Welcome back. The news of the death of Fidel Castro last week reminded me of the life story of a man whose personal experience with the dictator have become a part of my family history.
Robert McArdle was born in Brooklyn, New York to first generation Irish American parents. After attending West Point for a year, he moved to Cuba when he was 18 to begin working with his uncle who was a marine contractor. One of his early projects working with his uncle included salvaging the battleship Maine which had been sunk in Havana harbor during the Spanish American War.
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. After a time he married a young American girl he met while she was on vacation on the island and together they had two children, a girl and a boy. The family enjoyed a very comfortable life that included frequent trips to the United States to visit family.
McArdle and his wife loved living in Cuba and made many investments there including the purchase of a small farm in the countryside overlooking the city of Havana. 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 the many private yachts coming in.
The McArdles had every expectation of remaining on the island until their deaths but those plans came apart on January 1, 1959 when Castro took over Havana. Robert McArdle had supported democratic reform on the island and believed Castro’s promises of free elections after the coup. However, as Castro’s new government began to seize private property and many people began fleeing the island he became disillusioned. Mrs. McArdle left a few months after the revolution because she needed medications for a chronic health problem that were no longer available because of the upheaval.
Although Robert McArdle 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 thousands of 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 although Fidel Castro is deceased now, in many ways for his family it still does.
Always on the move to find an interesting story, this week I’ll be in Norman for a book signing at Balfour’s on Friday before the last OU home game from 12-3 PM. Then Saturday and Sunday for me it’s the Grand National Gun & Knife Show at the Tulsa Fairgrounds. December 8th will find me in Dewey at the Heritage Theater & Café for a showing of Footprints in the Dew: the Last Ten Tapes. Seating is limited so call918-440-2393 for reservations.
Till next time, I’ll see ya down the road…..