The Luis Arcos Bergnes

Editor’s Note: What follows is an excerpt from Venceremos, a novel by Howard Waxman. The book is the coming-of-age tale of Jay Cardinale, a 21-year-old injured Vietnam War hero and second tour deserter. The passage below describes Jay’s rocky boat ride to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade, a group of American volunteers going to help with the sugar harvest. Once there, Jay does much more than cut cane. He falls in love, learns the truth about politics, plots murder, meets Fidel Castro, and becomes a new man.

The interior of the Luis Arcos Bergnes was warm and dry. The ship had been a cattle boat but was converted by the Cubans into a floating barracks, with a double layer of bunks in what had been the hold. The men and women had separate areas. I’d thought I’d been in close quarters when I was in basic training but that was spacious compared to this scene. There was hardly any room to stow our gear and most people would end up sleeping with their bags and suitcases.

We finally got to eat some hot food; the women served first and then the men. I don’t remember much more about that first night except saying goodnight to Walter. I probably passed out.

The seas were rough in the North Atlantic and a lot of people were seasick through the first part of the trip. I was one of them. Being seasick on this trip wasn’t such a bad deal. From the time we got on board it seemed like an endless meeting was taking place with everyone trying to shout down everyone else. Whatever the meetings were supposed to be about, they always wound up focusing on a few themes: white guilt, third world leadership, women’s liberation, and evolution versus revolution, that is, whether to wait for the workers or take matters into our own hands.

Everyone was extremely serious about the whole thing, as if they had to come to some decision because tomorrow we were going out to storm the Bastille or the Winter Palace and the day after that we would be in charge so we had better have our act together. I really didn’t know much about the revolutionary movement before I started hanging out in Eddie McWilliams’ house. But there were books about it all over the place and I ate them up. To me they were adventure stories, war stories. Even our own revolution.

I’d sit in a big arm chair in the McWilliams’ library room smoking a joint and reading Lenin and Marx and Mao. There was some Stalin, too, and Ho Chi Minh and the guy from Albania whose name I always forget. And while I was reading, all around me the kids were having their endless arguments about whether we should be focused on educating the working class or moving ahead as a revolutionary cadre to act immediately, and whether whites could only follow the lead of blacks in making a revolution in America, and whether women should be in the forefront.

Did Lenin and Trotsky sound as pompous to the casual listener when they were having their arguments while living like paupers in exile? Did the guard watching over the reading room in the British Library know that the scruffy mountain of unkempt hair who came in every day was Karl fucking Marx who actually was going to change the world? What about the waiters at the posh hotel in London where Ho washed dishes? Did they have any idea that the skinny gook was going to be the father of his country and stop U.S. imperialism dead in its tracks?

Maybe some kid on the Luis Arcos Bergnes was going to be President someday. It didn’t seem possible, but most people listening to Lenin no doubt thought he was just another delusional windbag.

Although I was so sick I mostly wanted to die and be buried at sea, I was glad not to be in the meetings. I knew I would have gotten caught up in the heat of the moment and started spouting a lot of nonsense that I didn’t understand. Not that there were a lot of meetings I could have been in. The blacks had their own meetings and the women had their meetings, and the white men had trouble figuring out where they belonged. What was our common identity except we were white and men and were at fault for everything that was wrong?

Walter wavered between being upset that he wasn’t in any group and being glad that he wasn’t.

“Sometimes I want to shout ‘Enough already!’ but then I think of something I want to say and I have no one to say it to,” he said to me.

“But you’re a white man,” I said. “What could you possibly have to say?”

“Very funny. But, come on, don’t you feel the same way?”

“Sure. But you can’t fight history. And history says it’s their time. If we’re really supposed to follow, then shut up and follow.”

“But when I think they’re wrong—”

“It doesn’t matter. You have to step aside and let people find their way. You know I’m right.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t make me like it any better.”

Another benefit of being at the rail was getting to spend time with Avis who was also in the seasick club. The first morning out I met her clinging to the rail as the ship tossed and the wind cut through us like we were naked.

“I hate this,” she said.

“Kind of undermines your image as an authority figure.”

“Fuck you.”

“Think of it as your martyrdom for the cause.”

“You suck.”

“This is what your statue will look like after the revolution, bent over the rail giving it all up so that others may have smooth sailing.”

“I hope you fall overboard.”

“I’ve always gotten seasick. I didn’t even think about it when I decided to come. I guess that’s how dedicated I am.”

“This is my first time on a ship. I’m going to walk home.”

“I used to go out fishing all the time when I was a kid and almost always got seasick. It really pissed me off because no one else in my family did. We all went out on the fishing boats from Sheepshead Bay, my father and grandfather and uncles and cousins, and of the whole gang of us, I was the only one who ever hit the rail. It was a family joke. I was the family joke.”

“Did it ever stop?”

“Yeah, when I stopped going.”

“Too bad.”

“Nah. It wasn’t one of my favorite things to do anyway. I like being warm and dry and going out for blues and flounder was cold and wet. The only part I liked was when the captain would take pity on me and let me hang out on the bridge. Taught me the controls and even let me steer. Took my mind off being sick.”

A really big wave lifted the side of the ship and for a moment we were thrown together. Avis pulled away as soon as she had her balance back.

“The captain says it’ll stop when we get closer to Florida,” she said.

“When is that?”

“Three or four days.”

“We’ll be dead by then.”

“I hope so.”

We both threw up and then went back inside.

“Hey,” I said. “Thanks for letting me come.”

“Don’t fuck up.”

She walked away. I was happy. The ice was broken.

Howard Waxman’s plays include Joan La Poucelle, Punk Rock, Landslide, Knuckle Sandwich, September Walk, and On the Border. He was the Off-Broadway reviewer for Variety and his political column, “Scoundrel Time,” appeared in Lake Champlain Weekly. He recently finished his second novel, Venceremos. Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., he lived in Madison, Wis., San Francisco, Santa Fe, Manhattan, and rural New York State before settling in beautiful Bath, Maine.

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