Weathered rafts and the value of freedom

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At first, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I almost dismissed it as old construction equipment left outdoors, at the side of the walkway leading to the Administration Building at Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse and Museum, just south of Daytona Beach, FL.

In fact, I was seeing, behind white picket fencing, five Cuban refugee rafts, recovered onshore along Florida’s coast, on display courtesy of Ponce Inlet Lighthouse’s Preservation Association.

Vacationing Eileen Heidrich and I were visiting this lighthouse because of a flat tire on our rented 2019 Dodge Caravan. From St. Augustine, we nursed the spare-tired Caravan 57 miles south in the I-95 slow lane, to a rental car booth at Daytona Beach International Airport, and swapped vans.

Eileen visited nearby Ponce Inlet Lighthouse once, years ago, but it was closed. She could see the 175-foot tall red brick Lighthouse, but not go inside and ascend the 203-step winding staircase to the top.

Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse and Museum includes several restored lighthouse keeper’s homes, a collection of lighthouse lenses, and other restored support buildings necessary for keepers and their families to live on premises, and ensure the kerosene-powered light was always working, visible to help ships and boats navigate 17 nautical miles at sea.

Stephen Crane, best known for his classic American novel, “The Red Badge of Courage,” followed the Ponce Inlet guiding light to safety in 1897. Mr. Crane was a reporter on the S.S. Commodore headed to “cover a brewing revolt against Spanish rule in Cuba,” according to the museum. His ship sank. Crane and others, after 30 hours in a lifeboat, reached the Florida lighthouse. Crane “used this experience in his short story ‘The Open Boat’”.

Which brings us back to the Cuban Refugee Raft exhibit. This collection of makeshift rafts stunned me. How much did these raft builders love freedom, and hate their communist government oppressors?

Imagine: Wrought iron bars bent into boat frames, affixed to styrofoam blocks, 25-gallon plastic jugs, 55-gallon plastic barrels, tractor tire inner tubes, inflatable life rafts, bedsheet sails. Scrap wood boat seats, oars, rudders, masts, framing. One raft includes an old gas-powered engine looking as if it came off a rototiller.

These Cuban raft makers built their rafts in secret, risking long sentences in hellhole prisons or worse, if caught.

A straight line voyage to Florida from Cuba — without getting blown off-course, turned around, swamped, eaten, or capsized — is 90-miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

One display sign tells us, in part, “Between 1966 and 1995, anyone who fled Cuba and reached the United States was allowed to pursue residency one year after their arrival. Many Cubans left the island in small boats and rafts, hoping to reach international waters where they might be picked up and brought the rest of the way to freedom.”

I thought about 5-year-old Elian Gonzalez who, in 2000, was found by fishermen in the Atlantic Ocean, Thanksgiving Day, three miles off the Florida coast, clinging to inner tubes. Elian too, had set out for freedom in America with his mother and 11 others on a raft. Elian was the only survivor. The others, including his mother, drowned.

My great joy at reading of this little boy’s survival at sea, of his success in reaching his uncle’s family in Miami, turned to deep sadness and disbelief when President Clinton’s Attorney General had Elian taken at gunpoint from his relatives, and shipped back to communist Cuba.

We are a few days from Election Day 2018. I’m thinking about these jerry-built rafts, and the people aboard them who risked and lost their lives to escape Cuba’s hellish government dictatorship. Maybe learning about these Cuban refugees and their rafts will change some minds among those Americans who want our nation to set sail in the opposite direction.


Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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