February 9. 2013
It’s a Tuesday evening in early February and I am sitting on the porch of my funky, remote shack in Coral Bay, St. John staring at quickly fading, sunset-illuminated cumulus clouds floating over Tortola. A pair of lonesome donkeys meanders slowly down the road below accompanied by the distant sounds of bleating goats and the occasional rooster crowing from the bush. “Me donkey wan’ wattah,” I hum to myself. I am privy to a twilight exchange between an awakening coki frog and some retiring doves. A brisk breeze is coming across Drake’s Channel from the BVI and in the gossamer light of a rising full moon I can easily see the whitecaps out on the bay. Quite different from last night when it rained and blew so hard that puddles were left on the floor inside and a screen flew right out of my window and sailed across the room. A subtle whiff of roasting fish now rides the freshening wind up from the little restaurant below. I’ll be playing there soon. . I am tired, but very glad to be back.
My flight from Hartford seems like it was a long time ago and worlds away. But it was really only yesterday and it was relatively uneventful. Unless you would call a planeload of travelers bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico who muttered prayers, crossed themselves incessantly and kissed crucifixes every time we hit some turbulence - which was plenty - as ‘eventful’. I sat next to a lively, muscular Latin gentleman with a broad, gold-capped grin and a shaved head. His noggin had become a canvas for some elaborately garish tattoos – crude vignettes of the Last Supper, angry panthers clawing their bloody way across his cranium and some script that may have been a Spanish poem. Or epithet? He carried onto the plane only a large fishing pole. It sure was interesting to see him maneuver that into the overhead bin. His English was as sub-rudimentary as my Spanish. We grinned and mimed at each other like monkeys as we settled in. I wondered if he was planning to do some trolling from 37 thousand feet? Ave, Pescadero!
The baby in the next aisle behaved as if she had fire ants in her diaper, spending the entire trip climbing, jumping, pulling, squirming, wailing, raging. Mommy seemed preoccupied with an electronic device that no doubt had its headphone volume turned up to 11. Another toddler in the seat behind me sounded like a tubercular octogenarian, barking incessantly as she kicked the seat back with the fervor of a linebacker.
When we at last landed in Puerto Rico, such jubilation and applause erupted from the plane you'd have thought our pilot had just discovered a New World. Maybe he had. And I was most ready to get off that plane to see it!
The next leg of the journey was to be in an aging, twin-engine puddle-jumper that seats perhaps 30 passengers for a 25-minute air excursion that would hopefully land in St. Thomas without devolving into a sea-cruise! I always marvel how these tiny old planes can carry all that stuff and remain airborne! But they do. For the most part. But before I would find out how it turned out, I would have nearly three hours in the airport to wonder about it. And wonder I did.
My travel companions for this leg were an odd lot. There’s a saying on St. John: "The odds are good, but the goods are odd". And here they were! Three generations from two families of garrulous crackers from Kain-tucky were encamped in the small airport departure room awaiting the same flight to St. Thomas as I. They’d already been there for a few hours. From their colorful declarations I deduced that they had recently embarked on their first-ever non-stop-fun-adventure-of-a-lifetime Carnival cruise! First stop: San Juan, Puerto Rico. Yee-haw! When cultures collide!
"Ah thought when they let us off’n that boat we'd a-had sum time to see sumpin good, but no, sir" bellows Paw-pa. “Jus’ a mess o’ t-shirts an’ ol’ buildin’s is all. If’n ah wanted t’see ol’ buildin’s, ah coulda stayed a-home! Where you put that t-shirt I botcha, Oobie?”
“Y’all ain’ got no buildin’s like ‘at where yer at, Paw-pa” says a boy about 9 years old. He sports a green Mohawk and is in perpetual motion. He is chewing on something too large for his mouth. This must be Oobie - I am assuming the short form for "Hubert"?
“Hell I don’!” mutters Paw-pa, who never did clarify what “sumpin good” was. What that could be was now left entirely to my imagination. Perhaps alligator wrestling? A sausage museum? A pileup on Turn 5? Or, Hooters? Yeah, Hooters.
At any rate, they must have found plenty of “sumpin good” somewhere in San Juan because they were abandoned high ‘n dry yesterday when the cruise ship left port without them. I wondered whether it might have been a ‘planned oversight’ on the captain’s part? They had had to find a place to stay in San Juan for the night, and now here they were, having to find their sorry way over to St. Thomas to reunite with their cruise. It was sort of like a bizarre episode of TV’s “The Great Race”, but southern-fried and in real slow motion.
Em’ry (aka Paw-pa) was probably around 60-something and weighed-in at about 85 pounds soaking wet. He had a walker with a hand-brake (I just couldn’t imagine him getting up enough steam to require putting the brakes to that thing) and an attached basket full of touristy trinkets and empty soda cans. He had a full head of snow-white hair and was deaf as a post. He wore a t-shirt that was a few sizes too large and embossed with the pronouncement: “I’M WITH STUPID”. I thought, “You have quite a selection to pick from, mister!” His stentorian voice belied his diminutive size and every word he said reverberated throughout the airline waiting room. He behaved like he was this tribe’s red-neck Moses.
"Ah ain't feelin' so hot now, Maw. Prolly cuz ah finished up all mah pills and ain't got no more," Paw-pa told all of us in the waiting room.
"You ain't got no more?" screeches Maw-ma incredulously, not masking her irritation with Paw-pa even a little. “Now whatchu gone do? You ain’ better roon this trip fer me an' the res’ of us now!”
"Nope,” caws Paw-pa. “Prolly just die rychere in this here airpoht. That'll fix that, if'n yer lucky! But ah'm thinkin' ah jes' might maybe make it back to the boat first though. Ah shore don’ wanna miss enny more o’ that good eatin’, mmmm-hmmmm!”
“Prolly why you feelin’ so sick. Ya ate like a damn hog yestiddy, stuffin’ yer pie-hole like there were no tomorra!” rebuked Maw-ma. Paw-pa grinned at her, displaying a set of ill-fitting false teeth. "Yeah, yeah, you go grinnin' like a damn monkey," Maw-ma raved on, "but ah ain' goan be nursing the likes o' you all night, old man!"
Maw-ma had a sickly yellow-orange dyed brush-cut hair-do, slightly crossed, piercing blue eyes that were just a tad too close together. Maybe the extreme tightness of her jeans made her eyes cross? She paced back and forth, her gravelly voice and pinched, wrinkly mouth betrayed her habit as a long-term, hard-core smoker - a smoker who was flipping out from nicotine withdrawal and approaching her own personal ‘red line’.
"Ah jus’ cain’t unnerstan’! Why cain't they jus' let us smoke in the airpoht? ‘Tain’t like we’s gonna burn the damn place down or nothin’," she fretted, waving her bony arms around and pacing up and down like a caged tiger.
Apparently Maw-ma had been several hours without a butt. "Ah’m-a goan hafta kill sumbody if ah cain't have me a smoke! Ah’m-a jus’ go right through them thar doors ennyway, don’t cair ‘bout no stupid alarms,” hissed Maw-ma, waving dismissively at the heavy security doors. “Maybe ah jus' light up rychere! An’ ah don' cair if them stupid cops come or not. Wut they goan do, 'rest me?"
What followed was a lively inter-generational discourse aimed at preventing - or perhaps inciting? - a TSA/security meltdown. They all ranted and railed at once. Thankfully, somewhat cooler heads prevailed and Maw-ma was dissuaded from lighting up and inciting a riot. I, and a few West Indians waiting for the flight, could NOT believe what was going on and we would catch each others glances and roll our eyes. Paw-pa, who seemed to be receiving signals from another planet, would obliviously interject to no one in particular things like: "Ah know ah been on'y gone jus' a short l'il while...didn' ah leave y'all on Satiddy las'?...but by gawd, it feels like it been two weeks a'ready!" It was Monday. "That's some feed they give us on that cruiser boat, eh? Too bad we missed it today! Dick, you lissenin' to me, boy?"
Dick (perhaps Paw-pa’s brother-in-law judging from the close-set eyes and stubbly brush-cut) calls back as he’s rubbing his protruding belly, "Don’chu worry none, Em’ry," he hollered unnecessarily, "we'll make up fer it later in St. Tommy! You jus’ watch, you an’ me prolly nevah leave th’ table all dern week!" I wondered: How does Paw-pa stay so thin?
Perhaps as a distraction one of the daughters, Door-leen (around 40ish and not entirely unattractive like her maw-ma), nervously bounced her tattooed leg around declaring as she and her husband(?) Luther gorged themselves on greasy, over-priced Dominoes airport pizza that she now "had enough gas to blow this gawd-dern place right to hell". Not the kind of thing to be saying in an airport these days. Luther never stopped chewing. Nor did he take his eyes from the pizza box that was dwarfed by his ample lap. A long piece of stringy cheese draped over the fender of Dale Ernhardt’s race-car emblazoned on the front of Luther’s way-too-tight NASCAR t-shirt.
Door-leen’s statement apparently distracted Maw-ma from her nicotine perambulations long enough to bark at her daughter, "Now you jes' lay yerse’f rychere on the floor, Door-leen. Right is wrong, left is right, remember that? Jes' lie on yer lef' side rychere. That’s where yer gut is at."
"Ah ain't doin' that," shouts Door-leen, jumping from her seat as if propelled by a hot coal, sending pizza crusts flying. Luther, still chewing, looks over at her, annoyed that she’d just wasted some perfectly good crust. His eyes are dull, brown, vacant. I think: Bovine.
"Awright, then you jes' bloat up like a big ol’ dead heifer then," yells Maw-ma, crossed eyes flashing. “See if ah even cair!” She returns to pacing. I am wishing that the control tower would give her permission to take off!
Door-leen lets out an exasperated huff, then unceremoniously lies down on her right side in the middle of the waiting room floor. "Yer other right side, Door-leen,” chides Maw-ma from a distance. “ Ain’ ah already tol’ you, right is wrong, left is right, Hon!” Door-leen obliges and rolls over. “That's wut," says Maw-ma approvingly. "You ought be belchin' up real good soon."
Door-leen then says, as she looks up miserably at her mother, "Ah don't think so, Maw-ma. Ah feel like ah'm-a gonna fort."
I could no longer contain myself and I burst out laughing. Several of the West Indians, including two dignified old women with large woven straw bags and carrying Bibles, and a young dreadlocked Rastafarian, got up and moved. A few more just sucked their teeth - a true West Indian sign of disgust! This 'family carnival' went on and on, with assorted family members coming and going, bickering and bantering, proudly and loudly, until at last our flight was called. I was relieved that I didn't have to sit next to any of them (especially Door-leen!) on the flight to St. Thomas. But it was a small plane and I could still hear them yelling and guffawing in the back while a petite Latina stewardess stared at them, dumbfounded.
Puerto Rico vanished beneath us, but over the roar of the twin-prop engines I could still hear Maw-ma hectoring her clan as we bounced and jounced through tumbling cumulus cloud banks toward St. Thomas, “Ah cain’t wait to get me a cigarette. Ah’m-a smoke a whole pack soon as mah feet hits the groun’! Hope you got yer teeth all glued in good, Em’ry! You awful quiet Dick…you talkin’ to li’l Jay-sus again? Y’all ain’t gonna puke, are ya, Door-leen? This plane ain't so bad...ah ben places before ya know, like Cincinnati and Losssss Vegas and they was some scary airplane rides, ah'm-a tellin' you!"
I can only imagine.