Places I’ve Been Along The Way – Trinidad
This is part I of a two-part series from one of my favorite story-tellers, John W Strobel III. Be sure to watch next week for the final installment!
It was March of 1954, a time of slow tempo living in Southern California. The mornings of low hanging mist and fog in our seaside city of Ventura were being blessed by ever brightening Spring weather as a warming sun chased the cold nights and cloying fog away. I was twenty three years of age with a wife and four children who liked to eat regularly, a fifty dollar a month mortgage payment on a two bedroom bungalow, along with all of the other assorted costs of living, groceries, car payment, occasionally going to a movie, you know the routine. And I was making one hundred and twenty five dollars a month as a part time disc jockey at radio station KVEN.
I struggled to meet all of my obligations hoping that I would get a break and hit the “big time” as a DJ. I was doing a nightly show called “Midnight Matinee”. It was one of only three “Rock and Roll” shows in Southern California at the time. Rock Jocks, Hunter Hancock, Huggy Boy, and me with our unabashed rhythm and blues music, was not the favorite radio entertainment. It was, however, the unqualified favorite of the younger set and was slowly replacing the syncopated jazz of the “Big Band Era” with music such as Wild Bill Haley’s “We’re Gonna Rock Around the Clock Tonight”, the theme song for “Midnight Matinee”.
The creeping cost of maintaining my family at an acceptable level led to second jobs. I was manager of “Cowboy Jim’s Freezer and Food Plan” in Ventura. That was short lived as “Cowboy Jim” was unmasked as the crook that he was, selling low grade meat as USDA Prime. Next I worked part time in my father’s radio and television repair shop to make ends meet. Pop said, “Johnny, come to work for me, work the afternoons I’ll pay you seventy five dollars a month. You’ll be able to get some sleep before you come to work and Donna will be a much happier bride.”
I spent the next three months repairing radios and television sets (mostly 7 inch Motorola and 10 inch Admiral TV’s, and Packard Bell, Zenith, and Motorola radios). I was upside down under dash boards of cars, installing and pulling auto radios and I was on roof tops installing V-Cone TV antennas all over Ventura. Between the two jobs I was finally making progress in our finances and life style.
My dad’s business was like an old barber shop in a big city. It became a hangout for so many wannabe electronic whizzes who were constantly mining my dad and brother-in-law’s minds for the latest electronic progress. Among them was a man, whose last name was Heffron, and whose nickname was Heff. I never learned his first name. Heff came up to me one day while I was upside down in an automobile pulling a car radio for repair. He said, “Johnny, my nephew is the head of a team that is recording possible offshore sites for oil exploration. He needs a good man to operate the “Shoran” unit up and down the coast. Would you be interested? The base pay is $750.00 a month and they pay overtime.”
“Shoran” was a foreign word to me but the opportunity to make that kind of money made me come up and ask,”Are you kidding me? Of course I’d be interested. When would I have to start?”
I saw my dad there with Heff. He said, “Johnny if you can get that job, do it. I’ll be all right. And oh, by the way, Shoran is a form of radar that was used in Korea by the U. S. Air Force for pin point bombing. It’s a triangulation system that uses two known points to guide the third to a defined position on the map.” I had forgotten that my dad taught the basics of radar to new recruits toward the end of World War II. He still taught night classes at Ventura College so he kept up on all of the new variations of the original radar.
I met with Heff’s nephew, Don Barker, and he hired me on the spot. I spent the next two nights with my dad learning the basics of Radar and Shoran just an extension of basic electronics. My duties as an “Operator” were to drive a panel truck to known geophysical points along the coast of California, park on a geophysical marker and turn on a Shoran transmitter that beamed signals to an “Operator” boat. The boat would position itself over the point that was to be mapped. Behind were two other “cable” boats with a long string of “Hydrophones” (water proof microphones) which were on a long a wire cable that ran in a “Y” two hundred feet behind the“Operator” boat.
When they were in position by triangulating off of my transmitter and another many miles up the coast on another geophysical marker, the “Operator” would then call in the “shot” boat. This boat, teeming with Fish and Game observers set off the explosive charges. It would come into the “Y” and lower a Black Powder charge ten feet below the surface of the water (Black powder was used to minimize the effects of the explosions on fish in the area. Black powder has a limited thrust outward with most of the effects of an explosion going down, not out). When all safety measures had been met a powder monkey pushed a button on a small hand held device and the resulting explosion would send a geyser of ocean water hundreds of feet into the air and sound waves into the the ocean floor deep into the crust of the earth. The sound was reflected back from each solid strata it encountered. The reflected signals were noted on recorders on the Operator’s boat. That data was then taken to shore where cartographers read the signals that were reflected in micro-seconds as topographical marks as well as depth recordings around a salt dome or pressure dome where oil was most likely hiding… It all sounds very complicated but it was really a very simple and now an ancient way of recording the geography under the ocean floor. Today it is done with much more sophisticated and accurate electronic “Ground Positioning Systems” (GPS) which measure positions from space satellites in inches rather than yards. In the quest for oil the GPS method takes most of the guesswork out of finding a deposit of crude oil beneath the surface.
My company, “Offshore Navigation”, was responsible for getting the boats in the exact position necessary to map the domes. Our contract was for nine months of blasting the ocean water to record the oil reserves in what would become “Tract leases”. We worked for a consortium of oil companies interested in bidding for those leases when they became available.
After nine months, my cushy job of driving up and down the coast of California came to an end. We had provided the oil companies with all of the evidence they needed to bid on the upcoming leases.
I was out of work for two days when my old boss, Don Barker knocked on my door and ask me if I would be interested in a mapping job overseas. We were sitting in the kitchen, Donna was making coffee and she turned white as a ghost, realizing what Don was asking me. Would I be willing to take a job with Offshore Navigation in a foreign country based on a contract that would assure me of work for six months. The job paid a guaranteed $1500.00 a month, a princely sum in that day and time, with a monthly $500.00 bonus to be paid at the end of the contract.
Donna was five months pregnant with our fifth child. I was very tempted by the offer but I hesitated due to concerns of being away during her pregnancy. Don took my hesitation as holding out for more money so he said, “John I can up your base salary to $1750.00 per month with a bonus of $750.00 to be paid at the end of your contract. The job is in Trinidad, British West Indies, you’ll be shooting the Gulf of Paria between Trinidad and Venezuela. Living quarters, meals, and a car are provided. You’ll have a driver for your truck as the Trinidadians want us to provide jobs. Their economy is in the dumps. The average worker makes 5.00 BWI a day which is worth about $2.50 in U. S. dollars. You can live very nicely on $100.00 a month and send the rest home.”
My wife asked, “Don, will he be home by the time I have the baby? It’s due in August.”
He said, “Probably not Donna, making all of the arrangements for him to travel to Trinidad, passport, inoculations, he wouldn’t leave New Orleans until June. It’s the first of May now and his contract starts when he gets on the airplane for New Orleans. So I don’t see him returning until October and more likely he won’t be home before November depending on the work schedule. Its hurricane season and our boats will be tied up a lot due to weather.”
Donna grimaced as she said, “John that’s more money than we could ever make here. I’ll be all right, mom and dad will take good care of us. I think we should do it.” (My mother was Donna’s best friend and my dad adored her.)
I agreed and Don said, “You got a great assignment Johnny, I’m off to lead a team in land based mapping in the sands of Saudi Arabia. I’ll be baking in the desert while you are relaxing in a tropical paradise.” I signed a contract Don had with him for six months of duty in Trinidad- Tobago, West Indies.
I had never been out of the State of California and suddenly I was preparing to go to a foreign country to work and live for six or seven months. Donna began to pack the necessities for me to live away from home and my family, the opportunity to make $17,000 in that short a period of time was too much to turn down.
The next day I got a telephone call from New Orleans, John Kauffman, Vice President of Personnel for Offshore Navigation told me I would be part of a team with a highly experienced shot boat operator, Jose’ Shattles and the other Shoran operator would be a young man from Santa Barbara, Kip Chase. After an all night flight from Burbank I arrived in the Cresent City in humidity I had never experienced before.
I liked New Orleans once I adjusted to the heat and humidity. I got a job for a friend of mine and he and I invaded the French Quarter in the warm evenings drinking a beer at “Papa Joe’s” (There really was a Papa Joe and we became friends) listening to two beat jazz at the “Open Door” restaurant, having a “Hurricane” (a knockout drink) or spending a fun Sunday afternoon listening to “Dixie” at Tony Americo’s upstairs bar. There were things about New Orleans that were not so nice, like keeping the Horse Flies from eating you alive while swimming in the pool at Audubon Park or being punctured by mosquitoes when you tried to relax outdoors after the sun went down. Overall New Orleans was a fun place to be.
The day finally arrived and Jose’, Kip and I reported to the New Orleans airport where we boarded a DC-6-B Superliner (The last of the propeller driven passenger planes.) and flew to Miami where we stayed overnight. The next morning we were again airborne for Trinidad with stops in Haiti, The Dominican Republic, Venezuela and finally Port Of Spain, Trinidad. Two things occurred during that flight that I will never see again. We flew over the awesome Hurricane “Connie”, a monster storm that was the worst ever to hit the United States and I will never forget being herded out of the airplane in Venezuela by soldiers carrying machine guns. They spoke no English but their intent was obvious, that we all move into a holding area until our flight to Port Of Spain was ready for takeoff. We finally left two hours later with huge sighs of relief and a much greater appreciation of the good old United States of America.
The flight to Port Of Spain was only about two hours so we arrived at around 7:00 p.m.. We were met by a colorful “Steel Band” playing “Yankee Joe”, a calypso tune. We were also met by the host of our group, a man who worked for “Texas Gravity Meter Inc.”. They were the prime contractors and we served them with our navigation system and boats.
Texas Gravity Meter Co. rented a huge home just outside of Port Of Spain. Diego Martin was, at that time, a rural area with the “Bush” right behind the back fence. There were adjustments we had to make right away. One of the most dangerous was fending off the black scorpions that lived in the walls of the house. Kip Chase and I shared a bedroom and after we had been there a few days we would get in our beds with the mosquito netting in place, turn out the light and wait a few moments, then turn the light back on and watch as ten or twenty of the stinging bugs ran for the baseboards. They hate light.
I learned the hard way never allow the legs of your trousers to hang to the floor. I got up the first morning, dressed, washed up and went into the front room to read the newspaper. I was reading about Trinidadian Football when I felt something move on my leg. At first I thought it was a hair popping up but then I felt it again so I put my hand where I felt the movement. Sure enough, something was on my leg, I pushed down as hard as I could and stood up, shaking my pant leg. Out dropped this black creature, it didn’t sting me because it couldn’t get its tail over its head to puncture my skin. I had never seen a scorpion before so I scooped it onto the paper and took it into the kitchen where our cook Matilda, (Yeah I know, Harry Belefonte, Maatilda, Maatilda, she took me money and went Venezuela…) but that really was her name. She took one look at the bug, screamed at the top of her lungs and ran out the kitchen door. She wouldn’t come back in until I disposed of the stupid thing.
There were racial undertones in 1955 in Trinidad. Blacks were emerging from the lower class and challenging the Indians and Asians as well as the British who had ruled the country for years for jobs. They had come as slaves and endured hundreds of years of persecution before they finally asserted themselves as full-fledged Trinidadians. There were confrontations due to their new status and one had to be very careful not to denigrate them or minimize their achievements or trouble ensued. To be sure I conducted myself correctly at all times, I hired a huge cab driver, “Big John” to squire me around town on my days off. He called me “Little John” and kept me from unknowingly becoming an “Ugly American” with his sage advice.
Learn more about the travels and travails of John in next week’s MCJ as he conquers the British West Indies and is allowed to watch a Voo Doo High Priestess perform a sacred ceremony with a live, highly poisonous Mapepire snake. In Trinidad it is commonly called “Mopipie” (Maw-pep-ee) as in “Watch out for dat Moppipy mon, he bite you, you one dead mon.” The Mapepire is a sub species of the highly poisonous Bushmaster snake. JWSIII