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Witness Post: Viva Cuba

The death of Fidel Castro catapulted my cranium to the island of Cuba. It landed on the sandy beach in an era before Castro’s revolution, at a time when Sky Masterson could be flying Sarah Brown to the Havana. Masterson was wooing her affections. It was a time when Americans in general could escape the States for an intoxicating weekend of rum cocktails and world class cigars. It was a time when foreigners could stroll the beaches or wander through the sugarcane fields to clear one’s mind of earthly troubles.

One day in the 1960 my Godfather, Jack, flew with his wife, Jenny, from Baltimore to Havana for time apart from work, children and the States. Their lives were moving along so fast. They had graduated from college (Yale and Colby), served in the Navy intelligence, moved to Maryland, and started raising a family of three boys and a girl. Jenny was a beautiful woman from Akron, Ohio, and unbeknownst to even their closest friends, their marriage started to seethe with anger and acrimony. Intense pressure was mounting on all sides. Work was a pressure cooker and their marriage was on the rocks. The couple decided it was a good time to get away to an island paradise and they wanted to relax.

During the workday Jack’s toxic business environment was strangling the oxygen out of his insurance partnership. He felt that he worked his tail off for little reward. Jack brought in 70% of all sales, and instead of spreading the income evenly by merit, as most sales organizations are run, the income was spread by headcount. The other partner, reverting to operations, did little selling and maintained a paternal hiring process that kept a non-working in-law on the payroll. Jack kept pushing hard to modernize their operations only to be held back by his Luddite business partner. And hanging over his head, Jack had a growing conviction that he needed to dissolve the partnership…the worry made for sleepless nights.

Uncertain Times, an Uncertain Paternity

The times were uncertain, even in the insurance industry. Uncertainty is typically the bread and butter of companies like theirs, but insurance can be a cruel mistress for those who want to balance in their lives outside of work. The day time stresses were compounded by the night time feelings of inadequacy as a father to his boys.

Jack’s own father had died when Jack was a toddler and his mother had moved him across the country and across the globe to find the right spot to raise him. Finally, after many years, his mother remarried a busy doctor. They were in love, but the new father gave Jack little attention. His mother was more than busy; she had five more children in quick succession and Jack felt he was the unwanted older brother. Both of his grandfathers were long dead and Jack had no positive male figures in his life to emulate.

Ties to Jack and Jenny

Our families were very close at the time. And even though we moved from Baltimore to Philadelphia, we visited with their family often, when we came to town. I was a guest of the family’s for a few summer beach trips to Ocean City, Maryland, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. My Godfather was a handsome guy with big bushy eyebrows. My dad and Jack were close, and my father was the Godfather of their oldest son.

I asked by dad how it was that Jack and Jenny did not “run up the hill and roll down” as did Jack and Jill in the nursery rhyme. They had nasty divorced and Dad was very cagey in his response. “Marriages are like living organisms, they need water, sun light, oxygen, and food or they will shrivel and die. Somewhere along the way, the couple must have lost those life giving ingredients and realized that they were better off apart, than they were together.” While very natural and organic in his delivery, I sensed that there was something else, so I kept asking, “But WHY them? What happened?”

Here is the background to the story as my memory recalls my Dad saying it. He was doing his best to explain a tough situation:

Dad Hooper Gives Background

“Jack B. was a good friend of mine from Baltimore. He was a year ahead of me at Calvert School and his family lived near Johns Hopkins. Our families were connected through school and the Episcopal Churches in the area. We also saw each other at dancing classes at Elk Ridge Club.

“I remember when Jack and I spent the most time together. It was in 1936. One weekend my parents took me to New Haven to visit Yale. The B. family members were on the same campus tour and it was awe inspiring. Apparently, so was the football game the next day. Larry Kelley, the All-American, Heisman Trophy winning end, tore up the gridiron that day, but I do not remember any of it. I had eaten some spoiled seafood for lunch and had food poisoning. I spent the entire game, puking my guts out over the edge of the Yale Bowl. Before and after the game Alec and I shared some brief but meaningful time together at the Taft Hotel. Our family headed back to Baltimore and he headed back to Alexandria, Virginia, where he was enrolled at Episcopal School.

Larry Kelley, end for the Yale Bulldogs

For high school, I went off to Kent School in Connecticut, founded by Fr. Sill, an Episcopal minister. Jack graduated from Episcopal in the class of 1941 and was admitted to Yale. I visited him again during my senior year at Kent and he and his St. Anthony’s fraternity brothers showed me a good time. That was Spike Nelson’s first year as head coach and the Bulldogs were terrible (1W – 7L). Jack was enrolled in the class of 1945. I was admitted to Princeton, where my father and brother had graduated. But then along came the bombing of Pearl Harbor; that changed everything. We enlisted as soon as we could to help fight the war effort.

Jack took an accelerated course at Yale, courtesy of the US Navy’s V-12 program and earned his bachelor’s degree in 1944. He was in the Marines and served as an intelligence officer in the Pacific, stationed in Hawaii and Guam, before an 18 month tour in China. I was in the Navy after the bombing and graduated from Kent in the spring of 1942. Also courtesy of the Defense Department, the V-12 Program sent me to the University of North Carolina. I was stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on the Missouri. We practiced bombing uninhabited Vieques islands near Puerto Rico and then performed some post-war excursions to Turkey and Gibraltar in the Mediterranean, but never had any active combat missions, like Jack Barton did. I returned to the States after that and, although Princeton offered me a diploma, I return to Chapel Hill and got a degree in Commerce. I graduated in 1947.

“After the war, Jack married Jenny C., and I married your mom. We lived in Rockland and the B’s lived near by. We made fast friends with our neighbors off Falls Road. We all started work and raising our families. The B. family had children a little later than we did, but our kids overlapped in age: Laurie and K., Henry and M., Ned and Missy, Nancy and F. We had four more children in our family. Jack and Jenny asked me to be K’s Godfather and we asked Jack to be Henry’s Godfather.

“At first I worked at the Davis Paint Company, but was not a good salesman, so when I was invited to join the operations team at our family textile company, I jumped at the chance. Jack was always a great salesman and after some time with DuPont he chose insurance. He worked at Warfield-Dorsey Company and another insurance company for 9 or 10 years, before starting his own insurance agency.”

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The Cuba Vacation Story

What exactly triggered his change of heart about their marriage, no one will ever know. Both Jack and Jenny are dead now, and all I know is from stories that Jenny told me. Jack never mentioned the episode to me personally. He never denied Jenny’s version. He simply never brought it up to me. The words that come to mind are “nervous breakdown.” Something happened that night on their fateful vacation to Cuba, that made Jack snap. After that trip, nothing was the same with two relationships: his business and his wife.

I did some household chores for Jenny years later and I remember her saying that she and Jack had just finished a walk on the idyllic beaches, when they retired to the local cabana. The rum was particularly seductive to both of them that night. Jack suddenly had what seemed to be a panic attack. She did not recall any particular part of the conversation, but Jack was sweating profusely and seemed irrational. He went berserk and rushed off into the night. He ran headlong into the sugarcane fields and did not return to the hotel. He was out there all night.

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Jenny was terrified and called the local police. They could not locate him. The next day Jack came back to the hotel and had cane cuts and lacerations all over his face and body. He was never the same man after that night. Jenny saw the vacant look in his tear stained red eyes and was unable to get him to talk. She stayed another day, but had to fly back to Baltimore to take care of the kids. Meanwhile Jack admitted himself to the local French psychiatric hospital.

When the cuts healed he looked the same, and sounded the same, but something had snapped in his resolve and he was not the same man after that point. As he says in his memoir, “I suffered a total emotional breakdown while on a seemingly ideal vacation…and from this rock-bottom situation, I turned to the only hope that remained for me – to God – whom I envisioned all through the day and early evening…”

He found strength and courage through those times with the help of a female French doctor, the only other white person at the hospital. He began the long process of healing. That process included clearing the emotional debris and discovering the causes of the original breakdown. He called it his “illness” and admitted to several bouts with reversals of fortune before he was able to regain a vision of who he was. He felt that he more clearly saw the elements of his life in a cold light of day. He could forgive himself for his shortcomings and his temper and over time he could heal. These insights were his epiphany.

The B. couple remained together for one more year, but Dad said things were over. The couple quietly divorced in 1962.

Jack remarried in 1966 to LC, who shared his life for the next 41 years. Jenny never remarried and kept the matter privately to herself, never knowing exactly what went wrong. The pain of the first separation and divorce was exacerbated in 1976, when their oldest son, K., died. He had lost sight in one eye in a shop accident and was never the same ebullient young man after that point. He may have hit a similar down point, as his father had in Cuba.

Making Sense of It All

What happened that night in Cuba? Was it the long day on the beach? Something mysteriously slipped in the rum? Was it a sudden change of heart? A freak out moment? The real answer is anyone’s guess. And who are we to judge? God and man have their reasons. Who are we to judge someone else’s heart?

The human psyche is a complex thing. It is also fragile, even with the best of schooling and strictest of religious upbringing. Seeking to understand our conditions will keep doctors and scientists researching forever.

Epiphanies and Forgiveness

One truth is that we are all worthy of forgiveness, even when the crimes seem egregious and incomprehensible. As parents it is vital that we are mindful of our family faults and forgiving of our children. We all strive to grow old wisely and to raise kids to be healthy and open members of the human race. We all are trying to do our best, even if our best makes little sense to our partner and our progeny. We need to be forgiving of ourselves and the errors we make just as we are of others’ mistakes. That message of love and forgiveness is integral to the “Our Father” prayer and the Gospel teachings.

The tough times for the US and Cuba may be behind us, but the toughest of times for the human spirit lie ahead. Let’s approach those times with compassion and understanding.