I’m sitting here, listening to Cuban music, which for me has so much more listenability (this IS a word -right? Damn you, Spell-Checker!) than any other Hispanic music – all the other stuff seems always to be racing to get somewhere, or in some heroic effort to drown out whatever else was fighting to be heard at the moment! Anyway – I’m sitting here listening to nice Cuban music, and it brings back some long buried memories of the Caribbean kind.
Sandee and I honeymooned in Puerto Rico in 1969. This was the thing to do then, since flights from NYC to San Juan were $99, round trip. Actually, as I think back on things now, up to that point, air travel had been so ridiculously expensive that no average person could afford to go by air. But, lucky for us, we decided to take advantage of this apparent softening of the market – so I did my usual in depth research and found us a gem of a San Juan old town hotel (The Palace) at $12 a night! Hey, this is what we could afford. Besides, at this stage, neither of us had done much traveling, and had no idea what might be awaiting us in Old San Juan.
Our flight down was going to be one of the most memorable of many, many flights during my life. We flew on a huge plane, what I now know was a DC-8, but in those days, it was a HUGE plane – it was a jet, and it had FOUR engines. Sandee and I had the two inside seats of a three seat row – and I politely gave Sandee the window seat, while I took the middle. Sitting next to me on the outside was a middle aged, Puerto Rican lady, who spent almost the entire flight extolling to me the wonderfulness of her homeland, and giving me a long list of “must-sees”. I say “almost the entire flight”, because about ½ hour out of San Juan, something happened that ended our delightful discussion.
Sandee tapped me and pointed out the window – “Is that engine supposed to be doing that?”, she said, as I looked out to see the inside left engine fully engaged in flames and smoke. “I don’t think so!”, was as clever as I could get at the moment. Almost immediately, a strong, confident voice came over the PA system – “This is your Captain speaking. Some of you may have noticed that the left inside engine has developed a problem, and that I’ve shut it down. No worry though – we have three other engines that are doing fine. We’ll begin preparation for landing in San Juan in a few minutes”.
I remember that I was turned toward Sandee, when I felt someone apply a death grip to my right arm, and let out a scream that I’m sure raised me up at least a foot out of my seat! “WE’RE GOING TO DIE, WE’RE GOING TO DIE!” It was the lady in the seat next to me, and she had become hysterical. She immediately switched to Spanish in her hysteria, and seemed intent on twisting my arm off in an effort to make things right – I can remember trying to think of some way I might calm her a little, but I’m sure that all I really did was sit there frozen in shock.
The next thing I remember was one of the stewardesses appearing, and beginning a very loud conversation with the lady – I have no idea of what that conversation entailed, since it was entirely in Spanish – but I do remember that it got increasing louder and more intense as it went on. As my seat-mate reached a particularly excited pitch, the stewardess suddenly delivered a short, sharp slap across the lady’s face! Immediately, ALL sound stopped – the entire plane was as quiet as a roomful of eavesdroppers. The lady sat transfixed for a short moment, released her grip on my arm, and immediately lowered her head into her lap, and began to cry – again, louder than seemed necessary or proper.
I remember considering getting up from my seat and walking to the rear of the packed plane, where I was willing to remain standing for the duration of the flight. However, I feared that this action might result in angering that same stewardess who had just rescued me – the memory of that quick slap was fresh in my mind and for all I knew, standing up in the rear of the plane was an aeronautical No-No! So, I sat there quietly while my seat-mate sobbed for the duration of the flight. Since that time, I have never sat in a middle seat on a plane unless forced to do so, and even then, without any good humor to those around me.
Few things in life have pleased me more than getting off that plane – later, as we walked through the San Juan airport, I saw my seat-mate meeting with her local greeters, whoever they were – and I remember thinking, “My god, they are all so kissey and smiley, I’ll bet she hasn’t said a word to them about her experience!”. I had just graduated a few years earlier with a Psych degree, and as we caught our cab to our hotel, all I could think was that I had just lived a real life lesson in Abnormal Psych class – but the real lesson was how much better real life classes are than back in school.
The Palace Hotel in Old San Juan had character – everything in Old San Juan had character – but it had lots more too! As we climbed the stairs to our room, and opened the door to our room, the first thing I noticed was that the view out the window was of the beautiful bay, and it was spectacular in the moonlight! And the next thing I noticed was that each foot of the bed in the middle of the room sat in the middle of a small can – very strange? And then there was the subtle aroma of kerosene in the room. Still, it wasn’t the worst room I’d ever been in – just close to the worst. But we were dead tired, and shabby or not, it was an inviting bed for two over-tired souls, especially two who had just lived through a few emotional experiences – so off to bed we went.
I don’t think it’s exaggeration at all to say that within 10 or 15 seconds of turning out the lights, the room was filled with the sounds of scratching and scurrying. Immediately, I knew what it was, even though I’d never seen a cockroach in my life, not this kind anyway – I’d only seen New Jersey cockroaches, which not only are hard to see, but they don’t make noise either! These were the tropical variety, easily 5 to 10 times larger than the N.J. variety, and slow enough that when I got up to turn on the lights that I stepped on several and when the lights went on, they were still there – huge hulking things, with long active antennae. “Yes”, they were saying, “this is our room, and you need to leave!” Slowly, they slunk off to their hiding places – and we discussed our options. Too late to try to find another place tonight – perhaps if the lights stayed on, they’d be reluctant to come out of hiding – and so it was that we dozed our first night in San Juan, with the lights on – I remember that I slept well.