At Large in the Universe

Long before he bolted from the rehab hospital on his Rascal scooter, Grandad was involved in international espionage.

In the early 1950’s, before Castro overthrew Batista, Grandad’s Lutheran church in Florida started a mission in Havana, Cuba. Several church members formed an advance team and went to Havana to assess the needs for the mission, and during the visit, Grandad — a car dealer — wandered onto a car lot in Havana owned by a man names Jose Paz. Jose spoke little English, but had several partners who did; when cigar-chomping Grandad made his presence known, Jose began calling his partners, who gathered at the dealership within an hour. The group spoke earnestly with Grandad about the revolution on the horizon in Havana – they had serious, and as it would turn out, prescient, fears about what revolution would mean to their livelihoods and fortunes.

Grandad being Grandad — entirely sympathetic to both car dealers and men who wanted to hang on to their hard-earned money –he agreed to bring some of the men’s money out of Cuba for them, with the promise that he would open a bank account on their behalf in the United States.  The group of men exchanged contact information and dispersed to different corners of Havana for the evening, then reassembled at the dealership the next day, where Grandad calmly slit the soles of his shoes, stuffed them full of cash, and re-glued the soles.

shoe ad
Stylish, comfortable, and made for smuggling.

Several times over the next few years, before the ban on American travel to Cuba, Grandad went to Havana and brought back more money in his shoes, which he added to the men’s American bank account. As the account grew, Grandad’s banker, Charlie, began asking questions, and so Grandad did what any natural-born international criminal would do; he told Charlie the truth, thus making the banker complicit in the operation, and putting an end to the questions.

In late 1959, on a Sunday night, the Miami police called Grandad’s house.  Five Cubans on a raft had been picked up by the Coast Guard, and the refugees had given the Coast Guard and Miami PD Grandad’s name and number. Grandad stubbed out his cigar, called his Spanish-speaking friend Del Gado, and set off for Miami, five hours south.

Cuban refugees
90 miles and 900 sharks later….

Grandad, Del Gado, and the five Cubans returned from Miami the following day. Jose and his friends stayed a few days at the house — imagine my grandmother’s delight! —  and then, without much fanfare, divided up the money in the US account while lamenting the millions they’d left behind in Cuba, hidden in caves.  All the men established lives for themselves in Miami except for Jose Paz, who went to Costa Rica and built a successful car dealership there; he and Grandad remained friends until Jose’s death, decades later.

Goodbye to all that.

For a few months after the Cuban Adventure, Grandad tended to his affairs at home, but it wasn’t long until the lure of international intrigue proved too much for him.  He had a good friend named Dr. Keiber, who was an eye surgeon.  The Government of India invited Dr. Keiber to come to Mumbai, all expenses paid, and perform surgeries for two weeks; the doctor’s skills and experience were desperately needed.  Dr. Keiber had two teenage children at the time, and the journey was long and arduous, so his wife chose to stay home with the kids, leaving a round trip ticket, and a hotel room, unused.

Can you guess who wanted to go?

Living traffic lights were worth the trip!

To make things seem “legit” (after all, this was 1960, and two men traveling to India together would have raised a few eyebrows, to say the least), the doctor and Grandad decided that Grandad needed a job title…but one that, while legitimizing his presence, wouldn’t require him to perform any surgeries.

So he made the trip to India as an OB/GYN.

A good week to skip your appointment.

Thankfully, Grandad – esteemed guest of the Government of India – wasn’t called on to do much of anything other than swan around, sightseeing all day while Dr. Keiber removed cataracts, and attending banquets every night.  The two men were wined, dined, and entertained by Indian royalty in ways that were lavish beyond belief – decades later, Grandad still spoke of a dessert that was served in bowls made of gold leaf, pounded so thin that they could be eaten like taco shells.

Ganesh frowns on your shenanigans.

Not all of Grandad’s hijinks took place overseas; many of them were good old American adventures. In the mid-1950’s, for instance, he packed his father, wife, teenage son and toddler daughter into a VW van and headed for the mountains of North Carolina, where he owned a lot of property.  My father, the teenager, was driving, with my great-grandfather riding shotgun and the rest of the family in the back.

The VW had a 36 HP engine, and would chug very slowly up the mountains, and then fly down the other side, propelled forward by all the weight inside the van.   When they finally reached the campground, my great-grandfather told my dad that his leg hurt from helping him work the brakes on the downside of every mountain.

The glorious Smokies!

Unfortunately, a mistake had been made, and the campground reservation didn’t start until the next day, but the campground had three army cots they would loan out for the evening, and a flimsy 20’ by 20’ tarp and rope were for sale at the campground store.  My grandmother and toddler aunt slept in the van, while the three men slept on the cots under the tarp, which was held up by two 8 foot poles, and staked to the ground on all four corners.

After the campground lights were out and everyone had drifted off to sleep, it began to rain lightly. At some point, Grandad rolled over, and his arm landed on something damp and furry between his cot and my dad’s.

Grandad hissed at his son and father until they woke up, and then whispered that they should all consider evacuating the tarp area as quickly as possible.  My great-grandfather, swaddled blissfully like a baby on his cot, insisted on being told why before he would get up, at which point Grandad whispered that he thought there might be a bear inside the tarp.

Hearing this, my great grandfather jumped straight up and took off running — directly into the side of the tarp, which promptly collapsed around him, leaving my father, grandfather and the bear revealed under the stars. The bear took one look at his tent-mates and took off running.

I gotta bounce.

When they finished laughing at my great-grandfather, who was thoroughly entangled in the tarp, the men reset their makeshift tent, righted the cots, and went back to bed. Luckily, the rest of their stay was peaceful, although they did get to watch a group of bears confront a bundle of food that a camper, wise to the ways of the mountains, had hung 10 feet above ground, over a sturdy tree limb.

The bears didn’t even bother trying to untie the knot holding the bundle on the tree. Instead, two of them climbed the tree and made it sway until it was low enough for the third bear to grab…and then the trio ambled away to enjoy a week’s worth of provisions.

Rice Krispies again.

I’m not sure how or why my Grandfather ended up involved in so many shenanigans over the years; whether he courted adventure, or simply responded enthusiastically when adventure presented itself.  Either way, life in his orbit was never boring.  He could be very demanding and very difficult, but the legacy he left behind is an example of a man who was utterly fearless.


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