Until recently the U.S. government didn’t want you to go to Cuba. That policy, which started way back in the Eisenhower administration, required that everybody apply for a license before traveling to Havana. My friend Zimmy Tarbox has a Ph.D. in entomology. He’s been all over the world measuring the space between the eyeballs of baby cockroaches. Zimmy’s British colleague, Kate Billingsly, is the world’s leading expert on pond scum skimmer bugs. Back in 2006, Kate and Zimmy attended the 15th Annual International Cockroach and Pond Skimmer Conference in Cuba. In 2016 the sponsoring group, the Entomological Society scheduled its 25th annual conference for Havana, and Kate and Zimmy were invited to give keynote addresses in recognition of their outstanding contributions to entomological research. In Hong Kong last January, the two talked about their upcoming visit to Cuba. “Speaking of,” said Kate, “I met Ricardo Calvez in Samoa last month. He says that the Hypolestes trinitatis, a beetle endemic to Cuba, is in danger of extinction because of loss of habitat.” “We should do something.” “Yes, we should.” The two scientists got the opportunity sooner than either of them thought. They were invited to the White House. The President was preparing for a trip to Cuba and, covering all bases, wanted a staff briefing on the flora and fauna of the island. After speaking with Zimmy and Kate,
one of the staffers proposed a presidential field trip on the island to search for the Hypolestes trinitatis. She wanted something to showcase the President’s interest in the environment. Kate and Zimmy were invited to lead the expedition. So, it turned out, Zimmy and Kate flew to Havana, not on a crowded commercial flight from Miami, but on Air Force One. Organizing a private “off the agenda” trip by the U.S. President to the forests of central and eastern Cuba could have been diplomatically and politically difficult. But Zimmy and Kate had “friends at court” in the persons of two members of Cuba’s Central Party leadership who were avid amateur entomologists. The two leaders had been aching to look for the Hypolestes trenitatis but couldn’t justify the cost to the government of such a trip. At first the Secret Service threw a fit over the idea of the president tramping around in the outback of a communist nation, but under heavy pressure acquiesced to the endeavor. Thus the party—consisting of the President, three Secret Service agents who didn’t look like what they were, Kate, Zimmy, and the two Cuban party members, slipped out of Havana by night and headed for the highlands. As they trekked through the sub-montane forest, sometimes on little-used trails and at other times cutting through thick foliage, the members of the expedition kept their eyes peeled for a glimpse of the elusive beetle. There were a couple of false sightings that disappointed everyone. Then one of the Cuban party members spotted the prize, a large bug that looked like Hypolestes trinitatis. The members of the expedition stepped back and waited for confirmation from Kate and Zimmy.
Dr. Larry day is a retired J-School professor turned humor writer. His book, Day Dreaming: Tales From the Fourth Dementia is available for purchase via his website: http://www.daydreaming.co