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Book 3. The Vigil…

Book 3. The Vigil…

I went to the viewing for a “much-loved by the community” friend this afternoon, at the Davis Funeral Home. The paper said that the viewing was scheduled from four to six PM, I got there a little early, and parked between the Western Cemetery #1 and #2. The Western Cemetery is over three hundred years old and is one of a number of very old burial grounds in Charlotte Amalia and on the Island of St. Thomas.

 The Western Cemetery was in two sections (#1 and #2) for many years and has now become three. It’s very reminiscent of New Orleans with the above ground (always picturesque some time quite fancy) vaults. Within the old stone walls and beneath ancient mahogany trees, time stands still. 

I have been affected by the powerful emotional impact of this place since I first saw it up close, as a boy of five. All of us children from Nisky School were here standing sadly around a little white coffin, poised to go deep deep into the ground. We were burying “Peggy” a beautiful little brown skin girl with a bright and smiling face and a heart of gold. After school yesterday, or the day before, Peggy fell off one of the children’s play things (a rusty old dump truck) in the communal “yard” in the Nisky community atop “Chinaman Hill”  She fell and broke her neck. And just that quickly Peggy was gone, and every one that she had ever known was forever changed because Peggy was beyond any doubt, as pure and as good as they come, she was an absolute innocent. 

Why the good and loving God at the center of the Nisky School, Nisky community and Nisky Moravian Church Universe would break Peggy’s neck and take her away from us, is a question  that  hangs in the still air of the Western Cemetery, and will for us, be there forever. 

That she would be followed soon after by “Augustine” the most perfect and beautiful golden boy child that the hardscrabble community of “French Town” had ever produced, furthered the idea for some that the God that the children of Nisky were trying to understand and obey, did not make any sense. 

 Still to this hallowed ground where cries and questions and prayers, hang in the air like blue smoke, we came and come again and again. 

Today it’s another golden boy, as innocent and loved as any before. Chronologically, no longer a child, still he was his Mothers baby boy, and the youngest of the brothers. 

This is a “Creole” family, children of children of Scotland and Africa, with some of every other sweet sop of the earth thrown in for good measure and there is “plenty of good” to be measured. 

 As I walk towards the door of the funeral parlor someone says to me “You look like Jesus Christ” a quick glance at my reflection in a car window confirms that he’s right. I’m all spiffed up and when I’m all spiffed up, I do tend to look  a bit like Jesu Christo. Conversely, when I’m not spiffeled, I  look more like a Tasmanian devil. (Could be some kind of cosmokarmic, Yin Yan bipolaric impression disorder? who knows.) The observation comes from a brother of the deceased, he then says “if you’re here for the viewing you’re an hour early, from four to five is for family only..I don’t want you to be embarrassed” 

It occurs to me to say (a whole day later it’s true but..) “Yes, but if I look so much like Jesus Christ, the family might be overjoyed to see me, and that I have come for the dear departed” (and then to my self) “and perhaps I could steal a kiss or two from one or more of those beautiful Afro-Celtic daughters”. Instead I say “Well, thanks for telling me, it could have been very uncomfortable for them, I’ll be back in an hour” 

So I walk back up the road between Western Cemetery #1 and #2 and as always the power of the setting captures my attention. Section #2 had been closed to burials for 100 years because of the terror of Cholera. 1867 was a very difficult year for the people of St. Thomas. There were two Hurricanes, a Yellow Fever epidemic, a Cholera Epidemic, an Earth quake and a Tidal Wave 

They put the people (over 1200 men, women and children) who died of Cholera in Section #2 and declared that no soil was to be turned here for 100 years. And they stuck to it. All through childhood we wondered and worried, could it come back up from the ground to get us all? 

Just across (on the North side of the street) from The Western Cemetery #1 and #2  is the Old Moravian Cemetery and next to that, The Old Jewish Cemetery. Each very interesting and colorful in their own right, many generations of my son Scott’s maternal line, are  in The Old Jewish Cemetery) 

 The Danish West Indies were a welcoming and tolerant society and St. Thomas is the home of the second oldest Synagogue in the new world. Jewish families of every hue have been a part of these Islands since shortly after the last ship load of their ancestors (fleeing the inquisition), left Palos Spain on the exact same tide that Columbus did on his first voyage of discovery. My boy’s people (the Trepuks and Levin’s) went first to France and then came here to the Danish West Indies. Of course “My Boy’s people” are his beautiful Mother’s people, and she and he are a natural-born part of the Creole society that I am holding vigil with today. 

 While waiting for four to become five, I drove over to the Old Villa Olga, in French Town. The Villa Olga has been many things over the past three hundred years, and I am drawn to it’s beauty, history and cool breezes. Villa Olga  sits on a little point, in fact the very point from which the coal carriers of old (all female) would cross the slippery marshy coral bridge to Hassel Island every morning and evening, going to and from their work. These coal carrier ladies, balancing precariously on sagging steeply angled narrow gangplanks, loaded and unloaded (in baskets balanced on their heads) every rock, nugget, sliver, and dust particle of the coal that fired the furnaces of the great transatlantic steam ships of the time. 

 After carefully removing and folding my spiffy jacket and leaving it in the car, I sit on the rocks and think about them and a hundred other things that are a part of the history of the area. The entire economy of the people of Charlotte Amalia (apart from the merchant class)  were dependent on the work of these women and their paltry hard-earned incomes. The old photos  show lines of ragged coal blackened women that appear to be caricatures of human beings. No one could be that ragged, that dirty, that disheveled, that exhausted. The impression is that they aren’t photos of people, rather they’re paintings exaggerated to make a point about suffering. 

For years the community  response was “Thank God that’s not me, thank God that we’re not like that. But in reality, they are, we are like that. These are the Grand Mothers and Aunties of many of our loved ones and friends. The heroic “Coal carriers”  the hard pressed ladies that changed the history of the DWI when they organized themselves and struck from insult and rage and defiance when the twice removed decided to pay them for their hard work with (of all things) Mexican Pesos. 

Mexican Pesos worth even less then, than now. But to the twice removed the caricatures that carried the coal were worth less than a worthless Peso. When it became clear to the ladies that their labors were rewarded with currency  that they could not use to buy food for their children and families, they struck. And in so doing, earned their place in history.  

The slippery coral bridge is long gone now the US Navy blasted it to kingdom come when they bought the Islands from Denmark in 1917 for 25 Million Dollars and no sense. (a small local joke) They blasted the bridge to give boat traffic improved passage from one anchorage to another. It was a good thing, sea water got stagnant in this little corner of the harbor, and Yellow Fever is rumored to have had a ball concocting it’s self among the flotsam and jetsam of three hundred years of naughty goings on here. 

Before our town was given the  name of the beautiful Queen Charlotte Amalia, it was known throughout the West Indies as “Tap Hus” which means of course “The Drinking House”. Many more than one drunken sailor was swept by time and tide into this corner of the harbor to wind up as a rum poisoned feast  for fish and mosquitoes. You can imagine what a God awful stew of stink and pestilence this quaint little corner must have been. This may be one of those rare instances in which three bombs and a bazooka “done good”. 

 This afternoon, Passenger Boats of every possible color combination,  inbound from or out bound to St. John, St. Croix, Tortola and Puerto Rico, are zipping through the passage on their way in and out of the Harbor. Sea planes are splashing down and splashing up every few minutes and fishing dinghys and inflatables are zipping by every where. 

 This is quite a busy quiet spot. Over there are the remains of the concrete walls that was the huge salt water swimming pool of my childhood, and here (floating across the harbor from the West Indian Dock), comes a basso profundo rendition of “When You Wish Upon A Star” played by “Captain and foghorn” as the Disney cruise ship announces it’s imminent departure to one and all. As It slips out to sea I can’t help but notice what a remarkably classically beautiful ship it is, and think how extraordinary it must be, for little ones to take a cruise on her. 

It’s ten to five, time to get back to the Vigil.

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