Thursday, July 1, 2010


I did 2 years there. Seriously! Sometimes being the class clown costs you credibility. But Daddy was a Naval officer for 32 years and we truly spent two of them at Gitmo in Cuba. Those were my pre-adolescent years and some of my life's best memories!

Before Guantanamo Bay became a dirty word, infamously associated with terrorists, it was our home. We felt like we landed in paradise, a two-year tropical vacation.
We'd watch free movies in the balmy outdoor theaters.

There was plenty of time for hobbies. Bert took up photography and I was his model. He developed this shot in the base's hobby shop darkroom.

"Children! Come outside! Quickly!" Mama called from our front yard. We came running as she pointed and gasped, "Look at that!" Our eyes followed the tanned line of her arm to her finger and beyond. What we saw was layered beauty: a flame tree with red trumpet flowers bursting like fireworks across the street; beyond that stretched the aqua Caribbean water flowing to the horizon. The sunset was ablaze with coral, pink and orange splashes, against an azure blue sky, dotted with white puffed clouds. It truly was God's majesty, proclaimed in nature like we'd never seen.

Evening after evening she'd step out and call us to come see God's daily masterpiece. Her enthusiasm never waned, though ours did. She once asked a Cuban lady, "Do you ever get used to it? Your beautiful sunsets?"

"Qué, Missy?" Gringos can be weird.

They probably do take it for granted just as we do our blessings. Running water from clean faucets would make Haitian mothers clamor, "Children! Come look!"

The gate between the US Naval base and the Cuban side
Life was slow on the base. Literally. The speed limit and base size restricted pace and movement. I don't know what this means but you mechanics will. The carbon built up in the cars because they ambled along at 20 mph. So occasionally folks drove them out to the gate at warp speeds of 50 mph to blow out the carbon.

Everyone shopped at the same commissaries (groceries) and exchanges (hm-mm...kinda' like department stores but smaller, less fancy.) So when you got birthday cards from friends, you got a lot of the same one. Easter dresses met themselves Sunday morning all through the base chapel.

Mama would sit and listen to me try to play the huge chapel organ before school weekday mornings.

The chapel. There were only two services--Catholic mass then the altar rotated for Protestant church. Baptists, Lutherans, Church of God, Methodists all worshipped together.

Bill Burnett, a single sailor, played the huge pipe organ for chapel. He gave me some informal instruction. Our family adopted him and other young sailors away from home and kin. Sunday nights found them in our living room for sandwiches in a place that felt homey.

One day a fair-skinned, redheaded Cuban teacher brought some elementary school children from Havana for a day on base. Her father, a Baptist minister, had a church school and Gabriella Molina was their music teacher. Both she and Bill were trained (in America) pianists.

Cliches are not part of good writing. They made beautiful music together. That's no cliche. Four hand duets on classical pieces rang out for any ears in the vicinity. That led to more visits, a romance and eventually a wedding.

My 12-year old eyes and ears couldn't get enough of either the music that played from our home on my piano or the love story unfolding before my wide eyes. They inspired me to practice piano like never before.

For Gabby, her nickname, marrying Bill, however, would mean leaving her country, family, friends, beloved church and school. Communist Cuba would never allow that so she came one day on a pass but never returned. She defected with only her purse in hand.

There was a civil ceremony to satisfy the legal requirement of two countries. Then a chapel wedding was planned for a few days later. Her family got one-day passes to come. However, they were stopped at the gate when the Cuban guards recognized formal attire, her sisters' bridesmaid dresses. When Gabby realized they would not make it, she smiled and said, "Let's proceed."

"Kathy, would you step in for my sister and be my maid of honor?"

Tearfully I said, "Of course I will, Gabby, but..."

"No buts. It's going to be a happy day!" she beamed.

It was. She and Bill radiated joy but there was not a dry eye watching.

At their reception, suddenly her family appeared. They'd been released to come, too late for the ceremony but not the joy. Spanish and hands flew like firecrackers as they greeted and hugged each other.

We watched silently and saw one relative after another reach under their clothing and pull out a fork, a serving spoon, a butter knife. They'd smuggled her silver across the line and presented it to her, piece by piece. She in turn gave them white cloths. We watched them wad up the fabric then bend down to rub them in the dirty driveway.

Puzzled by the sight, someone asked and the answer came, "They're cloth diapers. They can't get them in Cuba so they're making them look like rags. Hopefully the guards won't confiscate them when they return home tonight. It worked!

It took several years and continents, via Spain, but eventually Gabby's family also left Cuba and made their way to America.

As a little girl, I learned valuable lessons about family, music, love, freedom and joy from my very own hero and heroine, Bill Burnette and Gabriella Molina. They were my living Ken and Barbie!

So this 4th of July, I'll sing more than a song. I'll sing the prayer:
God, bless America, land that I love.
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains to the prairies,
To the oceans white with foam.
God, bless America, my home sweet home.

Don't miss Celine's stirring appearance here in my blog!


  1. Jack Williams is my friend, writing mentor and former editor of Contact magazine:

    Jack Williams to me


    This is a great column. Thank you for writing it. That’s quite a story. Sure hope the couple is still together after these long years and the effort to get married.


  2. Thank you, Jack. They would be in their late 80's by now, if still living. They did not marry young. We lost touch but they visited us about 20 years after Cuba, in Raleigh maybe in the '80's, still joyously married.

    Do you remember years ago I wrote an article (cover of Contact, may have won the writing contest but not sure) on this story? It was a slightly different slant called The Bride and the Bayonet, focusing on that civil ceremony. Then I found these old black and whites from the chapel ceremony and at our house. The Gitmo shots were on Bing. Stirred up some sweet memories for me.

    Have a kick back 4th!
    (From Jack)
    Kat, yep, I do indeed remember the story and the Contact art. Thanks for the reminder.


  3. From my sister-in-love, Doug's sis:
    Carol Caine to me
    show details 11:56 AM (18 minutes ago)
    Appreciate the blog this week. It’s humbling to be reminded of all our “independence” that we take for granted. Just going to the courthouse and getting married. A beautiful horizon, turning on the faucet for clean water…how God has blessed us. And I know we get so “used” to these things and occasionally need reminders. Thanks!! Have a blessed and colorful fourth. ;)

    Love ya’ll!

    P.S. We’ll be spending the fourth with Carolee, Ron, and Ryan. Trying to get in as many visits as possible before they move to Las Vegas.

  4. Old college friend:
    Patricia Carpenter Zeigler commented on your link:

    "Loved the sweet story. BTW, you pic reminds me of a young Liz Taylor."

  5. I taught Chrissy at Peninsula Christian School

    Chrissy Farley to me:
    Great story, I remember you sharing that when I was in High School, you were beautiful by the way and still are!

  6. From my big brother, Bert:

    Bert Tippett to me
    show details 8:06 PM (47 minutes ago)

    Great job! We both enjoyed reading it.

    Do you remember all the good stories about Bill and his antics on the chapel organ? I love those folks and hope they are doing well.

    Me to Bert:
    Not only do I remember him playing Heart and Soul with his feet and something spiritual sounding with his hands during service, I was part of a scheme. At age 12 he let me play the keyboard as he pedaled. Everyone thought I was a page-turner. He didn't fear the brass, did he?

  7. Mrs. Crockett was my 2nd Mama during my early teen years. The friend she mentions lived in Cuba when we did.

    Nancy Crockett to me
    show details 4:30 PM (2 hours ago)

    Dear Kathy,

    Did your blog ever bring back memories. I had heard your Mom tell that so many times as well as Frances Pollock. Thanks so much.

    Mrs. Pollock wants to know if you know where Bill and Gabby are living?

    I wish I could get her over here to see my site. Such dear folks. Their health is failing fast.

    Happy 4th of July.

    I love you,
    Yo Mama

  8. I ran across your blog while looking for Bro. Bert on Google. (I'm a 2003 FWBBC grad.) Thanks for sharing these stories!

    My father was born at Gitmo in 1951. It's rather cool to think that both our families spent time there.