Home > 1, Music > Book 1. Isla Grande…

Book 1. Isla Grande…

Book 1. Isla Grande…

Fleeing like banditos from “Bills” (not Wild Bill Hickock or Billy The Kid nor a gang of other such Billy bad boys, which would have made much more sense to me,) we got into what seemed  like a paper Mache “Piper” plane, and skeedaddled bouncily down the runway to rise shakily up up ah..down up down down up up down up into the air. (Good Godawmighty, just thinking about it, I get the leapin’ skeebewillers), Between skeebees and willers, I thought “what the heck are we doing” “what the heck are they thinking?”, this is crazy…

 We were leaving St. Thomas, Howard’s home, and a place that Gale and Mud and I loved, to go to Puerto Rico, because we “couldn’t pay our bills?” what kind of crazy craziness is that?

 If Mud had only known…

We were leaping one and all, body and soul, out of the frying pan and into the fuego, to make a new start. What were they thinking…

In retrospect, but only because in addition to being  a pretty good screechist and yowlist, I am a UCLA trained and certified Drug and Alcoholism Counselor, (I got that training in order to design and implement a recovery program for the music business, but that’s another story) I understand fairly well what they were thinking.

Howard (Mud’s fourth Husband) was seeking what is known as a “geographical cure”, that is when an alcoholic or drug addict thinks/hopes/imagines that changing his or her geographical location will solve their problems, not realizing that their problem/s is their addiction to alcohol or their drug/drugs, and the predictable symptoms and side-effects of that addiction, across all the life areas. Capeche?

More than likely, Mud was “feeling”, more than thinking, and what she was feeling, more than likely, goes something like this…her father had committed suicide when she and her twin sister were nine, “if only she and her sister and her mother had done more, had tried harder”…Howard was her fourth attempt at marriage and she was only twenty nine years old, He was a charming, cultured, fun and educated twenty eight year old, she was determined to be a good wife. She was determined to save both her husband and her marriage, if humanly possible.

 Of course they had absolutely no real insight into or understanding of  their ever progressing alcoholism, other than the propaganda that the alcohol industry had successfully brainwashed everyone into beliving, which was that “drinking too much” (addiction to alcohol or alcoholism), while a bad habit, was essentially a question of will power, of strength of character. (If you had no strength of character, or will power, well… thats on you)

So off we went, the blind leading the blind, deeper into the darkening night.

The Piper was being piloted by “Mr. Gray” Mud’s boss at V.I. Corp (The Virgin Islands Corporation – a government funded development and management company) Mr. Gray was (in those days) “an American Negro”, nowadays, an “African American” meaning, he was a person of color, from the states, as opposed to being an “I-lan Man”, or more contemporarily, an  “Afro Caribbean American” or “Afro Decendent Person”. Whatever the descriptor, he was a kind and accomplished, fairly young man. Mr. or “Major” Gray was also a Jet Pilot in the National Guard.

It was 1954, Mr. Gray was thoroughly interesting and was seen as a real  star on the rise. Tragically, a few years later, long before reaching his full potential, he would disappear while on a National Guard training flight, crashing with his jet,  into the sea off Puerto Rico.

Our bumpity little flight that day, over the same waters, still remains my least favorite flight ever. The capper was when we were descending over San Juan harbor down towards the runway at “Isla Grande” and the engine seemed to cut off (in reality, Mr. Gray had simply “throttled back”) and I (more of those blasted words with a mind of their own) involuntarily (but at volume) squeaked to my everlasting humiliation, a pinched but heart felt “He.. He… HELP!” right over his shoulder and into the microphone and the ears of the air traffic controllers down below…Ah well.  

It’s a lonesome thing to think that one is the only surviving member of our crowded little crew in that crowded little piper cabin that day, and perhaps odd too, that even after all these years, one would still be so embarrassed at the outburst.

We went directly from Isla Grande (the airport) to a very charming old world style hotel in Old San Juan called “The Plaza” where we stayed for approximately one week. Gale and I had the greatest fun running around exploring the streets of Old San Juan together. Old San Juan, is an extraordinarily beautiful, colorful, charming and picturesque little city of narrow cobblestone streets built in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds, with the architecture, and ambiance of Old Espana herself.

Add to that “La Forteleza” the grand and beautiful stone and rubble masonry Spanish Fort built to protect the city from the likes of “El Draco” (Sir Francis Drake…of the recently referenced Drakes Passage in the Virgin Islands) and other English, Dutch or French military invaders and Privateers, along with the predations of the “barbarous brotherhood of the boucan” the cockamie collection of Irish, African, English Dutch Scotch German, Welsh and everyone else, ner-do-wells known as “Los Hijos de La Gran P*tas, los Pirates! Ay con**yo!

 Needless to say, with the charm of the old hotel, and the past and the present, always present, Gale and I loved living in old San Juan.   

We thought we were in heaven.

Unfortunately, it only lasted a week. Our next move put us in the closest possible proximity to what was then the biggest swampiest, stinkiest, most disease riddled slum, in Latin America, “El Fangito”. We were now domiciled at “Parada Vente Cinco, y Aveneda de Fernandez Juncos”in Santurce. and all of the grace and charm of old San Juan vanished like the dark when you flip on the bathroom light. Ay con**yo!

 For the first time in our lives, Gale and I saw children feeding them selves out of garbage cans.  Wandering the streets with  filthy dirty faces, and open running sores. Girls and boys, no socks, no shoes, often no clothing, just a raggedy shirt, pinned at the bottom or nothing at all, and feeding themselves, hand to mouth, out of the stinking, filthy, maggot riven garbage cans, up and down the avenue.

 To say that we were shocked and disturbed would be a serious understatement. It was incomprehensible to us that people would allow this, we couldn’t understand it. My first conscious thought was “If the people in America knew about this, they’d stop it right away, they’d help these children and their families, and then, I thought, they must not know, or they’d never let it go on, and then…I’ve got to tell them about it, And then… I don’t know what to do. Within days I had started trying to write my first song hoping and believing that somehow, it would make a difference.

Gale and I had missed many a meal our selves, gone to bed and gotten up hungry many times over the past two year or three years. We knew what it was to be hungry, and to do without. In addition, we had been up close to extreme poverty in places like Barracks Yard and Buck Hole in St. Thomas, but that was no where near this intensity, this severity and this scale. Our pad was on the second floor, immediately next to and over looking El Fangito, the chaotic ramshackle tin and cardboard shacks went on and on as far as the eye could see. Soweto had nothing on El Fangito, except perhaps Soweto had less all consuming, everpresent, stinking, sucking, … mud.

While I was grateful that we were not smack-dab in the middle of it, I also realized that now, the only thing keeping us out of there, was Mother’s series of always iffy secretarial jobs.

 Howard was “sick in bed” with a recurrence of Malaria or, a Mala-Alco combo condition, the only cure for which seemed to be shots of Don Q. For a while, it was sort of my job to stay with and look after him. Gale had started back to school, Mother was at work and I was doing my part.

I was a “good boy” and I felt as if I was doing something important and helpful for him and the family, nevertheless, it was scary and unnerving as Howard slid easily in and out of delirium and it wasn’t always clear to me when he was in and when he was out.

 At the same time I suspect Howard felt some responsibility for instructing and engaging the lad (me) in which ever ways he could, and so in his malarial delirium, sitting in the physical and psychological “stink cloud” that hung over “El Fangito”, he took it upon himself to teach me the game of Chess.

God Bless Howard, I think he meant well with the Chess and the effort to engage, but I quickly discovered that I was not temperamentally suited to a game in which one sits for hours on end staring at a Chess board projecting ones opponents next move, and then thinking about ones own next move and then… and, to tell you the truth, I don’t know that Howard was either.

The games consisted of stretches of the longest, craziest, hot humid tedium imaginable, interrupted now and then by a seemingly nonsensical flurry of activity, that would almost always arrive at Howard staring across the board at me with his burning electric fevered yellow eyes, and shouting excitedly, Ok Ok Ok! You got me, then with the most grandiloquent sweeping flourishes knocking his King over and exclaiming, I Concede, I Concede! And then…Ok, Ok, Ok, you win, but gimme a chance to get even, set ‘im up and let’s play again.

 It’s just a good thing that Howard never offered to share his rum with me during Chess, or I surely would have started drinking alcoholically at eight, rather than at thirteen.

During one such “Malariac” relapse we were outside the kitchen on a sort of rooftop patio when I decided to go climbing over the side and down to a “boxed in” concrete alley below, I was a good climber and clambered around until I got to the deepest part of the down below, and there I seemed stuck. Even the lowest concrete walls down there were now too high for me to pull my self back up on, it seemed there was no way out.

 Howard suggested tieing some sheets together, and lowering them down for me to grab onto, the idea was that he would grab the other end and pull me two stories up, back to the patio. I looked at the concrete all around me, the fifty feet wall up to where Howard stood, and thought about his trembling walk and his shaky, shaky hands and fevered condition, and declined to do it.

It was the first time that I had overruled the direction or instruction of an adult, particularly a parent, and I felt very ashamed of my self. I was giving him the impression that I was afraid, and that  I didn’t trust him to do his part, but the truth is I was, and I didn’t.

The thought that I would be dragged up against the rough concrete wall for ten, twenty, thirty or even forty feet and then have to let go, or be dropped to the concrete below, seemed horrible and extremely likely to me. And while I could see that he was hurt and disappointed and I felt terrible about it, I felt even worse about the prospect of being foolish enough to try it and then coming back down that wall at speed.

The truth is I don’t think he had the strength to do it and I’ve never really regretted not going forward with it, I only regretted that he had made an offer that I had refused.

I was eventually able to scramble up and out on my own, but I think it came between us. Another situation from which I came away feeling the deepest shame occurred one night when Mud, Gale, Howard and I were  at the dinner table, Howard was up and out of bed and seemed to be getting better, we were talking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I was going to be a cowboy. Howard said “that’s great, I’ll come with you and we can be cowboys together”, and before thinking, I said “but you can’t Cha Cha Man, (our nickname for him) “there aren’t any colored cowboys”. It was like I had shot him, and I felt instantly that I had said something unforgivable, that I had hurt him terribly, I hadn’t meant to, and I had no idea what to do or say next.. So I said I’m sorry Howard, I’m sorry, he caught him self and laughed it off saying “that’s all right, I’ll be your cook” which made it even worse.

Had we known he might have said “Oh Yeah? What about Bill Dogget?” or The Buffalo Soldiers? or any number of others”, but because it was 1954 and whites  had written the history of the west, we didn’t know. I felt so very bad for him, and I was so ashamed… Continued…

 

 

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