This month's story is a grandfather's tale about tagging along with Adlai Stevenson II for a diplomatic adventure, a meeting with Fidel Castro, and an encounter with a Cuban giant owl. But it's also a story about fathers and sons and temper tantrums and what we choose to believe.
Happy New Year from Works Progress! May your 2023 be free of CIA assassinations and full of adventures.
This is the story my father told my son for a report he had to give in his social studies class. The students had to interview senior citizens and ask what the United States was like when they were children. Before my son asked him a single question, my father started to remember when he had to write a report for his civics class about leadership.
“I was about your age when this happened,” my father said to my son, who was ten years old. My father lived in the same small Illinois town as the politician Adlai Stevenson II, so he called the Stevenson residence to ask if he could ask Adlai a few questions about leadership. Adlai’s wife answered and said her husband was busy that day. My father had procrastinated on the report. The assignment was due the next day, so he had to ask Adlai the questions now. He explained this to Mrs. Stevenson.
Adlai was flying to Washington, D.C., that morning, but he would be home that night, so my father could interview Adlai if he joined him on his trip. Mrs. Stevenson said their son was accompanying Adlai, so my father would have a friend to play with when he wasn’t working on the report. My father claimed he and Adlai’s son, who was also named Adlai, were the same age, but Adlai Stevenson III was not even close to my father’s age. He was at least thirty years old by then. Matter of fact, by this time, the Stevensons had been divorced for a decade.
This is where I believe my father’s story to my son becomes nothing more than fiction. In truth, maybe he did ask Adlai a few questions for his report at the Stevenson residence. Maybe that was where the real story ended. But that wasn’t where the story ended when he told it to my son. Then, my father said, he went to Cuba. This was before Bay of Pigs, before the missile crisis, Adlai’s first days on the job as Ambassador to the United Nations. My father said that morning, immediately after they landed in D.C., a Secret Service Agent ran onto the tarmac with a message for Adlai from the President himself: He needed Adlai to fly to Cuba and speak with Fidel Castro. Minutes later, the two Adlais and my father were back up in the air. They flew straight to Havana, where they were introduced to the Cuban leader. Fidel shook Adlai’s hand, then the younger Adlai’s hand, then my father’s. Fidel was surprised by this American boy with a surprisingly firm handshake. Adlai explained why my father was there.
The Cuban leader gracefully took my father’s presence in stride. “Education is very important,” he said with a nod, before turning back to Adlai.
Fidel said he was not afraid of the United States, and he was certainly not afraid of Adlai.
“Are you a fan of baseball, Mr. Stevenson?” Fidel asked.
“Of course, Mr. Castro. It’s America’s pastime,” Adlai said.
“What is that quote from Mr. Cub? ‘Let’s play two?’” Fidel laughed.
“Ernest Banks, yes,” Adlai said. “A hometown hero.”
“I hear you lost not one but two elections, my friend,” Fidel said with a laugh. Adlai had indeed lost the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections.
“Third time’s the charm,” Adlai laughed back. The third time, of course, had not been any better. Adlai was benched in 1960. Here Castro sat with the benchwarmer.
The next part of my father’s tale sounded straight out of Jurassic Park, far from fact-checked journalism or a student’s carefully written report. He said Fidel owned a Cuban giant owl, a bird I later researched and learned was called the Ornimegalonyx, a species that had indeed existed but had been extinct for more than ten thousand years by the time my father allegedly visited the island.
“Fidel had trained the giant owls to attack his political enemies, or that’s what he said to the Ambassador,” my father said. Fidel himself did not fear death—he survived more than six hundred assassination attempts during every presidential administration from Kennedy to Clinton.
The C.I.A. tried to assassinate Fidel many times, but they never used an owl.
“Maybe they should have added that to their list,” my father joked.
Ornimegalonyx was the largest owl that had ever existed, a fact confirmed by fossil records, but even the largest of this species was modest in size: The giant Cuban owl had barely been taller than one meter, but my father said it towered over him. He feared for his safety, but Fidel reassured him, instructed him to pet the giant owl.
“I was told to entertain myself and play with a young boy during the meeting,” my father said. The younger Adlai didn’t join in on the fun. Maybe because in reality he was a thirty-year-old man and not my father’s peer.
“He was afraid of large birds,” my father offered.
The younger Adlai sat with his father during the meeting with Fidel, nodded when his father nodded. As Adlai did, so did Adlai.
Fidel owned not just one but two Cuban giant owls, and my father and the boy raced with these sizeable specimens, rode the birds like horses—they couldn’t fly, but they were fast, galloping at top speeds around the property. My father said he won the race, and frankly, this was one of the most believable parts of his story.
“You won,” the boy said. “You are the first American to beat me. I have to tell him.” The boy ran back to the meeting room. My father petted the two giant owls as he waited.
“I inspected an owl’s beak closely, but there was no blood,” my father said. He concluded none of Fidel’s enemies had recently been killed by the bird. The boy returned with Fidel, who kneeled to my father’s level. Fidel then pressed a small object into my father’s hand, and when he opened it, he saw an owl pellet, full of tiny bones.
“Thank you, sir,” my father said, then he asked if these were the bones of Fidel’s enemies. The boy whispered into Fidel’s ear, and he laughed. The two owls stood beside Fidel in his chair after the race, and my father said Adlai tugged anxiously at his shirt collar, glancing at the birds every now and then between his exchanges with the Cuban leader.
I said nothing during my father’s talk with my son, instead sat in the next room playing games on my phone. I had promised my son I wouldn’t interrupt his interview, but soon it would be dinner time, and he hadn’t yet asked any questions from the assignment sheet due to my father’s wordy fibs. I poked my head in and said we had to go in ten minutes, and my son groaned and said his grandfather was just getting to “the good part.”
“I’ve never heard this story,” I told my father. “Why didn’t you tell me this?”
“The information hadn’t been declassified yet,” my father said. “I didn’t want you to get in trouble if I told you and then you told your friends and they told their parents. There were powerful people who did not want this information to get out, including Adlai’s son, who was Senator by the time you were born.”
My father said at one point, Adlai raised his voice at Fidel, threatened his country with the warpower of the United States military, and Fidel excused himself to the next room. My father feared he had gone to fetch the firing squad. He thought he was going to die. He prayed, fingering the owl pellet like a rosary.
Fidel had simply used the restroom. He returned, apologized for his absence. The conversation continued.
Maybe the most preposterous part of my father’s story was that Adlai forgot him in Cuba. He said he ate too many snacks during the afternoon, upsetting his stomach, and he fought for his life in the bathroom for half an hour. When he finally came out, the Adlais were gone, and my father strolled the halls before he walked up to a housekeeper to ask for help. It was dinner time by then, so my father ate with Fidel, then they watched a baseball game on television, my father filling out a worksheet while Fidel smoked a cigar.
“To the brave American boy who rode a giant owl,” said Fidel, dangling his cigar at my father.
“I only took one puff,” he said, “but only because he offered, and I didn’t want to be rude.” Fidel then gave my father a cigar, which he said he still had in a safe in his closet to this day. “I could be arrested for that,” he said to my son, although Cuban cigars had been legal in the United States for years.
“The Cubans had completely eliminated infant mortality,” my father said. “They had developed cures for everything, even the cancer that killed your mother. They sent doctors all over the world, except for the United States, because we wouldn’t let them. That’s why we all die so early here. And can’t read.”
The math didn’t add up—my father had flown from Illinois to D.C., then D.C. to Cuba, then back to D.C., and finally back home, in one day. He hadn’t even explained how he made it back to the United States yet. My son would have to interview another senior citizen for his assignment, maybe the retired postal worker who lived next door. That was who he should have asked in the first place. Then we wouldn’t have had to drive all the way to my father’s house. He had to move into a retirement home soon. My mother died last year, so he lived in the house alone. All his children, me included, lived at least an hour from him, but nobody was ready to have that conversation yet, so we would put it off for another six months or a year until we had to. My mother had complained for years that my father never threw anything away, fifty years of junk piling up in the basement. Tchotchkes, Cuban cigars, paintings. Mementos of fifty years of happy marriage. I would have to help pack it all up soon. But my father was fine for now, besides his lies to his grandson, but there was no harm in this, except for the bad grade my son would receive if he reported verbatim the tall tales he had been told that day.
The best part of the story was that my father said he had to take a sailboat back to the United States, but he was still back in his bed that night. Then my father gave his report about leadership in his civics class the next day and received a B+.
I walked into the living room after my father finished his story. I told him we had to get going. He said he had a present to give my son, and then we could go. He withdrew a small box from his pocket.
“I had been waiting to give this to someone who would appreciate it,” he said, handing the box to my son. He opened it, but from where I stood, I couldn’t see what was inside. My son thanked his grandfather and gave him a hug. I shook my father’s hand and said we would visit soon.
On the drive home, my son said he wished we visited his grandfather more.
I told him his grandfather’s story was probably a lie.
My son said I was the liar.
“You don’t know everything,” he said.
“Yes, I do,” I said.
“Not everything,” he said.
“I know your grandpa,” I said, looking at him in the rearview mirror.
“There’s still a lot you don’t know,” he said. He crossed his arms and said for example I didn’t know he smoked a cigar before bed every night after I tucked him in.
I said I never smelled cigars in his room.
He said he always remembered to open the window.
Later, after my son fell asleep, I tiptoed into his bedroom, the gift from his grandfather on the nightstand. I opened the box, found a small owl pellet inside, then closed it and slipped out of the room.
I brought the box into my office so I could hold the pellet up to the light and study what was inside it.
Zachary Kocanda's fiction has appeared in several journals and is forthcoming in Joyland. He lives in Chicago, Illinois. Find more at zacharykocanda.com.