row2k Features
The Real Cuban Missile Crisis
The Boys on the Roof
March 21, 2016
Hovey Kemp

The left "stanchion" was comprised of Tim Mickelson, Kevin Sauer (partially hidden), and Gary Piantedosi (in the USA tank top). In the middle: Bob Jaugstetter (loading the balloon), Dave "Whiteman" Fellows (in straw hat, helping to line up the shot), and although you can't see him, Tiff Wood was squatting behind with his arms around Al to anchor him for greater distance as he pulled against the tension from the surgical tubing; Al Shealy (the bomber, holding the funnel), and John Hartigan (with a steadying hand of Al's shoulder). The right stanchion: John Mathews (in USA rowing sweats), Jim Moroney (hidden), and Jim Dietz (back to the camera).

History books will tell you that the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in October of 1962, or some 63 years ago during JFK's presidency. In contrast, the Pan American Games were held in Mexico City in 1975, or forty years ago this past October. This is important because the international statute of limitations for the crime of assault by flying objects is forty years. So now the story of the real Cuban missile crisis can be told.

The story began innocently enough. At the direction of its coaches and medical staff, the author and the other members of the USA rowing team left our training camp in Princeton and arrived in Mexico City almost a month before the start of the Pan-Am Games. This plan was based on the theory that we would use the month to our advantage by getting acclimated to both racing at high altitude (Mexico city is nearly a mile and a half above sea level) and eating the food, so that none of us would be suffering from Montezuma's Revenge by the time the races began.

We were the first of the USA athletic teams to arrive, and we settled into our rooms in one of the two dozen villas in the Olympic Village that had been constructed for the 1968 Olympic Games. These buildings, each around 7 or 8 stories tall, were scattered around a 90-acre complex. Twice a day, we took shuttle buses to the rowing venue out near the floating gardens of Lake Xochomilco, and we ate our meals in the athletes' cafeteria at the Olympic Village. At the outset, it was all quite exotic and fun, if a little lonely due to the lack of other athletes.

Within a week, a few other teams, including the entire Cuban delegation, arrived and took up residence in several of the other villas. We began to encounter the Cuban oarsmen down at the rowing course and at meal-time. Remember, the Cold War was still going strong in 1975, and Fidel Castro's Cuba was anything but friendly with the U.S. The members of the Cuban coaching staff were mostly East Germans or Russians who looked like they ate (or at least dispensed) steroids for breakfast, and the Cuban athletes themselves were impressively physical specimens. Worse, the whole bunch seemed a bit standoffish and surly, as though they had been told that USA Rowing had manned the boats during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Generally, both teams kept their distance, but then, one night at dinner, the "Incident" occurred.

We were in line at the cafeteria, patiently waiting to slide our trays along to where that night's meal was being served by the unfailingly pleasant Mexican ladies behind the counter. We were hungry and looking forward to the usual mystery meat covered with salsa, assorted vegetables steamed beyond recognition and as many bolillos (Mexican rolls) as we could stack on our plates. Suddenly, a dozen or so hulking Cuban athletes came rambling into the cafeteria, grabbed some trays and jumped the line. We couldn't believe it, but not wanting to start a rumble, we let them get away with it. However, as soon as we sat down at our table, with us fuming and the Cuban culprits haughtily chowing down across the room, we began to plot our revenge. It was time to pull out the funnelator.

When we all rowed for Harvard, Al Shealy, Tiff Wood, Dave Fellows, Dick Cashin and other oarsmen from the "Rude & Smooth" era honed our ability to launch water balloons with great accuracy using a funnelator as our catapult. We were like a crack mortar squadron, as Shealy got really good at figuring out the best launch angles, range and wind conditions. Due to his skill and his typically hilarious commentary that accompanied each launch, Shealy was the guy who always held the funnel. It was an absolute hoot. He didn't miss often, but when he did, he would cry out in his best German accent, quoting V-2 and Saturn Rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun, "Vunce zee rockets go up, I don't care vere zey come down. That iszt not my department!"

Accuracy improved greatly during the week after exams when we were encamped down at Red Top on the Thames River while preparing for our annual four-miler with Yale. With not a lot to do between two-a-days, the gang fired high lobs to great effect at the Yale crews and coaching launches from deep in the woods next to the river. And at the USA Rowing national training camp in Princeton, Shealy led an intercollegiate crew of our nation's best, firing the funnelator across the lake, taking aim at farmers tilling their fields on tractors and even one poor fellow who was out on his lawn hitting golf balls into the lake.

With little malice aforethought, but just in case we needed a little fun down in Old Mexico, the Pan-Am team packed the surgical tubing, funnels and balloons into a box that then accompanied the rigging and the oars to Mexico City. Following the cafeteria incident, the arsenal was soon relocated to the dorms.

Thus armed, Shealy led a group of USA oarsmen up the seven floors to the roof of our villa after practice one day to test the launching pad. Oarsmen and coxswains were sent out along the ground to "spot" for the team on the roof, using hand signals to guide the roof-top gunners in their targeting. Depending on the distance to the target, and with some of our stoutest engine room rowers manning the stanchions, the surgical tubing and funnel were drawn back by Shealy and others as far as needed for the launch. One of the coxswains was the designated loader, and when Shealy was confident he had everything dialed in for the particular target, he called for a water balloon to be loaded into the funnel and after calling out "Range, 200!", everyone would yell "FIRE!" and the balloon would be released, barreling off the roof in a majestic arc, heading toward its intended target.

After firing a number of balloons at random targets, however, it became clear we had a couple of major problems. We could hit targets in our line of sight, but in order to truly escape detection, we realized that for us to bomb the entryway to the Cuban villa, we needed to launch the balloons over the villa that stood between us. This would require much more accurate spotters. We also needed to add another 30 or 40 yards of trajectory. Unfortunately, the strands of surgical tubing we had brought were not long enough to enable us to reach the Cubans.

The spotter problem was quickly solved when one of the coxswains lifted a spare pair of walkie-talkies from the coaching staff. And the tubing problem was solved when two members of the eight, Tim Mickelson and Mike Vespoli, came up with a brilliant plan and convinced the USA team doctor to accompany them to a local hospital, where the good doctor claimed with great emotion that the USA Rowing team had to have some surgical tubing to repair a broken boat. The befuddled hospital staffers let them walk out with a large spool of high-grade tubing, and we were back in business.

Back to the roof went Shealy and his cohorts. Spotters were sent out, including one of the coxswains who slunk along at the edge of the buildings with a strange antennae sticking up from the neck of his USA Rowing jacket. After a few shots to gauge the range, the walkway that served as the entrance to the Cuban dorms was dialed in, and we began splashing water balloons on it and near it as Cuban athletes walked in and out of their villa. Inevitably, the victims of these near misses would look straight up as they dodged away, figuring that the balloons were being dropped from windows or the roof above their heads. They had no idea we were launching them from a distant villa.

And so it went, every day after the afternoon practice, we repeated our barrage of the Cuban barracks for about ten or fifteen minutes. We would launch about a dozen balloons, then quickly gather up the equipment and head back to our rooms -- we knew that any extended launch period might reveal our location. At the cafeteria, just to throw the Cubans off our scent, we started rumors that it was the USA track team, or maybe the swim team, that was behind the bombing.

To be fair, we didn't always go after the Cubans, as there were other targets that were too good to pass up. The Mexican security forces that were charged with protecting or policing the village were camped outside its perimeter, and as the sun went down and their campfires fired up, we would occasionally send a balloon over their way, whistling through the evening air. One time a particularly accurate balloon scored a bulls-eye on one of their fires, sending a cascade of embers and smoke into the night sky. This prompted a bunch of them to come bursting through the gates with their assault rifles, at which time we fled to our rooms and hid the funnelator under a mattress, acting all innocent when a couple of them made a rather weak show of searching our dorm and several other villas for the offending catapult.

Another hilarious episode occurred during siesta time one afternoon between practices. The roof-top crew instructed the cox of the eight, John Hartigan, to take his walkie-talkie and spot a few lobs at the group of shuttle buses where the drivers were snoozing, waiting for the late-afternoon runs to the lake and the other sporting venues. Hartigan furtively crept close to the buses, hiding behind a low wall that separated them from the compound. After a couple of short rounds, he got the roof-top gunners dialed in. One of the water balloons hit the top of one of the buses so hard that the driver woke up in a flash, jumped from the bus and started yelling and screaming so loud we could hear him over 100 yards away. And there went Hartigan, running away as fast as his short little legs could carry him, the antennae that sprung from his jacket hood bobbing furiously up and down behind his head as he ran.

I think it was probably on the fourth or fifth of our daily air strikes when we really got our revenge against the Cubans for their undiplomatic crashing of the cafeteria line. The first really "direct hit" was a high lob aimed at an athlete wearing a Cuban uniform and his girlfriend who were walking arm-in-arm along the sidewalk not far the Cuban villa. We could actually see them directly from our roof as they strolled away from the point where the villa between ours and the Cubans blocked our view. Shealy remembers it was an orange balloon. At first it looked like it was going to miss but then the wind brought it back, and it landed directly on the guy's head, spreading out like a cracked egg or a floppy hat just before the balloon burst. The girlfriend freaked out and the guy stood there, drenched and apoplectic. On the roof, the team went nuts and Jim Dietz, the top USA sculler, excitedly jumped higher than he ever had in his life. Soon after, we knocked a "Rasta"-style hat right off of the head of a large Cuban athlete. After this second memorable strike, however, the proverbial stuff hit the fan.

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The Reaction (to a direct hit) Shot (from left to right): Kevin Sauer (shirtless, as usual, modeling his awesome pecs), Tim Mickelson (back turned), Hugh Stevenson (head shot only, turning away), Gary Piantedosi (crouching), Tiff Wood (in shades, grinning madly), Bob Jaugstetter (arms upraised), Al Shealy (hands on knees with an "OMG we nailed 'em!" look), Jim Moroney (partially hidden), John Mathews, Tony Brooks, Dave Fellows, Jim Dietz (leaping higher than he ever had before in his life), and John Hartigan )with his arm raised).

The Cubans were known to be up in arms about the deluge, but they were also getting cagey, tending to dash in and out of the dorm during the hour before dinner when the balloons were typically raining down. Not to be outfoxed, the troops on the roof aimed a balloon with a lower trajectory right at the Cuban doorway, in the hopes we could nail somebody as they opened the door to escape. This proved to be a bad idea for a couple of reasons. First, the lower trajectory enabled a Cuban athlete who happened to be looking up to get a general idea of the vicinity of the launching pad as the balloon went screaming across the sky. Second, it struck and broke a window right next to the door of the Cuban dorm. The spotter breathlessly relayed the news as he slunk away and the gunners, knowing the jig was up, quickly packed their gear and scrambled off the roof to the safety of their rooms.

Next thing we knew, word spread through the villa that Teófilo Stevenson, the legendary Cuban heavyweight boxer who won gold medals at three different Olympics, had marched out of the Cuban villa with a group of several dozen hulking Cuban athletes, looking for the balloon launchers. Although memories differ as to what happened next, several of the participants remember the Cubans standing outside our dorm and a couple of other close-by villas, not being certain as to which one housed the launching pad, shouting angrily for the balloon launchers to show themselves. Shealy remembers that he and others hid under their bunks. In any event, the show-down didn't really materialize, and after a few tense minutes the Cubans stalked off. The regatta was quickly approaching, and after a rousing victory speech by Shealy in his best George C. Scott/General Patton voice, it was unanimously agreed that the Pan-Am funnelator should be retired.

For the author, the story doesn't end there, however. As it turned out, the coaches' theory about spending weeks getting used to the altitude and eating Mexican food turned out to be fundamentally flawed. Either that or the rowing gods decided to give the Cubans a bit of karmic revenge. In any event, it turns out that the author suffered, along with many other Pan Am athletes that year, from several bouts of the Aztec Two-Step leading right up to the race and got to the starting line pretty much depleted of electrolytes. The author's four-with coxswain led in the gold medal race by a boat length after 1600 meters. However, with less than 400 meters to go, the author proceeded to pass out, allowing first the Canadian four, and then, yes, the Cubans, to pass us in the final strokes of the race. In later years our cox, Bob Jaugstetter, would refer to our bronze-medal boat as "The World's Fastest Three-With".)

In closing, today's news about Cuba is all about how the U.S. is finally embarking on a variety of steps to normalize relationships with the island nation, including the first visit to Cuba by a President of the United States in 88 years beginning today, and the author firmly believes that is a wonderful development for both countries. There is even more recent news that the Cuban national rowing team was to compete May 7 in the 30th Windermere Cup on the University of Washington Huskies' rowing course through Seattle's Montlake Cut. The Cuban crews decided not to attend due to Olympic-year training plans, but the fact that this article was published after that decision was made offers relief that this little exposé was not the cause of a setback in those diplomatic efforts. I'm just glad that Teófilo Stevenson, who sadly passed away in 2012, isn't around to read this and come get his just revenge, or Shealy and the rest of us would have to climb back under our beds.

Note about the Author: Hovey Kemp, H '76, is currently a lawyer in private practice in San Francisco. He rowed at Harvard as a member of two undefeated, national champion heavyweight varsity boats, first in 1975 in the second of two varsity eights from the infamous "Rude & Smooth" era, and again in 1976, when he was captain. He made the USA Rowing team as a spare for the eight at the 1975 World Championships in Nottingham, England, and in October of that year won a bronze medal in the four with cox at the Pan American Games in Mexico City. The author would like to thank his Pan Am teammates, including fellow Harvard oarsmen Al Shealy, Tiff Wood and Dave Fellows, plus Jim Dietz, Tim Mickelson, John Matthews, Gary Piantedosi and others for corroborating, if not further embellishing, the majority of the author's memories of the roof-top bombing raids described here. To be clear, however, any embellishments and/or inaccuracies in the author's account are not his fault and can be blamed on others.

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Log in to comment
Peter Mallory
03/21/2016  1:32:18 PM
I completely agree with the previous comment! Peter Mallory

03/21/2016  10:36:47 AM
4 people like this
With much respect to Ed, Peter Mallory, the Believers in the Stern, and the other fine authors who write thanklessly for a much-loved source of rowing information, this report is the best thing I have ever read on Row2k. Hysterical and very well done! It totally made my morning. Thanks!

04/03/2016  11:17:18 AM
hysterical if you are one of the roof bunch... not really, if you are the dude walking out of the door with his girlfriend and getting cowardly hit from a safe hideout

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