The Coast Guard Academy’s long cruise in the summer of 1956, our first class year, took us to the Caribbean. We called at Puerto Rico and Panama, but the port we all waited for lay before us—Havana, Cuba. A small crowd gathered on the estuary waiting for the fleet of taxi-boats to carry them to our berth next to the coal piers. They were doing a brisk business. It was Sunday and hundreds of visitors swarmed the Eagle, mostly Cubans, but some American vacationers.
The ships PA system interrupted our noisy liberty planning session. “Our Ambassador to Cuba, Mr. Arthur Gardner, and his wife has invited first class cadets to a dance party at their quarters. There is a sign-up sheet on the forward mess deck–it will be filled before liberty is granted.
The uniform is service dress white. A bus will be on the pier for transportation.”
Someone broke the silent disappointment, “Oh, come on guys, it might be interesting. Remember it is an official affair. We’ll hang out for an hour or so, do the receiving line bit, and we’ll be out of there. We may still have time to get to the city. Besides, this is only our first day; we’ll still have time for other stuff.” I followed the lead, and resignedly shuffled my way to the sign-up sheet.
Captain Zittel, our officer-in-charge (O-I-C) stood at the front of the bus. With a practiced glance he gave each a quick once-over as we boarded: whites-ok, cap covers-clean, white shoes-polished. Clearly he expected a zero-defect visit.
The Captain continued his briefing, “This is an official visit. It’s not expected to be long. A departure line will be formed when I signal. Conduct yourselves in the same manner as in our Academy receiving lines at any monthly formal. Thank the Ambassador and his wife for their hospitality, shake hands, and keep it moving. The bus will be outside for the return to the ships.” Then he paused for effect.
“As to drinking—official regulations forbid it—but we will suspend the regulations for the occasion. If the Ambassador should offer, you may accept, and I know you will conduct yourselves as gentlemen.”
“Well, at least that’s something,” an unidentified mumble rose from the back of the bus, followed by a low chorus of stifled snickers. Captain Zittel said nothing.
We arrived at the Ambassador’s quarters and were ushered directly to the magnificent patio surrounded by lush gardens and beautifully set tables. We could hear the lively beat of a Cuban band above the crowd’s murmur. A number of guests were already there, and our arrival sparked a rise in the background noise. Several adult couples, presumably embassy personnel and Cuban dignitaries, moved to greet us as we entered like a small army.
The first surprise of the evening was when a mini-mob of unaccompanied young women, swaying in pretty cocktail dresses to the Latin rhythms, headed our way. Ambassador Gardner’s plans for the evening thoughtfully included inviting a number of debutantes. They were described in a photo accompanying an article in the Havana Post the following day as “50 Havana beauties.” Judging from their smiles as they mingled to introduce themselves, coaxing us directly to the dance floor, they had been looking forward to the party more than we had.
The Ambassador, slightly heavy-set and balding, along with his gracious wife, mingled, making small talk, generally checking if we were having a good time. “Be sure you take time to meet Ernest Hemingway.” he said. “He and his wife, Mary, have been looking forward to meeting you and are really interested in your Eagle adventures.”
It did not take long to find him. His dark businessman’s suit and plain tie stood out behind the wall of dress whites that surrounded him like bars in a cage. An occasional pop of a newspaper photographer’s flash was a beacon to his entourage. Hemingway sported a neatly trimmed white beard that framed his square face into a block. He was a tall, powerfully built man with deep facial lines from years of outdoor adventures. He seemed to enjoy the animated conversation, drink in hand, asking about our summer on the Eagle.
I joined a small group across the room to engage in pleasant conversation with Mary Hemingway. She was an attractive woman with short swept-back hair. She had a narrow face, and a small mouth that she pursed into a pretty smile. She was wearing a single pearl choker and carried a small black handbag under her arm. She cradled her drink in white gloved hands. The Havana Post photographer snapped a picture of four of us that appeared in the morning paper.
The party had been in swing for over an hour when Captain Zittel thought it appropriate that we take our leave. He collared a couple of cadets to start the receiving line. When he approached the ambassador’s wife, however, she exclaimed, “Oh Captain, you can’t be serious. These young people are just beginning to have fun. Let them stay and dance for awhile.” The Captain, without much choice, turned to the cadets, hunched his shoulders and ordered, “Well, carry on men.”
And, carry on we did!