St. Thomas (2)

This entry is part 12 of 20 in the series Cruising with Teens

Coki Beach may be a surprise to some. It is relatively small — intimate almost — wedged between Coral World and some densely packed residential areas. The vista looking seaward is gorgeous. Turn around, and the view takes in a line of brightly painted tumbledown shacks housing vendors of all sorts. This is not a quiet stretch of sand.

Wells and Dan took off through the trees toward the beach as the adults took their sweet time retrieving towels and the like from the back of the truck. The sky was steadily darkening.

“I hope we get some snorkeling in before it rains,” I said.

Frank looked up and surveyed the sky. “Oh yeah, we’ve got a couple of hours. No problem, mon.”

I decided to leave the good camera in the truck, and retrieved the underwater camera from the bag of miscellaneous stuff. In addition to getting some underwater shots, I could take a couple on the beach in the rain – just in case Franks forecast was off by a few minutes.

By the time we got to the beach, Wells had already indebted me to the tune of $25. At his direction, an enterprising young man was positioning 5 lounge chairs for us on the beach. His dreadlocks were piled under a cap, and his goatee was a single lock about 6 inches long. It waved in the breeze. The boys stared in awe – they are in the Bob Marley worship phase of life, and the sight of a real Rastaman must have been inspiring.

Our ‘host’ introduced himself, but I failed to take note of his name. His big smile revealed that his front teeth were missing. “I am here to make you comfortable and happy. If you want to rent some snorkeling equipment, you can go to the stand right behind you. The cost is $5, and we even give you a dog bone to feed the fish. We have a café right there with some excellent local food. If you need anything, just ask me. I can bring you any kind of drinks – some beer or a pina colada, perhaps. I have some special drinks, too. I will come back with some samples for you.”

For clarity, the preceding quote has been translated from the actual collection of sounds uttered by our host.

“Where can we change our clothes?” I asked.

Without translation, his response sounded like this: “Back café de batroom is, jus go tru dare and say de man you from I. De room for she all mash up so her mus use de mans. A’no ting.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

As our host walked away, Wells looked at me quizzically. “What did he say? You understood that?”

Dan joined in. “Yeah. I couldn’t understand anything. What language is that?”

I laughed and translated the last exchange: “To the rear of the café there are restrooms. Just walk through the patio area. Tell the attendant that I sent you. The ladies room is out of order, so men and women must share a single facility. Nothing to be concerned about.”

Although this gentleman’s accented speech was fairly extreme even for the islands, I didn’t have any trouble getting the general idea. It took months of living on St. Thomas to acquire that skill. Like riding a bike, it stays with you.

The language of the islands, though English, can be extremely difficult to understand. After a while you realize that there are all sorts of variations, and one sub-culture may have difficulty understanding another. You can even detect European origins in some of the accents, developed over the centuries when various countries claimed the territory. We had one friend who spoke with a pronounced Scottish brogue.

A common feature of the local language is swapping pronoun usage — me for I, she for her, he for him, and vice versa. There is a huge collection of idioms, like ‘mashup’ for broken. I can remember one phrase that baffled me for a long time — “Oh Lawd, him gone t’see John Thomas”. I never asked anyone to explain this to me, but figured it out one day while reading the VI Daily News. A small advertisement caught my eye: John Thomas, undertaker…

The boys were anxious to try snorkeling, so we went to the rental shack and outfitted everyone. Frank chose to stay in civilian clothes, but warned us that the snorkels and masks needed a really good rinsing before use. They were delivered straight from a vat of chlorine.

“You’ll want some sunscreen on your backs,” the motherly Kris warned.

“Nah, we’ll be fine,” countered Dan. “It’s cloudy.”

“You’re going to get burned, I can assure you. You don’t want to spend the rest of the trip in pain do you?” The boys were already heading for the water, unconcerned.

“Hey, hold up,” called Frank. “See the water about 30 yards out – where it suddenly looks different? There’s a really strong current and if you get stuck in it, you’ll be in San Juan by tomorrow. All the good snorkeling is all the way to the right, around that little point that sticks out. See it?”

The boys nodded, went straight into the water, donned their equipment and swam to the left.

“They won’t see much over there,” said Frank.

Our host arrived with a tray filled with samples of some frozen concoction, and we were happy to lighten his load.

We gabbed for a while, swapping stories on a variety of topics. Frank is a great storyteller. Our experience at the airport in Boston, where the boys were detained for a thorough search, got him launched into a passionate tale of post 9/11 airport woes. Frank travels a great deal, usually with a load of electronic equipment. As a result, he is frequently subjected to extra scrutiny. On a recent trip to Miami, he was taken aside and asked to remove his shoes by a security agent who then walked away.

Another agent soon came by, and repeated the order for Frank to remove his shoes. He started to reply, but the agent would not allow him to speak.

“Remove your shoes now!”

“But I…”


“I’m not…”

“Are you refusing to remove your shoes?!”


She ordered Frank to remove his shoes several more times, each time refusing him the courtesy of a response. The agent became enraged with his noncompliance, and called for a supervisor. By now quite a circus had developed, and the agent was sure she had cornered a sly terrorist. The supervisor arrived, along with some reinforcements.

“The agent asked you to remove your shoes. Why won’t you comply?” asked the supervisor.

“Sir, I cannot comply with that request,” replied Frank.

“Why not?”

“Because I am not wearing any shoes,” said Frank, pointing to his stockinged feet. His shoes sat nearby, where they had been since the initial request.

The boys came running up from the water. “There’s a huge barracuda out there,” said Dan, breathlessly.

This was not cause for alarm. “Kind of spooky looking, but they won’t do anything as long as you don’t look like a shiny little fish,” said Kris. “That’s why you’re supposed to take off your jewelry.”

“Are there sharks out there?” asked Wells.

“I’m sure there are,” I said, but I recalled the international shark-hunting contest held back in the 70’s. There was a lot of press surrouding the event, but the sportsmen all left after about 3 months. They didn’t find a single shark.

“We’re going down to the other end of the beach. You guys comin’?” asked Wells.

“Sure, we’ll be right behind you,” I said.

Frank ordered a beer to keep him company while Kris and I gathered our gear and walked to the far end of the beach to join the boys. They were already out and around the point of the small reef. We joined them a few minutes later.

It is kind of difficult to tell that someone is smiling when they’re wearing a snorkel and mask, but I could tell that the boys were wearing wide grins. Swarms of fish surrounded them. Kris would later say that she saw more different species in this one place than she’d seen anywhere in the past. Coral World feeds the fish for the benefit of visitors to the underwater observatory, so the area is teeming with every variety known to the region. The sharks should smarten up – they’re missing out.

We snorkeled for about a half hour. The boys explored every nook and cranny of the reef and rocks, diving to the bottom to observe specimens that burrow into the sand. I swam out with a biscuit in my pocket, and had fish impatiently nibbling at my bathing suit. I eventually let my biscuit float away, because the fish wouldn’t leave me alone otherwise.

When we got back to our line of lounge chairs, we ordered a round of beer. I translated the offerings for the boys.

“That was so awesome,” said Dan. “The fish just come right up to you like they’re not afraid or anything.”

“When my dog bone was gone, the fish kept nibbling on my fingers. It felt really weird,” added Wells. “And you can hear them crunching under water.”

Dan in particular couldn’t stop expounding about the experience. “Can we do that again at the next place? Where are we going again?”

“Nassau, in the Bahamas,” I answered.

“Do they have good snorkeling there?”

“I suppose so. We’ll have to see what the weather is like. Nassau is pretty far north, and it might not be very warm this time of year.”

Wells and Dan were hungry, so we dispatched then to a nearby food stand for some local delights. When they returned and stretched out on their chairs, both were asleep in seconds.

We left them at peace with the world for a while. As we continued to reminisce, a steady stream of vendors came by, hawking their wares. Each was politely dismissed and took the hint – as a group, the Virgin Islanders are much less aggressive and intrusive than vendors at most other places.

A drop of rain indicated an opportune time to pack up and get going. We only had another hour or so before Frank had to get to his meeting. In the parking area, our beach host was engaged in a shouting match with another man. They were arguing about a woman, and 4 out of 5 words were of the four-letter variety. The boys asked for a translation, which I kept generic – no need to be literal.

As we drove away the skies opened for half a minute, and then the sun came out. This is prime rainbow territory, but I couldn’t spot one. It is not unusual to see two or three at a time after a quick rain shower.

We headed for Mountaintop. On the way, I brought up the Angelina Lauro incident (1979 burning of a cruise ship at St. Thomas). Frank had read the story I wrote (Part 15a of the Galaxy tale), and had a few additions and corrections for me.

It seems that a military team was dispatched from the sub base to help fight the fire. They arrived in full firefighting regalia, with breathing packs and fire-resistant suits. The commander took one look at what was going on, and tried desperately to stop the disaster from compounding. Fuel was pouring out of the ship into the harbor, and the fire department was pumping the fuel-laden water right back onto the fire. Wherever the hoses were aimed, the fire burst forth with vigor. When the fire chief insisted that diesel fuel wouldn’t burn, the military team was ordered to leave the scene immediately.

Shortly thereafter, the fire grew so intense that it became impossible to remain on the dock. A general evacuation was ordered. Frank, who was on the scene as part of the VI Search and Rescue team saw a motorcycle policeman he knew, and asked for a ride off the dock. The policeman decided to show off his riding skills, weaving recklessly through people and vehicles, going entirely too fast. They came upon a row of ambulances that had sat patiently all night waiting for customers to materialize. There had only been one minor injury during the whole episode – until now, that is.

A man was walking parallel to the row of ambulances, about four feet away from the vehicles. Traveling at 30 MPH, the officer tooted his horn and gunned the bike toward the gap between the man and the vehicles. Unfortunately the pedestrian darted toward the ambulance rather than away from it, closing off the passage. The officer swerved and crashed.

“I remember flying through the air. I landed on the pavement, staring straight up. I could feel pain in my hand, and as I raised it to take a look, I saw something dropping out of the sky. The cop’s helmet came off in the crash, flew through the air and hit me square in the forehead. I still have a bump,” said Frank, pointing to a pronounced lump above his eye.

“I was kind of woozy, but I checked my hand and it wasn’t too bad. I felt for my radio. It wasn’t on my belt, so I started crawling around looking for it. That’s when the ambulance attendants found me. They thought I was either nuts or concussed, but they were glad to finally have someone to cart away.”

It all came back to me. I’ll have to modify my story…

Frank took a sharp right turn. “Remember this road?”

I did. It was a shortcut we used to take to get home. The one lane road climbed for half a mile at a 45-degree angle. My old Subaru used to barely make it up in first gear with a running start. There were a few houses on either side of the road. They appeared to be in good shape, but were clearly empty. A few hundred feet up, we came upon a wall of dirt and rock ten feet high stretching across the road. Trees grew at crazy angles from the mass of material.

“Whoa! What’s that?” The boys marveled at the sight, which looked like something from a National Geographic special on natural disasters.

“Mudslide. Must have happened during the last hurricane. I haven’t been up this way in a while,” said Frank.

“No wonder people abandoned those houses. Doesn’t look very stable.” On closer inspection, I could see how several acres of the hillside had come loose and moved. The separated mass looked threatening.

Frank carefully backed the truck all the way down the hill, and we took the long way around. At the crest of the mountain, the road veered to the left. At the corner, there was a magnificent house – at least 10,000 square feet, straddling the mountain ridge overlooking both sides of the island. Well, it had been magnificent. Now it resembled a bull’s-eye target for a laser-guided bomb. It was surrounded by high chain link fence, and looked like it hadn’t been touched since the devastating event. Broken furniture protruded from tumbled walls, and fabrics fluttered in the breeze.

Two hundred feet further up the road was the driveway to our first residence on St. Thomas. I knew it was still standing, as I had photographed it from the ship. I was glad not to have been here during the storm that wiped out our former neighbors.

The house was not visible from the road – the top of its roof sat about 20 feet below the road surface. A low concrete wall was the only thing present to stop a car from landing in the kitchen. Frank stopped the truck and I got out to take some pictures. Leaning over the wall, the vegetation was so thick I still couldn’t see the house. I took one shot of Millennium between the trees. It looked like such an insignificant thing far, far below.

Without warning, we were instantly submerged in a tropical downpour. Visibility went to near zero as the cloud descended to cover the mountaintop. In the time it took to hop back into the truck, I was soaked.

Despite the weather, we continued on to the peak. In our time on St. Thomas, the place at the summit was called the Mountaintop Hotel, even though it no longer housed guests. It was kind of a dump, but tourists flocked there. Now it is called just plain Mountaintop. From what I could see through the rain, the place had been reconstructed and expanded to include shops. It looked quite nice, and the view in good conditions is unbeatable. There was no sense in getting out of the truck under the circumstances, so we just looped around and headed back down the hill.

“Where are the radio towers?” I asked. When Frank and I worked together, we had radio transmitters up here. In 1978, we installed the first beeper service in the Caribbean, and I spent many days in a little shack on top of the mountain, wiring things together.

Frank pointed to a clearing on the left. “That’s where they were. All gone now.”

“Hurricane?” It was a dumb question.

“Hugo. Wiped out everything. They built new towers farther down the road. That’s why we didn’t have phone service for a year.”

In the back seat, Kris was trying to entertain the boys with stories of our time here. The huge iguana that chased the cat down the driveway…tarantulas, scorpions and giant cockroaches and spiders…all kinds of great stuff. The boys were fading, though. Too many late nights followed by a busy day had pretty much wiped them out.

We wound our way down the hill toward town. Halfway down we emerged from the clouds and passed the spot where we used to take our garbage – a minor but memorable aspect of living here. Dumpsters were located in various places around the island, always overflowing. Each one supported a colony of feral cats and other wild creatures. The spot was now empty and clean – not the place I remembered. You never know what will trigger a moment of sentimentality…

“That’s where we got Sophie,” Kris told the boys, referring to the cat that lived with us until just a few years ago. I never did ask what people did with their trash nowadays.

We entered Charlotte Amalie through the residential area called ‘Bunker Hill’. The streets are impossibly narrow and steep. Houses are built right at the edge of the pavement. In places, it was necessary to stop to allow pedestrians to squeeze past the truck, ducking under the side mirrors.

Traveling Dronningens Gade (Main St.) for a few blocks, everything looked very much the same after 24 years. A quick loop around the block brought us to the waterfront, where Frank stopped the truck in front of the building where our offices had been — Alert Alarms. We all hopped out and walked up Riise’s alley. The old workplace glittered with watches. For all the time I spent in that place, I wouldn’t have recognized it.

I looked up at the roof of the building. We had a generator up there. I used to climb up a ladder carrying 5-gallon cans of gasoline to refuel it. I’ll never forget doing that during the hurricanes. Dan was impressed, Wells less so. I’d like to see him try it…

It was getting late, so we hurried back the truck. At this time of day, it would probably be faster to walk back to the dock. Traffic was far worse than I recalled, and we crawled along the waterfront highway.

“Is L’Escargot still in business?” I asked. It was my favorite restaurant downtown, and I had recommended it to our tablemates.

“Nope. Long gone,” replied Frank.

We entertained the boys with a story about L’Escargot. The huge restaurant had a set of display cases in its lobby. Local merchants would exhibit their wares here to attract business, so at any time there were thousands of dollars worth of merchandise under glass.

A series of burglaries occurred at the restaurant. Staff would arrive to find the displays smashed and empty. There was no sign of forced entry, and no one could figure out how the perpetrators were getting in. After a half dozen hits, the owner ordered an alarm system from us.

We installed a motion detection system. Since these types of systems are prone to false alarms, we also installed a microphone so that we could listen in and verify that something was actually happening.

L’Escargot was only open for lunch, so it was empty by 4:00 or so every day. Two days after installing the alarm, Frank and I were preparing to go home for dinner. The night staff had arrived at 4:30 to monitor the systems. We were always grateful when that happened, as it meant neither of us had to spend the night in the office – it was very difficult to get reliable help to work the off-shifts.

The central monitoring system came to life and indicated an intrusion. This was not unusual at this time of day. As merchants closed up their shops, they often tripped the alarms while setting them. Checking the codes, the operator announced, “Motion alarm at L’Escargot”.

We activated the listening device and huddled around the speaker. There were sounds all right – low moans, cursing and an occasional rustle.

After placing calls to the police and the restaurant owner, Frank and I dashed out the door and ran the few blocks to L’Escargot. The owner arrived about ten minutes later; half the time it took the police to get there.

We stayed in contact with the office by radio the entire time, and our operator continued to hear the same sounds – mostly moaning now.

Frank informed the arriving officers of the situation. “There is definitely someone in there. We can hear him on our monitoring system.”

The police were very wary of this, and refused to enter the building. When it became obvious that no amount of cajoling would change their position, Frank had the owner unlock the door and entered.

In the middle of the massive dining room, a table lay in pieces. A man was lying face up on the floor, moaning in agony. A rope dangled from an open skylight 30 feet overhead.

After the burglar was removed by medics and taken for treatment of two broken legs, the police entered the premises and conducted their investigation. I never did hear if they solved the case…

After a few more stories, we finally pulled into the parking lot at the dock. Frank was in danger of being late for his meeting, so we made the parting quick – a couple of pictures, profuse thanks and a farewell or two.

As the truck pulled away, Kris addressed the boys. “Well, we have about an hour before we have to be on board. Want to do some shopping?”

They boys looked at each other, searching in silence for the right words.

Finally Wells spoke. “Ah…not really.”

Dan jumped in. “Yeah, I spent way too much money already.”

Although we wouldn’t understand the depth of Dan’s statement until the next day, I immediately felt that something was amiss. There was a hint of pain in his voice.

Wells wrapped up the conversation. “Maybe we’ll just look around for a couple of minutes. I’d rather get back on the ship.” In a flash, they were gone.

“Do they seem a little ‘off’ to you?” I asked Kris.

“I’m sure they’re exhausted. Look! There’s H. Stern!” In a flash she was gone, too.

Oh, boy. Here we go,” said the little voice in my head. I found a chair in the store under an air conditioning outlet and aimed my face into the artificial breeze while Kris perused the sparkly stuff with wide-eyed wonder.

Just as I was dozing off, Kris nudged me. “OK, nothing for me here.”


We headed out the door and I turned toward the ship. “Don’t forget, we’re going to the Olympic tonight. That should be fun.”

Kris didn’t say anything.

“How about some hot tub time,” I continued. Still no response.

“Massage?” I turned to see the smile that would elicit. I was alone. No wonder I was getting funny looks from passersby.

I scanned the crowd just in time to see Kris slip into another shop. Taking a seat on a planter in the center of the mall area, I watched as she ducked into one store after another. She emerged empty handed each time. By chance, she walked right by me at one point.


“Oh, there you are. I was wondering where you went. I just want to go into one more store,” she said pointing to another jewelry shop.

“OK. I guess I’ll go look at something that interests me. I’ll meet you in that store in 5 minutes.”

Kris hardly broke her stride during that exchange. I scanned the shops and picked one. After two minutes of looking at liquor bottles I’d had enough excitement and went to the jewelry store to find Kris. She wasn’t there.

It took a while, but I found her in a small jewelry store all the way at the other end of the building. It didn’t look good. By that I mean it looked like she’d finally found something. The clerk was going out of her way to please.

I took a seat on a stool at the counter near Kris.

“Look at this. Isn’t it beautiful?”

I disguised my grimace as a smile and nodded subtly. From the other end of the counter, a well-dressed man who I took to be the storeowner studied me. We locked eyes as he strode over to my resting place.

I have to admit that what he said to me was sheer marketing genius. I was caught completely off guard.

“Would you like a beer, sir?” he asked.

We were doomed…

Click here for the illustrated story about a Princess, three Angels, and a lady named Angelina Lauro. Angelina was rather large, displacing about 24,000 tons. This is a sad story, because Angelina dies.


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