Saturday, August 29, 2015

NEVIS, A 1957 Visit

It was 1957 when Mom and I traveled to Nevis.  It was January, which is the best tourist weather in the Caribbean, with lots of sun. We flew up from Barbados to Antigua and then on to mountainous St. Kitts on the old British West Indian Airways in a DC 3. We boomed along slowly, carefully skirting majestic cumulus clouds.  Flying was a less exact process in those days, and deep in the innards of those big clouds rough weather could be hiding.

I was pretty excited, because we were going to see the place where my hero, Alexander Hamilton, had been born.  Mom said there probably wouldn’t be much to see but the island itself, however, she too was curious about this (then) rarely visited speck in the West Indian sea. Honoring Hamilton, I knew, was a kind of family tradition. My Grandfather Liddle always spoke highly of his great achievements as a Founding Father. So, after a foray into the musty interior of a used book store, my usually critical mother had been approving when I’d arrived at the cash register with Gertrude Atherton’s 1902 “dramatic biography” of Hamilton in hand.    

Mrs. Atherton had studied her subject with care. She, being an adventurous woman (and probably well-heeled), had traveled in the 1890’s to both Nevis and St. Croix, another island where Hamilton spent part of his youth, to do research.  All her skillful, ardent Edwardian prose went straight to my head. By the time I finished her book, I was convinced that Alexander Hamilton was the most romantic--as well as the smartest, hardest working man--among that crew of geniuses who’d shaped our early republic.

Mom and I stayed overnight in St. Kitts.  I remember that as one of the coldest I ever spent in the West Indies. There were shutters, and although we closed them tightly, the wind whistled through our room all night. Our plane was supposed to leave in the afternoon for Nevis—there were two ways to get there—on a ferry or in a small plane—but I was famously sea-sick. The plane would be small, completely full with four passengers and the pilot.  

We arrived at the airport –which was just a tin-sided, palm-frond-roofed shelter—and then waited and waited. The little plane (probably a modified Super Cub) was in parts in a shed next to the runway, because “somethin’ was not right”. My mother and I both grew anxious, as you might imagine. I sat on a wooden bench cradling Mrs. Atherton’s book.  I was by now well on the way to memorizing it.

Finally, we took off, even though the sun was going down. The adults, used to the vagaries of West Indies travel, made graveyard jokes, but falling out of the sky into the ocean didn’t really seem possible to me, not when I was on the verge of my Hamilton epiphany.  Half an hour later, we arrived—landing on an island which is little more than a mountain whose cloudy head juts from the sea. 

The runway was a grass field. Men holding poles with flaming, kerosene-soaked rags wrapped about their tops illuminated our landing area.  A couple of bounces later, we were down. Then another wait, until a couple of taxis appeared to take us all into Charlestown.  

At the guest house, lit by kerosene lanterns, the gray-haired proprietress, looking as if she’d stepped out of the 1920’s in her dowager’s ankle-length dress, took one look at me and said she didn’t allow children—“especially not American children” in her house. Looking around the room, with lots of antimacassar-backed chairs and delicate-legged side tables, every surface of which was covered with china figurines, I had a notion of what she was worried about.  Mom put on her most glacial demeanor and said that I was a perfectly well-behaved only child who spent all her time reading and who would certainly never enter the good parlor unless invited to do so.  “And besides,” she added, “I have brought her all this way from New York State to see where her hero, Alexander Hamilton, was born. Show her your book, Judy.”

I held out the beloved book for the old woman’s inspection.

“Ah,” she said, examining the cover. “Why, it’s Mrs. Atherton! Do you really like it?”

“Very much,” I said. “I can’t stop reading it. Hamilton goes with me everywhere.”

For the first time, the lady smiled. She extended her hand and said, “Come with me, my dear, and I’ll show you my very own copy of that book.” 

And sure enough she had one, the only other copy I’ve ever seen “in person.” Who could have predicted that this would be the thing that would convince her to let us stay?. Our hostess then explained the kerosene lamps.

“It’s after six o’clock now. From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. we have electricity, after that we use these. It makes for early nights.”

On the very next day, we contemplated a heap of stones by the harbor which were said to be the remains of the Hamilton house. We did a lot of one-of-a-kind things there. We bathed in the hot springs in our swim suits, everything very informal. You just paid the man who hung around there, and he walked along with you to the hollows where the water steamed, warning you first about which pools that would scald you. These gravel-bottomed pools were shaded by a grove of towering palm trees. The tall ferns and delicate flowers clustered about the “baths” were the lushest and most beautiful I’d ever seen.

Another day, we traveled up the mountain to see the ruins of sugar mills. We particularly admired one that had been turned into a hotel where we met the owners and enjoyed lunch. There were always clouds gathering around the top of that mountain every afternoon. We were up so high that day that these gray clouds enveloped us, eventually bathing everything with a surprisingly cool tropical rain.
On other, more ordinary days, we swam from a beach of brown sugar sand, but it was often cloudy,  more so than the other islands we’d visited. We weren't keen to swim too far out into that mysterious gray-blue water, either, as there was often not another soul around for as far as the eye could see.  

It's been a good many years since that visit, but Alexander and his beloved Betsy are still with me, as well as so many treasured memories of that lovely, mysterious, cloudy-headed island. It was hard to let go of a story I've been writing off and on and for ever so long, but here, at last, Books We Love has published it.