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Wednesday, November 16,2011

Remembering ‘Operation Pedro Pan’

Two Lansing men recall their journey from Cuba to Lansing 50 years ago

by

As a kid growing up in Havana, musician Mike Eyia was
fascinated by images of people skiing on TV. Thanks to Fidel Castro,
his skis have been waxed for decades.


“If I’m going to be here, I might as well enjoy the damn winter,” Eyia cracked.


Eyia and his friend, Norbert Fernandez, are Lansing-area
members of a little-known club celebrating its 50-year reunion this
week.


In the wake of Fidel Castro’s revolution, 14,000 Cuban
children came to the United States between 1960 and 1962 as part of a
mass exodus called Operation Pedro Pan.


The unprecedented airlift was arranged by frightened
Cuban parents, anti-Castro dissidents, Miami’s Roman Catholic
Archdiocese and the United States government — including the CIA,
according to some historians. The documents on the airlift are still
classified.


In 2009, Castro was still fuming, calling Pedro Pan “a
cynical publicity maneuver that would have been the envy of Goebbels
himself, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda.”


For two 13-year-old kids, it was like “The Wizard of Oz”
in reverse. A funnel cloud of cold war and tropical revolution swept
them from an emerald island and dropped them in a drab black-and-white
city neither of them had ever heard of.


Far from home, unsure whether they would see their
parents again, they can be forgiven for battling with nuns, stealing
ice cream and raising minor hell at St. Vincent’s Children’s Home in
Lansing before becoming productive members of their adopted society.


“I didn’t appreciate difficulty of it until later,” Eyia said. “At the time, it felt kind of like a dream, just floating along.”


When temporary camps in south Florida filled up, the
Pedro Pans dispersed throughout 35 states, with about 30 ending up in
Lansing. Many have left the area, but Eyia and Fernandez are still
here. Fernandez is a banker; Eyia is a guitarist and composer. In the
1970s, Eyia founded Lansing’s sizzling Latin combo, Orqestra Ritmo,
which is still going strong under his leadership. 


This week, Fernandez and Eyia fly to Miami for a 50-year reunion of Pedro Pans, and they’re excited. 


“Because of the shared experience, you meet someone who went through it and there’s an instant connection,” Fernandez said.


“There’s dinners, music and dancing — I can hardly wait,” Eyia chimed in.




Growing up fast


On summer vacations at his grandfather’s farm in the late
1950s, Norbert (or Norberto) Fernandez sat up in bed and listened to
shooting in the hills close by. The revolution was sweeping across Cuba.


Among middle-class Cubans, there were widespread rumors
of military conscription if the rebels took over. Other parents feared
an American invasion of the island and full-scale war.


Fernandez grew up in rural Manzanillo, a small waterfront
town near Guantanamo. His father, Felix, was an attorney and chief of
personnel for Banco Nunez, one of the biggest Cuban banks. The family
moved to Havana in 1958, when his father was transferred to the main
office.


Word had spread that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of
Miami, working with sympathetic Cubans, was taking children out of the
country and providing food and placement with host families or in group
homes.


On April 17, 1961, the day of the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs
invasion, an angry crowd occupied the square in front of the Catholic
school, De la Salle, where Fernandez studied.


“There were a lot of bad feelings, the perception that we were a higher class because it was a private school,” Fernandez said. 


That was the last day of school in Cuba for Fernandez and his brothers, Luis and Gustavo.


“My classroom faced the street and I could see the crowd
gathering,” Fernandez recalled. “They closed the windows. My mother
came and took us out of school, through the priests’ quarters in the
back, and we never came back.” Other parents were already pulling their
kids from school.


“Somebody would come in and say, ‘Smith, you’re wanted in the office’ and we would never see him again,” Fernandez said.


Miguel (later Mike) Eyia lived in Vedado, a district of
Havana, where his father, also named Miguel, was an accountant. “We
weren’t super-rich, but we had everything we wanted,” he recalled.


The Bay of Pigs invasion sharpened fears of war and military conscription in the Eyia household.


Eyia missed almost a whole year of school before leaving
the island in June 1961. “I was told to stay at home,” he recalled.
They were trying to keep me out of sight, and my sister too. I was
surprised and scared.”


“I was young,” he said. “I didn’t think a lot about it. All I know is all of a sudden I was told, ‘You’re going to leave.’” 


Like other middle-class Cubans, Eyia’s father didn’t want
to walk away from the business he had grown for 20 years. “He felt
things were going to change and before too long, everything would be
back to normal.” Eyia said.


Norbert Fernandez and his brothers left the Havana
airport Sept. 13, 1961, for the 45-minute flight to Miami. He wasn’t
allowed to take currency out of the country, so his dad packed him up
with two boxes of Cuban cigars to sell in Florida.


“When that plane took off, we left a lot of our childhood
behind,” Fernandez said. “We didn’t know when, or if, we would see our
parents again. We were going to places unknown. We grew up a lot
quicker than most kids.”




Follow the drips


For several days, Fernandez and Eyia stayed at Kendall
Children’s Home, a 60-bed Catholic Social Services camp in rural Dade
County. Soon after, they were transferred to Camp Matecumbe, in
southwestern Dade County on the fringe of the Everglades.


As Operation Pedro Pan continued through the fall of 1961, Matecumbe swelled to 400 boys.


Eyia remembers his first job there: cleaning the swimming
pool. “It was like a summer camp, with the pool and all,” Eyia said. “I
knew English so I didn’t have to go to a lot of the classes. The food
was good.”


As more Pedro Pans flew into Miami, Catholic Social
Services called on contacts across the nation, from prospective host
families to institutions such as Lansing’s St. Vincent Children’s Home,
2800 W. Willow St., where the influential monsignor, John D. Slowey,
sponsored them.


“Where you ended up was just luck of the draw,” Fernandez said.


In early October 1961, Eyia and Fernandez were at Camp
Matecumbe watching the World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers
when a man called them to the office and told them they were going to
Lansing. Fernandez only knew two things about Michigan: the Great Lakes
and the Detroit Tigers.


Neither Eyia nor Fernandez will forget the drive down Michigan Avenue.


“Coming from Cuba, getting up here in October, when it’s
dreary and cold, to an orphanage run by a bunch of nuns — that was a
shock,” Eyia said.


“It’s cloudy, it’s cold, it’s misty, and we’re going to
an orphanage,” Fernandez said. “There are yellow leaves or no leaves.
We’ve never seen this before.”


To hear Eyia and Fernandez describe it, life at St. Vincent’s was a mixture of “Boys’ Town” and “Hogan’s Heroes.”


“The nuns had a tough job,” Fernandez allowed. “We were
normal teenagers. We liked sports, we liked girls, and we didn’t want
to go to bed at 8 o’clock.”


“Some of the nuns were really nice, some of them were,
well … ” Eyia said, leaving the sentence unfinished. “Some of the guys
coped by laughing and giggling all the time. We all adjusted.”


Late one night, Eyia, Fernandez and other boys put on
winter gloves and disconnected the wire to the 6 a.m. bell that rang
for Mass. The next morning, the nuns barged into the rooms with
handbells.


Another skirmish broke out when the boys deemed the required baths disgusting and demanded showers.


“It became a war,” Fernandez said. After they thought the
nuns were asleep, they snuck into the shower. “One day they locked me
in the bathroom while I was in the shower,” Fernandez said. “I almost
had to sleep in there.”


On another memorable night, Fernandez, Eyia and other
boys staged their own Bay of Pigs and raided the walk-in freezer. “In
our minds, the nuns and Monsignor Slowey were eating steaks and lobster
while we were eating bologna,” he said. He quickly added that such
Castro-like thinking was the product of “the 14-year-old mind.”


“I hope they did eat steak, having to deal with us,” he said.


The boys broke into the garage, shimmied down a
dumbwaiter into the kitchen, snuck into the freezer and grabbed cartons
of ice cream and other goodies. After whisking the ice cream to their
rooms, they carried it across the grounds to the girls’ dorm. The nuns
reconstructed the crime by following the sticky drips across the
courtyard.


Tensions over the freezer revolution led to an escape attempt.


“That was an elaborate plan to meet at this building on
the grounds where they kept slats and things,” Fernandez said. “I had
no clue what the hell we were going to do after that.”


The nuns put a stop to that, too.


On occasion, hapless volunteers from MSU who helped mind
the kids at St. Vincent’s were swept up in the mischief. One was Eugene
Buckley, then 19 years old, who later ran unsuccessfully for mayor of
Lansing in 2000. One cold winter afternoon, Eyia and Fernandez were
dispatched to Cristo Rey for confession, with Buckley driving. The boys
didn’t want to go.


“We let the air out of one of his tires,” Fernandez said.


They only made it a few blocks.


While Buckley was fixing his tire, the boys sat in the
back seat and laughed. Fernandez finally made confession, and
apologized, to Buckley 40 years later.


Eyia and Fernandez have fun swapping stories now, but their year at St. Vincent’s wasn’t all hijinks and camaraderie.


“When it gets dark at night, that’s when you think about things,” Fernandez said. “Am I going to see my Mom and Dad again?”




‘I was taller’


Norbert Fernandez’s parents arrived in Lansing in 1962, almost a year after he and his brothers left Cuba.


When he arrived in Lansing, Felix Fernandez described a
small but telling revolutionary vignette to his son. At the airport in
Havana, his father recognized the officer processing his papers as the
man who used to wash his expensive 1957 Impala — made for the American
market, Norbert recalled, because it had a heater.


Now the car was sold, the old life was gone and 40-year-old Felix Fernandez didn’t know what was next.


But Monsignor Slowey seemed to know everybody, from
Spartan head coach Duffy Daugherty to Howard J. Stoddard, founder of
Michigan National Bank. Slowey helped the senior Fernandez get into
intensive English classes and got him a job at Michigan National, where
he retired as a vice president 20 years later.


When it became clear to Eyia’s parents that the
revolution was not a passing phase, they left Cuba to join their son in
Lansing. Eyia’s father arrived in 1963 and found work with the Harris,
Reames and Ambrose accounting firm.


“When I saw my folks again two years later, they hardly
even recognized me,” Eyia said. “My dad had aged incredibly in that
time. I was taller than my mother. That was a strange feeling.”


Eyia and Fernandez went to different schools and lost
touch with each other. Fernandez went to Gabriel’s, now Catholic
Central High School, and Eyia went to the O’Rafferty campus on the west
side, since closed. Fernandez graduated in 1967, was drafted and served
in Vietnam for a year. He went to work for GMAC, retired from there and
now works for Case Credit Union.


The comrades in petty sabotage and theft first
reconnected in the 1970s, when Eyia started Orquesta Ritmo and their
dads started a Cuban-American association.


“You see each other after a long time and it’s like
you’re still kids at St. Vincent’s,” Fernandez said. “Some of the
stories will always be kept here.” He pointed at his chest.


Whether Operation Pedro Pan was a modern miracle or a
mass abduction — a timely rescue or a deliberate brain drain of Cuban
youth and talent — depends on whom you ask. One prominent Pedro Pan
(and University of Michigan graduate), Professor Maria de los Angeles
Torres of the University of Illinois, believes that the CIA spread the
rumor that kids would be taken from their parents.


There may be 14,000 different shades of opinion among the
Pedro Pans themselves, now living all over the country. Among the more
famous are former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, Denver Mayor Guillermo
Vidal and former U.S. Ambassador to Spain Eduardo Aguirre. Latin salsa
man Willy Chirino, himself a Pedro Pan child, wrote “Our Day is
Coming,” the unofficial anthem for Cuban exiles.


Mike Eyia, for one, doesn’t like to be told he was a pawn in a political game.


“That’s a bunch of crap,” he said. “No one had to
indoctrinate me. You can tell what’s right and what’s wrong, and what’s
been going on [in Cuba] for the past 50 years is wrong.”


For his part, Fernandez doesn’t seem to care much whether Tinker Bell was CIA or not.


“For us in Cuba, it didn’t matter,” Fernandez said. “I’ve
thought about it, having kids. I’d like to think I would have had the
courage to do it. I’ve never had any regrets my parents did that. They
gave us a shot we would not have had in Cuba.”


 

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