Today I feel extremely fortunate to share with you the story of a friend, former neighbor (both in the neighborhood AND in the classroom next to me), businessman and a Cuban American who left Cuba as a youngster after the revolution and emergence of dictator Fidel Castro.
Yesterday, Jorge O'Leary generously accepted my offer to feature his thoughts about Castro's recent death and upon his own childhood experiences leading toward the O'Leary family's departure from Cuba.
I am grateful for his willingness and deeply touched by his story.
First, a little background on Jorge:
I arrived at Sandpoint permanently in 1996/97, the year of that heavy snow year. We were summer people there though since 1986. My mother-in-law had a summer place in Sourdough Point.
It was the typical story; we loved it there and wanted to be there full time. So, in 1996, I started my fourth career as it were.
Out of college, I was appointed to Officer Candidate School for the United States Coast Guard. I was commissioned and served on a Coast Cutter in Key West and also held administrative positions.
I opted out and went back to California to manage my in-laws' Beach Club in Santa Monica and concurrently received my MBA from the UCLA Graduate School of Management.
After 10 years, the club was closed, and I started a boat business in Marina del Rey, Los Angeles representing two lines of new sailing yachts and boats of various sizes (sailing being a passion of mine).
After three years, I stumbled on an opportunity to be the general manager of a beach front resort in Mexico that had its own private airstrip.
Then, after 3 ½ more years, we were ready to come back state side and find a good home for Max to grow up in. Sandpoint was the choice. I had to invent a job.
I bought the business at the airport, which provided all the aeronautical services, from the Maurices and also took on the airport manager job. We [O’Leary’s and the Love’s] were neighbors!
In 2001 or '02, I wasn’t sure that the commissioners would renew my leases at the airport so I started to hedge my bets for the future and took over a lease at the Beachhouse Restaurant [Edgewater Resort].
It soon became apparent that I needed to be there in person to make that work. When I was at the high school, I was doing the Beachhouse, airport, and had the three classes of students.
During those 10 weeks I worked about 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. Both businesses were 7 days a week and started early and ended late. I learned what they mean by “making an Idaho living.”
About 2009, a California developer sort of muscled me out of the airport, so I sold out and left Sandpoint in 2010.
I then managed an airport in Arizona, and after three years moved to manage an airport on Catalina Island, in L.A. County. I recently resigned from there, and Melissa and I are concentrating on care for our respective mothers in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara.
Both are at 89 years old.
We still have a place up Mountain View Drive, and this summer, when we take it back from a renter, I will be doing extensive handyman repairs.
Our plan is to return to Sandpoint full time, but, presently, the moms will not be budged. We do spend summers there and have been dragging my mother-in-law to the lake.
|Brothers Santi, Jaime and Jorge O'Leary before they left Cuba and came to the United States in 1961.|
|Max, Melissa and Jorge O'Leary. |
Jorge met his wife while studying at UCLA. Max was one of my honors English students during the latter part of my career. Last I heard he was traveling as a musician for the USO.
Castro has passed and I reflect on the impact that one man had on my family. I remember many things in my last year in Cuba when I was seven. My middle-class family had supported Castro’s revolution as necessary progressive change.
When the “bearded” guerilla fighters came out of the Escambray Mountains, they proceeded a slow triumphant journey from the east along the major central highway in the peninsula. We were gathered in our town where they would pass the adoring throng!
Us kids had already been collecting pictured trading cards of the fighters.
Two years later, I would be trading and collecting Mickey Mantle’s, Whitey Ford’s, and Stan Musial’s.
But, then, my hero was the charismatic good looking Camilo Cienfuegos. He was purportedly the bravest. He fought standing fully upright in the open during the skirmishes against Batista’s army. We waved and cheered. Camilo was electrifying and my mother thought him so dashing.
They reached Havana days later and Fidel proceeded to institutionalize his revolution. My hero, Camilo did not survive this period.
Fidel made the surprising announcement that he was now a Marxist-Leninist. The wildly popular Camilo was a threat to Fidel as were others that had not envisioned a communist revolution. Camilo was one of the many “whacked.”
It was said he disappeared in a plane never found… and the country mourned.
My father was a doctor and taught Biology in the Instituto (High School). All the Instituto teachers in our town were placed in jail after the Bay of Pigs invasion as they were now suspect as anti-revolutionaries.
I recall visiting him, talking through a fence.
My parents made the decision to leave, if they could. After a few weeks my father was released. At our home, a knock came at our door. Several men were demanding that my father hand over his gun.
My brothers and I listened from a separate room. It was tense as my father flatly refused in heated tones. The next day, my father gave his gun away to a militia member he knew, and we started quickly to walk away from everything we owned, including our beloved German shepherd dog who stayed behind with my grandparents.
We went to Havana and my grandmother, who was employed at the U.S. embassy, by now, the Swiss embassy, got my dad on a Pan Am flight.
My two brothers and I were next, and later followed my mother and sister. Shortly after that, all flights were stopped until many years later. It was August 1961, and, I was in South Miami Beach in a new world.
That was 55 years ago.
On a visceral level, I feel that Castro’s passing is like the lifting of a heavy weight over Cuba. The people of Cuba on the whole are not happy. After 57 years, how can you not judge the results of the revolution as a failure if the youth of the island would jump to leave it given the chance.
What change it will bring is hard to tell.
What change it will bring is hard to tell.
This death is another page turning, distancing me from my past, as have been the death of my father and grandparents and older relatives.
I am reminded again of the deep gratitude I have to this country, and, how sometimes things can be lost.
Regarding Cuba, I fear that a military oligarchy has formed that will continue a pattern of suppression of rights or dissent in order to remain entrenched.
They will follow the early Chinese model of economic development. The military oligarches will also start to become corrupt around the edges as business ventures are developed to generate desperately needed revenues, and they will dip into these businesses for personal gain.