The Look of a Warrior

Tony Bryant is a black militant, a hijacker, a survivor of Cuban prisons, and a Castro-hating commando. And don't you forget it.

Bryant's food arrives and he requests silence. After the meal, he is contemplative. "I know I will live to see a free Cuba," he explains. "Because I made a little deal with my Heavenly Father. He does things for me, to reward my efforts. After we hit those rocks, with the Cuban gunboats after us, how did we escape that? It was a miracle."

This, he says, is why he classifies the July 4 debacle as La victoria. "The victory is the attitude," he stresses, picking steak threads from his teeth. "The perseverance. For God to take a situation like that and turn it into a fantastic display of His power. Talk about supernatural."

There are those, of course, who take a slightly less Christian view of the Bryant legacy. "Tony Bryant is nothing but a small-time car thief trying to make something out of himself," mutters Ed Buscher, the man forced at gunpoint to fly Bryant to Havana in 1969.

Buscher, a 70-year-old former fighter pilot who lives in Fort Lauderdale, spent less than two hours with his assailant on that night 24 years ago. But he speaks of the hijacking as if it took place yesterday. "Scared? Shit no. I'dve killed the fucker, but the damn dumb stewardesses wouldn't get out of the way. Bryant was so damn nervous I was afraid he was gonna shoot somebody by mistake.

"I sat there and talked with him for an hour," Buscher recalls. "He didn't have no note for Castro. He was strictly a guy in trouble who thought he was going to the land of milk and honey. I told him he was crazy, that he was gonna get his ass thrown out into a sugarcane field. He says Castro threw him in jail because he robbed some Cuban agent on the plane. Hell, that's something he thought up in the cane field. The guy he robbed was a little Jewish man from New York."

So why does Bryant routinely describe Buscher as a "good friend"? "I've been on a TV show with him, and I went to his wedding," the aging airman concedes. "But that was out of respect for Tony Cuesta. He's a real warrior. All this stuff Bryant talks about, about being some bigshot Black Panther, is a figment of his mind, just like him dressing in that pseudo fucking beret with a star on it. I'd like to kick his phony ass."

As with many of his claims, it's virtually impossible to document whether Bryant was a member of the Panthers. If he was, it was likely on the periphery of the movement; his name is not listed in any of the intelligence files compiled by San Francisco and Oakland police during the group's heyday. ("Who cares if I was a Black Panther?" is Bryant's only comment. "I could care less. It happened to be one of the things I was. But it's not who I am now.")

As for his feats as a prisoner in Cuba, several exiles who knew Bryant in prison agree that he withstood harrowing living conditions heroically.

"Tony was loved by all prisoners, especially the political prisoners," says Felix Zuaznabar, who spent about five years with Bryant in Cuba's Principe prison. "Whenever there was an injustice to others, he'd set his cell on fire. Actually set it on fire. They'd send guards to beat him up. But he would always fight hard." Bryant was such a hellraiser, Zuaznabar remembers, that prison authorities made him an orderly just to mollify him.

But Zuaznabar, a jack-of-all-trades who lives in Wynwood, doesn't buy the story that Bryant escaped from Guanajay, Cuba's highest security prison. "Oh no, no one escapes from any of the prisons in Cuba," he laughs. "Perhaps this happened after I left Cuba, in 1976. But I seriously doubt it."

In fact, former inmates would have a hard time assessing any of the anecdotes in Hijack because the book, inexplicably, was never printed in Spanish. "I'd be a millionaire if it had been," fumes Bryant. "But the damn publisher never got around to it. He printed a version in French for the European market." Freedom Press International subsequently went out of business, leaving Bryant to peddle the book on his own. He estimates 44,000 copies from the 50,000 printing have been sold.

James Bryant could never bring himself to read Hijack. "Finished the first page and screamed," confesses Tony Bryant's 81-year-old father. "For a kid to get into such trouble and tell the whole world A I just sealed it up with tape." The elder Bryant is lucky he never read more. The book characterizes him as a religious zealot who drove away his wife and beat his children mercilessly.

On the phone from his home in San Bernardino, the retired maintenance worker and church deacon certainly doesn't sound like a monster. In fact, he weeps inconsolably when discussing his youngest son's life. "I still remember when he was a little boy, just eight or nine, a minister up in Palo Alto [California] predicted Tony was going to grow up to be a minister, and each day we prayed on that."

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