Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Where are you, Miguel Fernandez?

Long before "Guantanamo" became a regular item on the evening news, it was home to Miguel Fernandez.

A handsome young man in his early 20s when I first met him in 1964, Miguel’s disarming smile and bright disposition veiled what must surely have been a very interesting past.

He was among a cadre of Cubans who passed through the minefields en route to work each day at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. And among the hundreds of jobs filled by Cuban citizens on the base during that era – he had one of the best!

At least that was my view of the situation, since he and I worked side by side at the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) outlet known as WGBY-AM-TV. I had requested duty at “Gitmo” and served as Program Manager at the station. We provided both radio and television programming for the thousands of sailors, Marines, civilians, and their families at “Gitmo.” Kinescope films of stateside television shows – usually about a month old – were broadcast to a very appreciative audience. From Jack Benny to Bonanza, with a smattering of more timely public affairs programs like Meet the Press, the television schedule was a fair cross-section of what folks were watching back in the states. Radio was dominated by a variety of music formats – and locally-produced programs were injected into both radio and television schedules.

But there was another “shadow audience” that we served, too – Cuban citizens on the “other side of the fence,” who were curious about the United States and who likely enjoyed some of the programs they heard. Maybe they were trying to learn English, or perhaps just evesdropping on a bit of U.S. culture by tuning in to the Tonight show with Johnny Carson on WGBY Radio. In any event, we acknowledged the Cuban audience and provided them with “Noticias en Espanol.”

Preparing and reading the “News in Spanish” was the job of Miguel Fernandez – and his aging mentor, Alfredo Barea. Barea was a seasoned Spanish-speaking broadcaster who had worked in New York City. He was in his late 50s or early 60s when he arrived at Gitmo.

Miguel and Alfredo used the same news sources for their Spanish newscasts as we did: radioteletype copy from the states. They were AP and UPI reports that were occasionally garbled in transmission. This was before AFRTS and other broadcasters had ready access to satellite communications.

I occasionally broke bread and socialized with both Alfredo Barea and Miguel Fernandez, and I remember them both with great fondness. By now, Barea is certainly deceased – but I often wonder whatever became of his bubbly protégé who found a bit of celebrity (and probably a degree of notoriety outside the Gitmo fence) as a broadcaster. Where are you Miguel Fernandez?

As I ponder Miguel’s whereabouts – I’m also curious about two of my Navy friends who also worked at WGBY during the early to mid-1960s.

Paul Lanham (left) aspired to go to medical school and become a doctor. I don’t remember where he was from, but he was well read and did well in his first (and perhaps last) broadcasting job. His cohort, Hank Harris (right) was also working at his first job in broadcasting – but he sounded like a pro and could likely have made a good career of it, if he wanted. I recall that Hank had ties to Denver. Most memorable: he was born in the Philippines during World War and – as I remember it – his father suffered considerably as a Japanese prisoner of war.

It would be good to see these old friends again…..and rekindle those friendships of nearly a half century ago.