The Will Adams Embargo

The sad saga of how the feds hounded a senior citizen over, what else, Cuba

Will-Bob was cursing himself as he rustled through the flotsam of photo albums and manila files in his floating studio apartment, also known as Tigua, a 35-foot sailboat anchored a few hundred yards offshore in one of Marathon Key's harbors. He was trying to find pictures of his and Donna's surreal trip to Cuba four-and-a-half years ago and the subsequent torrent of Treasury Department notices threatening to sink his weary 63-year-old soul right down to the bottom of the deep blue, white, and red U.S. Cuba-policy sea, leaving him without a dime and possibly boatless.

If he just hadn't been so naive and played by the rules he wouldn't have Mr. Newcomb and those other nabobs of the federal bureaucracy trying to terrorize him every few months with letters accusing him of "trading with the enemy" and then demanding more money than he gets from Social Security in a year. And he wouldn't have needed to hire Wild Bill, who has counseled Will-Bob that while the feds might be able to intercept his monthly checks, at least they can't take the Tiguabecause it's his primary residence. But Will-Bob was not optimistic.

"I was stupid," he said, sitting in the cabin next to the wooden ladder that provides a vertical exit up to the deck. "I could take you to probably fifteen boats out here in the anchorage that go to Cuba all the time. There are two guys that I know of who have children over there. Wives and children. They go over all the time. There's a guy who works on my engine, a mechanic, and he takes his motorcycle over there on his boat and plays in Cuba for three or four months, and he never checks in and he never checks out. Because he's not stupid like I am."

Will-Bob did check in and out with U.S. authorities. And he was dumb enough to think that if he really didn't spend money in Cuba, Treasury Department officials would believe him. He finally found what he was looking for: a manila folder of documents containing a letter from Richard Newcomb, director of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. "You'll see in that folder that Newcomb says, 'We assume that you spent money in Cuba.' And it doesn't matter if I did or didn't," Adams huffed. "The preponderance of guilt is on me. This is what pisses me off."

Until the Treasury Department letters started coming, his 25-year run in the Keys had been nearly idyllic, although in recent years eye problems and cancerlike spots on his sun-baked skin had begun to cloud his outlook. He never regretted his reincarnation as Will-Bob, who replaced his former self, Professor William Adams, a New Orleans native who taught French and comparative literature at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, in the early Seventies. In 1975, as part of a plan to recover from major heart surgery, the professor and his wife Donna set sail from Port Arthur in a 22-foot sailboat. It was supposed to be only a one-year return to his adventurous ways of the late Fifties and Sixties, when he joined the Navy, moved to Paris, and hitchhiked across the Soviet Union, among other escapades.

After they landed in the Florida Keys, that melting pot of Dixie defiance and Margaritaville complacence, they found they couldn't leave, except for a sailing trip to the Bahamas, Belize, or Mexico every now and then. The year of respite turned into two, and two to twenty-five. The 22-foot sloop turned into the bigger Tigua. The proclivity for imagination that led him to literature turned into appreciation for the farcical nature of life in this fabled strand of islands. "I don't know anybody's full name," Will-Bob confessed. "That's just the way it is down in the Keys." That goes for even his best friend, Dinghy Don. "He's the only one who's ever been arrested for drunk-driving a dinghy in the harbor." But since the feds got on Will-Bob's case, farce has been usurped by totalitarian nightmare.

Maybe he and Donna just shouldn't have been so damn hospitable to Canadian Jack, who showed up in the harbor with his big power boat one day, circa 1996. Maybe the folks at the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) would have preferred them to act like paranoid Northeasterners. "One day he came out here and anchored," Adams recalled. Canadian Jack was on his way to Cuba with a motorcycle on board. "He's been going over there every year," Adams explained. "He takes his motorcycle off and rides around the island for a few months. So Donna and I helped him. We'd drive him to town. You know, take him to the store. I said, 'Use my dinghy if you need it.' So he did. And this went on for weeks and weeks."

Over the next two years, Canadian Jack again anchored while en route to Cuba. The Adamses had never been to the island, and in 1998 Jack proposed they sail down and join him. To express his gratitude for their past hospitality, he would take care of all the arrangements and expenses. So Donna and Will-Bob sailed to Cuba in June of that year.

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