Tag Archives: June Eichbaum

From Cuba, With Love

Westporters June Eichbaum and Ken Wirfel just returned from a great National Geographic expedition to Cuba. June sends this report, and some wonderful photos:

Our “people to people” visa facilitated a unique cultural exchange. We met extraordinary teachers and students in the visual and performing arts, including an 18-year-old young man in Cienfuegos who choreographed and danced a pas de deux of passion and violence in gay love.

At Isla de Juventud, an all-girl string quartet played a Telemann violin concerto.  We were energized by the percussion and dance of Habana de Compas, rooted in Santeria rhythms. We spoke with cigar factory workers, farmers and a Santeria priest.

Man with cigar. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Man with cigar. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

We met a librarian who ran a Google-donated internet center with computers for children, and mechanics skilled in antique car restoration. We visited open-air markets where butchers sold unrefrigerated meat, alongside fruits and eggs.   We walked through a crumbling, abandoned prison for political prisoners and hard-core criminals.

Cuba is both amazing and sad. It is amazing because of the openness, compassion and joy of the Cuban people — their resilience, love of family, and music and art that infuses their world.

The sadness was ours, as we observed Cubans lacking what we consider essential to our everyday lives, like appliances, food (without needing a ration card), cars, even functional plumbing.

Apartment building with clotheslines. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Apartment building with clotheslines. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Yet the United States continues its embargo — not sanctions, but an embargo — an anachronism that has outlived its purpose. All it does now is deprive poor hard-working people.

For instance, Cubans can’t import US cars or car parts. As a result, Cuban mechanics in a time-warp fashion parts for cars from the 1950’s, or import parts from other countries.

One man showed us his ’58 Chevy. He was allowed to import a Mercedes engine from Germany, but not from the US.  Then he pointed to a Chinese container ship in the harbor that was delivering a shipment of new buses.

'58 Chevy in old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

’58 Chevy in old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Another embargo-imposed time warp is that Cuban-Americans who send money to their relatives in Cuba must use Western Union, not US banks.

So what does Cuba have to do with Westport?

Westporters and Cubanos have shared values:  love of family; devotion to children; engaging in hard work; living in an inclusive society.

Cubanos do not discriminate based on ethnicity or race. They see themselves as one people — not black or mulatto or white.

Woman in colorful dress, old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Woman in colorful dress, old Havana. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Historically, Westport was the only town in Fairfield County that sold homes to Jews.  “Gentleman’s Agreement” — the 1947 movie with Gregory Peck about anti-Semitism in Fairfield County — told this ugly story.

Cubanos are passionate about the arts and creativity — whether dance, music, theater, painting, sculpture, embroidery, weaving, sculpture or pottery. Life in Westport is energized by groups like Westport Country Playhouse, Westport Art Center, Westport Public Library, Staples Players and Westport Community Theater.

Girl practicing trumpet in high school courtyard. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Girl practicing trumpet in high school courtyard. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

On the flight home I thought about transforming the “people to people” Cuba expedition into a two-way street.  Charleston, South Carolina has already provided a model in its annual Spoleto USA Festival.

This event has become one of America’s major performing arts festivals, showcasing both established and emerging artists with performances of opera, dance, theater, classical music and jazz.

Imagine the positive impact of Westport hosting these gifted Cuban artists of all ages with performances over a week at different venues throughout town.  And imagine how it would bring people together at a time when our country is so divided.

Abandoned prisons. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Abandoned prisons. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Santeria religious doll. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Santeria religious doll. (Photo copyright June Eichbaum)

Christmastime Kayak

Compo Beach is beautiful this time of year.

So is Long Island Sound.

Alert “06880” reader June Eichbaum took this stunning iPhone photo, a few minutes after launching from Compo. The view is toward Norwalk.


There’s beauty all around us, for sure. We just have to know where to look.

Minuteman Hill: “The Street Where I Live”

My recent post on the Battle of Compo Hill got alert “06880” reader June Eichbaum thinking — and writing. She says:

When I open the window and the air smells like onions, I know it’s spring.

Before there were houses, Minuteman Hill — where I live — was an onion farm. During the Civil War, Westport farmers harvested barrels of onions. Union troops ate as many onions as Westport could grow, as protection against scurvy.

In the late 1800s yields dropped after years of single-crop farming robbed the soil of nutrients. Demand from the Army declined, and the Irish potato famine fungus arrived in America, causing an onion blight.

Minuteman Hill is a drumlin — an inverted spoon — that rises 100 feet above the moraine and wetlands below. Thousands of years ago, melting glaciers relentlessly scraped, mixed and reworked minerals, decaying vegetation and loose particles. Glaciers literally tilled the ground to make the soil in my garden as they melted.

The Minuteman statue. In the distance is Minuteman Hill.

The Minuteman statue. In the distance is Minuteman Hill.

Our street’s namesake is the bronze statue created by Henry Daniel Webster of a life-sized Minuteman soldier, crouched at the ready with musket in hand. He gazes up to where patriot sharpshooters sacrificed their lives in 1777, after ambushing British troops marching back to their war ships after burning an arsenal in Danbury.

The Minuteman is cared for by the community. When it snows, people put a woolen cap on his head and a scarf around his neck. At Christmas, he dons a Santa costume. On July 4th the Minuteman dresses up as Uncle Sam, surrounded by flags. He oversees the fireworks at the same beach where invading British ships dropped anchor.

In 1855 a house was built on the site of that Revolutionary War battle, next door to where we live now. It was sold in 1878 to Signorney Burnham, who rebuilt it in an eclectic Victorian style.

The Burnham house, on the site of the Battle of Compo HIll. (Photo by Jill Eichbaum)

The Burnham house, on the site of the Battle of Compo HIll. (Photo by June Eichbaum)

Burnham bred prize cattle, imported from his farm on the Isle of Jersey. Their manure improved the soil, and their grazing gave the land respite from farming. Burnham Hill marks the cows’ path down to Old Mill Beach.

Before 1950, our neighbors’ great-aunt owned the entire hill (it was then part of Compo Hill). My neighbor tells how her great-aunt sold a piece of the hill every time her husband wanted to travel to Europe (apparently quite often).

In 1950 she submitted a proposal to the town to subdivide some of the land. She penciled in a path to access those parcels, writing by hand “Minute Man Hill.”

Today, Minuteman Hill is a dead-end street of 22 homes. More than half sit along one of the 5 spokes that radiate out on the flat land at top.

In the early 1950s Harry Suttenfield built a modest home for his growing family on land adjacent to the elaborate Victorian. His house has been our home for 20 years. The trees he planted create a sense of place so grounded and strong that living here feels like a reprieve from a world of soundbites and short attention spans.

Weeping cherry trees on Minuteman Hill. (Photo by June Eichbaum)

Weeping cherry trees on Minuteman Hill. (Photo by June Eichbaum)

For the 7 days each spring that 2 weeping cherry trees bloom, their ethereal beauty is breathtaking. As the petals gently descend, our entire front garden, driveway and road are covered in delicate white. From a distance, it looks like snow.

Directly in front of the house, Suttenfield planted what today is an enormous sycamore tree. He also planted an apple orchard. Five trees remain. From late August to early October, neighbors pick apples. We take turns using a bright red gadget that it is as fun as it is practical.

The apples from our tree taste better than any I have ever eaten. They also make great pies.

Do you have a story about your neighborhood, home or road? Click “Comments” — or send it to dwoog@optonline.net.

A rose arbor on Minuteman Hill. (Photo by June Eichbaum)

A rose arbor on Minuteman Hill. (Photo by June Eichbaum)