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Book 1. The Catch.

February 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Book 1. The Catch.

I was talking with Tuts the other night about times and friends and places that are no more, we were talking specifically about our “Doun De Road” Alma Mater, the notorious Nisky elementary school. Nisky was located in an (even then) old one story military barracks, in the world war one submarine base on St. Thomas, and was known far and wide for having what were thought to be some of the hardest headed children in captivity, ah…ah… I mean the public school system, in it’s oh so unruly student body.

  The sub base was located on land originally owned by the Nisky Moravian Church, bordering on Gregorie Channel and including Little Crumb Bay, the site of the earliest (five thousand years ago) Cibonay settlement in the lesser Antilles.

Under Danish Rule, the Moravians had been put in charge of educating the people of the Danish West Indies, and  after the transfer, although there was an effort (mostly unsuccessful)  made to bring some of the more salutary elements of American education into the picture, at Nisky, Dick and Jane and Sally and Spot mostly elicited laughter. In any case, that’s a little of how a double gaggle of dusty knobby noggined, wildly willful, rough and unruly children came to be occupying a “one room school” in a dilapidated military barracks (complete with jail cells) named after a Moravian Church, in a submarine base, down in the bongo isles.

 So, on my way back from doing a radio interview with “Brownie” on WSTA (which is now also located in the old sub base) I stopped at the old school grounds to soak up some of the “vibes” and to relive and remember how it was.

The first thing that one notices is that the school and building are no more, they have been replaced by a frigging concrete parking lot, the lot is full of cars and trucks and there is not a trace of the place, (unless you know how and where to look.) If you do know how and where to look, then you will find everything exactly, (in fact even more exactly) as it was, than it was.

That place is of course the so called “wind..rather sugar cane mills of your mind, mentis and memory”.”The place of course where the reds are so much redder, and the blues are downright azure.

 One of the most striking similarities bridging now and then is the fact that this little unshaded frying pan of a half-acre was and is among the hottest habitable places on the planet earth.

We, the knobby noggined, would stand right where I stood, in our raggedy lines and bake-fry three times a day, waiting for the odd collection of teacher ladies (young and old) to get us lined up properly and to the satisfaction of our strict  disciplinarian principal, Mrs. Ulla Muller.

 Once we were lined up, we prayed the “Our Father” and (in the after noon) sang “Now The Day Is Over) to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers” Sula says that when she was a teacher, they did the very same thing up in the country. (Interesting to note that my friend Sula taught our principal Ulla Muller, how to read in the little one room school-house called “Bonne Resolution” up in the cool mountain air just down the road from Nelteburg.

I’ve since learned that the  content and  process was the same at all the public schools, but it must have been very much more pleasant under the tall shade trees and in the cool mountain breeze at Bonne Resolution, No wonder she was grumpy down in the hot frying pan flat land, who wouldn’t be.

Additionally interesting, is the fact that Mrs. Ulla Muller is now a very sweet, pretty and gentle, ninety year old lady and friend of ours,) but that is also another story.

 This one has to do with what I consider to be the best decision that I ever made. It happened at Nisky School early one morning just before the school bell rang.

At that time (September, 1951) Gale and I were the only white children in the public school system, certainly the only white children at Nisky School. The “big boys” fifth and sixth graders (some of whom were teenagers already) were not inclined to the gentle and kind, and especially not to a little white boy. On the morning in question a ball game was in process in the narrow area behind the old Navy heavy equipment shop and the School. The playing field was a long rectangular area between the shop, the school and the chain link fence protecting the Moravian Ministers “yard” (an area planted with Mango and Coconut trees) from the depredations of unruly and hungry children. 

The “big boys” were playing and all the rest of the children (including my sister Gale and I) were standing on the sidelines watching.  One of the sides needed someone to play the deepest part of the outfield and somehow I was push pulled forward to be the one. I was in the very beginning of the first grade and was certainly one of the smallest children there, however, I suspect this was about discovering what kind of man the little white boy was, so it would be clear to all where in the hierarchy he belonged”

The first test was; would I play at all, or would I back out of playing when we had to take the field, did I, would I have the moxie to try. (I of course didn’t know all about all this stuff; I just knew that if I didn’t step up, the teasing would be merciless)

When the sides changed, someone on the incoming team threw me a glove, actually some kind of a  “mitt” (which means to me a glove with fingers splayed in every direction and no rawhide string connecting any of them) The mitt flew through the air and  fell in the dust at my feet, eliciting the first of what many anticipated would be a whole string of laughs (at my expense) that morning. The truth is I didn’t know how to not participate in what was developing and so I automatically but reluctantly, moved into the game.

 I put the enormous mitt-glove on my little hand  and went out, out, out, until they signaled me to stop. When I turned around and looked back at the paint can that was home plate it looked like a  miniature thimble. The first batter swacked something on the ground to third and I felt pretty good about that. I knew that I had scored some points just by accepting the challenge of playing, and I hoped that this would be “one two-three” and game over. The second batter also swacked it on the ground, and my team was getting very excited  now, because we had the lead with one out to go and the school bell about to end the game at any moment.

 The next thing I know, up steps a really big tough guy, and the second base guy and every body else are signaling me to go even further and further out…then blam-o the the really big fellow hits the friggin ball up up up and out out out, a monstrous “bataso largo” a moon shot and my good god awmighty the blasted thing has passed up and over everyone else and is heading straight for me.

That was the moment of the best decision I think I ever made. I was just a little kid, in fact I’d never even been in a real ball game before, and I had certainly never caught a ball that someone had hit, let alone launched into outer space. We were playing with what is (for reasons unknown to me) called a “soft ball” which means that the friggin thing coming down at me was every bit as big and hard as the moon.

 The question in question,  was never consciously put, I just ran forward to meet the falling sky. Not eagerly and confidently, rather scared to death, but determined to try. I stuck my two hands out palms up before me as I ran and the enormous orb hit the mitt-glove with what seemed like the force and weight of a cannon ball. There it was wobbling back and forth in the center of the wobbling mitt thing (which was too cockamamie to close) with my left hand trembling under the weight of it.

I could not believe that, 1, I had caught it, and 2, I was now about to drop the blasted thing. My right hand flew over to help steady the ball and by God,  seconds later, the catch was caught. And caught too, forever in the hearts and minds of every single kid in Nisky School. My credibility and basic worth in terms of character, and cohones was established forever.  The celebration began immediately the shouting and cheering was almost universal, and felt so good..and welcoming to me. It was beautiful, de lil’ Nisky School white boy had proved himself to be someone they could be proud of,  had established his credibility, and though it would be tested many times again, the foundation for friendships based on admiration  and respect, relationships that have lasted a life time, was created that fine morning by the best decision I ever made, which was simply, “Don’t run away Scott, run forward… and try”

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Book 3. Sula, The Mountain Dove

December 22, 2009 2 comments

Book 3. Sula, The Mountain Dove

I had an unusually enjoyable visit with Sula  this morning, I put three of my last six dollars in the tank so that I could go up to see her. It was a beautiful morning and the views round this that and the next corner were crystal clear. The” surf was up” outside Hull Bay, Tortola, Jos Van Dyke and islands of the Thatch Key archipelago were a majestic blue in the distance, and the”Plums were up” in Sulas “Hog Plum” tree too. The shutters are flung open in her little wooden house and the voices of the choir at the Cathedral of Saints. Peter and Paul come pouring out of her little radio, each utterance aspiring to sanctity and  sounding like they are hitting awfully close to the mark, to me.

I have come to love the shaky but sincere leads and rough harmonies of one singer after the next and one  Choir after the other. Sula’s  sister the long departed “Tantan Bertha’s” son, Ashford is in the other room, with his radio also tuned to WSTA and he is playing his alto saxophone along with the music. He plays in the old “Quelbay” style, a high wavering vibrato, a full beautiful tone. He is one of the very best but does not play in public, he is very shy and is waiting until he becomes a better player. He is really very good already, and I very much delight in listening to him play.

Ashford and I connect through the music and we have interesting music related conversations just about every Sunday. Conversations about music books that he orders through the mail, scales and intervals, theory and improvisations. He honors me by presenting thoughtful questions about these things as though I were (because I am a recording artist) a  knowledgeable maestro. God bless him, I’ve actually been able to answer a few of his questions and even add a little info on top of that, but it’s  a fluke,  small bits of knowledge I’ve picked up by osmosis. My storehouse/library of academic information in this area is embarrassingly sketchy, my own musical gifts are more like a wild rolling eyed confidence, married to a series of semi spontaneous heartfelt polyphonic outbursts through an instrument that continually surprises (among others) me, with it’s power and purdyness.

What the heck that has to do with knowing anything, is a great mystery. But if Ashford (or anyone else) wishes to be kind to me because of it, I’ll take it and try my best to return the same. 

The music of sincere people in reverential worship fills Sulas world every Sunday and it is a beautiful thing

 Sula’s Hog Plum Tree is weighed down with golden-yellow and  soo very sweet plums. She was hoping that I would be able to pick a bag full for her “other” boy friend Desooka” (really Desouza but Sula has decided to call him Desooka and so it is)

 My first question to Sula is always “Sula have you been behaving your self?” and she answers sweetly in a proper lilting creole, “Yes Scott, I am always well-behaved” My second question is “But Sula, how can a woman who has not one or two or even three or four but maybe five or six or more boyfriends at the same time, claim to be behaving herself?” And she will throw her head back and laugh out loud..

I ask her if she has gotten all dressed up for me this morning, because she looks so sharp.. She denys it, but her dress was especially pretty, a royal blue with little heart wreaths filled with flowers all over. She looked very pretty and I told her so. She had a red kerchief on, but took it off to re-tie, as she did I noticed her hair, a wild confusion of snow-white curls with perfect little plaits and braids. I said “Sula, don’t you ever leave the kerchief off? Your hair looks so pretty and the kerchief must be so hot.

To my surprise she did leave it off..she looked great and comfortable and cool.

 Breaking into a more colloquial calypso accent, she said, “Scott, Ah wan yu tu git me ting dem frum de box dare fo me, ah want a candy, because my mout is soo dry, an ah wan yu put me oy drop dem in me oy”

I teasingly say “Sula yu wan me put yu oy drop dem in yu oy? In yu oy? She laughed at my exaggeration of oy,  then I said “but Sula yu have tu open yu oy so I cou put in de drops” She said “But, What do yu mean? I thought they were wide open already? Yu know yu poor girlfren is as bline as a bat, de poor ol girl kee-an see a ting!

 “Scott yu know what I heard on de radio? Some boys who went to college  say that there is no God, Who de hell dey tink made the heavens and de Eart, de moon and de stars? Dey mus-ee tink red pea soup could cook it self. How de hell dey could tink there is no God?

Sula then spoke a loud the sequence of the angel of the lord visiting a young virgin Mary and God placing his only begotten son in her womb, to grow there like every one else. She recounted the angel of the lord coming to Joseph in his sleep to explain what was happening with Mary, and she noted that in those days for a young man to be engaged to be married and discovering that his young bride to be was having a baby, was a difficult thing, but Joseph over came that and they had the little baby Jesus. And the little boy grew up playing and going to school just like all the rest, but then gave himself so that the rest of us could have life everlasting, could be relieved of our sins..”Oh yes!” she said “I know there is a God and I know my God is a good God.”

 “Didn’t God save me when I was only twelve years old and I had the Typhoid Fever? Scott, Doctor Knud Hansen was right here, he was white yu know, and He told Mama Lovie (Sula’s Mother) that he was going, and coming back that afternoon. Then he told Old Uncle George (one of the original of the three Moolenar brothers), he told him that he didn’t believe that it would be possible for me to live out the day, and George came down and told Mama Lovie what the Doctor had said”. “Sula” I asked, “Were you in the hospital in town whe you had typhoid fever or were you out here?” “Right here” she said “I was right here, and Knud Hansen called me his little girl and took care of me” “Sula” I said, “How did Knud Hansen come out? Did he ride on a horse or a carrage”? “No, Scott, No,” she said “Knud Hansen walked, he walked all the way from town. Knud Hansen came out here ten times to see me, and when he came back that afternoon and saw that I was still alive..he said it was a miracle. He told Mama Lovie that if he could, he would give her a Gold Star for how extra specially good she took care of me. It was God that saved me, my God is a good God. How else could I have lived when I gave birth two different times, to two little dead babies?”

 “Knud Hansen took care of me then too you know, even though I was a big and old and grown up woman, he still called me his little girl, and said that he would never let anything happen to me”. “How big where you then Sula”, I asked “any bigger than you are now?  I don’t think you were ever big Sula, I don’t think you were ever  any bigger than a Mountain Dove. And Sula, tell me, how old were you then?” “I was tutty one, tutty-two, tutty-three,” ” Wow Sula” I said, “all things considered that doesn’t sound very old either. Big and old?” She laughed..”You’re right, anyway, How can they think there is no God when God has always been so good to me?”

 As she spoke..I thought to my self, just listen Scott.. she doesn’t need, nor will she benefit from hearing your cockamamie comments on the old or new testaments, or you recounting current  theories on self-organization. you don’t really know any more than she does, or Knud Hansen did, about what came before or lies beyond the stars..you don’t need to show off how smart you are, at the expense of her comfort and beliefs, you don’t need to upset her and make her sad. She’s a good soul and a wonder in the world. Just dig it and be present..listen to the love in her and in the music all around.

I asked her if she knew my friend PK Hansen, (related to the Christiansens, a family that she has mentioned often) she ruminated a bit searching through a vast net of  direct and tangentialy connected names and relations, and then said..”But Scott, our friend  Jowers said he was going to bring Noreen to see me, but Alric says the house is too old and run down for visitors, that we should paint it first.

I said “Sula, we all love your old wood house, it doesn’t need to be painted before anyone comes to see you, we all expect to see, we want to see, we love to see the old house just the way it is, it’s like a national historic site, and you, Sula, you are a national treasure”

 Her face always lights up when I remind her of these things, her eldest son Alric has just moved back to the island after spending fifty-five years in the states, working mostly as a prison guard. He is a good and decent fellow, but he’s impacted by a stateside mentality that has not yet been recalibrated to the local culture. Further, he would prefer that Sula left her old house and moved into his brand new house, with he and his wife Florence,  on the other side of Crown.

Perhaps enough people expressed their shock and dismay with that idea, voicing their opinion that that would be the end of Sula, to have gotten his attention. However, He is still unfortunately quite verbal in his disapproval of her “old-time” environment as it is. at 107, Sula really is a national treasure. The shame is that more people are not aware of her, and have the opportunity to spend time in her home and company. She is a National Treasure is every way imaginable.