Sometimes History Finds You

My wife and I were in the Florida Keys last week, where we have the privilege of working with the Monroe County School District implementing a Teaching American History grant-funded project. Of course all work and no play makes a history professor even more boring than he already is. So one afternoon we joined a snorkeling excursion that took us to a coral reef a few miles straight south.

We had a nice few hours of paddling around the reef and looking at the pretty fish with our 9-year-old son, Wonderboy, and headed back to shore. On the way back the captain spotted something odd in the water. "We have to check this out," he said. (If you click on the image below it will take you to a Picasa web album with larger, geotagged images.)

What we found was an ancient wooden boat slowly sinking into the water. It was obviously a boat that Cuban refugees had used to try it make it to the United States. It was a ramshackle thing, with an engine from some Soviet-era car, five gallon jugs leaking diesel fuel into the water, and a tiller made from pieces of threaded pipe. The blue bumpers you see along the gunwale are apparently for added flotation, they are made from spray-on insulating foam with pieces of blue tarp tacked over them for protection. The boat spoke of ingenuity and desperation, and is perhaps the saddest thing I have seen..

The captain called in our discovery to the Coast Guard. After a few minutes of exchanging information the Coast Guard said that they were aware of the boat, that the refugees on it had been intercepted by the Coast Guard the day before, and was there anything else they could do for us?

I could not find a news report about this particular group of refugees (I will add a link if I do) so I don't know what happened to them. (Here is a video of perhaps a similar set of Cubans being arrested byt he Coast Guard). But I have been to Cuba twice and I can understand the forces that would drive people to risk their lives in a boat like for this for the opportunity to clean hotel rooms or mow lawns in Miami or Orlando.

I have spent my life studying history, usually as if it were something dead, to be dissected and analyzed with dispassion and objectivity. Last week history reached out and hit me up the side of the head.