In 1965 my grandfather took our family on a Windjammer-style cruise through the Central Bahamas. He had recently turned 65, and the cruise was a retirement celebration. Our party consisted of himself and my grandmother, my mother, my younger brother, and me (age 15 at the time). Originating in Nassau, we visited the Exumas and Eleuthera, finally returning to Nassau to rendezvous with my father who had passed up the cruise due to his profound tendency to seasickness.
The vessel was a large sailing catamaran, the Tropic Rover. She was perhaps 150 feet in length with a huge beam, probably 50 feet. She carried 50 passengers and a crew of ten, skippered by the very knowledgeable and affable Syd Hartshorne. The passengers seemed to gravitate into two groups of roughly equal size, the “Idlers” and the “Wilders”. The Idlers included families, retirees, and a few odd gentlefolk. The Wilders were the party animals. They would stumble out of their bunks late in the morning, grumble about having missed breakfast, and slowly gain momentum through the evening meal and on into the night, when they would noisily drink and sing baudy calypso songs at the ship’s semicircular bar into the wee hours, much to the dismay of the Idlers. The ship carried two tenders, and we would make day trips to wonderful beaches and islets and small communities. While we explored and snorkeled and fished, the Wilders would find the nearest “yacht club” and boisterously party, much to the chagrin of the shy locals.
One beautiful Sunday morning found us reaching along Eleuthera’s southwestern shore. Late in the day we anchored off Governor’s Harbour. The Wilders immediately clamored for a shore party, but the Captain told the group that the cook was preparing a special Sunday meal (prime rib) and that we would be staying aboard that night. When pressed by the rowdies, Captain Syd explained that the locals were quite religious, that they spent all day Sunday in church and devotional pursuits, that none of the restaurants, etc., would be open, and that we would go ashore in the morning. The Wilders adjourned to the ship’s bar, and after an hour of furious drinking two of them donned fins, jumped ship, and swam to the government dock. They returned a short time later in a small outboard with two local men, explaining that a tavern owner had been persuaded to open at sundown, and that we were all invited. A band had even been found. The captain expressed some doubts, but after discussing the matter with the two young black men, and at the libatious urging of the party animals, he reluctantly agreed to lower one of the tenders for an 8 o’clock shore party.
Ordinarily our little group would not have participated in such an outing, but while we were watching the two Wilders swim ashore my grandfather spied what appeared to be a US military Jeep with a crew of four. He later inquired of the two Bahamians, and they confirmed that there was indeed some sort of “satellite base” on Eleuthera, security for which was provided by US Navy Shore Patrol. This intrigued my grandfather as he was ex-Navy, and he decided that we should go ashore with the others and perhaps have an opportunity to meet the sailors.
The tavern was a small two story affair, but a large patio/dance floor in a garden setting behind the building accommodated our group. The band consisted of two members, a guy with congas and another with an electric guitar and an amplifier the size of the ship’s freezer. They plugged microphones into the amp, thus broadcasting a cacophonous off-key blend of profane calypso/rock throughout the entire community. The Wilders were at their worst behavior of the trip, and my brother and I were getting our first look at “The Gator” when our mother firmly yanked us away from the dance floor. The party seemed to quickly end, and we found ourselves out on the street drifting toward the dock where the tender was supposed to meet us.
Sharing the street with us was a small group of locals, men and teenagers, who were obviously displeased. As we began to hurry toward the dock, other men appeared around us, none speaking, all dark and serious. We reached the dock only to discover the tender hadn’t arrived; we were a few minutes early. I heard my grandmother’s voice, “Daddy, they’re picking up rocks!” Indeed, the locals were gathering stones, pieces of wood, things that were obviously weapons. It looked pretty ugly for us.
Suddenly the Navy Jeep with its crew of four came screeching around a corner. The Jeep was quite old, but impressively carried a WWII vintage 50 cal. air-cooled machine gun. The Petty Officer in charge wore a .45 on his hip; we saw no other weapons. Several of the Wilders pathetically beseeched the sailors to “Save us from the mob!”
The Petty Officer asked for quiet, then queried, “Did all you people come off that British sailboat anchored out in the harbour.” Several responded that we were indeed Americans who just happened to be vacationing on an American boat the just happened to have UK registry. The Petty Officer replied, “I”m sorry, you’re British subjects on British soil, we can’t help you.” The crowd edged closer.
It was my grandmother’s habit to wear a large straw hat when we were in the tropics. I heard my grandfather take a deep breath, then he snatched the hat from her head and addressed our crowd in a low, firm voice. “Everybody empty your wallets into this hat, NOW. I want watches, jewelry, anything of value. Do it quickly!” No one hesitated. In short order the hat was filled with paper money, change, bracelets, earrings, the works. He carried the hat to the Jeep and spoke. “Petty Officer,” he exclaimed, “I served aboard the USS Pennsylvania in World War One. Several of these men are veterans as well.” He offered the hat to the Petty Officer and hissed, “Take this and get us out of this jam.”
The Petty Officer looked at what must have been hundreds of dollars, then turned to a crewman. “Mr. Grim,” he barked, “Rack the Fifty!” A sailor jumped to the gun, leveled it just above the heads of the group of locals, pulled back a large lever on the side the gun which made an impressive metallic CRACK, and no one moved. After what seemed like an eternity, the locals slowly dispersed. Within a moment or so, the tender arrived and we were so on our way back to the ship.
It was a quiet ride. After a time two of the Wilders approached my grandfather and thanked him for managing the situation. He nodded and then smiled, “Hell of a bluff, wasn’t it?”
My mother, who had up until then been in shock, blurted, “What.?”
My grandfather gently responded, “The machine gun, there was no ammo belt, it was empty, I’ll bet it hasn’t worked in years.” Even in the darkness I could see the color drain from her face.
Back at the ship, Captain Syd gathered the party into the salon and sternly addressed us. “I think we all learned an important lesson tonight. This isn’t America, customs here are different, and we all need to remember to honor and respect those differences. We’re guests here, and it’s nothing more than good great luck that the Navy rescued you. And we all owe a big ‘Thanks’ to our friend from the Pennsylvania.” My grandfather stood to hearty applause, and thanked to crowd. The Captain concluded, “I’m ordering the bar closed for the rest of the night. I suggest we all turn in and start over in the morning.” There was no dissent.
A short time later, as I lay in my bunk, I heard my brother’s voice. “Are you awake?” he asked.
“Yeah, I can’t sleep.”
He paused, then, “When I grow up, I want to be just like Grandpa.”
So do I, I thought, so do I.