The Only Cuban Cigar I Ever Enjoyed
The way that I remember it we were in The Club Cohiba drinking Mojitos—or was in Martinis? Dark and exotic, The Club Cohiba lies beneath the ground floor of the Havana Hotel in San Antonio, which, after the coming and going of several elegant cocktail glasses, takes on a shivery conspiratorial air. Across the room old men in pencil-thin moustaches and hard glances thrash out yet another plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, or maybe they are playing canasta. Andres (“you may call me Andy”) Lagueruela and I are engaged in kind of an oral foreplay with these cigars Andy had brought—not Cuban cigars, they would have none of that in this place—rather cigars brought in through friendly Nicaragua but grown from Cuban seeds, like the clientele here. Equally portly and affable Andy is truly enjoying his smoke while I am merely pretending. I had succumbed to the Cigar Aficionado dernier cri that had afflicted my demographic at the time but, really, cigars are disgusting; although a useful prop on this stage.
The hotel elevator is the entry to The Club Cohiba and opens like a stage door cueing a couple ready to Tango: he, a baggy suit under a cocked Fedora, and she with her cherry-red lipstick matched to her cherry-red and skin-tight dress that had me, and every other male in the place, follow the long line of her leg down to her cherry-red stiletto heels. My eyes follow them, more specifically her, as they cross the floor to the bar when Andy jars me back to the present.
“Lagueruela! If you were at all Latin you would know the name Lagueruela.”
“Well, no . . .”
He draws from his cheroot and leans into my face, not threatening at all, more of a mannerism of Latin intimacy. I find it peculiar how he can speak so empathetically with a lung full of cigar smoke, not a wisp of it escaping from his mouth as he says: “We were Cuba before 1959.
“Lagueruelas were both sides of the Cuban War of Independence. Lagueruelas were the sugar plantations and the rum distillers. We owned all the concrete made in Cuba until the island fell.”
Hmm, one of Colonel’s Batista’s cronies, I am thinking. “So you didn’t leave Cuba on the best of terms.”
He leans back and lets the blue smoke creep from his mouth. “My heart never left Cuba.” The look on his face is more melancholy than bitter. “The Crocodile,” he laughs. “You know that the island takes the shape of a crocodile.”
I nod even though that was news to me. I want to take this in another direction. “Ever been back?” I draw in on my cigar and cough a bit then take a slow sip of my . . .whatever it is . . . to cover it up.
“Not officially,” he says with a mischievous wink.
Sensing that we have reached a boundary in our relationship and bolstered by the rum—or was it gin?—I press on endeavoring to impress him with my familiarity of the issue. “So you were Omega?” I drop the code name.
He offers up a gamey smile, as if I had taken a point in a game of What’s-My-Line and nothing more serious than that.
“Bay of Pigs?” I ask.
“Of course.” Nodding.
So I haven’t even scratched the surface of this conversation and my cigar is becoming more enjoyable. I had met Andy through work. I had figured out that it was his quite public relations firm that was getting all the cost-plus federal assignments like the Base Realignment and Closure projects and it was his agency that came up with “Jack Hammer” for the national slow-down-for-highway-workers campaign. All of that required high level, insider, federal favor pay-back and I was digging for some subcontractor work out of him when he answers my unasked question:
“Yes, they know me at CIA. And Lagueruela is even better known in Cuba where there is a price on my head.”
So what do I say now, me the inebriated interviewer? The door is open and the next question is critical. I am searching through the fog of my intoxication but come up with nothing but another drink. Who ordered those?
Smoke rings glide from his lips as Andy laughs and continues on his own. “At one time, my friend, I get a call. This was just after the Missile Crisis. Do you know the Missile Crisis?”
Apparently, he tells me, some CIA operatives had acquired a Soviet Officer’s parade uniform that would fit Andy—a rare find because Andy was beyond a 3X in size. The operatives were quite excited about his, as if this was “it”; the one thing that was certain to topple Fidel. Andy, of course was game. He was hustled out to New Mexico where, at a top secret federal facility, where he was trained in high-altitude parachuting. Now, just looking at Andy as he winds out this tale of espionage and intrigue, I can tell that he has always been more of a gourmet that an athletic-type and he must have gone about this specialized combat training with an odd combination of patriotism and dégagé. He was certain to die. Andy puffs himself up as he tells me about the jump: he was actually pushed out of a high-altitude AWAC. “I would have jumped on my own but I thought that it was just a moment too soon.” He wore an oxygen mask for the freefall part of the drop and a large wrist watch that told him when he reached the altitude where he was supposed to could pull his ripcord. It was his only parachute jump he ever attempted and the mission was a complete success: he landed close to where he was supposed to, on a plantation that used to be owned by a former brother-in-law. Contacts from Omega met him in the field; he was scurried off to a series of to a safe house, hiding in the jungle in a Soviet officers dress uniform, and eventually smuggled out of the country in a fishing boat, still dressed for a parade on Red Square. The mission was a complete success.
“What did you do? What was the mission?” I ask.
“Just that.” His cigar is well poised and he releases the smoke as if it was a sentence in our give-and-take. “I crept in. I crept out.” And when the blue smoke of the Nicaraguan tobacco from Cuban seed cleared a look of great disappointment filled his eyes and he spoke with a sarcastic inflection, “Another blow to the regime.”
“What’s the point?” My words managed to fall from my cotton-dry mouth.
Andy leans into me once again. If not for the tiny table between us he may have fallen into my lap. “This is how you American spend your money and,” he pushes a stubby finger into my face, “and this is the fate of my country.”
Andy manages to find his way to his feet: cigar still in hand as he lumbers off to find the bathroom. I snuff out my cigar in the ash tray, take an olive from the Martini glass and plop it in my mouth as my eyes slowly cast about the room. The Tango dancer in cherry-red has attracted a few more men to the bar. The junta of canasta players unabashedly lay their hard glances on me, perhaps as a warning, wondering if their chubby spy chief was reveling too much information and I realize with a sudden and hardy laugh that I am a background character in a black-and-white, B-movie.* * *
Andy returns refreshed and pulling two new cigars from the inside pocket of his wrinkled linen suit coat while a white jacketed waiter following him with two exquisite cocktail glasses on a tray. I had had enough but I would certainly have more. Andy fell into his seat, passed me one of his un-banded cigars and went to work on his with a silver sniper; carefully clipping a tiny piece off of the cap-end before sticking it in his mouth like a pop-cycle to moisten the head wrapper. I attempted to mimic his savoir faire and managed to get mine lit without causing a fire.
The action of smoking the cigar became an integral part of Andy’s dialog; he leaned back in his chair and drew in a long toke. “I have permission to return.” He paused, met my eyes and exhaled a veil of thin blue smoke. “But I am not certain that it will honored.”
“Cuba, you mean?” I exhaled in kind.
“They could easily pick me up at the airport and you, my friend, will never know how the story ends.”
I attempted to use my cigar as dialog, inhaling, leaning back and giving his a look that was mean to say “go on.”
“My mother’s older sister and her family are still in Havana, living in part of a house we once owned. The house has become run down. She shares it with others. They have electricity frequently enough but the old elevator hasn’t worked for, I don’t know how long. To get water to her bathroom on the third floor they have a garden hose dropped from her balcony to a spigot on the street. She is getting old and she has the last I have heard, the matching pistol.”
“One of two….”
Andy paused as if to consider . . . what? Martini or cigar? Whether or not he should tell me? Tell me what? Whatever it was I was eager for the next act in this B-movie so I chose the tact that had served me so well earlier in the evening: I remained silent. Aver a sip from his martini and a pull on his cigar Andy gave me a wry smile and I know that I would have it.
Andy told me that his great grandfather was the last Governor General of Cuba to be appointed by the Spanish Crown. He brought with him a deep swath of Spanish history and two hand-tooled dueling pistols that had been in his family since the Castilian period. They were the old mussel-loading kind that fired by a flintlock apparatus, the kind gentlemen in white wigs and white hosiery used to settle disputes before the days of Judge Judy.
Although a Court appointed autocrat Grandpa Lagueruela, Andy tells me, had had some degree of political savvy. This was the late ninetieth century when Spain was going through the long agonizing process of losing its Caribbean colonies one-by-one and it was Cuba’s turn to fall. In the ancient way of collapsing monarchs—a technique that had work so for Castilians in the sixteenth century, when those elegant pistols were made—Governor General Lagueruela married into an old Cuban Creole family expecting, Andy assumes, that such a union would mends some fences with the locals. That didn’t work out so well. Señora Laugueruela’s deeper sympathies lay with the more liberal causes and their oldest son was sent to Princeton University in the United States where he became sympathetic with the Mambises and, to scoot right to the end of a more complex journey, Andy’s grandpa ended up serving as an aide-de-camp to Teddy Roosevelt as he charged his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill to topple the Spanish.
“I have seen the letter that my grandfather received from his father, the Governor General. It is written in his very elegant hand on an oversized piece of parchment, more like a manifesto than a letter to his own son. My great grandfather had an exceptionally dramatic command of a beautiful language. The words themselves brought tears to my eyes.”
Andy is out of cigars and martinis at this point and I with my two-toke cheroot smoldering in the ashtray and my cocktail glass either half-full or half-empty continue to hold up the silent side of our conversation with an encouraging nod.
“I paraphrase here, of course. I could never match the phrasing of the caudillo.” He nodded: we were locked eye-to-eye. “The letter told of his aspirations for his son and he spared no sentiment telling of his love.”
The letter accompanied one of the two dueling pistols complete with powder and shot. “Carry this with you at all times in the upcoming conflict,” the Governor General instructed his son, “as I will carry the other. When we cross paths, como vamos a, you must put a bullet straight through my heart—me mata muertos,” was the way that Andy recalled the wording, “and you must do this before I take your life, for I certainly will.”
I lean it to catch each of the word that fell from Andy’s lips. His voice begins to slur and his words are alternating too frequently between Spanish and English. The gin, it seemed, was getting the best of him as I was rapidly sobering in the resplendence of his compelling novella. Andy said something of the Governor General bearing the double burden of killing both a traitor to Spain and the bearing sin of killing his own son; therefore he expressed, according to Andy, a hoped that the son would dispatch him first.
Andy seems content to end his story with the end of the letter, or perhaps he is too wasted to continue so I speak up. “So, what happened? Did they cross paths?”
“Ah yes, the moment of angst came at the surrender, when it was time for the Governor General to surrender his sword to the armies of Cuban independence. My grandfather, still the aide-de-camp to the Americans, was in attendance.”
“With is dueling pistol?”
“Quite possibly. I don’t really know.” Andy pauses and takes a breath. I can see that this story has exhausted him. “The stories that are passed down on my side of the family tell of how the Governor General, having lost Cuba for his country and having a sworn pledge to fulfill, loaded his pistol with shot and power and placed in in the leather holder that he was going to wear to the surrender. Some of his staff testifies to this.”
Another long pause and Andy searched his memory.
“And? Did they meet?”
“No,” he said abruptly. “The old man suffered a fatal heart attack in his carriage on the way to the surrender ceremony.”
A dense uncertainty freezes for a long moment before Andy unleashed a loud and uncontrolled barrel laugh. I break into laughter with him, though not really knowing what was funny. Our laughter is loud and contagious enough for the conspirators at the canasta table to join in our laughter which captured the attention of the Tango group at the bar to turn and join in. For what? Nobody, not even me, knew where the humor lay except that we were drinking a laughing and some of that story may have been true.
Apparently the letter of the Governor General and one of the dueling pistols are now with the Lagueruelas in Miami. This would be the set that Andy was familiar with. The other pistol remains with the Lagueruelas who stayed in Cuba. Andy’s true mission is to reconnect with the family that he left behind in Cuba and the tale of the two pistols give him a colorful cause célèbre to justify his journey home.
I snagged the bill when it came. Andy held his hand out insisting that he pay.
“No, please. Andy. This is on me.”
He tried to pull the chit from my hand, we were both drunk and stumbly so the bill fell on to the table and stuck to a wet spot. Andy’s fat hand came down on top of mine and we argued playfully over which one of us would pay. I can’t remember which of us won but I do remember the two of us stumbling arm-in-arm down Navarro Street trying to figure out where we could find a cab at this hour.
Andy Lagueruela did return to Havana in January 1998 and he was not arrested at the airport. Pope John Paul II was scheduled to make his historic visit to Cuba at the end of January and all foreign aliens were summarily required to vacate the island. So Andy was obliged to leave Cuba before he was able to catch up with the aunt who was alleged to have the matching dueling pistol.
Although the Spanish changed commanders on a rapid basis in their final years of mis-ruling Cuba, my cursory research could not find the name Lagueruelas in any of their rosters. The infamous Valeriano Weyler was the last to have the title Governor General a position he held from 1896 to 1897. He was replaced by Ramón Blanco who had the title Captain General of Cuba from 1897 to 1898. The Spanish got to surrender several times in the War of Cuban Independence. On July 17th 1998 it was a field general, José Toral, divisional commander of the Spanish IV Corp who surrendered Santiago to the American General, Joseph Wheeler (in a war for Cuban independence?). And it was a dude named Adolfo Jiménez Castellanos with the title of Captain General in Havana who had the pleasure of formally surrendering all of Cuba to the Americans on January 1, 1899. I could no report of anyone having a heart attack on the way to either surrender ceremony.
“Marc Hess’s storytelling challenges us to step out of our comfortable realities and be curious about what is really going on around us.” ~ Sam Alexander, Austin TX