The other boy lay splayed on the deck of the gunboat. His machine gun was trained on our sailboat's bow. He looked about my age, 14. We faced each other across azure Cuban water: his dark skin and eyes, my freckles and sun-streaked red hair.
I grasped the jib-stay of my brother-in-law Bill's 40-foot sloop. The Adara's sails slapped air. We waited to be boarded.
An older man held the steel-gray border guard boat steady while a third shouted orders in Spanish. They all wore fatigues. The boy didn't waver from his gun sight. I felt childish in my swim trunks.
"Hola oficiales! Buenos dias!" my eldest sister Mia said brightly while guiding me backward to Adara's stern. The officers smiled coldly and took her in: low-cut halter, dark tan, long blond hair. My heart rattled.
I eased into the cockpit. Below deck, Bill gathered passports and papers. He eyed me intently as he slid his handgun into a galley cupboard. On the bow, Mia chattered too hospitably in Spanish and handled the lines as the gunboat came alongside.
Bill and Mia had taken me aboard Adara a few weeks earlier, having rescued me from marching tours at the military academy. At school, my friends and I raised hell. We wore uniforms, got yelled at and paid for demerits in marching tours, holding M-1 rifles, heavy from the lead poured down their barrels.
Like most teenagers, I thought I had been around. Unlike many, I had. I was born in Jamaica where my 1960s avant-garde parents had landed. Dad was a writer. Mom followed him around the globe, adding passports for my four sisters and me as we came along.
When I was 5, we moved to Austria and began our travels through Europe. Border crossings, passports, declarations and armed guards were old hat by the time I was 7. But frontiers were neatly organized by Europeans who spoke English. We spoke German. Crossings were predictable, with rules.
But this was completely different. In the other boy's trained gun on us, my sense of sophistication evaporated. The guards poked unchecked around the sailboat. When they scrutinized our papers it was obvious they had trouble believing I was born in Jamaica.
Mia kept smiling. Her European Spanish was flawless. She was calm and chatty while the Cubans scrutinized her cleavage and my passport. She rattled off pasaporte, Jamaica, Estados Unidos, si, non, and emphatic hermano and hermana, brother and sister, pointing brightly between the two of us. At least we look like each other, I thought. Bill watched from the galley with one eye on the cupboard that hid his gun. I glared at the machine-gunner.
"Why are you in Cuban waters?" the guard demanded. Dark, beautiful girls on the beach off our port side seemed close enough to touch.
We lost the wind, Mia explained. We came close to catch the mountain breeze.
Where are you going?
The guard leered at her.
Mia began to wax poetic about Fidel. She and boarding school girlfriends had picked up Cuban broadcasts at night from Jamaica, when I was still a baby. The revolution was inspiring. She admired socialism. She thought Cuba was beautiful.
I swallowed hard. Mia? A communist?
She worked her way back to the cockpit and signaled Bill while she talked. He reached into the galley cupboard. My fists tensed. Were they crazy? Meanwhile, the kid hadn't moved a muscle; he just stared at me.
I craved a cigarette. I had picked up the habit in boarding school and smoked whenever I could, acting the hard guy with the other cadets. I watched the kid with one eye and Bill with the other. Just when I thought the gun was going to appear, Bill fished my carton of Marlboros out of the galley cupboard. He handed them over to the guard. My cigarettes!
"Señor, por favor, tomar estas. No, no, yo insiste! Para ustedes!" Mia insisted they take the carton. She and Bill spoke between each other's words. Bill gestured toward open water. Si señor, inmediatamente. We would head out to sea just as soon as they let us go. We had been wrong. We completely respected Cuba. Bill drew a course on the chart straight out of Cuban waters.
And then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over. The guard handed our papers back, gave Mia a long, final look and cast off their lines. The gunboat shadowed us until well after sunset.
On watch that night I felt confused and angry — affronted to have had that kid's machine gun trained on me, my nationality questioned, my sister leered at and my cigarettes given away. I brooded under moonless skies.
We sailed on to Roatan and eventually back to the states. Life went on. But that kid's face sticks with me. One of us had great leeway in where life would take him; the other was on a gunboat that turned back, on an unknown course, in the middle of the night.
Pete Ney of St. Petersburg is a retired Coast Guard officer who now works for the Florida Department of Agriculture. He is pursuing a master's degree in business at the University of South Florida.