Potluck & Storytelling at the SJHS January 13, 2009 Membership Meeting

Songs from “Hot Steel in Cruz Bay” by Charlie Prentice’s Hotshots played softly as guests and members lined up to partake of dishes prepared by many talented chefs. I’m pretty sure Rudolph ‘Pimpy’ Thomas knew all the words to ‘The Old Man and the Donkey,’ and at another table I saw someone mouthing the words to “There’s a Man in Your Pajamas.”[1] The food was scrumptious! Stomach-felt thanks to those who tempted us away from our 2009 New Year’s resolutions regarding diets.

St. Johnian Storytellers Gilbert Sprauve,
Guy Benjamin, & Edmund Roberts

Our panel of storytellers reprises last year’s successful storytelling. We were much honored to have Edmund Roberts and Guy Benjamin rejoin us, and to welcome Gilbert Sprauve to share an evening of their St. John stories and memories. St. Johnians are often storytellers. And “No-one will say to the other, ‘That’s not true’” begins Edmund Roberts; “We are not writing a history book.” However, there is lots of bumptious repartee and good-natured contrarian opinion or, shall we say, versions of history. I’ve captured a lot of the stories below, but you had to there to capture the essence of their telling.

WATER AND BUCKETS—“Is it going to be a dry or a wet year?’ asks Mr. Roberts, noting water’s importance to St. John. Some of the audience grumbles about its already being a wet year (presumably those with leaky roofs, building projects, and water delivery businesses.) “If it rains on the first of the year, it’s to be a wet year” is a common saying. Gilbert Sprauve adds that he’s also heard that the rainfall during each of the first twelve days of January actually determines how wet each of the following twelve months will be!

“When it was dry in Coral Bay in the early days,” says Edmund Roberts, “you know what you had to do—you had to conserve water. We had two 55 gallon drums gathering water from the roof and if they weren’t full, we then went down to the cisterns to collect water, first to the one at Emmaus, and then to the one at the School. And you could go to the wells to bathe.”

Guy Benjamin groused at Mr. Roberts for hogging all the storytelling, and began one of his own. “I had to go back to the States and asked Pimpy to look after a guest. “If he needs water, provide it; if he needs food, get it; if he needs a place to stay, my house is empty” he told him. Upon his return, he asked Pimpy how it went, and how much his house had rented for. Pimpy as agent had provided water and food and also the house at no fee; thus began Pimpy’s role as a housing agent. Mr. Benjamin says the man is on-island 40 years later, no doubt remembering his and Pimpy’s hospitality. There was a little discussion about who was related to this gentleman.

Gilbert Sprauve pointed out that, as there are no salt licks on St. John, cattle traditionally used the brackish water that lies under the layer of lighter fresh water to get their salt. Sometimes these waters are 6-8 feet down. Various guts provided watering holes, like ‘Huffy’ Gut (after Carl Wesseloff) and Bufram Gut near Grapetree, which runs towards Mongoose Junction. The upper portions of Guinea Gut had a spring; in those days there were big ‘shrimp’ (crayfish) to be caught both there and in L’Esperance Gut; Eleanor Gibney affirmed there are still some 6-inchers in that gut. In days of no water on the eastern half of St. John, water was often hauled from LeDuc (also called Buck), where the fresh water would gather –it was a lot easier than climbing up Bordeaux.

Mr. Roberts then remarked how cold the water was in the winter (like now), and how seldom you got a chance to take a hot bath. In the summer there was swimming in the ocean; in the winter— well, one day he took a mule from Coral Bay to Sieben to collect mangoes and it began raining; it rained all day. When he came home he was so cold he was shaking. To take care of the ague (pronounced in two syllables, the old way), he was given a hot bath and drenched in bay rum; the ague never dared show its face.

FISHING AND CATCHING…AND EATING—Speaking of good-sized crayfish—Gilbert Sprauve described how he and his friends made fishhooks.–”Use a common pin (a straight pin, not something you write with, he clarified); you had to bend it just right.” To do so, he says, one had to find a barbed wire fence; then you stuck the pin in, and bent the pin around it. Children needed to find the right materials, and in times of hardship, such materials were dear. Materials like #10 thread weren’t as good as poly line, but it was good. There was a co-op in Coral Bay at the time and the ladies had a supply of thread. With much authority, possibly experience–based, Mr. Sprauve asserted that one needed to get it without getting punished for getting it. The thread was tied onto the homemade hook and used to bring up the fish.

Of course there is no barb on this hook—which was ok—since as long as the yellowtail were biting fast, a barb would only have been in the way of getting them off. Mullet were acceptable (ahem), as were the ‘good too’ fish. The Guy Benjamin version of this fish story is that when God named all the animals but forgot to name these fish, the fish asked they be named, as they were ‘good too.’ (I’m sure there’s a baptism story/lesson in here somewhere.)

‘We had the sea, the wind, and the knowledge to use them,” said Mr. Benjamin. “When fry season came, we went to catch them as bait and to eat’ He recalled collecting and weaving beach vines for nets. “We called it seining,” says Gilbert Sprauve. “How good it was to grow up in the East End” continued Mr. Benjamin smoothly, “the best place! We fixed our fish with cornmeal dumpling, and sugar apple. To prepare the apple, you dig a hole and put the apple in the sand; after two days the apple is ready. You eat it with fried or boiled fish.’’ “We didn’t waste time burying our apples–we just cooked them” said Edmund Roberts, contributing the Coral Bay way of doing things.

“In the summertime when Guy Benjamin wasn’t chasing us to go to school,” continues Mr. Roberts, “there used to be little spiny lobsters to cook and eat. We would do the fishing and we had a friend from Palestina who was a good cook. One of my friends had beautiful apples, which he prepared just so and left with the cook” When we returned from fishing the cook had disappeared, as had half the apples.” Later on they caught up with him. What happened? “I cooked them, ate the best and went home,” he said. There was discussion about whose relative he was.

TOYS—“We made most of our toys,” Edmund Roberts began; he could recall only a single catalog plastic toy from his younger days, a cork gun. A few catalogs did make the rounds from hand to hand to hand in those days.

December was kite month “You could make the Spanish, or the Lantern Head, or the Round/Octagonal” they recalled, whereupon Pimpy dropped a few pieces of paper in front of the group and asked them to make said Spanish kite. Despite being committee-made, the end result looked quite air-worthy!! Mr. Sprauve recalled a place on St. Thomas called Stone Wall near Palm Court on Frenchman Hill. It was a kite flyers’ gathering place where 20-30 youngsters would fly and fight their kites, and strive to fly them far enough in the Christmas winds, so they went ‘over the graveyard.’ The boys’ ghoulish goal was to slash the others’ lines so the kite owner would have to retrieve his kite from the cemetery at night. Years later, Gilbert Sprauve recalled, he was recognized late at night in potentially scary circumstances as a fellow kite-flyer, by someone who hoped the old memories would influence Gilbert to give him a ride to Tortola.

GENIPS, PONIES AND THE LIARS’ CLUB–“The sweetest genips are not from Coral Bay,” asserts Guy Benjamin. Thus he kicked off a spirited 3 way discussion of genips trees in Cruz Bay, Coral Bay and East End. Cruz Bay had two of the sweetest genips trees—one even had a name, Brother John. But no– Apart from the two in Cruz Bay, the sweetest genips tree was near Harley Moses’ house. No, no, it was Cuz Minnie’s genips tree that was sweetest. No, no, there is actually another tree, explained Edmund Roberts, whose genips are actually sweeter, but you have to climb its neighboring tree to get to its genips, because it’s such a large tree. “Oh,” says Gilbert Sprauve,”That’s like Fred Smith who says he won the grand prize but he can’t find the ticket.” “The sweetest tree was actually Gerda Marsh’s tree in Pasture #2” counters Edmund Roberts.

This good-natured banter did continue into the parking lot after the meeting——I’d call it a draw.

The round of repartee regarding the fastest ponies was also a draw—was it Lady Boswell? Jack Spaniard? To be continued……This is too much fun to consult the actual historical racing record.

MORE FISHING– Edmund Roberts: “My grandfather, in the early ‘50s, walked to work long distances in the morning and evening; he liked to sleep in his own house. On Fridays, he collected hoop to make fishtraps. He would pull his traps twice a week. In Coral Bay, there wasn’t a lot of artificial light, so the roosters were never confused about daylight. The rooster crowed one time at 4 o’clock, which we called first cock crow. At second cock crow, we got up to collect the traps. You had to collect them or certain kinds of fish (like dogtooth snapper and a few others), would go in the traps and eat the fish and then eat their way out through the hoop.”

Did (nurse) sharks lie on top of the traps to try to suck up the fish inside? There was debate and the jury is still out.

The panel recalled that children set tyre palm fishtraps and caught lots of fish. Tyre palm was often used when rope was scarce, as was a vine called black whist, which could be knotted for purchase (otherwise it was slippery), and then attached to a trap. People placed pots both ‘blind’ and with buoys, sometimes made of bamboo, to mark the pots.

THINGS I NEVER THOUGHT I’D SEE– Guy Benjamin introduced this topic, reminding us that he once saw a cow giving suck to a pig. “I thought it was the most wonderful thing,” he said, “and then I saw ships actually fly in the sky,” he said, recalling Charles Lindberg’s landing at what was then called Mosquito Bay on St. Thomas.

“Another thing I never thought I’d see was a Black man in the White House” he added, and then voiced all our fears for President-Elect Obama’s well-being during the extremely well-publicized explicitly timed whistle-stop tour to the Inauguration. “Speaking of color,” added Mr. Sprauve, “I’ve seen two moonlight rainbows.” Only a few in the audience seems to have seen one—Mind you, these are not rainbow rings around the moon, which many had seen, but real rainbows! If you call up ‘night time rainbows’ on Google Images, there are some wonderful pictures of rainbows by moonlight or a sinking sun. Perhaps we should all venture out to the East End more often or take more late night ferry boat rides to get away from all the un-natural light.

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT—Gilbert Sprauve’s cousin, Verne, had a penchant for mischief ‘Hooking’ onto the back of a truck, (perhaps it was a St. Thomas invention?), for a flying ride with feet kicking out behind you dancing in mid-air, seemed like a good idea, until his father Julius Sprauve heard about it.

Gilbert’s father, a popular St. Thomas dentist, had a boat named Tradewinds he often used for fishing trips. As small as the craft Tradewinds was, she had room for everything–an ice box, dental equipment, a liquor cave, etc. There was space for all. It was the children’s job to make the lunch on the boat. At Carvel, Gilbert Sprauve reported, “we would put our father on the rocks to fish with a bamboo pole, and we would prepare salty corn beef and baked beans. “Boy I ate a lot of baked beans,” he exclaims. “One day we could not find the tomato sauce for the corn beef. Somebody had the idea that catsup would be OK and added it. The taster decided the corn beef was now too sweet and that salt was required…and added salt. The next taster pronounced the corn beef too salty and needing sugar! It was not a pleasant lunch for or with the master of Tradewinds.

There were four Coral Bay grocery stores, the panel deduced, with help from the audience. One could get ‘knock about’ matches at the stores and one day a rat(?) started a fire with those ‘knock about’ matches and burned the Wall Street market to the ground. This meant, Edmund Roberts reported, there was money to be found. “We would search in Wall Street ruins for coins. When we found them we would put them on the beach and grind them into the sand with a heel to clean them. Then we could buy Sugarcake for 1 cent. Or you could buy Specials” (accent on the last syllable, pointed out Mr. Sprauve). A concoction of chipped ice and flavoring, perhaps maubi or something else, ‘speshuls’ were just that.

“One evening, when the wind wouldn’t blow,” Mr. Sprauve reported, “a boat headed to St. Thomas from Long Look, Tortola; it became becalmed and entered Cruz Bay to await the wind’s return.” He recalled that the Cruz Bay men tended to gather in the evening with their rum and attitudes at Austin Smith’s, where Woody’s is now. “Happy Hill, (a Mr. Foy) used to style off and say he was a boxer, and Mr. Samuel ‘Hot Lips’ had come back from NY and could ‘throw some big words around.” With some asides about family ties, Mr. Sprauve continued—One of our own, he says, made an unfortunate fast comment to one of the Long Look gentlemen’s ladies. Two Long Lookians then took on all the loudmouths of St. John that evening. That was the day the Long Lookians closed down Cruz Bay.

The last story was about Nine Toe Ben. Nine Toe Ben had nine toes and he didn’t wear shoes. One day he decided to court a Mary’s Point woman and walked from Cruz Bay to see her. She told him that before he could join her in her bed, he would have to wash his feet. Well, he had his pride! He turned right around and walked all the way home. No-one at the storytellers table claimed him as a relative.

  1. David Knight provided music from his collection of memorabilia, a couple of CDs of originally live recorded music. Eleanor Gibney provided an actual 33 1/3 rpm vinyl of songs by Marie Richards. Believe it or not, there was a record player! According to the notes included with the Prentice CD, Charlie Prentice’s“Hot Shots” played Thursday and Saturday nights at Eric Christian’s “Hilltop” perched on the side of a hill overlooking Cruz Bay in the 60’s. The instruments were home-made—halved 55 gallon steel oil drums and shot-headed mallets, maracas, and the ‘steel’—a horseshoe struck with a metal bar and damped with the other hand. The Band: Leading Drum/Charles Prentice, attendant/Texaco Service Station; Second Pan/Earl Callwood, Caneel Bay Plantation employee; Fondue/Paul Daniel, Public Works Dept; Four-note/Joseph Allen, Deck Hand of Red Hook-Cruz Bay Ferry; Two Note/George Lewis, laborer; Bass/Edwin Sprauve, student; Steel/Joseph Benjamin, Deck hand Red Hook-Cruz Bay Ferry; Maracas/George Douglas, construction worker. Please visit our music pages to hear them play!!

Robin Swank

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