Category Archives: St. John USVI Stories: The Virgin Islands in the 1970s

Stories and anecdotes describing St. John in the early 1970s

St. John in the 1970s: Jelly Nuts

I was first introduced to green coconuts when I arrived in the Virgin Islands in 1969. At that time there were always several vendors on the Charlotte Amalie waterfront who would set up alongside the seawall with their piles of coconuts, chopping block and sharp machete offering the general public this refreshing treat for the modest price of between 25 cents and a dollar each.

These were not the dark brown, fuzzy, three-eyed, hard-shelled coconuts that I was accustomed to seeing in stateside markets. These were the green slightly immature coconuts that were picked early, before they hardened, turned brown and fell to the ground.

There is a big difference between eating a hard-shelled coconut and a green one. When you crack open a fully mature coconut, you’ll find some concentrated coconut water and a hard white pulp adhering to the shell.

The green nut is quite different. The husk is softer and less fibrous. The water inside is less concentrated and and there is more of it and the meat is soft and sweet like jelly accounting for the popular name, “jelly nut.”

So for a small amount of money, you got a nice drink of coconut water and if you so desired a bit of coconut jelly to boot. Jelly nuts are a very popular item and vendors on St. Thomas had no problem selling out just about as fast as they could open them up and collect the money. Also, the commonly accepted notion that coconut water, especially when mixed with gin, has aphrodisiac qualities, certainly didn’t hurt sales.

Personally, I not only loved coconut water and coconut jelly, but I also loved the cultural experience; the coconut man wielding his sharp machete seemingly without effort, confidently and precisely while holding the coconut in his hand. (At first I was afraid to watch, for fear of the man cutting up more than the coconut if you know what I mean.)

The Process
The first cut would be to slice a thin piece of the outer green husk about two or three inches wide and four or five inches long, to make a spoon used later to eat the coconut jelly. Then the husk on the top of the nut would be cut away exposing the thin shell beneath. The next cut would expertly take off just the tip of the shell leaving only the coconut meat itself to close off the hole in the nut. At this point the coconut could be carried away and the drunk later by simply cutting off the top piece of pulp or this could be done on site and you could drink the coconut water right then and there.

After finishing the water, you could ask the coconut man to cut open the nut so you could eat the jelly. In which case he would either lay the nut on a chopping block or hold it in the palm of his hand, and in one swift motion pass the machete through the nut, chopping it in two. The spoon would be removed from the nut and used to scoop the jelly off of the shell.

Going into Business with John Gibney
I found the whole process to be quite impressive and one day, while eating jelly nuts with my friend John Gibney, I mentioned my fascination with coconuts as a business enterprise. John knew all about it, and said that we could easily do it ourselves and so was launched our one-day foray into the jelly nut business.

We started bright and  early one morning getting our coconuts from the coco palms growing along the beach on John’s property. They were full-size trees, not the dwarf variety that are so prevalent nowadays. This meant that the coconuts were high up above the ground and not so easy to get at.

I had heard that on the island of Dominica, they used trained monkeys to climb the tall coconut palms and throw them down to gatherers waiting safely below. Safe, that, is if one avoided getting hit by falling coconuts. We didn’t have access to trained monkeys, but this wasn’t a problem, because John could probably out-climb the ablest Dominican simian.

John tossed the coconuts down to me, and I chased them and gathered them up. We then brought my 16-foot fiberglass outboard-powered runabout close to the beach and started to load the coconuts aboard. We filled the boat as much as we could, and John and I had to climbed over the coconuts to take our positions aboard. We motored out of Hawksnest Bay headed east to Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas.

I guess we may have let greed overcome common sense because we had put way too many coconuts inside this small craft. The boat was overloaded, we were left with only about twelve inches of free board. That is, the weight of the coconuts made the boat so heavy that we were riding way too low in the water. The run from St. John to St. Thomas can be a bit rough and between the big seas and the small free board we began to take on water. Luckily we were going downwind, so the effects of the waves were moderated, and we were able to control the situation by John baling out water with a calabash while I manned the wheel. We reached the St. Thomas waterfront safe and sound, with no more than a few good scares and a crash course in having respect for the sea.

We set up shop on the waterfront. John was the coconut man. I collected the money.

Now John, notwithstanding the lightness of his skin color, was every bit as good with a machete as any other West Indian. With his long blond hair and tall stature, many native St. Johnians referred to him as Tarzan. But, he was virtually unknown on St. Thomas and the sight of a white boy cutting open coconuts on the Charlotte Amalie harborfront was a little more than some local people were ready for. You could see the nervousness in their eyes as John, albeit skillfully, cut open the jelly nuts with his machete. Sometimes customers even refused to let him do his job, and instead insisted on opening their own coconuts. Nonetheless, we sold out our supply of jelly nuts in good time and motored back home to St. John with some good money in our pockets. But for me, much more than the money, the overall experience was something that to this day brings a big smile to my face when I think about that Virgin Islands morning some forty years ago.

Gerald Singer

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1970s Virgin Islands Stories: The Cygnus

by Gerald Singer
As 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 the 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.

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St. John Stories – Mom’s phone call

by Gerald Singer

Stories from St. John Virgin Islands in the 1970s
I present here some short anecdotes. Little stories of my life on St. John, which I hope will serve to capture something of the feel for the island life on St. John during the 1970s, at least my take on it.

Mom’s phone call:
I was living at the top of the hill on Centerline Road just outside of Cruz Bay in a small apartment I rented from Captain Jurgins, a colorful St. John old-timer with a heart of gold.

It was late afternoon, we had finished pulling the fish pots,selling the fish and putting the boat away, when I heard, “Inside.” Then a knock on the door. Not the normal, is anyone home knock, but a authoritative knock … bap, bap, bap! kind of loud and insistent.

“Who is it?” I asked

” ‘afternoon, open up, I want to talk to you.”

It was a policeman.

My pulse quickened, “What did I do?” I thought to myself. I couldn’t think of anything, but I was nervous anyway.

I opened the door.

“Look here,” said the officer. “We just got a call down at the station and it was your momma. She’s worried about you. She wants you to call. What’s the matter with you boy? You need to respect you mother. You need to call.”

In fact, I hadn’t called in about a week. But, in my defense, I didn’t have a phone, the pay phones worked sometimes, but often were out of order. My mom had no way of getting in touch with me outside of writing me a letter, so she came up with the idea of calling the Police Station

OK officer, I’ll call today. Thanks for stopping by.

“Don’t make me come up here again,” he said and he flashed a short, friendly smile as he turned to walk up the driveway.

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