The 39-foot cabin cruiser Looney Tunes nosed out of Key West Harbor and set course for Cuba. It was 3 a.m. on April 23, 1980. The freedom "boatlift" that would bring tens of thousands of jubilant Cubans here from Mariel had just begun.

No sooner had a couple of lobster boats returned from the Cuban port with a handful of refugees aboard than a Dunkirk spirit swept the wharves and slipways of this clammy resort town.

The electrifying news that refugees had reached Key West spread like a brush fire among the Cuban-American population of south Florida. With mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, uncles and aunts to be rescued from the little Cuban harbor, adventure to be had, and money to be made, boat owners gased up their craft and loaded them with food for the 110-mile mercy dash. These were the days before President Carter ordered a halt to such unofficial missions.

Key West barber Sam Valdes was determined not to be left out. Like those who set out from harbors all over southeastern England in 1940 to snatch an embattled British army from Hitler's jaws, he felt unable to sit idly by in what was clearly an hour of need for the Cuban people.

"He was so anxious to go," says his wife, Elisa. "It was unbelievable."

Mr. Valdes, whose grandparents came from Cuba, quickly rounded up five acquaintances who wanted to bring back 18 family members. With a mate to assist him, a three- day supply of food, and 100 gallons of gasoline he forged out into the Straits of Florida.

"It was a loony trip, too," he says, shaking his head. At the entrance to Mariel Harbor the rescue party encountered several boatloads of Cuban officials brandishing entry permits. They announced that they had 15 to distribute -- and 15 boats rushed forward, he recalls. "There were lots of collisions."

But determined to put Cuban bureaucracy in its place at the outset, Mr. Valdes took Looney Tunes on into the harbor, where he estimates there were some 3,000 boats waiting to pick up refugees. "I said to heck with it and anchored," he says. "They gave me a permit."

Looney Tunes came to rest 200 yards from the shore, lashing itself to a row of earlier arrivals. When a Cuban patrol boat surged by, the whole row rocked. Only those on official business or purchasing food were allowed to leave the boats. Swimming was forbidden.

Sam Valdes and his companions expected to be away no more than two days, but it was to be two weeks before they would see Key West again. He spent the time sleeping, playing solitaire, counting boats leaving and buses pulling up on shore. "I didn't take any reading matter," he says regretfully.

His passengers spent the time wrangling with Cuban officials over how many relatives they could take out. "There were a lot of tempers flaring there," says Mr. Valdes. Indeed, the skipper admits that the traditional comradeship of the sea was not overly evident on Looney Tunes.His paying passengers seemed to have irked him.

"They were always cooking, day and night," he complains. "Actually one was cooking and four were telling him how to cook. They wanted to tell me what to do and they all wanted to talk to me at once. They were on edge, complaining about every little thing."

To relieve the tension, Mr. Valdes frequently slipped away to adjoining boats to play cards for several hours at a time.

At 100-yard intervals on shore the Cubans positioned a militiaman armed with an AK-47 rifle. At night, floodlights were turned on and searchlights played over the water -- primarily, it seems, to ensure that Cubans did not swim out to the rescue flotilla to beg a passage to the United States.

The seven aboard Looney Tunes soon exhausted their supply of canned food and were forced to subsist on rice and Russian sausage bought from a grocery boat that periodically made the rounds of the rescue fleet.

"Sam skipped the rice after a few days," says his wife, an assistant manager with Associated Financial Services here. "He's a very picky eater."

Instead he lived on guava jelly, which he bought at Mariel, and saltines, which he brought from home. For the last two days they all supplemented their diet with eggs. By the time he got back to Key West he had lost seven pounds.

Food could also be purchased on shore. A five-pound bag of coffee cost $30 and "what seemed like bologna," $40.A gallon of water went for 10 cents and a case of Cuban beer for $20 -- with a $1 deposit on each bottle. For a five-minute call to Havana, only 30 miles away, one of the passengers on the Looney Tunes was charged a monumental $88.

A garbage boat charged $5 for an initial pickup and $3 per bag thereafter. In vessels with no bathroom facilities buckets, which were emptied over the side , had to be used. Surprisingly, this practice did not create a health hazard. Mariel Harbor, says Mr. Valdes, has "a nice tide."

On one occasion he went from boat to boat looking for a bucket to do his laundry in. They were understandably in short supply. But he eventually found one and got the job done with some dishwashing liquid. "My wife stuck it in," he declared thankfully. "I'm glad she did."

Apart from the interminable wrangles with Cuban officialdom, the worst moment for the assembled US boats came when a fierce storm struck Mariel on April 28. Although it lasted only 45 minutes, it was sufficiently violent to sink vessels and send others careening into one another.

"I thought I had lost my boat and maybe some of the passengers," he says, recalling the incident grimly. He hacked through the ropes that tied the cabin cruiser to a string of other vessels and hastily beached it. But Looney Tunes did not escape unscathed. Its flying bridge and bow rails were torn off. Mr. Valdes thinks repairs will cost about $400.

"A lot of boats went on shore during the storm," he says. "The militia turned out of their barracks with fixed bayonets, but when they realized what was happening they helped make sure the boats didn't crack up."

The rescue fleet jammed into Mariel Harbor often seethed with rumors. One had it that the US had declared war on Iran. "It was very worrying," says Mr. Valdes. "A lot of people wanted to leave then."

The mood among the US flotilla at Mariel was one of acute frustration, he says. "If boat owners had known what it was like there, they wouldn't have gone. And most wouldn't go back."

He adds that there were various medical emergencies during the time he was there. "One refugee lady had a baby. . . . And one person broke a leg in the storm." He says a Red Cross boat cruised around the flotilla all day, on one occasion coming to the aid of a man who had cut his leg. "It charged $10 for every visit."

One day a helicopter hovered over the rescue fleet. "I had a feeling that Castro was up there looking at us," he says. On another day a man with a camera appeared on the deck of a nearby Russian oil tanker.

Keeping well-groomed in Mariel Harbor was a problem for the sveltely dapper Mr. Valdes, a barber in Key West for 30 years. He borrowed a razor from another boat but found it was like shaving with a piece of glass and promptly grew a beard. "We looked more like refugees than the refugees."

Word soon got around that he was a nifty barber. "Everybody asked me if I would cut their hair but I told them I was on vacation." Then reflectively he adds, "I could have got $10 a shave easily."

Contrary to many reports, Mr. Valdes found Cuban officials "very nice and courteous," although he says he didn't see one smile during all the time he was there. Friendly they may have been, but the Cuban officials steadfastly refused to let Looney Tooney, as they called it, return to Key West with the 18 family members it had been hired to fetch. After daily and much heated discussion between his five passengers and officials, nine family members filed onto the cabin cruiser, which was then compelled to take a further 16 refugees, made up of prisoners and those who had sought sanctuary in the Peruvian Embassy.

"The prisoners wouldn't tell me what they had been put in jail for," Mr. Valdes exclaims. "You can steal a loaf of bread in Cuba and get 10 years for it." He says they were mostly young boys who didn't know a soul in the United States. He adds that two of the women prisoners were prostitutes, "and they weren't afraid to talk about it, either. The elderly ladies kept away from them."

One of the prisoners asked Mr. Valdes where he could obtain a passport to go from Miami to Key West. The silver- haired barber explained that, unlike Cuba, the US placed no controls on internal travel.

Mr. Valdes, who believes that 3 million people would leave Cuba if it were easy to do so, says that Fidel Castro will be in power for many years to come.

"I don't see how they can get him out." He says the Cuban leader's use of a double and of surrounding himself with security guards would make assassination attempts difficult.

Mr. Valdes is very much a part of the Cuban community in Key West, which has never lost touch with life on the island. His picture of conditions there has been updated by talks with the refugees.

"At least under Batista the Cuban people were free to come and go. They had food. All they do now is work. They have no future." He says that Cubans have to pay astronomical prices for basic consumer goods, when they are even available. In a Havana store a small refrigerator costs $2,800, he asserts, while a cheap radio costs as much as $200 to $300.

He observes that there is no freedom and very little food in Cuba. Meat is rationed, he says, and all hogs are exported. He also maintains that Cubans are not permitted to fish in their exceedingly well-stocked waters for fear that once aboard a boat they will flee to the United States.

Fidel Castro's rule, he maintains, has been "disastrous." To illustrate his point he relates that while in Mariel Harbor he watched eight Cuban shipyard workers idle away two weeks that should have been devoted to a large vessel in dry dock. "They just sat underneath it," he says. "They didn't do a thing. If people don't produce there is no future for a country."

He believes that the Cuban people "really hate the Soviets," with whom Fidel Castro has formed a virtual blood brotherhood. Cuban television, which constantly inveighs against the US occupation of Guantanamo, along with Washington's economic blockade and surveillance overflights of the island, has taken to filling much of its air time with Soviet films. "They hate those films ," Mr. Valdes says. "People just can't stand them."

With a frankness that might well have earned him a spell in jail in Cuba, Mr. Valdes confesses that he fell asleep during President Castro's 90-minute May Day speech, which blared across the water from loudspeakers. "They blasted us the whole night long with propaganda," he says, adding that all the boats started blowing their horns when the loudspeakers struck up with a song whose lyrics translate: Up, down, Yankees are turkeys! Up, down, Yankees go to hell!

Following the harangue, there was an hour-long fireworks display.

Mr. Valdes declines to reveal the financial aspect of his rescue mission but insists he lost about $1,000 on the venture. "It wasn't worth my while," he laments. "I did it as a favor." "He went for the excitement of the trip and that's what he got," says his wife, who confesses to many sleepless nights while he was away. "He felt sorry for the people he took down there. We didn't even meet expenses."

When Looney Tunes docked at Key West at 5 p.m. on May 7, Mr. Valdes wished his companions farewell and hurried home for his favorite meal: Delmonico steak and French fries.

"My wife had it all ready," he says with a smile. He was so eager to get home, he says, that on arrival at Key West he willingly signed a form admitting that he had broken the law by bringing illegal aliens into the country. No sooner had he finished eating than he started cleaning out the boat.

"I was dead tired, but the cooking area was very bad and the carpet was marked."

"It was a historic event and that was one big reason that I went to Mariel. I think I'll be telling people about it for many years to come," he says.

But, he adds with a wry smile, "I could have shot myself for not taking a camera."

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