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Dr. Ralph's Bahamian Bedtime Story
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Posted by:Jan 9th 2004, 01:53:48 pm
Fig Tree News TeamA Bahamian Bedtime Story
DrRalph

On a chilly night in January several friends huddled around the warmth of an outdoor grill and rum drinks, wistfully recalling our first trips to that place we simply refer to as “The Islands.”

This is my story.

My grandfather, Ellsworth C. Bundy, took me to the Bahamas in the fall of 1960. I was ten years old at the time, and the trip changed my life. Our family lived in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio; we had vacationed in Florida, but I had no concept of what lay beyond. One evening my grandparents came to our house for dinner. Grandpa was very excited; he opened a Life Magazine he had brought and showed us an article about a “Windjammer cruise.” My father, prone to seasickness, was only politely interested, but Grandpa’s enthusiasm immediately infected my mother. It wasn’t until the conversation had wandered off in another direction that I was able to have the magazine to myself. I sat on the floor in a quiet corner of our living room and stared at the amazing images of beaches and palm trees and reefs and this immense sailboat. There were kids and grownups and grandparents, everyone looked excited and happy, tanned, confident. There were small boats that carried groups of people to shallow sandbars where they pitched umbrellas and gathered sand dollars. Some of them wore funny glass masks and breathing tubes; they were looking at fish underwater! I don’t think I slept a wink that night.

Several weeks later Mom broke the news at dinner: Grandpa was going to take her, Grandma, and ME on a Windjammer cruise to the Bahamas. My Dad would join us in Nassau at the end of the trip for a few days of beaching. We had three weeks to prepare. There were clothes to buy, school materials to coordinate, travel arrangements to make. The time passed quickly, and on a cool Saturday morning in early October we boarded a TWA DC-7, first class mind you, and flew to Miami. The last few moments of the trip were terrible; we flew through a frightful thunderstorm over South Florida. Passengers were crying, the woman next to Grandpa had rosary beads out, my grandmother’s cup of coffee seemed to jump into mid-air, suspend itself, and then explode all over her tray table. Grandpa was steady and reassuring, and we landed safely. A taxi took us to a motel near the Rickenbacker Causeway which was headquarters for the crew and passengers of the good ship Polynesia. That afternoon there was a pool party and a barbecue, then several presentations from the captain and crew. It was another sleepless night, simply too much anticipation and excitement.

Early Sunday morning we tossed our bags into a shiny yellow VW microbus and drove a short distance to the Chalk’s terminal. We boarded one of three Grumman Gooses, taxied out into Government Cut, then took off in a roar of salt spray. Once airborne, we were treated to a spectacular view of Miami Beach and its shoreline, and then the deep indigo of the Gulf Stream. I envied Grandpa; he sat next to the pilot with his Super 8 movie camera braced against the cockpit window. We were enthralled by the beauty of the Stream until Grandpa suddenly shook the pilot; he had fallen asleep! Unabashed, he related that he often napped on the short flight and always managed to wake up in time.

A change in the engines’ pitch and popping in our ears indicated we were descending, and sure enough I could see the low green outline of Bimini in the distance. And just a few hundred yards offshore lay our ship, the Polynesia. Built in Germany in 1905, 129 feet in length, 32 foot beam, staysail schooner rigged, she had been bought at salvage and refurbished by legendary Captain Mike Burke to become the flagship of his Windjammer fleet. She carried about 36 passengers and a crew of ten, our home afloat for the next ten days.

We landed in the harbour and taxied up the ramp at the old Chalk’s terminal at the south end of Alice Town. Bags were unloaded as we gathered in anticipation of our short boat ride to the ship, but we soon got our first taste of “island time.” A mechanical problem would keep the tender from coming ashore for “a while,” and we were left to wander on our own for a few hours. Our little group ambled north along the King’s Highway until we reached a little weathered shack. The rude sign over the door read “End of the World Bar.” From inside drifted the most enticing sound of drums, maracas, wood sticks, a soft guitar, and voices. I remember blurting, “Is this Cuban music, Grandpa?”

“No, no,” he laughed, “Cuba’s a little farther south. This is calypso.” He explained that calypso was the folk music of the islands; there was more discussion but I missed it. That rhythm completely captivated me: it throbbed deeply, ebbed and flowed like the tide, it seemed so in sync with this little island and its people. The words were hard to understand, but occasionally I could pick out a line such as “Come Mistah tally-man, tally me banana,” or “Island Woman, making me forget who I am.” I wanted to venture into the End of the World so badly, but it was dark and ominous and the locals ignored us, they were all black and we were white, just a little too intimidating.

A little farther up the road we came to a concrete dock that ended in a short “T.” The water at the end of the dock was crystal clear, and we could see starfish, shells, and even a stingray resting in the turtle grass. As we were leaving a small group of young black men walked out onto the dock, very animated, very excited, all talking rapidly and, at least to me, unintelligently. But I kept hearing what sounded like “hammerhead” and “twelve feet,” and that sounded like high adventure. As Mom turned to speak to someone, I quietly crept away from the group and walked back out onto the dock. And just as I reached the tee, the locals began to howl and jeer and point, and sure enough an immense hammerhead shark appeared and slowly swam along the dock. What an amazing sight, and so close, his head must have been five feet across! I got down on my knees for a closer look as he made another pass; he couldn’t have been more than ten feet from me. Suddenly a very firm hand grabbed the waist of my pants from behind and lifted me away from the edge of the dock. A smiling black face admonished me that this was a “mon-eatah,” and that I had best “get bock to yah mommah.”

And to my additional mortification, I turned to see her running out onto the dock, crying, “Get back here this instant!” Well, as she dragged me to the safety of the shore a tradesman happened to be walking up the highway with a long section of galvanized one-inch pipe. When the fellows on the dock saw him they loudly called him out to the tee. As panicked as Mom was, Grandpa knew a good time when he saw one. He gently settled her, whipped out his camera, and carefully walked out onto the dock, with me in tow. We stayed well behind the group, but were able to discern that they were planning to harpoon the shark with the pipe, despite the protestations of its owner. The man who had initially rescued me, standing well over six feet in height and quite broad, was elected chief harpooner. The rest of the group retreated, and he bravely hoisted the pipe to the ready, watching for the beast. A moment later, as the hammerhead swooped along the dock yet again, he raised his arm to its full extension, then heaved the pipe with a mighty grunt. It struck the shark on the side of its body, just behind the huge dorsal fin. There was a tremendous explosion of foam and waves as the animal wrenched, then it quickly swam away, not to return. There was great laughter among the locals until someone asked who was going to retrieve the pipe. No one volunteered to go swimming, and the tradesman soon became very angry. As our tender arrived they were tying a large fish hook to a piece of heavy twine; we guessed they were going to try to fish the pipe back up to the dock.

The run to the ship took only a few moments, and soon we were clambering up the ladder to the main deck. We milled about, then dispersed as the crew passed up our bags. I drifted away from our group, found a companionway, walked down a shallow flight of steps, and found myself at the end of a long narrow hallway. There were several doors, each numbered, and I guessed that these were the passengers’ cabins. I knew ours was #15, which I quickly found. I opened the louvered door, and there in my cabin stood a young Bahamian woman, quite tall, very beautiful, and VERY naked. She flashed a bright small, gently said, “Just a moment, Dahlin’,” and pulled the door to. At ten years of age, this was the first real live naked lady I had ever seen, and she was, well, full-figured. After 41 years I remember this very clearly! It occurred to me that I just might be in the “wrong place,” so I quickly retraced my steps and joined the family.

We eventually got squared away in our cabins, then ate a wonderful meal of fish and conch out on deck. The captain briefed us on our next day’s itinerary. Then, after watching the sun dip into the Gulf Stream, we descended into the salon where three of the crew were preparing musical instruments. The leader of our little band was the cook, “Crazy Charlie.” He played the guitar; Earl, the lanky limbo dancer, played conga drums, and Squirrel, a stocky, smiling teenager, scratched a metal rod against a corrugated gourd. Charlie asked for a volunteer to play maracas, but there were no takers. He finally looked at me and said, “Dat’s da boy who try to swim wid da hammahhead. Come up heah and play dese.” Hey, I was being asked to join the band, and I did it. Each night thereafter Crazy Charlie would hand me the maracas and say, “Do yah ting, hammahhead!” I loved it.

When it was time to go to bed we went up on deck and found two wooden lockers that held heavy canvass mats and blankets. Most of us slept on deck that night, as we would each night except for the last of our trip, a rough overnight run across the Stream to Miami. After the lights were doused I lay quietly contemplating my first day in the Islands. I had flown in a seaplane, confronted a man-eater, seen my first naked lady, joined a calypso band, and now was about to fall asleep on the deck of a beautiful wooden schooner that would take me through the northern Bahamas, including Nassau and Sandy Point on Great Abaco. And as you might have guessed, I never quite got over this day.

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