Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Arab Connection Story

                                                       The Arab Connection Story
                                                   A true story that actually happened
                                      Written 6/6/ 2012 and rewritten 01/03/2016 unedited
                                                               Howard Yasgar

        In 1974, my very best friend was a fellow named Miguel Marquez. Miguel was a Cuban refugee who had lived on a small Island off the North coast of Cuba called Cayo Coco.
        While growing up on a small island, Miguel’s only exposure to a big city was a monthly sailing trip to Havana. Miguel made this trip with his father every month to get supplies.
       Miguel said that they made the trip in their family’s tiny twelve foot wooden sailboat which his dad also used for fishing.
       Miguel told me that once a month when they were in Havana, his father would buy whatever supplies they needed and then, he and Miguel would stop off for a few drinks of rum, as well as doing a little social activity, before they headed back home. So up until 1974, that monthly trip to Havana was Miguel’s only exposure to a big city life
      On their farm on Cayo Coco they grew vegetables and raised a few hogs, and Miguel said that they lived in a typical Cuban farm house with a thatched roof made of palm fronds.
      Miguel was the oldest of four brothers and three sisters, and because Miguel had a good head for making money, he was the leader of the family business cutting down trees and burning them to make cooking charcoal. The charcoal they made was put in burlap bags and sold to a charcoal broker, who supplied them with the burlap bags and took their charcoal to the local market in Havana by boat.
      When it came to running the family business Miguel who was the oldest son, was in charge, and he handled everything.     
      It was back in 1968, when one of Miguel’s brothers, Rudolpho, who was in the Dictator Batista’s army, was machine gunned down by Castro’s men, and he was never able to walk again. Then another one of his brothers was imprisoned for eight years for trying to escape Cuba by boat. That was when Miguel started to realize he was living in a dangerous place and he had better try to escape. So, using all his family’s savings of $8000.00 he paid a fisherman to secretly smuggle him, his wife, his mother and his father, and his step son Jorge out of Cuba.
      One dark evening they were all secretly taken to a small island with a lighthouse called Cayo Lobo, where they were eventually rescued by the U.S. Coastguard.
       From Cayo Lobo the Coast Guard took the family to Key West, and eventually they all ended up in Miami as Cuban refugees. (See the Miguel Marquez Story)
       Once in Miami, Miguel and his family slept on the floor of his uncle Totico’s apartment, and it just happened his uncle Totico was my friend, and he brought Miguel over to see me.
      Miguel’s uncle, Totico Esceverria and his family had once been wealthy land owners in Cuba. Totico had escaped from Cuba when his families land was confiscated about a year before Miguel and his family had escaped.
      Now that Totico was in Miami, he was starting his life all over again selling screened aluminum patios, and that’s how I met him.
      Totico suggested that because Miguel was a good mechanic, that I teach him the automotive electrical rebuilding business. He felt it would be good for Miguel to become a skilled automotive electrical rebuilder to start his new life in America.
      At the time that I met Miguel, it was 1968, and he spoke almost no English, and I spoke very little Spanish, but it quickly became apparent to me that Miguel was not your usual run of the mill refugee. He was a hard worker, and a quick learner and he was very curious about everything that I did, thus you could say that Miguel was not like anyone I had ever met before, he was the first real live, very smart, Cuban “Hill Billy” that I ever met.
      When I first met Miguel he was 39 years old, 10 years older than me. He was a ruggedly handsome guy, about six foot tall, with a Mediterranean complexion. He had a lanky build, and jet black hair. If it wasn’t for his darker complexion we could have been taken for brothers.
      Once Miguel started working for me, I found that he certainly was a very rare in individual, he had lots of natural intelligence and he was also extremely self-confident, as well as quick witted, and he always seemed to have a lot of humorous one line jokes, so in many ways Miguel was like a standup comedian.
      While I was teaching Miguel the rebuilding business, it became my opportunity to learn Spanish, as well as Cuban culture from him, so early on, I started doing my best to teach Miguel English, and in return he taught me what he thought was good Spanish.
      He told me all about his life in Cuba, as well as all about his family, so it wasn’t long before we became very close friends, and my wife and I were invited to all the Marquez family functions.
      I think, at first, Miguel’s family was very surprised to see that he had a real American friend that was helping him to adjust to his new life in the United States. Miguel himself told me that he was especially happy that we were friends. He said, because having me with him, he was able to go into American style restaurants and stores, and places that he never would have ventured on his own.
      As the years went by, Miguel and I began to converse with each other easily. Miguel spoke a lot of words in very poor English and I spoke a lot of words in very poor Spanish. It was a very humorous conversation, as no one, either American or Spanish, could understand what the hell we were talking about, but we were able to understand each other perfectly, it was like our own language.
      By 1974 Miguel and I had now become almost like brothers. During the day, I employed him at my automotive parts rebuilding company, and on the weekends I also employed Miguel and his father in a small metals refining business that I had started.
      So it was in the summer of 1974, when my wife said she was planning on taking a summer camp vacation with my son and daughter. Knowing that, I thought it gave me the opportunity to make a long awaited business trip to Connecticut and New York.
      I also thought that it might also be an excellent opportunity to show Miguel all about
New York City, and then I could also show him where I had lived in Westville Connecticut.
      When I mentioned the trip to Miguel, he became very excited, and said he definitely wanted to go with me, and he asked me how I was planning to get to New York.
     I told him that we would fly to New York, then rent a car there, and then drive to Connecticut.
     That’s when Miguel told me that he couldn’t fly. At the time there was a rash of plane hijackings going on, with many of the planes being diverted to Cuba. Miguel said that if we were ever hijacked to Cuba, Castro would put him in jail forever.
    Miguel said, “What about the train, we can go to New York by train”. Well, as far as I was concerned, I had ridden on trains several times in the past and I wasn’t too excited about doing it again. I thought trains were a very slow and antiquated way of getting anywhere. On the other hand, perhaps a slow trip to New York with Miguel, could be fun. I thought we could both sit in the train’s club car, have a few drinks and tell each other jokes.
      I purchased two round trip tickets on the Amtrak train going to New York City, so late on a Saturday afternoon, we boarded the train in down town Miami and quickly found a couple of seats in an almost empty passenger car.
     We put our two suitcases on the overhead racks above the windows, and then we tried to sit down and make ourselves comfortable. Miguel fooled around with adjusting his seat for about half an hour, I could see he was having a good time, as this was his first time ever with an adjustable seat. As he fiddled with it, he was joking around and making wisecracks about everything, always keeping me laughing.
     The train started moving, and we immediately felt that our car was air conditioned, because the cold air seemed to be blowing directly on us, so we adjusted our seats to lean back and tried to take a nap as we really had nothing better to do.
      I think we slept a couple of hours, and we both woke up at the same time sweating profusely. It appeared that the air conditioning in the car had stopped working, and it was now sweltering hot sitting there, so I suggested we go to the rear of the train and possibly find a bar and get a cold drink.
      The train was rolling along a fast rate of speed, as Miguel and I started walking through all the wobbling cars, looking for the observation car that had the bar in it.
      After going through five or six cars, we finally found it, so Miguel and I spent the next few hours drinking rum and cokes, and talking to some of the other passengers.
      As we sat there, having our drinks, we couldn’t help but notice the constant bumping and screeching of brakes, as additional railroad cars were either being added on or taken off. But after we had three or four drinks, none of those screeches or bumping noises bothered us anymore.
      It must have been way after two in the morning when the observation car finally emptied out and the bar closed, so we decided to try and return to our seats where our luggage was. I admit that we were quite drunk, and ready to hit the sack for the evening.
      As we started walking back through all the jiggling cars, we didn’t recognize any of them. We finally realized that we must have missed the car with our luggage.
      Being drunk, Miguel started joking and accusing the railroad of stealing our luggage. I have to admit I was a little concerned as to where the hell my suitcase were, so I was more than happy to see a conductor. He said they had added a few cars since we left Miami and our seats and suitcases were a few cars ahead.
      We eventually found our seats and it appeared that our air conditioning was working fine, so we tried to get a little sleep, but after about twenty minutes Miguel said he was freezing, it appeared our train car was getting colder, and as we lay there it soon became like a refrigerator and we both had goose bumps.
     I got up and found some old Miami Herald newspapers that someone had left on a seat, and we each took some pages out and covered ourselves, just like the bums do on a cold evening and it worked. However, after about fifteen minutes, we both again woke up as the air conditioning had shut off, and it now had become sweltering hot again. I think by then, we were too worn out to consider moving to another car, so we stayed there until morning, with the cars temperature alternating between freezing cold and sweating hot.
      Once we were in New York City, I rented a car and we drove the seventy miles to my former home town of Westville in Connecticut, and after sightseeing, by late in the afternoon, we headed back to New York City.
      Before we hit the New York border, I stopped to talk to several marinas that were located on the Connecticut River, as it was one of the reasons I had come to New York and Connecticut in the first place.
      In New York City, we stayed in a hotel on 10th Avenue, and I took Miguel on a walking tour to see the sights, and that walk became the experience of a lifetime for Miguel. When we finally we stopped for a drink on 42 street, Miguel was amazed at all the strange and weird people he saw hanging around. I enjoyed watching him as he kept shaking his head, he said he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
     After a few drinks, and as we were returning to our hotel, I saw a cop running across the street with his gun in his hand, then, we heard several gunshots, so I pushed Miguel into a storefront, just in case a bullet came our way. Miguel wanted to know who was setting off the fire crackers. I told him he was in New York City and it wasn’t fireworks he was hearing, the cop was probably shooting at someone.
    The next morning we woke up to the news that the railroad was on strike, and we now had no way of returning home to Miami.
      I asked the desk clerk what people were doing to get home, and he said, hurry up and go to the Greyhound bus station and get bus tickets to Miami, so we did.
     The line for bus tickets was already very long, and we stood there and waited, and as we waited, we were watching the news on televisions sets that were on in the various store front windows. Little by little, everyone was getting irritated, and this became one of the few times I ever had a disagreement with Miguel.
     The television news station had just mentioned that someone who had just died of cancer. Miguel looked at me and he said “No one in Cuba ever died of cancer”. I didn’t quite know what to say to him, as I didn’t know if he was serious or not.
     I waited a minute and I asked him why the people in Cuba died. Miguel was silent for a moment and he said, mostly they die from eating bad pork or bad cheese. I was dumbfounded, so I asked Miguel if he ever heard of anybody doing an autopsy in Cuba to determine how someone really had died, that’s when I could see Miguel was getting real mad at me, so I dropped the subject.
      We finally boarded the bus that evening, and luckily found two comfortable seats next to each other. Neither of us knew what to expect, and the trip turned out to be real interesting.
     The bus seemed to stop at every hick town along the highway, letting people off and picking up some new ones. As people left, new ones got on and the seating arrangements changed, so we were having fun just watching all the people. Some that were getting on had suitcases and clothes that looked like they came from someone’s trash pile.
     Every several hours, the bus made regular rest stops, letting all the passengers off to use bathrooms and get something to eat. The only problem was, that when you got back on the bus, sometimes someone else might be in your seat, this happened to us a couple of times.
     Once while we were in Georgia, I saw Miguel sitting a few rows in front of me. I was near the rear of the bus on the left side, and Miguel was sitting on a right hand isle seat. Miguel was sitting with his body completely turned towards the center isle of the bus, it was the most uncomfortable sitting position I had ever seen.
     Sitting next to Miguel, was a young thin black girl about sixteen or seventeen years old.
     Eventually the bus stopped at some obscure bus stop along the side of the highway and the girl got off. That’s when Miguel came back and sat next to me. He pinched his nose with his fingers and said the young girl had such bad B.O. that he thought it was going to kill him.
     As we entered the state of Florida, Miguel and I were sitting together near the front of the bus, we were sitting right behind the driver.
     I noticed there were two young dark complexioned guys sitting behind us. I had first noticed them when we boarded in New York City, and I had guessed they might be from some foreign country.
     So now, as we sat there, Miguel and I tried to listen to their conversation when they talked together, we couldn’t recognize one word of whatever language they were speaking.
     After about an hour of listening to them, my curiosity got the best of me and I looked over the back of the seat and I asked the two guys where they were from. “We are from Lebanon,” they replied in perfect English. I told Miguel that they were from Lebanon, and then, I told them Miguel was from Cuba, and I was from Miami. That started us all on a long conversation.
      The fellows said that they were both nineteen years old, and they came to the United States to learn to become helicopter pilots. They both spoke fluent English, French and Arabic. Their families had heard that there was a shortage of helicopter pilots on the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, and they heard that the Saudi’s were paying big money for helicopter pilots.
      I was surprised at how perfect their English was, they spoke without even a trace of a foreign accent. Then they said that they both came from middle class families in Lebanon and their families had scrimped and scraped every penny they could to send them to a flight school that was located somewhere in the Miami area .They told us that their families had saved every penny they earned and bought U.S. currency. All of the U.S, currency was tied into bundles of small bills and then they were carefully stacked into their suitcases. Then they told me that their flight from Beirut Lebanon, changed planes in Paris France, and while they were at the Paris airport they met two innocent looking pretty girls.
      When they woke up in the morning, their suitcases were empty and the girls were gone. The only money they had left was in a small carry on bag with about 30 bundles of U.S. one dollar bills. Both guys said that they were afraid to call their parents to tell them what had happened.
      As we listened to their story, they asked if we knew of any flight schools in Miami where they could talk to someone. I told them that I knew of several flight schools located in the Miami area but they would have to contact the schools directly themselves for more information.
     I said, once we arrived in Miami, I would be happy to make a list of the flight schools, but they would have to wait until Monday morning to call them.
     Both of the fellows seemed very appreciative of my assistance in helping them, but
Miguel quietly told me, that he thought the two guys were a couple of idiots.
     Once we arrived in Miami, I invited them to come with us to pick up my car parked at the train station. Then I said we could stop by my house and I would look in the yellow pages and get them some phone numbers of flight schools, they agreed.
      I dropped Miguel off at his house and then drove to my home with the two Arab guys, then at my house, I wrote down the phone numbers and addresses of the flight schools and gave it to them.
      My family was still away for another four days so I asked the guys if they were hungry, and they said yes, they hadn’t eaten in two days, so I cooked up some hot dogs.
I knew they had only a little money left, so I suggested that perhaps they stay with me overnight and in the morning, I would drive them to the closest flight school on my way to work, they thought that was a good idea.
      In the morning, I saw them looking inside their small carry bag they still had several bundles of well used American one dollar bills. I looked inside the bag myself and I saw that they couldn’t have had more than a few hundred dollars left.
      I made them breakfast and I gave each of them each a twenty dollar bill, the two guys were overwhelmed and said that they didn’t know how to thank me. I told them that no thanks were necessary, as I was happy to help them.
      As we were getting ready to leave my house, they sat on the sofa in my living room and said they had something to give me. They handed me a Lebanese business card with several names and phone numbers written on the back of it.
      They said that I should call the first telephone number on the card, it was in Beirut Lebanon, and they said, I should mention their names. They said that the fellow who was on the card could supply me with all the counterfeit U.S. Fifty dollar bills that I wanted for $20.00 ea.
      I didn’t quite know what to say. So I said, thank you but I had no need of any counterfeit currency.
      They both looked at each other and said “If that was the case, I should call the second telephone number on the back of the card and that fellow was a contact to get all the cocaine I wanted and he would send to the U.S.A.” I said that the cocaine business was also not for me.” I told them, that people in Miami were caught every day smuggling cocaine into the United States. “Not these people.” they said, so I asked them, what do they do that’s so different?” One of the Arabs said, “In Lebanon they washed clothing and blankets in water containing dissolved cocaine. And they added something that changed the smell. Once in America they wash the clothing again and recover the drugs.”
       I didn’t want to listen to any more of the conversation or hear about the third telephone number, so I took the card and motioned for them to get their bags into my car, and I drove them to a flight school located near my office.
       I can only assume that by today they are either pilot’s in Saudi Arabia, or in prison in the U.S.A.  I gave their card to a family friend who was a detective in Miami.
       He wasn’t exactly excited with my information.

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