Fidel Castro & Muhammed Ali

“The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

― Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

“Earnist Hemmingway is my favorite Yankee!” Fidel Castro said, according to what I read in the 2019 Lonely Planet guide to Cuba. It said that he carried a copy of A Farewell to Arms during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and I had seen Hemingway quoted in bars throughout Havana.

I put the guide book back in my backpack and walked along the city street away from the harbor and to the house Hemingway he had lived in for many years, the one he had donated to the people of Cuba just before Kennedy signed the American embargo against Castro and Cuba. It was a fine house, and I was glad to have seen it.

I looked at my watch and had time to kill, so I walked to Cuba Libra, a cheerful little cafe with a little free library under the canopy of an old tree. They had a few bookshelves of used books for sale, and I found a well worn paperback of A Farewell to Arms to read on the next day’s flight home.

I paid for the book and ordered a cafe con leche de “oat” de hielo. The Lonely Planet’s Spanish phrase section dind’t include “oats” or “oatmeal,” and my phone didn’t have reception, and I had forgotten to download a phrase book or Google’s translator app. But, the baristta attended a local university and spoke fluent English, and we laughed about my prononciation and she thanked me for trying, and she made me a delightfully cold cafe con leche de avena. I carried the cup to a chair under the shade tree and sipped from it as I read A Farewell to Arms again. I think it’s a good book, and I was glad to be reading it.

In my peripheral vision, I noticed a cool little kid was staring at me from beside the bookshelf, and I peered over the top of my book and stared back for a moment, then I made my eyebrows raise and lower, like two caterpillars duking it out on the top of A Farewell to Arms. He giggled, and a tall, lumbering, respectful looking elderly man put his hand on the kid’s shoulder. He winked at me and smiled at the boy and pointed to his eyebrows, and the old man made his grey and bushy eyebrows raise up and down, too. We all laughed and I pushed back a chair and extended my hand, and he sat and the boy stood and we all chatted for a bit.

They looked alike, both with the same light brown eyes and brown Carribean skin, probably a mix of Spanish and Creole, not unlike the Creoles in and around New Orleans. My eyes are much darker brown, almost black, just like my dad’s had been. I assumed they were either father and son or grandfather and grandson; they were the later.

I learned their names, though I don’t recall them, and that the man was the boy’s grandfather and had been a part of Fidel’s education corp, a little known event that happened just after Fidel led the revolution to victory. Fidel had apparently sent thousands of then unemployed 18 year old boys from the streets of Havana into the countryside, and paid them to teach reading and writing to the older, illiterate farmers who lived there and hadn’t had the same opportunities as the kids near schools. The boy said his grandfather had been a hero, and had spent six months in the woods helping teach old men to read, and helping them find glasses, like his PaPa’s. I said I thought that was remarkable, and I said I needed to use reading glasses, now, too, and that’s why I was squinting like Popeye when I read or listened closely; according to the VA, I have a 15% hearing loss, and sometimes I have to watch someone’s lips closely to hear what they’re saying.

I looked at my watch. I had time to do something fun before I walked back to meet some people I had met in a bar with the best grilled Marlin I had had in Cuba that week. I decided to show the boy a magic trick before I walked back to downtown Havana.

“Mira,” I said. “Watch,” I repeated.

I pointed at my watch and smiled and said, “Se yama ‘watch,’ tambien; pero, mira me mano, y el paneulo di desaparecer!” To the man, I winked and said in a way that could be taken as a joke, “Lo mismo de Hoffa :)” and he laughed and said, “Cie! Asi es como de Hoffa!” and I began paying more attention to him.

I closed my fist around a small, square, red silk handkerchief, secretly loading it into the thumbtip I had hidden in my left palm. No one had seen it, because my left wrist had been turned and they were all looking at my watch, and without me telling them, the back of my hand; they would remember it differently, and say that I had shown them my hand was empty before and after, and that I had even told them what I was doing and to watch what I was doing carefully; and, they would describe my left hand with such detail – the scars and warped ring finger – that no one would doubt that the old man and his grandson had, indeed, watched my hands intently the entire time.

My left two fingers have a quirk that explains what happened next, and what happened is a funny story.

When I was a teenager, Hillary Clinton broke my left ring finger twice in 1990, the year my grandfather and a foster father both died; Hillary was the three time undefeated Louisiana state wrestling champion, and his name was a coincidence; in 1990, no one I knew knew that Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s wife’s name was Hillary. When Hillary Clinton broke my finger twice, once in 1989 and once in my final match against him in 1990, coincidentally two weeks before Big Daddy’s funeral, the break had been merely a hairline fracture that healed quickly But, I was still growing, and in the next year or so the bone healed thicker there and created a stess riser that made it easier to break multiple times when I wrestled in the army and college. Over time, the callous became thicker and lopsided, forming a cam on the proximal end of my left ring finger’s middle bone, and now my fingers spread apart when I form a fist. No one suspects that I have a magic gimmick built into my left ring finger, and a long time ago I learned to use my watch as a way to show the back of my hand in a natural manner and keep my fingers facing me, and to this day no one has told me they notice the gap in my fingers even though my left hand is in plane sight.

I’ve fooled some of the worlds best magicians with my gimmicked ring finger. Most magicians poke a paneulo into their awkwardly held left fist, and then shove their right thumb into the hole, like they’re Jack Thumb pulling out a plumb, or possibly trying to squash something trapped in their awkwardly clenched fist. It’s an unnatural position and motion, and it’s memorable. Even if someone has never seen or heard of a magician’s hollow thumb tip, and therefore they may know figure out exactly how you made the panuelo disappear, but most attentive people assume the missing hanky had something to do with your thumb and the unnatural way you held the hanky.

In my case, I’m lucky. I can bunch up a small silk handkerchief in a natural motion, and my left ring fingers cams over when I rotate my wrist downward, and the gap formed between my two middle fingers is enough for small objects to fall through. Coins and small objects are easiest, but a thump tip fits, too, if I use the muscles I’ve honed over the decades to spread my fingers a bit more apart, not unlike Spock’s Vulcan salute when he wishes someone to live a long and prosperous life. A friend of mine, who’s coincidentally a hand surgeon named Dr. Palmer, calls those two fingers moving apart “abduction,” and when I open my hand and the finger cams back to a slightly less noticeable gap, he calls that “adduction.” And if Dr. Andy Palmer, former president of the Ammerican Society for Surgery of the Hand, and, to our shared amusement, a former advisor to one of then first lady Hillary Clinton’s healthcare committees, doesn’t see how I make coins disappear, there’s a negligible chance a kid and his grandfather in Cuba Libre would have noticed how I made the little red hanky vanish, just like Hoffa had vanished without anyone figuring it out. In both cases, you’d have to know a lot of back story; but, if I learned anything from my family, it was how to keep a secret.

The boy and old man stared at my hands intently, and I rotated my left wrist, the one with the watch they were watching, and the thumb tip and its encolsed hanky dropped out of the secret gap that opened up in my fist. The falling thumb tip stuffed with a hanky was partially obscured by my right hand, which had remained nearby, nonchalantly still pointing and with three fingers naturally resting in a partially closed fist. As the tip fell, my right hand naturally dropped to my side, and I had long since learned to accelerate my hand at the same rate things fall, 9.8 m/s>2, and the tip landed softly in my partially cupped right fingers without anyone taking their eyes off of my left hand, conveniently.

I ditched the tip in my loose, baggy pants pocket and naturally brought my right hand back up, palm forward, and reemphasized that they should never let my hands get away from their site. The old man glanced at my open right hand and then back at my left, and then kept his gaze between them, presumably to watch both simultaneously. He was subtle, but I had seen the same look many times before and I smiled at what I knew would be a moment of astonishment for both of them.

The kid was flabergasted! He laughed and looked at both my hands, and would later say he never saw them leave his sight.

Even the old man seemed impressed; he may have been even more impressed because he had assumed one thing and then was fooled. He implied that when he told me that he when I brought out the panuelito rouge, I was going to use a thumb tip, like Fidel Castro and Muhammed Ali. And that’s when I became very interested in what he had to say, and I leaned in to learn more.

Of course I already knew about Ali Castro and Muhammed Ali, and a quick search on Youtube shows Ali showing a magic trick to Castro; Ali was older then, and had Parkinsons, and though he just poked his thumb into his hand, he was, and still may be, to me, The Greatest. Ali had been born Casius Clay, and famously won the 19?? olympic gold medal in boxing despite a four year setback because his government prosecuted him for choosing not to fight the Vietnamese, smiling all the while, until one day he stopped smiling and told a reporter who challenged Ali’s, “Ain’t no Viet Cong ever called me Nigger!” Decades later, when he had Parkinsons and was traveling around performing magic for world leaders, Muhammed Ali was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The only thing he requested, that I know of, is that he receive it in front of the same Kentucky courthouse that had charged him with denying the draft and cost him four years of his life. He held no grudges, he said, because forgiveness is good for you, I assume; and he had changed his name to Muhammed Ali as an act of faith, and his faith wouldn’t let him kill someone just because they were Vietnamese; and he believed that performing a magic trick was fun, but that if you didn’t let them in on the joke it was a form of lying, and he believed in always telling the truth.

The old man said he had seen Castro do magic, and had seen The Greatest when he traveled to Cuba to meet their olympic boxer and national hero, and that the two held up hands in fist bump, a form of shaking hands as friends to them. I saw no reason to doubt him; though, later the old man would validate his grandson’s testimony, and swear to his friends and neighbors that he had looked for a thump tip and had never moved my hands out of sight.

When asked why witness testimonies often conflict or change over time, especially in the 888 Page Warren Report, I often begin with a simple magic trick and tell the story about Fidel Castro and Muhammed Ali, and I say that we’re all human.

As for trusting The Lonely Planet’s guide to Cuba, I was pretty sure it was accurate enough to quote, especially because it was a revised edition and from a reputable publisher and not easily altered. And even if it’s mistaken, the error is mostly harmless, like most humans.

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