Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

Fernando was grateful for the high ceilings and huge fans in the Licata warehouse. His office was toward the rear of the vast space, and was semi-enclosed. It was a stifling hot and humid day in June of 1936. Almost five years had passed since Fernando joined the Licata family business. Having expanded beyond fresh fruits and vegetable, the company was now called "Licata Food Distributors". Focusing on Mediterranean food products, it was one of the main suppliers of wholesale food items to restaurants in Tampa and the west coast of Florida. This was the "public" version of the business. While Turiddu was focused on this legitimate enterprise, his older brother Rosario handled the more lucrative "non-public" activities. Gaetano, now 80 years old, spent his days quietly, working in his garden.

"Bolita" means "little ball" in Spanish. It was also the name of an illegal lottery popular in Tampa and other nearby towns. One hundred numbered small balls are drawn from a cloth bag, with bets placed on which numbers would be drawn. Based on Cuban tradition, a system called "La Charada" assigned a specific object to each number. Superstitious players would bet based on  some personal experience involving the object. For example, if one dreamed of an elephant, that week's bet would be on number 9. The Licatas controled this favorite Tampa pastime, earning record profits. Also, during the prohibition years, Gaetano had become involved in smuggling liquor out of Cuba into Tampa; the Licata tentacles now extended well into that island country, in particular the casinos and nightclubs of Havana.

Both Fernando and Ignacio had managed to survive and prosper during the worst years of the Great Depression. There were some signs that a slow recovery had begun, but it would be several more years until the economy would return to normal. They had both contributed in many ways to assist those in the community who had been less fortunate. Contributions to emergency assistance funds in the various mutual aid societies and food donations to food banks and cooperative grocery stores were among their efforts. 

"Bueno, Gaitero. En unas horas empieza su vacación! Están todos listo para el viaje y su primer vuelo? No sé cómo vamos a funcionar sin ti para cinco semanas!"

Turiddu acknowledged that Fernando's vacation was to begin in a few hours, and he didn't know how they were going to function without him for five weeks. He asked if they were ready for the trip, and for their first flight. 

"Por supuesto. Estamos muy ilusionados. Tenemos gana ver nuestras familias después de tantos años. Estoy muy agradecido para la generosidad de tu familia."

Fernando responded that they were very excited, and that they looked forward to seeing their families after so many years. He thanked Turiddu for his family's generosity. The time off and the regular gifts of cash that the Licatas gave him made this vacation possible.

Fernando and Ignacio, along with most of their families, were going on a trip to Spain. It had long been their dream to return for a visit. Before Spain had transitioned to a Republic in 1931, many male Spanish immigrants feared going back, concerned that they would not be allowed to return. The monarchy and Catholic Church had frowned on those young men who had gone to Cuba or elsewhere to avoid the draconian military draft. Even though neither Fernando nor Ignacio had attained U.S. citizenship, they no longer harbored these fears. Their trip would begin the next day with a flight to Havana. After two days in Cuba, they would board a ship bound for Santander, Spain.

Tampa's airport was named after Peter O'Knight, a well-known and wealthy attorney and entrepreneur. It was located on Davis Islands, a primarily residential area consisting of two man-made islands, developed during the Florida boom of the 1920s. Located near the confluence of the Hillsborough River and Hillsborough Bay, it housed a seaplane basin utilized by amphibious commercial aircraft. In addition to land-based operations by other airlines, Pan-American Airways had recently begun direct seaplane service to Havana from Tampa. 

As the Suárez and Prendes families gathered in the terminal lobby, they could hardly contain their excitement and anticipation. Carmela, the eldest Suárez child, would not be going. She was married and was expecting her first child. Anselmo, the eldest of the Prendes children, had offered to remain behind and oversee the operation of the dairy. 

As the eight travelers stepped up to the check-in counter, they handed their travel documents to the agent. Only Fernando and Ignacio lacked U.S. passports. Giuseppina had obtained her US citizenship some years before, and Sofia and the four children were born in Tampa. Fernando and Ignacio had their US residency cards and Spanish passports. After many years in Tampa, they were able to obtain their passports from the Spanish consulate in Tampa. Having immigrated to Cuba when it was still a Spanish province, they had not been required to obtain passports at that time.

As they stepped into the amphibious aircraft, Luciano and Rafael scrambled to find two seats together. They had agreed that one of them could have the window seat for take-off, and switch halfway through the flight. Luciano, in particular, was fascinated with aviation. A steward went down the aisle, offering champagne to the adults and Coca-Cola to the children. The two boys were talking over each other with excitement. Spanish was their first language, but they, of course, spoke fluent English as well, having learned it in school. They had learned that they could block their parents from "eavesdropping" by simply speaking very rapidly in English. Even Fernando, who did speak limited English, couldn't understand them when they did this. Their fathers decided their behavior was all in fun, and due to their excitement. 

The aircraft taxied out of the basin and into Hillsborough Bay proper. Within a few minutes the four massive engines were drowning out all conversation as they revved up to full power. After what seemed like a brief but very rough boat ride, the water below and the surrounding land began to shrink in size as the plane rapidly gained altitude. Fernando leaned his head across the aisle to speak to Ignacio.

"Que le parece, Zapato! Alguna vez en tu vida pensaste que estaríamos haciendo esto?"

Fernando had asked Ignacio if, ever in his life, he thought they would be doing this.

The Pan American Airways flight banked to the left over the city. Soon the west coast of Florida lay beneath them. Havana was but a mere two hours away.

As the aircraft leveled off, Fernando's thoughts drifted back in time. Through the window he could see the tiny image of a ship. His love of maps and geography served him well. He knew it was passing Egmont Key as it entered the Port of Tampa shipping channel. He couldn't help but wonder if it was carrying young immigrants seeking a better life. He was transported back to November 9, 1900, the day he first arrived in Tampa. The steady hum of the engines was hypnotic, and he found himself deep in introspection. He was grateful beyond words for the life he now had, but still somewhat conflicted. Some aspects of the Licata business remained disturbing to him. While he rejected the basic Catholic dogma of sin and punishment in hell, he wondered if he or his family might one day pay a price for benefitting from the Licata enterprise. Over the years Turiddu had assured Fernando that the Licatas had shifted their activities away from those of violence. "Victimless" pursuits such as gambling, drinking, and prostitution were now the core of that "other" Licata business. The carnal vices of human beings were serving them well. Only those who violated the time-honored oaths of loyalty and secrecy suffered bodily harm. 

Fernando, always the pragmatist, reminded himself that above all, his mission was to provide the best possible life for his family. He knew, from his childhood experiences in Spain, that life's security and comfort were very tenuous. Unsettling forces beyond one's control could surface at any time.

As the steward removed the lunch trays, the captain of the aircraft announced that they were now approaching the coast of Cuba and would be landing shortly. Fernando leaned forward and peered out of the window. He could see the outline of "El Malecón", Havana's famous esplanade and seawall. At one end lay the entrance to Havana harbor and the Morro Castle, an old Spanish fort. 

Havana, in all its splendor, never looked more beautiful.

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This is a work of fiction. With the exception of references to known and publicly documented historical entities, the following apply:

Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. ©Tony Carreño 2020