Stories connected by pain
Granma | 07 October, 2016
Ricardo López HeviaPhoto:
He apologizes for the digressions; sometimes he mixes up dates and places, or can’t quite find the right words. Ignacio Martínez is a man who has lived a long life, weighed down by 92 years of memories. But he likes to be clear when talking about his son, and tries hard to remember, although his eyes cloud over every so often and you can almost feel his pain.
“There are sorrows that even accompany me in sleep,” he says, then suddenly changes the topic of conversation.
Ignacio starts to recall a few memories and ends up reliving those days when his son used to play in the streets of Luyanó, and get caught in the May downpours like every other child. All of this was well before the attack, well before the pain…
They baptized him with his father’s name. To us he was Ignacio Martínez Gandía, the 25 years old head coach of the Cuban fencing team to the 1976 Central American Games. For Ignacio senior, he will always be the well behaved, studious little boy who fiercely protected the sports posters and banners which hung on his bedroom wall. “I’m proud of my son, of the man he became, the teacher he was.”
Mercedes, Ignacito’s sister, fills in the blanks. “I was 17 when he died. That October 6 we were waiting for him at home, dinner was on the table, his favorite: chicken soup. What taste my brother had, eh! But that night no one ate. We received the news that no on ever wants to hear.”
Mercedes also begins to retreat in to the past, sometimes pain is too personal, too difficult to share. “He was a noble boy, I think that’s the best word to describe him. He didn’t like to argue or go looking for trouble. I was often he one, being smaller than him, who came to his defense when another kid started to pick on him, I would want to fight and strike blows, and he would tell me: “Leave it, sis, its doesn’t matter.” That’s how good he was.
“When we were older, we always used to go around together; some people even thought we were a couple because we would hold hands in the street, which used to make us laugh. He also did it to look after me, while all the girls were after him. When the phone used to ring it was always for Ignacito.”
Mechi, as he used to call her, also explained how her brother had to learn to live with diabetes after doctors diagnosed him with the illness. That was three years before the attack, she notes.
“The illness made him more disciplined with everything he did. Six spoonfuls of rice, six of beans, that’s what he would serve himself, no more, no less. He would also write down his blood sugar levels in a little notebook every day. He was very consistent with this.”
Standing in the hallway of 40 years ago, Mechi starts to tell another story: “Once I was cleaning right here when Ignacito arrived. He started to dance in the middle of the room to annoy me, or acted like he was dancing, should I say, because he was a little uncoordinated. I remember that I began to fight and say things to him, I ran after him so he wouldn’t mess up the house. He just laughed. The kind of things kids do…”
She shows me a picture, the last photo taken of Ignacito. Mercedes keeps it on her kitchen counter, next to the replica of the medal her brother won as head coach at the Central American Games. I discover that Ignacio had not only inherited his father’s name, but also that look that humble, simple, “kind-hearted” people have, the same look evident in his father’s tired eyes.
It was the photo they took for his passport, she says. Then, we return to October 6, and the downing of the Cuban plane. “The trip was full of complications. The visas didn’t arrive on time, and we didn’t know if finally he would be able to participate in the Games.
“In light so many problems, my mother wanted to tell him not to go, to stay at home. But she didn’t say anything. She new that Ignacio wouldn’t listen to her. He was very excited about the trip; he wanted to win medals for Cuba.”
He was sitting on the foot of some spiral stairs. I saw him there, chatting casually, with that characteristic charm of his. He was surrounded by friends, team mates. Perhaps they were talking about fencing and combat techniques, or maybe their sweethearts.
It was there, in 1964, at a meet held in Havana that Milady Tack-Fang recalls the first memory of her husband, Orlando López Fuentes. She would later find out that this was also the first time that Orlandito saw her, the first time he asked about her, wanting to know who that girl, with the “Chinese-like” features that moved so well across the strip, was. Orlando and Milady had a lot in common, including their passion for fencing.
“We met again later in other competitions and training sessions, until one day he came up to me and praised my technique, my attack. At that moment I didn’t think he was interested in me.” That conversation would lead to nine years of marriage.
“We got married on February 14, 1968. It was an eternal honey moon while it lasted.
He was her anchor, a helping hand, the person who encouraged her to be a better athlete. Orlando was 34 years old when he died, 34 years in which he barley had time to become national fencing champion, an accountant by profession, and international coach to the Cuban team.
I remember when we went to the Pan American Games in Mexico in 1975. I was set to compete in the final fight. If I won, the women’s team would be champions for the first time in this type of competition, so obviously I was extremely nervous. Orlandito hugged me and told me that everything was going to be alright, to trust in myself. When I won, he cried with joy and pride.
“He was a very affectionate man, very sensitive,” states Milady, and to prove so shows me a letter that Orlando López wrote to his son, to the fruit of that love, just a baby at the time. “He did it in case one day he was no longer here, so that he’d know how much he loved him.
“By the time you can read these words you will already be grown up and your mother would have told you lots about me, she’ll tell you lots of things, about how much she and I love you, how many memories of love and affection we have of you when you were born. You are the greatest thing to me in this world, always carry me in your heart, and I’ll be at your side in every loving and honorable act, guiding and helping you…”
These are just a few lines of those words which became a testament to love. The letter is dated August 8, 1973. Three years later, following the attack, they would become the only words of comfort for Milady and her son.
I should have been on the Cubana flight, she says. “Orlando wanted me to go with him, he said: “Chini, come on, let’s go…it’s the last competition where we’ll be able to participate together.” But I couldn’t go. I had just returned to Cuba a few days earlier after participating in another international event, and I really didn’t feel up to traveling. As a mother, I needed to stay with my son who was only three years old at the time.”
“Stellar fencer Nancy Uranga went in my place.” That October 6 of 1976, Milady went to pick up her husband from the airport as she usually did, wearing a new dress and holding their son in her arms.
“The flight should have arrived at 1pm, but when I asked at the Cubana de Aviación offices they told me they didn’t have confirmation, that the flight was delayed. So I decided to go back home and wait there.
“But my boy didn’t want to go. He enjoyed watching the airplanes take off and land on the runway of José Martí airport. When we went out onto the terrace there was a Red Cross plane being loaded with medical equipment and other boxes… it took off shortly after. Only later did I realize. It was all connected.
“That same night I attended an FMC (Federation of Cuban Women) block meeting in the coordinator’s home. I remember the doorbell rang at 8:30pm, just after the news. It was my niece. The first thing I thought was that something had happened to my son, or my in-laws who lived with us. She just said, “Milady, come out here for a moment please.” That’s when I became really worried.
“Uncle Orlando is dead,” she mumbled. They just announced it on the television.” I ran home.
“My mother in-law, who had heard the news, confirmed what I refused to believe. I just couldn’t accept it; I kept saying no, over and over, that it wasn’t true. I kept hoping that they had fallen onto some island, that they had been saved.”
Seeing her in this state Orlando’s brother jumped into the car and set off for the airport. He would try to at least to get so more information, to corroborate that harsh truth. Milady remained there, sitting on the curb, waiting… but misfortune had already arrived.