He started with a pick and shovel, planting the heavy crossbeams that support the train lines. His father had also been a railroad worker, and an uncle even managed to drive the freight cars, loaded with cane, up to the plant. I was very young and already his life was connected to the journey of a locomotive, with its file of loud, packed cars. Some years passed, he managed to have, finally, the controls between his hands and to drive the metal serpent through the Cuban countryside. My father became an engineer, fulfilling a long family lineage, which had been joined to the railroad for decades.
More than once, I myself drove one of those machines along a quiet stretch, while he supervised my movements and taught me to sound the horn. “We had trains before Spain,” my paternal grandfather said, whenever anyone asked about his work. So I grew up, smelling the metal of the brakes that screeched at every stop and pulling the rope of my toy train, surrounded by plastic trees and miniature cows.
The collapse of socialism in Europe derailed the family profession. Many engines stopped for lack of parts, the trips became more widely spaced and the delays habitual. Leaving Havana headed to Santiago could be delayed twenty hours or three days. In some small towns the cars were attacked by needy peasants who would steal some of the goods being transported. The loudspeakers in the central station repeated endlessly, “The departure of the train to… has been cancelled.” My father was left without a job and his colleagues began to make a living through a variety of illegal work.
The railroad in Cuba hasn’t recovered from this crash. Aging rail lines, long lines to buy a ticket and the fall from grace of an entire profession, has given this mode of transport the worst reputation. “At the rate we’re going, we’ll stop having railroads before the Peninsula*…” my father says sarcastically. His gaze is not fixed on the wheel that he begins to dismount—in his new profession as bicycle repairman—but at a point further away, to the mass of iron that he guided along this long and narrow Island.
“Lokomotiv” refers to a Soviet Era locomotive
“The Peninsula” is how Cubans often refer to Spain