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

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

St. John Stories: The Queen’s First Step at Soper’s Hole, BVI

West End Tortola
West End Tortola, circa 1967
Photo of West End Customs 2001

My first visit to West End (Sopers Hole) was in the 1970s. I was tied up along the seawall at Charlotte Amalie and approached by an agent from St. Thomas Dairies who hired me to deliver a load of milk to West End on Tortola. For some reason they couldn’t do it themselves that day, presumably due to one of the many contingencies that was, and still is, likely to occur here in the islands.

Arriving at customs at West End, I noticed a monument dedicated to the arrival of the Queen of England on her first visit to Tortola. A brass plaque read something like “where the Queen first stepped foot on the BVI.” Interestingly enough, the dedication was located far enough away from the edge of the dock that the Queen would have to have a have taken a mighty leap to set her royal foot down that far away from whatever vessel she was on that tied up to the dock.

Commenting on this to a BVI local, it was explained that the original monument was indeed erected at the exact spot where the Queen actually stepped foot. (see above photo) In actual practice, however, this was an inconvenient place for the monument as it interfered with the loading and offloading of cargo on the dock.

It was in response to this difficulty the dedication was moved away from the loading area, explaining the British monarch’s seemingly extraordinary disembarkation at Soper’s Hole on the island of Tortola, BVI.

St. John Live Music – Friday April 13

Aqua Bistro – Steve Sloan – 5:30 – 8:30 – 776-5336
Beach Bar – Jon Beninghof Band – 9:00 – 777-4220
Castaways – Mikey P – 9:00 – 777-3316
Cinnamon Bay – Eddie Bruce Drum Circle – 6:30 – 8:00
Cruz Bay Prime – James Cobb – 7:00 – 10:00 – 693 -8000
Driftwood Dave’s – John W Lee -7:00 – 10:00 – 777-4015
Island Blues – Slammin – 776 6800
Morgan’s Mango – Lauren – 6:00 – 9:30 – 693-8141
Ocean Grill – T-Bird – 6:30 – 9:00 – 693-3304
Rhumblines – Erin Hart – 7:00 – 10:00
Spyglass – James – 5:00 – 8:00 – 776-1100

See Weekly Schedule

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St. John History: Cruz Bay Riot 1972

I was surfing the net, as they say, this morning and came across an article that jogged my memory of an event that occurred in Cruz Bay in 1972, a riot during carnival. Being that I rarely go out at night and that night was no exception, I didn’t find out about the disturbance until the next morning. Just as well.

Virgin Islands and Caribbean knowledge, history and genealogy

The 1972 St. John riot occurred in Cruz Bay, St. John, US Virgin Islands, at the close of the St. John Fourth of July celebrationson Tuesday night, July 4, 1972, and Wednesday morning, July 5, 1972.  It was led by a gang of around 50 youth.  One person was stabbed and a couple was injured.  Several of the booths were robbed of liquor.
The St. John police was unable to control the crowds and police officers were dispatched from St. Thomas to assist the St. John police.  Due to the rioting, a crowd of about 300 people gathered at the Cruz Bay dock, trying to board the ferries back to St. Thomas.  It was total pandemonium….
Copyright © 2010 Louis Paiewonsky Jr.

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St. John Virgin Islands in the 1970s: The White Continentals

For many of the white continentals who had the good fortune to experience St. John in the 1970s, that time and place holds a special place in their hearts and souls. The St. John continentals of those days immersed themselves in the physical beauty and simple life style of St. John and became incorporated into the very fabric of St. John culture.

The fact that the uniqueness of this small subculture was something real and not just a satisfying self-perception was shared by none other than Edward A. O’Neill who wrote the book “The Rape of the American Virgins” in 1972.

This is a book was highly critical of greedy continental business interests and corrupt Virgin Islands government officials, resulting in a short-sighted development of the islands having unhealthy economic, ecological and social  consequences.

Moreover, Mr. O’Neill’s overall assessment of the Virgin Islands’ white continental residents  was, shall we say, unsympathetic.

Nonetheless, when the theme turned to the continentals of St. John his tone changed dramatically. In the chapter dealing with St. John, the author wrote:

“Up to now, development (on St. John) has produced little change in the island’s society. The small continental population, about 175 of the island’s present 1,700 residents, has had to become a real part of st. Johnian life – a not too difficult adjustment since the kind of people from the mainland who have settled on St. John came exactly because of the island’s isolation and simplicity, which they strongly want to preserve. Despite their small number, these relative newcomers (few have been here for more than twenty years) play an important local role. Unlike their fellow continentals on St. Thomas and St. Croix, whose attitude generally is “leave it to the natives,” these people, in their shorts and tennis shoes and shifts over bikinis, have been  vigorously working to preserve the unspoiled birthright St. John….”

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The Great Barracudas of Great Thatch

The other day I wrote a blog entry about getting stung by a scorpion on the Island of Great Thatch in the British Virgin islands. That reminded me of another incident that occurred there, similar in nature to the scorpion incident.

Hillside (photo by Don Hebert) from the Book St. Thomas (USVI)

When we first arrived on Great Thatch for our camping expedition, we spent the day snorkeling and exploring, mostly snorkeling, because our land exploration was limited by thick bush and steep mountainsides.

Between the two mountains that make up the island, there is a low-lying area with a large salt pond, which is about the only place on the island apart from the shoreline that invites exploration. On the southern side (facing St. John) there is a large calm and well protected bay, which is the recipient of a great deal of flotsam, washed up along the shore by the prevailing winds and currents.

(Hillside photo by Don Hebert from the Book St. Thomas USVI)

Exploring that shoreline, you’ll see all kinds of interesting drift plastic with some bearing labels or other indications of their world wide origins. Rumor has it that bales of illicit drugs have been found here.

The bay itself is very shallow in places and full of reef with some coral heads even extending above the surface at times of low tide. At the time, reef was extremely colorful and very much alive.

On the seaward side of the very shallow area, we could see what appeared to be the top of a mast, which came up almost to the water’s surface. We anchored, the boat, donned our gear and dove in to investigate.

As we approached the wreck we were joined by not one, but by some very large barracudas, most with open mouths exposing big sharp teeth. They were big! When seen though a dive mask, which magnifies what you see,  these villainous looking denizens of the deep looked even bigger! And when seen are through a dive mask by someone who never saw a barracuda underwater before they looked even BIGGER.  The three or four cudas that had come by, no doubt simply to satisfy their curiosity, became a giant school of potential attackers. Needless to say I, and my equally unsophisticated partners were chased out of the water and back aboard the boat.

I didn’t go back to dive that cove for many years and when I did, I could no longer find the wreck.

Now, of course, I now know that I was never in any real danger from the barracudas, (Read my barracuda blog entry)

Nonetheless, I, to this day, I can’t seem to completely get rid of that feeling of menace brought about by the barracudas of Great Thatch. Moreover, it seems that this unexplainable, in the sunshine of logic, trepidation that I have about Great Thatch barracuda is shared to some extent by two friends of mine who are both experienced spear fishermen and who I respect for their confidence and abilities in the underwater realm. These two guys, Ed Gibney and Paul Schneider, aren’t even afraid of sharks and they will even dispute ownership of a speared fish with a hungry predator – up to a point, that is.

When relating the incident to Ed, he remarked that the barracudas in that particular bay were unusually large and quite plentiful and that at times they made him feel uneasy. My friend, Paul, who often kayaks and dives with Ed, said basically the same thing and admitted that there is something ominous about those big barracudas that almost always meets when diving that particular reef.

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St. John Virgin Islands Memories: Voyage to Anegada

When I first arrived in the Virgin islands some 40 years ago, I lived on St. Thomas. I had just graduated SUNY at Buffalo with a degree in psychology, something which I had no intention of ever using professionally. Not to mention that I had had more than enough of four years of Buffalo winters.

I had put together a few bucks and upon arriving in the islands, I purchased a very old black Mercedes Benz with a four speed shift on the steering column and  running boards like you’d see in old gangster movies. More importantly, I acquired a 16-foot fiberglass runabout powered by a Johnson 35 hp engine that left a little to be desired as a smooth running engine, but sufficed to begin an exploration of the marine world around St. Thomas.

One day on the St. Thomas waterfront I met an interesting guy, a little bit older than I, whose 30 foot wooden sloop was tied up next to my little boat. He lived on St. John and was the part time captain of the St. John Express, the ferry that ran between Red Hook on St. Thomas and Cruz Bay on St. John. He had been married to a local St. Johnian woman from the Marsh family, but was separated. His name was Eddie Johnson and he was,as I was soon to learn, like many St. John expatriates, myself included, a little crazy.

Now you have to realize that I was a boy who came out of Yonkers, New York. I had grown up around small boats, which my family kept on City island in the Bronx, New York, but I really knew next to nothing about life in the Caribbean as opposed to Eddie, a hundred ton Captain and a sailboat owner.

Eddie took me aboard his boat and we began a long conversation about who we were and where we came from. In the course of our conversation, Eddie confided that he had an idea to make some good money, which he shared with me.

It went like this. He would sail his boat to Anegada and anchor it in the Anegada Horseshoe Reef, which is the largest barrier reef in the Caribbean. He would then set fish pots, fish with line and dive for conch and lobsters. I would go back and forth between Anegada and St. Thomas to sell the catch.

It sounded like a good idea, although I now see the obvious flaws and omissions, like getting licenses and permission to fish British Virgin Islands waters or the utter unsuitability of my 16-foot runabout to make the 70 mile generally rough water voyage on a regular basis, but what did I know, I had to defer to Eddie’s experience.

The plan was this. Eddie and I would make an exploratory trip to Anegada on my boat and we’d check out the situation. We filled up my six gallon tank, brought along a five gallon Jerry Jug of gas, some water, some food, and headed out to Anegada at about 3:00 in the afternoon. (Another mistake, we really should have left earlier, but arriving at late afternoon when you couldn’t see the reef so well or worse yet at night; that didn’t bother Eddie.

We set out from Charlotte Amalie, and proceeded east along the south shore of St. Thomas. The seas were rough. The boat was small. The engine was, shall we say. temperamental.

We crossed Pillsbury Sound and ran north of St. John. When we neared the BVI we didn’t bother to check in.

“No need,” said Eddie.

There are two general ways of getting to Anegada. One is to stay within the archepelago, making your way to North Sound on Virgin Gorda and then heading due north to Anegada. Longer, but generally calmer seas and the advantage of a shorter haul to Anegada, which unlike the rest of the Virgins is flat and can’t be seen from very far away. The other option is the direct route, shorter rougher and scarier, in that you just headed out to the open sea carrying you pretty far north of the rest of the islands, and with no view of your destination until you just a few miles away.

I’ve done both these routes now, and I realize that neither one is so hard, but it would have been nice if we at least had a compass.

With Jost behind us and Tortola on our left, looking pretty far away, we headed upwind into the choppy seas, which sent spray over the bow soaking us with just about every wave. It was clod and we took turns at the wheel. One drove while the other lay down on the deck covered by a tarp to keep fairly dry and fairly warm.

A school of dolphins played in our wake, until I stopped to see them better, offering them some of our canned sardines. this must have pissed them off because they swam over to the oily canned fish, disdainfully pushed them away with their noses, turned around, swam off and didn’t return to play in our wake.

I was starting to get worried. The sun was setting. No Anegada in sight. The engine was stating to sputter. “Errrr putt, putt, putt, putt, Errrr,” it sounded, threatening, it seemed to want cut out entirely leaving us adrift out here so far from dry land. I was wet and cold.

I expressed my concerns to Eddie.

“Almost there,” he said, “don’t worry.”

But I did worry. Doubts about Eddie’s sanity assailed my thoughts. Thinking it through, I told myself that the cutoff for me would be when our fuel was half gone. If we couldn’t see Anegada up ahead at that point, I was calling it quits.

And so it came to pass, half way on the gas. No land in sight.

“Eddie, that’s it, I’m turning around, I said.

“just a little more, said Eddie, “We’re almost there.”

In retrospect, he was probably right, but I had had enough. It was getting dark. There was no destination in sight, and the consequences of Eddie being wrong seemed too dire.

“No that’s it for me, Eddie, I’m turning around,” and this time, I was adamant.

When I took the wheel and actually turned around, Eddie copped an attitude. He proceeded to lay down on the deck, pulling the tarp over his head, absolutely refusing to speak to me.

“What do I do now?” I asked, “Where should I be headed? It’s getting dark.”

No answer, he just lay there with the tarp pulled over his head.

So there I was, basically on my own, sun setting, the nearest land, which I now know to be Tortola, looking small in the distance, no local knowledge and never having navigated at night before in my life.

I made a beeline for the island. It was easier going down wind, the spray was not nearly as bad.

It got dark, I could no longer see the islands. This was 1969. There were hardly any lights, but when I saw what seemed to be the nearest one, I went for for it.

Eddie continued sulking under the tarp.

I finally made it to the light, which turned out to be on Caret Bay on Tortola’s north coast. It was a bay full of reefs.

Luck was with me that night. it was summer, there were no ground seas, and like Mr. Magoo, I motored safely right into the bay totally oblivious to the dangers on every side and just inches below us.

Near shore. I dropped anchor. Exhausted, I fell asleep within minutes, I fell asleep wrestling a piece of the tarp away from Eddie.

Morning came, roosters cock a doodle do’ d. I could see the little settlement with some activity beginning in the soft light of the early Caribbean morning.

I checked out our gas supply. Very, very low. We needed gas.

Eddie woke up. His attitude had improved. He was talking to me again.Friends once more.

When I saw the coral all around us, I was utterly astonished that we had gotten so far inshore, in the dark, without hitting anything, We went ashore and found an old man walking by the rocks on the shore.

“Morning,” he called out to us.

“Morning sir,” we answered.

We asked him were we could get gas.

“Roadtown,” he answered.

“Too far” we said. No where closer.

Eddie said we could get gas in Cruz Bay, but we were really low and he didn’t think we’d make it.

After a while the man called to us.

“Wait,” he said, “I’ll be back shortly.”

Some fifteen minutes later, he returned with a Clorox bottle filled with gasoline. It would easily get us to Cruz Bay, where, Eddie, knew just about everybody, and we could get gas enough to get us back to St. Thomas.

We paid the man for the gas, thanked him profusely and pulled anchor, wove through the maze of coral heads and headed for Cruz Bay. Passing through the Narrows between St. John and Great Thatch, the engine really started to sputter, cutting out at times and becoming more and more difficult to start up again, but never totally giving up the ghost.

About a half hour of this drama and we limped into Cruz Bay for gas and repairs.

The outboard mechanic on St. John in those days was a Trinidadian named Frank Estwick, who was later to become a close friend. Frank got us going, using a hammer to pop off the power head and putting the engine back into some kind of reasonable shape, hardly charging us anything.

We had breakfast at Oscar’s (James) Beanery.

It was my first trip to St. John. the island was so peaceful. The people were so nice. I knew I would have to come back and spend more time there.

Eddie and I returned to St. Thomas. We became better friends. He showed me around.  He took me to Lovango Cay, where I met Rudy de Windt and his wife, who, when their child became very ill from exposure to sand flies, moved offshore to Lovango, where, for some reason, there weren’t any.

We went to Jost Van Dyke. Met Foxy, Albert Chinnery, Ethein Chinnery and some of the other residents. We explored St. John, dove lobsters and conch, speared fish and cooked them on a coal pot.

It was a different world back then, for better or for worse.

On one hand, services were poor. Electricity and communications were sketchy. Pickings at the small shops were slim, and you really had to learn how to improvise to get even simple things done.

On the other hand, life was slow and easy. People were friendly and helpful, the corals were healthy, the fish and lobsters and conch were plentiful.

St. John has changed considerably since then, but still maintains, at least for those that seek it out, some of that old time charm

Ah, nostalgia. “The good ol’ days!


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St. John Stories: Dr. Loveless

By John Gibney
In ninth grade, one of my schoolmates, we called Dr. Loveless. His real name was Alvin. He was slick. Slicker than a conger eel slipping through the chickenwire mesh of a fishpot. Conger will send the bait back up to slide through the mesh and escape. If you hook him, he will climb your fishing line and put it in a tangle. If you spear him, he will make your steel spear like a boiled spaghetti noodle.

Dr. Loveless was a charmer alright. Bright-eyed and little escaped his gaze.

One afternoon in February after school, “Gibney, could you help me?”

I asked him, “What Loveless?”

He handed me a hastily typed script. It was well written, asking for a cash donation for the Boy Scouts of America. It was signed and sealed with an official looking seal.

He said Gibney, Susstain Smith and I are going to Caneel Bay to ask for donations for the Boy Scouts. Could you come?”

He said, “Please.” And I had to water my horses anyway.

As we reached the big tamarind tree where Rollie and I had caught “the ghost,” he reached in his schoolbag and took out two Boy Scouts of America uniforms with badges and neckties and hats to match. He handed me to Susstain0 and stripped to his drawers. In no time, the two of them were as preened and straight as arrows. He was- prepared.

We ate some tamarind and then he said, “Gibney, come.”

We walked around the hill where the white employees lived. This was still Caneel Bay Plantation or as the George Harrison song went, “crackerbox palace”.

The native employees lived in the “village” on the other side of the ghut, a part-time riverbed.

Most of the employees were from Tortola and only stayed at Caneel Bay Plantation Monday through Friday.

They had a fleet of beautiful Tortola hand built wooden boats with Johnson forty horsepower “sea horse” motors. Six am Monday morning, they would pull them up on rollers at Caneel Bay’s Hawksnest- “sheep dock” beach to us then. It was only bush and guinea grass.

Past the tennis courts we walked, right to cottage Number 7, Laurance Rockefeller’s own luxury home. A knock at the door, “Gibney, so you white?” I had no fear. This is where Henry Kissenger and all the Nixon clan stayed. I saluted. My sidekicks clicked their heels. The green bills began to bulge in Loveless’ bookbag.

“If you are a Boy Scout, where is your uniform?”

“Oh, I fell in the mud,” I replied, handing the stern man the prepared solicitation papers.

“It’s okay honey,” the old geezer told his bathrobed wife, “it’s just the Boy Scouts.”

What a haul we pulled in that day. The green bills with Benny Franklin, George, Andrew and Thomas Jefferson faces on them were stacked under the tamarind tree.

Loveless kept most of the hundreds, but generously passed out the fifties and twenties to Susstain and I.

They stripped to their drawers and back into the school uniforms. Conger went home fat. Loveless went into politics and has gone far.

My horses got Purina horse chow and *******it was dry season.

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Coral Bay, St. John Stories: Miss Anesta and Tony Sewer

Shipwreck Landing
One of the places I lived during the St. John, when I first arrived there in the early 1970s was an apartment on the property which is now known as Shipwreck Landing. he owners at the time were Tony and Anesta Sewer.

There used to be a gas station there, St. John’s first, I believe, but it was closed before I got there. Tony still ran a small general store there, but it was hardly ever stocked with anything.

Tony and Anesta were an unlikely couple. Tony was a hard drinking, retired sailor, who had been all over the place during his days at sea. Miss Anesta was a quiet, polite and hard working woman and a devout church goer.

Their nephew, Dennis Whitehead, lived in the main house with the Sewers and helped them a great deal. The venerable old fisherman, Walter Dalmida, also lived on the property in a tiny apartment .

Miss Anesta had a wonderful fenced-in flower garden, and all over the property, she had planted and tended to a variety of fruit trees, coconuts, papayas, sugar apples and soursops. Tony had single a pig and a small herd of fine sheep. By the time I moved on, there were no more animals there.

The pig
I remember the pig very well because he really had a bad smell. I know pigs aren’t supposed to smell like perfume, but I mean this pig really stank. I would get a whiff of his particularly foul oder every time he would pass by an open window. Stinky pig!

In late December of that year, I noticed that the bad smell that was a daily experience just stopped, went away. Shortly after this realization, Dennis invited me for dinner. I put two and two together and declined.

The sheep
That spring, Miss Anesta left island. If memory serves me well, she went to Europe. While she was gone, Mr. Tony took advantage of her absence to increase his alcohol intake, which was normally quite high, the result of which was that he became somewhat careless. And in that carelessness, he neglected to keep the sheep out of Miss Anesta’s flower garden.

Miss Anesta returned to a completely ruined garden. I don’t believe she so much as mentioned a word about it, but, the next day a large flat bed truck arrived to the house. Neither Tony nor Miss Anesta were anywhere to be seen. The driver methodically rounded up every last sheep and loaded them aboard the truck. When his work was done, he got into the truck and drove off. As far as I know the sheep were never replaced.

Don’t smoke in bed
“Don’t smoke in bed, ” is very good advice. Even better is, “don’t smoke at all,” but back then I did both and one night I dozed off with a lit cigarette and the bedding caught fire. It didn’t actually go up in flames, it sort of smoldered, but it didn’t go out easily, even after pouring glasses of water on it.

There was a hose outside, so I decided to haul the bedding outside and squirt it with the hose. Unfortunately on the porch were cans of fiberglass resin and other flammable stuff, I kept for my boat. These did go up in flames. It was fairly dramatic, but we were able to extinguish the fire before too much damage was done.

While we were cleaning up Mr. Tony came out of the house, shouting, “Dennis, get my gun!” He was angry with me, justifiably so, but the gun was a little extreme.

Luckily Dennis was not blindly obedient and he relied, “No uncle Tony.”

“Get my gun!” Tony demanded again

“No, Uncle Tony,” Dennis pleaded.

Realizing, finally that the situation was not as bad as it may have seemed, Tony relented. He gave up the idea of shooting me and instead returned to bed. By the next morning, everything was cleaned up and all forgiven.

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The Day President Nixon Helped the Hippies on St. John

by Gerald Singer
One day back in what some refer to as the “good ol’ days” on St. John back in the 1970s. Our little gang happened to be walking past Caneel Bay. In those days it was called the Caneel Bay Plantation, changed now due to the negative political and social connotations of the word “plantation.”

(Rumor has it that the new designation,”Resort,” may have negative implications in today’s rough economic climate with the word, “Hotel,” having a less expensive connotation.

With us that day was Trinidad Charlie. Charlie had come to St. John around the same time as I did, in the late 1960s, me from America, Charlie from Trinidad. Charlie had a new girlfriend at the time who was shortly thereafter to become his wife, in a memorable ceremony including a traditional native style pig roast on Little Hawksnest Beach. Her name was Cathy Hartford.

Anyway, as we were passing Caneel Bay, we just happened to be bemoaning the state of our finances, which better put, were practically no finances at all, when Cathy spoke up and said, “I can get us some money. Nixon is staying right here at the hotel and he’s a good friend of my father’s. I can ask him for some money.”

Cathy’s father was the multi millionaire, Huntington Hartford.

President Nixon, was in fact on the island at the time and was staying at Caneel Bay, as did, and still do, many other giants of politics, industry and entertainment.

Well you can imagine our skepticism. Like, “yeah sure, Cathy.”

“No it’s true, I can do it,” Cathy maintained.

She then walked over to the guard at the gate and spoke with him. The guard picked up his radio and we all stood there wondering. Next an employee of the Plantation picked up Cathy in a Caneel Bay golf cart and they took off down the driveway.

We still couldn’t believe it, but it was getting interesting. About fifteen minutes passed and Kathy returned on the golf cart. She was smiling and holding a one hundred dollar bill!

Trinidad Charlie still lives on St. John where he makes Trindad Charlie’s Hot Sauce, which if you haven’t tried, you really should.

More of a condiment than a hot sauce, Charlie makes liberal use of the Indian and Caribbean spices and tastes of multi-ethnic Trinidad where he grew up. The mildly “hot” hot sauce is used by the top chefs in several of the finest restaurants on St. John. It goes good with just about everything, meats, fish vegetables, rice – I use it on pancakes.

Trinidad Charlie mentioned in a new Kenny Chesney song:
Nowhere to go and nowhere to be,
“Trinidad Charlie” on a stool next to me,
Readin’ his book ’bout the “haves” and “have-nots,”
In between chapters we take another shot.And one by one we slide from reality,
With nowhere to go, and nowhere to be…Kenny Chesney

Read Kenny Chesney Interview in Caribbean Travel & Life

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Virgin Islands Stories: Art & Janis

Art and Janis

By Bob Tis
© 2000
Excerpted from Tales of St. John and the Caribbean

Art the Painter
Art the Painter

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 barstool 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.

© 2000 Bob Tis

Bob Tis is also the author of Down Island

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