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For a little there, the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was in the news. Flocks of reporters were flown down to ask people how they felt about Soviet troops on the island (they didn't care), and then to watch Marines landing on the beaches in that classic Cold War international fist shake: a "reinforcement excercise." Pretty soon, though, the Marines will go back to their ships and helicopters and leave the base to the iguanas, the cactus and the 6,000-odd regulars who preserve the bizarre character of the place. Not that the landing was out of character. That, too, has become a spectacle out of another time.
Gitmo, as the Navy fondly calls it, is built on baked salt flats surrounded by steep scrubby mountains that isolate it from the southeast tradewinds, just as a 17.4-mile no-man's-land of barbed wire and minefields seals it off from Castro's Cuba and thousands of miles of blue Caribbean separate it from the United States. At noon (except in winter) the temperature on the black asphalt parking lot behind the PX is well into the hundreds . . . a streamy damp heat that gives you a permanent second skin of perspiration and a dream feeling of slow motion. Peeling white sheds, ragged barracks and limp cabbage palms swim in the wet mirage.
One sees a neat blond shirt-dressed Navy wife pull herself slowly out of a 1955 Chevrolet, arrange her purse on her shoulder and drift across the parking lot past a little pocket of loungers. The loungers have short hair, T-shirts and a curious expression . . . slightly rebellious but respectful, slightly lascivious but innocent . . . that's familiar these days from movies like American Graffiti and The Last Picture Show . They're off-duty sailors and Marines but somehow they manage to look like teen-agers right of . . .the Fifties . . .and so does she.
Inside the PX the only women's clothes mannequin is hugely pregnant. What better way to spend those slow calm days? PTA meetings and gossip. Garden parties and military protocol. White starched uniforms and afternoons on the golf course or the beach. It's all laid out for you. And if the hills all around you are bristling with Cuban artillery, there's a Soviet MIG base up the road, and Russian freighters passing through the harbor, that's all right too. At least you know who the enemy is . . . and that there really is an enemy.
You have to be reminded sometimes, though. Sometimes, in fact, you have the feeling that another few years of limbo would make Gitmo disappear so completely into its strange time warp that both sides would forget it was there. A lost garrison. It's hard to remember about the Cubans in the hills. The hills and the rest of the valley look deserted. The gate to Castro's Cuba is overgrown and discolored. The Navy has cut base strength almost in half, from a high of 10,500 in 1962, and put it in charge of a captain instead of a rear admiral. All personnel are screened before assignment as to their adaptability to "isolation." Gitmo duty is not exactly the choicest billet in an ambitious Navy man's career.
So, it's good to have these Marines landing every once in a while, these busloads of reporters flying in from Washington to ask about Soviet troops. It makes the folks at home remember you.
The real enemy at Gitmo, one is told, is a feeling that creeps over you sometimes that you don't exist . . .in spite of all the trappings.That's why you have to struggle so hard . . .have kids, groom them nicely, teach them to say "sir" to strangers and salute the flag, keep your yard clean, your papers in order and your schedule full . . .in short, preserve the American Way of Life. It's true of most outposts: they reflect the values of the home country more strongly than the home country itself. Because the alternative is to be swallowed up.
Joining the flock of reporters for the three-hour flight down from Andrews Air Force Base, I had a very strong idea of what life in Gitmo would be like. The Fist Fight Capital of the World. Everybody bored and touchy, everybody in a slow smolder of frustration that would sometimes you take right off all on its own. Endless beers, endless quarters in the jukebox: step on somebody's toes and whammo. Nothing prepared me for the lotus-land effect.
The heat definitely has a lot to do with it. The 60 of us stepped off the plane ready for anything -- maybe even the Soviet troops themselves -- but all that hit us was incredible heat. Try to imagine four busloads of reporters from every network, major newspaper, wire service or magazine dropped sweating and struggling in the center of Gitmo and told we had 15 minutes to sample public opinion on The Threat. Six hours flying time, three hours of briefings and bus tours, 15 minutes in town. The Navy must have had its reasons for keeping it so short, but I never found out what they were. I was wilting in the heat. Losing track. There were times when it wasn't all that easy to remember why I was there at all.
I took the neatly shirt-dressed Navy wife . . .or rather I got to her first. Public opinion was in short supply. I told her I was from Washington and had 5 minutes to talk to her about what was on her mind.
"On my mind? " She sounded Deep South. could hear another reporter moving up behind me.
"Yeah. You know . . ."I grinned and shuffled, moving around to cut the other guy off.
"Why do you ask?" She cocked her head sideways, looking up at me.
"I'm just . . .interested." I shrugged and scuffed and almost felt for pimples. I was blushing.
She giggled and looked off to the side. "You know, these hurricanes have just wrecked the climate this month. So humid. Have you ever felt anything like it?"
All I could do was stare and shake my head.
"I declare," she said. It just makes you want to stay in bed all day. And that's a fact."