Home Culture and Society A different view of July 4th… – Barry Koplen

A different view of July 4th… – Barry Koplen

In so many ways, we were on a mission, my friend’s mission. I didn’t fully understand it because I’d never seen what he was doing. In fact, although he’d ask me to travel with him, he’d given me very few details.

What had attracted me to join him was that it was not a typical sunburned vacation at a beach. Although there were beaches where we were going to be, he didn’t remind me to bring a swim suit.

Getting there was tricky for me because he was already there. Since I had to take the route he had taken, I had to fly to Cancun, Mexico to catch a plane from there to Havana, Cuba, a place I’d never been.

At the time, Americans were not supposed to go to Cuba. If caught, those Americans who went would be charged as much $50,000.

But my friend assured me I wouldn’t be caught. He’d done what I was about to do more than a dozen times.

To my surprise, my short flight to Havana ended pleasantly. I was welcomed into the country after my passport was verified. But it wasn’t stamped by the Cubans! They were happy to see me and my American dollars.

What I saw there during my entire trip would take too many pages to describe. Almost all of it was fascinating, exciting, and inexpensive. The people I met there were friendly and good-hearted; many of them shared their meager meals of black beans and rice with my friend and me.

Someday, I will write about them all. For now, since it’s almost July 4th, I want to write about the mission my friend completed, the one he knew I would care so much about.

Without any idea about where we were going, I followed my friend to an apartment building. There we climbed the stairs to a second-floor apartment my friend had visited many times.

Although three generations lived in that apartment, my friend was there to see the nineteen-year-old who was the third generation.

All of us had gathered around the dining room table. As they spoke about life in Havana, about monthly wages that had been the same for years, twenty dollars regardless of the kind employment, I understood why beans and rice were their daily staples.

Although it was illegal, many Cubans also took parttime jobs for cash. Knowing they would be punished if caught didn’t stop them from trying to better their families’ lives.

As the teenaged Cuban began to explain his dilemma regarding a job he wanted, he walked to the side of the room and retrieved his bicycle. He appeared to be heartbroken because he couldn’t help his parents and grandparents; the job he could have had required a bike. And his was broken.

It needed a part that would have cost about twenty dollars in the States. He had never had twenty extra dollars. But he did know how to take apart and put together his bicycle because he had done it so many times. It was that old. And he had been able to find or trade for parts.

Except this one, the twenty-dollar part. In Havana, no one traded a part that was that expensive.

Helpless and sad as I felt, I didn’t notice my friend as he opened his knapsack.

To my surprise, he pulled out the exact piece the teenager from Havana had needed.

The family gasped, then cheered as they surrounded and embraced my friend and me. They thanked us both as if we were angels.

Then we sat down and shared small plates of black beans and rice.

To me, our meal was as delicious as the freedom I knew I would enjoy even more when I returned home to Virginia on July 4th

B.Koplen    7/3/22