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
by Steve Simon
How many times a day do you wave at a passing car? How often do you wave at someone you really don’t know?
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 US 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
All You Can Eat (A Buffalo Story)
By Gerald Singer
Buffalo, New York is also called the Queen City. What this means is that Buffalo takes second place to New York City, the undisputed king of the Empire State. Buffalo has always had an inferiority complex about this detail, and in the 1960s the citizens of the Queen City seemed to enjoy taking out their feelings of low self esteem on the “think they’re better than everyone else, commie, pinko, atheist” university students from “New Yawk”, or so it appeared to me in the fall of 1964 when I attended the State University of New York at Buffalo.
The students at the university, many of whom survived on a limited budget, were constantly on the lookout for cheap places to eat. When my friend, Danny, discovered that the local Howard Johnson’s was offering an attractively priced special, he rounded up three of his cronies, (Shep Gordon, Danny Smollen and Paul Solomon) all students from the greater New York area, to join him in this unique dining experience. The sign outside the Howard Johnson’s proudly announced “All the Spaghetti You Can Eat”.
The four young men entered the restaurant and were seated at their table. They all ordered the “Spaghetti Special”. Four plates of spaghetti were soon brought out of the kitchen along with small salads and slices of Italian bread. The starving students made short work of the meal and, still hungry, they ordered the next helping.
This time they waited a little longer and when the spaghetti arrived, it was not the large portion served on a dinner plate as before, but a much smaller serving, placed quite unattractively on a pie plate without the accompaniment of salad or bread. The diners began to suspect that the proclaimed “All The Spaghetti That You Can Eat” was not all that it was cracked up to be.
After making short work of the second serving, an order was promptly placed for a third helping. The waitress answered their request with a terse “One moment please”. She walked over to a man with a jacket and tie who was standing near the kitchen. Some words were exchanged and she returned to the table. “I’m sorry” she said “but you can’t have any more spaghetti.”
Danny came from the Bronx near Yankee Stadium. He went to the High School of Music and Arts, and was interested in music and politics. He was the freshman class president, and in the fall of 1964 he was on the student senate and was running for president of the student body.
Danny had a keen, but extremely naive, sense of fair play. He believed in the democratic system, the United States Constitution, and the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He saw America, even with its flaws, as the champion of those ideals. Hating to see injustices of any kind he was ready to stand up for his rights and the rights of others; and at that moment he was ready to stand up for his and his companion’s unalienable right – to eat more spaghetti.
“That’s impossible.” Danny replied to the waitress, “The sign plainly says ‘all the spaghetti you can eat’ and we can eat more, and we want more – spaghetti!
“I’m sorry,” said the waitress, “you can’t have anymore – and here’s your bill.”
“Then I demand to speak to the manager” countered Danny.
The waitress walked away toward the suit and tie man who then came over to speak to the indignant college student.
“Can I help you?” he said.
Danny explained the situation to the manager. “We ordered the spaghetti special which plainly says, both on the menu and on the sign outside, ‘All the spaghetti you can eat’ and we would like to eat some more please.”
“I’m sorry,” said the manager, “but you can’t have anymore.”
“What” sputtered Danny, “But the sign says…”
“Within reason” said the manager, “All the spaghetti you can eat within reason”.
Danny snapped back, “The sign doesn’t say within reason it says all the…”
“That will be enough”, interrupted the manager, “please pay your bill and leave.”
“Pay the bill; pay the bill!” We’re not paying the bill, and we’re not leaving until we get our spaghetti” said Danny defiantly.
“Pay the bill and get out or I’m calling the police” the manager threatened.
“Good call the police” Danny replied smugly, “You are guilty of false advertising and we’re prepared to file a complaint against you and your establishment.”
“Pay the bill and get out!” repeated the exasperated manager; “I’m warning you I’ll call the police!”
“Go ahead,” said Danny, “I would love to talk to them.”
The manager walked angrily away and called the police.
About fifteen minutes later a Buffalo Police Department squad car pulled in front of the Howard Johnson’s and two officers swaggered inside. They walked right past the college students and proceeded to the back of the restaurant where they began a conversation with the manager. They then proceeded to the table where Danny and his friends were sitting.
“I’m really glad to see you, officers.” said Danny, who was the official spokesperson for the group, “We’re the victims of false advertising! As you see the sign there plainly says…”
With that the burly cop reached over, grabbed the 120-pound Danny by the neck, pulled him out of his chair, threw him to the floor and handcuffed him.
“You’re all under arrest!” the officer proclaimed, “Get up!” he said to the others, and they too were handcuffed.
“But officers” Danny pleaded, we’re the victims here not the criminals. The sign says ‘all the spaghetti you can eat!”
“I thought I told you to shut the hell up!” the policeman shouted while giving Danny a kick in the buttocks for added emphasis.
The students were taken to the station where they were processed and booked.
Danny, however, knew his rights as well as any American brought up watching movies and television. He knew that he had the right to make one phone call, and he had the right to talk to a lawyer.
“I demand my right to make one phone call, and I demand my right to talk to a lawyer!” said Danny.
“Shut up!” said the officer.
Danny, the troublemaker, was separated from his friends and put in his own cell; one far away enough that the officer’s on duty could more easily ignore his cries of “I demand my right to make one phone call, and I demand my right to talk to a lawyer!”
Danny was not to be put off so easily. He knew his rights, and he knew what to do when there was blatant disregard for due process of law and obvious abuse of power.
This situation called for a protest demonstration!
The police had thrown Danny into his cell without thoroughly searching him. This oversight left Danny with the means for his protest demonstration. Danny was still in possession of a book of matches – which he used to set the bed sheets on fire.
This act of defiance did earn Danny the right to see a lawyer; something he needed more than ever now, as the police had charged him with just about every crime that they could think of. He also earned the right to stay in jail after his companions were released without bail and allowed to go home.
Some weeks, and a good deal of legal fees later, the charges against Danny and friends were dismissed with the stipulation that Danny pay back the city of Buffalo for the sheets that he had destroyed. Howard Johnson’s was apparently allowed to continue their policy of “all the spaghetti you can eat – within reason.”
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:
The Club 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.”
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
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.
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 Sonia Sprauve 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 fishing.
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 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 Christine.
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?
The San Blas Islands are located in the southern Caribbean just off the northern coast of the Republic of Panama. They are inhabited by indigenous people who call themselves the Cuna.
For many centuries the Cuna lived along the rivers on the mainland. European invaders from Spain arrived into Cuna territory in 1500. Thousands of Cuna were murdered or enslaved. Countless others lost their lives to diseases brought from Europe from which they had no immunity. In an effort to escape this persecution the Cuna migrated to the small islands of the San Blas and continued their resistance to the Spanish on both military and political fronts.
The Cuna took advantage of the rivalries between European powers. When the English challenged the Spanish in the Caribbean, the Cuna supported the English. When the North Americans instigated the separation of Panama from Colombia, the Cuna supported Panama. When the Panamanians resisted the North Americans, the Cuna supported the North Americans.
In 1925 the Cuna rebelled against Panamanian rule and in 1938 they were finally granted the right to police and govern their own territory called the Comarca de Kuna Yala, which, although technically part of the Republic of Panama, is in practice it’s own separate country.
The tendency for the Cunas to be hostile to Spanish speakers and friendly toward English speakers has continued into modern times, and many Cuna have taken temporary jobs on United States military bases in Panama.
It was on these bases that the Cuna learned the love of the North American sport of basketball.
The Cuna tend to be much shorter than North Americans are, especially those North Americans who like to play basketball. In spite of this handicap the Cuna have proved to be excellent basketball players and can hold their own on the courts even in the face of extremely fierce competition.
The San Blas Islands, although numerous, are extremely small. Some of the islands are entirely devoted to the cultivation of coconut palms while other islands serve as the location for the Cuna villages. As the population grew many of these islands became almost completely covered by the small, simple dwellings of the villagers. This presented a problem to the Cuna, who upon returning to their homes, wanted to continue their pursuit of basketball. There was simply no more room to put a basketball court.
The Cuna, who had solved greater problems than this, soon came up with the obvious solution…make the island bigger.
The plan was to fill in a shallow coastal area of the island with rocks and then cover that in concrete.
Needless to say this would not be an easy task. The islands were flat and already covered with either huts or coconut palms. Rocks would have to be brought from the mainland some five miles away.
The primary means of transportation for the Cuna is by canoes dug out of large trees called chalupas. They are powered either by paddle, small outboard engines or sail. Their rounded bottom makes them rather unstable and great skill is required to navigate them even in the calmest of seas.
The rocks would have to be hand gathered on the mainland, loaded on to the chalupas in quantities small enough as to allow a marginally safe crossing, and unloaded at the future basketball court site. As vast quantities of stones would be needed, this would be a monumental task. Where would this intense amount of labor come from?
The problem was approached in typical Cuna fashion.
Many cultures throughout the world have established laws, rules and regulations that are routinely disobeyed. The Cuna had such a law. Unmarried people of the opposite sex were forbidden to have any contact whatsoever. Notwithstanding Cuna teenagers would secretly meet their sweethearts after dark in prearranged locations. Actually it was not so secret, for the parents and elders of the village had broken the same law, in the same places and in the same manner.
The proponents of the basketball court construction decided that it was now time for strict law enforcement. The Cunas called a congreso, a meeting of the adult males of the village for the purpose of making decisions effecting communal activities. A strict punishment was to be meted out to those teenagers caught violating the letter of the law. For the first offense, one chalupa load of rocks had to be brought to the basketball site, for the second offense, two chalupa loads needed to be brought to the site, and so on.
The villagers were extremely diligent in apprehending any lawbreakers and in less than one year a somewhat larger Caribbean Island sported a beautiful brand new basketball court.
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 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.
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
In the sixteenth century, a colleague of Galileo, Giovanni Battista Porta, documented the effects of datura, a bush St. Johnians sometimes call joy juice. In 1589 he wrote that under the influence of datura “a man could sometimes be changed into a fish.”
Backing up Porta’s observations in the sixteenth century is the twentieth century account of John Gibney who told me the following:
It was in West End, Tortola in the early 70s and John was visiting a friend who had a small house right on the water at Sopers Hole.
Also present were a man and a young lady from the US mainland, who could be described by the standards of that era as hippies.
The mainlanders had heard about joy juice and were eager to experiment. John tried, in vain, to dissuade them. He knew that joy juice, contrary to its name, produces effects that are anything but joyful.
Nonetheless, a tea was prepared and consumed. The young lady being more adventurous drank a significantly greater quantity than her gentleman companion.
It was a dark moon night and John went outside. He was standing on the small dock, when the young lady, pupils wildly dilated and obviously firmly in the grips of the hallucinogenic drug, ran out on the dock, dove into the dark water and disappeared.
John, concerned for the lady’s safety, called out, and received no answer. He ran inside to get a flashlight and to ask for help from the owner of the house, who, like John, was intelligent enough to pass on the invitation to imbibe the toxic tea.
They grabbed a powerful searchlight and ran out to the dock. They again called out the young lady’s name, and still received no answer. Shining the light in all directions, they made a thorough but unsuccessful search of the area.
About ten minutes passed. Frantic by this time, the searchers were about to get in the dinghy and look further afield. Just then, the missing woman emerged from the bay, exactly at the spot where she had dived in.
She climbed up on the dock, eyes still wild and stared off into space. Seaweed hung down from the top of her head and down over her face, creating an eerie spectacle.
“What happened? Where were you?” John asked.
“Swimming with the fish,” she replied.
John remains convinced to this day that the young lady never surfaced for air, that she could not have held her breath or survived for that long underwater and that she had actually become a fish, taking on that species’ ability to breathe in water.
The belief that human beings can be transformed into animals is a common theme among different cultures throughout the world. There is a strong correlation between many of these beliefs and joy juice, a bush that is commonly found growing wild in many places on St. John.
Joy juice, also known as datura, jimsenweed, and devil’s weed, contains powerful psychoactive alkaloids that can produce hallucinations and delusions indistinguishable from reality, one of which is the delusion of taking the form of some kind of animal.
In 1589, a colleague of Galileo, Giovanni Battista Porta, took part in a study of witchcraft and other controversial religious rituals. He wrote that under the effects of a “magic salve” made of datura and other so-called hexing plants, people dressed themselves in wolf skins and went running about on all fours, howling at the full moon. In all likelihood, rituals such as these led to the belief in werewolves, people who would change into wolves on the night of the full moon. In those days, this belief was so prevalent that during the sixteenth century in Europe over 50,000 people were brought to trial accused of the crime of lycanthropy (being a werewolf.)
The nahaul of Mexico is another example. In rituals that predated Columbus and the European conquest of Mexico, sorcerers used ointments and potions made of datura to become a nahaul, an ancient and dreaded being that possessed the ability to change into a wolf, coyote or other animal. Belief in the nahaul and the use of datura, peyote and other hallucinogenic herbs by brujos or sorcerers persists in Mexico to this very day.
In the 1960s Carlos Casteñeda, who apprenticed with the Yaqui brujo, Don Juan, in Mexico also wrote that datura could be used to transform people into animals and that his teacher, Don Juan, had used datura in his younger days to become a crow, thus enabling him to spy on his enemies.
Similarly, in the Peruvian Amazon, shamans and sorcerers use a datura concoction comparable to the magic salve of Europe to change themselves into jungle animals such as jaguars, tigers and snakes. And in the Brazilian Amazon, an American film crew documented a ritual in which two Amazonian tribesmen, being initiated as shamans, were given a potion containing datura and other psychoactive herbs.
After ingesting the potion one of the initiates became an otter. Crawling about face low to the ground, he made his way to a nearby stream. In a lightning quick motion, he stuck his head into the water and emerged with a fish, which he had caught in otter-like fashion using only his teeth.
The other tribesman became a wild boar. He too went about on all fours and when he came upon a yucca plant, he dug into the dirt with his hands and teeth, exposed the root, and ate it. Although yucca is a common and harmless food for both boars and humans, it is highly poisonous to people if eaten raw. But the man, in his wild boar incarnation experienced no ill effects from the poisonous root. Before he was returned to his human incarnation, however, the shaman, who acted as the spiritual guide during the ritual, carefully cleaned out the initiate’s mouth and teeth in order to insure that no remnants of the poison would be present when the animal once again became human.
To those who are tempted to experiment with this plant I offer the following warning: Datura or joy juice is highly poisonous. It can kill or cause permanent brain damage, even in relatively low doses.
As they say on TV: “Do not try this at home!”
By Gerald Singer
There is a strong connection between joy juice and the familiar fairy tale image of a cackling witch in a black dress and pointed hat, stirring a bubbling cauldron and then flying off into the night sky, riding on a broomstick. Joy juice, whose botanical name is datura, is found in many parts of the world including St. John, where it grows wild in disturbed soil, on beaches and along roadsides.
Witches are commonly believed to be worshipers or followers of the Devil. This is not correct. They are in fact practitioners of an ancient religion that predates Christianity in Europe. It was a matriarchal religion based on the Earth, the cycles of the sun, the moon and the stars, the weather and on the nature of plants and animals.
With the establishment of Christianity in Europe, followers of this religion were declared heretics and Satan worshippers. They were persecuted, harassed, and sometimes tortured and burned alive for their beliefs. As such, they separated themselves from ordinary society and usually practiced their rituals and occult arts in secret.
The priests and priestesses of this religion, like the shamans of the Americas, often used psychoactive plants to search for inner wisdom, to divine the future or to find answers to life’s riddles and questions.
One of the hallucinogenic potions used by the so-called witches was a concoction called the flying ointment. It was a brew made from the so-called “hexing herbs,” one of which was joy juice or datura. Other hexing herbs included belladonna, mandrake, henbane and hemlock. Opium was also said to be included in the concoction.
The ingredients were boiled down in fat. It is very likely that the familiar cauldron from the witch image was used for the boiling process and also that the witch used a handy item such as her broomstick to stir the bubbling brew. Opponents of witchcraft have alleged that the fat used in the cauldron was that of an unbabtized stillborn child, but it is much more likely that lard or other animal fat was used for this purpose.
Joy juice or datura contains chemicals that are extremely toxic and dangerous. In non-lethal doses, however, they cause amnesia, delirium, delusions and hallucinations. Datura intoxication is such that the user characteristically does not remember taking a drug and finds it impossible to distinguish hallucination and delusion from reality. Thus the witch applying the flying ointment would truly believe that she was flying and experience the episode in minute detail.
In the 16th Century, Giovanni Porta, a colleague of Galileo, was witness to and documented the ritual, “…she stripped off all her rags and rubbed herself very thoroughly and heartily with some ointment (she was visible to us through the cracks of the door). Then she sank down form the force of the soporific juices and fell into a deep sleep. We then opened the doors and gave her quite a flogging; the force of her stupor was so great that it had taken away her senses. We returned to our place outside. Then the powers of the drug grew weak and feeble and she, called from her sleep, began to babble that she had crossed seas and mountains to fetch these false answers. We denied; she insisted; we showed her the black-and-blue marks; she insisted more tenaciously than before.”
The witches had discovered that the potion was less toxic if absorbed through the skin then if ingested orally, thus the use of a salve instead of a tea. According to popular lore and to the documented testimony of both witnesses to the ritual and of witches themselves, the same broomstick that was used for stirring was also used to apply the flying ointment to the mucous membranes of the vagina, where it would be readily absorbed.
All this, the poisonous hallucinogenic herbs, bubbling cauldrons in secret places, tales of human beings flying like birds, and broomsticks used in unorthodox ways, must certainly have aroused the prurient interest of the public, creating powerful and indelible images.
To this very day in Europe or the Americas, that image of the old witch soaring through the heavens aboard her trusty broom has remained and become a veritable cultural icon.
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 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.
Description of St. John in 1967
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
Notes: 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.
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.
East End, St John Virgin Islands
By Gerald Singer
The 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
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 years old.
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 was there.
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 persons who 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.
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
The Great Hot Pepper Sauce Chug-a-Lug Contest
By Gerald Singer
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.”
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 back.
“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 Bonecrusher Smith.
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.
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 turtle’s shell is made from coconut (sometimes I-Tal uses calabash) The turtle’s head is made from the seed of the eggfruit.
The shak-shak comes from the seedpod of the flamboyant tree and can be used as a musical instrument.
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.
In Equatorial Guinea where it also appears on the flag.
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.
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
Ingredients: · 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.)
Directions: 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.”
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 unsuspecting husband.
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 and burned.
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.
By John Gibney
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
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.
A Pig Tale
Recently, the people of a small village in Dominica mourned the passing of an old man who was renowned in his younger days for being one of the best hunters on that Caribbean island. He was also the only person in his village to ever have been interviewed for a live radio broadcast, the subject of which was his incredible ordeal of survival.
He was one of the strongest men in the village, and by far the best hunter of wild boars. He would often venture into the most isolated and remote areas of the forest, armed with just a machete and some rope and accompanied only by his pack of expertly-trained hunting dogs. He was known to have single-handedly carried pigs weighing over two hundred pounds through miles of jungle slung over his powerful shoulders.
Early one morning as he was preparing to leave on a hunt he came upon another hunter who warned him of the presence of an especially large and dangerous boar that had been seen high up in one of the valleys of Morne aux Diables. It had already killed one dog and had left clear marks on several trees bearing testament to its height and great size. “Don’t go after this one alone,” he was cautioned, “especially without a gun.”
Taking heed of the warning, he decided to stay away from the higher elevations where the pig had been known to frequent. As had always been his custom, however, he went alone, save for his five dogs, and, as always, without a firearm. Entering the valley at the base of the looming Morne aux Diables, which in English means Devil’s Mountain, he stayed low, following the course of a river that meandered through the forest.
He had been walking over two hours before his dogs caught the scent of a wild boar. He untied the dogs and watched as they bounded up the steep bluff on the side of the river and into the forest of giant tropical trees. Within minutes he heard an ungodly howling and the anguished yelping of his dogs. He climbed up the bluff to learn the cause of the awful commotion. What he saw made his blood freeze.
Scattered about were the bloody, lifeless bodies of four of his prized animals. The fifth dog, still young and not as well trained as the others, was running toward him, being chased by the biggest boar that he had ever seen in his life. Suddenly, the enraged boar, maddened with blood lust, turned his attention away from the fleeing dog, looked directly into the hunter’s eyes, and as if recognizing that this was the real enemy, lowered his mighty neck and charged. Realizing that it was hopeless to flee and impossible to climb any of the massive trees nearby, the man drew his machete from its sheath and watched as the giant bore down upon him. The hunter lashed out with a powerful blow of his machete, but the pig was too fast. Somehow, without seriously harming the boar, the machete was deflected and sent flying off into the bush. Moments later the boar was upon the defenseless man, slicing at him with its razor-sharp tusks.
The hunter defended himself however he could, punching, grabbing, kicking and praying, but as strong as he was, he was no match at all for the great beast. Just when all hope seemed lost the pig, blind with rage, bolted to the edge of the bluff. Using every ounce of his uncommon strength, the hunter shoved the boar over the brink and man and beast tumbled down the precipice and into the river.
The tide had turned. Pigs are not good swimmers and their short front legs, ideal for rooting about in the ground, are a liability when trying to stay afloat in the water. Now the man regained the advantage in this life and death struggle. The hunter pushed the boar under the water, embracing his enemy in a death grip as it desperately struggled to raise its head above the surface.
The battle ended in less than five minutes and the man emerged victorious. He was alive, but barely so. Three of the fingers on his right hand had been cut off and one foot was mangled so severely that two toes eventually had to be amputated. He had been gored in the face, leaving a jagged scar that was to stay with him for the rest of his life and was bleeding from tusk wounds in his chest, leg and back. Using water from the river to cleanse his wounds and his shredded clothing to slow the loss of blood, he bandaged himself as best he could and began the long walk back to civilization.
He was discovered semi-conscious and delirious just outside his village and taken to the hospital in Roseau, on the other end of the island. On the way he told the story of his ordeal to his rescuers, including the exact location of the drowned boar.
On the third day of his recovery, three hunters from his village visited him in his hospital room. They had brought him something delicious to eat – something to revitalize him and to help heal his wounds – fresh pig meat from the giant boar that he had killed.
Story courtesy of Robert Louis.
This story is based upon an interview with Steven “Mexican Steve” Flores.
The Perseverance sailed up to Charlotte Amalie from St. Croix some thirty years ago. She was one of the prettiest sailing vessels that anyone had ever seen, notwithstanding the fact that St. Thomas was, at the time, one of the most important yachting capitals of the world.
She was a thirty-five-foot, wooden, gaff rigged cutter, easily recognizable by her sexy low-slung cabin house and her oval bronze portholes with side-swinging hinges that gave her an incredible dated look as if she had sailed in, not only from across the ocean, but from across the sea of time.
She was built with pride the better part of a century ago in northern Europe; the thick teak boards making up her outer hull joined together carvel-style with a craftsmanship so fine that the seams between the planks were all but invisible. She was designed with a sturdy deep keel, making her ideal for long ocean passages. Lining the deck was a teak rail about eight inches high topped with a beautiful bronze cap.
Perseverance was St. John resident, Gene Otterness’ pride and joy. He owned her for about eight years and was the last captain to do the boat justice. After Gene, Perseverance passed into the hands of a series of neglectful owners and captains. Her luck went sour as she found herself in the wrong places at the wrong times; getting wrecked in just about every hurricane that passed through these islands in recent years.
She suffered major damage in Hurricane Klaus in 1984, was devastated by Hugo in 1989 in Red Hook and then was just about destroyed by Marilyn in 1995 at Sub Base. After each disaster she was lovingly restored through the efforts of some of the finest craftsmen, woodworkers, shipwrights and mechanics in the islands. That is, until she encountered Erika in 1997 in Gustavia, St. Barths, where she took some serious licks, the worst of which was the snapping in two of her main mast.
After Erica, her owners decided not to fix her up and she was left tied up to an old dock, an ignominious shadow of her former self. Perseverance remained there until Donna, a pretty young Canadian woman, who led kayak tours on St. John, became captivated by the vision of the wrecked craft’s potential and bought her for a song.
She then enlisted the help of Bert a veteran sailor and pilot who was operating a sightseeing and seaplane charter business on St. John. Bert kept his single-engine, four-seater seaplane on a mooring in Great Cruz Bay. Just before Hurricane Marilyn’s onslaught, Bert carried three men, back to their home island and safety, free of charge. After Marilyn, Bert tried unsuccessfully to get the seaplane franchise for St. John.
Bert and Donna flew to St. Barths where they jury-rigged a sail to Perseverance’s broken main mast. They then installed an electric bilge pump to pump out the water that flowed endlessly through many small and medium sized leaks and the courageous duo sailed downwind across the Anegada Passage. They arrived in Coral Bay twenty hours after they embarked. They made the passage without any incidents more serious than the accumulation of somewhere near three feet of water in the bilge that had collected despite heroic efforts at both mechanical and manual pumping.
They tied Perseverance up tight, close to shore in shallow water in order to prevent her from sinking to the bottom if she couldn’t be pumped out or patched up fast enough to keep up with the continual flow of water into what was, in fact, a sinking ship. This tactic proved to be a mistake. As the boat settled to the bottom, the hull was buffeted against the rocks by the action of waves and currents, leading to major damage to the forward section of the hull.
This mishap was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.” It was now way too expensive to attempt another restoration. The Perseverance had officially passed away.
Now, a finely crafted sailing yacht, which has served so many, so well, and for so long, certainly deserves a proper funeral. But how does one attend to the funeral of a boat?
Well, there happens to be a Marine Funeral Parlor right here on St. John. It is located at the Coral Bay Marina, in back of the Skinny Legs and is owned and operated by an illustrious denizen of St. John, known affectionately as Mexican Steve. Acting as nautical undertaker, Mexican Steve, whose given name is Steven Flores, has buried at least forty large vessels at five different assigned sites on five islands over the course of his more than quarter of a century career.
The way it works is like this: Steve buys the boat and prepares it for a proper burial at sea. First, the vessel is relieved of anything that Steve, with his uncanny imagination, deems to have monetary, artistic or sentimental value. Then he removes all potential contaminants, draining gas tanks, crankcases and transmissions and even scooping out the oily guck that accumulates at the bottom of bilges, and arranges for their proper disposal.
Next, he calls the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources and is assigned a location where the boat will be buried. Then he tows the vessel out to sea and sinks it where it will eventually become an artificial reef, a home for fish, coral, algae and a vast array of other marine creatures.
After the mishap, Donna investigated the possibility of restoring the Perseverance one more time. After several boat restorers had told her that it wasn’t feasible, Donna came to Steve to get his advice. The official death certificate was signed when even Mexican Steve saw no way of possibly restoring the old girl. Steve bought Perseverance from Donna and gave her a nice price. This was partly because of his admiration for the fine craftsmanship and beauty of the Perseverance and partly because of Donna’s twin tattoos. She had a bicycle on one ankle and a canoe on the other a perfect combination of icons to win the heart of a man who harbored an intrinsic disdain for anything that was propelled by an engine.
So, that is how Mexican Steve acquired the Perseverance and began the preparations for her funeral. The first order of business was to remove all items of value such as cleats, lines, hardware, anchors and the bronze and antique fittings that he found just about everywhere on the yacht.
Of particular interest was a hand carved hardwood tiki charm, which Mexican Steve found while scooping the oily muck out of the bilges with his bare hands. An adept researcher, Mexican Steve determined the tiki to be a neck amulet made on Easter Island in the early 1950s.
Another artifact that caught Steve’s attention and was a small bronze plaque that was hanging on one of the bulkheads, which he examined later at his esoteric Waterfront Headquarters at the Coral Bay Marina. Using a little steel wool and a little elbow grease, Mexican Steve was able to clean up the tarnished old plaque. Once cleaned, it revealed the image of an old three-masted square rigger under full sail with top sails flying in the wind, along with an inscription reading, “NOSA Newport-to-Ensenada International Yacht Race, Ensenada, Mexico, 1954.”
Steve remembers being quite amazed at how the tarnished three by four inch plaque managed to stay put on the bulkhead for 50 years despite the ravages of five hurricanes and the subsequent five major restorations.
When the preparations were complete, Steve towed the Perseverance out to sea, scuttled the craft, and watched it sink down to Davy Jones Locker.
A few months later, Steve made a routine call to his mother, who lives in Dana Point, California. They exchanged family tidings and news and during the course of the conversation, Mexican Steve’s mother, who has been racing sailboats for the last five years, told her son that she was on her way to Newport, California with the Dana Point Yacht Club to participate in the annual NOSA Newport to Ensenada race.
Mexican Steve then told his mom about the plaque he had just found and she relayed the information to the membership of the yacht club. The members, especially the old-timers, were overjoyed at the find. It seems that the Dana Point Yacht Club has been attending the NOSA race since 1950, but a fire at the club headquarters had destroyed all the memorabilia from those times.
Upon learning about the plaque’s history, Mexican Steve set it on a beautiful teak backboard and gifted his serendipitous finding to the Dana Point Yacht Club. It now occupies a position of honor at the club’s headquarters and bears the inscription:
“Donated from Steven Flores to his mother Alicia Sierras, who has returned this memento to its original home.”
And so it came about that the memory of this master-crafted sailing yacht will remain alive long after the its death and funeral in the deep blue Caribbean waters off the south coast of St. John.
POETRY BY CURTNEY “GHOST” CHINNERY
During the 1920s, the consumption, possession and sale of alcoholic beverages within the United States was prohibited by an amendment to the Constitution. The new law, which included the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, did not quench the nation’s thirst for alcohol, and liquor continued to be produced and imported, production being renamed bootlegging and importation, smuggling. Alcoholic beverages were brewed in clandestine stills in the rural areas of the nation or were smuggled into the country from such places as Canada and the Bahamas. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, illicit alcohol usually came from nearby Tortola in the form of its domestically produced cane rum.
The contraband was often brought over on the Tortola sloops that made regular visits to St. John and St. Thomas. A few years ago I had the opportunity to interview the venerable Tortolan, Joseph Romney. Mr. Romney, who passed away recently at almost 100 years of age, and had spent most of his life at sea. In the course of his career, he had owned and captained several Tortola cargo sloops, which brought locally produced items, such as fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, charcoal and crafts, from the British to the American Islands.
At one point during the interview, realizing that Mr. Romney was a young man during the years of prohibition, I asked him if he had ever included the forbidden Tortola Cane Rum as part of his shipments. “Just once,” he responded, “and never again after that.” Intrigued, I asked him to tell me the story. Mr. Romney had heard from other skippers that easy money could be earned by bringing rum to certain discreet clients in St. Thomas. Cash was scarce in the B.V.I. and it was tempting; the sale of just two easy-to-hide gallons of this popular spirit would be enough make the whole trip worthwhile. Furthermore, rum running was not looked upon as an evil by the vast majority of Virgin Islanders.
They had little respect for this ordinance, which forbade them from partaking of a beverage that was an ingrained part of the island culture; a law that was forced upon them without their consent or participation in the law-making process. So it came to pass that one night Mr. Romney and a crewman 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
On the 26th of October 1977, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited the British Virgin Islands. Her itinerary included a public motorcade through the island nation’s capital city of Road Town. The idea of a motorcade, however, was the cause of a certain amount of apprehension for the planners of the event. It seems that on the Queen’s previous visit to Tortola in 1966, her motorcade did not proceed as smoothly as those involved would have liked. On that occasion, the Queen had taken part in a brief 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.
Bob and Nell Deniston
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.
Ronald Reagan and the Caribbean Firefighter
Many people from the Caribbean have migrated to the big cities of the United States and Europe in search of better jobs. The following story concerns one such immigrant who settled in the Washington DC area.
Upon arriving in his new homeland a young Caribbean man applied for a job with the Washington DC Fire Department. He passed through the screening process and underwent training as a fireman and EMT. Appreciative of the opportunities that had been presented to him, he became a gung-ho and dedicated employee.
On March 30, 1981, he happened to be at the to the George Washington University Hospital where he had just brought in an accident victim. While he was there, a call came in alerting the staff that a high priority trauma would soon be arriving at the emergency room.
Hearing the screech of tires outside, he proceeded to the front doors and saw a black limousine out of which emerged a swarm of gentlemen in suits and sunglasses surrounding older man who appeared to be injured. The older man, refusing to accept the help offered by his companions, walked unsteadily toward the emergency room doors. Just inside, he collapsed and fell into the arms of the Caribbean paramedic.
To the fireman’s amazement the man in his arms turned out to be none other than the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. The President had just been shot by John Hinckley Jr. who, emulating Robert De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle in the movie Taxi Driver, had attempted the assassination in order to impress actress Jodie Foster.
The astonished fireman carried Reagan to a gurney and took him to the triage room where he helped tend to the President as doctors, nurses and technicians quickly arrived on the scene.
Meanwhile, secret service agents fanned out through the emergency room complex and saw to it that the area was secured. This meant that any non-essential personnel needed to be removed from the area, as the secret service had no way of knowing whether any of the patients might pose a security risk.
“What’s wrong with that guy?” barked a secret serviceman.
“Broken leg,” answered one of the hospital attendants.
“Get him out of here!” And what about that guy?
“Get him out of here!”
And so it went until the room was cleared and other accommodations were found for the sick and wounded waiting to be attended to that day.
In the triage room, Reagan was stripped and examined. Doctors discovered a gunshot wound to the President’s chest, which had punctured one his lungs. The Chief Executive was then rushed to the operating room where he underwent two hours of surgery to remove the .22 caliber explosive “devastator” bullet and to repair his collapsed lung.
When his shift was over, the Caribbean EMT and fireman went home where told his wife what had happened that night. “Oh, I’m so very proud of you, my dear, you’re a real hero” she exclaimed as she gave her husband a big hug.
That night, while laying in bed, the fireman also could not help but be proud of himself thinking how few people could say that they had played a part in saving the life of the President of the United States.
Two days later the fireman was summoned by his supervisor and told to report to the Secret Service office the next day. “Why do they want to see me?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” replied the supervisor, “maybe they want to give you a medal.”
That night he returned home and shared this new development with his wife. She agreed with the lighthearted speculation of the supervisor and told her husband that surely he was to receive some sort of reward or commendation for what he had done for the President on the night that he was shot.
The morning of his scheduled appointment, the fireman put on his best dress uniform and reported to the office of the Secret Service prepared to be recognized for the part that he had played in the drama at the hospital. His reception at the office, however, was icy, and he began to suspect that something was wrong. A receptionist told him to proceed to room 224, an office down the hall. Inside the sparsely furnished room he found a desk, a chair and two decidedly unfriendly and stern-faced men, who, without any exchange of pleasantries, instructed him to sit down in the wooden chair alongside the desk. The two secret servicemen remained standing.
“Where is it?” demanded one of the men, pointing a finger in the fireman’s chest. “We know you have it and you better give it up now.”
“What! What are you talking about? Where is what?” the fireman stammered.
“Don’t play dumb with us. Let us make this clear. If you don’t cooperate your career and your life will never be the same. You better come clean and tell us the truth.
The questioning continued in this manner for over an hour with the professional interrogators never revealing what it was they were talking about. Finally, he was summarily dismissed. As he reached the door, however, one of the agents added, “And, I wouldn’t talk about this to anyone if I were you, do you understand? This is not over. We’ll be speaking to you again”
Intimidated and bewildered, the fireman returned home and to his dismay found his house full of friends and family invited by his wife to celebrate her husband’s recognition. Totally chagrined, he was forced to explain to the well-wishers that far from being commended he was the subject of some sort of investigation the subject of which he did not know.
Several weeks after the shooting, during a meeting with his supervisor, the supervisor told him confidentially what happened. Sometime during the triage process, a pair of gold and diamond cufflinks and a tie clasp worn by President Reagan were stolen. They were a gift from the first lady, Nancy Reagan, on his inauguration and were worth $30,000.
It turned out that almost everyone in the emergency, triage and operating rooms were considered suspects and were questioned in the same manner as the fireman. Then, a week after the interrogations, the missing items miraculously appeared behind a file cabinet in the triage room stuffed in an envelope. As the room was cleaned and sterilized on a daily basis, it was unlikely that the jewelry had simply been misplaced. The most plausible explanation was that someone committed a crime of opportunity and then, fearful of the ruthless perseverance of the secret service investigators returned it to take the heat off themselves.
The fireman was relieved to finally learn the reason for his interrogation and to know that his ordeal was most likely over. Yet, he was disappointed the thief was never identified and that there might be some lingering suspicion about him. He felt like he had been put through the wringer. Having experienced the elation of having helped the President of the United States in a moment of need that so quickly yielded to the harrowing experience of being treated as a suspect in a crime he did not commit. And so it was that this son of the Caribbean found that life in the land of opportunity is not without some trying moments.
Note: Some years later, after being promoted to the position of supervisor, the fireman from the Caribbean accompanied a friend of mine who was the producer for the TV show Emergency Call. It was during the making of one of the episodes that the fireman shared this story with my friend.
St. John Saturday night with a half moon and clear bright starlit skies.
I have a story for you…here goes…
Once upon a time there were these spiders that learned to spin the finest web that anyone had ever seen. What was so special about this web was that it acted just like a sail or a wing. When the wind blew it would send the spider sailing off into the air.
The spiders could go ever so high and fly all over the world. The only problem was that up in the sky there wasn’t much to eat, and soon the spiders would become hungry. What they did then was to eat their very own web.
But when they ate their web their sail got smaller and little by little the spiders would sail lower and lower until they were back to Earth.
It was so much fun that millions of spiders learned to make sail webs and fly through the skies.
Scientists dressed in white coats heard about the sailing spiders and didn’t know if it was true or not. So they decided to find out one way or another by conducting a scientific experiment. The scientists got in their friend’s airplane and took off into the air. When they were very high up they opened the window of the plane and stuck out a net.
Guess what happened. When the scientists looked in their nets, they saw that they were full of spiders. And that’s how we know for sure that spiders, like people, can learn to fly.
Editors Criticism The story: now I’ve got to suspect that anything that doesn’t sound like you is you messing with me, slipping someone else in there. So expressions like “there were these spiders” “go ever so high” “eat their very own web” “scientists dressed in white coats” “got in their friend’s airplane” “when they were very high up” “guess what happened” could be you as a children’s writer, or, dare I say it, someone else. I like the wrap up moralish tone, but there are a lot of false steps in it for my kids: Did the spiders care what part of the earth they fell back down into, like for instance, did they try to avoid going over large expanses of water? When the scientists were up in the airplane, wouldn’t they see the spiders on the windows? When they stuck out a net, weren’t they going to try to fly with it, like the spiders? Didn’t people already find them in parachutes? When they found them in the net, did they let it back in the sky as a little colony of spiders? Would the spiders eat the net? Did the scientists study the webs to see if they were all the same, what ratio of body weight to wing (you know bumblebees can’t fly according to physics laws). This sounds sort of like something you told me about tiny plankton towns.
Always good to hear from you.
St. John Coffee From Fruit to Cup
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.
It takes a lot of work to make a cup of coffee, but it’s worth it!
St. John Music Scene
Some Observations on the St. John Music Scene by Dan Silber
Dan Silber arrived on St. John in 1972. An accomplished musician on the mainland, he became one of the original members of “Eddieand 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.
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.’”
Thallus of Marchantia – a Buffalo Story
In 1963 I attended the State University of New York at Buffalo, formerly known as the University of Buffalo. The university had an extremely large freshman class that was disproportionate to the number of students in the upper classes. It was assumed that more than half of the freshmen would either drop out or be kicked out their first year.
Certain courses were required for all students and these classes would ordinarily be taken in the freshman and sophomore years. Because there were thousands of freshmen in the school, the required courses were generally held in large lecture halls attended by literally hundreds of students. One of these courses was Botany 101, which was the superficial study of all the plants in the world, how they are classified, what their properties are and what they are called. It can be an interesting study, but in the large lecture hall with a boring droning professor it was more of a challenge to one’s ability to stay awake under extreme circumstances.
At the end of the semester there would be a final exam. The preparation for this exam led to the inevitable crazy cram sessions and all-nighters. The students would often study together drinking coffee (or ingesting stronger stimulants) to stay awake and try to make up in one night for all the missed classes and for all the times when full attention was not paid to the lecturer.
Late in night one of the students, cramming away for the Botany final exam, began studying the section of his textbook pertaining to plants known as liverworts. He came upon the section dealing with the Marchantia, which has a stem-like structure known as a thallus and reproduces asexually by forming gemmae on the upper surface of the thallus that starts new plants. “Extremely interesting” said the student sarcastically; “the Marchantia reproduces asexually by means of a thallus. Marchantia…Thallus…” He liked the sound of the words as they rolled smoothly off his Dexedrine stimulated tongue. “Thallus… Marchantia … The Thallus of Marchantia … The Thallus of Marchantia … Hey guys … The Thallus of Marchantia… sounds like royalty doesn’t it … The Thallus of Marchantia.
The fellow students agreed. They liked the sound of the phrase. They laughed and made jokes about his Majesty the Thallus of Marchantia. Then suddenly a student came up with an absolutely marvelous idea. “Let’s call the Buffalo Evening News and tell them that Thallus of Marchantia is coming to Buffalo” “Great idea!” agreed the others. “You call… No you…Where’s the phone? Hello, Buffalo Evening News… The Thallus of Marchantia is coming to Buffalo…”
The December 15, 1964 edition of the prestigious Buffalo Evening News contained a small article announcing the event. The headline for the story was something like Dignitary to Visit Here and the story went on that an Arab potentate, the Thallus of Marchantia would be visiting Buffalo as part of his tour of the United States.
“Marchantia”, they added sagely at the end of the article, “is an island in Arabia”.
Inspired by the actual appearance of the story in Buffalo Evening News, the pranksters broadened the scope of their hoax. Word spread throughout the student body and everyone wanted to get in on the joke. It was decided that since the Thallus of Marchantia was, after all, from Arabia, he was probably anti-Semitic or at least anti-Zionist and his visit should be protested. On the other hand it was possible that the Thallus was really a good guy and was being maligned by unfound rumors and, consequently, his visit to Buffalo should not be ruined by undeserved protests.
The next day the Botany lecture halls were packed to capacity, not only by those legitimately registered for the class, but also by other students and faculty members who were attracted by what was now a genuine “happening”. Many students displayed signs and banners either for (Thallus go back to your palace!”) or against (“No malice for the Thallus!”) the visit of his majesty the Thallus of Marchantia.
A good time was had by all…and the plot thickened. A follow-up story was given to the newspaper. The Thallus would arrive in Buffalo on a flight from New York City at 1:48 p.m. It was rumored that radical students from the university were planning to protest his arrival.
A collection was taken up and a student, Arthur Schein, was sent to New York City. When he arrived at the Laguardia airport in New York, Mr. Schein purchased a first class ticket back to Buffalo. He changed into a suit and tie and wrapped a towel around his head in an imitation of an Arabian burnoose.
Meanwhile the city fathers of Buffalo were making their own preparations for the arrival of the visiting dignitary. The Thallus was to be met on the tarmac by none other then the mayor
Before noon on the day of the Thallus of Marchantia’s arrival to Buffalo, the airport began to fill with students waving signs and banners greeting or protesting the Thallus. It was estimated that between 700 and 2000 people were at the airport when the Thallus’s plane landed.
The Cheektowaga police department had a large contingent of officers on hand to prevent any embarrassing student protest demonstrations. In the performance of that duty they blocked the students from entering the airport. The crowd swelled…a bugler arrived…the bugler played “charge” and the students swarmed the airport. A large pane of glass was broken and furniture was knocked over, several students were apprehended by the police and put into custody.
The plane landed and the Thallus of Marchantia also known as Arthur Schein walked proudly down the gangway where the mayor’s official chauffeur driven limousine awaited him. Two policemen led Arthur to the limo where he sat down next to the mayor who had prepared a welcoming speech for the Arab ruler.
The crowd of protesters was approaching the field and the limo escorted by two police cars sirens wailing began to leave the airfield by a back exit. One of the students (Ken Casey) who was arrested was questioned by the police at he scene. He told all. The police radioed the mayor’s limousine informing him of the hoax. The procession halted. The policemen who were conducting the escort got out of their vehicles proceeded to the mayor’s limo and arrested the ersatz Thallus.
From the University of Buffalo’s Online Alumni Magazine:
“The next day, the hoodwinked News accused “1,000 State University of Buffalo students of wrecking furniture, jostling innocent bystanders and generally turning the Greater Buffalo International Airport into a frightening mob scene.” For all of The News’ indignation, however, none of the bystanders was reported injured and the damage was revised down to $600.
The so-called Thallus, whisked away in a Cheektowaga police car, was charged with disorderly conduct and fined $50. Richard Siggelkow, who was then dean of students, indefinitely suspended Schein, but not before posting his bail and putting him up for the night. Schein’s conviction by lower courts was later reversed, and the student body coughed up the $600.”
Dec 16 1964 – Thallus of Marchantia Hoax by UB students at Buffalo Airport
“Ruler” of Marchantia’s infamous visit
Many people at the university, the Buffalo airport and especially the Buffalo Evening News, can recall the infamous visit of the Thallus of Marchantia. It began with an innocent notice Dec. 15, 1964 in the newspaper, noting that the Arabian potentate would arrive the next day at the airport at 1:48 p.m.
What they didn’t know was that the Thallus (which means stem) of Marchantia (a liverwort, not a country) was UB student Arthur Schein (a prankster, not a sultan).
A horde of UB students, put at between 700 and 2,000, including a bugler, were at the airport to “protest” the visit of the supposedly evil Thallus. When the bugler played “charge,” the students did, cracking a pane of glass, breaking some ashtrays and pushing over a snow fence.
The next day, the hoodwinked News accused “1,000 State University of Buffalo students (of) wrecking furniture, jostling innocent bystanders and generally turning the Greater Buffalo International Airport into a frightening mob scene.” For all of The News’ indignation, however, none of the bystanders was reported injured and the damage was revised down to $600.
The so-called Thallus, whisked away in a Cheektowaga police car, was charged with disorderly conduct and fined $50. Richard Siggelkow, who was then dean of students, indefinitely suspended Schein, but not before posting his bail and putting him up for the night. Schein’s conviction by lower courts was later reversed, and the student body coughed up the $600.
Susan (Salsburg) Rousselle, B.A. ’66, of Norwalk, Conn., has vivid memories of the Thallus’ visit. “All of us on campus were pretty much aware of what he was going to do and what the prank was,” she says. “That didn’t stop anybody from going along with it, however.”
The plot, Rousselle believes, was concocted the night before by a group of freshmen, who needed a break from studying for a biology exam. They were fascinated by the terms “thallus” and “marchantia” and their potential as fodder for a practical joke.
Signs and banners sporting such slogans as “Malice to the Thallus” were quickly produced. “Students were marching around campus protesting his visit,” says Rousselle, now an employee relations consultant for GTE.
“When the item appeared in the News, we just went wild,” says Rousselle, who drove a group to the airport to meet the Thallus.
“When we got there, it was really chaotic. Students were running through the airport, knocking over sofas. People waiting for flights or passengers were pretty overwhelmed, I think.”
Schein had been sent down to New York by his coconspirators to set up the return to Buffalo and a reception deserving of an imposing, though controversial, head of state. According to Rousselle, Schein had sent a telegram-ostensibly from the United Nations in New York-to Buffalo’s mayor’s office. The mayor was asked to lunch with the potentate, supposedly en route to Chicago.
“We heard that the mayor had reserved a luncheon room at the Statler,” says Rousselle.
“As the Thallus got off the plane, he was wearing an Arab headdress, sunglasses and a dark suit. He stood at the doorway of the plane, waving to those assembled. The poor guy didn’t know that he had been found out. One cop got him on each arm and put him head-first into the back of the police car.”
Rousselle has often-and happily-recounted the incident since her days as a UB student.
“Campus protests were just getting started in the mid-1960s,” she says, “and we found it very exciting.”
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.
West Indian CheckersCheckers, 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.American CheckersCheckers (or draughts) probably evolved from the ancient game of quirkat, which developed in Egypt about 1000 years before the birth of Christ. The Moors brought the game to Europe during their invasion of Spain and it later became known as alquerque, a Spanish corruption 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 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
February Third Monday – Presidents’ Day
March Last Monday – Transfer Day On March 31, 1917, the United States purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million.
April Holy Thursday Good Friday Easter Sunday Easter Monday 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.
May Last Monday – Memorial Day
June Third Monday – Organic Act Day Virgin Islands constitution was created by the U.S. Congress
July 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.
September First Monday – Labor Day
October 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 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 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.
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 people.
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.)