For four years we lived on Lovango Cay. Our only neighbors were Elsa and Rudolf, an old couple who’d spent most of their lives on the cay, fishing. Elsa was sallow skinned, with an incredibly wrinkled face from a lifetime’s exposure to the sun; and she had a voice as discordant as an old crow. She was full of complaints and recriminations—but when she saw our son Raffy, four years old, she would melt. A child on the cay! It had been so long since families were raised there… her own child lived in NYC and had no use for island life.
With tender affection Elsa took Raffy under her wing; many an hour they bent head to head, Elsa imparting to the boy traditional West Indian culture…especially fishing lore. When she spotted him coming to visit, as he did often, trudging up the long stony beach, she’d hurry onto her small concrete dock and throw chicken scraps from the evening meal (carefully saved for the purpose) into the water, or crack open a soldier crab’s shell and throw the wriggling naked creature to its fate. The fish would go wild—soldier crab is a choice bait. Little Raffy would arrive eager to fish, Elsa would bait a hook and give him the line… he’d cast it into the water eagerly and bingo! He’d catch a fish!
Old Rudi was a courtly man, still strong, with a ramrod erect posture and a formal demeanor. He was also going blind and spoke with a lisp. Every day he’d embark in his 20 ft. open boat with the reliable six horsepower outboard motor and steer to Cruz Bay to work for the National Park, and every day return complaining about the weather. We were there one Friday afternoon when he returned in time for a TGIF gathering at his place.
“So much a haze,” he complained. “I don’t remember we ever had so much a haze in the years gone by.” A small silence ensued. Everybody glanced at each other, then at the sky, because the day had been notably clear.
Then it was time to drink—he’d set out a card table with shot glasses arrayed on top beside a small wooden cask of Methusalem rum fitted with a petcock—and Rudolf would turn to me and say, “Shall we fire one, Pete, Eh?” He’d reach with a trembling, searching hand, feeling carefully til his fingers brushed a glass and he would fetch that up and pour a good dollop of strong rum from the cask for each of us, saying again, stirringly, “Fire one, Pete me boy, fire one!” and toss it ceremoniously down, like a gunner touching off a cannon.
“Fire one!” was just an expression, pronounced with the emphasis on “one,” but never meant to imply a limit of just one. Far from it! A cold water chaser followed the shot down, then a sigh of satisfaction.
It needs to be noted here that the name of Lovango Cay comes from a part of the Congo, as does Mingo and other cay names. The” Love and Go “whorehouse idea was a recent funny addition, impractical at best.
After we’d been there a time, Hermon Smith motored up in his traditional wooden fishng skiff, a buoyant, handsome, open boat, well driven by a 6 horsepower Johnson. Back then no one outside of Japan had heard of a Yamaha. One used to see these boats all the time, plying the cays, fishing, transporting people who’d be huddled together under a tarp as the spray lashed by. At the time we arrived in ’68, they were still being built in Tortola; but fiberglass was beginning to make big inroads.
These “Tortola boats” were ideal vessels under sail, oar, or low-powered engine. Toward the end of their era, people fitted big outboards on them to try to make them plane; it only succeeded in sucking down the transom and towing a bigger and bigger stern wave. You’d see them going by in the distance, bow canted at the sky, just the stern in the water with a white breaker rearing up behind it.
Hermon was the son of a Smith Bay fisherman and had traversed the line of small cays from Thatch to Lovango with his father following schools of fish. He’d also lived in hippy circles in California and was a
part of the ’60s counterculture. He was at home with native as well as continental cultures and had a piercing familiarity with the foibles of each.
Hermon moved in next door into an old abandoned house that was
sagging at the seams and we became friends. He, Raffy, and I used to get
up early in the morning and hike over across the island to fish off low cliffs. Sometimes we’d take the skiff to Congo Cay, a long, narrow cay like a blade of chiseled rock showing silver gray through the glossy profusion of tire palms. At the west end of the island, gnarled rock dropped into the sea and kept going to the bottom 90 feet down. This was our favorite diving and fishing spot.
I’d bagged a 40 lb amberjack there once, had mackerel snapped off my spear by lightning fast barracuda, seen large schools of bonito come flashing by, and been persuaded to exit the water by an overly curious eight ft. bull shark.
One time, Dorothy caught a fish, hauled it in without much struggle and we all stared at it—being avid free divers, we prided ourselves on knowing the fish but none of us had seen this one before…except skinny, little, tow-headed Raff, who looked at it carefully and said, “I think this is the synodus intermedius. …or something. I don’t know how to pronounce it.”
“It’s in the book.”
“Our fish book,”
“That’s the Latin name?”
” I think it’s also called a sand diver.”
“You have got to be kidding!”
He had learned to read a year ago and for the last several months his favorite book was Caribbean Reef Fishes, which gave the fish’s Latin
name as well as its English under the picture. He would pore over
that book for hours at a time, fascinated.
So help me God, when we got back, there it was in the book, exactly as he had said. Seven years old and he knew the Latin names of half the fish in the book!