Christmas Eve, 1955. Lane Dwinell was Governor, Dwight Eisenhower was President, and Pius XII was Pope.
Hanukkah began that year on Christmas Day, but I don’t remember lighting the candles to commemorate the Maccabee brothers, leaders of a Jewish rebel army. For those not familiar with the story, they led a revolt against a wicked king, liberated the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and got eight days of light out of one day’s worth of oil.
I do remember that on Christmas Eve I went with my girlfriend Carol to Midnight Mass. It was in Latin, so I didn’t understand a word, even though I took Latin at Stevens High School. Of course I didn’t understand Hebrew either, even though I had gone to Hebrew School at Temple Myer-David.
On Christmas Day, Ernest T (“Coca Cola”) and Jane Smith, their son Bill, and I embarked on a Greek Line ship, the T.S.S. Olympia, bound for Nassau and Havana. Batista was Cuba’s president, but the bad guy of the hemisphere was the Dominican dictator, Generalisimo Trujillo. Hardly anyone had heard of the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, rebel army leaders who fled the country that year to avoid prison.
Back then, Cuba was our friend, and we all knew a Cuban musician’s hit song, “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.” In Havana, I drank rum and smoked a cigar, both of which were perfectly legal under Cuban law but probably not a good idea for a sixteen-year old from New Hampshire.
For most of the decades since that trip, Cuba has been on this country’s “enemies list.” Countless Cubans have fled their country, and for the last twenty years those who made it to Florida were allowed to stay. This is known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, meaning that if you got caught at sea (wet foot) you had to go back, but if you made it to land (dry foot) you could stay. Last year major league baseball had nineteen dry foot players, including five all-stars, José Abreu, Yoenis Céspedes, Aroldis Chapman, Yasiel Puig, and Alexei Ramirez.
Cuba has been in the news lately. After secret talks in Canada, President Obama announced that the long diplomatic thaw has ended. The President thanked Pope Francis for his role in the restoration of relations.
Last September, the Pope was taking a walk in St. Peter’s Square and someone threw him a baseball. It wasn’t a very good throw, and he could have ducked, but he didn’t; he jumped and tried to catch it. The Pope will be in Philadelphia next September and, as luck would have it, the Phillies will be playing at home against the Padres. Maybe His Eminence can throw out the first pitch!
Part of this latest Cuba development was the release of prisoners. We gave up some spies, and they gave up one of ours, a man named Rolando Trujillo – no relation to the dictator so far as I know. They also gave up a man named Alan Gross, an American citizen jailed for the “crime” of bringing satellite phones and computer equipment to Cuba without a permit. So he spent five Christmases in a Cuban jail.
Hanukkah 2014 began at sundown on December 16, and Alan Gross got home the next day. While most Cubans and Americans were decorating their Christmas trees, he was able to join his family in time to kindle the holiday candles. “I guess so far it’s the best Hanukkah that I’ll be celebrating,” he said. “What a blessing it is to be a citizen of this country.”