Citadelle Laferriere, built between 1805 and 1820 to protect Haiti from invasion.
based on a true story
IT WAS MID-TERM BREAK. One of the advantages of being on a university faculty is that you also get the same days off that the students do. So we headed off to the Bahamas on a trip we had planned. The "we" was my wife and I and two of her friends and one of the woman's daughter. The daughter was thirteen and weighed only 85 pounds, which made her just the right size to fit into the fifth seat of my twin engine Piper Apache. Everyone else was told to pack light so the airplane wouldn't be over gross, after all we were going to a tropical island, how much clothes would you need any way.
The flight down was uneventful. We made one stop in North Carolina for lunch, and then headed on to Florida, where we would rent the required over water survival gear and spend the night, before hopping over to Grand Bahama. There one of the women had a friend who had let us have a house to use. Besides being free, the house was one block from the beach.
Now it sounded great. But after the third day we had grown tired of the beach, the straw market, and watching the drug runner's boats come in and out of the harbor. What else was there to do? We sat down at the dinner table and decided to find a more interesting location for our holiday. Pointing at the map someone said; "Look, Haiti's just over there, let's go?" The next morning we were on our way winging out over the Atlantic, being careful not to get too close to Cuba, which we could see clearly off our right wing tip.
We landed in Cape-Haitien to clear customs, but not after having to circle the field several times while men cleared the rows of 55 gallon drums from the runway. Why was the runway lined with drums? we asked when we finally got down. We were told that Haiti was at war with the Dominican Republic, the country they shared the island with, a war not much known about in the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Apparently their neighbors were known to fly over and land their airplanes and then rush out and shoot up the place with machine guns, or so the Haitian customs officer told us as we watched the barrels being rolled back into place. "Remove the barrels," I said, "we're going on to Port-au-Prince."
We had only just begun our climb out when I spotted the magnificent sight of the Citadelle Laferriere. I told the group that I wanted to circle to take some photos. I went around once, snapping as I flew. Maybe a little lower would be better, I thought, although I was quite low already. I could see the occupants in the convoy of cars that was heading up the steep hill to The Citadel. I made a second circuit, not sure that I had gotten the photo I wanted. "One more pass," I announced, "and we're on our way." I banked the airplane to head back. "Enough already," my wife shouted at me, "we're all getting sick from these steep banks. . . ."
That summer I ran into a former student of mine, Fred M, at an alumni function at the college. I knew that he was from Haiti and told him about our trip to Port-au-Prince and how interesting it had been. Fred informed me that he was working as an architect for the government and was involved in several restoration projects, including work on Citadelle Laferriere.
When I related to him that I had flown over The Citadel taking photographs, he stopped short. He mentioned a date, and asked me if my airplane had two engines and was white with brown and orange trim. I replied that was the date of my fly-over and my airplane fit his description exactly.
"And you circled twice . . . and then went away?" Fred asked incredulously.
"Yes. . . ."
"You don't know how lucky you were, professor," my former student said. "On that day I was in a convoy with Jean-Claude Duvalier, we were taking 'Bebe Doc.' up the mountain to see the progress that had been had made on restoring The Citadel. When your airplane began to circle us so low he became nervous. 'If that airplane comes around one more time, shoot it down,' the dictator had shouted to his men. And they had trained the machine guns in the truck in front and behind us on you. But suddenly you went away."
"And those were the vehicles I had seen below me on the steep hill heading up to The Citadel. Had my wife not stopped me from making another pass I probably wouldn't be here talking to you today," I said.
"Probably not," Fred replied. "Duvalier does not take any threats lightly."
I looked down. Both out glasses were empty; I put my arm on Fred's shoulder and lead him into the bar.
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STEPHEN POLESKIE is a writer and artist, he has published six novels and numerous short stories. His artworks are in many major museums including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Galley in London. He is currently a Professor Emeritus at Cornell University.
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