Terminal Baggage

Two old high school friends meet in an airport lounge for the first time in years.

Pete: Oh my god Josh, is that you – holy shit, it is you. My god, Josh (Josh and Peter hug.)

Josh. It’s been so long; what, must be seven, eight years? (they step back but still holding each others elbows) Wow – you’re looking good. I see you’ve put on a bit of weight – (laughs) Hey, I’m married now –a year and a half. Holly’s everything I dreamed of and we’ve got a beautiful son Aaron who’s 4 months. Can you believe it?

Pete: You always were a player. (They stand back from each other)

Josh: Well, you know – there always were women around…how about you?

Pete: I guess I never really found the right girl.

Josh. What about…um…what’s her name. Jenny?

Pete: That’s right, what’s her name. She left when the money ran out.

Josh: Wha’de’yah mean the money ran out?

Pete:m diabetic: type 1. The bills kept running up and I had to go on long term disability. It took a while to diagnose and the job was having layoffs anyway, so I was on unemployment that ran out after six months. It was a real roller coaster for a while.

Josh: Oh no, that’s terrible.

Pete: Yeah, so things got more strained between us and Jenny left. She took the dog.

Josh: So what are you doing now?

Pete: Still looking for work, hard to find a job as a bureaucrat these days – no skills really (chuckles.)

Josh: Wow (too emphatically)

Pete: Yeah…wow. It’s ironic that I’m still getting a government cheque though (chuckles again. (Josh doesn’t laugh)

Josh: So…?

Pete: Yeah…so.

Josh: So what else… how’s your mom and stuff?

Pete: Oh Fine, fine. Everyone’s fine I guess. What about you?

Josh: Who me? Everyone’s great! Mom and Dad spend most of their time at the cottage. Dad’s got a hobby where he’s fixin’ up an old Chev – He can’t stop talking about it. Holly says it’s his second lover. Mom does the usual – walks the dog, and reads n’ bakes.

Pete: Sarah died four years ago.

Josh: What?

Pete: Cancer. Came as a surprise and took her in months. Never smoked, was a lot healthier than most of us, right to her brain. She lost a lot of weight by the end – didn’t look like her at all.

Josh: Peter, I’m so sorry. That’s terrible.

Pete: Yeah. I think it took Dad the hardest. Sometimes he just sits in his Lazyboy and stares out the window – I think he’s imagining Sarah getting off the bus and running up the driveway like she was ten. She was always his favourite, probably because she never had kids. Just like me I guess. He’d rather think she never grew up or something.

Josh: That’s sad.

Pete: Not really – if you can’t live with the present, at least you have the memories of a better past.

Josh: I guess so.

Pete: Seven years. Wow man, it’s good to see you. It’s really good to see you. What are you doing now?

Josh: Well that’s why I’m here actually – I’m a regional sales director for the Southwest, took me only three years with Michigan tire and auto. Here, here’s my card.

Pete: Michigan tire – wow. (Sings jingle) We’re more than just tires; we’re Michigan tire and Auto.

Josh: That’s right.

Pete: (Quickly) got any Jobs?

Josh: Well, not really. Most of our work is technical unless we hire college kids with no skills. No, I didn’t mean that. That’s not what I meant. Hey sorry.

Pete: It’s O.K; I can’t see myself in red polyester anyway. (Both laugh – nervously.)

Josh: Listen, that’s my boarding call. Well, the first one anyway. I have to pick something up for Aaron and Holly before I get on. Give me your number. We should get together some time and really catch up.

Pete: Yeah, sure. Here you go (searches for pen.)

Josh: Here’s one of ours…

Pete: We’re more than just tires…

Josh: Yeah, that’s right. Keep it.

Pete: Here

Josh: Thanks.

Pete: Well, I guess this is goodbye.

Josh: For now.

Pete: See you later then?

Josh: Sure. (Josh picks up his overnight and starts to walk away, and turns back) Hey Peter?

Pete: Yeah?

Josh: Aeron was born 12 weeks prematurely.

Pete: I’m sorry is he ok?

Josh: He is now. It was touch and go. I stayed with Holly for two weeks in the hospital sleeping there nearly every night. She lost a lot of blood at first. They almost fired me at work because I missed so much time – came really close.

Pete: Josh, That’s terrible.

Josh: Yeah. Never felt so scared and alone in my life.

Pete: Funny that.

Josh: Yeah tell me about it. It’s all O.K. now. Hey, listen. What are you doing later this month?

Pete: Let me check my calendar (looks up at the ceiling) – nothing, why?

Josh: I’d like to have you over and meet Holly and the little guy; time to pick up where we left off?

Pete: You know we don’t have to

Josh: Yes we do.

Pete: I’d like that.

Josh: Let’s make it a date. Give me a call and we’ll set it up.

Pete: Yeah, I sure will.

Josh: Good to see you again.

Pete: Thanks Josh. Bye now.

Josh. Goodbye Pete.

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The Old Man and the Seas

Prologue: It’s a small story – perhaps worth telling – a piece of truth wrapped in fiction… as much about the contrast between hardships and the search for happiness and might go something like this:

The Malecon curves away from Vieja and around the Hotel Nacional in the distant haze. Here, the sun pins the crumbling birds egg blue or bleached yellow facades of Havana’s once glorious sea front between the crashing surf and deep blue sky. Taxis and buses dodge one another, cheekily honking horns as much in anticipation as of any marked route.

Donald Reginald McReary was born several thousand miles away over 80 years ago. As an  Albino, in those days, he knew he wouldn’t be able to support a family early on with his limited vision, so he never married – but nevertheless he was determined to make a go of it. In Hamilton, Ontario, he left school at 13 just after the Second World War, and took any job he could find. 

Sitting in Veradero Airport’s smoking lounge Don looks like a man at the Legion with his quilted, plaid coat with the red lining on this cool morning – his white cane sitting folded up on the small table, waiting for his flight back to Canada. Remarkably he has been visiting Cuba for over 25 years and has made many friends throughout his adventures.

One of the first things Don tells you from behind thick glasses is that you don’t need a lot of things in your life to find happiness and he should know. He was abandoned as a child by parents who, out of poverty, couldn’t take care of his needs. He lived in a boarding house of sorts paying money from paper routes to the household keep. He earned enough to manage five dollars a month which, as he tells it, was never raised for  the next 12 years until he moved out at 21. By this time he had mapped out paper routes all  over Hamilton delivering several editions at the same time. 

The tourist resort economy in Cuba began to hit it’s stride in the late 90’s. On the streets of Vieja – the old quarter of Havana – you can buy a paper sleeve of peanuts for as little as 10 cents. For us, the hawkers are a reminder that Cuba is developing and extreme poverty exists. It’s otherworldly everywhere you turn. Service is poor in restaurants though the food is quite good. Bike taxis are everywhere and you have to keep your head down at cobble stone intersections to avoid the constant barrage of requests to be spirited away on three wheels, usually from a Cuban the age of an out of school Don McReary.

Like many born into difficult circumstance, Don was filled with ambition. His was to make something of himself and land on his own two feet. Years later at the Veradero Airport he tells  of walking through the mountains near Trinidad on the South coast of Cuba where he had taken a bus. The sun was low and affected his limited vision. He slipped and fell – breaking his arm. As he says, he lay there for 20 minutes before a taxi happened by and helped him get to his billet in the town. He knew the countryside as well as the city and named off several small communities and some of their hotels. He has problems with his right arm ever since and uses his left hand to support his right when he shakes yours.

High up above the Malecon the Hotel Nacional perches like a great peacock proud of itself. Tourists sit leisurely in the oversized outdoor rattan furniture protected from the pedlars by the Malecon below and an army of blue suited security at the front door. The view of the ocean is spectacular in itself however two treasures are found on the grounds. The first, two massive rusty canons remain installed since the Spanish American war when they shelled unsuspecting ships. More interesting however are the trenches dug during the 13 day standoff with the United States over nuclear  missiles based on the island in what is universally known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Everywhere you go in Cuba you are reminded by one billboard or another that the Cuban people are a proud people, at least that is what the official propaganda instills in the unsuspecting tourists – reminders that this is still a nation under siege, reminders that politically at least, state control is apparent. In the late 1980’s Cuban’s experienced a more quiet revolution of sorts, around about the the time Don McReary started visiting. His story is that while the Cuban’s are proud, they nevertheless extend courtesy to strangers and are warm and giving – in sharp contrast to the tourist experience in Havana at least.

Don gestures to his empty plastic glass on the table and reminds us that Cubans love to dance. He earned the nickname “non-stop” he says of his dancing in those early years. He’d start the night with just one drink of rum and by the wee hours in the morning he’d still have a quarter left because he had danced with one young Cuban lady after another, not allowing time for indulging in heavy drinking. They would be lined up waiting to dance with him.

The quiet revolution is as much a social revolution as political.  Cuba relied heavily on oil from the former Soviet Union and fashioned large scale production of food much the same way as North America. This investment in high priced agriculture was no longer sustainable after the collapse of the Eastern Block and Cuba turned to methods which are innovative and internationally applauded. In many ways, diversity has been reinstated and traditional farming re-introduced.

Cuban’s have a different approach to life under adversity. This is the Cuba Don speaks off. It’s not too much of a stretch that with his limited advancement during his formative years he has discovered something far away from the tourist spots and, over the years has become familiar with the Cuba of the people that you don’t see on billboards. Don is here in Cuba because he is proud of the Cuban people, their resilience matches his, their history and culture are rich, and their persistence in the face of adversity is incomparable. Don Reginald McReary is one of them and he is happy being so.

Epilogue: Truth is, we never got Don’s real name. Strangers passing in an airport with just enough time to share a story or two…maybe three. One thing I do know, the old man we met will be back soon.