Monday, December 28, 2020

Nevis Story for Alexander Hamilton's January 11 Birthday


Once upon a time, back in the 1950’s, I was a youngster. One, however, who was driven by the same interest in history that still brings me so much pleasure today.

Me, Charlestown, Nevis, 1958

Here’s a picture which I recently discovered in the attic. I remembered it, but didn’t know if it still existed. Old and color faded, it is framed in a way that tells me my mother had it somewhere in her last little home. It has survived our journey which took us from upstate New York, to the U.K., to the West Indies then back to America again. It also survived the fire in her house, one which she inadvertently set while heating milk one night. Plenty of things disappeared during that--books, furniture, pictures, and a good part of the roof. Other possessions were water-damaged or broken after the firemen came to save the house.

I'm very happy this picture has survived, because it was taken on one of those spectacularly good days--one of those days where wishes come true. There I am, sitting on the ruins of a sea wall on a black sand beach, with the remains of a fort behind me. This is Nevis in 1958 and my Mother had taken me to see the birthplace of my hero, Alexander Hamilton.  Besotted with Alexander as I was, this made me the weirdest kid in my school. The term "nerd" had not yet come into being, so what I was did not yet have a put-down label. That's what I was all the same, especially in a world where Elvis Presley reigned, teen heart-throb supreme.

Nevis today

The entire story of our trip to Nevis sounds improbable today, but jet planes were not yet "a thing." It took nine or ten hours to fly from Idlewild airport-now, JFK--to the West Indies. The trip was accomplished in jumps and layovers--to Bermuda, to San Juan, to Antigua, and, from there, hitching up with whatever "puddle jumper" between islands was heading toward your  destination. 

To get to Nevis in those days was not exactly easy. There were a couple of flights a week from St. Kitts, otherwise travel was by ferry. We'd flown into St. Kitts the day before, traveling north again from our base in truly tropical Barbados. 

St. Kitts surprised us. What we saw of it was nearly treeless, mountainous, and cold and windy too. I remember the wind howling around our hotel that night, and Mom and I searching for extra coverings for our beds. 

At the St. Kitt's airport the next day, we arrived to discover that the small plane in which we and two other passengers were to travel was in pieces in the hanger. Would we be able to leave today? Lots of head shaking was the answer to Mom's question. I sat on a bench in the open-to-the-elements waiting room and lost myself in a book. The book was, of course, about Hamilton. Published in 1912, the story was, I've since learned, mostly fictional, though the characterization still rings true. In those days, this used bookstore acquisition traveled with me everywhere.

Afternoon passed. As the sun began to go down, the plane was working again. At last we could start the flight over the narrow strait that lay between St. Kitt's and Nevis, although not without some trepidation about the plane's mechanical worthiness. By the time we arrived at the island, twilight was almost at an end. Our landing lights were men holding torches--kerosene soaked rags on long sticks held aloft.  After a bouncy light plane's landing on green turf, we were there at last.  

This looks a bit more formal than I remember.

We were tired when we reached the guest house Mother had booked in Charlestown. The soft light of kerosene lanterns lit the windows. We'd learn that electricity was a new convenience here, one that came on from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. Past six, the power was gone and we were in an earlier age.

Charlestown in the 1950's

In the parlor, every surface --a maze of small tables --was covered with a Victorian level of clutter. All the upholstered chairs sported antimacassars. Here another trial lay in wait for us tired travelers. The landlady appeared, declaring that she'd had no idea I was a child--and that she NEVER allowed children in her guesthouse. "Especially not American children!

As you might imagine, my Mom reared back into her frostiest lady-of-the-gentry persona and replied to the effect that her daughter was a model child. Besides, she continued, we'd come here all the way from Barbados because of my interest in Alexander Hamilton and heartfelt desire to see his birthplace. At my mother's nod, I presented my ancient novel, and told the landlady how excited I was to be visiting Nevis, the place of my hero's birth. As much as my mother, I wanted a place to rest my head after a long day of anxiety and uncertainty, but knew I'd have to be as persuasive as possible.

After flipping through the book, the woman handed it back to me and said we could stay overnight. The next morning during a boarding house breakfast where I was careful never to speak unless spoken to and to say "please" and "thank-you," our hostess said she'd decided we could remain. Later in the morning, we went down to the broken seawall in the picture, wearing clothes over our swimsuits, and carrying our towels. In those days, walking around in just a bathing suite was "not done." And there I am, instead of my usual solemn, preoccupied self, wearing a big smile.  

I remember the overcast that often came in the afternoons, as clouds gathered around the volcano. There were black sand beaches which in those days we had mostly to ourselves. I remember bathing in the hot springs in town. Again, clothes over bathing suits, we made our way to the place, led by a tall man who was the caretaker of the ruin of the once famous spa hotel. It had been visited by many famous travelers in the 19th century, but now it had crumbled away to a wall here and there. Blue sky rolled overhead as we inched our way into the hot water. 

I also remember hearing drums, high up on the volcano on a Saturday, sounding down to us from beneath a wall of fog. This was the old time West Indies, before jets made a vacation "down de way" a mere jump from North America.

  Update the car in the background of this picture to a 1940's model, and this would have been a typical scene. The elemental roar and hiss of a gigantic field of cane on a windy day, I'll never forget. I've often wondered if Hamilton ever thought with regret of the tropical world from which he'd come, one so different in climate and vegetation from his adopted home, especially at a time when the earth was going through a cycle of extreme cold. How he must have suffered in those first years in America, just trying to acclimatize, wintering in places like Valley Forge and Morristown! 

So, Happy Birthday, Alexander! It's a bit early to be doing this before January, but here goes, anyway. I've literally spent a lifetime thinking of you.  :)

Hamilton ("Mrs. Washington's ginger tomcat") and me at work, early 2000's

~~Juliet Waldron

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  1. Great post. Sounds like a real adventure. Keep writing

  2. I'm starting to repeat these stories, I'm afraid, but thanks! Sure sign of OLD.


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