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In Memoriam

It has been a difficult month for long term VI sailors – we’ve lost some of our best.

Farewell Jeannie Kuich

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Jeannie Kuich. It was back in the 1970s and she was diving off the bowsprit of Athena. I just caught her out of the corner of my eye and thought, “My God, she’s beautiful!”

She sliced into the water cleanly, barely leaving a splash, only her trademark hibiscus floating in the still waters of Long Bay as evidence of her dive. Mike was on deck. I could hear his deep booming laugh in fine counterpoint to her feminine trill. I can’t remember if she came back with a lobster or a fish only that midway up the ladder she stopped for a moment, reached on deck, and put another flower in her lovely hair.

Jeannie Kuich was beautiful inside and out. Eventually, I got to know her and Mike. We became friends. Every time I met her, she brought a little joy and sunlight into my life. And she loved to laugh. “A weak bladder is a star gazer’s best friend,” she once told me.

I spoke with her many times, on my subjects—boats, books, and stars mostly. But I never heard her say one bad word about anyone in the charter industry… or anyone at all, for that matter. I’ll never forget her laugh or her beauty or her calmness or her peaceful aura. Or that first magical moment when I saw her and Mike—like living Gods—and thought to myself. “There’s the future. Someday, that is who I want to be.”

Farewell Nicky “Mighty Whitey” Russell

Mighty Whitey, aka Nicky Russell, was larger than life. He had style and he had talent and he had energy. He lived while he was alive to the max. He kissed life full on the lips. He was a physical force to be reckoned with. He was who Jimmy Buffett longed to be.

Nicky was a handsome, sun-kissed, Calypso-hued hedonist and proud of it.

And he was tough. He didn’t back down. He had an edge. There was something in his steady stare…  this was one man you didn’t push too far, my friend. But, at the same time, Nicky was gentle as a lamb. He had a boyish, earnest quality to him. He was a rascal, sure, but a rascal that your grandmother might like.

Nicky ran on heavy fuel. I remember one night at 4 A.M. weaving through the darkened IBY in search of a party and Nicky telling me the life story (with all the juicy parts) of every member of the marine community on St. Thomas from the late 50s to that day.

I was utterly fascinated by Nicky and his ‘bad boy’ history of the maritime VI.

He was a legend even back then.

Finally, I noticed a hint of grayness to the east. “I gotta get back to Carlotta,” I told him. “Carolyn is gonna kill me.”

“No problem,” Nicky said. “I’m going to head home, take a shower, make a pot of strong coffee and be ready at 6 AM for my radio show.”

He said it matter-of-factly as if, hey, you gotta make a living somehow.

I worked with Mighty Whitey for many years at WVWI Radio One with Bob Wilmer, Leo Moron, Rick Ricardo, and the whole Bob Noble crew. He was actually station manager at one point. One morning he must not have been listening to my Saturday morning Marine Report because he came into the station while I was ‘live on the air,’ waited for a commercial break, and then distributed cold Hennies to my four guests. Which only showed what a swell island guy he was and how was he to know my early morning panel were dour experts on alcohol abuse?

Nicky was always nice to everyone especially the local folks who were a tad marginal. He knew almost every musician in the VI and was a soft touch for a drink when they were down and out.

He wouldn’t just buy them a drink, either. He’d introduce them around and say something both sincere and complimentary.

I once was writing a major feature article on Calypso music and called him up for some info. “Don’t ask me,” he said. “Ask Calvin the West Indian fellow who drives the Travel Lift at Independent Boat Yard. He’s a great guy he’s the expert, not me. Yes, Calvin really knows all about the Trini scene and the whole down island

Everybody loved Nicky because Nicky loved everybody.

We had a mutual friend named New York Johnny. At one point Johnny was in such bad shape I had to cut him loose just like everyone else from the Bitter End to Culebra recently had. In desperation one night bleeding and crying he pounded on the door of Nicky’s house. Nicky opened it, looked sad, sighed, and said, “Welcome, just don’t throw up inside.”

I haven’t even mentioned music he was kind in that regard, too. Every time I’d play guitar at Latitude 18, he’d tell the audience I was a fine writer. (Sigh).

Just before I left on my second circumnavigation, we had him and Janet out to Wild Card in Great Cruz Bay. We had a wonderful meal together. At one point he looked up at the stars for a long time and said dreamily, “I love these islands. I love these people. This music. The sound of steel drums. Carnival. Road march. The poetry of the market ladies… we’re lucky, aren’t we Fatty?”

Nicky was man who always made you feel lucky no matter how down and out you were.

Farewell Desperado Bert

Desperado Bert was. The very best stories about him can’t be told yet. But, he was a piece of work. He was a guy who did stuff that Timothy Leary and Hunter S. Thompson didn’t even think about. And he did it all will an ‘aw-shucks’ style and grace.

He’d be gone from Skinny’s for weeks at a time and then stroll back in with a big grin and announce expansively to the whole bar, “still alive!”

About half the time I spent with Desperado Bert, I was scolding him, “but Bert, you can’t DO that!”

But Bert did. And managed to survive even thrive.

The last time I saw him he was onstage with the Fiddler in Coral Bay, belting out a hard luck sea chantey with the local sailors. He wasn’t pitch-perfect but he was enjoying it so much it didn’t matter.

Everything about Bert was a Tall Tale his battleship of a boat, his plane, his car why, even his boat trailer was up on felony charges in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

But he never let anything get to him. He sailed joyfully through life with (as John Prine would say) an illegal smile. And he always used to tell me, “Don’t worry, Fatty. It’ll all work out. We’re cool.”

Bert never sweated. It always worked out. And he was very cool.

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