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Archive for June, 2009

View of St. Thomas from Lindholm overlook

View of St. Thomas from Lindholm overlook

You know you have a dusty day when you can barely see St. Thomas from St. John. For the last few days we here on St. John have experienced a heavier than usual occurance of Sahara Dust conditions. At first. I though that it might have something to do with volcanic dust from Montserrat, but according to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory website the volcanic activity on that Caribbean Island has been low.

The silver lining in the dust cloud is that the wind currents that cause them supposedly do not bring hurricanes, which are way worse, at least in the short term, than African dust.

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It seems that everywhere you look on St. John, there’s some special marketing scheme being offered to attract those dwindling tourist dollars and the Westin resort, one of the two major resort style hotels on St. John, is no exception.

From June 30 to September 30, the Westin, located at Great Cruz Bay, will be offering a “Friends and Family” special.

In hotel jargon “Friends and Family” usually refers to hotel employees, and other VIP’s, who are able to enjoy deeply discounted room rates. For the Westin on St. John, this translates into rooms for $150 per night and for the next three months this will now be rate to the general public.

And…there’s a kicker here, kids up to the age of 12 will be enjoying free meals…not bad.
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Southland Gaming Sued by USVI
The Government of the Virgin Islands is suing Southland Gaming for failure to pay as much as 20 million dollars in gross receipts taxes as well as for failure to pay their promised share of total gambling revenues. Southland is the company providing video gambling at the Parrott Cub at Wharfside Village in Cruz Bay, Larry’s Landing, Fred’s, Cap’s and at the Laundromat.

Swine Flu Reported in the Virgin Islands
The V.I. Department of Health (DOH) has indicated that there are two confirmed cases and one suspected case of the H1N1 (Swine Flu) virus in the territory.

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I awake this morning in Astoria, Queens where I am visiting my son, Sean. One of our daily activities is taking Sean’s dog, Zeke, out for a walk.

One of our walking destinations is Astoria Park which lies on the banks of New York City’s East River.

There is a beautiful view of the island of Manhattan, the Bronx and the East River Arch and the Triboro brides whose supporting towers are based on either side of the park.

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New York Connecting Railroad - East River Arch Bridge - 1017 feet between towers

East River Arch Bridge
This East River Bridge and its viaduct approaches completed the direct connection via New York City between the Pennsylvania and New Haven railroad systems and between the New England states and the states lying west and south of the Hudson River.

The bridge was finished and dedicated to the transportation service of the country in 1917.
From plaque commemorating the construction of the bridge

General Slocum Disaster
Astoria was the scene of  the burning of the vessel, General Slocum, which prior to September 11, 2001, had the highest death toll of any disaster in New York City History.
“On the morning of June 15,1904, the steamboat General Slocum caught fire in the East River with approximately 1,300 people on board, including many children. In the course of 20 minutes an estimated 1021 people died. Prior to September 11, 2001, the burning of the General Slocum had the highest death toll of any disaster in New York City History.

The triple-decker wooden side paddler was built in 1891 and named after Henry Warner Slocum (1827 – 1894), a Union Army general who later represented the City of Brooklyn in Congress. Saint Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and served primarily German immigrants, chartered the ship for their 17th annual excursion to the Locust Grove Picnic Ground on Eaton’s Neck, Long Island.

Triboro Bridge connecting Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx

Triboro Bridge connecting Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx

Wearing their Sunday best, the passengers boarded the General Slocum at its Third Street dock, and at abvout 9:40 a,m, the ship headed up the East river. As the band played, people danced on the deck and passerby waved from the shore. When the ship reached Astoria, onlookers waved frantically because smoke was billowing from the portholes. Initially. the passengers assumed the smoke was coming from the kitchen, and although a few crewmen were aware of the fire, they did not alert the captain. With the exception of the Captain and the chief engineer, the 35 man  crew lacked experience and had never conducted a fire drill.

Although the crew did not sound an alarm, many passengers jumped from the boat while it passed through Hell Gate, taking their chances in New York’s most turbulent channel rather than remain on board. Unfortunately the majority of the ship’s life jackets proved worthless because the material then used for buoyancy, cork, had turned to dust over time. The life preservers actually absorbed after,  and the passengers who wore them were pulled underwater. Hundreds of bodies floated in the ship’s wake and washed up on Astoria’s shoreline.

Just as the General Slocum passed Randall’s island, the smoke below deck gave way to massive flames. Only then did the captain receive word of the blaze. He had no choice but to beach the General Slocum on North Brother Island and the ship raced to shallow water. Finally the crew tried to fight the blaze, but the fire hoses burst under the pressure. A dozen tugs, two fire boats, a police boat, and more than a hundred other vessels joined in the rescue effort. Some of the rescue ships themselves caught fire while trying to get people off the General Slocum. In fifteen minutes the Slocum had burned to the waterline.

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a Commission of Investigation, which determined that a number of casual factors led to the General Slocum incident. They noted specific organizational and leadership failings within the Steamboat Inspection Service,the agency of the United States government specifically created to prevent such tragedies. The Service had checked the General Slocum five weeks before the disaster. The inspectors certified the 13-year-old  lifeboats as “up to date and of good quality.”  They did not examine the fire pump and hoses, nor did they realize that all six lifeboats were stuck to the ship by a thick coat of paint.

In 1905, the city dedicated a fountain in Tompkins Square Park in remembrance of those who died in the General Slocum disaster. Every year a ceremony is held at the fountain  to honor the victims. Although New York has changed immensely over the past century, ferries ansd ships still play an important role in the city’s daily life. Since 1946, the U.S. Coast Guard has been responsible for maritime safety, employing nearly 500 uniformed and civilian personnel in inspection duties and more thean 100 as accident investigaters.”
From the plaque commemorating the General Slocum victims

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From Tales of St. John & the Caribbean
“The Queen’s Panties” by Curtney “Ghost” Chinnery

In the mid-sixties, the Queen of England paid a visit to the island of Tortola. This particular story is one that probably should not be told. But what the hell, we were just children.

Let me start with the day before the Queen came to Roadtown, Tortola. There were four of us. We were called “Water Rats.” There were two police officers that were assigned to the waterfront area. One of the officers called out to us saying: “Hey! Come here. Tomorrow the Queen will be here, and we don’t want you Water Rats in the water. Don’t let us have to chase you guys around.”

Those officers were men we respected. Therefore, we promised not to be in the water. We had intentions of making good money that day from visiting tourists by diving for coins.  Being that our plans were changed because of our promise, we were left with nothing in mind to do for the day of the Queen’s visit. The eldest of our group, a fellow we called Hookadoe, who is no longer with us in life today, said, “I know what we can do tomorrow. Let’s come early in the morning and go up under the stage.”

My brother Abraham asked Hookadoe, “Why?”

“To see what color panty she’ll be wearing,” Hookadoe replied.

Suddenly, we all thought it was a great idea, for it meant to us that we would be the only ones who would have the   pleasure of seeing the Queen’s panty.

Early the following morning, Hookadoe, Abraham, our friend Blackbird and I met up at the Market Square near the waterfront. Slightly before daybreak, we made our way over the hill so that we would not be seen by anyone.

Directly above the Roadtown Post Office was an old pirates’ castle, which today is the Dr. Tattersol Hospital. Sticking out from various points of the castle were heavy iron cannons pointed out towards the Roadtown harbor. There was one particular cannon we kids used to descend downwards into one of the many genip trees to get to the street below on the side of the Post Office. As we got to the street level, which is the same narrow Main Street of today, I was sent out as a scout to see if anyone was in the street.

After seeing no one, I signaled to the others to follow.

In those days, we had a wooden dock that was for ferry and yacht discharge only. The dock directly across from the passenger dock was for cargo boats to unload. For the Queen’s comfort, they constructed a large stage between both docks using many strips of wood for the floor, which made us think we would be able to look up between the many single strips of board.

We all took turns inching our way out toward the customs building at the dock. Upon arrival, we went into the water, clothes and all. The back end of the stage that faced the water was open so that we Water Rats could climb out of the water and go up under the stage.

After we made it under the stage, we undressed and wrang out our clothes. We depended upon our body heat as a drying agent to dry our clothes.

It wasn’t long before people started to gather. Suddenly we heard the sound of an engine. A few moments later, two U-boats came and tied up at the end of both docks, which meant we were totally trapped. To keep from being seen we now had to move toward the front section of the stage and in our little peeping plot, there was no turning back.

That morning we had no breakfast, which was a big mistake. The crowd started to build, and beneath the stage started to get hot from the sun. There was nothing we could do but lay on the ground for a few hours. As time went by, we developed hunger. What made matters worse was the odor of fried chicken, which was causing a big problem for us.

As the  hours passed, the heat built up. Our wet clothes never got a chance to dry from our body heat, because our bodies were just pushing out more water from sweat. Therefore what we did was remove our clothes.

I can remember starting to say a prayer, a prayer asking God to send the Queen soon, so that we could get out of there. There were only two ways out. One was to give up our quest. The other was to wait it out until the Queen arrived, made her speech, and moved on up through Main Street to the schoolyard where many people were gathered to see her. The choice of giving up was out of the question, so we stuck it out.

As we lay upon our clothes, up under the hot darkened stage, we heard clapping through the cracks of the stage steps. I could see the crowd moving to the left side in front of the stage. This cheering, clapping, and movement of the crowd told us our big moment was about to come. We made our move to the center of the stage, so that we could have a clear view of the Queen. We all laid side by side in the area where the Queen was about to walk up on the stage.

I can remember that our hunger had intensified so much so that our stomachs were making noises. This was another problem, because the moving gas in our stomachs was loud enough to be heard from the outside. Then as we lay there trying to quiet our stomachs by squeezing them with our hands, it suddenly got very dark.

It seems that someone had just unrolled a three-foot-wide   red carpet for the Queen to walk on, which posed another problem. To combat this new dilemma, my brother and I moved to one side of the carpet and Blackbird and Hookadoe the other. That way we could still view the Queen from the sides of the carpet.

The white convertible carrying the Queen drove up in front and stopped directly at the beginning of the red carpet. The car door was opened by one of our local police officers. We could now clearly see her face. Her beauty glittered as the sunlight hit her overall structure. Her large white dress was whiter than white itself. But our viewing of her was just for a brief moment. Once she came to the first step we beneath lost visual of her face.

Our big moment had finally arrived. We moved back from under the step section in an attempt to follow her movements as she was being escorted to her area upon the stage. We tried to look and peep through the cracks of the strips of wood on the sides of the carpet, except that fate was not on our side. The panty we had tried to see, for us, did not exist. All that we saw from our angle was layers and layers of material. It seems that the Queen had on about 25 dresses, one dress on top of another. We did not even get to see her ankle. The only part of her skin we saw was what all had seen, which was from her elbow to below her shoulders and her face. All other parts of her body were covered.

Disappointed as we were, we had no choice but to re­­main under that stage with our hunger. Many people made speeches as we prayed for them to finish and to begin the parade that would lead everyone through town and away from us, which, in time, happened.

Tired and hungry at the end of our worthless quest, we left the stage in the same way we entered it.

Due to the fact that we were so hungry and no one seemed to be around, we walked about the waterfront area and picked up bits and pieces of chicken and anything else we found to eat that had been left on the ground. For drinks we drained old soda cans, and thus ended our worthless quest to see if we could view the Queen’s panty.

Now today as a man I wonder. If they had caught us then, what would have become of us? What type of charge would they have placed upon us? In any case we did what we did when we did it. Personally, I for one would like to apologize to the Queen. I was just a crazy little boy.

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Beginning December, and right on time for the next high tourist season, American and Delta Airlines plan to increase their flight service to the Virgin Islands.

American Airlines plans to add three flights a week  between St. Croix and Miami, bringing the total weekly flights up from seven to ten and Delta Air Lines plans to begin daily flights between St. Croix and Atlanta, up from two flights per week, and my favorite, the St. Thomas to JFK run, will now operate daily, up from the present two flights a week.

Good T’ing!

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Speaking as a long time expat, who really does love being on St. John, every now and then it’s nice to “get off the rock” and experience something different. So it is that I find myself in Astoria, Queens, New York City staying with my oldest kid, Sean.

I often hear complaints about the way things work on St. John and in the Virgin Islands, especially when it comes to government agencies. I usually retort that it’s no better stateside -  the same old t’ing, maybe worse.

Astoria, Queens, NYC

Typical Street - Astoria, Queens, NYC

Astoria is a nice little working class, multi-ethnic neighborhood, which has escaped much of the gentrification that has so changed the nature of similar NYC neighborhoods. The streets are mostly residential, with scattered small businesses, delis, shoemakers, bakeries, pizza joints, stuff like that.

On the corner of my son’s block is a Greek Deli, owned by Italians and staffed by Mexicans and Egyptians. Last week a tall, rugged-looking,  brown hair streaked with gray, who it turns out had been shopping at almost all the delis and min marts and groceries in the neighborhood that day, walks into the deli and asked the young Mexican manning the checkout counter for a pack of cigarettes. He pays for his cigarettes, picks up the pack and begins to walk toward the door, when two gentlemen in suits enter the store. They walk over to the counterman, and produce badges from their lapel pockets identifying themselves as agents for the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs.

The man who had just purchased the cigarettes turns out to be working for the two consumer affairs cops and despite his appearance is only seventeen years old.

The upshot is that the store is fined and prohibited from selling cigarettes for six months, and the poor Mexican, who works his fingers to the bone making sandwiches 14 hours a day seven days a week and with God knows how many relatives that he’s supporting on both sides of the border,  is  personally fined $6,000.

I’m sure there are purists out there who will assert that the end justifies the means, but to me, if this really was about stores selling cigarettes to minors, the person sent in to make the buy would be obviously underage, not disguised and chosen especially because he looks way older than eighteen. I feel sorry for that struggling small business owner as well as others in the neighborhood, who were tricked into breaking the law by the sting and especially for the poor counterman for whom the hardship will be enormous.

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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’Neill

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From Tales of St. John & the Caribbean
I first met Mervin when I lived in St. Thomas in the late 1960s. I had only been living in the Virgin Islands for about a month and the Caribbean experience was new and exciting. I had just purchased a 17-foot fishing boat from a Frenchtown   fisherman. It was tied up to the seawall on the waterfront at Charlotte Amalie and I was standing there, looking out over the harbor, lost in daydreams about all the new adventures that awaited me. It was a feeling similar to the one I had when I bought my first automobile: a sense of freedom, of being able to get up and go wherever and whenever I wanted.

My attention was drawn to the entrance of Charlotte Amalie Harbor where a black-hulled, gaff-rigged, wooden schooner was coming in with all sails flying. I watched as the crew took down the sails and motored over to the seawall, tying up right behind my new boat. I could see three young men standing on deck, one black and two white. They scurried about the vessel, neatly arranging the lines and sails and making everything shipshape.

The schooner carried a cargo of colorful and delicious-looking tropical fruits and vegetables from Dominica, which the crew began to organize so that they could sell them to the shoppers and passers-by on the bustling St. Thomas waterfront.

It was truly a sight to behold, especially to an American recently arrived in the Caribbean. There were mangos 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, star-shaped carambolas, sugar apples and soursop, colorful sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, eggplant; and root vegetables like yam, sweet potato, tanya, yucca and boniato.

While the three young men were getting ready for the day’s activities, I struck up a conversation with them, asking all kinds of questions like: What are your names? Where are you all from? What are those fruits over there? and Can I see the inside of the boat?

The two white men were British expatriates who had re­cently bought the old schooner for a song, but had spent a good deal of time and money in restoration and refitting. This was their first voyage of a commercial nature and all had gone well so far.

The black man was Mervin, a native of the island of Dominica. Mervin was the invaluable crewman. In addition to being a great sailor, Mervin could also be a navigator, carpenter, plumber, electrician, rigger and cook.

The schooner from Dominica was not the only boat to have brought tropical fruits and vegetables to St. Thomas. There were other boats tied up to the seawall with produce for sale from Santo Domingo, from Puerto Rico and from the British Virgin Islands. In addition, there were kiosks on the walkway that were supplied daily with fruit and vegetables brought in by air from San Juan.

Notwithstanding, the tropical produce grown in the lush  volcanic soil of the Dominican mountain valleys was bigger and better and less expensive.

Although sales were brisk and steady, the young entrepreneurs decided to expand the scope of their market and came up with a more direct sales approach; one that they hoped would enable them to sell out faster, with less competition, and at higher prices. Their idea was to sell door-to-door, so to speak, stopping alongside the yachts that were anchored in the harbor or tied up at the dock at the then-prestigious Yacht Haven Marina.

To put the plan into effect, they needed a boat about the size of mine. Their schooner was too big and not maneuverable enough for such an activity, and their dinghy was too small to carry an appreciable amount of goods.

The captain made me an offer: a portion of the profits in exchange for my time and for the use of my boat. I readily  accepted their proposal, delighted by the opportunity to be part of this Virgin Island adventure.
That very afternoon, when business began to slow down at the waterfront, we loaded up my boat and motored around the harbor, stopping alongside the anchored yachts to show the people our fruits and vegetables. It was an easy sell. Everything looked just too delicious to pass up.

After that day, we all stayed in touch and whenever the fruit boat was in port, we would get together socially for a drink or a night on the town.

One day after I had moved to St. John,  I received a call from Mervin, who had decided to leave the fruit boat and seek his fortune in the Virgin Islands. He needed a place to stay while he was waiting to receive some documents regarding his immigration status, and I told him that he could use my  apartment in Coral Bay.

As usual, Mervin proved to be helpful and multitalented. He helped me build fish traps and, in a flamboyant spectacle of religion and theater, he fortified the house against evil spirits. Carrying a coal pot full of smoldering branches, leaves and herbs into every nook and cranny of the house, he chased away any “jumbies” that might have been lurking about.

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 me 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 netherworld hovering between life and death, and about the poor farmer who shared his meager plate of food with a stray  mongrel dog and awoke the next morning to find a $100 bill in the gourd where he had placed the dog’s food.

One story that particularly impressed me was the tale of the Donkey Foot Woman, which Mervin told me by candlelight one night when we were temporarily without electricity:

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 now passed and much has changed since I last saw Mervin, but I still carry fond memories of him and of those wonderful and exciting days of my initiation into the island experience.

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In 1933, Desmond and Bet Holdridge 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 Holdridges St. John’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. … 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.”

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Brought to you by Gerald Singer, St. John US Virgin Islands (USVI)