It’s 2:00 pm - the day President Obama is to arrive. Overhead cabin-bins are being banged. “Folks, please take your seats as soon as possible,” said the bursar over the public address system aboard American Airlines Flight 1545 destined for Miami. Not even the airline knew for sure, what time Air Force One would be on its final approach. “We have to get out of here fast, before the airspace is closed down,” the lady anxiously advised. But as it turned out, the haste was a waste. Obama would arrive much later, in the thickness of the darkness. This brought to a close, a most joyous Champs-week.
With one foot in and one foot out of Jamaica, I was like a stockbroker, trying to - besides soaking in the matter at-hand - keep an eye on matters far afield. The Tasman Cricket World Cup final was going on in Melbourne, Australia, and my beloved Michigan State University, in the NCAA basketball `March Madness’, was punching well above its weight. The Division I basketball team, managed to punch its way through the thicket, through to the halved field of thirty-two, then to the `Sweet-Sixteen’, then to the `Elite-Eight’ and ultimately, to the `Final-Four’, where Duke University knocked off our crown. It’s never nice to see your crown on the floor. But to lose to the ultimate winner, was a consolation of sorts. Spare a thought for Kentucky - out-maneuvered by the not-so-favored University of Wisconsin. But as the saying goes, (quote): “that’s why they play the game.”
Be that as that was, back in 1963, when (Boys) Champs was first held at the National Stadium, it was some sort of a record, when Kingston College crested 100 points. Here, 52 years on, the boys’ schools coming first and second, gained over 200 points each. “We can hold our head up high,” said former KC track coach Mr. Donovan Davis. “We got closer to Calabar than I thought we would.” And thanks to Fortis Wayne Stevens, I was afforded a finish-line seat, to take it all in. For the most part, Mr. Davis was a poodle, until one night when a dish of sprats and soft hard-dough bread, was served-up. Then suddenly, he turned into a pit-bull.
For those too young to remember, Mr. Davis not only coached KC to consecutive Champs victories in the glory days. He was the track coach who took the first Jamaica high school speedsters – from KC too - to the world-famous Penn Relays in 1964. On his watch at Penn, KC won the 4 x 100 relay back-to-back, came second in the mile relay his first time out, and then captured the sleek Hamilton watches outright for this event, the second time around. Of the current lot, Mr. Davis said, “I’d go anywhere to see Akeem Bloomfield (of KC), and Jaheel Hyde (of Wolmers), run.”
The day after, after the tent was folded, I tagged along with Donovan, to what was dubbed a Champs-debriefing brunch at the well-appointed Alhambra Inn. It turned out to be anything but. Choreographed by one Las Talbot, schooled at both North Street schools, and bent on talking `the sociology of West Indies cricket’, the conversation zigzagged all over the place. And Champs was almost relegated to the caboose. Fittingly though, as present along with Donavan, Ruddy and Joy McHugh, Woodrow and Helen Francis, were Lyndie and Carmen Headley.
Lyndie – valedictorian in the 1962 Champs held at Sabina Park – is also one of the sons of the great Jamaica and West Indies cricketer, George `Atlas’ Headley. And so, the exploits of `Mass George’, were thoroughly explicated. Surprisingly, Lyndie had only heard of, but had not yet seen or read the `must-read’ and well-researched biography on his famous father. Masterclass is written by the scholarly Bridgette Lawrence.
Later on in the afternoon, the scene shifted to the residence of another Fortis – Dr. Lennie Miller, a renowned ophthalmologist. Dr. Miller is more than an eye-man. He’s a painter and a musicologist. And, with his music, I was taken back in time. It was kind of Dr. Miller, to have given me two CD’s of his own.
On the following Monday, again tagging along with Mr. Davis, we visited with KC’s headmaster, Mr. Dave Myrie. The conversation ambled till lunch. And trotted in - undeservedly but most welcomed - were three fried chicken box lunches.
The day after, I moseyed down to New Kingston. An hour’s torture at Victoria Mutual, just because of a change-of-address, showed that Jamaica, despite all the grand announcements, is still not open-for-business to the little-man. With money in my pocket, I feasted on a stuff crab-back on the terraces of the Liguanea Club. But with sticker-shocked, I had to beat a hasty retreat, after enquiring about becoming a member. The following day, settling in lower tide, I visited Coal Stove – my customary stomping ground up the street from the high-end club, to suck on a succulent cow-foot. The price was right. And it did not disappoint.
Next, I ventured out to Charles Town, St Mary, pausing at the Captain’s Bakery in downtown Ocho Rios to have a fried chicken. Trapped by a soothing shower on the verandah in Charles Town, I revisited my past. Soaked, and peering through the back-yard foliage, I soaked up the delectable view looking down on Oracabessa, from up high. “Once a man,” they say, “twice a child.”
Towards the end, and taking fresh air, I made my way up to Mandeville, another old stomping ground of mine, and then down to the modest Crystal Palace in Spur Tree. Public transportation, at least on the routes of my choosing, is swift, but of course not luxurious. The route, winding through Porus - one of Jamaica’s fruit-baskets, and then, up from Williamsfield, is ageless, and charming. In two-twos I was in a taxi heading down to Spur Tree. That was, after buying a Grunt fish box lunch just outside the bus park.
My younger son insisted that I bring back a few bags of pepper shrimps – “the authentic ones,” he instructed. And so, I found my way to Middle Quarters, St. Elizabeth, changing taxis in Santa Cruz. In Santa Cruz, a lanky woman with no top-teeth and going by the name `Big-Bird’, was heard cursing like a sailor. Asked by a roving pro bono street psychologist as to what might her problem be, the goodly lady responded: “A su mi tan, when mi nuh gat nuh money.” And there I was, thinking that I was the only one.
On the taxi-ride down to Middle Quarters, I was squeezed in, in the backseat, next to fat lady who professed to have given birth to fifteen (15) children. En-route she lectured on that age-old and problematic woman topic - how to keep a man. No details were spared.
On reaching Middle Quarters, I cooled my heels at Hot Spot – a franchise bar I am beginning to think. Because, in every town in Jamaica it seems, there’s one similarly named. The bar-lady poured me a cold one, as I took in the vivacious Tanya Stephens coming across the airwaves, and the tranquil sight coming from across the sun-drenched roundabout - that of the Bold & Boasty Night Club Bar & Restaurant. To the right of it, there were four or five women marshalling enamel basins full of the stuff. “Big-bag a eight ‘undred, an small-bag, a 500 ‘undred, sah,” their spokeswoman spoke. “Dem short, su di price ‘igh,” she continued - Economics 101. I bought a bag from each. How else could I have gotten out of the town square?
Back in Mandeville, I moseyed up Ward Avenue to visit my old watering-hole. What was Dingwall’s Bar, back then, is now The Falcon Lounge. “What became of Mr. Dingwall?” the big-talking curly-tipped mustachioed little brown-man, I asked. “He’s still around sah,” says Dorothy, the resident bartender. As I make my exit, the music - `I’d rather leave while I’m in love’, is being played. Not in this case, thank you very much.
For lunch, I went to Clear Choice Bar & Restaurant in the Mandeville Food Court, and to leaf through The SUGAR BARONS which I had just bought at Bookland, in the Mandeville Shopping Center. When it comes to a dish of mackerel & bananas, Clear Choice was the clear winner. The day before, I had tried the same, from Jucci Patties. I was mortified when on opening my Styrofoam box, I was stared at by a mackerel-head, disguised as mackerel-body. The moral? Never buy a slow-cooked meal, from a fast-food patty-man.
On Tuesday, enquiring just out of curiosity on a charter from Spur Tree to Norman Manley, I got sticker-shock. “JA$15,000 daddy.” So at 6:30 am on Wednesday, I caught Wynter - empty. “JA$130.00 to Mandeville?” I asked before boarding. As his radio announced the sprucing-up for Obama, Wynter chimed: “A weh dem get money fi du dat?” And he went on: “All dis IMF borrowing, an nubaddy naah move-up. Dem a pad dem front-pocket,” he mused – and possible, with reason. And, “dem naah put it inna dem back-pocket. ‘Cause, dem nuh waah poor-people pick dem,” he continued.
By 6:35 am, I was on my way to Kingston, along with others, going to work, and by 8:10 am, we were pulling-in to the bus park. With the Darling Street Police Post close by, I blended-in and felt safe. In 10 minutes, I was at the Bramwell Booth Memorial Hall just west of the Ward Theater aboard the JUTU # 98, which pulled-out at 8:39 am, bound for the Norman Manley. En-route, I listened to the Man-in-the-Street radio interviews, as to the prospects of the Obama visit. “It nuh mek nuh sense,” one man who was interviewed, said. “Cause, ‘im naah duh nutten fi wi.” I had to swallow hard on my anger. “Really?” I mused to myself. What about the word `inspiration’? Could Obama not inspire us to do something for ourselves? But what do I know?
Thanks to Joy and Ruddy for their joyous hospitality. And to Marie Scopp and Tracey-Ann Collins – the two cleaners at the National Stadium, who found my passport in one of the aisles, on the Friday night. And to have turned it over to Fortis `Sticky’ Allen, a former form-mate of mine, who returned it to me on Champs-Saturday, was another stroke of luck.
All this was on my mind at 2:24 pm on Wednesday, when the throttles on AA 1545 were slid forward. The 737 began to roll, then to gallop, and then to thunder. The nose eased up gracefully, and it then made the full loop over the Caribbean Sea to the south, before heading north, over the grey-shrouded Blue Mountains. All this, well before President Obama descended on the town.