When he was 11 years old, Pascual Goicoechea remembers standing the in downtown Havana waving to Fidel Castro as he marched into the capital city to begin his rule over the country. Goicoechea, his father and sister immigrated to the United States two years later. Goicoechea retired from the U.S. military after serving the United States for 41 years.
Q: What did your father do in Cuba, Mr. Goicoechea?
My father was a banker in Havana before Castro nationalized the banks. His father had been the Cuban ambassador to Russia in 1913 before the fall of Tsar Nicholas. At the beginning of World War I he was pulled from Russia and sent as the ambassador to Ireland. My father was actually born on Sept. 28, 1913 in St. Petersburg and I have a certificate signed by Tsar Nicholas congratulating my grandfather on my father’s birth.
Q: It’s interesting that your father’s birthday is the same as yours.
Yes. What is even more of a coincidence is that his father’s birthday, my grandfather the ambassador, is also Sept. 28, but in 1888. That date has a lot of significance to me because in addition to the birthdays I joined the Navy on Sept. 28, 1969 and got my citizenship in Norfolk, Virginia on Sept. 28, 1971.
Q: Did you ever meet Fidel Castro?
When they (Castro and Che Guevara) were trying to gather the backing of the Cuban people they would go into the neighborhoods and walk door to door trying to shake hands and meet people. My father had an electric train set up in the garage. I can remember playing with the train and seeing Castro, Guevara and some men walking through the neighborhood. When they got to my house they all came in the garage to see the train. A lot of the men they had with them were just peasants and had never seen a toy that ran on electricity. When they got ready to go Castro said that they should pay me for letting them see the train. They didn’t have two pennies between them, so they gave me big long bullets instead. As a kid, that was really something.
Q: How did you get to the United States?
My father had been a banker in Cuba. At first Castro didn’t admit that he was a Communist and a Marxist so my father thought his job was secure. Then in 1959 when Castro nationalized the banks we realized that we would have to leave. Had he been nabbed my father, a staunch anti-communist, would not have been allowed the luxury of a natural death. My father thought he had a job lined up in Mexico, so we flew to Mexico City. That job didn’t pan out, so then he thought he could find work in Houston. We flew to Houston, Texas in 1960. My father’s banking career didn’t work out there either, so he took on a day job as a bricklayer and at night pumped gas at the local ESSO station. Monetary assistance to arriving refugees did not exist, nor was any expected. We were delighted to receive the monthly allowance of Civil Defense rations which consisted of powdered milk, sugar, salted codfish, dried beef, cheese in small wooden crates, John Wayne crackers and hard candy. To supplement our meat allowance he purchased a .22 rifle from Western Auto and on the evenings he did not work, we would hunt rabbits. He never missed a beat. (Goicoechea’s mother had passed away from cancer in Cuba, so his father fled Cuba with just Goicoechea and his sister, Anna.)
My sister and I didn’t speak English when we arrived so my father got us a crash course in English with some nuns from May through August. We started school in September. I don’t remember struggling to understand English, so I guess we learned enough.
Q: Did you go to high school in Houston?
My father had an affinity for languages and spoke several. He was hired by Dupont for his language skills. He moved us to the Memorial area of Houston and I graduated from high school there. Then I was accepted to University of Texas in 1969. I signed up for a summer term and had too much fun and flunked out. A group of us guys filled the summer floating down the Guadalupe River and traveling to the Davis Mountains. When I met with my academic advisor he told me I was up a creek. So I enlisted. I joined the Navy Sept. 28, 1969.
Q: Did you go to Vietnam?
I tried to three times, but they wouldn’t take me. I spent those years in Naples, Italy and Europe and Central and South America. You’ve heard the saying, “Join the navy, see the world”? It was true for me. The navy was very good to me. I found out later that they wouldn’t let me go (to Vietnam) because I still had family in a communist country.
I was in active duty in the Navy until 1975 when my enlistment was up. While I finished my formal studies I remained in the active Naval Reserves. By that time, the Vietnam War was over and the Navy was not accepting anyone without a nuclear engineering degree. I accepted an Army commission in the Infantry and served in numerous positions of increased responsibility over the years.
Q: Was the Army far different from the Navy for you?
No, it was the same church, just a different pew.
Q: How long did you stay in the Army?
I was in the Army for 33 years. When I retired I was working in Special Operations specializing in rebuilding areas we had torn up. One of the most interesting assignments I had was during Hurricane Andrew. We were posted at Miami the night before Andrew hit. I helped in the rebuilding of Homestead and the other areas that were devastated.
Q: How did you get to Clayton?
My wife, Sharon and I really like the Asheville area. I retired in Tampa in 2006 and we rented a little apartment in Asheville so we could decide where we wanted to live. Then I was recalled to Ft. Bragg. I was living at Ft. Bragg during the week and driving to Asheville for the weekend. That wasn’t any way to live, especially since I wouldn’t be able to leave until nine or ten at night on Friday. So, we started looking around and found our home in Cleveland Township. We’re not going anywhere.
Correspondent Holly Lock