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St John Virgin Islands Stories: Papa Doc

John Gibney

by John Gibney
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 in Japanese.

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 trap.”

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 chairs.

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.

Why, because we knew Papa Doc.

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