Just Above Sunset
December 19, 2004 - The Goose, the Albatross, and the Caribbean













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As Bob Patterson mentions in his column this week, The Billabong Clipper is completing its final phases of outfitting for global surf exploration.  Yep, it seems you will soon be able to lease this "Albatross" and load it with surfboards and up to ten close friends and fly anywhere in the world where the waves are good.  Cool.

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Of course it is an "Albatross" in name only – don’t think of that bird of bad luck in the Coleridge poem about the strange ancient mariner.   This is just a variation of the old Grumman Goose.

 

Inspired by the performance of the Grumman Goose during WWII, the U.S. Navy solicited Grumman to design a significantly larger amphibian with longer range. In 1944, Grumman submitted and won approval of its design G-64, to be named "Albatross," with accommodation for a crew of four, and a cabin capacity of 10 passengers, stretchers, or 5,000 pounds of cargo, as circumstances dictated. …

 

But finding such planes were now available got me thinking.

 

This takes me back to Saint Croix, in 1966.  I spend almost four months there with Rick, the News Guy from Atlanta, and his family.  College was out for the summer and that’s where his folks lived.

 

Rick and I used to play checkers at the Stone Balloon, a nice bar in Christiansted, not far from the ramp where a small fleet of these things (two or three) flew several times a day between there and Saint Thomas harbor, north just over the horizon.  Kind of a Caribbean air-taxi service.  They used the smaller model, the Goose, and went out of business years ago.  Noisy buggers. 

 

There's a new outfit down there now - using DeHavilland DHC6 Twin Otters.  Not the same.  And the Stone Balloon is probably gone too.  Ah well.  

 

That was the life - for three or four months I pumped gas during the day, drank rum with Rick, and occasionally sat in with a salsa band at local dives in the middle of nowhere where no one spoke English.  Life is so dull now.

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Curiously, there was a connection to Hollywood, where I live now – with Maureen O'Hara the movie star -

 

Maureen's marriage to famed pilot General Charles F. Blair allowed her to live out the adventures that she had only acted out on the lots of Fox and Universal.  With Blair she managed a seaplane commuter service "Antilles Airboats" in the Caribbean, based in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands.  Traveling the world with her real life hero husband gave Maureen the most precious memories of her life.  Tragically, Maureen's beloved husband was killed in a plane crash in 1978.  Devastated, Maureen gathered her courage and continued on as manager of the airline.  Although in later years Maureen sold the business, she had the distinction of being the first woman to manage a scheduled airline.

 

Maureen remained in retirement, spending time at her homes in St. Croix, Ireland, Los Angeles and New York.

 

Rick remembers more –

 

Maureen O'Hara!  That's right!  For some reason, I kept thinking it was Joan Crawford!  Maybe that's because I never liked Joan Crawford.

 

Alan and I, on one of our days off, actually booked a trip on one of these Antilles Airboat Grumman Goose things to St. Thomas, mostly to escape the backwater of St. Croix, in search of the excitement of Charlotte Amalie (pronounce "a-MAL-yay"), a day that mostly consisted of driving rented mopeds up and down mountains. (Well, mostly down; up wasn't so easy.)

 

I remember during the flight over shouting something to Alan, and he not even knowing I was talking to him, it was that loud.  I was also not very encouraged during takeoff by noticing that the nose of the plane was pointed so high, all I could see out the front windshield was blue sky and big splats of water, and imagined that the clunk-clunking sound under the hull could have been us plowing through whole fleets of sailboats and dinghies, for all the pilots knew.  It was that flight that convinced me once and for all that a Grumman Goose would not, as I had once hoped, serve as a cool alternative to owning a live-in houseboat.

 

It wasn't until afterwards that my mother told me her boss, the president of the Christiansted branch of the Virgin Islands National Bank, actually had a lawsuit going against the airline after the plane he was in flipped over in a gust during takeoff, breaking his back.  I think the lawsuit was still working its way through the courts when, a few years later, he was accidentally murdered by some guys suspected of being black separatists.

 

But by that time, my parents had moved away, having decided to cut short their semi-retirement in St. Croix after a bunch of native guys carrying machine guns came out of the rainforest about a mile or so from our house to mow down a bunch of white golfers on the Fountain Valley Golf Course.  As I remember, the Virgin Islands government at the time, possibly conscious of the negative effect of mass murder on the local tourist trade, swore that this all had nothing to do with racism or anything, and for all I know, they were right.  But whatever, my dad and mom packed everything they owned, including the upright piano, onto a ship and sailed around the world in search of a new place to live, eventually settling down in Santa Barbara, California.

 

Still, I loved the Stone Balloon, a combination bar-restaurant-library-gameroom in a centuries-old Danish building with maybe two-foot thick stone walls and a beautiful candle-lit garden, run by a family I think from Port Washington, Long Island, the father of which, as I remember, had been the pilot of a plane that had crashed a few years previous somewhere near Boston, killing almost everyone on board but him.  Although it was ruled "pilot error" at the time, ruining his flying career and sending his entire family into exile, I think it was later discovered that birds had flown into the engines, something totally out of his control.  I remember thinking his blond daughters, who sometimes waited our table, were really cute, but way beyond my reach, even if I'd had the nerve to talk to them at all.  Still, I do recall tipping them well.

 

That island was filled with white people running away from one thing or another in the states, many of whom Alan and I met face to face.  For instance, there was this woman I worked closely with at the Hess Oil refinery who was arrested one night at a bar in downtown Christiansted for chasing the chef around the establishment carrying a huge kitchen knife; it was then that I learned she was out on parole from some Pennsylvania penitentiary, in there for having murdered her husband.  Shortly thereafter, as I heard it, she developed a some sort of dark suspicion of me, her immediate boss.  Fortunately, I left the island soon thereafter, but heard later that she said she missed me.

 

Still, I degress: I especially loved the roast beef sandwich dinners, served with 75-cent planters punches, at the Stone Balloon.  I visited the island many years later, and sure enough, the place had changed hands and had become an Italian restaurant called "Franky's" or something, apparently run by some guy who, judging from his pictures on the walls, was either some ex-Mafia hitman in the federal witness protection program, or, at the very least, some out-of-work Hollywood character actor who often played ex-Mafia hitmen in the federal witness protection program.  Which is to say, I wonder what he was running away from?

 

I'm sorry, I think I lost the thread somehow.  What were we talking about before I got sidetracked into what could so easily be slugged "Death in Paradise"?

 

We we’re talking about seaplanes plying the Caribbean, I guess.  And I guess if I get rich enough I can someday lease The Billabong Clipper and get back to Saint Croix.  Rick and his new family can come along. 

 

It’s been too long.  And with enough money you can go back again.  Remember what the fabulously rich Jay Gatsby says in that Fitzgerald novel - Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!  He got Daisy back.  It just takes money.  And it ends, as I recall, quite unhappily.

 

I’ll have to think about that.

 

Maybe flying around the Caribbean is such seaplanes is best left in the past.

 

 































 
 
 
 

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
 
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