St. Croix… - I can’t remember whether I flew out of Miami or Fort Lauderdale but in 1973 to get to the island of St. Croix from south Florida you flew 1500 miles non stop to San Juan, Puerto Rico. From there it was a short seventy mile hop east to St. Thomas where the plane did not refuel before taking off for an even shorter fifty mile hop south to St. Croix. We deplaned on the tarmac and with my backpack and sleeping bag over my shoulder; I walked into the tiny terminal where David Petersen was waiting for me.
… David … - Although Saint Croix is the largest of the US Virgin Islands it is only five or six miles from the airport to the town of Frederiksted, where David taught English at the local middle school. He’d borrowed a VW Bug from a friend to meet me at the airport and rather than drive straight back to his apartment we took the scenic route east on Centerline Road toward Christiansted and then north to Northshore Road and Salt River Bay. Then we drove west along Cane Bay Road to pick up Scenic Road West that meandered through switchbacks in the mountains and hills until it became Highway 63.
We drove by the golf course, infamous site of the 1972 Fountain Valley massacre, where five Crucian men shot and killed eight people and wounded eight others. The official tourist trade spin was that it was a botched robbery, but their defense, led by William Kunstler, argued that they were the politically-motivated victims of systematic race-based civil rights deprivation and that the slaughter was a revolutionary act. Truth be told, it was likely a mix of all the above.
We intermittently slowed for wandering goats and stopped by the open food stand of ramshackle family home for a cold beer and a bite of Callaloo - a goat and okra stew.
It was an immersive introduction to the Virgin Islands Creole of Crucian which clearly demonstrated why David had his work cut out for him as a teacher of standard American English. For example, the English phrase "I gave it to her" translates to "Ah gi' 'e toh she" and "my eyes" translates to "ma eye dem." Throw in the influence of Puerto Rican Spanish vernacular, which is unique to that island, and sprinkle it all with arcane African, and 18th Century Dutch and Danish words and the result is Crucian which is why so many natives to the island of St. Croix speak English as a second language. David had learned some of it from his students, but in the intimate family banter that afternoon even he got lost in translation.
As we drove to Ham’s Bay, David explained that Crucian was much more than a dialect, that it was an identity and a way of life completely foreign to mainland Americans. Anyone who chose to make the island their home was an outsider for at least two generations and only their great grandchildren could hope to become Crucian, and then only if they mastered the language. The short drive took us south along the beach past Highway 76, a two lane asphalt road that led into what little remained of the island’s primordial Mahogany rainforest, a place that I would explore nearly every day I was on the island.
… Island Time … - We arrived at David’s apartment building and after exchanging greetings with Theresa, David's new wife, I dropped my backpack next to the futon in the living room, and we were off to return the VW and join a party at the beachfront home of a local attorney. It was sometime after three in afternoon when a half dozen people greeted us with cold beer and good dark rum. After an hour or so, I was introduced to the phenomenon of "island time." Several women were slicing veggies and making dip, when someone started talking about lobster bisque. Two of the men speculated that there was enough light left in the day that we might find a lobster or two near the beach and so ten minutes later we were snorkeling in the flat surf about a hundred yards off shore.
I was somewhat taken aback by how barren the sea floor was. Devoid of any coral, seaweed or sponge, we saw a few mackerel and a couple of barracuda swimming around but there was no sign of any lobster. We all had a bit of a start when we came upon a dead six foot shark entangled in nylon fishing net. Even though it was far beyond this world, it hung there in the net as an irrevocable reminder of mortality and the fact that we were in the water with other six foot sharks. Eventually we came to some small rocks scattered along the barren plain of sand and sure enough it was there that we spotted our quarry, a small but nonetheless legal lobster tucked away under a rock.
With no knives, spears, nets or even gloves, three young dudes with a serious beer and rum buzz took turns diving fifteen feet to the floor of the Caribbean Sea to harass, flush out and chase one poor lobster across the sand. It may have been small but as it evaded our grasp that crafty crustacean took its toll and by the time we actually captured the bugger we all had scratches and nicks in the soft flesh of our hands and fingers. We got it out in the open and all three of us dove simultaneously to surround the beast until one of us grabbed it with both hands from behind. Out of breath and bleeding in the water we all cheered and swam back to the beach.
Our triumphant return to the house was greeted with more cold beer, shots of dark rum and band aids while the women went work on a bisque, which was served in old fashion glasses so that everyone got at least one bite of lobster. Over the next six hours another dozen guests arrived and we threw darts, played cards and waited for Mordecai who would take us across the island to the best parts of the Saturday night carnival on the back streets of Christiansted.
That twenty people would wait six hours for the arrival of another person was my introduction to "island time." On the island in 1973, it was not uncommon for six people to politely stand in line at a bank while a customer carried on a ten minute conversation with the teller that had nothing to do with banking transactions. It typically took six months to get a telephone line installed and that was the day to day reality of "island time." Back on the mainland my friends might wait an hour or ninety minutes for someone, but then they'd go on without them.
Sometime around ten thirty Mordecai arrived and there was more beer, rum and dope to smoke before we all piled into two vans and the VW to drive to Christiansted. It was after midnight when we arrived at the back street place where Saturday night “Jump Up” was just warming up and that was just the beginning of my first night on St. Croix...
… and Poker – It was around one or two in the morning when we left the steel drum and scratch band strains of reggae, calypso and quelbe to return to the beach house where the traditional game of poker broke out. My plane ticket cost more than I’d planned to spend and so I’d arrived in St. Croix virtually broke with no ability to cash a check without imposing on David. Money was on the way via Western Union, but I had no cash to buy into the game so he fronted me five bucks worth of chips.
Cards kept coming my way and a half hour later I returned my stake to David. We continued to play for another couple of hours. David and I were the big winners, cleaning out everyone else at the table and the final pot came down to him and me. He was betting big on four queens. He looked at the chips sitting in front of me and thinking that he could force me to fold, he asked, “All in?”
I pushed my remaining chips into the pot and called. He matched my bet and proudly laid down his ladies.
We all laughed as I counted nearly a hundred and fifty dollars from that pot and we were just about to cash out and fold the game when another native Crucian, named Big John arrived with a bottle of rum and a fist full of cash in the mood to celebrate his great good fortune at winning over $20,000 from the Puerto Rico Loteria Tradicional.
This time I staked David with fifty dollars worth of chips and we went at it again until the sun came up. Since Big John was drunk and getting more drunk, we were kind to him and only took him for about five hundred; but he didn’t care, he was sharing the wealth and he had plenty more cash on the way.
“It’s strange,” I said to David over coffee, “I don’t think of the money when I gamble. Money is just a way to play the game; sometimes I win or lose, but never very much. The weird thing is that when I need money I tend to win what I need. One month in LA I was short on rent so I bought a round trip ticket to Vegas, took what little I had in the checking account and went to play Blackjack at the Tropicana. Less than an hour after I sat down at the table I was cleaned out. Didn’t even have cab fare to get back to the airport so I walked nearly five miles and when I got to McCarran I was down to my last cigarette with only thirty-five cents in my pocket. A pack of smokes was fifty cents from the machine, so I started playing the nickel slots and after I won enough to buy my cigarettes I kept playing to kill time. I hit a hundred dollar jackpot, took my bucket of nickels, traded them in for folding money and caught a cab back to the casino. I sat down at the same Blackjack table and played until ten or eleven that night. Won nearly $800, rented a room, flew back to LA the next morning, paid my rent three months in advance and had money left over.”
David grinned and asked, “How much did you win tonight?”
“Thanks to Big John, more than I needed,” I answered. He laughed, “Like I said, when Theresa wakes up, we’re going to Christensted and you’re buying lunch today.”
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