Through a simple twist of fate I have ended up with a personal connection to the events following the 1959 revolution……
Down The Road with the Original Buffalo Dale
Welcome back. The date was January 1, 1959 and the hotels and nightclubs in Havana, Cuba were full. For years the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista allowed Mafia controlled gambling to flourish in the country and received generous kickbacks in return. But unbeknownst to Batista, forces led by rebel leader Fidel Castro were preparing to attack Havana and overthrow his regime. It has now been fifty-five years since Castro seized power and began to nationalize all the U.S. owned businesses and properties in the country causing most foreign nationals and many Cuban citizens to flee the country.
In 1962 the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the edge of nuclear conflict. This crisis was followed by the U.S. led Bay of Pigs invasion, a failed attempt to overthrow Castro’s government. Since then, hard line sanctions, economic embargos and several assassination attempts have all failed to oust the communist leader. Although age and ill health finally forced him to transfer power to his younger brother Raoul in 2006, Castro remains a major force in the life and culture of Cuba.
As for Raoul, he has made important strides in reforming the Cuban economy to encourage more private enterprise and he has also worked to make the island more open to tourism. However his efforts are hampered by a crumbling infrastructure and a lack of capital to make needed improvements to transportation and utility networks. Diplomatic relations with the United States remain cool and Americans are not allowed to travel to Cuba freely.
You could say that my connection to this story started twenty-two years with a chance encounter on the north shore of Long Island Sound but in fact this tale began years before. In the late 1940s and 50s tourism in Cuba was thriving and Havana was one of the most popular vacation destinations for north Americans. It was a paradise for the wealthy with fantastic beaches, historic architecture and beautiful hotels and private clubs. The biggest stars of the time performed in nightclubs like Tropicana where the floor shows were legendary.
The construction business was booming as well both on land and at sea. In addition to new buildings, dredging in Havana harbor went on all through the daylight hours in order to expand the harbor for a growing cruise ship business and private yachts. Many of the contractors were U.S. citizens who were long time residents on the island and who had been encouraged to move there and make investments under the protection of the U.S. government.
One of these contractors was Robert McArdle who had moved to Cuba when he was 18 to begin working with his uncle who was a marine contractor. Eventually McArdle bought out his uncle’s business and expanded his work to other islands in the Caribbean and the coasts of Florida and south America. McArdle loved living in Cuba and made many investments there including the purchase of a small farm in the countryside overlooking the city of Havana. He had every expectation of remaining on the island until his death but his plans came apart that night in 1959. Although he managed to stay in Havana for about a year after the revolution, he was eventually forced to leave. Armed soldiers came to his apartment and took him to the airport where he boarded a plane for Miami with only a suitcase of clothes and a typewriter. He spent the rest of his life in New York City, waiting for the day he could return to his beloved Cuba. A reparations claim was filed with the U.S. government and like many others he was promised a settlement when normal diplomatic relations were restored with Cuba. When McArdle died in 1972 that day seemed far away and it still does.
Now comes the interesting part. I have been asked by some of his relatives to visit Cuba with the goal of determining the status of his farm and other interests. An interesting assignment and I’ll keep you apprised of developments.
On the local front, we lost a piece of Bartlesville history with the passing of Delmer Garrett who I just learned died on November 7th. Delmer was one of the few remaining people who knew the outlaw Henry Wells. As a boy, Delmer used to sit on his lap and listen to Henry’s stories about robbing trains and hanging out with Frank Phillips. In one famous adventure, Henry had warned Frank that Pretty Boy Floyd planned to kidnap him and Henry was part of a shoot-out that spoiled the gang’s plans. Delmer was a blood relative of Henry’s and I heard many of these stories when I worked with him at Dunlap Construction in the early 1970s. He was a construction superintendent for the company and worked on many landmark projects in the community, including the airplane room addition at Woolaroc, Mnich’s Grocery (now United Foods) and the private homes of several Phillips executives. I could say much more but I’ll end with “if there was ever a man that everyone liked it was Delmer Bryl Garrett”.
Till next week, I’ll see ya down the road………………….