Woog's World / Rafael Laredo's life was well lived
I read obituaries.
Westport News articles about men and women who have died are sometimes intriguing, often revelatory, always instructive. Occasionally, I learn fascinating details about the lives of people I thought I knew; more often I discover the broad outlines of someone whose name I recollect vaguely, or never heard at all.
Every human being has a story. Reading obituaries is my way of honoring fellow Westporters, while hearing their unique and compelling stories.
Rafael Laredo's obituary appeared recently. His name was familiar only because I'd gone to Staples around the time his son Andy was there. I read that Rafael passed away at 90; he'd lived in Westport from 1964 until 2007. A native of Cuba, he had a long international career in chemical engineering.
That was that -- a life well lived, now over. I moved on to the next obit.
A week or so later, however, Andy e-mailed me. We'd had little contact since the 1970s, but he wanted to tell me more about his father.
Andy's note did far more than add a few facts. It fleshed out one man's nine decades on earth, adding an entire new dimension to the dry descriptions of emigrant, engineer, father and husband.
I learned that at 15, Rafael left Cuba because of student strikes and political mayhem. He came to the U.S., and studied at Fork Union Military Academy. After graduation he tried to enlist in the military, but was rejected. His eyesight was too poor.
Instead he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After graduating as a chemical engineer, he got a job as a waiter at a Jewish resort in the Catskills. He was demoted because he couldn't keep track of what food types went on which color plate.
Working for Monsanto in Alabama, he helped make alcohol in the chem lab (the county was dry). He moved to Mexico, managing a dry ice and industrial gases production facility. A daughter and son were born there.
Back in Cuba in 1952, Rafael was promoted to general manager in charge of Latin America and the Caribbean. That's where Andy was born.
When Castro came to power, Rafael split time between his home country and the U.S. After his company was nationalized, he chose to relocate here. But in the early 1960s he was transferred to Chile, to manage two facilities. The political atmosphere deteriorated there, so he returned to the U.S. He spent the rest of his career here.
Rafael traveled extensively for work, logging many air miles at a time when flying was expensive and fairly unsafe. On a Boeing Stratocaster to Rio de Janeiro, he went to sleep in a berth. When he woke, a fellow passenger accused Rafael of stealing his money. The plane landed, police boarded, and the accuser realized his money pouch had slipped backward around his waist.
Rafael deplaned, but on its next flight the aircraft crashed. From then on, Rafael vowed to fly only on DC3s.
The Laredo family travels included time in the Andes; crossing Lake Titicaca, on an old steamship, from Bolivia to Peru, and a long drive from Miami to Westport.
Rafael loved to swim. He was a member of the MIT team; he swam while he worked, and after retirement; he swam after his 90th birthday.
He also fished. In Cuba, he and his children caught roncos off a concrete bulkhead, and brought them home to eat. In Chile they fished in salt water and fresh. In Long Island Sound, he caught bluefish.
Rafael also loved to sail. Living in Cojimar, Cuba, during the Depression, he knew the old fisherman who inspired Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." Also in Cuba, Rafael bought an old 18-foot fishing boat. His children watched with fear as it disappeared behind high waves, then felt relief every time it reappeared.
Later, with a few other families, he bought a 26-foot sailboat. In Westport he purchased a 16-footer. His family inherited Rafael's love of sailing.
That was Rafael's life. He worked hard, provided well for his family, enjoyed leisure activities and traveled far. He and his wife Ann shared 64 years together. His children and their spouses now live in Westport and Atlanta. Rafael had four grandchildren and one great-grandchild; they are spread across the Northeast.
Every year around now, the New York Times Magazine publishes "The Lives They Lived." In a few paragraphs, the lives of people who died that year are chronicled, summed up, delivered for readers to appreciate. Many of the people profiled are not prominent; they're not the politicians, entertainers and public figures whose lives, and finally deaths, make the news.
But all led lives worth reading about, pondering and honoring. Like Rafael Laredo, all enjoyed lives well lived.