I am always amazed when in the fullness of time, I look back to things that happened in my youth only to discover that there was a back story about which I had no idea or only a dim view. At my recent high school reunion, I had one of those enlightening experiences.
I first met Jose Ramirez at the very tail end of my Sophomore Year in the spring of 1961. He and about twenty other Cuban boys suddenly showed up in class about a month before the end of school. We didn’t learn much about them because at that time, none of them spoke English well enough to have a conversation and none of us spoke Spanish. That did not stop us from trying though. I must admit that the first priority for each of our groups was to learn the other’s cuss words. We had only 6 weeks before the end of school and being separated by summer vacation.
The following fall, Jose and I were reunited when the Cubans returned and he chose to join the band. After a summer of intense classes in English, Jose and I could communicate fairly well. That was a year of change for the band because our instructor, Frank Borkowski had left to return to school and Charlie Hoffecker took over the reigns as Band Director. This was only the third year of our little band’s existence and we had yet to take the field and march at a football game. Being a high school band, we were heavy on trumpets and clarinets. I played first trumpet by then having paid my dues at second and third trumpet the years before. Jose was just starting at third trumpet. The trumpet section sat in three rows, with the second trumpets behind the first and the third behind the second. I learned from Jose only this year that the second trumpets were reading the first trumpet’s music over our shoulders, so they read the second’s music over their shoulders. When I was drum major, I never could figure out why I could not hear the “bottom” of the trumpet section the way I could the clarinets. Duh! I guess that proves the old theory that the trumpet players are the “cowboys” of the band.
When Jose, Mario and a few other Cubans would engage with the rest of us in “bull sessions” before and after band practice, we learned that they were living in foster homes. They communicated with their parents back in Cuba by letters and rarely, by long distance phone calls. Being isolated in our protective worlds, it never occurred to us to dig into what our Cuban friends’ day to day lives were like. They were really interested in fitting in to the culture of North Florida and did not talk about home too much.
I didn’t really know Jose’s story until he and his wife sat down with Susan and me for breakfast the morning after our class reunion earlier this month. Only after 50 years, did it dawn on me how much courage and resolve his Cuban parents had to send their children to the U.S. as part of Operation Pedro Pan (Operation Peter Pan.) In all there were 14,048 (Thanks Jose Amaro for the correction!)of them spread out across Florida and in some cases as far away as Minnesota. That morning, we learned of the bravery and determination of Jose and his fellow refugees most of whom did not even know each other in Cuba. They lived in refugee camps during the summer and foster homes during the school times. They knew that they would probably never live in their homeland again. They were determined to build a new life here in America and willing to put in the heartache and hard work necessary to catch up with the rest of us and truly become a productive part of America. I can tell you that to a man, they did that. For the first time in my life, I can appreciate the small part my high school class played in an international event, the first out-migration of Cubans to the U.S. Also, much clearer to me are the ramifications of having a Cuban presence in the midst of our little class of 151 in October of ’62 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We were well within range of those Soviet R-12 intermediate-range nuclear ballistic missiles that were headed to Havana.
I heard from Jose this morning that the book he was working on has been completed and published. Its title is "Defining Moments: A Cuban Exile's Story about Discovery and the Search for a Better Future" by Jose Ramirez. It is available on Amazon now and will be available soon on Kindle. I ordered it this morning and can’t wait to read it. In Jose’s own words; “Part 3, shares the story of my coming to the U.S. at the age of fifteen as part of Operation Pedro Pan, living in a refugee camp, foster homes, attending Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville Fl as well as the critical happenings in our family and Cuba during those early years until finally reuniting with my cousins four years later in Cambridge MA. The title itself is reflective of the many situations requiring decision-making which became ‘defining moments’ throughout these experiences.” All I can add to that is - Oh MY!