Places I’ve Been Along the Way – Trinidad, part II

Jul 13, 2011 by

Places I’ve Been Along the Way – Trinidad, part II

Author’s note: Last week in “Places I’ve been along the way”, I told you of how I lived and worked in New Orleans and Trinidad, British West Indies mapping offshore oil exploration sites. This week I’ll take you there and introduce you to a happy, calypso singing people who lived to party. JWSIII

On our first workday in Trinidad Francoise “Fuzzy” De’ Brouchier, a Louisiana Bayou Cajun and the electronic genius who modified the Shoran Radar to fit into our panel trucks, showed Kip Chase and me the vehicles and how the equipment differed from that we used in California. The main difference was in the antennae installed on the roof. In California the antennae was large and cumbersome, the new one was smaller and could be revolved from inside the truck for “maxing” our signal to the boats. In California we had never been more than a few miles from the operator and shot boats but here in Trinidad, the Gulf of Paria was hundreds of miles wide between Trinidad and Venezuela so it was important that we “max” our signals at all times.

The distance from our positions to the areas we were mapping was also much greater than those in California so in some instances the boats would stay out to sea for days at a time. They were much larger boats than those in California and Jose Shattles our primary operator bragged about the accommodations the Texas Gravity Meter Company, provided for him. He took Kip and me on a tour one day and his stateroom was more like a luxury cruise ship stateroom than that of an everyday work boat.

As “Fuzzy” was showing me the truck and explaining how to rotate the antennae a middle aged black man came up to us. He politely asked, “Excuse me mon is dis da oil company I been hired to drive for?”

Fuzzy said, “If you’re here to drive one of these trucks, then you’re at the right place.”

The man stuck out his work worn hand and as we introduced ourselves he said in his heavily accented Trinidadian, “I’m Ralph Broussard, Da government mon told me ta report here dis mornin ta drive da truck.”

Fuzzy asked, “Ralph are you an experienced driver?”

“Mon, I can drive anyting ya got and anywhere you want it ta go on dis island. I was born in San Fernando and have lived all over doin me work. I was a truck driver at da Bauxite mines for years until dey laid everyone off when da war ended.”

In a few short sentences Ralph encapsulated the history of a working man in Trinidad. Things had boomed during World War II when the United States had a naval base and submarine refueling facility just outside of Port Of Spain and an airfield out of which sub chasing PBY amphibious airplanes operated.

Trinidad had a huge deposit of Bauxite, a metal element used in making aluminum. From Trinidadian mines it was shipped to the U. S. where the yellow powdery element was used to manufacture the light metal. At its peak of operations during and right after the war the mine had employed hundreds of locals. When the war ended the navy shut down the airfield and naval base and left an impoverished island to fend for itself. The resulting loss of salaries and economic crash decimated the overall economy of Trindidad and Tobago and it wasn’t until the “Republic of Trinidad and Tobago” was granted independence from the United Kingdom in 1962 that their economy began to recover.

Today there is little evidence of those lean years. The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is one of the leading investment capitals in all of South America with its economy supported by an expanding oil and natural gas refining and exporting business. They also export fruits (lots of coconuts), vegetables, tropical drinks and flowers to a world market.

Ralph was to be my driver and from the first day of working together we developed a friendship that would lead me into some exciting experiences. After a few weeks on the job we were talking about our families. I learned that Ralph had never married. He was engaged to be married but his fiancée died in a car crash during the war and he never found another woman with whom he wanted to share his life.

Ralph was a practicing Muslim and I felt privileged when he ask me to join him in his prayers while we sat on our station at San Fernando (in front of a Catholic Church) or on the mountain top of Fort St. George. He taught me the true meaning of being a Muslim, a man of peace and respect, and he also taught me the correct way to say Allah.

Ralph was not overly religious but in our conversations I learned that he was raised in the native “Shango” (Voo doo) religion. He told me his mother still practiced “Obeah” or “Shango” and in fact was a High Priestess of her group. I immediately thought of Hollywood movies of vampires and zombies which brought gales of laughter from my friend. He said, “John, I’d like ya ta come wid me ta me mudder’s church and see how dey celebrate life. I tink ya would enjoy it mon.”

A few days later he took me to a small building on Ethel Street, a connecting route into Port Of Spain from Diego Martin. There were a number of people seated in a circle around what I thought was an Alter.  Ralph sat next to me and as we waited he said, “John, dis a very special celebration. Tonight me mudder will use a Moppepi in her service.”

“You mean a poisonous snake?” I asked.

“Yep mon, ya won believe what she do wid dat snake, she damn near swallow it at one point.”

Just as he finished, his mother, a tall beautiful older black woman came out from a back room. She sat on a chair by the Alter and began to mumble in a strange language. The people in the room began to drone with her. After a moment she stood and reached into a box next to the chair. She quickly snatched out a writhing snake. There were no protective leather sleeves on her arms, they were bare to her shoulders. She began to murmur louder and louder until she raised the snake to her face and blew on it. The damnedest thing happened, the snake appeared to go to sleep. She then bent and showed the biblical Eve’s nemesis to all in the circle. Then she brought it over to Ralph and me and said, “Me son tell me you good mon, tonight you got protection from da Moppepi long as you in dis land.” She turned and walked out of the room still holding the apparently sleeping snake. I never saw her again but Ralph told me later that she felt all kinds of good vibrations from me and told her son he had a good friend, “in dat white mon…” And we were for the whole time I was there.

Ralph taught me a lot of things sitting on “Position” for hours at a time. Among the most important thing was how to open, drink the milk and then eat the soft pudding like flesh of a coconut. Before Trinidad, the only coconut I had ever eaten was from the hard brown hairy nut that my mom would occasionally buy as a treat. In Trinidad the coconuts were encompassed by a thick green skin. Ralph used a long sharp machete, and with a swift action he cut through the skin and shell, into the milky interior. Then he cut the opposite way so that he had a small chip or wedge of the skin and shell. He would hand it to me and say, “Drink da Monkey Milk ‘n den I open it up for ya ta eat…”

I had tasted coconut milk before but this was altogether different. First it was fresh, second it was sweeter than I remembered and third it was a thirst quencher. When I finished drinking, he deftly swung his knife again and the gleaming white interior was exposed. He said, “Now my friend, use da chip I give ya ta scoop out da white stuff.” He began to scoop his out and I did as he recommended and “BANG” I had the most wonderful explosion of flavor on my taste buds. It tasted like coconut, but it also contained flavors of the tropics. The soft pudding like meat of a coconut, before it dries and is flaked for cooking purposes has the delightful, light consistency, of a custard pudding and reminded me of my mother’s custard pies. I ate a lot of coconut while I was in Trinidad.

I learned so much from Ralph about the Island and its demographics. There were three major ethnicities in Trinidad in the 50’s. The largest group was the blacks. They represented nearly 50% of the island’s population and were the most suppressed. Next came the Eastern Indians who controlled many of the business’ and were the main shopkeepers. Then there was the growing population of Asians who fled from war torn China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam (In those days the last three were known as Indo-China controlled by the French, Dutch and English). Many escaped the massacre of the French Army at Dien Bien Phu, Later Hanoi and then Ho Chi Min City.  After the three main ethnicities came the Hispanics and at the very bottom of the list were Caucasians, mostly English and Scotch who had ruled the island for hundreds of years. The underlying currents of political unrest were obvious to anyone who took the time to ask a few questions and I was full of them. I was fortunate to have Ralph as my source of information. He was a level headed man who saw great potential in an independent Trinidad and Tobago but who also realized that there would always be a deep and friendly connection to the United Kingdom. Our discussions were enlightening and as time went by Ralph and Big John, my taxi cab driver, had to remind me fewer and fewer times of how to be a welcome visitor to their country.

Work in Trinidad was almost like play. Ralph would arrive at the house around 6 a. m. and we would leave for the day’s station. If it was San Fernando, that was about a 45 minute drive so we were on station and ready to transmit by 7 o’clock. Once the transmitter was on and our signal was maxed with the boat, Jose would say, “Got ya John, keep your antennae where it is until I tell you to change it…”
I would answer him with a 10-4 and then Ralph and I were free to do whatever we wanted as long as we were within hearing distance of our receiver. I would turn the gain up, then adjust the squelch so it was quiet until Jose transmitted an order to me. Most days we set up and then sat under a huge Mango tree that provided shade and wonderful ripe Mangos. I had eaten Mango at home and thought they tasted like kerosene. Ralph showed me why. You have to cut and peel the fruit with the grain. If you cut the wrong way the kerosene flavor is released. Another thing about eating Mangos in the U. S….You can never really get a truly tree ripened fruit and the difference in taste and flavor is amazing. A tree ripened Mango has a taste of the tropics you will never forget.

The company provided us with a car, a small Vauxhall sedan, so we could explore the island on our days off. We worked ten days on and then had four off so Kip and I drove all over the island exploring and meeting the people. Trinidadians are among the happiest people I have ever had the pleasure of being with. They love their music which, when I was there, was strictly Calypso, they adore their steel bands (a steel band, for those of you who might not know, is a group of musicians who play music on steel drums). They make a 50 gallon oil drum into a musical instrument by cutting the bottom out of the drum and then with a hammer they very carefully divide the top into eight sections. They continue to hammer the steel until the section reverberates at just the right pitch. When they have a full musical scale they have a steel drum which is played in unison with bass, tenor, and soprano steel drums. The musician uses a cloth covered mallet for most songs but can use wooden mallets for louder, more expressive music. Steel bands are very popular in Trinidad and have spread all over the Caribbean islands as their identifiable music.

The first steel bands came about because the percussive drums were being used by an uneasy population of recently freed slaves to communicate. To keep their protests in check the British outlawed percussive drums. Within a few years the ingenuity of the oppressed people came to the fore with drums made of steel barrels and that sang with a sound of a happy Trinidad. They have risen in popularity ever since and during Carnival, the “Battle of the Steel Bands” is one of the major attractions. Bands come from all over the Caribbean to compete for the title of “King of the Steel Bands”.

There are so many dramatic memories I have of Trinidad, the whitewashed beauty of a port city from the deck of a sailboat, the buildings gleaming in the tropical sun. Having afternoon tea at the “Queen’s Park Savannah Hotel the largest and ritziest hotel on the Island in the ‘50’s, or the nights of hilarity and entertainment at the Yacht Club, which then was the old Officer’s Club at the deserted U. S. naval base. I was extremely impressed while strolling along the clean streets of Port of Spain watching polite young school children in their starched white uniforms as they walked to school. I enjoyed talking with a “Bird man”, a person who captured native birds and sold them to tourists in little handmade bamboo cages. The cages were a work of art but the little multi-colored Finches and Tanagers he carried in a large bamboo cage on his back was fascinating. One told me that he lived among the birds and they became so used to him that all he had to do was hold out his hand with a little seed in it and they would fly to him. He would gently move his arm into his large cage and they would hop to the feeder he kept full of seed.

From the beautiful side of Trinidad, it was just a short drive to the ugly. The bistros and bars along Wrightson Road were constantly packed with revelers who claimed to be the “true” citizens of Trinidad. They were always looking for a party, or a fight and Kip and I as the newest “Yankee Joes” learned quickly that we were better off sitting on our front porch, watching the moon rise over the mountains with a bottle of “Dandy Dinmont or Queen Anne” Scotch whiskey than we were in their bars.

When we did go into town for a drink we went as a group, six or seven of the crew from Offshore Navigation and Texas Gravity Meter were an imposing lot and with Big John leading the way we were not bothered by anyone. My protector would announce, “Hey mon, I here ta tell ya dese Yankee Joes, dey my boys, ya don mess wid dem or ya answer to me.” We were never messed with.

Before I knew it my contracted time was up and I looked forward to going home. I missed my family immensely and I was tired of sitting for hours doing nothing. Johnny Kauffman flew in from New Orleans and asked me to stay on for another two months. Weather  and other factors had caused the original contract to be extended into January and John wanted me to stay to the end. He offered me a substantial raise but I turned him down. He was not happy about my decision and said he had a prime contract in Canada and had thought I might be interested in working there as a team leader, for a whole lot more money. I said no to that and my replacement was there within a week. He was a young kid from New Orleans who had no experience with the company and in his second week there he hit and killed a pedestrian after a drinking bout on Wrightson Road. He was driving the Vauxhall car Kip and I used so often. He was arrested by the Trinidadian police and I never heard who his replacement was.

I arrived back in California on November 8th 1955 and gulped in the sight of my beautiful wife Donna holding my three month old son, John William Strobel IV for the first time. I vowed then and there never to leave my family again, and I haven’t. The other interesting places I’ve been along the way were with them and I’ll tell you about them in future Moments Count Journals.

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