Monday, January 11, 2016

For Hamilton's Birthday/Nevis, 1957

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 aboard a  D.C. 3. We trundled along slowly, carefully skirting majestic cumulus.  Flying was a less exact process in those days, and deep in the innards of those big clouds, dangerous turbulence 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--who was  a college professor and sort of the Obi Wan Kenobi of the family--particularly admired this Founding Father. 
After a foray into the musty interior of a used book store, my mother had been approving when I’d arrived at the cash register with Gertrude Atherton’s 1902 “dramatic biography” (a.k.a. heavily fictionalized) of "Great Alexander" in hand.   The elegant Edwardian prose went straight to my head and I was soon convinced that Alexander Hamilton was the most romantic, as well as the smartest, hardest working man among those geniuses who’d shaped our early republic.

On our way, we'd stayed overnight in St. Kitts.  I remember that as one of the coldest I ever spent in the West Indies. 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 was the smallest on which I’d ever flown. A full load was four passengers and a 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 other passengers, used to 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 Nevis 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 grass. Men holding poles with flaming, kerosene-soaked rags wrapped about the 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 a dowager’s ankle-length dress and long pearl necklace, took one look at us 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 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!"

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

For the first time, she 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 the only other copy I’ve ever seen.
 Now, we were welcome, for our hostess proceeded to explain the kerosene lamps which lit the scene.

“From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. we have electricity; afterward we use these. It makes for early nights.” I've learned since that Nevis had acquired its first generators in 1954, just three years earlier. What seemed like scarcity to us was luxury to these islanders.

The next day, we contemplated a heap of stones by the harbor said to be the remains of the Hamilton house. We bathed in the hot springs in our swim suits where you paid the man who hung around there. After, he'd walk you to the hollows where the water steamed, warning you first about which pools would scald you. The gravel-bottomed ponds were shaded by a grove of towering palm trees. The brilliant green ferns and delicate flowers clustering about the “baths” were the lushest I’d ever seen.

One day, we traveled up the mountain to see the ruins of some of the old plantation sugar mills. We particularly admired one that had been turned into a hotel. Here we met the owners and enjoyed lunch. Clouds regularly gathered around the top of the mountain every afternoon. We were up so high here that when these soft clouds enveloped us, we were at once bathed with a surprisingly cool tropical rain.

On other days, we went swimming from a beach of brown sugar sand. 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, and Nevis is no longer so far off the beaten-tourist-path.  Alexander and now his beloved Betsy too are remain with me. I'm more than happy to revive (and share) memories of that mysterious, cloudy-headed island and of this long ago visit.

~~ Juliet Waldron

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