St. John Virgin Islands Culture and Stories
These pages deal with St. John Virgin Islands cultural information.
What was it like before tourism?
Read articles about the old days, fishing, music, bonfire, picking salt, hunting crabs and diving conch.
Find out why English is spoken in these former Danish islands and why on St. John and in the Virgin Islands we drive on the left.
Also here you’ll find articles about magic and Obeah, St. John folklore, music, poetry, stories and more.
About That Wave
How often do you wave at someone and you’re not sure if they saw you?
Do you always try to wave first?
Do you get stressed when you miss a wave?
Do you feel un-neighborly when you don’t wave in time?
Do you get worried that the other person in the other car thinks, “What’s their problem?”
Do you immediately make up an excuse in your head to justify not waving back?
Do you get a bit insecure when someone doesn’t wave back at you?
Have you ever wanted to turn around and catch up to someone just to explain why you didn’t wave?
How often do you blame the sun for not waving back?
When you are in a GREAT mood do you wave at everyone including people you don’t know?
Has stress ever caused you to not wave at anyone all day?
Do you worry that “non-wavers” could get the plague?
When you’re tired do you do a half wave?
Do “half waves” count?
The Virgin Islands Change from DC to AC
William W. Hastie was the first black governor of the Virgin
Islands, appointed to the position by U.S. President Harry S.
Truman in 1946. Hastie later went on to become a judge of the
U.S Circuit Court of Appeals.
On a trip to Denmark, Hastie told of an incident that illustrated
the sentiment of some of the Virgin Islanders toward the change
of government from Danish to American. It seems that while he
was governor of the Virgin Islands there was a change of electric
power from direct current, DC, to alternating current, AC. News
of the change brought about a barrage of resistance and complaints
from the older residents of the Islands.
Hastie asked a friend of his with contacts in the black community
to explain the reasons for this mysterious opposition.
“Your Excellency,” said the friend, “the people don’t
want any of the American Current. They want to keep the old Danish Current.
”Rape of the American Virgins, Edward A. O’Neil
The following is taken from Escape To The Tropics by Desmond Holdridge, Harcourt Brace and Company, NY 1937.
The man referred to as Roy is the late Roy Sewer, then seventeen years old. Roy Sewer was later to become the Island Administrator for St. John and the principal of the Julius Sprauve School.
Club refers to the old Virgin Island custom of family and friends helping one another out when big jobs needed to be done. The one holding club would traditionally prepare food and beverages for the helpers and would be available if called upon to do club work for someone else. The term “to resen” means to baptize.“Roy…heard the discussion, and heard us speak of Anancy, the clever spider who figures in West African folk tales as a kind of culture hero. That night…Roy brought us some of the Anancy stories current in St. John, all written out by himself. Here is one:
Once upon a time, there were two spiders, one name Bru Tuckomar and the other Bru Anancy.
One day, Bru Tuckomar said to Bru Anancy, “Bru, would like you to help me cut some wood.”
Bru Anancy said, “Surely. I will willingly help you.”
So Bru Tuckomar said, “I will cook peas soup for your lunch.”
So, when the day came for the wood to cut, he cook the soup before they began to work. After he finish cook, he said, “Let us go to work.” And they went.
About 9: 30, Bru Anancy said, “Lord have marsey, every day resenin’ bastard child! Resenin’ child so!
“But, before they went to work, he hang a pan in the tree and whenever the wind blow, the pan made a loud sound much like a bell. So he would say, “Bru, I have to go to resen that child.”
Bru Tuckomar said, “All right, you go.”He went right where the pot was and began to eat. He ate one third of the soup and went back to work. When he reach, he said, “Well, I resen the good-for-nothing!
“Bru Tuckomar said, “What the child’s name?”
“Just Begin,” said Anancy.
They work until about eleven and the pan made the same noise. Bru Anancy stop work and listen. Bru Tuckomar said, “I hear a call, Bru. They must be calling you to a next resening.”
Anancy said, “Hell! Then I wish all them damn children would die. Anyway, me go.”
And he went, and he did resen the child! He ate about three fourths of the food and went back.
What this child’s name?” said Bru Tuckomar.”
Half Gone,” said Anancy.Bru Tuckomar said, “Quare names, indeed!’
Anancy said “Half Gone” because there was less than that in the pot from what there was at first.
So they work and conversed and, all of a sudden, a big wind come and the pan call again for the rest of the food to be finish. Bru Anancy made as if he didn’t hear a sound and Bru Tuckomar said, “Bru, them is call again for you to resen another bastard child.”
Bru Anancy made believe that he didn’t want to go.Bru Tuckomar said, “You know it is your duty to go, so go.”
And Anancy began to swar and say all manner of thing so Bru Tuckomar would think he didn’t want to go. But it was just from joy. He want to make a finishing touch.He went and all was gone this time so, when he went back, Bru Tuckomar said, “What’s the name?”
“None Left for You!”
“What? None Left for Me! The idear of such a name for a child!”
When the club finish, the two left for food and rest. But, to Bru Tuckomar surprise, the pot was empty. They look at one another.
Bru Tuckomar said, “I know the children had funny names!” and he rush for Anancy. But Bru Anancy, being too fast, side slip him, and cut his head off with a cutlash.
And since that, spiders never keep club.”
The Movements” & The Birth of “Jam Band”
In the 1970s, most calypso bands were either Virgin Islands bands or “Down-Island” bands. (This separation by national origin was also characteristic of other areas of Virgin Island society.) The members of the St. John band, Eddie and the Movements, however, had members and roots not only on St. John and St. Thomas, but also in the British Virgin Islands, St. Kitts, Nevis, Dominica and St. Lucia. The resulting mix added a special flavor to the band’s music.”Eddie and the Movements provided a fine example of what should have been happening, but was not always happening at the time,” said Emanuel “Mano” Boyd referring to the lack of unity between the two groups of West Indians.
Eddie and the Movements even included a white continental, Dan
Silber, who brought a hint of blues into the calypso sound.
Danny even had the audacity to play a few riffs on the harmonica,
an instrument that was first viewed as completely unacceptable,
but was soon found to be a positive addition. Later on, Seto,
another band member learned to play the harmonica and this
instrument was more regularly incorporated into the fusion sound.
Movement Band Circa 1974 taken on Gibney Beach at the Oppenheimer House
1. Rudolph Bratwaite “Umba”
2. Earle Richards, Sr. “Jumper”
3. Eddie Francis “Quailer”
4. Loredon Boynes, Jr. “Squibby”
5. Clement Hicks “Ras Abijah”
6. Reginald Martin “Ras Reg”
7. Jesse L. Richards, Sr. “Bama”
8. Raphael Wesselhoft “Raphy”
9. Dean Leonard “Cardy”
10. Leon Plaskett “Pillyfus”
11. Emanuel Boyd “Mano”
12. Dan Silber “Donnymon”Other band members not shown in the photo include Dennis (Fox) Frett,
Otis (Big O) Martin, Seto (Bumps) Jarvis
Paul (Ding Ding) Thomas, Colin
(Carlsburg or Willie) Sprauve,
Moses (the Mighty Zealand) Brathwaite
and Carly Powell
The unique community consciousness of St. John also came into
play around Eddie and the Movements. St Johnians were proud of the band and extended them a great deal of support. For example, Loredon Boynes and Rodney Varlack, the owners of the ferry services, often provided free transportation, special ferries and help with the instruments. The dock master, Mr. Wesselhoft, would make sure that docking and landing formalities proceeded smoothly.
Eddie and the Movements was born on St. John in the early 1970s. A group of young St. Johnian musicians got together and practiced in rehearsal space provided at no charge by Julian Harley, who today is our Island Administrator. “Julian was a positive influence and our first manager. Thanks Julian!” said original band member, Mano.
One night Eddie Francis happened to be in the area and heard the band practicing. He liked what he heard. Eddie was an accomplished
musician from St. Thomas and a member of Milo and the Kings, the most popular band in the Virgin Islands at the time. The bandleader of Milo and the Kings was Eddie’s brother, the well-known, Milo Francis, for whom a highway in St. Thomas is now named.Eddie lent his expertise to the band and eventually became a band member. He helped the band with the arrangements of their songs and introduced the band to musicians from St. Thomas. Eddie also had a boat, which in an era when there were no late night
ferries, proved to be a great convenience.
Eddie and the Movements debuted at the Cruz Bay Ballpark
in 1974 when they were invited to perform at a Bandorama fundraiser for Steel Unlimited, the St. John Steel Pan band organized by Sis Frank and musically directed by Rudy Wells.Eddie and the Movements put out two albums. The first one, Time is Running Out, was produced by Lewelyn (Big Lew) Sewer on the Truckerman Label. “Big Lew was a mega-influence. I want to shake his hand when we meet in that big musical theatre up in the sky,” said Mano. “Dread High” was the hit song on the Time is Running Out album. The lead vocalist for that song was today’s well known personality,
Ras Reg. A year later the band released their second album, Paradise Found, which they produced themselves. The album cover featured a photo of Hawksnest Beach, where they used to practice at the home of Toni Oppenheimer. Both albums were recorded at the Ochoa recording studio in Puerto Rico.Eddie and the Movements took its place alongside Milo and the Kings and Tremile and the Jamals as one of the three most popular bands in the Virgin Islands at that time. The three bands, coincidentally, were led by the three Francis brothers, Eddie, Milo and Tremile.At first, Eddie and the Movements played in the few St. John venues that existed at that time, the Fish Fries at Pond Mouth, Eric’s Hilltop, Fred’s, Daniel’s in Pine Peace and at the Flamingo and Sputnik in Coral Bay. Later, Eddie and the Movements played throughout the American and British Virgin Islands, in Tortola, Virgin Gorda, St. Thomas and St. Croix. As their fame and popularity increased they played gigs in Puerto Rico, Vieques, St. Kitts, Nevis and St. Martin.During a period when the band membership had declined, Eddie and the Movements merged with a young band from St. Thomas called T & T Brass, in which Eddie Francis’s son was a member. The resulting musical group became today’s popular calypso band, Jam Band.
One of the fondest memories I have about growing up on Jost Van Dyke is of an event we called “bonfire,” which celebrated a rather obscure holiday we observed in the British Virgin Islands called Guy Fawkes Day.Bonfire was a special time for us. People, young and old, would gather around a huge fire to eat, drink, dance, sing songs and tell stories. On Jost Van Dyke most of us were related in one way or the other, and the bonfire was like a family picnic, full of love, laughter and joy.
A major aspect of the bonfire was the dancing. One dance that stands out in my mind was the glass dance. Broken glass was spread out on a towel or blanket and the dancer would dance barefooted upon the sharp pieces of broken glass. Sometimes he would choose a woman from the crowd and carry her the way a bride is carried across the threshold. Then with the added weight of the woman he would continue the dance, stepping harder than ever in an impressive stomping style on the bed of broken glass.
At times a flambeau was incorporated into the routine. The flambeau was made by wrapping a piece of cloth around one
end of a stick. The cloth was then soaked in kerosene and set
ablaze. Then while dancing on the broken glass the dancer would
pass the burning flambeau over his body. Yes, actually rubbing the fire over his bare skin!There were also times when a dancer would become a human flame-thrower. He would take a mouthful of kerosene, then placing the flambeau in front of his mouth he would spray the liquid onto the flambeau, causing a sudden burst of flame
to shoot forth like a fire-breathing dragon.When the dance was over, the dancer, whose skill kept him from being injured in the performance of this dangerous dance, would always receive a great show of appreciation from the crowd who would clap, whistle and shout out praise.For the bonfire feast fisherman would go out in the early morning and haul their fish traps. When they returned they would clean the fish and rinse them in the sea. Fish traps were referred to as pots so we called these fish “pot fish” and they included grouper, snapper, old wife, grunt, porgies and shellfish.
The fish would be placed on an outdoor grill and after they were roasted one would add the seasoning of their choice. I am willing to put my word on this fact. Fresh fish roasted on an open fire is the best a fish will ever taste.Along with the fish we had corn, sweet potatoes, johnnycakes and special breads baked in clay ovens. My favorites were coconut bread and cassava bread.
Eating utensils came from various sources. Bowls were made from calabash; tin cans were used for cups and green banana leaves served as trays.
For me the best part of the bonfire was the storytelling. The storytellers would tell tales about natural and supernatural events or relate true stories about the past or present. At times storytelling would serve as a form of confession to clear the conscience, such as “…when we were over at So and So’s ground stealing mangoes and So and So fell out of the tree and…”
“So it was you fellows up in my tree!” the mango owner would exclaim. The confession being made in this roundabout manner would make people laugh and usually all would be forgiven.
Sometimes stories were told for a purpose such as to encourage the young ones to come home before dark or to behave properly as in the tale about the mermaid who lived in the pond and who turned evil at night. If she caught children in the dark of night she would capture them and would take them into the pond and they’d never be seen or heard of again. Or there was the tale of “Red Head and Bloody Bone, a jumbie, who would come for children that showed disrespect or who don’t listen to their parents.
The aftermath of the bonfire was peaceful. As the bonfire slowly died out, some folks would doze off while others would quietly gaze into the fading embers of the fire. Those who still had energy would start cleaning as much as they could so that whoever was responsible for the bonfire wouldn’t have as much left to clean the next day.
The last bonfire that I know of took place in 1974. It was held by Mr. Sherman Callwood, a native of Jost Van Dyke who now lives on St. John with his wife and family.The bonfire became a nostalgic memory for the men, women and children who would often reminisce on the event. Today these memories are rapidly fading away and one more piece of our culture may soon pass to oblivion.
I’ve asked many teenagers and young adults about bonfire and none of them has any idea of what I speak of and perhaps this little bit of information may be the last anyone ever hears of the cultural event that we called bonfire.”
Ivan Chinnery operates the Local Flavour Campground located on the eastern end of White Bay on Jost Van Dyke. Just behind the beach and next to Ivan’s “Stress Free Bar” is a magnificent old tamarind tree.
Today campers take advantage of the shade provided by this large fruit tree to enjoy picnic lunches and barbecues or to enjoy a relaxing afternoon lying in the solitary hammock that hangs from the sturdy branches.
In years gone by a man named Herman Chinnery had a charcoal pit under this very tree.
In those days tourism hardly existed on Jost Van Dyke and the
inhabitants survived primarily through subsistence farming and
One of the few ways to generate hard cash was through the production and sale of charcoal, which, up until the 1960s, was used extensively in all the Virgin Islands as a cooking fuel. Gas stoves and cooking gas were just too expensive for the vast majority of Virgin Islanders.
It takes a great deal of hard work to make charcoal and the shade provided by this ancient tamarind tree was certainly as well appreciated then as it is now.The first step in making charcoal would be to dig or “mine” the charcoal pit. This could take several days of hard work. The next step would be to cut the wood. Limbs were trimmed off and the wood was allowed to cure for a few weeks.
“Sometimes you would cut the wood and clean the area and then you would plant something there. So you would not only get the wood, but also you could still get something from the farming. You could plant sweet potato, cassava, tanya, yam, pigeon peas, whatever,” explains Ethen Chinnery who had farmed and fished on his native land for almost all of his happy and healthy 92 years. (Mr. Ethien passed away in 2005.)
While it was the elders of the community who generally cut the wood, it was the children who would be called upon to carry the wood to the coal pits. They would often make a game of tossing
the cut logs down hill and consolidating them into manageable
piles, seeing how far they could throw and how close to the pile
they could get.
When the wood finally reached the coal pit it would be carefully
stacked either in a linear arrangement called a “long pit” or in a teepee-like fashion called a “round pit.” Next bush, such as guinea grass, coconut fronds or small genip branches, would be stuffed or “chinked” into the spaces between the wood.
Then the entire stack was gradually covered with bush. When this process was completed the thatched wood was covered with earth, most of which came from the mining of the pit. An opening, or door, was left uncovered at the bottom of the stack.
Hot coals were used to set the exposed wood near the door on fire. When the fire was well established and had spread to the interior of the stack, a piece of galvanized metal was placed over the door, and then this last area was thatched and covered with earth. Smoke would escape through small holes in the dirt as the wood burned in the limited air environment beneath the ground.The coal pit needed to be watched, however, to make sure that large holes didn’t develop as the wood burned and the stack settled. If this happened someone needed to be there in order to thatch up and cover the hole. If this was not done soon enough, then the charcoal maker might return to find nothing more than a pit full of worthless ashes.
The smoldering fire would last between two days and a week depending on the amount and size of the wood used. A pleasant
and melodious cracking sound often could be heard as the wood
turned into coal and the stack settled.
“There is no sound more beautiful than the one made from a coal pit. I don’t know a single instrument that can play a melody like that,” reflects Curtney Chinnery, Ethien’s son.
When the pit stopped smoking, the charcoal was ready to harvest.
Using a hooked stick or an iron rake the coals would be pulled out of the pit and allowed to cool. Any coals that were still burning needed to be covered with dirt until they stopped glowing.
“The newly made coals would shine like black gold,” remarked a young man who had once observed the procedure. Smaller pieces of “fine coal,” which were too small to go to market, were separated from the larger pieces. The charcoal was then placed in a pan to measure quantity and later placed into crocus sacks. It was important to make sure that all the coals were completely extinguished. Otherwise the crocus sack might burn and the coals could fall to the ground or “you might be carrying a sack on your shoulder and return home to find that your shirt had turned to ashes,” said Abe Coakley who has burned a good deal of charcoal in his time.
Coal pits were often areas where people would congregate. Everyone needed charcoal and those that helped would be paid with the fine coal, which was unsuitable for sale, but nonetheless could easily cook a meal or two.
Often people would bring some potatoes, corn or green bananas and bake them using the heat of the smoldering wood. Adding to the ambiance of the coal pit was the fact that mosquitoes were kept away by the smoke. Many times games of dominoes and cards were enjoyed along with the fragrant and delicious fresh baked food.
“Our mother used to send us to carry heaps of wood to the coal pit bed. And we had to carry them from here up the beach or wherever”, Gertrude Coakley, a long-time White Bay resident, recalls from her childhood.“
When the men are getting ready to place the coal pit alight, we know we will have to come down to carry the wood to the coal pit bed in the morning. So sometimes we “teef” (take without permission) our mother’s flour, we teef the sugar, we teef the corn meal, we teef everything we need.“In the night, while there’s quiet, we pack up the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, whatever and we go outside and we hide it where we know we have to pass. The next morning we take up the flour and everything from the hiding places and we come to the coal pit with them. When we reach we make endless bread with the coconut we pick from the trees down here. We had a great time!”
When the charcoal was packed away in the crocus sacks, it had to be taken to Great Harbour. From there it would be sent by boat to St. Thomas to be sold.Mr. Herman Chinnery would row the sacks of charcoal to Great Harbour in his small rowing skiff. When the coal pits were not located near the beach the charcoal had to be transported overland.
“You had to carry down charcoal on your back in crocus bags. Three or four five-gallon pails will fit in one bag. They have what they call a cahtah. You know what a cahtah is? You get a towel and you twist it around like a wreath and then you use it for padding. If you didn’t have a towel you could use any kind of fabric or even a banana leaf would do. You put it on your head and then you put the charcoal bag on that. If you have a donkey, the donkey will carry two crocus bags at a time,” remembers Ivan Chinnery who had carried some coal in his youth.
Once the coal arrived in St. Thomas it would usually be sold wholesale to dealers who would then retail the coal at Market Square in Charlotte Amalie. At times, however, the market was “blocked” meaning there was a glut of charcoal and the sellers from Jost Van Dyke had to carry the sacks of coal through the streets trying to sell to individuals in need of charcoal.Ethien Chinnery remembers being in St. Thomas with his charcoal.
“I was going up the street crying out to people ‘Coal! Coal! Coal!’ A lady was watching me through a window and said, ‘Me child, why you out there crying out you cold and I here under a heat ironing cloths!’”
Note: Plain wood contains a great deal of water and other chemicals, which lowers the temperature when it is burned. Burning the wood in a low oxygen atmosphere rids it of the water and chemicals,leaving behind the carbon skeleton called “charcoal”,
which will then be able to burn at a higher temperature.
A Description of St. John Written in 1925
“It is overgrown with herbage for cattle, with open woods of aromatic trees, thronged with beautiful birds. Views from breezy hilltops are unrivaled for magnificent panoramas of vividly green isles, countless beaches of cream- white sand, glittering surf, dark blue or green sea, and bright blue sky. Nature invites riding, hunting, fishing, bathing, boating and a free wild life. On ruined estates all over the island are old cannon, relics of days when buccaneers hid in the land-locked bays from French and Spanish cruisers. Regular communication with St. Thomas is maintained by several sloops.” From the Geographic Dictionary of the Virgin Islands, compiled by
J.W. McGuire for the Department of the Navy. The price of the book in 1925 was 25 cents.
A Description of St. John Written in 1967
“…St John today looks very much as it must have looked to Columbus in 1493-green densely clad mountaintops rising steeply from the sea, with only an occasional glimpse of houses to spoil the illusion that the island is uninhabited. The two principal communities are Cruz Bay, the main port of entry, and Coral Bay. The total population is presently about 800, of which some fifty are Continentals who have made St. John their home.
The machine age came to St. John in 1948 when the first jeep was brought over from St. Thomas on a sloop. Now there are about forty jeeps on the island and a few dozen trucks. The island’s donkey population, after centuries of burden-carrying over the mountain roads, is virtually in retirement, except for those owned by families living in remote places where Jeeps still cannot go. Tourism is the main business of the island now, and the attractions of ready cash at the end of each week are more compelling to the islanders than the small gardens charcoal burning, and fishing of the past.
There are still elderly people who remember hearing their fathers talk of their days in the cane fields and who themselves remember the days of the Danes. The names of the old plantations – Carolina, Lameshur, Annaburg, Adrian-remain as constant reminders of the past.
And the island itself, so long forgotten, has become a more important dot on the maps of the West Indies as one of the most distinctive of our national parks…”
This description of St. John was written by Ronald A. Morrisette, for the booklet, A Little Guide to the Island of St. John published by Caneel Bay Plantation
The late Ronald A. Morrisette is the father of J. Brion Morrisette, the well-known St. John attorney.
The name “Caneel Bay Plantation” has since been changed to “Caneel Bay Resort.”
The booklet, A Little Guide to the Island of St. John, was sold at the Caneel Bay Gift Shop for $1.25.
Lito Vals and Ruth Low in St. John Backtime date the first automobile in St. John at 1930.
Development on St. John – A 1937 Perspective
“Several new roads were being cut up the hillsides and Agnes (Sewer) told us that Paul (Boulon) was beginning to erect a few cottages (at Trunk Bay) to rent to winter visitors; we knew he had the plan in mind but, at last, he was putting it into action…. Tourists were coming. Nice tourists, probably… but to our way of thinking, even five more white people on the north shore would destroy that splendid something that had made St. John a paradise and given us the two happiest years of our lives.
The coming exploitation was inevitable, and it would be a good thing for a batch of black people who were very close to our hearts and for the white people that came, it would be marvelous. But for us it was ruined.”
Desmond and Bet Holdbridge,Escape to the Tropics, published in 1937.
East End, St John Virgin Islands
St. John Virgin Islands Stories: The First School Bus
Exceprted from Tales of St. John and the Caribbean by Gerald SingerThe easterly trade winds blowing in from Africa first meet St. John over the long and narrow peninsula appropriately called East End. When these winds meet the higher elevations further west, the cool air currents rising from mountain slopes cause rain. Over East End, however, the trades often dry out the earth and erode the rocky outcroppings and exposed hillsides. Consequently East End has become arid, rocky and rugged and cultivation of the land can be difficult and unrewarding.
When St. John was first colonized by the Danes, East End was
sparsely settled by poor white farmers who owned small tracts
of land. When the slaves on St. John revolted in 1733, these
planters abandoned their farms and escaped by boat to St. Thomas
and Tortola. The land reverted to bush.
After the slave revolt was put down by French troops, St. John
plantations were reestablished, but this was not the case at
the barren East End where the land remained vacant and was put
up for sale.
Because East End property was neither suitable for sugar production, nor desirable for farming, the land was inexpensive. Thus, freed slaves and people of mixed race (known as free colored) could, after years of hard work and saving their meager earnings, afford to buy small tracts of land.
So it came to pass that a free community was established at East End some fifty years before the official emancipation of the slaves. The inhabitants survived by fishing, farming, raising animals, burning charcoal and boatbuilding.
East End had abundant marine resources, and a strong tradition of seafaring developed among the people. There were numerous
protected bays from which boats could be launched or moored and
where nets could be set to catch turtles and fish. Whelk could
be picked along the rocky shoreline and conch harvested from
shallow undersea grasslands.
The seafaring tradition was further strengthened by the quality
and popularity of the boats built by East End craftsmen and by
the area’s unique geographical location which made travel
by sea the most convenient method of transportation.
Coral Bay, which was a small commercial center at the time,
was only accessible by land over a steep and rugged path. It
was much easier for East Enders to row or sail to Coral Bay,
and visits there were generally made by boat.
Roadtown, Tortola was another common destination for East Enders who would often sail there to trade, shop or see doctors and dentists.
Roadtown was less than ten miles to the north by sea and, as the trade winds came from the east, it was a relatively easy sail in both directions. East Enders would visit Roadtown so regularly that Saturdays became known as “St. John Day” on Tortola.
In 1863, the citizens of East End built and maintained a school, which was run by Moravians and supported by the Danish government. Since then schooling and education have always been given a high priority in the East End community.In the 1920’s Guy Benjamin, an East End native, was one of twenty four students in attendance at the East End School.
He became the first St. Johnian to graduate from the Charlotte Amalie High School in St. Thomas and later received a B.A. from Howard University and a Master’s Degree from New York University.
Guy Benjamin returned to St. John where he taught first at Bethany
and then at the Benjamin Franklin School in Coral Bay. He taught
sixth, seventh and eighth grades at Benjamin Franklin and was
unofficially in charge of that school as well as the East End
School. (The school was later renamed the Guy H. Benjamin School
in his honor.)
The population of East End was then declining and fewer children went to the school. When one of the teachers at East End, Mrs.
Fernandez, left the school, there were only eight children left and, rather than find a new teacher, it was decided that the school would be closed and the East End children would attend classes in Coral Bay.
True to East End tradition the children were taken to school by boat. The East End native, Ivan George, was hired for this purpose. Every morning Ivan rowed the schoolchildren, five of whom were his or his wife’s, from Salt Well Bay in East End to Coral Bay, and when school was dismissed, Ivan met the children and rowed them back to East End.
The small, open row boat was a less than ideal method of transportation. Adverse weather conditions often made it impossible for the children to get to school and, more importantly, the school could not get insurance for a rowing boat.
There was, however, a man named Kendell Anthony who would routinely negotiate the road to East End in his truck. Guy Benjamin, sensing a solution to the transportation problem, lobbied successfully to get Mr. Anthony the contract as school bus driver.
Mr. Anthony then installed sides and seats on his truck, and when the necessary insurance was granted, the children of East End became some of the first children on St. John to ride to school in a real school bus.
Note: Guy Benjamin is the author of the book Me and My Beloved Virgin, which contain his memoirs of the days before tourism came to St. John
Fishing St John
Sport fishing in the Virgin Islands can be broken down into three major categories: shoreline fishing, inshore fishing and offshore blue water fishing.
The first category, shoreline fishing, includes fishing from beaches, docks and rocky outcroppings as well as lagoons and shallow water flats. You can fish in the traditional native manner using hand lines or with a rod and reel. Bonefish, jacks, snappers, small sharks, tarpon and barracudas can be caught in the shallow flats and lagoons. You can fish for snapper and other reef fish from the rocks or cast out from the beach for jacks, blue runners, Spanish mackerel and permit.
The second category, inshore fishing, includes bottom fishing and trolling. Using rod and reel or hand line, bottom fishing off of the coral reefs can bring in snapper, parrotfish, rock hind, grunts and blue tang. Spanish mackerel, kingfish, barracudas and amberjacks can be caught trolling around reefs, rocky cays and jutting headlands.
Blue water offshore fishing generally takes place along the north or south drops where water depth descends sharply from about 80 to 120 feet to 600 to 1800 feet. This is where the serious sport fisherman can try their hand against the famed blue marlin, sailfish, tuna, wahoo, bonito and dolphin (mahi-mahi).
It is illegal to take, kill, molest, harass or remove turtles or turtle eggs. All species are protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. It is illegal to remove, injure, break or destroy any living coral. It is illegal to spear fish for lobsters in all Territorial waters. It is illegal to to possess or harvest Goliath Grouper, also called Jewfish. It is illegal to possess or harvest Nassau Grouper. It is illegal to possess or harvest Foureye, Banded, Longsnout Butterflyfishes in Federal waters. It is illegal to possess or harvest seahorses in Federal waters.
In National Park waters; fishing is allowed outside of swim areas, but not in Trunk Bay and Jumbie Bay on St. John.
It is illegal to use or possess spear fishing equipment anywhere within National Park boundaries.
Fishing is prohibited at the following locations/times:
Between 8am and 5pm at NPS Red Hook Dock and NPS Cruz Bay Finger Pier and bulkhead and Within all designated boat exclusion areas.
Shell must be greater than 2-7/16″ in diameter. Must land whole in shell.
Limit in National Park waters – 1 gal. per fisher per day Closed season April 1 – September 30
Minimum size 9″ shell length from spire to distal end, or 3/8″ lip thickness. Must land whole in shell. Territorial Waters – 6 per day per fisher, not to exceed 24 per boat per day. Federal Waters – 3 per day per fisher, not to exceed 12 per boat. No use of hookah gear. National Park Waters – 2 per fisher per day. Closed season July 1 – Sept 30.
Carapace must be greater than 3.5 inches in length. Must land whole. No harvest of females with eggs. No spear fishing, hooks or gigs. National Park Waters – 2 per fisher per day.
12″ total length
99″ Lower Jaw Fork Length. Rod and reel only. Territorial Waters – No Commercial Harvest; no sale.
66″ Lower Jaw Fork Length. Rod and reel only. Territorial Waters – No Commercial Harvest; no sale.
63″ Lower Jaw Fork Length. Rod and reel only.
Territorial Waters extend from shore to 3 miles offshore. Federal Waters extend from 3-200 nautical miles offshore
Lobster is to be captured only by hand, snare or trap. There is no sale of undersized conch or conch shells. No person is permitted to retain, remove, possess, or injure any conch that is less than nine inches in length or less than 3/8 inch lip thickness, in any location. All conch landed in the Regulatory Area or coastal waters must be alive and intact (in shell) when brought to island on which conch is first sold or consumed (taking conch to off shore cays and islands for purpose of removing from shell is prohibited). No disposal of shell at sea before landing. There are various Marine Reserves around the Virgin Islands in which fishing is prohibited. Contact the Division of Environmental Enforcement for an up-to-date list. A major effort has recently been formed toward tag and release. Don’ t take more fish than you can use. Respect and appreciate the ocean. Follow USVI Fishing Regulations and Good Fishing! Note: Information for this section was gathered from the U.S. Virgin Islands Commercial & Recreational Fishers’ Information Booklet published by the Division of Fish and Wildlife DPNR and the Division of Environmental Enforcement, dated July 2003. NPS – Fishing with a hand-held rod and line or hand line is permitted with the exception of boat exclusion zones. Possession or use of spear fishing equipment is prohibited.
The following account was told to me by one of Jost Dyke’s most respected culture men, Mr. Ethien Chinnery and father of Curtney “Ghost” Chinnery, one of the authors of Tales of St. John and the Caribbean:
Fish sold for five cents a pound. That’s when you get five cents a pound. Sometimes you get nothing.
The boats from Jost Van Dyke would go south of St. John to fish. We used to meet these boats going to St. Thomas from Tortola. You throw up maybe five or six long string of fish in the boat and send them to such and such a woman in St. Thomas.
When you go to St. Thomas to get this money from the lady for the fishes, sometimes you don’t get anything at all, because they tell you the fish was spoiled, and they had to throw them away. Sometimes, when they do give you something, they cuss you out. “Oh, you send these rotten fish to me! I only giving you two dollars.” After a while, well, we get over that. Sometimes you just pull your pots, and you go to St. Thomas yourself and sell your own fish. You would get a little more, but you stay too long over there.
Mostly I fished with fish trap. Sometimes a little hand line but mostly fish trap. I come up and meet my father going in the bush and cutting a kind of wood you call amarat. We would bring the sticks home and work them. You put a piece of canvas over your knee to keep from cutting up your clothes, and then you take your knife and split the sticks in half and then in half again. It would get to be about an eighth of an inch thick, and that is what you would use to make the wooden traps. You work a certain amount, and you sit down and plait it off and you got your trap.
We also used to get this cable wire. They used to bring it from down island. We would cut them up into whatever length we wanted according to what size pot we were going to plait. We used to call that “wire pot”. Sometimes we would make the two heads from wood and take the wire and make the sides and the funnel. That pot would catch more fish than all the other pots.We used whist vine to make rope. You go in the bush, and you cut some whist and you tie the whist until it is 35 fathoms long, and then you go south of St. John and set your trap. You needed 35 fathoms to set traps south of St. John. If you go with less than that, and you throw your trap off the boat, you may not see that one again.We used a sailing boat, a sloop made in Tortola. With wind we would leave about three in the morning and start fishing at daybreak.Sometimes, when you needed to go and pull your traps, there was no wind. So what do you do? If you’re going to pull traps tomorrow morning, you’re going to leave here this afternoon, and what you’re going to do is – you’re going to pull (row)! Take your two oars and pull. We would go out with three or four people. We would take turns steering and pulling. We would leave here and go around West End and across to St. John. Then we would go around East End; cross over to Ram’s Head and
then go south to the drop-off.
For floats we used two lengths of wood, one long one and one short one. Sometimes we would use a telephone pole cut up, if we could find one that floats. After a while they would get heavy and we would have to recycle them. Then you would use a new one and put the old one in the sun to dry.We would pull the traps about every second day depending on how the fish were running. We would get groupers,old wife, grumatic, rock hind, butterfish, grunt and more.
Well, now you want to go out fishing, you can come by Joyce and get ice. As fast as you catch a fish you throw it in your icebox, keep a fish fresh a long time. You could be out fishing for two days. When you come in, the fish is still good. In those days we didn’t have ice and you couldn’t stay out so long. You would start in the earliest morning and you must be back in before at least 5:00 in the afternoon, otherwise the fish would be no good.
Sometimes we used a type of boat we called tank boat. It used to have a tank inside them. If the fish were still alive you could throw them in the tank and they would stay for a long time. You would see these boats in St. Thomas with all types of fish. You would have a net, which you could put down inside your tank and scoop up the live fish. Someone would come and look in the tank and say, I want that fish. You would just get your net and just take it out for them.”
Some Food For Thought
In the early 1960s the late Senator (and original owner of Mooie’s bar) Theovald (Mooie) Moorhead, Ex-Senator Julius E. Spruave,
Sr., Ronald A. Morrisette, Sr. and Albert Sewer formed the St. John Development Corporation in order to provide fast and reliable scheduled ferry service from Red Hook to Cruz Bay. There were also plans to open a hotel, restaurant, boat yard, information center and handicraft center.Financing for the operation, which was to be owned by the “people of St. John,” came from selling stock in the corporation made available to local investors at one dollar a share.
This first item, written by Senator Moorhead, comes from the prospectus of the corporation:”I ask you to consider a very disturbing fact. The tourist industry in the West Indies is growing tremendously. But in all the West Indies there is not a single island where the native people have a hand in the industry to any important degree. Tourism is usually in the hands of a few outsiders who have the initiative, the experience and the money to invest. The island people must stand aside.”Well, on St. John you don’t have to stand aside. You can exercise the same intelligence that other people do – and make the same kind of profits – in the big tourist industry that is starting on this island.”
“Unfortunately, the gift horse we have accepted is permanently
installed in our stable asking for more and more room and threatening, it seems, to kick us off the island entirely if we don’t ‘cooperate.’ And ‘cooperate’ means, we have learned, simply to agree to whatever is presented.”
Sen. Spauve quoted in the NY Times article Trouble Invades Island Paradise 5/18/58, concerning the National Park Service’s plans for condemnation of privately held lands on St. John.
We are not anxious to grab the easiest dollar. The tourist dollar alone, unrestricted, is not worth the devastation of my people. A country where people have lost their soul is no longer worth visiting.”We will encourage only small numbers of visitors whose
idea of a holiday is not heaven or paradise, but participation in a different experience. We shall try to avoid the fate of some of our Caribbean neighbors who have ridden the tiger of tourism only to wind up being devoured by it.”Large super-luxury hotels with imported management, materials, and values bring false prosperity with the negative side effects of soaring land prices that kill agriculture, polluted beaches, traffic jams, high rise construction that ravages hillsides and scalds the eyeballs – the very problems that the visitors want to forget.”
St. Vincent and the Grenadines need tourism, but we want a balanced low-scale tourism with Caribbean cuisine, architecture, and culture. Among other things, this means serving homegrown
vegetables and lobsters caught the same day rather than imported
caviar and steak. This will boost our agriculture and keep our tourist revenues from going out for imported food. And the visitors will continue to see things indigenous to the islands like cultivated fields and working fishing boats.”
James Mitchell, former Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines“
“What I am starting to believe is that an island doesn’t belong only to the people who are born on it or claim the right to own or sell it. An island belongs to the people who think and care about it, though they cast no votes or own no land. That is the sovereignty of the heart. Everything else is money and noise.
From the foreword of Arlene R Martel’s book, USVI From P.F Kluge’s, The Edge of Paradise
Mr. Elroy Sprauve Addresses the St. John Historical Society – Estate Sieban Mollendahl Hike
Good Morning, I’m Elroy Sprauve. This is my brother, Vernon Sprauve. We were both born on Estate Sieban. So that meant that somebody had to get on a horse and go to Cruz Bay and get Miss Myrah, for whom the clinic is named after. Then she had to get on her horse and come all the way down to Sieban. to do the delivery.I really regret that you could not see the estate when it was cleared.
Its’ all grown up now, so you really cannot get a good feel of what the Estate looked like. But it was a beautiful estate when it was
cleared, because the topography is so varied. There’s a very large
beautiful flat area. There are deep, deep valleys. There are rolling
hills, and there were lots and lots of fruit trees. One thing I remember is that there was no shortage of water because there’s a gut, the Fish Bay Gut, that passes through Estate Sieban. There were some large pools, some that were so large that we could swim in them. And they were filled, filled, filled, with fish and freshwater shrimp. So there was lots of water for the family to get from the gut and enough for the animals.Now one thing I said before, there were a lot of fruit trees there, and I remember distinctly there were two types of mangoes that were only from there and on no other place on the island. The one was a tiny mango they called cent bread, I guess it was named after a little bread that was sold for just one penny. It was a very, very sweet mango. Then there was a large one called a peach mango. This was the only place on the island where these mangos could be found. There was a calabash tree that we call gobis. Honest to goodness, they were about this large. (about 18 inches) Now, I think this tree may still be there, because these trees live a very long time.
Our maternal grandmother is buried on Estate Sieban. She died there in January of 1935. And what was sad, and yet happy at the same time, she died in one room of the house just one hour after my brother, Julius Sprauve, who was her first grandchild ,was born in another room. So they had life and death at the nearly same time in that house. So you could imagine what it was like being out there with this happening and with no neighbors around, removed from everything. Her grave is still standing.
I think one thing I should bring to your memory, some years ago I was a member of the Virgin Islands Humanities Council. There was a Dr. Rashford who was applying for a grant to study the baobob tree, a tree that is considered sacred in many parts of Africa. Dr. Rashford said that he discovered that the largest amount of these trees outside of Africa were in the Virgin Islands, most of them being on St. Croix. In making his presentation to the council he said that there were several on St. Croix and a few on St. Thomas. He said there were none on St. John.I said, “Dr. Rashford, I think I can recall that on Estate Sieban. there is a tree that fits your description.”He said, “I don’t think so. If there is one, I’ll have to go completely over my proposal. Anyway, I’m going to come to St. John and see what I can find.”So he came to St. John and Dr. Rashford, Noble Samuel, Jim Provost and I hiked to estate Sieban. We got down there and when I got to Estate Sieban. I was completed disoriented. When the estate was cleared, I knew exactly where the tree was and could walk right there, but when I got there it was all overgrown. And then I began to have all these doubts. Was this a figment of my imagination? Had I brought Dr. Rashford all the way here and there was no tree? Anyway we decided that we were going to try. We walked about, but no tree. Oh, my goodness!
But then someone said, “Why don’t you look up?”
And there is the tree.
And sure enough it is a baobob. I don’t know if there are any on St. John now, but then it was the only known baobob tree on St. John.
The estate, as I said before , was a beautiful estate. There are a lot of old ruins on the estate. There’s an old cemetery there. It was owned by several different owners and at one time it was a very happening estate.Are there any questions?
Question: How old was the tree?
I think Dr. Rashford believed the tree to be over one hundred
Paula Savel: How long did you live there?
Surprisingly, I was born on Estate Sieban., but when I made one month, my mother took me to Cruz Bay to be baptized, and we remained in Cruz Bay. But we came back and forth as I was growing up at least once a week we went out there and in the summer my father would send us out there two times a week. We kept animals there. We had people living there working the estate, so we went there very, very often. And during the summers, especially during mango season, we went there quite often.
David Knight: Could you tell us more about the type of livestock that
Primarily goats. Most of the animals he kept were goats. Quite a few sheep. One or two cows, but a lot, a lot of goats. I remember my parents told me there was so many goats and sheep, but my father for some reason, he had a rapport with animals that he would just clap his hands and they would all come out of the hillsides and come around.
David Knight : Were there folks down at Reef Bay and Little Reef Bay at the time?
Yes, and you know that down in Reef Bay there was a chilling story of a murder in 1937. A gentleman went and killed a lady in Reef Bay named Miss Anna Marsh. And that night he passed by Estate Sieban on his way down to reef Bay. Rumor has it, I don’t know how true it is but, that he wanted to do some harm to my father also. My father
was not home that, but the lady that lived at Mollendahl, Mrs. Babtiste, was spending the night with my mother. And they said that he called and he knocked, but that they refused to open the door. He left and then the next day they heard about the murder at Reef Bay.
David Knight: Now how about L’Esperance. Was there anyone there?
No, no one at L’Esperance. Of course many times personswho went to Sieban., sometimes they would sail around and come into Fish Bay and then come up to Sieban. I remember when my grandmother was ill and they say she came up to see my mother and that they brought her in a sailboat to Fish Bay. They put her in a rocking chair and they
had to take turns lifting her up that steep hill to Sieban.
L’Esperance Road Trail Guide
The official language of the United States Virgin Islands is English. At first this statement seems reasonable, as the language of the United States is English. Taking a closer look, however, we must remember that until 1917, the United States Virgin Islands had been a Danish colony for almost 250 years. Why then isn’t the language of the Virgin Islands, Danish?
In fact Danish was never an important language in the Danish West Indies. Denmark was a latecomer to the European practice of colonization. Lacking the military power of the other European colonizers, the Danes were only able to claim St. Thomas and later St. John, because no other European power really wanted these dry, rocky and hilly islands which were not particularly suited to sugar production.
Early explorers and settlers sent back tales of extreme hardship and rampant disease, and the Danes, who were generally comfortable at home, showed little interest in settling the new territories. Even an attempt to bring prisoners, promising freedom after six years of labor, was met with riots, mutinies and other forms of resistance. As a result, the Danish government and its representative in the colonies, the Danish West India Company, resorted to inviting foreigners to settle the islands.The majority of these settlers were Dutch. The African slaves working on the plantations were taught to speak a Dutch Creole, called Creolsk, and this became the common language of St. Thomas and St. John. The Moravian Church, which was influential because it ministered to the slaves, even translated the Bible into Dutch Creole so that the slaves would be able to understand it.
The question then becomes “Why isn’t Dutch spoken in the Virgin Islands?”
The Danes purchased St. Croix from France in 1733. The most influential foreigners in St. Croix were English. In St. Croix, English Creole was the dominant language and was spoken by most of the slaves. St. Croix had large areas of flat and fertile land. It received more rainfall than its neighbors to the north and was more suitable for a plantation economy. St. Croix’s greater wealth and importance enabled it to exert a strong influence over the other islands of the Danish West Indies, St. Thomas and St. John.
English Creole-The Spoken Word on St. John Presented by Mr. Elroy Sprauve
In the early 1800s, the Danish West Indies were occupied at two different times by the English, once in 1801, for almost a year and again from December 1807 until April 15, 1815. The purpose of the occupation was to secure the harbor at Charlotte Amalie and to prevent the use of the islands by the enemies of England. During this time,more than 1,500 English troops were stationed on St. Thomas and St. John, further exposing the general population to British culture and the English language.
Newspapers, government proclamations and official documents began to be written in English. As a result, the use of English and English Creole became more and more widespread, not only in St. Croix, but also in St. Thomas and St. John.
In 1839, the Danes passed a law requiring slave children to attend
school. It was decided that the classes would be taught in English.
This greatly accelerated the already established trend toward the
common use of English in the Danish colonies and the Dutch Creole
still spoken in St. Thomas and St. John was gradually phased out
and is no longer spoken in these islands.The last speaker of Dutch Creole on St. John died in 1991 and with her passing the language is no longer spoken on the island.
In the book, The West Indies and the Spanish Main, Anthony Trollope made the following observation concerning the island of St. Thomas in 1859:
The people that one meets there forms as strange a collection as
may perhaps be found anywhere. In the first place, all languages
seem alike to them. One hears English, French, German and Spanish
spoken all around one. And apparently it is indifferent which. The
waiters seem to speak them all.Charles E. Taylor in a description of St. John in the late nineteenth century wrote:Dutch Creole was once the prevailing language, many of the planters being of Dutch decent. The population which now numbers about 900, speak English.
Driving on the Left
British cultural influence on the Virgin Islands answers yet another
question commonly asked by visitors which is: “Why do Virgin
Islanders drive on the left side of the road?”
Danish Language in Africa
While the Danes were never successful in promoting the use of their
language in their West Indian colonies, they did, however, have a great effect on their sphere of influence in Africa. Danish forts were established in the Accra area of the African coast in order to receive and process slaves bound for the Danish colonies. The Danes taught the Africans with whom they came in contact to speak Danish. This language is still spoken by many of the inhabitants of what is now the modern nation of Ghana and a significant amount of prominent citizens of Ghana have Danish names and relatives
Griffith & Paret
In the spring of 1962, two boxers from two different Caribbean islands met in the ring at New York City’s Madison Square Garden where they battled for the World Welterweight Championship.
The bout between Emile Griffith from the Virgin Islands and Benny “Kid” Paret from Cuba has been described as a grudge match and its tragic conclusion shocked the boxing world.
Griffith, for whom St. Thomas’ Emile Griffith Park on Veterans Drive is named, lives today, at age 62, in New York City. He is known as one of the world’s greatest boxers. Five times a world champion, he held both the World Welterweight and Middleweight Titles. He fought a record-breaking 339 title-fight rounds and 23 title fights, facing ten different world champions. In his 112 professional fights, he “went the distance” in all but two bouts-he was knocked out by Ruben “Hurricane” Carter and received a TKO by Argentina’s Carlos Monzon.Griffith was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Emile Griffith was born on St. Thomas in 1938. At age 11 he moved with his family to New York City. He was hired at a hat factory when he was only 15 years old, claiming to be sixteen and of legal working age.
Griffith’s boss, Howard Albert, a one-time amateur boxer himself, noticed that Griffith’s build was a natural for the sport. Griffith had big shoulders, small waist, and powerful arms with a long reach. Albert arranged for him to meet one of New York City’s best boxing trainers, Gil Clancy.Griffith was against the idea; he knew nothing about boxing. The sport that interested him most, and for which he had already displayed aptitude, was baseball. Albert insisted and personally took Griffith by the hand and escorted him to the gym.
In an interview recorded for Peter Heller’s book, In This Corner, Griffith recalls the first time he ever boxed at Clancy’s gym and explains his reluctance to continue. He said, “…it was with a guy named Roger Harvey. He was a professional fighter and that guy used to put a beating into me every day. It got so I didn’t want to go to the gym.”At Albert’s continued urging, Griffith kept on training. The progress he made and the ability he showed gave Clancy reason to break one of his cardinal rules which was that fighters had to train two years before they could enter competitions. Clancy put Griffith into the Golden Gloves, an amateur boxing organization, after less than a year of training. It was the right move. Albert and Clancy were to manage this outstanding fighter throughout his long and illustrious boxing career.
The first year as an amateur boxer Griffith lost in the finals. These losses spurred him to train harder and in his second year he won in New York City and went on to win the National Amateur Welterweight Crown. That year, at the age of 20, Griffith entered
the world of professional boxing.In his third year as a pro, Griffith earned his shot at the World Welterweight Title against the tough Cuban, Benny “Kid” Paret. Griffith had chalked up an impressive fight record having emerged victorious in 22 of his 24 professional matches, winning seven of those by knockouts. His only two defeats were hard fought battles ending in close decisions.
Benny “Kid” Paret was born in Santa Clara, Cuba in 1937. For many Cubans, boxing was one of the only roads leading out of a life of poverty and despair. Paret joined an amateur fight club in Santa Clara and soon was recognized as one of the two best amateur welterweights in the country. Paret’s rival was a boxer from Havana, Luis Manuel Rodriguez, who was undefeated at the time.
Meanwhile, the welterweight champion of the world was a fighter from the Dominican Republic named Don Jordan. Rumors abounded about Jordan’s mental instability and his weakness for alcohol and possibly drugs. It was therefore believed that the next qualified fighter to challenge Jordan could win the title. Boxing managers and handlers active in the mob-infested playground of pre-Castro Havana had their eyes on the two amateur Cuban welterweights.
The greatly anticipated match between Paret and Rodriguez took place in 1958 in Havana and was billed as the amateur fight of the century. Rodriguez won a close decision in an exciting and hard fought bout. Later the same year Paret lost another decision to Rodriguez.
According to the ringside doctor, Ferdie Pachecho, in his book, The Doctor Fights Back, Rodriguez was approached by “a couple
of nice men” from Miami who offered Rodriguez the title in exchange for a 50% cut of his future earnings.
When Rodriguez refused the offer “the boys shrugged and went off to see Benny Kid Paret.” The alleged organized crime involvement may have been the reason that it was Paret and not Rodriguez who had the first shot at Jordan and the title.
Regardless of the circumstances that led up to it, the fact remains that in May of 1960, in Las Vegas, Nevada, it was Benny “Kid” Paret who defeated Don Jordan in a close 15-round decision and walked away with the World Welterweight Championship.Paret then went on to fight three non-title matches, losing two and winning one. He also accepted a tile-fight challenge from Federico Thompson, which Paret won in a 15-round decision.Paret’s next fight was scheduled for April 1, 1961 in which he would be squaring off against Emile Griffith for the first time. The venue for the event would be Miami Beach, Paret’s adopted home turf, and the World Welterweight Championship would be at stake.
The two Caribbean men seemed evenly matched as they slugged it for the first 12 rounds, at the end of which Paret was leading by a single point. Going into round 13 Griffith’s manager, Gil Clancy, told Griffith that it was now or never. Griffith came in strong. He landed awicked left hook followed up by a powerful right. Paret fell to the floor and the fight was over. Emile Griffith at age 23 gained possession of the coveted World Welterweight Crown.
A rematch was fought in September in Madison Square Garden. This time the fight lasted the full 15 rounds. Paret won the decision and regained the championship.It was a close fight. Griffith believed he had won, and was shocked to hear the referee’s announcement. “I thought I beat him,” Griffith proclaimed in an interview with author
Peter Heller for the book, In this Corner. “It was disappointing
to lose it, knowing I beat the guy, I was determined to win it
“Boxing fans waited with baited breath for the inevitable rematch, which was eventually scheduled for March of the following year at Madison Square Garden.Griffith was not idle in the months before the next rematch.
He boxed in three non-title fights, winning them all. One of these bouts was fought in St. Thomas. Griffith’s fellow Virgin Islanders cheered wildly as their hometown hero won a 10-round decision over Johnny Torres.In what may have been his undoing, Paret also boxed before the Griffith rematch. Moving up in weight, he challenged Gene Fullmer for the Middleweight Title. The ringside doctor, Ferdie Pachecho, in his book, The Doctor Fights Back, described Paret’s decision to fight Fullmer as “…a big mistake.“Gene Fullmer gave the brave Paret a fearful beating in December 1961 in Las Vegas. It was awful to watch.
All of us thought Paret might not return after that fearful thrashing. Instead, he signed to fight Emile Griffith.”Gene Fullmer spoke about the Paret fight in his interview with Heller, “Paret was one of the toughest guys I ever fought, as far as actual tough. I never hit anybody more punches harder than I hit Paret. I beat Paret like I never beat anybody in my life, and he fought way too early in his next fight…I didn’t feel like fighting for six weeks and I’d won!
“The fateful night of Griffith and Paret’s third encounter started out on a bad foot. Paret approached Griffith at the weigh in and called him a maricón, which is a derogatory Spanish word for homosexual.bAn argument ensued that almost came to blows right at the weigh in.
Griffith and Paret were familiar foes and had no need to feel each other out. Consequently, they got right down to business in round one. In round six Paret landed a series of punches and knocked Griffith down.
Griffith was stunned and it looked like the fight would end right there, but the bell signaling the end of the round sounded and Griffith was spared. Paret then put his hand on his hip and blew a kiss at his opponent. Griffith was infuriated.In the 12th roundGriffith backed Paret into a corner. Griffith connected with an assortment of uppercuts and hooks. Paret was in trouble. Paret started to go down, but his arm hooked onto the ropes and it held his body up. Griffith continued the ferocious assault. By the time the referee stopped the fight Paret was unconscious. He had to be carried out of the ring. The 25-year-old fighter went into a coma and died 10 days later.
Pachecho offers a possible explanation of the referee’s fatal inaction, “…the referee, Ruby Goldstein, was recovering from a recent heart attack, and he was weak and ineffectual. On any night but this one Ruby Goldstein was the referee of choice… he had always controlled the fight, but not on this night.”Griffith caught Paret in the corner, hurt him, and then lashed into him in a fury. Goldstein stood by glassy-eyed. He seemed incapable of stepping in. Paret’s arm hooked on the top rope, and it held him up to more battering. The beating was savage, and compounded by the Fullmer beating three months earlier, it proved fatal.”Griffith regained the World Welterweight Title, but was emotionally devastated. For a while it seemed that he would have to give up boxing, but through the support of his friends and associates was able to return to the ring where he proved himself to be every bit a champion.Upon his retirement, Griffith shared his knowledge of boxing by training professional fighters including the Heavyweight Champion
Griffith now lives in Queens, New York and donates much of his time to working with neighborhood kids and supporting charitable causes. Emile Griffith was inducted into the International Boxing
Hall of Fame in 1990 and his name was recently engraved in gold
letters on a plaque in Madison Square Garden along with the world’s
best boxers.by Gerald Singer
Delroy “I-Tal” Anthony, St. John Culture Bearer
On most days you can find artist, craftsman, musician and agriculturalist, I-Tal Anthony displaying his homemade native crafts at the trailhead entrance to Salt Pond Bay. I-Tal is a native St. Johnian and a man dedicated to preserving the beautiful, but unfortunately endangered, island culture of St. John.
Like I-Tal himself, just about everything he uses in his crafts are 100% native St. Johnian.
For example, starting with locally found treasures like this West Indian Locust seed (Also known as Stinking Toe) I-Tal fashions a small container for personal items.
From a mango seed I-Tal makes a children’s toy, the “ra ra,” a St. John version of the yo yo. While holding the seed, pull the string just right and the top seed spins around and retracts for the next pull. Children seem to get it right away, adults tend to need a few practice tries.
The shak-shak comes from the seedpod of the flamboyant tree and
can be used as a musical instrument.
Catching Land Crabs
Hunting land crabs for food is a part of St. John culture and probably has been so since the first human beings came here about 3,000 years ago. The primary use of the land crab is to provide the essential ingredient for the tasty West Indian dish known simply as crab and rice.
Land crabs are also known as pond crabs by British Virgin Islanders and jueyes by people from Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo. They are the grayish-colored crabs that live in the network of holes found in low-lying areas near mangrove swamps, salt ponds, wetlands and marshes. They are rather large crabs, growing to about four or five inches in diameter not including their formidable claws. During the
day you may see them standing just outside a hole into which they will quickly descend as soon as they notice your approach.
Land crabs live inside these holes or burrows, which go down on an angle and lead to a larger living area, where the crab stores food for winter dry spell. Parts of the burrow go down to the water table and there will ultimately be one or more alternate openings to the surface. The crabs only venture away from their holes at night or when it’s raining in order to search for food. They eat just about anything they can find including their own young, dead things, garbage and worse. They are not effective predators, however, and as such their diet is usually limited to plants they find near their burrows.
An essential ingredient for the dish “crab and rice” is the crab. They cannot be bought at any store; so you first have to catch some crabs.
Crab hunting is usually a group activity that takes place in the spring and summer on a waning moon, a time Virgin Islanders call dark night. This is when the land crab is most likely to be found out of its hole. Crabs are very skittish and have excellent senses of hearing and sight, so normally it is extremely difficult to sneak up on them and catch them. If you shine a bright light on them at night, however, they tend to stop in their tracks, blinded by the glare.
Catching crabs at night is locally called “torching,” a name, which comes from the days before flashlights were commonly available and a torch was used instead. Torches were made out of an oily wood, aptly named torchwood or in later years would be made out of a piece of cut up truck or automobile tire tied to a stick.
Torching requires at least one of each of the following, a flashlight, a forked stick and a sack. Usually one person wields the light, another catches the crab and a third holds the sack. The beam of light from the flashlight serves to blind the crab and momentarily stops it from running away. The stick is useful to control the movements of the crab and to block up its hole if it tries to get back in. The goal is to snatch up the crab and put it in the sack. This is done with a quick sweep of the hand grabbing it firmly from the back and tilting it forward to prevent being pinched by the claws. Less confident crab hunters may wear a heavy glove as a semi-protection against this possible pinching, which can be quite painful.
Crabs can also be caught during the day. One method is to lay a noose over the entrance to the crab hole and secure it to a stick pounded into the ground. The crab and exit its hole with no problem, but when it returns it often gets snagged in the noose. Another procedure takes advantage of the fact that the burrow goes down on an angle. First you look down the crab hole and if you see the crab near the entrance you pound a pointed stick into the hole in back of the crab. This prevents him from going deeper in. Then you gradually pry the stick upward forcing the crab to exit his hole and into your waiting sack. There are many other methods including a hook with bait technique and the direct “stick your hand in the hole and grab the crab method.” This latter approach can, however, result in a painful experience if not done properly.
Land crabs should always be purged before cooking them. The most important reason is that because they live in habitats where manchaneel trees are also found, and because they are immune to the manchaneel poison, they may have yet undigested manchaneel
leaves in their system. Purging also improves the crab’s flavor as it rids the crab of anything disgusting it may have eaten. To purge the crab you must put it in a cage with plenty of ventilation and access to food and water. Feed the crabs such things as cornmeal, table scraps, coconut meat, and crab bush. Keep the cage clean and periodically wet the crabs with water.
Recipes for Crabs and Rice
Courtesy of Jackie Clendennon
1) Obtain four land crabs.
2) Purge the crabs.
3) Obtain the following ingredients: rice, seasoning
(salt, pepper, garlic powder, or whatever else strikes your fancy), cooking oil, vegetables (onion, green and red peppers, parsley, thyme, garlic), sauce (tomato paste, catsup, pepper sauce and/or whatever else you like)
4) Cut open the crab’s abdomen and remove the guts. Then using a toothbrush or wire brush, thoroughly clean all parts of the crab. Lightly crack the crab’s shell around the claws and abdomen. Place seasoning mixture over the crab and within the cracked shell. Let the crab stand for about a half an hour to let the seasoning soak into the crabmeat.
5) The best way to cook a crab is in a cast iron kettle. Add a few tablespoons of cooking oil and sauté the crab for a few minutes. Next, thoroughly chop up the vegetables and add them to the cooking crab. Continue to sauté the mixture for another few minutes. Add a can of tomato paste, a small amount of catsup and pepper sauce, according to taste. Allow this to cook another few minutes. Add sufficient water and salt to cook three cups of rice and bring to a boil. Add the rice and when the water is absorbed, the crabs and rice will be ready.
Recipe for Crabs and Rice
By Enid Hendricks of Enid’s Kitchen
· 6 large land crabs (purged)
· 4 cups rice (uncooked)
· 1 cup Mrs. Filbert’s margarine
· 2 fresh tomatoes (diced)
· 1 cup tomato paste
· 1/4 cup A-1 sauce
· 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
· 2 tablespoons Kitchen Bouquet
· 2 tablespoons Adobo seasoning
· 2 large green peppers
· 2 large red peppers
· 3 stalks celery
· Parsley, thyme, garlic, capers, whole cloves
· 1 large hot pepper
(Dice all vegetables and seasonings.)
Put crabs in a large tub. Pour a large pot of boiling water on them to kill them and let stand 10-15 minutes. Take off the back of the crab. Clean crabs and remove guts and waste using a vegetable brush and a mixture of cool water, vinegar and lime.
In a large cast iron kettle add 1/2 cup vegetable oil, crabs and 1/2 of the above seasonings. Sauté on medium heat for a few minutes. Add 8 cups water and bring to a boil. Add the rest of the seasonings and the restof the ingredients. Boil for a few more minutes and then reduce heat to low. Cover kettle tightly and cool until moisture is absorbed.
(Serves 8-10 persons)
Enemies of the Land Crab
Although the land crab has a fierce appearance and sharp claws, this is not enough to frighten away all of its enemies.The land crab’s worst foe is the human being. Over the millennia people have devised and practiced many effective methods for capturing these tasty creatures. Even more threatening to the land crabs is the destruction of their habitats caused by land development. On many of the larger and more populated islands, land crab populations have declined dangerously. On St. John, however, where there are not so many humans and development is limited, land crabs are still abundant. Notwithstanding, they no longer enjoy the great proliferation that they did in the past.
Moreover, with their precipitous decline on St. Thomas and Puerto Rico, there is now a hefty price on their heads. St. Thomians and Puerto Ricans have been known to pay as much as five dollars a piece for these increasingly hard to find delicacies. Concern over these stresses on this natural resource, has led the Virgin Islands National Park to prohibit crab hunting in park territory, and crab hunters now must confine this activity to lands that are not under park jurisdiction.
Human beings, however, are not the only enemy faced by the land crab. There is a bird on St. John that hunts land crabs by night. The local name for this bird is “crab bird,” but it is more properly known as the yellow-crowned-night-heron. The crab bird actually sticks its formidable beak into the crab hole and pulls the crab out. According to musician and naturalist, Mano Boyd, the crab bird is able to kill its prey while the crab is still in its hole. This way they avoid the crab’s viscous claws, which become considerably more dangerous outside the confines of the narrow burrow. Also, according to Mr. Boyd, the crab bird makes an ungodly racket as it attempts to break open the crab shell by pecking at it and by wildly swinging the crab against sticks and stones.
A Land Crab Story told by Wilmoth King
Land crabs also face another sneaky and deadly predator, the sly mongoose. The mongoose will try and sneak up on the land crab and, utilizing its great speed, will attack before the crab is aware of the mongoose’s presence. Wilmoth King, however, tells a story of how a land crab once turned the tables on a mongoose
.As a youth King lived in Pine Peace and would go to the beach at Great Cruz Bay, which in those pre-Westin days, was a mangrove swamp with one small, but very sandy, beach area.
One day, while walking down the dirt road that led to the beach, King heard a commotion in the mangroves off to the side of the road. Being young and curious, he went into the mangroves to investigate.
About ten yards into the swamp, King came upon a life and death drama, a battle between a mongoose and a crab. The mongoose was stalking the crab, waiting for a time when the crab was not looking so that the mongoose could attack and perhaps bite off a tasty claw and then finish off the defenseless creature. The mongoose finally saw its opportunity. Thinking that the crab was not paying attention, the mongoose made a lightning fast charge.
The crab, however, was fully aware of the mongoose and its evil intentions. With a well-timed sweep of the larger of its two claws, the crab grabbed the mongoose by the neck. The hunter had become the prey. The mongoose squirmed and twisted, and squealed and wailed, but could neither bite the crab nor get away. Meanwhile, still holding firmly to the mongoose’s neck, the crab would cut and snip at the mongoose with its other claw at every chance that it got. Within a few minutes there was one less mongoose on the island, and the crab scurried back into the safety of its hole.
In 1933, Desmond and Bet Holdbridge left their life in New York and came to St. John. The island population was then somewhat over 700 people and with the addition of the Holdbridges the island’s white population increased from five to seven.
Desmond and Bet were married at the fort on the first night of their arrival and spent about two years on the island, before leaving because the island was getting too crowded. Desmond later wrote the book, “Escape to the Tropics,” published in 1937, which included descriptions of the couple’s experiences on St. John, he wrote:
“Several new roads were being cut up the hillsides and Agnes (Sewer) told us that Paul (Boulon) was beginning to erect a few cottages (at Trunk Bay) to rent to winter visitors; we knew he had the plan in mind but, at last, he was putting it into action…. Tourists were coming. Nice tourists, probably… but to our way of thinking, even five more white people on the north shore would destroy that splendid something that had made St. John a paradise and given us the two happiest years of our lives. The coming exploitation was inevitable, and it would be a good thing for a batch of black people who were very close to our hearts and for the white people that came, it would be marvelous. But for us it was ruined.”
Following is an account of a lobster hunt from the same book:
“When we left New York, we were told we would go soft in the tropics…but two months after landing at Cruz Bay, we were healthier, harder, and infinitely more serene people than we had ever been before.
“There was nothing softening about a lobster hunt on the reefs. Landlord Davis, on one of his visits, put us up to it and then retired with a book and a bottle of rum while we, with the Sewer boys, piled in a row boat and made for the shallows on the other side of the bay.
A brilliant moon shone down on a gently heaving sea, and we could see the rollers breaking white over the reefs where the lobsters came. A full moon makes a fairyland anywhere, but in the trade winds the effect seems more marked, and we agreed that, even if we got no lobster, it would be worthwhile.
“Drawing the boat out on the nearest beach, we gathered at the beginning of the reef, and commenced an activity sufficiently picturesque to make any artist catch his breath and sufficiently sporting to warm the heart of anyone who like to see the hunted creature get a little better than an even break. We spread out fanwise, carrying lanterns and flashlights, and waded into the warm, shallow water that covered the jagged coral of the reef. The coral was brown with sea growths and the lobsters, consequently, very hard to see. In addition, the reef was honeycombed with sea eggs, round black affairs from whose cores extend long,black spines that are very sharp and armed with microscopic barbs whose removal from an injured foot is a hospital job. I am afraid that Bet and I paid far more attention to the sea eggs than we did to the possible lobsters but, when the boys started one, the six of us plunged after it in a splashing, headlong pursuit that lasted several minutes. The lobster took refuge in its color protection again, but one of the boys immediately put a forked stick over its back and held it until another one, with what seemed incredible courage to us, seized the lobster in his hands, and bore it ashore in triumph. From tip to tip, the grotesque creature was nearly three feet long and, to add to our awe, one of the boys announced that he was small.
“After another hour of stumbling about among the sea eggs and sharp coral, we cornered one more, and returned home soaking wet, with our canvas shoes torn to rags, but satisfied that we had found still another way to make the island take the place of a canning factory in a town we had never seen.”
Simple table salt is readily available and reasonably priced at any of the markets found on St. John. It was not always this way. Salt, which is the only rock that people eat, was once an expensive and sought after commodity. Its most essential use was as a food preservative in times before refrigeration. Moreover, salt greatly improves the taste and palatability of food. Salt is also an essential mineral that regulates biological functions without which human beings could not survive. In ancient days salt was so valuable that it was used as money having a value equal to gold, thus explaining the saying, “he’s not worth his salt.”
In pre-tourism times on St. John, salt, although not quite worth its weight in gold, was still an expensive and hard to come by commodity. St. Johnians, however, had the option of collecting
salt, free of charge, from a specialized natural environment found on the island called the salt pond. There are over two dozen salt ponds on St. John, but the best one for salt collection is found just behind Drunk Bay on the southeastern corner of the island at a place aptly named Salt Pond.
Because of its location on this arid and windswept part of the island, Salt Pond is the most likely place to encounter crystallized salt. Saltwater enters the pond from the sea by seepage at high tides and by waves breaking over the surface during storms. Salt Pond is one of the only places on St. John that is below sea level. This condition prevents significant amounts of pond water from flowing back out to sea. Constant, intense sunlight and ever-present tradewinds encourage an exceptionally high rate of evaporation. When rain is scarce, the water becomes extremely salty. Water can only hold a certain amount of salt in solution and when the salinity of the pond reaches that point, salt dissolved in the water crystallizes.
As the water level continues to drop and more and more water evaporates, a layer of salt is left along the edges of the pond. The longer the dry period, the higher the temperature, and the stronger the winds, the more this salt layer will extend towards the center of the pond and the thicker the layer becomes.
You can collect salt during these times by scooping up the salt with your hands, if it is still wet and soft. If the salt layer is dry and hard use a knife or other sharp tool. (If you’ve forgotten to bring a container, just walk over to nearby Drunk Bay where there is a great deal of flotsam, and you’ll probably find something you can use.)
After the salt is collected, drain off as much water as possible and put it in the sun to dry further. You may be left with fine powdery salt, which you can enjoy on your food immediately. If the dried crystals are large, you will first need to grind them up or pound them out.
Olivia Callwood from Jost Van Dyke remembers the days when she collected salt either from the government salt pond at Salt Island or, in times of extreme drought, from the salt pond in back of White Bay on Jost Van Dyke.”We collected the salt early in the morning” she said, “because the saltwater pond and the mud gets very hot and will stay hot well into the afternoon.” Miss Olivia explained that the salt was collected in baskets or other containers with holes at the bottom to allow the water to drain out. Next, the salt
was “burned” to dry it thoroughly. “You
get some rockstones and make a fire and heat the stones until
they turn red. Then you make holes in the salt to receive the
hot stones and take a shovel and put the stones in the holes. You can hear them stones talking as they dry the water out of the salt, Crack, Crack!
The salt obtained from salt ponds is particularly tasty andhealthy. It c ontains all the minerals that are present in the sea, which include all those essential to the human body. This fact has led to the practice of soaking the body in salt ponds as a way to derive medicinal benefits from the concentrated mineral content of the pond water. So during the next dry spell, take the short and easy Drunk Bay Trail from Salt Pond Bay over to the salt pond and bring
home a sample of this delicious and nutritious natural salt.
Enjoy the experience.
were loading up their sloop in the cool of the evening in the harbor at West End with cargo bound for St. Thomas. Secured on deck and in the holds that night, were ground provisions, tropical fruits, 80 pounds of bonito, two sheep, and several large sacks of charcoal each containing a gallon bottle of rum brewed at the Callwood Distillery in Cane Garden Bay.The wooden sloop left West End just before dawn and arrived at the Charlotte Amalie waterfront about four hours later. Passing through customs and immigration was generally a routine affair. Having filed the appropriate forms and having answered the perfunctory questions satisfactorily, the customs officer in charge dismissed Captain Romney and his mate.
The two men barely had a chance to take a few steps, before they were challenged by the newly-hired female customs officer. “What did you say your name was, Captain?” she asked.
“Romney, Joseph Romney,” he replied.
“Let me see,” the officer murmured, almost to herself, “Romney … Romney … Why that name sounds a lot like – RUM! What are in those sacks Captain Romney?” she inquired menacingly.
A cold chill ran up the captain’s spine as he answered as nonchalantly as possible, “Charcoal.””We’ll just see about that. Let’s have a look.”Images of a dark and dingy prison cell flashed through Mr. Romney’s mind, when, all of a sudden one of the other officers spoke out and said, “It’s alright, we know him, it’s just coal. Let him go.”
“OK, Captain Romney,” said the suspicious officer, “you may leave – and have a nice day.”
Joseph Romney gave thanks to God, and promised never, ever again to attempt such a foolish thing.
And, true to his word, that was the first, last, and only time that he ever carried contraband on any of his vessels.
The Queen’s Lincoln
ceremony at the dock at Sopers Hole, after which she proceeded
by motorcar to Road Town and then on to the eastern end of the island to dedicate the newly constructed bridge connecting Tortola with Beef Island and the airport.
In those days, when security was less of an issue than it is today, the Queen customarily would be carried in an open vehicle where she could be seen by, and wave to, the throngs of admirers lining the route of the procession. On her 1966 visit, the Queen was presented with an almost brand new, two-door Buick convertible coupe for the motorcade. Unfortunately, a two-door model is undesirable for the transportation of royal personages due to the inherent problems of entering and exiting the vehicle.
The Queen obviously does not drive the car, nor ride shotgun next to the driver. She sits in the back seat. In a two-door convertible this means that someone has to fold down the front seat allowing her to sit in the rear. This procedure cannot be done gracefully, and there would be a moment when the posterior of Her Majesty’s anatomy, which was fairly wide-beamed I might add, would be presented to the public and, unfortunately, to certain photographers as well. As might be expected, the Queen was unhappy, to say the least, with the resulting scuttlebutt over photographs appearing in some unsympathetic publications.What the motorcade planners really needed to find was a large and luxurious four-door convertible, a tall order anywhere, but especially in 1977 Tortola with its characteristic steep, rutted dirt roads and unpretentious culture.
As unlikely as may be imagined, there happened to be a vehicle on the island that would fill the bill. It belonged to an American expatriate named Bob Deniston, who had emigrated to Tortola in
1958 along with his wife Nell and their children.
Bob owned and drove a white 1966 Lincoln Continental four-door hardtop convertible, the same model that carried JFK on the fateful day of his assassination.
The Denistons were only the third white family to live on the island at the time, but were well-accepted by the friendly and tolerant native Tortolans, and being friendly and respectful themselves, they quickly made friends at all levels of island society. One of these friends was the chief of police. It was through this contact that Bob found out about the government’s dilemma, after which he volunteered the use of his vehicle with the stipulation that he be the driver.
The chief of police was agreeable, but informed Bob that by the government rules of protocol the driver must be a uniformed constable. To satisfy this requirement, it was decided that Bob would be temporarily sworn in as a British Virgin Island constable and a uniform would be sent for him from England.
On the way home from the police station that day, Bob took a good look at the luxury Lincoln Continental that he had bought second hand from a doctor in Florida eight years ago. It was showing signs of the heavy wear and tear that cars receive in the Virgin Islands. In deference to the vehicle’s newly elevated status as carriage for the Queen, Bob had it painted, so that it looked just like new, at least on the outside.As the day of the Queen’s visit drew near, Bob anxiously awaited the arrival of his uniform, inquiring almost daily at the police station as to the status of the delivery.
Finally a call was made to England, and it became apparent that the uniform would not arrive on time. Bob could not be the one to drive the Queen. On Bob’s recommendation, an officer, who was a good friend of the Denistons, was chosen to be Her Majesty’s chauffeur. (That constable was later awarded a medal “for rendering personal service to the queen.”)
A few days before the arrival of the Queen, agents of Scotland Yard visited the Denistons and discussed the procedure that was to be followed. The Lincoln was taken to the police station where it was gone over with a fine-tooth comb to check for bombs, booby traps and safety hazards. This being done, the fire truck that was normally kept in the police station garage was removed and parked on the street, with the Lincoln taking its place behind guarded and locked doors.
On the morning of October 26th, Bob’s constable friend drove the Lincoln to the Road Town waterfront to collect the Queen of En gland. It was decided that the best course of action would be to leave the top down for the drive to the waterfront and open it just before the Queen got in, so that if by any chance there was an unexpected rain shower, the seat would not get wet. This was a somewhat risky decision.
The four-door Lincoln Continental Hardtop Convertible, manufactured by the Ford Motor Company from 1961 to 1966 utilized a complicated mechanism for lowering and raising the metal top. This consisted of 23 solenoids and a series of large steel screws that automatically screwed and unscrewed themselves, as well as levers, electrical connections, hinges, pulleys and belts, all of which had to function perfectly and in the right sequence in order to produce the desired result. Needless to say, things don’t always work the way they’re supposed to in the Virgin Islands, and Bob harbored a certain amount of anxiety concerning the smooth operation of the top lowering system and, for that matter, of the more mundane mechanical workings of his eleven-year old vehicle.
Virgin Islanders are known for their independence. This is also true of many of the foreigners who come to live here and Bob was no exception. He usually took personal charge of his beloved motor car in regards to its upkeep and repair, procedures that were required quite frequently. Consequently, he advised the chief of police and Scotland Yard that it would be a good idea for him to follow the procession with a box of tools and spare parts – just in case.
Everyone concerned was in agreement and consequently, Bob was present that morning at the Road Town waterfront. The area was already teaming with curious spectators, when his constable friend pushed the button that automatically lowered the gleaming white metal top of the Lincoln without one little problem.
Bob breathed a sigh of relief, just as the crowd, who had never witnessed a performance anything like this from an automobile,
awarded the Lincoln a raucous and spontaneous applause.
Bob remembers hearing a bystander remarking to his friend, “See. That car is American. The British could never make anything like that.”
Almost everything ran smoothly that day. The Queen was able to make a graceful entry into the four-door convertible. There were no unforeseen mechanical problems and the motorcade proceeded under clear, squall-free Caribbean skies. Bob followed the procession throughout the route, his activities confined to taking photographs and chatting with spectators.
Only one small incident marred an otherwise perfect performance. At one intersection the Lincoln made a slightly abrupt stop causing a hitherto hidden empty bottle of beer to roll out from under the rear seat coming to rest right by Her Majesty’s feet. The Queen discreetly kicked the offending Heineken back to its original location, but the event did not go completely unnoticed by others
riding in the vehicle. As Tortolans have never been accused of being tight-lipped, the anecdote of the beer bottle soon became public knowledge.
That evening there was a gala reception aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, to which Bob and his wife, Nell, were invited. Royal Marines marched in close order drill around the pier and Bob remembers the historic 412-foot yacht as being “all teak and brass.”
When Bob and Nell were introduced to the Queen, it was, according to Bob, “the highlight of their social career.
“Queen Elizabeth thanked the Denistons for allowing her the use of their automobile and congratulated Bob on his ability to keep
such an old vehicle in its almost brand new condition. Bob said that he felt honored to be of service, but refrained from explaining that the car had recently repainted just for her.
Meanwhile Nell, who had heard about the Heineken bottle incident, told the Queen how sorry she was and explained that her son who had left the beer bottle under the seat. The Queen looked around and when she was sure no one else was listening she said, “don’t
feel bad, my children have done the same thing.
“Today, the illustrious Lincoln Continental, looking quite a bit the worse for wear, can be found at Bob’s beachfront honor bar at Smugglers Cove. There it joins other articles of Bob’s memorabilia such as the stuffed shark that was used in the filming of the movie “The Old Man and the Sea” shot on location in Tortola. Bob’s friend, Steve, cares for the once luxurious motorcar and miraculously manages to start it up once a week. Bob, who Steve describes as looking like “an anorexic Santa Claus wearing a pith helmet,” only drives the car from the beach to a safer haven when there is a threat of a major storm.
By Gerald Singer
There are three major categories of sport fishing to be enjoyed on St. John, shoreline fishing, inshore fishing and offshore blue water fishing.
The first category, shoreline fishing, includes fishing from beaches, docks, rock outcroppings and points. Traditionally native Virgin Islanders use hand lines using bait that can be obtained locally such as fry or soldier crabs. Of course, rods and reels will also work just fine.
St. John also offers the sport fisherman the opportunity to fish in lagoons and shallow water flats, such as behind the reef at Reef Bay or at Leinster Bay where you can fish for bonefish, jacks, snappers, small sharks, tarpon and barracudas.
The second category, inshore fishing, includes bottom fishing and trolling, using either rod and reel or hand line. Bottom fishing is generally done around coral reefs where the fisherman can find fish such as snapper, parrotfish, rock hind, grunts and blue tang.
Trolling around reefs, rocky cays and jutting headlands, will often yield Spanish mackerel, kingfish, barracudas and jacks.
Be aware that some fish in Virgin Islands waters may harbor ciguatera, a type of fish poisoning, that though rarely fatal, can make you really sick. Certain species, such as baracudas and amberjacks are more likely to harbor the poison than other species and larger ones will be more likely than smaller ones. Check with local fishermen to help identify suspect species.
The third category of Virgin Islands sport fishing is blue water offshore fishing, which generally takes place along the north or south drops where water depth descends sharply from about 80 to 120 feet to 600 to 1800 feet. This is where the serious sport fisherman can try their hand against the famed blue marlin, sailfish, tuna, wahoo, bonito and dolphin (mahi-mahi).
St. John Coffee
Believe it or not, St. John grows great coffee. This is first hand information. Habiba and I picked coffee cherries from some of John
Gibney’s coffee trees, which were in full bloom and, which he said gave two crops a year.The red, ripe cherries should be picked one at a time. If they’re
too high on the tree, you can pull on a branch and bend the top
of the tree down enough so that you can reach the higher branches.
You’ll need to do this carefully so as not to break the tree.
Picking the cherries took some time because you need a lot
of beans just to make even a single cup of coffee.I learned from John that you can eat the cherries. They’re mildly
sweet and have a pleasant flavor. They do contain some caffeine,
but not nearly as much as can be found in the bean. John also told me that the cherry makes a delicious drink that is popular in Latin America.)
Next, we took the cherries home and squeezed out the beans. There are two beans in each cherry. You just squeeze the cherry and the beans pop out. At this point they are slimy from the juice of the cherry.
Once you get the beans out of the fresh cherries, you add some water and let them sit for a few hours until they ferment.
The next step is to wash the beans and put them in the sun until they’re good and dry.
Once they’re dry, you need to remove the husk. This is done
commercially using a machine. The first such device was invented
by Julio Smout in 1800. Lacking this you can use a mortar and
pestle or, if you don’t have a real lot of beans, by simply peeling off the husk bean by bean.
Once you get the husk off, you have what are known as green beans.
The next step is to roast the beans, which we did slowly in a dry frying pan, until the beans turned a rich dark brown. During the process the room filled with the unmistakable aroma of roasting coffee.
Next, we brought the beans over by John and Teri, ground them up and Teri brewed up a batch, which we all sampled.John, Teri, Habiba and I are all coffee connoisseurs and our unanimous verdict was that St. John coffee is excellent tasting and very strong – it gives you quite a buzz, so it must have a high caffeine content.
St. John Music Scene
and the Movements,” a dynamic, hugely popular 15-piece dance band that played throughout the Virgin Islands and beyond. Dan Silber is remembered by many St. Johnians as the first white musician they ever saw play in a Virgin Island dance band.
The St. John music scene has gone through several evolutions since the early1970 when there was a good deal of dance bands playing regularly on the island.Almost every weekend there would be the Fish Fry at Pond Mouth in Cruz Bay or at Sputnik Bar or the Flamingo Club in Coral Bay. They often featured two or three bands. Rick’s Hilltop, owned and operated by the late Eric Christian was the biggest Dance Hall. There were often had two or three bands playing per night and on holidays and during Carnival there could be
On some nights there was the famous “Battle of the Bands.” The evening would start with a coin toss to see which band would go on first. Then they would play one hard-driving set and when they were finished, the next band would get up and try to top the first, then the next band would be on and tray and outdo the previous one. Each taking a turn the night would get hotter and hotter. The music would sometimes last until 4:00 am. (With no complaints) Fred’s Dance Hall, which still exists today, also featured live bands.
Although you can still enjoy live dance music on St. John, it is much less frequent than in the 1970s. Now here is the anomaly. Why was there more music 30 years ago than there is today when the population has grown five fold and there is much more money floating around?
Are people dancing less?Are they more used to canned music now?
It’s a complex issue and not unique to St. John. This is the case in NYC, Chicago, Boston, LA and many other big cities with a few exceptions (Austin and New Orleans, for example)
Could it be that times are too flush?
Is lively dance and groove music more needed when times are tough? Yet during a recession more dance clubs fold than during the good times.
Could it be the influence of home entertainment systems, cable TV, video rentals and the internet? Perhaps it is this influence of pop culture coming from the United States mainland that has been the driving force behind the decline. Today, youth is constantly bombarded by celebrity worship and slick marketing of “commodities” that the record companies have in their stables.Will there ever be a comeback of live dance bands, groove bands and garage bands?
Being a musician, I certainly hope so. The world needs to be uplifted and inspired by music, the universal language.
Danny and I attended the same university, State University of New York at Buffalo, both of us, like Lonnie Willis from St. John, by the way, were class of 1967.
Click here for a story about Danny, and about Buffalo, New York during the sixties, which you may find fun, especially if you know Danny.
Art and Janis
Excerpted from Tales of St. John and the Caribbean
I come for the stories. And, of course, for the companionship. Cartoon large blue eyes roll in acceptance, as Art fingers a slice of a mango I just picked from his jungle yard and sliced up with my Swiss Army knife. We are out in the bush. A steep dirt road winds downhill to a locked gate. Unlocked, the gate reveals a footpath through a jungle crowded with trash-picked treasures. The path leads to a living museum for the last remaining hippie.
Art’s museum is a home built partly in cooperation with Mother
Nature, Robinson-Crusoe style, employing two large turpentine trees. It is constructed from thick beams salvaged from the wreckage of 30 years of hurricanes and boatloads of memories. The walls are strewn with block and tackle from long-sunk schooners and smuggling ships. Bad art and hurricane lamps are everywhere; giant candles, Mardi Gras beads, a collection of colorful shirts and the assorted claptrap of 30 years on St. John decorate this un-electrified museum.
The mango sliced, I set my sights on a bucket of congealed floor wax, which I cut loose and feed to a homemade tiki torch. In the gloaming, the first Cuban tree frogs start to croak and Art eggs them on.“Rrrbiit, rrribbbit.” St. John’s first hippie is clearly amused with the idea of talking to the frogs and his eyes grow even wider, reflecting their seasoned madness in the candlelight. The frogs, mistakenly imported from Castro’s Cuba by some researchers in the 1970s, take up Art’s gauntlet. We are met with a thunderous cacophony of croaks in the Caribbean night.
I go for the transistor radio to tune out the frogs. I pop another
warmish Heineken and get Art a non-alcoholic Budweiser.
No electricity means no fridge and ice melts too quickly for it to be economical. There could be thousands of dollars buried on the property from various Caribbean adventures, but Art makes do on beans and rice and maybe an O’Douls if I bring some up to his museum.
I like to get out of Cruz Bay, where the noisy beach bars have a way of filling up with sunburned tourists in the winter. Tonight I’ll camp out at the museum. Art and I will watch the still, moonless sky for satellites and rehash the business of the day.
The battery-powered rock ‘n’ roll radio brings us a nugget from the sixties and I coax Art into one of his favorite stories of how he met Janis Joplin in St. Thomas well over thirty years ago. It is a story I love. I am continually astounded by the attention to detail in my friend’s storytelling. In Art’s stories, the details never change, and I have learned first-hand that nothing varies from the original event.“
I missed the last bus,” Art explains, talking about a night over thirty years ago like it was last week. “I was drinking in the waterfront bars and my boat was on the other side of the island in Red Hook.“
In those days, there were no cars going in that direction in the middle of the night and bars stayed open all night. It was about three in the morning, so I had a few hours to kill before I could hitch a ride home.”
Art’s hands begin to move and his eyes widen as he launches into this memoir. I easily picture him thirty years ago sitting on a bar stool in an empty Charlotte Amalie watering hole, sipping on a draft beer and waiting for the sun.
“She walked in and went right for the jukebox. It was only the
bartender and I and maybe some other rummy in the whole place. She didn’t play her song, she played something else.
“She sat down next to me and ordered a shot of Southern Comfort. I was speechless. This was 1968 and Janis Joplin was a very big deal. I was trying hard to be cool and not to spook her.
“‘You look familiar,’ I told her.
“‘Oh yeah, well just who do you think I look like?’ Janis asked.“‘Frank Zappa’ I told her. “Janis loved it. She slapped me on the back and bought me a whiskey. Before I knew it she was gone, pushing her way out through the swinging doors just as fast as she came in. All of a sudden her music was playing on the jukebox.
“Word spread like wildfire that Janis was on St. Thomas. Two days later this guy I knew was telling me all about it. I didn’t let on that I had already seen her. He said Janis wanted to go for a sailboat ride, but she didn’t want to go with just anyone. She wanted to go with someone who was cool. I told the guy I would take Janis out the next day.
“At the time I had a nice wooden double-ender, about 30 feet long, with beautiful lines. The boat didn’t have an engine but I didn’t really need one. It was a nice sailing boat.
“There was a guy named Todd living on the boat with me. He was a real freak with hair down to his waist. He was a real ladies’ man, too. I remember telling him we were going to take Janis out sailing and I know he didn’t believe me.
“The day came and it was a little overcast and kind of blustery. It wasn’t the best day, but it was a good day for sailing. The morning went by and Janis never showed up. I kept telling Todd to watch the dock with the binoculars so he could row in and get Janis. He still thought I was kidding.
“She showed up around 3 p.m., with a whole entourage of record company hangers-on. I was yelling to Todd that she was at the dock. When he finally saw her through the glasses, his jaw dropped. It took
Todd three trips to get Janis and all her groupies out to the boat.
When Janis got on board, she recognized me immediately. “‘I should have known it would be you,’ she told me.“
They brought all sorts of food, chips, dips, olives, booze, all sorts of stuff you couldn’t get in the Virgin Islands at the time. We put up the sails and it was obvious that most of them had never been on a boat before.
“Janis was scared at first, but after I explained to her the physics of the boat, the fact that the keel was so heavy it wouldn’t allow us to capsize, she felt better. She just didn’t want to tip over.
“Everybody else though, except Todd and myself, were terrified. We were slogging through some good chop, really sailing. Janis started to get into it and I let her hold the wheel. She took off her shirt and showed everybody her giant nipples.“The guys in the record company crew were still griping. Some of them were throwing up. I think they had eaten some Quaaludes.
“After sailing for about twenty minutes, I came about and explained
that everybody who wanted to go ashore had one chance, one chance only. I was sailing for the beach and when I said, ‘Jump,’ they could get off or spend the rest of the afternoon on the boat.
When I got to the beach, most everybody jumped off. A few guys wanted to stay but Todd and I just started tossing them into the ocean. After we pried the grip of the last guy off the starboard stay, we chucked him in the water and turned out to sea. Me, Todd and Janis.
“We slipped into a real nice reach and really started having fun.Janis loved sailing. Todd got naked and told Janis that he had always
wanted to have sex with her, and how about now?
‘“No thanks,’ Janis said. ‘But if you want to have me after one of my shows, you can. After I’ve made love to the whole audience for two hours, then you can have me.’
Art’s wild eyes radiate when he gets to that part, his smile betraying just how vividly he remembers the day’s events.
Art goes on to explain how he got to be friends with Janis over the next few weeks. He retells the story of listening to the first recording of her new album on the hotel room bed at Bluebeard’s Castle Hotel. He retells the story of having dinner with Janis and a friend at Escargot, which was, at the time, the best restaurant in the Caribbean.
Art finishes this rock star story by retelling Janis’s very tempting invitation, which resulted from his missed bus ride.‘
“Janis said, you’re from New York, come to Woodstock with me this summer, you can be my guest, I’ll fly you up there.’
“I told her I had read in the paper that Woodstock wasn’t going to happen, that they couldn’t find a place for the concert.“
Janis said, ‘Baby, I’m going to Woodstock this summer and so are a lot other people, you can bet that it’s going to happen.’
“I didn’t want to go back to New York. I had just bought the boat, so I stayed in the Virgin Islands,” Art says ruefully. So like time itself, Woodstock just sort of passed Art by in the Caribbean. In his museum, the cover from the very album that they listened to over three decades earlier is still tacked to a wall. In the photograph, you can see through Janis’s oversized spectacles and look into her equally wide eyes. When you stare at the picture closely you can’t
help but think that Janis could have been Art’s sister.
The album cover is faded and wilting, but her wide eyes are still clear
behind the Hollywood glasses.
By Bob Tis © 2000
Twelve years ago Stuart Little fell overboard just off the north shore of Great Thatch Island. Niles, his owner, searched for hours, but could not locate him. Heartbroken, Niles returned back to port on St. Thomas.
Three weeks later Niles was contacted by a fisherman from St. John named Junior. Junior had found Stuart Little on the island of Tobago, which lies northwest of Jost Van Dyke. Without food or water, Stuart Little was near death. He couldn’t walk and his eyes were shut for three days, but he survived and regained his health.
Niles, describing the reunion, said, “I cried. I hugged that man. I said, ‘you have no idea what you’ve done for me.'”
West Indian Checkers
When I first came to the Virgin Islands, it wasn’t long before I happened to notice a checker game being played at Mooie’s Bar. Something was different. That game that I knew so well, and which I believed that everybody in the world played on the same board and according to the same rules, was being played on a different board and with different rules.
We Continentals play checkers on a regular chess board having 64 squares, 32 light-colored squares and 32 dark-colored ones. Each player has 12 men that are placed on the black squares of the first three rows.
The men can only move diagonally on the dark squares. Except when capturing an enemy man, which we call jumping, a man moves one square at a time and always in a forward direction. Captures are made by jumping over an enemy man, which can only be accomplished if the square next to that man is empty.
If you can get one of your men to the opposite end of the board, the man becomes a king. You put another piece on top to identify its status and then the king has the advantage of being able to move backwards or forwards, still only one square at a time, except when capturing.
Checkers, as played on St. John, is a more sophisticated and more complicated version of the game calling for
more complex layers of strategy. Here in the Virgin Islands checkers is played on a 10 x 10 checkered board with 20 dark pieces and 20 light pieces.
Like the mainland version, regular men can only move
forwards diagonally, but when capturing, they can do so both forwards and backwards. Capturing is called eating.
A king is a powerful piece. It can move diagonally forward or backward as far as you want over any number of unoccupied squares. When eating, the king can also move as far as it wants after eating an enemy man, and it can change direction to eat yet another if that man is vulnerable.
Like mainland checkers, if it is possible to eat an enemy man, you must do so or else the opposing player has the option to remove the offending piece on their next turn. This act is called huffing.
In most parts of the world the game we call checkers is known as draughts. It has other names in other countries.
For example, Puerto Ricans, and other Latin Americans, as well as Spaniards and Italians call the game damas, and in France it is known as la jeu de dames.
of el quirkat.
Alquerque was played like checkers on a board, five spaces wide and five spaces long.Around 110 AD in France, alquerque began to be played on a standard chess board and evolved into a game much like American checkers with 12 pieces.
The game played in the Virgin Islands is a form of draughts that is internationally recognized and known as Polish draughts or Continental draughts. Despite its name, it did not originate in Poland, where the game happens to be called French draughts.
So, as usual, things are not always what they seem. By keeping an open eye and an open mind, we can benefit not only from a expanded understanding of the game of checkers, but from an expanded worldview and the realization that out there are all manner of ideas, philosophies and different ways of doing things.
Official Holidays of the Virgin Islands
All Sundays are official holidays
January 1 – New Year’s Day
January 6 – Three King’s Day
Three King’s Day commemorates the Three Wise Men, Melchior, Gaspar and Baltazar, who followed the star to Bethlehem, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Third Monday – Martin Luther King’s Birthday
The Legislature of the Virgin Islands, by enacting Act No. 4239 on February 16, 1970, was the first jurisdiction under the United States flag to establish the birthday of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. as legal holiday
Third Monday – Presidents’ Day
Last Monday – Transfer Day
On March 31, 1917, the United States purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million.
Easter falls on the Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon, which occurs sometime between March 21 and April 18, inclusive. Thus Easter will be from March 22 through April 25, inclusive. The date of the Paschal full moon is determined from tables, and it may differ from the date of the the actual full moon by up to two days.
Last Monday – Memorial Day
Third Monday – Organic Act Day
Virgin Islands constitution was created by the U.S. Congress
July 3 – Virgin Islands Emancipation Day
July 4 – U.S. Independence Day
Fourth Monday – Hurricane Supplication Day
Prayers are said to ask for protection from storms and a safe passage through the hurricane season.
First Monday – Labor Day
Second Monday – Columbus Day and Virgin Island, – Puerto Rico Friendship Day
Third Monday – Hurricane Thanksgiving Day
On this day we give thanks for the end of the Caribbean hurricane season.
November 1 – Liberty Day – D. Hamilton Jackson -Bull and Bread Day -celebrated in honor of David Hamilton Jackson, born on St. Croix on September 28, 1884. Jackson established the first labor union in the Virgin Islands. He also founded the first newspaper in the Virgin Islands that was not published under the control of the government, which at the time was Danish. The first issue of The
Herald hit the streets on November 1, 1915. The holiday
is also called “Bull and Bread Day,” celebrating a concession granted to the workers through collective bargaining: a day of free beef was given to the people by the planters, which was accompanied by bread baked by the laborers.
November 11 – Veterans Day
Fourth Thursday – Thanksgiving Day
December 25 – Christmas Day
December 26 – Boxing Day
Celebrates opening the alms boxes placed in churches over the Christmas season, the contents of which were distributed amongst the poor.
A Day Trip to St. John in 1907
In 1907, there was scheduled service to St. Thomas, Danish West Indies by ships, which arrived once a month. A 1907 travel guide outlined the following day trips for tourists to St. John.
Visitors to St. John would leave Charlotte Amalie at 5:00 A.M. and travel overland to Red Hook or Smith Bay. There they would meet a sloop that had left Charlotte Amalie with their baggage, which was loaded on board the night before. This sloop also carried ice and other cargo bound for St. John.
An alternative plan for a visit to St. John would be to arrange for a rowboat to take passengers and their baggage across Pillsbury Sound to Cruz Bay.
Upon arrival the tourists would wait in Cruz Bay for ponies that would take them to Bordeaux. They would return via a dirt path along the St. John’s north shore that is now the North Shore Road.
At the end of the day the visitors would take the downwind trip back to Charlotte Amalie where they would arrive in the early evening.
From the Short Guide to St. Thomas and St. Jan, written by J.P. Jorgenson in 1907, a travel guide written in English, which was by then the language of the Virgin Islands.
Note: The sloop pictured above is the St. John Ferry in 1949
(photo by Fritz Henle)
A Conch Tale
The first time I ever held a live conch in my hands was when
I came to the Virgin Islands in 1969. Eddie Johnson, the captain
of the ferryboat, St. John Express had arranged a conch diving
trip to Little St. James. With us that day was Les Anderson and
I was amazed by the vast amount of conch that lay in the seagrass
under the shallow waters. There were so many, and they lay so close to one another that with one good breath, we could scoop up as many as five or six conch and bring them up to the boat in a net bag. We had contests to see who could get the most on one dive.
That very day we went into the conch business. We sold the entire catch to a man who owned a restaurant in St. Thomas. Because he wanted to use the shells for decoration, he bought the conch whole, which made it very easy for us. In the future, however, he wanted the conch out of the shell.
This was an entirely different story. Getting a conch out of its shell can be a difficult and messy task if you don’t know exactly how to do it. A local fisherman, Basil Harley, tried to teach me. He gave me a demonstration. One sharp hammer blow in just the right spot – a little twist of the knife and – Bing, bang – out came the conch. He made it seem simple. But when I tried it, I soon found out that it wasn’t as easy as it looked.
After unsuccessfully wrestling with one conch after the next and getting covered in slime, I lost all interest in diving conch for sale, and to this day I will only go conch diving if someone else will take the responsibility of cleaning them.
Later that year a Frenchman in Tortola gave John Gibney and I a half dozen fish pots and we went into the fishing business together. We still dove for conch, but they weren’t for sale. In those days, conch was so plentiful and in such small demand that it was commonly used to bait fish pots, which was just what we did with them. (We would also make an occasional conch stew or spicy conch salad if John felt like cleaning conch.)
Preparing conch for bait was a lot easier than getting it ready to make a meal. All we had to do did was smash up the shell with
a sledgehammer and put the whole mess into the fish trap.
Sometimes we would allow the conch to “ripen” (age) for a while so that it would take on an odor, which, we were told, was the best way to bait the trap.
One day the ripe conch got us in trouble. At that time, the Cruz Bay dock was not a very busy place and the dock master, Mr. Wesselhoft, used to let us sell our fish right at the dock. He would also let us leave the boat tied up at the dock as long as we didn’t cause any problems or got in the way when the barge came from Puerto Rico to bring water to St. John. It seems that John and I had left the boat in town while it still had some smashed up conch aboard. We were planning to go out later that day to pull our traps and we were going to use the conch for bait. Leaving the already ripened conch in the hot sun was not a good idea; the conch began to stink. By the time a very upset Mr. Wesselhoft was able to locate us, the strong smell of ripe conch was permeating much of downtown Cruz Bay.
Luckily, we got off lightly, having only to endure a well-deserved reprimand and a temporary loss of our dock privileges.
That was thirty years ago and times have changed. Today you can hardly find conch in the shallow seagrass beds where they used to be so prevalent, the Cruz Bay dock is a hustle-bustle of activity, crowded with ferries and passengers, and the price of a single plate of conch and butter sauce can cost as much as twelve dollars – if you can even find a plate to buy.
How to Get a Conch Out of its Shell
Take a hammer and knock a hole between the second and third row of nodes (bumps) beneath the spire (the pointy tip of the conch). Then, inserting a sharp knife into the hole, locate the tendon that joins the animal to its shell and sever it, at which point you should be able to extract the conch from the shell. Sound easy?
A fictional story by Gerald Singer ©2006
Ramiro was one of the lucky ones. He had a good steady job and all his papers were in order. On his way to work he would pass by the corner across from the Texaco station where a growing crowd of laborers, mostly from Santo Domingo and Haiti, stood around hoping for a day’s work. When they saw Ramiro, faces would light up with smiles and there would be a flurry of warm and sincere greetings in Spanish and Creole. “Ramiro que pasa, como esta, mi amigo and bon jour mon ami.”
They all knew Ramiro. He was a man who could be counted on when someone needed advise, moral support or, if possible, a few dollars to get them through the day.
Like most of the others Ramiro was from the Dominican Republic. He had lived in Samaná, a small city on the northeastern coast, where he worked as a bank manager for the equivalent of $125 a month.
Although Ramiro’s wife had a fairly good job as a waitress in a restaurant that catered to transient foreign yachtsmen, there was never enough money to properly care for themselves and their three children, who were usually looked after by Ramiro’s mother.
Their eldest daughter, Laura, needed frequent medical care and prescription medication to control the asthma that she had developed as a young girl. This, in addition to the basic needs of food and rent, sent the family into a spiraling debt to relatives, friends, hospitals and pharmacies.
Political instability and the threat of a devaluation of the Dominican
peso, which would result in even higher prices, only added to the family’s worries. There seemed to be no way out.
Ramiro had an uncle who had left Santo Domingo some years before and was now earning a decent wage in a place called St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands. The uncle had written Ramiro a letter and had intimated that if Ramiro could find his way to the Virgin Islands, the uncle would help him get settled and find a job.
Samaná is a popular jumping off point for Dominicans seeking illegal entry into the United States. Captains of small boats, called yolas, charge the equivalent of a half a half-year’s salary for a promised safe delivery to the island of Puerto Rico, a United States Commonwealth that lay just on the other side of the infamous Mona Passage.
Compared to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico is a veritable land of opportunity. Whereas the average annual salary in Santo Domingo at that time was a scant $1,600 the average yearly wage in Puerto Rico was almost $9,000. Moreover, once in Puerto Rico one could travel to the United States mainland or to the Virgin Islands without passing through customs and immigration.
Unfortunately, the crossing was not only expensive, but also extremely dangerous.
The Mona Passage refers to the 80-mile stretch of water separating the Dominican Republic from Puerto Rico. On the north is the Atlantic Ocean and on the south is the Caribbean Sea.
Although the Mona is in places 1,500 feet deep, it is not nearly as deep as either the Atlantic or Caribbean basins. Tides resulting from the gravitational pull of the moon bring water back and forth through the passage every six hours. The comparative shallowness of the passage often results in steep breaking waves.
On the Dominican side of the passage an even shallower bank, extending almost a third of the way across the passage averages only about 150 in depth, which further aggravates this condition causing even steeper waves along with strong, swirling and unpredictable tidal rip currents. Add to this, the fact that in order to reach Puerto Rico on the east, the yolas would need to travel directly into the teeth of the ever-present trade winds and that there is an almost constant haze in the air in this region so that you often cannot see land until you are just a few miles away. All in all,
you end up with one of the most treacherous ocean passages in the world.
Ramiro was well aware of the danger. His twenty-year-old cousin, Julieta, had made the trip and had survived only by the grace of God. She told Ramiro how she and 70 other passengers had paid 1,200 dollars each to make the crossing.
They were all crammed into a 38-foot boat powered by an old 65-horsepower outboard engine. There were so many aboard that they had to curl up in a fetal position just to fit in the boat. They remained like this for over 24 hours while the yola slowly crossed the passage, which was uncharacteristically calm that night and the following day.
During the afternoon they approached the north coast of Puerto
Ominously, two large sharks trailed the slow moving craft. Although the sea was calm offshore, there was a strong ground sea that day, which meant that the smooth rounded swells offshore would become steep and eventually break as they reached the shallow waters near shore.
At one point the captain brought the yola, which being overloaded was riding low in the water, too close to shore. A steep wave caused two women passengers to fall into the sea. The captain brought the yola around to pick them up. Just then the motor stalled and the captain could not start it back up.
An onshore breeze slowly but surely brought the small craft closer and closer to shore and into the path of the breaking waves, until one of those waves capsized the boat.
Marta was one of the twenty seven confirmed survivors. All others were presumed drowned or eaten by the sharks. Julieta’s arms still bear scars from the scratches she received as a drowning woman clawed furiously at her in a desperate panic to stay above the surface.
Marta, along with the other survivors were arrested and sent back to Santo Domingo on an American Eagle flight. When an INS official asked her jokingly if she’d be coming back to Puerto Rico, Marta, despite the emotional and physical trauma she had so recently endured, smiled and answered, “Seguro que si,” I sure will.
Today, Marta is living in the Bronx. She married a Puerto Rican, got her Green Card, went to beauty school and landed a job in a fashionable beauty salon in Manhattan.
Ramiro knew that making the proper choice as to captain and yola was all important. He asked around and came up with the name of one of the best and most respected captains in Samaná. It would cost quite a bit more, but Ramiro decided it was worth it.
The yola was seaworthy and would not be overloaded. The captain and crew were experienced with many successful crossings under their belts. Moreover, the captain took precautions to prevent interception by the US Coast Guard that had stepped up its surveillance of the Mona Passage in part to prevent illegal immigration, but more so for the “war on drugs.”
The yola was painted seawater blue and all passengers were given blue T-shirts and blue hats in order to provide camouflage by day.
At night, they ran without lights. If a plane was heard flying overhead, they would soak blankets in seawater and place them over themselves and the outboard engines in order to foil the heat-detecting sensors used by Coast Guard aircraft patrolling the passage.
The trip would cost 1,000 USD.
Ramiro and his wife scrimped and saved, borrowed and begged and after about eight months had finally put together enough money to make the trip and still have about $300 left over to get started once he arrived in Puerto Rico
.On a dark moonless night, Ramiro kissed his wife goodbye and he and 25 other Dominicans boarded the 33-foot yola, which quickly disappeared into the blackness of Samaná Bay.
The journey was uneventful. The seas were moderate and there were no incidents or encounters with the Coast Guard. By dawn the next morning they approached a secluded beach a little north of Mayagüez, Puerto Rico.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning. The captain threw out an anchor and backed the boat close to shore. He raised the engines. A crewman got out and brought the stern of the craft into shallow water and then tied up to a nearby palm tree.With a mixture of euphoric excitement and nervous apprehension, Ramiro grabbed his backpack containing his meager belongings and waded along with
the other passengers onto the beach. Their instructions were to separate and to walk nonchalantly into town in groups of no more than three.
Running alongside the beach was a two-lane road. Upon reaching the road, the hopes and dream of the Dominican adventurers, were replaced by the nightmare image of over a dozen armed INS agents and Mayagüez police officers emerging from the bush on the other side of the road.
“Stop! Nobody move!” they shouted, as they began to circle the terrified Dominicans. Time stood still for Ramiro. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. He was not going to be sent back, no matter what the cost. Taking advantage of the confusion, he made a dash down the beach and then across the road.
“You! Halt or I’ll shoot!” he heard.
He sprinted headlong and barefoot into the tangled thorny brush on the other side of the road. Agave, cactus and thorny cassia awaited him.
His pack got caught in a tangle of vines and was pulled off Ramiro’s shoulders. He kept going, his flesh torn and riddled with spines, until he could go no more. He lay on his stomach, held his breath and waited.
One policeman chased after him. He rummaged around in the bush by the side of the road shouting out threats.
“We know you’re in there. Come out or else you’re one dead dominicano.
“Ramiro lay still. He didn’t move or make a sound, praying to God that he wouldn’t be found.
Fortunately for Ramiro, the policeman was bluffing. He and his fellow officers were satisfied with their haul and none of them of them wanted to deal with the cactus and agave for just one more Dominican. They let Ramiro be.
Ramiro waited for over an hour and heard nothing but the passage of one single vehicle, which drove down the road oblivious to Ramiro bleeding in the bush. After the vehicle passed, he made his move back to the road.
His pack was gone, probably taken by the police. It contained his money, his Dominican passport and other identification, his address book and his shoes and change of clothes. He couldn’t go into Mayagüez looking like he did, no shoes, clothes torn, bleeding and covered with protruding cactus spines. Ramiro realized that he was in big trouble.
Just then, a pickup truck came around the bend and the driver, seeing the barefoot and bloody figure standing by the side of the road, brought his vehicle to a stop.
“You over there; what are you doing, es dominicano? Are you Dominican?” he called out from the window.
“No sir,” Ramiro gasped, wondering whether to run for it again.
“Don’t lie to me,” said the driver. “Get in. It’s alright, come with me, I’ll help you. Don’t be afraid.”
Ramiro took a chance. He got in the pick up. The driver headed off down the road and introduced himself with what Ramiro thought was the appropriate name of Angel Carmona, because that was just what Ramiro needed now, an angel.
Angel’s wife, Carmelita was a dominicana. She worked in Mayagüez and through her Angel had made many Dominican friends and acquaintances. He understood their plight and had sympathy for them.
Angel had resisted the temptation to leave his land to find work in the city. He and Carmelita lived in a modest house in the country where Angel continued to operate a small farm, growing coffee and raising animals.
It was about an hour’s drive from the coast over some rugged roads. When they got there, Carmelita, spend about three hours picking cactus spines out of Ramiro and washing and disinfecting his wounds. Nevertheless, Ramiro swelled up like a balloon and got a fever, which Carmelita treated with antibiotic pills and painkillers that she had left over from when she had an infected tooth that had to be extracted.
In a few days Ramiro was feeling better. One evening, after finishing
Carmelita’s lovingly prepared dinner of chicken with peas and rice, served along with a delicious sufrito and a slice of fresh avocado, Angel looked Ramiro in the eye and spoke.”Ramiro, you’re just about better now and if you want to move on, I can lend you enough to get you to St. Thomas, but I warn you that life is not that easy for the illegal alien there. You may or may not find work and if you do, it will probably not be steady. There are lots of fellows like you in the Virgin Islands now and its tough to find a place to live and everything is very expensive there. If you would like I offer you this. You can stay here and help me work the land, I can’t pay you very much, but you won’t have to worry about food and rent. Meanwhile you can save up your salary and send some money to your family in Samaná. There’s no commitment. You can always change your mind and try your luck elsewhere. No problem.
“Ramiro thought for just a second and then accepted Angel’s offer. He began work that very day.Ramiro became like part of the family. He was a hard worker and a good man, and he sincerely appreciated all that Angel and Carmelita were doing for him. One evening, after Ramiro had been staying with the Carmonas for about four months, Carmelita burst into the house and announced that she had exciting news.
“Look what it says here in the newspaper,” she exclaimed, “Amnesty,
I’ve been hearing about this for months, but I never really believed that they’d do it. But, Ramiro, It’s true. Listen to this.”
“Under the amnesty provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, illegal aliens who have lived continuously in the United States since before January 1, 1982, can now apply to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for legal resident status.”
“Ramiro, do you know what this means? You can get your papers. You can be legal.”
“But Carmelita, this does not apply to me. It’s for people who have
been living here since before 1982. I just got here this year.”
“This year,” said Carmelita with a smile. “Are you sure? Angel, how long has Ramiro been working for us? He says less than a year.
Is that so?”
“Let me think,” said Angel. “No, I believe Ramiro has been here in Puerto Rico for at least five years. I remember he arrived here in 1981. Isn’t that so Carmelita?”
“Yes, Angel. I remember too it was in 1981.”
Carmelita turned to Ramiro and asked, isn’t that so Ramiro?”
Ramiro’s face lit up in a broad happy smile, “Gracias! Muchas gracias. How can I ever repay you?”
Ramiro will never forget Angel’s answer.
“Don’t worry my friend. You can repay us by helping others and in this small way we create a better world.”
The next morning Carmelita called some of her Dominican friends who explained the details of the amnesty. They recommended an attorney, who they called and set up an appointment for the following day. It took somewhat over six months and the filing of more papers than are contained in the combined volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, but Ramiro was able to get his green card.
Ramiro later moved to St. Thomas and then to St. John. He worked hard and saved his money and eventually was able to bring over his wife and children. All are prospering in their new home.
Ramiro’s wife is working at a hotel on the island and often makes more money in a day than she did in two months in Santo Domingo, one of their sons is working as an electrician’s apprentice on St. Thomas and the other is a graphic designer working for a magazine in Miami. Ramiro’s daughter, Laura, is in her second year of
medical school at New York University.
Every day, Ramiro makes it his duty to pay off a portion of his debt to the Carmonas. Sometimes he does this in little ways by really trying to make every interaction with those who he comes in contact with each day a positive and beneficial experience by always being respectful, understanding and kind. He has also been known to help in big ways by finding someone a job, a place to live, or by offering a helping hand or a few dollars when he can afford it.
The strange thing that Ramiro has discovered about this particular debt is that the more he pays, the richer he becomes.
The Great Hot Pepper Sauce Chug-a-Lug Contest
by Gerald Singer ©2005
It was the Memorial Day weekend. Tal was on his way to Seychelles, the beachside restaurant where he worked as a dishwasher. The merchants of Wharfside Village mall were hosting their traditional beginning-of-summer celebration providing not only the usual music, food and drink, but also events and competitions such as bikini and Mr. Beefcake contests, tug-of war, volleyball and kayak and swimming races. Island Hoppers, a store specializing in the hot sauces of the Caribbean, was hosting a pepper sauce tasting followed by the Great Hot Pepper Sauce Chug-a-Lug contest.
Tal is a well-known figure on St. John. He had come to the island in the early 1970s from Waycross, Georgia. He was considered a hippie in the days when adopting that life-style was downright dangerous in the state of Georgia. Tal survived almost unscathed. He overcame the fears and suspicions of his neighbors and peers, due in great part to his genuine friendliness, endearing southern charm and also to the fact that Tal is a pretty big guy, about six-foot-four and over two hundred and fifty pounds of potential Georgia whoop-ass.
Tal had spent some time traveling, working as the road manager for the hot southern rock band, Lynard Skynyrd, and later turned up on St. John, which has since become his home.
“Hey Tal,” a voice called out, “Come here. I’ve got something to tell you.” It was Tal’s friend, Jim.”Hey Jim, what’s happening?”
“Tal, they’re having a hot sauce eating contest over at Island Hoppers, you gotta enter, you’ll win for sure. I know, I’ve tasted your food.”
Jim was referring to the time when he and Tal were having lunch together at Pussers. Tal had got up to go over to the bar and Jim made the mistake of sneaking a bite of Tal’s burger. When Tal got back to the table, Jim was sweating and sputtering and trying to put out the fire in his mouth with cold beer. Tal sat down, put another big helping of hot sauce on the burger and hungrily finished it off while Jim just stared at Tal through unbelieving and tear-streaked eyes.
Jim should have known better. Tal has a reputation as a lover of hot sauce – the hotter the better. He would literally drown his food in the hottest of the hot sauces and could even chew up a whole habenero pepper, the hottest pepper in the world, and not even blink an eye.
“What’s the prize?” Tal asked.”Fifty bucks, and you get a free beer just for entering. Come on Tal; you’ll win easy.
Tal thought about it for a second. He figured he would be a sure winner and hell, fifty bucks.
“All right. I’ll give it a shot. Let’s go,”
Tal told his boss what he was planning to do and let him know that he might be a little late for work. Then he and Jim swaggered over to the Island Hopper Hot Sauce Store.
There were eleven other contestants, a few locals, but primarily sailors and marines on shore leave from the US Naval destroyer that was anchored about a half-mile offshore.
To begin with, the contestants had to sign a document releasing Island Hoppers and the Wharfside Village Shopping Center from any liability in the event of death by hot sauce or any other injuries, physical, mental, emotional or spiritual that might be shown in a court of law to be the direct or indirect result of the great hot sauce chug-a-lug competition. The rules called for the participants to drink one full shot-glass of the pepper sauce each round. No other food or drink, including the free beer, could be consumed during the contest. Whoever drank the most shot glasses of hot sauce would walk away (or possibly be carried away) the winner.
The pepper sauce for the contest was prepared by none other than Charlie Deyalsingh, better known as Trinidad Charlie, who as his name suggests, had come to St. John from the island of Trinidad. Among Charlie’s many talents is the manufacturing of one of the most delicious pepper sauces to be found on this planet. The hot sauce for the competition, however, was much simpler and much hotter than his regular sauce, which is a blend of East Indian spices from his native island along with a variety of hot peppers and other goodies organically and lovingly grown in the lush Guinea Gut Valley. For this special occasion Charlie had prepared a large bowl of sauce made only with the hottest of his hot peppers and a small amount of vinegar. It was an extremely potent brew, to say the least.The Great Hot Pepper Sauce Chug-a-Lug competition began with all twelve participants simultaneously gulping down their first shot glass of Trinidad Charlie’s specially prepared, extra-hot, East Indian pepper sauce concoction.
Two of the contestants immediately realized that this event was not for them. Soothing their lips, tongues and palates with free Heineken beer, they sat down and joined the spectators.
By the fifth round, all but three die-hards remained, a pretty young lady from Michigan, a tough-looking Puerto Rican Marine and Tal.
After the eighth round, the young woman gave up the ghost and retired to the bathroom from where sounds of serious distress soon emanated. Now with the competition down to two contestants, the event began to resemble a boxing match.
A group of Puerto Rican Sailors and Marines in one corner cheered wildly in Spanish after every shot that their shipmate successfully swallowed. Not to be outdone by outsiders, the locals assembled in Tal’s corner. A lady friend of Tal’s, who later won the bikini contest, took a damp washcloth, cooled it in a glass of ice water, and wiped off the perspiration that was beginning to accumulate on Tal’s brow. Jim and his other local friends responded to the Puerto Rican cheering section by offering shouts of encouragement in English whenever it was Tal’s turn to brave the fiery mixture.
It had become personal. Self esteem and machismo was now at stake. After a series of twenty-five shots, the last drop of Trinidad Charlie’s special blend was gone. No, this is not a typo, nor an exaggeration, nor is it a form of artistic license. This is a verifiable fact. Tal and the Marine had consumed twenty-five one-ounce shots each. No one had expected the contestants to be able to drink so much pepper sauce, especially this potent stuff. Something had to be done so that the Great Hot Pepper Sauce Chug-a-Lug contest could continue, which it did despite this setback.
Bruce, the owner of Island Hopper, who was also judge and jury of the competition rendered a decision. Substituting for Trinidad Charlie’s brew would be the pepper sauces that remained from the prior hot sauce-tasting event. Partly filled open bottles of an assortment of brands and blends were now poured helter-skelter into the contestant’s shot glasses. And even though the commercial sauces were not as hot as Charlie’s, they were not mixing well: one being mustard based, another papaya based, another tomato sauce based and so on.
At shot number thirty-five, this haphazard mixing of ingredients was beginning to make Tal feel queasy. He had been keeping about three shots ahead of the Marine, but for the first time, he contemplated quitting. “Is this really worth fifty bucks?” he asked himself. Just then Tal glanced at the Marine and saw that the tough guy’s knees were shaking and that he was having difficulty standing up.
Tal understood that the time had come for psychological warfare. Taking two shots of pepper sauce, one in each hand, Tal turned to the Marine and warned, “You might as well quit now and save yourself a lot of grief because there ain’t no way that you’re ever gonna win this contest.
“Tal punctuated his sentence by shooting down a shot of hot sauce and then licking his lips in feigned pleasure.
The Marine was completely demoralized. He looked at Tal and extended his hand signifying that he was conceding defeat. As Tal stood face to face with his defeated adversary he could not help but notice the tears rolling down the Marine’s cheeks, the mucus streaming from his nose and the foamy white substance that bubbled from the corners of his mouth. They shook hands and the Marine bolted for the bathroom.
The locals cheered and Bruce raised Tal’s arms in victory. The envelope containing the prize was presented to the champion and the great hot-sauce-eating contest was at an end.
Tal went back to begin work at the restaurant, but the stomach pains he felt at shot number thirty-five returned with a vengeance. He went to the refrigerator, poured himself a glass of milk, and sat down at one of the tables. The milk succeeded in partially calming his stomach; he took a deep breath and again wondered why he had ever gotten involved in such a ridiculous contest in the first place. But hey, fifty bucks is fifty bucks.To put things in a better perspective, Tal removed the envelope from his pocket and opened it.
Strangely enough, he did not see cash or find a check inside; rather there was a document of some kind. When he read it, he just about fell off of his chair. The prize wasn’t fifty dollars; it was a fifty-dollar gift certificate – for hot pepper sauce!
Afterward, Tal took off his apron and walked over to Island Hoppers. When he got there, he saw Bruce absorbed in an animated conversation with a group of people. When Bruce saw Tal, he started waving his arms and yelled, “See I told you he wasn’t in the hospital. I told you all that he was all right. Hey, Tal, tell the people you’re all right.”
“I’m all right Bruce,” Tal replied, “but to tell you truth I’ve had enough hot sauce, and I’d really appreciate some cash instead.”
Just then Bruce’s wife chimed in, “Come on Bruce, don’t be a cheapskate; give Tal some money. He deserves it,”Bruce brought Tal up into his office, but when Bruce went into his cash box to give Tal the money he found he only had twenty’s.
“Here Tal. Take sixty, like my wife said, you deserve it.”
The sixty dollars made Tal feel better. It made the whole ordeal seem almost worthwhile. That is, until the next day, when Tal bumped into the young lady who served as his manager and coach during the Great Hot Pepper Sauce Chug-a-Lug.
“How are you doing?” she asked Tal.
“Just fine, I even got an extra ten bucks,” he replied, “and how did you do on the bikini contest?”
“Oh I won first prize,” she told Tal.”Great! What did you win?” Tal asked.
The young lady’s answer made Tal question the values of western society
.”Five hundred dollars,” she exclaimed.
“Five hundred bucks,” Tal thought, “didn’t have to do anything but look good. And all I got was a lousy sixty for winning the Great Hot Pepper Sauce Chug-a-Lug.”
As Foxy Callwood of Jost Van Dyke is fond of saying, “Such is life. Such is life.”
Note: A question that was often asked to Tal was how he felt the next day, did the peppers burn on the way out. Tal’s answer was, “No more than usual,” which is understandable knowing the quantity of pepper sauce that he routinely consumes.
“But,” Tal added, “the first time I peed after the contest; well now that burned.”
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.
By Gerald SingerAs told to me by Tal Carter
The Cygnus was a 50-foot John Alden yawl. She belonged to Steve Boone, who claimed to be descended from Daniel Boone. Steve Boone was born and bred in Boone, North Carolina and is best known for being the bassist for the popular rock and roll group, “Loving Spoonful.”
Boone moved to St. Thomas around 1970 where he continued his musical career performing at a place called the Grass Shack in Charlotte Amalie.
He bought a sailboat named Cygnus shortly after arriving in the islands and docked her at the Yacht Haven Marina in the Charlotte Amalie harbor.
Boone lived aboard the yacht for a while, sailing around the islands, but never going too far from home. After a while, like many boat owners, he began to spend less and less time with his boat, which, like a lot of stuff in the Virgin Islands, gradually (maybe not so gradually) began to fall into a state of disrepair.
Taking advantage of the owner’s many absences and basically good nature, a series of somewhat disreputable hippie friends and hangers-on began to use the boat as a crash pad. As a result, the Cygnus got a bad reputation, which, in fact, was actually quite an accomplishment at the Yacht Haven Marina in 1971, a venue for a sizable compliment of questionable characters.
But the truth was that life aboard the Cygnus was getting pretty sleazy. One night, a young drifter was found dead in his cabin succumbing to an overdose of heroin. This was when the denizens of Yacht Haven’s, Fearless Freddie’s Bar gave the Cygnus a new name, the Sickness.
After this incident, Boone assigned a guy named Brad, who worked for Zora, the sandal-maker, when she had her shop on Main Street to take charge of the Cygnus.
Brad kicked the remaining druggies off the boat and, in return for maintaining the neglected craft, was given the use of the yacht. Brad sent for two of his friends from Michigan to come down to St. Thomas to help. They all stayed aboard the Cygnus at the dock at Yacht Haven Marina for a while, but eventually they decided that St. John would be a nicer place to be, so they sailed over and anchored in Cruz Bay.
Brad and the Michigan boys listened to a lot of music and smoked a lot of dope, but didn’t do a whole lot of maintenance or a whole lot of sailing.
One day there was talk about the Cygnus having a charter in Aruba and Brad, his two friends and a girl that had joined them made some hasty preparations for the voyage. Their plan was to sail to St. Croix, provision and then sail directly to Aruba.
It apparently was a hellacious trip from St. John to St. Croix. Rough seas opened up some serious leaks and the Cygnus just barely reached St. Croix with all pumps pumping in conjunction with some good old-fashioned bailing.
The girl who joined the crew at the last minute was so freaked by the ordeal that she bowed out of the adventure and flew back to St. John on the Antilles Airboat seaplane.
The girl came back to St. John with the story of the voyage. She said that there was no safety equipment aboard, no life preservers and no radio.
She relayed a message to a guy named Skip, telling him that Brad had asked if he would fly down to St. Croix, help them patch the leaking boat and sail with them to Aruba.
Skip was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He had crashed twice. Both times he was the only survivor of the craft. On four other flights, his tail gunners were killed. He came to St. John when his tour of duty was over, where he met Jackie, who became his girlfriend.
Jackie had come to St. John from Maine with her girlfriend Allison, where they were living at Allison’s father’s campground.Skip and Jackie hopped the seaplane to St. Croix and this was the last that anyone ever heard from them or any of the crew of the Cygnus.
They vanished without a trace. Although there was all sorts of speculation as to what might have become of them, given the poor condition of the yacht, the lack of safety equipment and communication devices and the inexperience of captain and crew, the assumption had to be made that the boat sank and all hands presumed drowned.
Donkey Foot Woman
By Gerald Singer
I first met Mervin when I lived in St. Thomas in the late sixties. I had just purchased a small fishing boat from a Frenchtown fisherman and was in the process of making a few minor improvements, when I chanced to look out toward the mouth of the Charlotte Amalie Harbor.
There, coming in under full sail, was a black-hulled wooden schooner, which seemed to personify the romance and adventure of the Caribbean. I watched as the crew made the necessary preparations and brought the vessel into the harbor, tying up alongside the seawall not far from where I was working. On deck were Mervin, a native of the island of Dominica, and two transplanted Britishers.
They carried a cargo of tropical fruits and vegetables; mangoes of all sizes and colors, bananas with names like, fig, apple and horse; limes the size of melons, ugli fruit, sweet green oranges and grapefruit, small ripe pineapples, green coconuts called jelly nuts, breadfruit, papaya, the star-shaped carambola, sugar apples and soursop; colorful sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and root vegetables like yam, sweet potato, tanya and boniato.
It was truly a sight to behold; especially to a newcomer to the islands, more familiar with life in the large cities of northeastern America.
Mervin and his partners, along with the other merchants and traders along the waterfront, spent the day selling their wares to the shoppers and passers by on the bustling bay side walkway. In an effort to sell out faster, with less competition and at higher prices, the young entrepreneurs decided to expand the scope of their marketplace.
They offered me a portion of the profits in exchange for my time and the use of my boat. I accepted, delighted by the opportunity to be part of this Virgin Island experience.That very afternoon, when business began to slow at the waterfront, we loaded up my boat and went door to door, so to speak, stopping alongside the yachts anchored in the harbor or tied up at the dock at the then prestigious Yacht Haven Marina. It was an easy sell. The fruits and vegetables were just too delicious-looking to pass up.Mervin and I established a friendship and we used to get together when the fruit boat was in port.
Later when Imoved to St. John Mervin stayed at my apartment in Coral Bay and helped me get started in my new endeavor, pot fishing.
On the first day of Mervin’s stay he chased away the evil spirits that apparently were lurking around the old West Indian style house. He smoked them out; carrying a coal pot full of smoldering branches, leaves and medicinal herbs into each and every room and closet, all the while reciting an eerie incantation.
In the mornings we went into the bush to cut birch sticks for the fish pot braces, and after lunch we spent long and tedious hours in the front yard tying up the chicken wire traps.
In the evenings Mervin would captivate me with stories about the wonders of Dominica; rich jungles where every kind of tropical fruit imaginable grew in abundance, haunted mountains that rose above the clouds and where the Devil himself was known to walk, spectacular waterfalls possessed with spiritual powers and hot springs whose waters could cure illnesses and restore lost youth. He told us of trained monkeys that would climb the tall coconut trees and throw coconuts down to the gatherers below; about his maternal grandmother who was a full blooded Carib and a princess among her people; about magic and jumbies and ghosts and zombies who roamed about on full moon nights in a nether world hovering between life and death.
One story that particularly impressed me was the story of the Donkey Foot Woman which I will now attempt to retell:
One evening there was a festival in Mervin’s village. Housewives prepared plates of fish and meats and vegetables. Others brought rum and beer. A huge bonfire lit up the clear Caribbean night and the sound of music and laughter echoed throughout the village.
At one point a crowd drew around to observe a group of young men and women who were dancing to an ancient African rhythm expertly played on a variety of homemade percussion instruments.
One of the dancers was not from the village. She was a beautiful white woman wearing a large straw hat. No one knew who she was or where she came from.
A little boy stood next to his mother in the crowd. He stared at the strange woman; fascinated by the spectacle and the hypnotic beat of the music. Suddenly he turned to his mother and said “Mommy, “Look de woman. She have a donkey foot!”
The little boy’s mother answered, “Me son, I see no woman with donkey foot.
“Momma, momma, yes, look!” the boy cried, then loud enough for all to hear he yelled, “Watch de donkey foot!
”An instant later the little boy fell to the ground dead, his skull mashed in by a mysterious and powerful blow.
Many years have passed since I last saw Mervin, but I will always remember and treasure those days when our world was so young.
By Gerald Singer as told by Hyancinth Ashley
The occult science of Obeah is alive and well on the Caribbean
island of St. Lucia where supernatural practices and beliefs have become incorporated into the fabric of everyday life. Obeah came to the Caribbean on the hellish slave ships that brought captured Africans across the Atlantic to toil on the plantations of the so-called New World.
Some practitioners of Obeah follow a dark and deadly path. It is said that they can grant great power, wealth and worldly delights. They are also said to cast evil and wicked spells that can bring pain, sickness, insanity and death. Others are dedicated to the light, to warding off evil spirits and harmful spells, and to aid their fellow man on the often difficult and treacherous journey of life.Magic, like anything else in the universe, does not occur without consequences, and with consequences comes responsibility. Most Obeah men and women are considered mediums or intermediaries between the individual wanting a spell cast and the person who receives that spell. It is widely accepted that the initiator of the spell is accountable for the consequences of the magic.
Sometimes, however, the Obeah priest or priestess acts on their own for their own purposes. In this case, they must bear full and total responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
This is the story of one such Obeahman, who corrupted by the power that he possessed, practiced his dark arts in order to satisfy his own wanton and selfish desires.The Obeahman in question had long ago withdrawn from society and lived as a recluse near a secluded swamp surrounded by a dark forest. On one of his rare visits to the village, he became obsessed with desire for an attractive young married woman.
The next new moon, at the stroke of midnight, the sorcerer performed an ancient ritual that allowed him to leave his body in the form of an evil spirit.Unseen and unheard by any of the villagers, he made his way to the door of the woman’s house. He knocked on the door. The woman’s husband opened the door. The evil spirit then blew a magic dust that he was holding in his hand into the face of the
The husband then fell into a profound sleep; one which seemed more like a coma or death than ordinary sleep. The spirit then took the woman, bewitched her with a spell, and had sex with her until just before the dawn. Before the sun arose, the spirit took leave of the house and returned to the shanty in the swamp and back into the body of the Obeahman.
Both husband and wife awake shortly after dawn. Neither remembered anything of the night before, The woman, however, felt drawn and ill at ease and was troubled by a deep scratch that itched
On the evening of the next new moon the spirit generated by the Obeahman returned to the couple’s house. The husband was again rendered unconscious and the woman bewitched into having sex with the spirit. As on the previous month, neither husband nor wife remembered anything and the only evidence left by the evil spirit was the disturbing scratch that itched and burned.
The woman began to feel unexplainably ill and depressed. One day the woman’s brother came to visit and noticed that something was troubling his sister. He asked her what was wrong and in the course of describing her feelings she showed her brother the scratches that refused to heal.
Suspecting that his sister was under the influence of an Obeah spell, the man took her to see a white magic woman.The Obeah woman immediately recognized the scratch as the mark of the evil spirit. She told the woman what was happening and gave her an herb, which her husband was to brew into tea and drink at dusk on the new moon to counteract the effects of the magic powder.
On the next new moon the spirit returned. He blew the dust into the husband’s face, but this time the man did not sleep, he only pretended to. The spirit then took the wife and began to have sex with her. Her husband taking hold of a large sharp knife which he had kept hidden and ready for this very moment, plunged it into the spirit’s back with all his might.
The evil spirit uttered a horrifying shriek, jumped from the bed and ran out the door. Returning to the swamp, the wounded spirit reentered the body of the Obeahman who could now feel the life force draining from his body.
The Obeahman knew that there was no hope. No doctor or no hospital could save him, neither could his magic incantations, because his spirit was mortally wounded and as a result the body could not go on living. The Obeahman locked this door, sat in his chair and waited for death.
Some weeks later, a hunter passing by the swamp was struck by a nauseating odor emanating from the shanty. When no one answered his calls, he broke down the door and found the decaying body of the evil priest.
Just as it is in the physical realm, so it is in the spiritual realm. Balance will inevitably be restored. The laws of karma can be as rigid as the laws of physics, and the Obeahman, who had abused his powers, had to bear the responsibility for his actions, for which he paid the ultimate price.
Drawing by Les Anderson
Of all the beautiful and majestic trees found in the forests of the tropical Americas, the species most likely to escape the woodsman’s axe or the developers’ bulldozer is the tree we on St. John call the kapok.
The reason for this is that nobody wants to be the one responsible for having it cut down.It is commonly believed that ghosts, spirits, jumbies and duppies exist within the kapok. Felling the tree would render these spirits homeless. Then out of anger or revenge
they might bring illness, bad luck or death to the being that had the audacity to destroy their sacred dwelling.
It has been said that pirates used to bury their treasures under the branches of the kapok in order to discourage opportunists from stealing their ill-gotten gains. Those who dug the hole, be they slaves, captives, or simply dispensable crewmen, would then be buried alive with the treasure, their souls standing an eternal vigil over the booty.
Spirits may also find their way to the kapok tree by being victims of black magic. Through evil spells cast by Obeahmen, the souls of the living may be snatched from their bodies and condemned to dwell within the kapok for eternity, secured to the tree by a large nail driven deeply into the trunk. The spiritless body of victim will either take ill and die, or go hopelessly insane.
The kapok, which is also known as silk cotton tree, ceiba, jumbie tree, Devil tree and God tree can reach heights of over 150 feet. Supporting this impressive giant are tall buttresses which can extend out over 30 feet from the main trunk forming a complex maze of eerie cave-like spaces.
Myths concerning supernatural beings that live within the buttresses add to the aura of mysticism surrounding the tree.
On the islands of the Lesser Antilles there is the tale of the Lajabless who during the day hides in the folds of the kapok buttresses. At night it wanders the roads and sometimes enters the villages. The Lajabless appears to be a beautiful young woman. She wears a large floppy hat and a long flowing skirt. The hat serves to hide a death’s head skull and the long dress, which is slit on one side to reveal a sensual and perfect feminine leg, conceals another leg ending in a cloven hoof, the mark of the devil. Men mesmerized by her seductiveness are led to the top of a cliff, whereupon the Lajabless removes her hat, revealing the grinning skull and then with a blow delivered by the hoofed foot, the man is sent flying over the precipice to his death.
Among the Mayans in southern Mexico there is a myth of the Xtabay
Woman, who also hides by day among the buttresses. At night she appears as a beautiful woman combing her long hair with cactus spines. In this guise, she seduces young men to make love with her.
Once within her passionate embrace, the man will fall into a deep, hypnotic sleep. When he awakes, he will find himself gravely wounded. What he thought was a beautiful woman, is really a horrible spiny cactus. The wounds received are likely to fester and result in a fever that is very often fatal.
Notwithstanding all the tales of evil spirits, the kapok is not an evil tree. On the contrary, it is considered sacred by many of the indigenous peoples of America, such as the Taino and the Mayans who believe it to be the tree of life whose roots extend to the underworld and whose branches hold up the heavens.
On the island of Puerto Rico, whose people proudly recognize their Taino origins, the ceiba has been declared the national tree.
In Africa the kapok is also held in high regard.
It is depicted on the national coat of arms of the Central African Republic
On St. John, the kapok is not only protected by spirits, but also by the National Park, which has pledged to maintain the natural environment. The best known, and one of the most beautiful kapok trees on the island, can be found on the Reef Bay Trail and is one of the highlights of the weekly guided hike.
Excepted from Tales of St. John and the Caribbean
An ancient Mayan legend warns young men out walking
at night of an evil spirit that takes the form of a beautiful
woman. The name of this evil spirit is the Xtabay (pronounced
Shta-bye). She is said to hide in the buttressed trunk of the
kapok tree, which the Mayans call ceiba. If, while passing this tree at night, you catch a fleeting glimpse of an enchanting woman combing her long hair with cactus spines, or if you hear a soft whispered phrase or a sweet song of love, do not look up. Avert your gaze
and walk in the center of the path. Avoid the thick bush on the
sides of the road from which the spirit may emerge, for if you
are unfortunate enough to gaze into the eyes of this bewitching
and seductive creature, she will cast a spell on you and you
will be overwhelmed by love. She will beckon you to come closer
and you will not be able to resist her passionate embrace, which
will cause you to fall into a deep and hypnotic sleep. When you
awake you will find that you have been embracing a spiny cactus
and the wounds that you receive may result in a fever that is
very often fatal. Beware!
Many people think that the Xtabay comes from the ceiba. This is not true. The Ceiba is sacred and good and does not bear evil fruit much less one as malignant as the Xtabay. The Xtabay was born of an evil and spiny weed and only uses the Ceiba to hide herself in its buttressed trunk, which is her home and from where she suddenly comes out to surprise her victims.
The following is the story of how the evil Xtabay woman came to haunt the tropical forests of the Western Caribbean:
Once upon a time in an ancient Mayan village there lived two women who happened to be born at the same time and on the same day. Both of them were extremely beautiful, but one was known to give herself, body and spirit, to whatever man desired her. Because of this, she was called the Xkeban (pronounced ske-ban), which in Mayan means “sinner, whore or giver of illicit sex”.
It was for this reason that many of the villagers despised her, and she was often taunted and mistreated.In spite of what people thought about her, however, the Xkeban had a pure and noble heart. She took care of the sick, gave to the needy and even sold the jewels and finery that were given to her by her many lovers to feed the hungry and help the poor. She was the only one in the village to take care of animals that had been abandoned when they were no longer useful. She was loving and humble and never spoke poorly of anyone.
The other woman was pure of body and never gave herself to any man. The villagers called her the Utz-colel, which in Mayan means “virtuous, clean and decent”.
Because of this, she enjoyed the respect and admiration of the
The Utz-colel, on the other hand, was haughty, arrogant, rigid and egotistical. She never gave anything to beggars, pointing out that one should never encourage vagrancy. She treated the humble, the needy and the poor as weaklings and inferiors and held special disdain for those who had committed sins of love. She never cared for sick friends or relatives because illness was repugnant to her. Deep down she was insensitive, uncaring and selfish and her heart was as cold as the cadaver of a rattlesnake.
One day the people of the village began to notice a scent in the air. It was penetrating, yet gentle, light and pleasant. The people in the village followed the scent, which came from the house of the Xkeban. The villagers then realized that it had been several days since anyone had seen her. They called out and when no one answered they opened the door and went inside. There they found the Xkeban dead, abandoned by the people of the village, but cared for by the animals. It was from her dead body that the mysterious and divine odor was emanating.
When news of the death of the Xkeban in conjunction with the mysterious heavenly fragrance, reached the ears of the Utz-colel, she said that the people must be lying or mistaken.
She said that any odor coming as it did from a sinner would be harmful and should be avoided. This is what she said, but being curious she went to the house of the Xkeban to find out for herself.
Even after she personally smelled the pleasant and gentle aroma, however, she refused to reconsider her position. Out of envy she reported to the villagers that bad spirits were causing the odor in order to intoxicate the men of the village. She then arrogantly added that if the body of a sinner had such a pleasant odor, how much better she, a virtuous woman, would smell when she died.
Only the dregs of society, those marginalized by misery, old age, and sickness, attended to the burial of the Xkeban. Strangely enough, however, the road leading to the cemetery kept the wonderful fragrance for three days after the Xkeban was buried and beautiful wildflowers grew up and covered the earth around her grave.
When the Utz-colel died everyone in the village cried. She died a virgin certain that she would be rewarded in the hereafter.
Nonetheless, when she died, and for three days after she was buried, her body gave off such a foul odor that the people of the town could not help but vomit. No one could explain how it was that all the beautifully fragrant flowers that were brought to her grave withered and died within minutes.
It was then that the people realized the truth; real virtue comes from the heart.They say that the Xkeban, who shared her sweetness,
turned into the beautiful white flower of the xtabentún (pronounced shta-ben-tún), a flower that, like love, intoxicates.
Today there exists in the Yucatán a liquor, called Xtabentún, made out of the nectar of this flower. It is said that this beverage evokes the sensation of being held in the arms of the lovely Xkeban.
The “virtuous” Utz-colel, on the other hand, turned into the flower of the tzacam, a cactus flower, reminiscent of her character. The tzacam flower is very beautiful, but full of sharp spines. It first appears to have no fragrance, but if you get very close, you will encounter a repugnant and nauseating odor.
Converted into the flower of the tzacam, the Utz-colel began to reflect on her life on Earth. She thought about the Xkeban and how she had been rewarded after death. The envious Utz-colel did not give a thought to the purity of the Xkeban’s heart and spirit, but attributed the Xkeban’s good fortune to her many love affairs and sexual liaisons.
The Utz-colel called out to the evil spirits and asked to be returned to Earth so that she could experience sex, love and passion.The love of the Utz-colel, however, was perverted and evil due to the coldness of her spirit and so it came to pass that she became the dreaded Xtabay woman who seduces men and then kills them in the midst of their passion.
This is how the Mayans learned that virtues are born in the heart. If your heart is virtuous your life will be luxuriant like the ceiba (kapok) that grows next to the cenote (an underground pool) and when you die you will be blessed forever under its branches.
(The preceding story comes in part from a loose translation of Diez Leyendas Mayas by Jesús Azcorra Alejos and also from the account of a Mayan holy man who I met while traveling in the Yucatán.)
Datura Stories: The Spirit
In the 1960s getting high had been elevated to an art form. People were experimenting with marijuana and LSD, and the heavy hitters were trying whatever else they could get their hands on. In this regard my friend, Bob, was no slouch.
Bob had recently sailed to St. Thomas from the US mainland and had rented an apartment in Fortuna out on the western part of the island.
One afternoon I dropped by for a visit. Bob was bubbling over with excitement. He had just learned that there was a bush that grew wild in the Virgin Islands that could get you high. Moreover, it was free, legal and readily available.
We took a short walk, and he showed me the bush that he was talking about. I recognized it right away. Locals call it joy juice, which I think is a misnomer, because I never met anyone who described its effects as anything resembling joyful.
The botanical name for the bush is datura, a plant that contains the same potent and deadly psychoactive alkaloids as belladonna, henbane and mandrake. These plants have been used for centuries as medicines, poisons and intoxicants, and are often associated with witchcraft, sorcery, obeah, voodoo and shamanism.
I explained to Bob that joy juice was dangerous and toxic and that no one I knew who had taken it had ever wanted to repeat the experience. He ignored my warnings and went ahead and prepared a tea, which he promptly drank.
After about an hour, Bob, who was starting to look spaced-out and not all that happy, said that he needed to go out and get some air. It was about five o’clock in the afternoon.
I didn’t see Bob again until late the next day, when he wandered into the house wrapped in only a towel, looking confused and disoriented. His face, arms and legs were badly scratched up.
“What happened to you?” I asked, “I’ve been looking all over for you. You look terrible!”
Bob pulled himself together, sat down on the couch and told me his story.
The first thing that he remembered after going outside was finding himself lost and alone in the thick bush below the road. It was pitch black. He was all scratched up and bleeding. He cried out for help. There was no answer. Desperately, he cried out again, and this time he heard an eerie voice coming out of the pitch-blackness of the forest. “Do you need help?”
“Oh yes, please help. Who are you?”
“I am a spirit, a jumbie, a guardian, a warrior of the past. I can lead you to the sea, but not as you are now. Your clothes offend me, you must remove them.”
Bob took off his clothes.
“Follow me,” whispered the spirit. Bob perceived a faint light, outlining a shadowy transparent figure.
“Follow me,” the spirit repeated.
Bob followed the light and was thus able to pass through the thick bush as easily as if he were a cat or a mongoose. The moon rose shedding a ray of light through the trees. Bob looked up at the moon. When he looked back down, the spirit was gone.
Panicking, Bob dashed into the bush, and yelped in pain as he bumped into a large cactus.
“Help! Where are you? Bob screamed.
A hoarse whisper, from the darkness answered, “I cannot help you adorned as you are. It is offensive to me”
“What’s wrong?” Bob asked, “I’m not wearing anything.”
“What is that on your wrist?” asked the spirit.
Bob realized that the problem was his brand new Rolex watch. “Just a watch,” said Bob.
“Take it off,” commanded the spirit, or I cannot help you.
Reluctantly, Bob unclasped his Rolex and threw it into the bush. The shadowy spirit reappeared and Bob again followed it, moving silently and easily through the over the rugged terrain. With the first faint light of dawn the spirit spoke and said, “I must leave you now daylight is approaching and we have reached the sea.”
Bob looked out and saw that he was standing on top of a low cliff about twenty feet above the rocky southern coastline. There were no roads, no houses, no boats and no people. The sea was choppy and forbidding.
The spirit was becoming more transparent and was hardly visible.
“What now?” Bob asked.
A voice that sounded like the wind answered back, “you must swim, my friend, swim.”
Bob, who was not the greatest swimmer in the world, waded into the shallow water. He stepped on a sea urchin whose spines lodged in his foot and then fell and cut himself on some fire coral. When the water was deep enough, he began his swim upwind and up current to the east, towards the airport. The sun was already high in the sky, when Bob dragged himself ashore on the sands of Lindbergh Bay.
A West Indian family was picnicking on the beach. They took pity on the naked and bedraggled young white man, wrapped him in a towel and drove him home.
When he finished telling me his bizarre tale, he went off to his bedroom and slept for the rest of the day and throughout the following night. But before falling asleep, he quietly swore an oath to God that he would never, ever again, even go near another joy juice bush.
By Gerald Singer