldiers approached the Mañana. Mike froze, his mind reeling with possible scenarios. Though he had returned from Vietnam thirteen years before, Cuba had started to seem to him like a war stage. Underneath the bow hidden in a compartment above the extra beds, Mike kept a small cache of weapons: a pistol, two shotguns, some rifles. He thought briefly about asking David to bring them up. He had no intention of getting arrested in Cuba. Then, just as it had appeared, silently and suddenly, the Cuban boat veered to the left and disappeared. Mike was convinced, more than ever, that it was time to leave Cuba. Now.

He pulled up the anchor and tried to approach the docks with the Mañana to inform the authorities that he was leaving. But a voice amplified by a bullhorn ordered him to stay put. The crew threw the anchor back into the water while Mike and Ventura got into the dinghy to find Major Rafael, the man who Mike suspected was in charge of the harbor operation. Mike simply wanted to let the major know that he was leaving. Without Rafael’s approval nobody could leave the harbor.

The ships’ docks were ten or twelve feet high and difficult to climb for a man with only one arm. Rounded timbers formed a sort of rustic ladder against the cement wall of the docks, which Mike climbed steadily but slowly, followed by Ventura. He concentrated on lifting a foot, grabbing the next timber with his one good arm, then lifting the other foot and again his good arm. If he faltered, he would fall into the water.

When he reached the top, he was swearing and panting, on his hands and knees, crouching on the hot cement. He looked up to see the barrel of an AK-47 rifle pointed right at his forehead. Mike wasn’t afraid, but he was surprised. He hadn’t had a gun pointed at him since Vietnam. He quickly jumped to his full height, and, as he did, he waved his hand to move the gun away from his face. But the movement carried such force that the barrel of the gun hit the young soldier on the forehead, splitting his head open. The man fell down, bleeding. Mike caught the rifle before it touched the ground. For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, a group of soldiers encircled Mike. Among them was Major Rafael, the man he’d come to see.

Mike dropped the rifle on the fallen soldier and walked over to the cluster of officers.

Major Rafael, nos vamos en cuatro horas, he said in Spanish to make sure his message was understood. Punto. We’re leaving in four hours, and that’s final.

Ventura stepped in and spoke in rapid Spanish to the major, but Mike couldn’t make out the words.

He’s crazy, Ventura was saying nervously, trying to gain some time. He’s a Vietnam veteran. He’s traumatized.

The major remained calm. He ordered the soldiers to take care of the bleeding man on the ground. Mike kept talking. gesticulating with his hand, while his rubber arm moved up and down stiffly, guided only by the force of his shaking. angry body. And if you’re going to shoot me, you better shoot me now, ’cause I’m leaving, he said, this time in English; he was too flustered to think of the words in Spanish.

Translate that! he barked at Ventura.

But Ventura, a family man who understood the nature of the regime, opted not to translate. He was afraid the Cubans just might shoot them both.

Mike then turned to the major again. Un momento, por favor, he said before running off and returning with another translator, the American-born son of Peruvian parents, whom he’d met at the harbor. The young man, a medical student, was there as a member of the crew of another boat. He translated for Mike, who wanted to make sure the Cuban officers understood that not even guns would thwart his resolve to leave.

No one is going to shoot anybody, Major Rafael said once he understood Mike’s threats.

By then the soldier Mike had knocked down had awakened and someone had bandaged his head. 

He slipped the sling of the rifle over his shoulder and joined the group. Mike turned to him and apologized. Perdóneme, por favor, he said, hoping that with his words and conciliatory gestures everyone would understand that he hadn’t meant to hurt the soldier. He’d simply acted out of reflex.

With the tension somewhat deflected, the major offered Mike a deal that, he said, would please everyone. Take the Valley Chief people and go home.

Following the Miami Cuban, Oswaldo, Mike took a few steps toward the Valley Chief and scrutinized some of the faces of the men on board. Though there were women and children, the majority were men. He
didn’t trust most of the faces he saw. Like other captains in the harbor, he’d heard that the Cuban government was mixing convicted criminals in with regular people in the boatlift.

Mike hated the idea of filling his cherished Mañana with people he didn’t know. But he also didn’t want to return to the United States empty-handed. As an ex-soldier, Mike understood the depths of despair. A useless vessel in enemy territory can certainly drive a man to beg. In Oswaldo’s voice he had sensed despair.

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Finding Mañana © 2005 by Mirta Ojito Used by Permission. All rights reserved.