Talent for the Ridicule

By Armando Rodriguez.

It seemed it happened yesterday, but it has been a little over thirty years. I was 27 and enjoying my first peek to the liberties of the “west”, courtesy of a fellowship in the University of Uppsala. I was very lucky, very few Cubans got to study in capitalist countries, not for scarcity of scholarships; the abundance liberal positions in the academic world provided plenty of funding for Cuban applicants, the limitation came from the avoidance of negative ideological influences. Any country outside iron wall, even a welfare state such as Sweden, was considered by the Cuban government as a bad ideological influence to the formation of the “new man”, entity considered as indispensable for the construction of the communist society. However, in the first place, there was this unmentionable fear of defection.

In my case there was this happy coincidence in political time and space, Olof Palme was Prime Minister and Castro was courting him for the Swedish hard currency aid programs.  I happened to be the best candidate at hand for the Uppsala International Seminar in Physics at the time. There were some good reasons, my fluency in English and a matching line of work.  Also, there were wrong ones, like that of me being just married and so, defection expectancies were reasonably low given that the bride would be held hostage.

Unlike the other fellows to the Seminar, I found everything in Sweden just wonderful, transportation, accommodations, reception…everything.  I even got an office with my name on the door. I very much welcomed this since I came from a country were collectivism had become such that publishing a book with the name of the authors was considered a legacy of capitalist “individualism”.  Sweden was not only a breath of free air from all of this and a chance to enjoy Christmas again, but it gave me the opportunity to do some research with the real state of the art equipment and having real “state of the art” people as colleagues.

The University of Uppsala was very well equipped for fundamental research, but not as much for my more technological line of  work. The head of the Electronics Faculty at “Teknikum” , Dr. Per Arne Tove, coordinated a meeting for me this very important people at the Royal Technical Institute in Stockholm who were working in high resolution photolithography. This sounds pretty advanced even for today standards and it certainly was in 1972.

Dr. Tove knew that this was a very important meeting because the success of my project depended entirely on the support I could get from this group, specially from its ~35 year old leader Dr. Håkan Elmqvist (Håkan sounds as Hokan).  This is why he warned me that this was a person with conservative views, meaning that he was very much against communism, the USSR and the sort, so it could be to my advantage if the point of me being a Cuban was not brought up.  A good Cuban communist should have gone into red alert with such a suggestion, but…I was not and so, I decided to play the neutral scientist and man of the world, for which my Cuban suit, with its distinctive socialist craft or my cheap pair of jeans and polyester jacket wouldn't match that image. 

It was unavoidable; I had to invest in my looks. I went into this Tempo department store in Uppsala and after spending a month salary, I walked out with a very cool Arnold Palmer style attire.  I was especially fond of the jacket.  Next day, I went into the big meeting in my new outfit feeling ready to conquer the world.  But those with this gift of mine, that talent, are always bound to the ridicule no matter how much they try...  Dr. Elmqvist showed up, not only with similarly colored shirt, pants and tie, but with exactly the same jacket!  We looked at each other in obvious disbelieve, I saw him approaching me and not knowing what to say, I engineered a joke style way out, I threw this line from “Casablanca” mocking Humphrey Bogart's voice… Of all the jackets in the world, he has to walk in with one like mine... The joke broke a smile, but he kept approaching until his hand was in range to go under my left arm pit and there, it gave a strong pull to what happened to be the size tag, then he said –now, it is just like mine.  As Rick and Louie in Casablanca, this was - the beginning of a beautiful friendship… or  maybe friendshit?

In spite of our exterior political differences and though he had already learned that I came from Cuba, for some mysterious reason, he kind of liked me, so it didn’t take much time for my irreverent self to turn Dr. Elmqvist into Håkan.  I must say that I learned lot from this man, not only about technology, but also about life and human relations. Everything I knew about high resolution technology I learned from him and it was enough to achieve quite an accomplishment at the time, a sub micron channel MOS transistor. MOS stands for Metal Oxide Semiconductor and was an alternative in logic circuitry to the more established bipolar transistors.  MOS became the winning horse in the silicon race, actually, today’s PC’s are all MOS inside.

One of those days when I was reporting some success to him, he replied that it deserved a toast and we went to a sort of a bar nearby.  Håkan was not a nerd, he was a strange breed between a scientist and a playboy.  Once there, after "skål" has been heard several times, he asks me:  What is Cuba going to do with a sub micron channel MOS?  It only took a glance at my face for him to know,  don’t answer that, he said immediately, sparing me from another ridicule.  I guess, the same as what the soviets do with their space program, he added to seal the issue.  I still remember that question to this day, because I had come realize that in those, for playing the scientist, I had to disregard minor “details” such as the main purpose of my research.

One Saturday he drove me to Uppsala,  I wanted him to check the facilities at my lab in Teknikum.  He was a busy man and a weekend was my only chance.  I hopped into his new Volvo for a 72 Km drive.  I couldn’t help checking out every light and switch on the dashboard; he was pleased to explain all the features of this car he was so proud of having purchased.  At some point, I noticed that the seat belts were lose (that Volvo model came out with centrifugal mechanisms which are common today, but not then), and I asked… is this right? He smiled and stepped on the brakes, the seatbelt locked, preventing me from splashing my brains onto the windshield. Then asked - clear?-…yeab, ridiculously clear.

When we arrived at Uppsala, he drove, not straight to the University, but stopped first in a liquor store, "systembolaget", I can remember those were called, to buy a six pack of beer…now we are ready for the lab!  He noticed  mixed feelings in me and asked... why everything that is good has to be politically incorrect?  Beer is one of the good things of life, what's so wrong about it?  On second thoughts, I could find nothing wrong about that.

We arrived at my office and he spotted a Cuban news paper as he opened the first can of beer.  The Cuban embassy used to send me one every week and there were several lying unopened on top of my desk and nearby tables.  Oh! How wonderful!  A Communist newspaper, this is going to be fun! He said.  He pulls his face away from the paper -- don’t tell me, I’ll tell you what’s on it without even looking.  Then he  began - head lines are about something very wrong the imperialists had done, right? -- After admitting he was right, he went on --bellow some pictures of party leaders in some political act, right? -- right again-- Inside, reports of international meetings of whatever being held in the country with very small or no pictures,  also coverage of syndicate awards and meetings of other state sponsored organizations, right? Yeah, you are right in all counts.  Should I go on or have I already made my point?…as usual he spared me the ridicule with his…you don’t have to answer that. We then went into the lab were we discussed technical issues about experimental techniques that are totally forgotten by now, but his remarks about those newspapers etched into my memory as a permanent tattoo.

Ridicules are difficult to forget, maybe that’s why I still remember Håkan and what I learned from him after all these years. I’m really sorry to have lost contact with this unforgettable character.