Life with a Drill Sergeant, Chapter 3 – Cuba

I’d never been on a plane like this before.  There were no individual seats – just 2 long benches, one on each side of the aircraft.  No stewardesses, no drinks, nothing.  My sister and I were the only kids; everybody else was dressed in military uniform.  I don’t even think there were seat belts on this ‘puddle jumper,’ as my dad called it.  I also couldn’t understand how there could be so many bumps in the air.  I tried really hard not to throw up.  Thank goodness that the flight from Florida to Cuba was a short one.

We landed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a.k.a. “Gitmo.”  It was 1989.  I was nine and my sister was six.  My dad was a 31-year-old Marine training us as if we were his little soldiers.  We weren’t very good at taking orders, but we tried our best to keep him happy.  I feared and loved my father the way Catholics fear and love God.  We stepped off the plane and walked into an outdoor sauna.  I was instantly soaked and sticky.  I felt uncomfortable breathing in the thick, moist blanket of air.  It was time to adapt to the ungodly humidity.

We stayed in the Marine Corps barracks until our house was ready for us to live in.  Our small dorm room had two little beds as hard as the polished concrete floor.   We were provided with clean sheets and scratchy, olive-green wool blankets.  We ate at the chow hall with all the Marines.  I wasn’t expecting the food to be great, but when I saw the lobster, steak, potatoes, french fries, ice cream, and chocolate milk I got excited!  The amount and variety of food being served was unbelievable.  I don’t think that my taste buds were as developed because my dad didn’t seem quite as impressed with the quality.  We ate until we were stuffed and took some leftover french fries home with us.  We decided to take an ‘after dinner stroll’ to check out our new surroundings.

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We spotted the infamous hutia (pronounced “hoo-chee-uh”) better known as the “banana rat.”  It looked like a huge rat (the same size as a bloated cat), and apparently they liked french fries.  The banana rat cautiously moved toward us and my dad suggested that we give the massive rodent some of our fries.  My sister and dad were enthralled with the new animal but my eyes were taken with movement in the background.  Just behind the banana rat were some palm trees and thick foliage.  Something was slowly and smoothly sliding through the leaves on the ground.  My eyes didn’t want to believe what I was seeing.  It was a massive Cuban boa constrictor and it was heading in the direction of the banana rat…and us!  I was really excited and curious, so I pointed it out to my dad. He thought I was just making things up until he saw what I was talking about with his own eyes.  In a worried tone he said that it was time to go and so we did.  I kept asking him about the snake and he kept changing the subject.

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When we finally got our 2 bedroom house we had to wait several weeks for our furniture and belongings to arrive from Ohio.  In the meantime we were provided with “Flintstone furniture”.  My dad called it that because it looked and felt like something out of the Stone Ages.  It served its purpose and I thought it was fancy.  It looked like it belonged in a dentist’s office and so I thought that it was special.

When we examined our new home for the first time we found a large tree that shaded most of the backyard, and from the tree hung a tire swing!   I ran over to play on it and felt that I was stepping on tons of black seed pods.  I picked one up to examine it closer.  My dad told me that’s how the banana rat got its name.  They didn’t eat bananas; their feces looked like tiny, black bananas.  I dropped the hardened poop from my hand and realized that there was very little grass on the ground – the entire backyard was littered with banana rat feces.  I asked where the rats were.  I found out that they lived up in the palm trees and stayed there during the day, because they are a nocturnal species.  Huge rats that climb and live in trees!  At night I heard dozens of them scampering around in my backyard searching for food.  They were skittish creatures that didn’t cause any harm except that they crapped all over your yard and creeped you out with the sounds of their sporadic movements in the dark.

I recall a distinct memory that still tugs at my heart.  My sister and I were hanging out in our new home.  My dad was at work.  It was still summer and school wouldn’t start for another week or so.  We were playing with our Barbie dolls on our Flintstone furniture when we saw it at the same time – our first encounter with a big, furry, black tarantula.  My sister and I squealed and jumped on top of our thick, wooden coffee table.  I didn’t know what to do, but as the older sibling I was in charge and would have to come up with a plan.  I didn’t know how dangerous the tarantula was, but I didn’t want to take any chances.  I quickly ran into the kitchen to look for some sort of insecticide.  I found a bottle of 409 All-purpose Spray Cleaner.  I sprayed the tarantula continuously unloading half of the bottle on the poor critter.  At the time I felt like I was the hero and I was saving my little sister from the mean, old spider.  When it stopped moving and started to shrivel up and I was certain that it was dead, I got a broom and swept its limp carcass out the front door.  When my dad came home I told him what had happened.  To my surprise he was disappointed in me.  He said that the poor spider suffered a slow death and that I should’ve just swept it out the door while it was still alive.  I no longer felt like the hero; I felt like I was the bad guy.  My falsely interpreted victory was short-lived.

My sister and I were no stranger to chores.  Our dad made us sweep and swab the entire house at least once a week (it felt more like three times a week).  There was no carpet in the house but there was plenty of floor space.  My dad taught me how to mop properly just the way the military had taught him.  I was expected to help do the laundry, wash and dry the dishes, sweep and swab our 2 bedroom house, and keep my bedroom clean.  My ‘perfectionist attitude’ actually worked against me because I would do a stellar job cleaning every single smudge and speck of dirt, while my sister just made more of a mess.  Basically, all of the cleaning was done by my father and I, and I hated it. I hated doing the mindless work, but I couldn’t allow myself to do a ‘less than perfect job’.

Our house was immaculate yet they still came.  Every corner I turned in my house was done in fear; fear of something so horrible and disgusting that I may actually be experiencing heart palpitations as I write this.  I feel dizzy, nauseous, and ready to collapse just thinking about them:  Cuban cockroaches.  These are no ordinary roaches, no sir.  The first time I saw one in my house was one of the worst days of my life.  The image of that enormous, flying roach has burned its memory into my mind.  Yes, that’s right, they are freakin’ huge and they fly!  On average they were at least 2 inches in length and hearty sons-a-bitches.  They had girth.  Their size and ability to fly intimidated me so much that I ran away in fear and locked myself in my dad’s bedroom – This was the only place they didn’t go because it was too cold in there.  My dad had an air conditioner set to full blast in his room that ran 364 days a year.  He turned the A/C off for only 1 day a year to let the frost melt off it and to “give it a rest”.  I even ran over to my neighbor’s house (who I had never met) and asked them to please help me get rid of the disgusting bug.  How can a supposed bug be the size of a small bird?!?  And my fear never went away because where there was one there were always more.  It’s like they took turns or something.  They were a slow-moving, deliberate, persistent army.  They would send one soldier out to scavenge; he would be killed and the troop somehow knew of this, and then another meaty replacement would be sent out in his place.  I rarely ever saw 2 roaches in my house at the same time.  This went on for 3 long years!  I felt like these were not ordinary, simple bugs.  These nasties didn’t just accidentally stumble into my house; they came inside with intention.  They intended to be sneaky little scavengers that showed no fear…until they met my dad.  His method for getting rid of pesky roaches was simple:  Kill them with your hand.  I could never watch this.  The idea of it was so disgusting that I couldn’t be in the same room when it happened.  My dad would see the offending cockroach and make steady eye contact with it.  His body language and menacing stare froze the roach in its position.  He told me to get him a paper towel.  I always gave him two or three and he would only take one and tell me to stop wasting paper towels.  He would approach the roach like a tiger – Steady, slow, and without fear.  And when he came close enough to his victim he would quickly snatch up the plump roach with the paper towel and squeeze until the rodent’s greenish-colored blood oozed out.

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