CNET Technically Literate presents

Cuba's King
of Batteries

Original fiction by Cristina García
Illustrations by Roman Muradov

CNET Technically Literate presents

Cuba's King of Batteries

by Cristina García
Illustrations by Roman Muradov

W

hen Ernesto Cuadra returned to Cuba after four months as a prisoner of war on a German submarine, nobody believed him. Everyone assumed that he had run away with a girlfriend to Havana or got eaten by sharks. There was no trace of him except for Oscarito, his identical twin, who grew sick of answering questions about his brother. His parents locked Oscarito in his room, hoping he would confess, but after a miserable night of refusals they gave up. Who could believe that he didn’t know Ernesto’s whereabouts?

This happened in the spring of 1943. Ernesto had been the night watchman for an electric fan factory on a beautiful stretch of Cuban coast—as far east as it was possible to go on the island without falling into the ocean. It was May, and a bit hazy. The moon lit up the clouds, and the air was unusually still. Ernesto was alone guarding the factory, property of one Dr. Faustino Buendía, who was neither a doctor nor—with his eternal scowl—had ever had a good day in his life. Ernesto was sixteen and recently had lost his virginity. Tío Eufemio had arranged it. His uncle made it his business to ‘break in’ all the Cuadra boys at a brothel in Baracoa. Ernesto felt proud to have gotten the night watchman job; even prouder when he was issued a pistol. In short, he’d become a man.

None of those accomplishments served him in the least when the four German seamen approached him dozing at his post. The mosquitoes had pestered him for the first hour of his shift then they, too, buzzed off to sleep. The German who woke Ernesto spoke halting Spanish but assured him they meant no harm. Ernesto was confused. Were these unkempt men ghosts? Demons in tattered uniforms and sailors’ caps? A crazy dream?

What they needed, the German said, gesturing stiffly with his big-knuckled hands, were supplies for their vessel: ham, mangoes, coffee, butter, eggs. And, he asked, did Ernesto happen to have any bottles of rum? This didn’t surprise the boy. Everyone knew that Cuba produced the best rum in the world. Ernesto blinked and rubbed his eyes. He wanted to remember this strange dream to tell Oscarito, who’d probably wave it away, saying, Get to the point, Ernesto. And, as usual, he’d reply, Dreams don’t have points, hermano.

Ernesto told the leader—who introduced himself as Obersteuermann Joachim Freyer—that he had two tins of sardines and a hunk of dried beef, which his mother had packed him for dinner. He was happy to share these.

“No rum?” Freyer looked crestfallen.

Ernesto had gotten drunk only once—on the night of his visit to the brothel, in fact—but he was careful not to drink on the job. Dr. Buendía had warned him, If I catch you with booze, you’re out of here! In any case, the boy still believed he was dreaming so when the Germans disarmed him, pointed their weapons at his chest, and demanded he return with them to their submarine, he resisted.

“I can’t go,” Ernesto whined. “Mami will worry.”

When Joachim translated the remarks to his men, there were belly laughs all around but nobody lowered their guns. And so, Ernesto was taken prisoner. Later, he learned that the Germans had wanted to prevent him from reporting them to authorities and endangering the lives of other U-boat crews in the Caribbean. Why didn’t they kill him then? The answer was simple, Joachim explained, turning his palms upward like a priest. After losing three men at sea, they needed the extra help.

It wasn’t easy for Ernesto to adjust to living onboard. The noise was infernal, for one thing, and he turned green from seasickness, staggering around like a borracho. The submarine was seldom still—rocking, swaying, rolling, swinging, listing. Ernesto banged his head on pipes, fell off the aluminum ladders, slammed into hand-wheels, bulkheads, every manner of protrusion. The crew nicknamed him Blutergus for all his bruises. Claustrophobic, he felt as if he were trapped in the neck of a bottle.

The humidity inside the submarine—even for an islander like him—was intolerable. Moisture trickled along the steel hulls into the bilges. His clothes were clammy and never fully dried. Everything was slimy, wet, rotting, including the food. Ernesto managed to eat between the extremes of the U-boat’s lurching, gulping down moldy bread with rancid butter and jam, willing himself to ignore the taste, washing down the mess with strong coffee. Thank God, at least, for the coffee—and an occasional can of peaches or pears (Ernesto had tasted neither in Cuba).

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Ernesto grew keenly interested in the fifty-ton storage batteries that kicked into gear whenever the vessel submerged.

But soon his homesickness grew far worse than his nausea. When he remembered his mother picking pebbles out of a colander of rice, or his brother staring up at the rafters from the small straw bed they shared, it was all Ernesto could do to hold back tears. At night he dreamt of papayas with lime, fried plantains, his favorite coconut ice cream. Once, he woke up to the croaking of Cuban tree frogs and had to shake his head free of the sound. Another time, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre appeared to him on stormy seas.

Most of the crew was barely older than him but they had long beards and stank like Señora Portuondo’s backyard goats. Ernesto barely understood a word anyone said yet the men seemed glad for his company—clapping him on the back, shouting Gut! Gut! for any little thing he accomplished. Even the somber Captain Wruck warmed up to him after a while. When Ernesto grew downhearted, the men cheered him up with photographs of their families and girlfriends, a number of whom were named Janine and had been acquired on shore leave in France. He, in turn, boasted of Oscarito, who was a wizard at math and a regional chess champion.

A host of daily drills and maintenance tasks took up the bulk of the seamen’s waking hours. One of the radio operators, Ulf Dreher, took Ernesto under his wing and let him listen in on the hydrophone, which could capture the sounds of a ship’s propellers up to a hundred kilometers away. In return, Ernesto taught Ulf—whose face was perpetually covered with boils—useful Spanish phrases should he ever meet a pretty cubana: Me llamo Ulf. ¿Dónde está el baile? ¡Bésame, preciosa! The expressions Ernesto heard most onboard were Achtung! and Verdammt! and the seamen laughed when he spontaneously started blurting these out himself.

Ernesto grew keenly interested in the fifty-ton storage batteries that kicked into gear whenever the vessel submerged. The hammering diesel engines operated upon surfacing, or at periscope depth, and recharged the batteries in the process. An ingenious feat of engineering. They were enormous, dark and segmented, like a species of local beetle he and his brother used to collect in a cave near Baracoa. The sight of the batteries moved Ernesto deeply. He grew lightheaded, like the time he’d set foot in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Santiago de Cuba and the bells in its two towers began ringing in unison.

Ernesto persuaded the top mechanic, Tobias Lenz, to teach him everything there was to know about the batteries. Soon the two were communicating with grunts, hand signals, and a burgeoning vocabulary. They were delighted to learn that ‘torpedo’ was the same in German and Spanish. Although reliable, the batteries could be highly toxic—and leaked poisonous chlorine fumes when damaged. These behemoths, Ernesto realized, were both the submarines’ lifeline and a deadly threat.

Over the next months, the U-boat patrolled the Eastern Seaboard from the Caribbean to Newfoundland. To Ernesto’s surprise, the Germans regularly snuck ashore on enemy territory—Florida, the Carolinas, New York—to replenish their supplies and commit acts of sabotage. It turned out that Joachim and the men who’d kidnapped him were demolition experts. On the north fork of Long Island, they blew up a huge electrical plant and watched the entire shoreline go dark except for the flames leaping up to the heavens. Another time, they brought back a dozen stolen Virginia hams still warm from their smoking shed. Late at night, in his shirtsleeves, Joachim recounted their triumphs as the mermaid tattoo on his right bicep twitched.

The submarine got as far as the southern tip of Greenland, where it met up with a secret refueling tanker eighty miles offshore. To Ernesto, nothing was more spectacular, more mesmerizing, than those icebergs—glittering flotillas of all shapes and sizes, translucent in the pale green waters or under the twilit summer skies. How was it possible, he wondered, that this world existed on the same planet as Cuba?

In the rare quiet hours, Ernesto learned to play card games like Döppelkopf and Skat, and daydreamed of returning home. What would become of him? Would he ever see his family, or Cuba, again? How was Oscarito faring without Ernesto to protect him (though they were twins, his brother was the shyer and skinnier of the two and often got beat up by Chucho Moreno’s gang). Was life proceeding, as usual, without him? How far away Baracoa seemed from the infinite oblivion of the Atlantic!

Of course, Ernesto understood that Cuba was Germany’s enemy, having sided with the Allies and harbored Jewish refugees. But nobody onboard held this against him. When another one of the crack mechanics, Hans Fricke, got trapped in the aft torpedo tube and split his head open at the temple, Ernesto mourned with the rest of the crew. Barely twenty, Hans used to dig out stale pieces of chocolate from the bottom of his duffel bag to share with Ernesto. The mechanic was buried at sea the same moonless night he died.

The Germans had several close calls with British and American destroyers (their U-boat sank 32,000 tons of cargo while Ernesto was at sea, in intermittent frenzies of hunting fever)—not to mention a serious control room fire, and various mechanical mishaps. But nothing was so nerve rattling as when the Allies began using twin-engine patrol bombers against the submarine, often marking its position with smoke bombs and yellow dye. The fact that enemy convoys were employing their own air defense crushed the Germans’ idea of U-boat warfare—and the planes succeeded in sinking dozens of their fleet.

The seamen mocked the speech Admiral Dönitz had given them during their last furlough in Lorient, the Nazis’ U-boat headquarters in western Brittany. He’d been terse and unequivocal about their duties regarding Germany’s enemies—to pursue, to attack, to destroy. But how the hell were they supposed to fight against airplanes? Soon a cemetery of iron coffins was lining the ocean bottom. Nobody, least of all Captain Wruck, ever expected to be shouting Flugzeug! on the high seas then having to crash-dive for cover.

During one particularly harrowing battle with a British warship, the crew was trapped for twenty-two hours at a near hull-crushing depth of 280 meters. The steel shrieked, valves blew, deck plates jumped, and the boat was thrust into total darkness. Bombs and depth charges detonated above them, sending shockwave after deafening shockwave, and whipped the vessel around with violent force. The bilges flooded and every last man was ankle-deep in water, oil, and piss. Half suffocated, shivering, sick with fear, it was a matter of time before there’d be no oxygen left to breathe. The mounting pressure would crush them before the explosions did.

At the height of the siege, Ernesto whispered fifty-six Hail Marys (listening to him, the Germans learned the Spanish by heart): Dios te salve, María. Llena eres de gracia. El Señor es contigo. Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres. Y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre . . . In-between prayers, Ernesto focused on the pulse of his heart beating under his tongue. As they waited like condemned men in their underwater tomb, he felt closer to death than to life. Ernesto shut his eyes and bid farewell to his brother, his mother, his Tío Eufemio, everyone he loved.

The ensuing hour of fiendish silence was even more unnerving than the explosions. Had they managed to outlast death? Defy the devil? When their hope finally overcame their disbelief, the crew broke into wild cheers. It was, Ernesto told his family later, a miracle they survived. Afterwards the Germans staged a celebration complete with pork dumplings and an imaginary, seven-layer chocolate cake. It was “baked” with hazelnut flour and swathed in clouds of butter cream frosting. Joachim christened the festivities their re-birthday party.

On Ernesto’s seventeenth birthday, the Germans got him drunk on what was left of their schnapps and failed miserably to sing the Cuban national anthem, compensating with an extensive repertoire of drinking songs. Despite the extreme dangers—and a fear Ernesto wouldn’t experience again until the Cuban Revolution—he believed that his time at sea was a worthy adventure for a teenage boy, especially a sheltered one like him. Humble as his family was, how else could he have ever set foot off the island? His sole regret was that his brother couldn’t have shared in the adventure.

As the war grew worse for them—the crew spoke openly of this, grounds for treason if they’d been found out—and at the urging of Joachim, who looked out for Ernesto, they decided, at great risk to themselves, to drop him off back in Cuba instead of surrendering him as a prisoner. That, Joachim told him, would mean a certain death—and he wanted to protect Ernesto at all costs. Had they been caught, every last man would’ve been executed. By then, most of them believed they were fighting a lost war.

While on the submarine, Ernesto felt his allegiances shifting—not for the Nazis, no, but for the good men who watched over him and saved him from loneliness. Joachim even encouraged the boy to visit him in Berlin after the war. Then on a night as hazy and moonlit as that of his kidnapping, the two clasped each other like brothers on the bridge of the U-boat, off the northeast coast of Cuba. As a parting gift, Joachim gave him a precious pair of 7 x 50 Leitz binoculars.

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After life on the U-boat, Cuba seemed surreal to him.

Ernesto’s family went into near shock when he reappeared in Baracoa, looking like a wild jungle man. Ten pounds thinner and swaying on his sea legs, he was otherwise none the worse for wear. That very Saturday his parents threw him a welcome home party and invited the whole neighborhood. They pit-roasted a suckling pig in banana leaves, cooked vats of black beans and rice, and baked enough flan to make everyone’s teeth ache from the sweetness. Even the ice cream vendor came around, bells tinkling, and offered Ernesto a free double coconut cone.

Tío Eufemio hired the best conjunto in town to play the changüis and guarachas that kept everyone dancing long into the night. Ernesto’s father drunkenly offered toasts to his prodigal son and requested encores of Dos Gardenias Para Ti, which he accompanied with off-key serenades to his embarrassed wife. As Ernesto recounted to family and friends the story of his capture and his life aboard the Nazi submarine, everyone laughed as if he were telling the funniest joke they’d ever heard. When they realized he was dead serious—he rattled off German phrases as proof, punctuating them with Achtung! and Verdammt!—they grew convinced that the boy somehow had knocked himself on the head and jumbled his memory. What other explanation could there be for his absence?

Oscarito, who hated ambiguity and shot his words straight as arrows, put an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “I don’t give a damn what happened to you, hermano. I’m just glad to have you back.”

Ernesto didn’t know how to respond. Sometimes the truth was so outlandish that it was better to let people believe you were indulging in fantasy. After life on the U-boat, Cuba seemed surreal to him. And he sorely missed Joachim and the other men, the camaraderie they’d shared. Yes, he missed them most of all.

When the party wound down, Ernesto walked out of his parents’ house toward the sugar mill, where his father had erratically slaved for decades, his work dependent on the fluctuating price of sugarcane and foreign oil. All was quiet on this pre-dawn Sunday. He stared at the mill’s windows, usually glowing crimson from the furnace inside. The smokestacks were hushed of their acrid smoke. Here in the world of sugarcane, time had stood still for over a century, one season following the next with barely a change. What was the difference between the workers of today and those in his great-grandfather’s time? What would it take to steady the work for Papá, for everyone?

Back home Ernesto crawled into the straw bed he shared with his brother, but he couldn’t sleep. He recalled the giant U-boat batteries, how they’d kept the vessel afloat, saved the men time and again.

By 1957, Ernesto Cuadra was known as Cuba’s ‘King of Batteries’. After the war, he’d studied engineering and ultimately designed commercial batteries that kept everything in the sugar mills—from the crusher rollers to the centrifuges—operating without gasoline, or costly interruptions. It was because of the Germans that he became a self-made millionaire, the island’s youngest. His batteries were so successful that Ernesto sold his patents to manufacturers in Brazil, the Philippines, even the U.S.

That same year, Ernesto made his first trip to Berlin to visit Joachim. His friend looked more shrunken than he had on the submarine, probably due to the contrast in surroundings. The mermaid tattoo on his bicep had atrophied, too, faded to an anemic green. Joachim was married to a lively Polish woman and they’d had three daughters, one of them an albino. Those dear girls had inherited their father’s ungainly hands. Joachim taught Spanish at a local high school—with a Cuban accent, no less—and did so until his retirement. Next time we look death in the eye, it will be for good, Joachim said over beers one night.

Less than two years later, the Cuban Revolution swept into power and destroyed Ernesto’s business, his dreams, took everything he owned. The day he handed over the keys of his factory to the militia was the worst of his life. The government asked him to stay on as a foreman, but he flatly refused. For this, he was sentenced to a year of house arrest. Ernesto got an additional year for whitewashing his name—CUADRA BATTERIES CO.—off the front gates. He wanted nothing to do with those Communist thieves.

Unlike his German friend, Ernesto took forever to choose a wife. He was past fifty when he married Graciela, his twin brother’s widow, and adopted their six children. (Oscarito had drowned while illegally spear fishing off the coast.) It was, Ernesto ruefully noted at the funeral, his brother’s only time off the island. Ernesto won over the reluctant Graciela by bombarding her with armloads of pink carnations. She was a hairdresser, and Hollywood glamorous, and kept Ernesto’s own full head of white hair looking sharp. Graciela didn’t put much store in the tale of his kidnapping either, but she twittered with delight at his guttural impersonations of the crew.

No matter. He’d long stopped caring what people thought.

Over time, Ernesto’s once splendid house crumbled around him, liana vines pushed through the tile roof, and tree frogs sang in his kitchen, occasionally swallowing lizards whole. How often he’d kicked himself for not leaving the island when he could! But regret, he knew, was the most incurable of diseases.

After he turned eighty, Ernesto became obsessed with outliving Fidel Castro. The two had been born just seventeen hours and thirty miles apart in 1926. Ernesto hung on with his modest array of ailments—arthritis, prostate cancer, high blood pressure—determined that his nemesis would go first, and kept close tabs on the contradictory reports of El Comandante’s health.

At home on the far edge of Baracoa, Ernesto liked to sit on his veranda, especially on nights when the moon was full. In his wicker swing overlooking the Caribbean, he scanned the horizon with his German binoculars. Sometimes Ernesto imagined the old U-boat rising up out of the sea, coming for him once more. But this time, he promised himself, he wouldn’t hesitate. He would willingly go.

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But this time, he promised himself, he wouldn’t hesitate. He would willingly go.

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About the Author

Cristina García is the author of six novels, including: Dreaming in Cuban, The Agüero Sisters, Monkey Hunting, A Handbook to Luck, The Lady Matador’s Hotel, and King of Cuba.

García has edited two anthologies, Cubanísimo: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Cuban Literature and Bordering Fires: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Mexican and Chicano/a Literature. Two works for young readers, The Dog Who Loved the Moon, and I Wanna Be Your Shoebox were published in 2008 and a young adult novel, Dreams of Significant Girls, in 2011. A collection of poetry, The Lesser Tragedy of Death, was published in 2010.

García’s work has been nominated for a National Book Award and translated into fourteen languages. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, and an NEA grant, among others. García has taught at universities nationwide. Recently, she completed her tenure as University Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University-San Marcos and as Visiting Professor at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas-Austin. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Credits

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Illustrations

Roman Muradov

Animation

Justin Herman

Design

Mark Hobbs
Marc Mendell

Development

Mark Hobbs
Ramin Hedayatpour

Production

Ray Pawulich
Susan Lundgren
Jeremy Toeman