The Oldest Crayon in the Box

Another Island Note…

It is back-to-school time.  Cultural guilt has made me return to the classroom in an attempt to learn more of our local language, Papiamentu.  It is a gumbo of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English with a pinch of Arawak Indian and African dialects for good measure. Papiamentu has the distinction of being one of the few Caribbean creole languages that has survived to the present day.

Less than 300,000 speak the patois and it is really not heard much beyond the ABC Islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, or in the venacular—Ruba, Boneiru, y Korsou.  But I am trying to bridge the linguistic gap between the local Antillean community and myself.  Sure, I could easily continue to get by on English and Dutch on Bonaire, but I am missing out on daily cultural exchange.  Knowing Papiamentu is key for me to become more integrated on the island so back to school it is.

My teacher is Xiamara Anastasia Frans who simply signs off on her e-mail address as Lady Xiamara.  She’s a three-decade veteran of teaching here in the public schools.  Xiamara fluently speaks four languages but Papiamentu was her first.  Born on Aruba to a mother from Sint Maarten and an Aruban father who was the middleweight boxing champion of Central and South America back in the day, she now has her own family who lives comfortably in their Nikiboko home on the outskirts of that neighborhood.  Her house is easily found by spotting the remains of a twin-engine airplane wreck in the yard.  That is the other classroom on the property where Xiamara’s husband, Jacinto, teaches aviation mechanics to young aspirants.

My classroom is the 10’ x 20’ porch of the family’s home.  There are three rows of two desks each, but we are talking old school here.  They resemble school desks of my earliest student days—made from wood, ink well in the top right corner, hinged at the front so the lid can be raised to store books & supplies, lunch & spit wads.  I feel right at home although my memory of these desks and former school daze are faint at best.  I believe my fellow students view the school furniture as museum pieces.  I am probably tossed into that category as well since I am double their age. Any of the three could easily be one of my kids.  There is Nat, Jenny and Sam.  They are all working on the island (unlike myself) with trades of environmentalist, bar tender and parrot scientist respectively.  The young people are a good group to be around.  After class one evening, they even took me to the ultra-hip Little Havana Cigar Bar to tip a few.  This place is so youthful and trendy that I have avoided it until now.  It was nice to have a thirty-something escort with which to comfortably absorb the cool.

While I really enjoy Xiamara’s class, I have discovered learning a new language at this time of my life has been difficult at best.  I used to know The Sixties as one of great cultural transformation.  The Sixties for me now are simply my personal 6th decade.  I don’t hear as well as 40 years ago. I tend to confuse some Papiamentu words with the basic Spanish equivalents that I’ve absorbed along the backroads of Mexico.  I am certainly the oldest crayon in the box and show quite a few more cracks and wrinkles than anyone else in our open-air classroom.  But hey, I am having a blast, learning a few things and enjoying the day.  I can’t ask for more.  And as they say in Papiamenu, poco poco, little by little I am learning the language.


Numerical Conclusions

Island Notes 101

It was four years ago today that we landed on Bonaire to begin a new life.  Since then I have written one hundred Island Notes, musings about living on an island.  Looking back, the series has covered an amazing amount of subjects especially considering the diminutive size of this place.

There are a lot of stories about animals—parrots, dolphins, eagle rays and eagles, screaming frogs, oversexed iguanas, haute couture flamingos, intimidating boa constrictors, disappearing geckos, and obstinate donkeys.

Island Notes 79. Swimming in the Shadow of the Eagle Ray

And there are tales about interesting people like Yellow Man, Tunbi Adeogaba, James “Crocodile’ Johnson, Mayo the mixologist, Breno from Brazil, the Birdman of Bonaire, the Choo Choo Man and Utopia, the Jamaican boatman.

Island Notes 30. Meeting Utopia

Sports have included swimming, scuba diving, free diving, fishing, golf, surfing, kayaking, caving and, of course, sailing.  In fact, many entries have involved boats.  My little catboat, Kontentu, has received a disproportionate amount of attention considering its size.  Write a letter to the editor if you have a problem with this.  But in fairness, Islands Notes also covered tall ships, tug boats, speedy catamarans, hand-made fishing boats, blue water cruisers and obnoxious cruise ships.

Hangin' out at the reef. Island Notes 95. A Bonaire Sunday Morning

Not all the Island Notes have been about Bonaire.  Travels have taken me to Anguilla, Aruba, Cuba, Curacao, Jamaica (mon), Marco Island, Saba, Sint Maarten, Statia, and most recently, the islands of the Pacific through my father’s World War II photographs.

Havana street walkers. Island Notes 32. Down in the Land of Fidel

Island Notes has had an obsession with food including peanut sauce, coconuts, iguana soup and chicken on a stick.  Mangos have taken the cake so to speak with titles like Mangos & War, Waiting For Mangos To Ripen.  It must have something to do with their erotic appearance and fragrant smell.

Island Notes 21. Waiting for Mangos to Ripen

Grand festivities have been a repeat offender with stories on Karnival, the Bonaire Jazz Festival, Saint Patrick’s Day-island style, a Thanksgiving off the coast of Cuba, and the wheels of love—The Party Bus.  But Island Notes has also covered the mundane—a swing in a hammock, a walk with the dog, a swim in the sea or dreaming surfing.

Island Notes 10. Mornings with Sparky - Moon over Inez

However, this particular entry, as you may have noticed from the title, is about numerical conclusions.  I have considered stopping the series.  After all, how many stories can one little island offer?  Plus my blog has evolved and now offers different categories like The Sailors Who Never Left, Other Writings, and Travels.  But I still believe Bonaire just may have a few more tales to offer.  What I will discontinue is putting numbers on the titles.  Since triple digits started appearing this year, the numerical labeling has lost significance for me.

This is how Island Notes started. Definitely old school.

One confession before closing…   I began writing the notes for myself, mere journal entries rather than polished pieces with some kind of coherency.  These early attempts had some great titles—Time, Bars & Birds; Screw The Wall; and Peanut Sauce & Hinges—but that was about it.  Few have read these early attempts.  I believe Island Notes #6, Swimming the Edge, was the first ever distributed.  It was sent via e-mail to about 40 friends, renegades and associates who I thought might like to have an island diversion now and then.  As time when on two things happened.  First, my long time friend, Kashyap Choksi, continually harped on me to create a blog for Island Notes.  I was resistant because I wasn’t seeking a large audience plus I didn’t think there would be much interest.  Second, unexpected events occurred.  People on the e-mail list started passing on the Island Notes to other friends and family.  One recipient found the notes so cool that he distributed it among his coworkers via his corporate firm’s newsletter.  They clamored for the next edition.  I finally caved in.  On June 8, 2009, I posted the first ‘blogged’ Island Notes, #38 After The Last Picture Show.  Since then, there have been over 9500 ‘hits’ on the blog with Island Notes #84 Color World receiving the most.

Island Notes 38. After The Last Picture Show

Mayo at the Beach Hut. Island Notes 84. Color World

In short, Island Notes will continue sans numbers.  I haven’t a clue what is ahead, but then again I never have.  It is perhaps that uncertain spontaneity that keeps the writer’s fire burning.   Don’t worry for tomorrow is another day.  There is much more to come from  down in the land of bon bini.

The Contract

Island Notes-One Hundred

I must start by saying how important friends are to me.  They are not family.  They are people who you encounter during this thing we call life, incidental contact with other humans who resonate with your soul.  One such person that I had the serendipity to meet way back in the the 70s was Tunbi Adeogba.  She hails from the British Virgin Islands, and after multiple decades abroad, Tunbi returned to her sweet little island of Virgin Gorda, specifically to the Caribbean village known as The Valley.

Her island spirit has never diminished, even during her many years in the high and dry  New Mexico desert.  And perhaps that was our attraction to each other.  We were both island people living hundreds of miles away from where our hearts said we should be.  But we both landed well.  Here is Tunbi’s New Year’s greeting to me and others who are, for reasons significant or less so, important in her life.  I feel privilege to be included.  It is a down island declaration of true friendship…

After serious and cautious consideration… your contract of friendship has been renewed for the New Year 2012!
My Wish for You in 2012….
May peace break into your home and may thieves come to steal your debts. May the pockets of your jeans become a magnet for $100 bills. May love stick to your face like Vaseline and may laughter assault your lips! May happiness slap you across the face and may your tears be that of joy. May the problems you had, forget your home address! In simple words …………
May 2012 be the best year of your life!!
One love,


A Sea Bee In The Pacific

Island Notes 99

I recently dived into a mound of old family photos—over a century of faces, places and events—in an attempt to cull the best and digitize those celluloid slices of the moment onto a medium with longer longevity.  For me it was a trip back in time—immigrant images from Hungary and Ireland, the first generation Americans seeking the mythical American dream, and two successive generations of kids after that, boomers and Generation Something—you pick the letter.  It was a visual journey that started in sepia tone and concluded in Kodachrome.

My father is just to the right of the guy in the light blue shirt.

One of the last envelopes that I opened was simply marked “WWII”.  These were my dad’s war photographs, all black & white save for one, a colored photo of him and his fellow warriors on a transport ship steaming toward the Pacific front.  My dad was a member of the 88th Battalion of the Navy Sea Bees.  This group would immediately follow the Marines on island invasions and begin building loading docks, roads, infrastrcuture and, most importantly, airstrips—at times under enemy fire.  The quicker the airstrip was built, the faster the Allied troops could secure the island and start attacking the next.  It was a long, bloody slog that culminated with the dropping of the atomic bombs and the surrender of Japan on the decks of the battleship, the USS Missouri.

But my father’s photos mostly mirror his small, myopic role in this grand historic event.  They show young men working, frolicking, and sometimes pensive in a place that none of them would have ever imagined being.  But my father also pointed his lens outward to the world around him.  Some scenes would make James Michener drool, photos of a South Pacific Shangra-La that is mostly gone now.  What follows are visual islands notes that my father and his buddies made with their cameras.  They reveal war and peace, wonder and death.

This is my father during the winter of 1942-43 in Providence, Rhode Island.  It was one of fierce ice, snow and wind.  I find it ironic that the Navy chose this misfit climate to train troops to fight in the tropical Pacific, but many things in war defy logic.  This was just one of them.  Upon completion, the 88thBattalion of the Navy Sea Bees was sent to balmy San Diego.  It was a staging area for transporting troops to the Pacific front.  My father describes the ship that transferred his battalion as “a banana boat”.  Apparently, the Navy in those early days was sending any ship that would float.  It was desperate measures for desperate times.  Dad recalls that it took them two months to reach the islands north of Australia by Spring 1943.

The Squad.

My father photographed this ship, the Kinugawa Maru on Guadalcanal. The Kinugawa Maru was a Japanese transport that had beached near the Bonegi River at 4 am on Nov 15, 1942 during the Battle of Guadalcanal.  Aircraft from Henderson Field and the USS Meade bombed and shelled the ship. Approximately 2,000 Japanese troops with 260 cases of ammunition and 1,500 bags of rice made it ashore. Most of their ammunition and food supplies were lost during the fierce attack. The ship was heavily photographed by Allied personnel during 1943-1944.  It is now a scuba wreck destination in 17 meters of water.

A downed Japanese plane.

My dad also had a photo of the Patient Kitten, a B-26 bomber.  Many planes during the war had individualized paintings on their fuselages, often a point of pride for the crew.  Researching records, my father most likely took this photo in 1944 on Leyte, the Philippines.  It was probably not soon after that the Patient Kitten went on a bombing run on April 15, 1944, over Tainan, Formosa (now Taiwan).  The plane received a direct hit in the bomb bay by anti aircraft fire and exploded, killing the entire crew of ten.  Only the body of tail gunner Sgt. Kasimer A. Kleinot, Jr was found.  It was sent to Doylestown, PA from Formosa through Hawaii.

The Fallen.

My father in the white T-shirt.

As a Sea Bee, my father learned many things; how to drive a 10-ton dump truck, maneuver a massive Caterpillar bulldozer, and help unload a supply ship in the shadow of night to avoid Japanese air attacks.  The Sea Bees would often work 16-20 hours straight when the threat of attack was near, only interrupted by Japanese bombing raids.  My dad, and many others like him, did what he had to do to get the job done as the Americans leap frogged from Sterling Island to Mono to Bouganville to Guadalcanal during 1943.

Dad in the middle.

Aircraft carriers at anchor in Ulithi Atoll.

As the war grinded on, more Sea Bee replacements followed.  By the time the 88th had reached Ulithi Atoll, my father had become a refrigeration specialist.  He described Ulithi as “the largest anchorage known to man in the history of planet Earth”.  Located in the southern Pacific of the Carolina Islands, this massive, protected lagoon at its height held nearly 700 ships and became the staging area for the US Navy’s western Pacific operations. Ulithi warped into a floating naval base. Six thousand ship fitters, artificers, welders, carpenters, and electricians arrived aboard repair ships, destroyer tenders, and floating dry docks.  The Seabees completed a fleet recreation center at Mogmog Island, one of the four inhabited island of Ulithi, which could accommodate 8,000 men and 1,000 officers daily. A 1,200-seat theatre, including a 25-by-40-foot stage with a Quonset hut roof was completed in 20 days.

Sea Bees at play, Christmas Day, 1944 at Mogmog, Ulthi Atoll.

My dad with his buddy, Pat Bouch.

And this is where my father stepped in.  His squad was responsible for maintaining the coolers for the food and supplies of this enormous work force.  There were massive coolers that kept the enlisted men’s beer and other coolers that housed the fine foods, whiskeys and cordials for the officers.  These facilities were, not surprisingly, heavily guarded.  My dad’s group would perform periodic maintenance on the coolers, and were checked by guards going in and out.  But as time went on, they devised tool chests that would conceal whiskey bottles in secret compartments.  The Sea Bee squad regularly raided the officers’ coolers whisking away expensive whiskey, cognac and Scotch, which garnered top dollar on the enlisted men’s black market.  His description of the scam had hints of the M.A.S.H. follies that I have watched on TV.

Pat Bouch with Sonny and an outrigger canoe.

Toward war’s end, my dad was posted in Leyte Gulf in the central Philippines.  He developed a fast and close friendship with a young local there named Sonny.  Their bond was so close that Sonny asked my father to be his best man in his wedding.  Somehow, my father and his Navy buddy, Pat Bouch, had their squad mates cover for them for days.  They took off with Sonny in his outrigger canoe and went deep into the jungle to Sonny’s home for the ceremony.  The two Sea Bees only had .45 caliber pistols with them and Sonny’s village was considered in enemy territory, under the control of the Japanese.  But the wedding went off without a hitch other than the day that Pat Bouch drank too much rice wine and started firing his pistol indiscriminately. Pat was a massive man, easily a head taller than my dad, but somehow my father got the pistol away from his drunken buddy and order was restored.  The two returned to base the next day and were never missed during their absence.

My father with Sonny and his family.

There are many other stories that my father has shared with me about his time in the Pacific.  Most of them were told in the last ten years as his clock shortens.  He will be 92 in February.  But I would rather let his photos and those of his friends speak for themselves.  These are not the photos from LIFE, Stars & Stripes, or seasoned war photographers.  They are simply images from young men caught up in a massive, historic event.  But I find them revealing, unique and sometimes shocking.  They are views undoubtedly familiar to the common soldier or sailor.  They are also photos that most at home probably never saw.

A cock fight in the Phillippines.

Head of a Japanese soldier.

Man with Elephantiasis.