By Thomas McGlynn (14), Temple Carrig School, Greystones, Co Wicklow
Illustration: Jim Fitzpatrick
16th April, 1958
They came to us today, in the morning. It was against the backdrop of a beautiful orange sunrise that I saw them first, marching up the hill in their military green uniforms, the clunking sound of their semi-automatic weapons reverberating through the valley. I was out in one of the fields near our house when the chirping of the birds was interrupted by the talk and laughter of the young men, who were coming ever closer.
I had heard the townsfolk talk of the “revolutionaries”, as they called themselves, organising guerrilla attacks against government officials and military personnel. Sometimes I could hear the gunfire from up in the forests while I was working in the fields. According to various sources, they were lead by two Cuban brothers and an Argentine.
I saw them knock on our door, and I could make out my father’s voice conversing with them. There were about five of them. I began to walk back across the field and towards our humble building. As I climbed over the fence which outlines our porch, the group turned and looked at me. I stood beside my father.
“Padre, who are these people?” I asked. He looked me in the eyes for a few seconds, and in that instant he seemed a lot older, his wrinkly features and white wispy hair amplified in the moment. He turned around and walked back into the house, saying nothing. I looked at the apparent leader of the bunch. He was wearing a black beret with a red star in the middle, and had boots that were almost up to his knees. His khaki shirt was buttoned up to only around his chest, revealing very densely packed hair. He had long hair flowing down around his head, and had the poorly groomed beginnings of a beard. He extended his arm and offered me his hand. I shook it. He smiled.
“We are the 26th of July Movement. I am Ernesto, but I prefer to be known as Che. We are fighting against the fascist establishment of Cuba, to rid the island of the authoritarian tyranny committed by Fulgencio Batista and his cabinet. I urge you to take up arms as a fellow comrade. We will provide food and shelter and a uniform for you.” He spoke with a great fiery passion.
Ernesto, or Che, was not entirely wrong. The government does not seem to care for peasants such as myself, my father and countless others throughout the island. I had always accepted things as the way they were. I just wanted to honourably do the job that my family has been doing for generations without stirring up too much commotion. But with every word that Che uttered, I realised more and more about how much of a bad position we in are due to bad governing. While he talked, my heart gradually grew in a mix of eagerness and fury, excitement and rage.
However, I was still sceptical.
“What was my father saying?” I inquired.
“Unfortunately, your father offers differing views concerning our noble struggle. He does not wish to stir up trouble with the government. He is afraid, and it is exactly this fear and anxiety toward the regime that we wish to eradicate.”
“I’ve never held a gun before. Hell, I’ve never even hit somebody before. I won’t be able for the task,” I said.
“Do you think that this is what your brave and gallant ancestors fought for in the War of Independence? Do you think that while searching for sovereignty against the mighty imperial power of the Spanish, they had a vision of the future of Cuba that involved feudalism and oppression? Do you think that they longed for a society in which the workers, the labourers, the proletarians, the very people who provide the food and water for all, the lifeblood of the nation, remain poor and crippled while the wealthy turn their backs and engage in pointless ‘diplomacy’ and ‘civilised discourse’? Comrade, I can tell you that the answer to these questions is a clear ‘No’. You do not need training to fight for the cause, so long as you believe in your heart that you are doing the right thing.”
Che whipped his head so that his hair was not in his face.
The short speech gave me goosebumps. It struck a chord with me, and at this point he had me convinced. We should not stand for the exploitation of the gentle farmhand by the greedy capitalist oligarchy. Justice would have to be served. Che held out a small handgun for me to take. “Please,” he said. There was just one more thing on my mind, however.
“What about the farm and my father?”
Che smiled. “My friend, after the revolution you will not have to worry about such things again.”
20th May, 1958
It has been over a month since my initiation. A lot has changed in my life since then. The day after they visited, I said goodbye to my father, and with very few belongings, I made my way up the dusty trail at a rendezvous point at edge of the forest, a kilometre or so away from the village. There I had met one of the soldiers from the force, a man by the name of Sebastian, who was sent to escort me to the camp. After a two-hour hike through dense woods and up the mountain, we finally arrived.
It was like a small town in itself. In a clearing in the bushes, there were dozens of small tents, and in the middle there was a couple of kitchen tents serving food to the seemingly hundreds of men, who were babbling away contentedly. All of them were wearing the same olive outfit. Sebastian introduced me to Fidel and Raul, two brothers who were two thirds of the main leadership. Che was apparently out looking for a guerrilla who had gone rogue. The two brothers would have looked identical had it not been for the fact that Fidel was growing a beard and was a few inches taller.
“Welcome, cadet. We are delighted that you have made the right decision in joining us. We will be honest with you: this is not a stroll in the park. One of three things will certainly happen to you from this point forward. One: you will be killed by the fascists, and you will go down in history as a martyr who died for the noble cause. Two: you will hailed as one of the heroes of the revolution as we triumphantly parade through the streets after the government is overthrown. In each of these two scenarios you will be remembered as a celebrity. Alternatively, you could choose the cowardly option of desertion, just like the gutless invertebrate that our fellow companion Che is currently out looking for.”
Right on cue, there was a sudden commotion. People shouted, and the men around me reached for their holsters. However, the shouting soon turned into cheering, and Che emerged, bringing with him a clearly distraught man. The man’s clothes were torn, and he had cuts all over his face. Che’s search party followed them, chanting. Che through the captured man to the ground. The whole army formed a circle around them. There was an air of tense excitement around the camp.
“This man,” Che began, “was found around four kilometres away from here, in an attempt to abandon us. He has confessed that had he reached a military checkpoint, he would have spilled the beans on our whereabouts and our plans. Because of this degenerate’s intentions to inform an unfair judicial system of our projections, we shall give him a trial in a truly unjust fashion. It is truly poetic, I feel. The trial begins now.” He smiled.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” Che asked.
The man was still laying on the ground, shaking. He remained silent.
“Democracy dictates that we should hold a vote for this man’s punishment, but of course we shall not pretend that this country is run democratically. Stand up, and we shall give you a soldier’s goodbye.”
Che was enjoying himself. The main struggled to his feet, and made the sign of the cross. Che cleared his throat.
“Listen, my friends. I do not want to kill this man. But unfortunately, disloyalty is a disease. A disease, for which the only cure is death. Justice will be served.”
Three shots rang out, echoing through the trees. The man collapsed and stayed still on the ground. Nobody moved for a good 10 seconds. The only sound was that of the wind, blowing through the foliage.
Then, the first cheers, and soon the whole crowd erupted in exuberance. It was like a scene from a riot. People waved items of clothing, and the body of the man was covered with the boots of men trying to stamp on him. Raul turned to me and sighed.
“I would advise against choosing the third option, comrade.”