In the late 1970s I sailed away from America – in search of my future. I wasn’t merely in search of myself, but of my people as well. I was adrift on all levels. I needed to discover my watery tribe. I also needed to find a family hearth – some spiritual and physical place I could call home. I desired a personal lodestone – a geographical true north of my heart. Luckily, I found it – in a place called Love City, St. John, USVI. I think it was the weekly Cruz Bay fish-fry which originally captivated me. But, hey, the fact that a quart of Cruzan Gold cost 82 cents might have had something to do with it as well. It was during these low-key West Indian community events when the residents became just that – a community. It was also when we’d hear the local gossip: if (now Professor) Gilbert Sprauve had caught any fish that week, whose donkey had died, and just how Theovald Moorehead was bedeviling the NPS this time.
Ethel Tvalbridge McCully, her drunken priest, and those wild peacocks were always good for a few salacious tidbits of gossip. She and her posse would meet weekly at Hilltop – oh, the ribald stories that crazy old woman could tell! (Ethel had just sold a book about building a house on St. John that she’d entitled I Did It With Donkeys! and her staid New York publisher had immediately changed to Grandma Raised the Roof.)
How were the two boats abuilding on the East End, Patient Lady and Breath, coming along? What about Pappy Sewer? Why was Lito Valls feuding with Mooiea”was it really over the turning on or off of a bar fan? (Stubborn, Lito never crossed the threshold again.) What were the dashing Ashley Boynes and the Travel Services crews up to? Herman Prince might show up’ oh, how dat man could ‘sweet talk’ about Zootenval! And that wee boy Ernest Matthias’ how fast dat rascal could run!
There was always plenty of laughter – especially if someone had also witnessed how quick old Miss Marsh could run/scream while waving a machete in the air along Maho Bay beach. Lindy, the town drunk (well, if you include Angel Dust) would ‘heh, heh, heh’ by for a fillet or two – while slowly checking out the plain-sight contents of the Jeeps. Sis Frank would fill us in on how wonderful all the members of the St. John Steel Pans did while performing in New York, and how nice it would be if, someday, the island had a School for the Arts. Annabelle Apple never missed a fish fry why, what better time to (lovingly) tell everyone how to do everything? What business had Forrest Fisher opened this week? What had happened to the giant orange near the cannon at the foot of the ferry dock – had drunks from the Backyard really rolled ‘its ugly self’ into Pillsbury Sound? And was Guy Benjamin writing more delightful stories about ‘those teef’n Puerto Ricans’ or just playing dominoes in Coral Bay? The Roach family, of course, would be there. As would the two Cruz Bay grocery store tycoons; Miss Gladys and her sister Miss Lillian. (Miss Gina, a rival, had her tiny shop atop Jacob’s Ladder.) Surely, the Rhodes and Mrs. Harvey would stop by. The Rutniks and Muilenburgs. Glen Spear would be chatting with his stoned stone-masons. Albert and Lonnie Willis might snap a picture or two. Andromeada Childs would always be there. Doris Jadan, of course, and Ivan-the-Opera-Singer that is, if he wasn’t off planting more lignum vitae trees. (Strange hobby but he was formerly Russian so perhaps that explains it.)
The big news one week was that a pushy tourist had stomped up to the Battery and just blurted out his governmental request without saying “Good Morning.”
A’ nobody raised proper on St. John could imagine such rudeness.
Yes, there was a clock on the island – but no one had wound it in years.
Myra Keating-Smith was the entire health department ‘back in the day’. The first thing she did upon arriving at the scene of an accident was, regardless of the severity of the injuries, pray for the victims.
The beautiful part was that, back then, everyone on St. John was on St. John because they wanted to be on St. John – either because they were born there or wished they had been. Nobody was there to make money – the very idea was laughable. The richest and the poorest St. Johnians weren’t all that far apart. We were all living on the economic edge – in this distant, palm-scented outpost of tropical America. But the residents were united by their love of nature and each other, by their joy of swimming in the Caribbean Sea, by their mutual admiration of Bob Marley’s music, Karen Samuel’s paintings, and the lovely, perfect symmetry of a classic Mister Prince basket.
It was enough – hell, it was more than enough.
There was a rich, complex culture – with all its American/African/Euro social traditions already in place. If you were a visitor, it behooved you to learn it first.
Community respect wasn’t something you could demand, it had to be earned, West Indian-style. On St. John, you got the exact reputation you deserved – for better or worse. “Being a local isn’t about race or birthplace as much as longevity,” charter skipper (and Lobster Hut owner) Bob Nose told me when I first arrived – words that rang true to this starry-eyed new arrival in search of a sane place of brotherhood (under the American flag) to raise a child while learning a craft.
Ah, St. John, before the advent of the drum machines, door locks, and parking lots was a magical, mystical place.
The thin ‘marine guide book’ of the era said that Coral Bay was, because of the voracious East End mosquitoes, of no interest to the cruising sailor. I sailed up there anyway – having heard there were some hippie-crewed Cowhorns sprouting up behind the grammar school. For the first week, our Carlotta was the only boat in harbor – then Tommy on Sea Legs sailed/rolled in. This was before Redbeard’s or Skinny’s bar. The only rumshop on that side of the island was the Sputnik back then, and I spent many a night belly-up to its fist-banged bar. One evening I walked in and Smitty was lying on his back, pie-eyed drunk, waving his arms and legs in the air like a giant capsized insect. I stupidly helped him to his feet. He immediately charged back into the “a’ look, look, look!” loud verbal fray and the rest of the dem Coral Bay fellas gave me the bum’s rush out of the bar, yelling, “Mon, doan you know to let a sleep’n dog lay?”
Having tasted the quiet, quaint rural charms of St. John in the late 70s, I returned in the early 80s to raise our daughter Roma Orion there. We were the seventh vessel in Great Cruz Bay – long before the hotel was a gleam in Allen William’s eye. I needed a place to write, and the first place I went into, Connections, allowed me to use a desk for “a week or two, until you finish the article for Caribbean Boating,” said its owner Cid Hamling. But, hey, this was the West Indies. Time is fluid. I overstayed a tad. A year or two later, when Cid and Mary Pat moved downstairs from their original office upstairs next to the Lottery, I unobtrusively moved with them. (I eventually ended up writing in the toilet. “Perfect for the crap you write,” quipped Cid.)
Pine Peace School was barely afloat and my wife Carolyn and I donated much time and a few of our precious pennies to make sure it survived. When a storm wiped out the Cruz Bay dinghy dock, we boaters didn’t asked nobody for nutt’n – just shoplifted (okay, with permission) some 2 x 10 fir planks from Bill Hedges at the Lumber Yard and re-planked the dock ourselves. Ditto when the Cape Dory sloop Lydia sunk just off the channel. I filled it with a zillion empty milk jugs until it popped to the surface without charge – just because it was the right thing to do.
I remember helping ‘Doctor Ted’ Cummings and Tom Gerker with the early KATS program (born painfully out of the U.S. Boy Scout tragedy off Lovango), and (with Joe Colpitt of Virgin Fire) donating a brand new Optimist pram to the soon-thriving Coral Bay group.
Never, before or since, have I loved a physical location like I love well, the aptly named Love City of St John. For over a decade, I reported on its marine happenings on Saturday mornings at 8am on Radio One WVWI. I also sang its praises in the Daily News, St. Thomas Courier, Sint Maarten’s Daily Herald, the Marine Scene, ALL AT SEA, and various other local publications I wrote for – not to mention SAIL, Yachting World, Southern Boating, and Cruising World. I even ‘organized’ a book called St. John People that is still being passed around today – singing the praises of its community members. Yes, I made sure the publication had highly entertaining chapters about such famous St. John residents as Robert Oppenheimer (father of the nuclear bomb) and John Anderson (author, Night of the Silent Drums) but I didn’t neglect Shurna Rabatt’s delightfully quirky essay on her great-great aunt Gerda Marsh to do so. (St. John People is still a cherished literary memory.)
But nothing is forever. I’d come to St. John on a quest to sail around the world and it encouraged me to do so in a myriad number of ways. We raised our only child on the island. I re-fell in love (each & every day) with my wonderful wife there. And I gained a million friends and friendships that would last a lifetime – all in, of, and about St. John. I even learned my craft and earned my American Paradise Publishing money as well.
And so I sailed away to make the Big Fat Circle I’d told everyone on St. John I’d eventually make so many years before. But I quickly learned that it is easier to physically leave St. John than it is to do so emotionally. When our daughter Roma Orion had a child in Amsterdam, she immediately rushed back to St. John to show Suku off long before she brought her daughter to the continental United States. When Chris Angel had his health problem we kept a phone line open while he was on the table. When we recently heard that Amos Rutnik had died, we cried. A month or two ago, when my wife needed a place to stay in Washington, D.C., she stayed with Wessy Miller, Cheryl Miller’s daughter who used to spend so much time with our daughter aboard Carlotta and Wild Card that we referred to them as the Goodmiller Girls.
The bottom line is that, truly, home-is-where-the-heart-is. As we circumnavigate, we’re often asked where we are from. We don’t say Chicago or America or Boston… we say, St. John, USVI. Why? Because it brings a smile of sweet remembrance to our faces and it makes us proud. St. John is the only place we’ve ever lived which truly aspires to the ideals within our passports. And I will forever carry it within my heart.
Editor’s note: Wild Card was last sighted heading westward from the Canaries.