When Joe Prado's world came crashing down, after Fidel Castro robbed him and his family of all their possessions, he knew only one reaction: to fight oppression all the way to the finish line, even if it ended in death.
Prado was to spend nine years in Cuban prisons before getting to the United States by way of Guatemala. Now Joe is to be in Baltimore tonight for a momentous occasion. He'll be presented an award he should have received 45 years ago when he was voted Mount St. Joseph High School's finest senior athlete, class of 1946.
His friends are excited about seeing him again. And it's that way with, Joe, too. The dinner is the occasion of the school's athletic hall of fame, of which Prado will become a member. "All I got out of Cuba with was the shoes on my feet, the pants I was wearing and my high school yearbook."
Prado has all the important dates etched into his mind. It was Oct. 9, 1960, when Castro, a Communist dictator, devoured the country. "My father had immigrated to Cuba from Spain and worked, worked, worked. He saved penny-by-penny and probably had a half-million dollars. Castro took it all."
Joe, at the time, was in a sales position with the Colgate Palmolive Co., and his future was promising. Suddenly, with Castro, the dictator, Cuba was in turmoil and tears. Prado said, "I could only try to conspire against the system. I fought every way possible. I never spent two days in the same place.
"I was on the run, fighting and hiding out. Then back on the run again. I was up in the hills Jan. 21, 1961, living off anything we could find to eat, when our group was surrounded by Castro's soldiers and I was taken prisoner."
He was imprisoned on the Isle of Pines, south of Cuba, and then sent to a dungeon in Havana. Prado laughed scornfully when asked about a trial. "I was in prison three years before they had a hearing. We went to an auditorium, 804 of us. Then they picked out 21 and shot them."
Prado remembers four different hunger strikes -- lasting eight, 12, 18 and 36 days. "The guards tortured us with bad beatings. It was living hell. At a time like that you evaluate yourself. You learn the honest realities of life."
He said the dark days in the dungeon had him reviewing his happy years at Mount St. Joe, where his father sent him as a boarding student in 1943. He played baseball and basketball, but it was in soccer that he excelled, leading the varsity in scoring three years and making the All-Maryland team.
The "Brother Eugene Award" was emblematic of being the best athlete in the school, but Joe graduated in an accelerated course and wasn't there for the presentation. Now, 45 years later, cheers will greet the mention of his name and friendly faces, older but sensitive to what their onetime classmate and teammate endured, will beam forth in profound respect.
Prado is now living in Miami and celebrated when he became an American citizen. His son is a pitcher at the University of Miami, where he is one of the most sought-after prospects in the country and was offered $328,000 to sign with the San Francisco Giants.
"But I don't like to brag about him," says his father. "Talk to Bernie Walter, who coached him on the U.S. Junior Olympic team. His mother and I are proud he wants to stay in college and concentrate on studies. Our house is only five minutes from the campus in Coral Gables."
Now 63, Prado is involved in a different line of work, representing an international seafood company. His mother, 93, lives in Tampa with two of his sisters. A brother, Juan, is a vice president of Bicardi International.
Joe recalls his friends at Mount St. Joe, almost as if he has never been away, and mentions coach John Plevyak, schoolmates Jack Skelly, Bucky Ward, Leo Delcher, Lou Reich, John Allen Herbert, Jim Kirchner, John Geppi, Tony Lipton, Tom Lind, Tom Healy, George Eikenberg and Lou Sleater. "Oh, the lefthanded pitcher, Sleater, he became a big leaguer. That was so wonderful."
What does being in America mean to him? With profound eloquence, he answers: "Our country is the biggest boarding house in the world. It does so much for so many. Freedom means America. Life here is so wonderful."
Joe Prado has known physical and mental torment. Bad beatings and personal indignities. But he smiles, almost as if it never happened, and savors the next breath of life.
Visiting in Baltimore with high school companions takes him back to another time -- when every day was for dreaming, chasing some kind of a ball, enjoying youth to the ultimate and, fortunately, not knowing what was coming later.