Friday, September 28, 2012

Remembering Grand Turk

Grand Turk - I lived on this island during 1985-1986
Before they closed the front door of the Jet Blue Airlines flight to San Juan I asked the first officer if we would be passing anywhere near the Grand Turk VOR. The omnidirectional radio beacon on the island is used by airplanes navigating their way to and from the Caribbean, and especially flights from the south Florida to Puerto Rico. "Yes," the pilot said, "we should pass about 10 miles south of the VOR." He then added, "I've never had anyone ask me about Grand Turk. How do you know about it?"
A Bahamas Air flight from Nassau deposited us on South Caicos Island only 20 hours later than our scheduled arrival. Experience with this airline would teach me that 20 hours late is almost on time and as the Jamaicans always say, "no problem, mon." However at the time it was a problem. I was supposed to arrive on South Caicos where I was supposed to make a connection to Turks and Caicos National Airlines to fly a short 20 minute flight over to Grand Turk island, the administrative capital of the Turks and Caicos Islands. About the only reason anyone would have for knowing about Grand Turk is that when John Glenn made his historic orbiting flight of the earth on February 20 1962, his space capsule landed offshore from Grand Turk where he was scooped out of the water, debriefed at a former US Air Force facility on the island, and then flown back to the United States. Nobody had much thought about the island ever since.
I was supposed to land on Grand Turk on February 20, 1985, exactly 23 years to the day after I sat in Mrs Hubbard's fifth grade classroom and listened to this historic flight on public radio. Now, however, because of a broken plane and general ineptness, Bahamas Air made me arrive a day late.
My concern about being so late arriving on Grand Turk was that I had an appointment on February 20 at 4:00 p.m. with the honorable Norman Saunders, the Prime Minister of the country. I had met governor's before and US Senators and a few members of the US House of Representatives but never before had I met the President of a nation. And now, thanks to Bahamas Air, I was going to be late. On arrival at Grand Turk I went immediately to the President's office in a rickety old building in "downtown" Cockburn Town. There I apologized profusely for my tardiness and asked if there was any other time the Prime Minister might be available. I knew that he was extremely busy so I would appreciate any time he could spare. His secretary confirmed that the Prime Minister was extremely busy and then said "why don't you just walk in and have a chat with him now, mon."
Although a British overseas territory, the Turks and Caicos Islands had their own government and their own leadership and the leader was the Prime Minister. I walked into his office and found him with his feet up on his desk smoking a cigar and looking out the window. So much for his extremely busy schedule. Introducing myself he asked me to be seated and it was then that I told him the story of why I was on the island (doing research on an endangered species of bird that likely spent the winter on the island) and could we count on him and his administration to help us out as needed while conducting the research. The Prime Minister confirmed that he would do everything possible to help us. Of course less than a month later the Prime Minister was arrested in Miami after accepting money from Colombians who were actually undercover DEA agents with whom the Prime Minister made a deal for the safe passage and refueling of drug planes passing through the Turks and Caicos Islands. Mr Saunders wasn't much help after all.
We traveled to Grand Turk searching for Kirtland's Warbler an endangered species of bird that had become my passion and the focus of my research efforts in those post-North Dakota days. My assistant Paul Sievert, now Assistant Unit Leader at the University of Massachusetts Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, found four different Kirtland's warblers in the four days we were on the island. Given Paul's success we planned to return the following winter and focus our efforts there.
A Kirtland's Warbler
At this stage of my exploration of everything with which I was not familiar I was mesmerized by Grant Turk. At the time it was the furthest south I had ever been and the furthest east. Just ninety miles south of me was the massive island of Hispaniola and all the excitement exploration of it could offer. The remoteness of the island was also a big draw. I remember once calling my colleague Mike DeCapita in our office in East Lansing Michigan from the old US Air Force Base (South Base) on the island. Looking out my window at the Atlantic I remember gloating as I told Mike that the next land east of where I sat was Africa. I knew I had to spend more time on this island.
Returning the next winter with Grand Turk as my home I was eager to find lots of Kirtland's Warblers and learn lots of cool things about it and its winter habitat and do what we could to keep the animal from going extinct. Despite having three people working with me we found only one Kirtland's Warbler all winter and that was a fleeting glimpse of one bird one afternoon. That was it. Our rotten luck demoralized me and the people working with me and as the winter wore on that demoralization boiled over until things on the island came crashing down.
We lived in a house on the beach just a stone's throw from the ocean. From that beach you could swim out 50 meters to "The Wall", a 700 foot abyss that divers loved. At least three nights a week I would snorkel and spear fish on the reef in front of my house where I would bring in grouper or snapper or conch which I would prepare fresh caught out of the ocean not 5 minutes after the creature took its last breath. This was an idyllic place to live.
The view from my front steps during the winter of 1985-1986
As the winter wore on I met Gerry Benny, a crazed Canadian from Toronto who had been hired by the likes of Gordon Lightfoot and others to watch over a condo development on the island. It was Gerry's stated purpose to show visitors to the condo development a good time. Gerry had a PhD in showing people a good time. I thought that I was a fanatic Parrothead until I met Gerry who taught me what it really meant to love Buffett music. He had made a pact with himself to listen to nothing but Jimmy Buffett music the entire time he lived on the island. He ate mainly foods that were mentioned in Buffett songs and only drank drinks that were mentioned in Jimmy's songs. He also threw parties like Buffett would throw. Who could ever forget the night Gerry threw a massive party for three oversexed and estrogen-soaked Canadian doctors from British Columbia? The script for the party followed a verse in Buffett's song "Gypsies in the Palace" where Jimmy sings "Lets all take our clothes off and form a conga line." At 3:00 in the morning one toasty morning in February thats exactly what we did as about fourteen of us danced and carried on drunk and naked in the pool of Gerry's condo development.
Gypsies In The Palace by Jimmy Buffett
I woke up the next morning and found one of the Canadian doctors laying naked in bed next to me. I wasn't sure how she got there but I had a hunch what may have happened while she was there.  Rolling out of bed later that morning (or was it noon) I sat down with a pen and one of the cute little post cards I had purchased on the island and decided to send a note back to my former wife, now, hopefully, freezing her ass off in northern Wisconsin while I was under a palm tree on a beach in a more hospitable climate. Thinking of what to say to her in this situation I simply relied on a the title of a Jimmy Buffett song and said "Dear Ruth. The weather is here. Wish you were beautiful." I signed it, put it in the mail box and never heard back from her. I often wondered why.
The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Jimmy Buffett
Pan Am Airlines used to fly twice weekly to the island from Miami on a usually half-full 727 aircraft. The planes always took off on runway 9 facing directly into the persistent east winds. To line up for the flight the pilot had to take the plane to the far west end of the runway where the plane and all the occupants of the starboard side would turn and momentarily face south before taking the runway and pointing east. When Gerry and I figured out this process we turned this simple airplane departure into a cat and mouse game of "Lets Moon Pan Am". We would wait at the airport for the last passenger to walk out on the tarmac and climb up the rear steps of the plane. As soon as that person was there Gerry and I would dash off to the west end of the runway and wait. We would climb up on the hood of my car and as the plane approached and began its turn south, two large white asses would appear to the probable horror of the pilots and all the passengers watching us. Eventually the Royal Turks and Caicos Police Force got wind of this and would try to stop us but they never did. I think they enjoyed the cat and mouse game. At least it gave them something to do.
A Pan Am Airlines 727 - probably one that Gerry and I mooned at some stage that winter.
There were tons of other stories of things that happened on the island and maybe some day I will write a book just about this place. However suffice it to say it all came crashing down one April morning because of a phone call using a credit card and we all were ordered to leave the island. I returned the following summer with my friend Chris Haney and we hung out with Gerry Benny at his house on the beach. Our flight back to Miami was on one of the last flights that Pan Am ever made to the island. It was a fitting way to depart.
My only other contact with the island was in 1990 when the wife of the Queen's appointed Governor on the island called me for some help. Not long after our departure from the island in April 1986 the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands basically dissolved and it did so out of complete and total incompetence. Now instead of having an elected government the Queen in London and her appointed Governor on the island run the government. It turned out that the Governor was quite a conservationist and he had a sense for what was about to happen to many of the resources on the island so he wanted to establish a preserve to protect Kirtland's Warbler habitat. Although I wasn't allowed to travel there on Government time to help them with the establishment of this refuge I did so by phone and mail and now a large chunk of habitat just south of the airport runway is forever protected from development by a winter refuge for Kirtland's Warbler. Some good came out of all our time there after all.
I was thinking about all of this as the pilot came on the intercom and said "for the passenger in seat 3A we are about to come up on the Grand Turk VOR. I hope you enjoy your view after all these years."
Since my departure long ago there have been many changes on the island. Most obvious and expected is that the size of the human population on the island has grown while the size of the island itself has not. That can mean only one thing - more pressures on fewer natural resources. Its the story soon to be heard around the world. Most exciting for me is the presence, now for several years, of a Margaritaville Cafe on Grand Turk! In my quest to have a beer in all of his Cafe's I will have to go there. Margaritaville is now located on the grounds of the old South Base where John Glenn was debriefed. Its about 300 yards down the beach from where I used to live. Its right where the cruise ships come into port.
Margaritaville Grand Turk
As I scanned my old home from 30, 000 feet I felt a wisp of nostalgia just like I did a few minutes earlier as we passed over so many of the Bahamas that I came to know so well so very long ago. The last time I was on this island was in the summer of 1986, more than 26 years ago. I still think about Grand Turk almost daily. I think I need to go back there. And maybe rather than think about it I should just get on a plane or a cruise ship and do it. And when I do I'm sure I'll be singing this verse from that same song whose title I sent to my former wife:
Hes going back to New York, pack it up and let everyone know, It was something that he should have done such a long time ago. Still time to start a new life in the palm trees, Ah, Billy Clyde wasn't insane. And if it doesn't work out there'll never be any doubt, That the pleasure was worth all the pain.