Follow Will: Facebook Twitter

A Yankee Notebook

April 12, 2013


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – “If by Whiskey” is a wonderful, purely American speech that surprisingly few Americans seem to know about. It was given in 1952, when the State of Mississippi was in the midst of yet another debate about the prohibition of alcohol, a debate that resulted in the ban finally being lifted a full 14 years later A young Mississippi state representative named Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr., was asked whether, regarding whiskey, he was for it or against it. Not to be cornered by any militants of the WCTU, Sweat answered brilliantly; in part:

“You have asked me how I feel about whiskey....Here is how I feel about whiskey:

“If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew,...that defiles innocence,...creates misery and poverty,...that topples the Christian man and woman...into the bottomless pit of degradation...then certainly I am against it.

“But if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation,...the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step...which enables a man to magnify his joy...and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s...heartaches and sorrows;...the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, ...[providing] care for...crippled children...our pitiful aged and infirm;...highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

“That is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

You’ve got to hand it to Soggy. With brains and wit like that, it’s a wonder he never showed up on the national hustings.

I recalled that speech a couple of days ago – well, actually, Mother did – as we discussed this week’s column. I’ve been plowing my way through a couple of dozen tasks that have to be done before I leave for several days of filming in Cuba, and the Jewel of the Caribbean has been much on my mind – especially considering the blizzard of forms necessary to be filled out and faxed back and forth to satisfy the suspicious bureaucracies of both countries involved. I visited Cuba about ten years ago with a group of Vermont Public Radio listeners, and was very favorably impressed by the island: its natural beauty, its uniformed and happy-looking schoolchildren (who wanted to practice their English with us, although it was already excellent), its round-the-clock salsa music, its obviously straggling economy, and the beauty of its people, who blend Carib, Spanish, and African.

At the United States Interests Section in the Swiss Embassy (our two countries do not have normal diplomatic relations) we heard the customary boilerplate lecture about the ruthless Marxist dictator who holds the country in thrall, jails dissidents and opponents, and ships chemical weapons experts to African countries to help their revolutionaries. But when we asked the young lady giving the lecture what we might do to ease relations between our countries, she replied wistfully, “Well, you can vote...”

When we got back to the States and I wrote glowingly of Cuba’s potential as a friend, I got several angry letters and e-mails from American patriots with the usual suggestion about self-deportation. What was up with that? It’s hard not to wonder. Our hotel in Havana was owned by Norwegians, who built it and share the profits with the Cuban government; restaurants were owned by Italians and Germans; pelotons of French cyclists in tights and strange little cycling caps pedaled briskly through the countryside. The cars were mostly American, but dating almost exclusively from the 1950s. Florida was only ninety miles away, but where were we?

We weren’t there – officially. Cuba is an if-by-whiskey nation: It depends how you look at it. Our embargo dates from the days of American red-baiting, when in 1961 President Eisenhower was persuaded to isolate Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution from our Christian shores. This was about the time Congress, without any apparent awareness of irony, added “under God” to our Pledge of Allegiance. So for the last 52 years Cuba and the United States have been in a snit with each other, like two high school kids who use intermediaries to relay messages. Our coast guards work together – unofficially – to police the Straits of Florida and interdict drug shipments. We have occasionally, and at a level lower than national, extradited wanted persons back and forth. Cuban cattlemen have visited Vermont and purchased stock for their ranches and farms. At least one Vermont farmer has studied the ways that Cuban truck farmers, working with very limited resources, have managed to nurture what we call organic produce. We get along with each other.

Cubans rightly remember the many insults and interventions by their powerful neighbor to the north, the abortive Bay of Pigs Invasion being only one of the latest. Last time I was in Havana, there were huge billboards facing seaward along the Malecón, the esplanade where lovers stroll, daredevils leap into the surf, and fishermen cast for dinner. The billboards depicted a farmer in overalls brandishing a pitchfork. “Come on, Yanqui!” he cried. “I’m ready for you!”

I can’t get excited about Cuba’s godless Communism (under which religious tolerance is universal), or its political repression (probably milder than China’s, and hard to point a finger at as long as the Guantanamo prison exists). We’re going there to film Yanqui bird-watchers watching birds and, when we depart, leave behind essential items hard to find thanks to our mean-spirited government’s embargo. My bag coming home will be lighter by half a dozen beisbols.

Photo by Willem lange