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From Texas to Cuba: An Epic Road Trip, Castro’s Trip to Houston, and How It’s Changed

As the doors to Cuban travel slowly re-open, the author’s dad recalls his epic road/cruise ship trip to Havana just before Castro’s take-over, and we remember Castro’s hero’s welcome in Houston a few months later.

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John Nova Lomax III Cuba

By the end of the year, is seems likely that Americans will able to ferry from the Florida Keys to Cuba, and as soon as next month, Texans will be able to fly direct from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport to Havana on regularly scheduled flights.

Some restrictions are still in place. Although diplomatic relations have been restored, general tourism is still forbidden.

Since January, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control no longer requires special licenses to visit Cuba. Travelers only have to certify they are visiting in one of 12 categories — educational, religious and humanitarian projects, among others — while tourism remains prohibited.

Which is a drag, but more likely to be lifted sooner rather than later. Last week, the GOP-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee voted 18-12 to overturn the ban on U.S. citizens traveling as tourists to Cuba, a unique embargo for Americans that has been in place for more than 50 years now.

Texas to Cuba

My father, John Lomax III, remembers the days of unfettered travel to Cuba. In August 1958, the month he turned 14, he piled into a 1955 (or 1956?) turquoise-blue Chevy station wagon with his parents — “Pops” and “Mimi” Lomax and younger brother Joe — and drove from West University Place in Houston to Miami, where they boarded the cruise ship SS Evangeline and sailed off to the Bahamas and Havana.

For the Lomaxes, the road to Havana was long and circuitous, by turns musical and quarrelsome.

Pops would break into his beloved a cappella folk songs in his window-rattling bass baritone. “Sometimes we’d all join in, other times we wouldn’t,” Dad recalls.

John Nova Lomax II

Meanwhile in the way back, between out-of-state plate and Burma Shave sign-spotting bouts, the brothers squabbled over whether the other was encroaching “my side” of the seat. At one point on this trip or some other — Dad can’t quite recall — Pops was so enraged by one such dispute, he was moved to mete out 1950s-style summary justice: He pulled over on the side of the road, yanked the bickering boys out of the station wagon, conked their heads together, threw them back in, and headed on down the road.

Like I said, this was a long trip, with many adventures along the way, even before they set sail for Cuba and the Bahamas.

They first headed north to Oklahoma, where my grandmother had relatives, and then east to Tennessee, where Pops had business contacts; At the time, he sold decorative flagstones to home builders, and Tennessee was full of quarries. They continued on through the Smokies to Connemara, the 250-acre estate near Flat Rock, North Carolina, where Pops’s friend Carl Sandburg lived.

“It was a return visit,” Dad recalls. “Sandburg had visited us in Houston at some point. Pops sat up singing folk songs and drinking all night and it just pissed Mimi off no end. From that point on she referred to Carl Sandburg as ‘that old drunk.’ They were in the kitchen, not right under her nose, but she thought Sandburg had corrupted Pops all night long.”

The Lomaxes headed west again, to Chattanooga, where they took in Lookout Mountain and the Incline Railway, and then headed south towards Florida. First stop: Saint Augustine. “I remember thinking what a cool place that was because it was so different: very Spanish and unspoiled. I have no idea what it’s like now.”

Serpentarium Haast

And then it was on to Miami. But before they boarded the Evangeline, Pops created more family lore.

“Joe and I were in the back seat and we’d been pestering them for miles to stop at one of these alligator places. We finally prevailed on them and we stopped at the Serpentarium.” This was the home of Bill Haast, who more than likely lead the Lomaxes and about a dozen other guests on a tour of his domain.

“And we came to this cement pit,” Dad recalls.

 

“And we looked in it, and about twenty or thirty feet down, there was this whole bunch of alligators. It was sunny, and the gators were doing what they do, which is just sit there. There were lots of them, and they were big ones, too, ten or fifteen-foot. Meanwhile the guy is giving us the spiel about what they ate and how they’ve been on the planet for millions of years, blah blah blah, and all of a sudden Pops just hocks this huge gob down into the pit. Just dead silence for a couple of seconds and then the guide stops in the middle of the spiel and goes ‘Excuse me sir. This pit is hygienically cleaned every day for the alligator’s safety!’ I was just cracking up. Right, if somebody spits down there it’s gonna kill these giant beasts. My dad never again spoke of the incident, nor did Mimi.”

Cuba travel cardAnd then it was on to Cuba, where dictator Fulgencio Batista was in an alligator pit of his own. Victory over Fidel Castro had just slipped from his grasp. He’d recently sent twelve thousand men into the mountains to hunt down and kill or capture Castro and his ragtag army, and by August 1, after a series of setbacks, they’d cornered the guerillas near the town of Las Mercedes in the Sierra Maestra mountain range. On the pretext that the end of the war was at hand, Castro asked the enemy commander for a cease-fire, a request that was foolishly granted. The two sides “negotiated” for a full week, all the while, night after night, Castro’s army was slipping through the dragnet. On August 8, fed up with the fruitless talks, Batista’s men moved in for the kill. There was one small problem: Castro and all his men had vanished into the mountains.

Meanwhile, about 400 miles away, the Lomax family was visiting Morro Castle and an old city cemetery and taking in a jai alai match in a very tense Havana.

“Some of the streets were blocked off and there were Army pillboxes in the middle,” dad recalls. “And you’d be wandering around and look off to the side and there’d be a f—ing tank sitting there. Everybody knew the shit was gonna hit the fan, they just didn’t know when. You could feel it with the people. It was almost like everyone was looking over their shoulder. They were all sick of Batista. He was just such a scumbag, but in the end I don’t think that wound up all that much better. But at the time there was this air of electricity, everyone thinking ‘It’s gonna be really cool when these guys take over.’”

Jai alai Cuba trip ticket

Aside from the heightened vibes of the city, Dad’s most vivid memory of Havana was the jai alai match. (Pops was a handball fanatic, so this variant of the game he loved and played for decades held special fascination for him.) Havana was and is regarded as “the Mecca of jai alai in the Western Hemisphere,” and El Palacio de los Gritos, the venue the Lomaxes attended, is called the Yankee Stadium. For the locals, “the palace of shouts” earned its name thanks to the passion of its fevered fans.

“What I remember most about that is that there guys taking bets throughout, like people selling Cokes or something, but these guys were selling bets for various parts of the match. I never could quite understand what was going on. There were a whole lot of different ways to bet, continually, throughout the match, not just on which side would win: like how many times the ball would come off the wall, how long it would take for someone to score…Guys coming around and picking up tickets and then coming back around and handing out cash to the winners. A real electric atmosphere. That game is really fast. There were probably a couple of thousand people at the fronton I think they call it.”

After a trip to Nassau, it was back to Miami, where they all piled back in the station wagon for the long trip home, which was not without incident. Over Mimi’s objections, the always frugal Pops blazed past several motels he deemed too expensive before settling on a more economical one in the town of DeFuniak Springs, Florida. When the room proved adequately clean, a gloating Pops adjourned to the shower, where he soaped up, singing, and then could be heard cussing up a storm: just as he reached full lather, the water supply shut off completely for an hour or more.

From there it was to New Orleans, and then the last leg down old Highway 90 home to Houston. “No matter how far we went whenever we would get back to the Houston city limits, Pops would always break into ‘It’s a long way, to Houston, Texas, it’s a long long way to go…It’s a long way, to Houston, Texas, the finest place I know-ho-ho.’ We would always all join in to that as we got back as a celebratory ritual, and this was a long, long trip.”

Cuba to Texas

Less than five months after the Lomax family trip, on New Year’s Eve, Batista fled Cuba (with $300 million of his nation’s cash) leaving Castro and his guerilla army in control. And four months after that, on April 27, 1959, Fidel Castro and his brother Raul would be spending the night at the Shamrock Hotel, less than two miles from the Lomax house on Vanderbilt.

The Castros had yet to declare themselves Reds. The Bayou City elite welcomed them as heroes on their goodwill tour:

During his visit to Houston, his only trip to the United States, Raul seemed sullen and withdrawn, showing little interest in engaging the Americans.

But Fidel went out of his way to charm his Texas hosts, posing for photos and joking about how much time and money he saved by not shaving off his now famous beard.

Houston residents gave him a standing ovation when he arrived for his overnight stay April 27, 1959. Some dressed their children as rebels in his honor.

“Fidel Castro swept through Houston in glory bordering on pandemonium, with sirens failing to drown out the cheers of his admirers,” the Houston Chronicle said the next day. “He kissed no babies, though he tried.”

Houston businessmen talked excitedly about making a movie about the Cuban revolution with Marlon Brando starring as Fidel Castro.

Castro has been invited to town by the Houston Jaycees at the insistence of then-senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, who wanted to bring a little Texas flavor to the Cuban leader’s whirlwind tour of the States. Somebody gave him a fine Stetson. Here we see him enjoying a plate of brisket under the watchful eyes of two of HPD’s finest traffic cops.

And here he is at the airport in the arms of an old local friend: ex-con Robert Ray McKeown, a Galveston Bay-area man fresh off his federal conviction for running guns to Castro’s rebels in 1958. McKeown had been in the coffee business in Cuba in the early 1950s, when he befriended then-president Carlos Prio Socarras, Batista’s predecessor in office and a dedicated foe of Batista until the end of his days. Batista’s demands for onerous kickbacks ruined McKeown’s coffee business — indeed, the Texan’s refusal to pay up got him deported — and both he and the former president saw in Castro a means of exacting revenge on the man who turfed them out of Cuba. Castro would double-cross them both in the end, but McKeown was still on good terms with him in April 1958.

“When [McKeown] can come to Cuba we will give him a post in the government or perhaps franchises,” Castro told reporters. McKeown had been in the news for some time by then. A Houston Post reporter tracked him down after Batista’s downfall and wrote a story headlined “Convicted Gunrunner Hails Castro Victory,” a piece that seems to have come to the attention of a Dallas mobster by the name of Jack Ruby. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

The Jaycees hosted a banquet, one attended by Mayor Lewis Cutrer and much of the cream of Houston’s high society, including wildcatter John B. Ferguson, who promised Fidel a colt if he would visit his ranch in Mackay the next time he came through town.

“I’ll be there tomorrow,” Castro said.

Castro and his bearded, stogie-chomping compañeros headed back to Houston. Once there, he retired to his suite on the eighteenth floor of the Shamrock, where Raul was waiting for him. The two reportedly got into a shouting match about the revolution: Raul was said to be hot to export it to other Latin American nations, but Fidel counseled caution and consolidation.

And then they headed out to what is now called Hobby Airport, where Raul caught a flight back to Havana and Fidel headed south to Brazil and Argentina. Fidel had a close shave on the way out of Houston: His turboprop plane was said to be so laden with swag from his American hosts that it barely cleared the power lines just beyond the runway.

No más

A few weeks after his return to Cuba, Fidel signed an agrarian reform bill that, according to historian Lonn Taylor, irrevocably soured his relationships with Big Rich Texans. The bill nationalized 480,000 acres of American-owned farms, orchards, and ranches, including some lands belonging to the owners of the King Ranch. “Castro promptly lost every friend he had made in Houston,” Taylor wrote. “But he kept the horse.”

Meanwhile, McKeown, the gun-runner, had been sentenced to a two-year suspended federal prison sentence and five years’ probation for his role in arming Castro.

At some point in 1959, a man identifying himself as Jack Rubinstein called McKeown, saying he was impressed with his connections with the new Cuban leader. Rubinstein suggested they meet, and eventually they did in various seafood houses and beer joints on the Kemah-Seabrook waterfront. Rubinstein asked for McKeown’s assistance with several shady deals he was cooking up with the Cubans: The sale of a fleet of army surplus jeeps, negotiating the release of a few connected guys languishing in Cuban jails, some way to funnel wayward slot machines from a defunct New Mexico casino to Havana. McKeown told Rubinstein that he wanted to stay out of trouble while he was under federal supervision, and even if he could hypothetically be persuaded otherwise, he wanted cash up front, and would Rubinstein please pony up? Since Rubinstein never did, McKeown wrote him off as “a BS artist” and thought no more of him for several years.

That was when, according to disputed claims he made in the 1970s, he saw the man he knew as Rubinstein shoot another acquaintance of his on live TV.

 

Another was a man McKeown claims to have met a few weeks before the Kennedy Assassination who came to his home in San Leon out of the blue and introduced himself as “Lee Oswald.” McKeown kept mum about this meeting until the 1970s, when he said this Oswald came to his house on the San Leon waterfront seeking heavy weapons for a planned revolution in El Salvador, and when rebuffed on that score and sent away, returned 5 minutes later asking to buy a few high-powered rifles with telescopic sights. McKeown, saying his he was avoiding trouble while on probation, again sent the man away, only to recognize him on TV on November 22…

 

Reestablishing Relations

If the Castro brothers ever want to return to Texas, they won’t be able to stay at the Shamrock or eat at Peterson’s restaurant — but there is still plenty of good barbecue waiting for them. And though Galveston is predicted as a likely point of departure for cruises to Havana, don’t expect a ride on the Evangeline. On a 1965 run to Nassau, the ship, by then renamed the Yarmouth Castle, caught fire and sank in twenty thousand feet of water with a loss of ninety lives, inspiring Gordon Lightfoot to pen “The Ballad of Yarmouth Castle,” the first of two of his shipwreck anthems.

SS Evangeline

By the time McKeown got off probation, Castro reneged on his offer of a lucrative job and McKeown never returned to Cuba. Bill Haast, the Miami Serpentarium owner who likely upbraided Pops for hocking up a loog on his gator, survived more than 170 venomous snake bites before his death at 100 a mere four years ago. And yes, you can still see, and maybe even wager on, jai alai in this Mecca’s Yankee Stadium.

 

(Photos: John Nova Lomax (6); Jai alai fronton in Havana: Library of Congress; Havana street mayhem: AP; Castro and BBQ: Rice University)

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