I was about 20 when I was called up for military service. Given my good health and a lot of naiveté, they had me serve my tour as a diver in the Navy.
Other guys from my same high school were drafted along with me into the navy. Among them was one with whom I hadn’t had a lot of contact; his parents had named him Frank Cordero.
Once we had our heads shaved, Frank’s head seemed fairly pointy, like one of those statues in the Easter Islands. However, since the other recruits didn’t have that same frame of reference, they affectionately began to call him “dickhead”; in fact, all of us had a nickname.
In the beginning, we believed —full of illusions— that as Navy “dolphins” plenty of adventures lay ahead of us. The truth was that we were only subjected to a lot of hunger, putdowns by our superiors, and night guard duties so tedious that our bodies begged simply for food and a bed; plus we didn’t have enough water.
As one could have figured, the experience was not as exciting as we had imagined; there was no lack of rough times and mosquitoes at Mariel Bay. Nevertheless, when we had almost concluded our tour of service, from out of the blue there appeared an extremely interesting mission; and, by sheer chance, Frank and I were selected to pair up for it.
By that time our mentalities had been tempered, especially after having been reduced to playing the “stone, rock, scissors” hand game during underwater training.
Based several miles from the Varadero beach resort, our mission consisted of serving as security divers for an oil platform (similar to the one that recently exploded in the Gulf of Mexico). However, the rig was so far out we couldn’t see the coast.
We spent several weeks on a yacht that would circle the platform, which was like a gigantic mogote* projecting up out of the sea. It was impressive to the eye, particularly at night, when its lights shone in the blackness of the surrounding ocean. We would sleep on the deck of the boat, just under the stars, where Frank and I would sit around a good part of the night talking and dreaming. Meanwhile the radio announced the constant movement of speedboats heading to and from the United States; this was in 1994.
Nonetheless, in the daytime things would get exciting, especially when we got closer to the beaches of the keys – full of iguanas, jutias (large rodents) and semi-nude tourists… What a rush! But each of the three species turned out to be too elusive, so we had to be satisfied with viewing them from a distance.
The work killed us quickly. Once a day we would dive in with tanks to check the four legs of the platform, under whose sheltering shade were thousands of fish and several dozen impressive picuas or barracudas. Around us, those kings of that aquatic oasis (curious or jealous?) would form a circle, and they would continue revolving around us until we finally left their hunting reserve. They never attacked anybody though.
They were many situations that we experienced together and that led to the birth of a solid friendship between the dickhead and me. Later we hung out together at the university, and in the same crew of impetuous friends.
Today all the guys from that group have emigrated to the most unimaginable corners of the globe, but Frank is the one who has gone the farthest. Living in Portugal, one night when returning from a party, he collapsed and never returned. The doctors were never able to explain it.
If it’s true that in one’s final moment one remembers their complete life, I’m sure the ex-dolphin dedicated some milliseconds to remember those adventures that we shared in Varadero paid for by Revolutionary Navy and the petroleum that was piped from the bottom of the sea.
* Towering limestone outcrops emblematic of western Cuba