Excerpted from Tales
of St. John and the Caribbean
From whence he came, I have no idea; whither he
fled, not a clue.
He was a cross between Popeye the Sailor Man and
a main-drag Vegas loan shark, a paternal hank of angelic white
hair ringing his nearly bald pate. His beady thrushie eyes could
soften and radiate kindness to a schoolboy with a quarter in
his hand. Yet in a brief instant those same eyes could be as
cold as a viper ready to strike, if the kid tried to sneak an
extra dollop of catsup on his half-cooked greasy french-fries.
Yes, we were afraid of Papa Doc; yet I, for one,
held him in awe.
One day, the yard across from where the Chase Bank
now stands was the home of Henry “Limejuice” Richards
and his family, and then, presto, the next day, a plywood and
putty stand materialized.
Red and white stripes, multicolored strings of
plastic flags, multiple roofs, deep fryers, drink coolers, plastic
chairs with greasy splay-footed plastic tables to match, and,
glory of glories, a state-of-the-art 1966 instant ice cream machine
with levers and dials, bells and whistles.
From a narrow slot in the plywood, we witnessed
Papa Doc pouring in packets of “Easy-Freeze” ice
cream powder, a garden hose connection amidships where water
did its magic. An old Texaco oil drum on the roof easily took
the place of a municipal water supply, and the reliable force
of gravity took the place of the electric water pump.
At the business end of this space-age, stainless
steel, ice cream cow, were not two but three taps. Man had yet
to land on the moon, but we were launched into the ice cream
age, three flavors: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.
Papa Doc must also be given the credit for bringing
the Styrofoam cup to St. John, also recycling. After the morning
coffee rush had cleared, we would see Papa Doc collecting all
the used cups, crushing them in his wizened Midas hands into
an empty gallon can of Miss Filbert’s Margarine. Then the
little white chips were dumped unceremoniously into a Waring
Blender, a cup of Mazola Oil and, voila, there is white paste
poured into the Easy-Freeze Machine. “Filler,” muttered
Papa Doc between his stained teeth, taking a pull on his Tampico
Cigar and spitting out the bitten-off end.
Christmas was coming and the Christmas Winds were
picking up. One morning on the way to school, we met Papa Doc
in his yard under the plum tree with some six brand-new shiny
Honda 50 motorcycles in a neat row and six big cardboard boxes
with “Honda Motors” written in English and the rest
Sweat on his brow and an adjustable wrench in his
hands, “God-damned Japanese!” he spat, as he tried
to read the instruction manual by turning it upside down.
A rearview mirror was placed in its handlebar anchor,
and the first motorcycle was ready to be rented out. Bending
his white, hairless, chicken legs, Papa Doc stooped down to his
reflection, his left hand preening the 13 remaining hairs on
his head until they stood up firmer and straighter than any fighting
cock in his yard. On his face the splendor of a man who had just
broken the bank at Caesar’s Palace.
“Piece of cake!” said Papa Doc. Yes,
he was a genius.
Throughout the day, we checked out his progress
on the remaining “units.” Not entertaining the purest
of thoughts, we focused our attention on the connection where
the main wire harness met the starting switch.
They were fast, dependable, and light enough so
that they could be easily lifted over Papa Doc’s chain
link fence in the evening after he had gone home to bed, and
just as easily replaced early in the morning before he got up.
The Hondas were great, the timing perfect. On cool
December nights, the hills and valleys of St. John rang with
the sounds of small-bore Japanese motors wound out to the max.
Their nemesis proved to be the hill leaving Lameshur Bay, soon
to be the site of Project Tektite. Project Tektite was an underwater
habitat where brave American aquanauts were to spend some 60
days under water.
The aquanauts’ record-breaking 60 days under
water couldn’t hold a candle to Papa Doc’s Hondas
that have now spent 33-odd years under the waters of that same
bay – and still counting.
The next mornng, we checked all the possibilities
of stowing away to avoid the ire of Papa Doc.
Even on tropical St. John, where the seasonal change
is not as dramatic as elsewhere in the world, there is a feeling
of rebirth and renewal when winter turns to spring. Trees and
bushes begin to flower, attracting the birds and the bees, and
both man and beast experience an increased degree of friskiness.
That spring, Papa Doc expanded his operation. A
new plywood wing had been erected at the back. It was whispered
amongst us that he had imported some women from Puerto Rico.
Late in April, I slipped out of school to go by Oscar’s
Diner for a mid-morning soda.
Oscar had taken over the former “Baptist
Beanery” at the back half of the former
VI Aids Building. VI Aids was the only drugstore on St. John
and stood in the location now occupied by the Scotiabank trailer.
Papa Doc walked over and ordered a coffee from Oscar. When someone
asked him why he crossed the street to drink Oscar’s coffee
rather than his own brew, he just winked at me. That Papa Doc
was feeling his oats was evident, as evident as if Popeye the
Sailor Man had fallen into a spinach truck.
“Rosa is pregnant,” he gloated, his
posture not betraying his age, which must have been in his late
70s. I believed he was referring to one of the pretty Latina
women, and sure enough, she began to show. Papa Doc began to
get positively cocky, strutting his stuff, while the quality
of his food began to decline. The yard fowl, which were much
more numerous then, had taken heavy losses at the hands of Papa
Doc and his henchmen. The chicken legs from his deep fryer were
tougher than boot leather. Papa Doc became a regular at Oscar’s,
while his Coney Island-style stand became more of a “tourist
One morning in early November as the Christmas
Winds again began to blow, we passed Papa Doc’s on the
way to school. The plywood shutters were nailed down. The plastic
chairs inside. The happy rhythms of the Salsa music stilled.
It was whispered about that Rosa gave birth, and although DNA
testing was not available in those days, there could be little
doubt in any seeing man’s eyes that there was no way that
the baby could be his. Papa Doc was crushed.
One day soon after, two big trucks came from St.
Thomas and gutted Popa Doc’s stand right down to the plastic
Then two G-men from Chicago showed up flashing
badges and mug shots.
It seems that Papa Doc was a notorious con man.
His Havana stories made more sense now. He had, it seems, arrived
with a line of credit, opened the business on credit, then when
he smelled the hounds, sold everything to the highest bidder
for hard, cold cash and moved on to greener pastures.
Maybe some in the long line of carpetbaggers, unscrupulous
realtors and con men who have followed in his footsteps have
stopped to wonder why their actions have barely raised an eyebrow
among St. Johnians.