George had traveled to Mayaguez, Puerto Rico on business and had taken Jim, our youngest son, about 12 at the time, with him. While there he heard about Water Isle and decided to look it over. They flew into Charlotte Amalie on a late evening flight and told the taxi driver to take them to Water Isle. He deposited them at the Submarine piers and, with a cryptic "Somebody come soon", he disappeared into the night. Never having been in Charlotte Amalie before George had no idea where they were. There was only a single light over a tin shed roof that covered the stairs down to a dock at water level. It was a warm, dry evening, so with little other choice they settled down to await events.
After awhile the WI ferry came chugging into the pier and tied up. It was the last run from WI for the night so Randy, the boat pilot, was surprised to find passengers waiting. Typical of island folks, he cheerfully made an unscheduled run back to WI and dropped the two travelers off at the WI dock and, like the taxi, disappeared into the night.
They still had no idea where they were, but there was a road leading away from the dock so George decided to see where it led. They grabbed their luggage and started off. They were about half way to the hotel when a resident happened along in his Jeep and stopped to ask where they were going. He laughed when he heard the story and gave them a lift the rest of the way.
Floride was very apologetic for forgetting she had guests arriving late and had the kitchen staff fix a late dinner for them and had their luggage taken to the Pink bungalow. They stayed several days and George fell in love with the place. George met Walter on that trip and began to think there was some potential in the island.
The following year, I think it was 1952, George and I returned with both sons to see this marvelous place. George was not certain I would like it as much as he did so we stayed at Blue Beard's Castle for a week while we explored Charlotte Amalie and St. Thomas. Needless to say, when we got to WI we all fell in love with it.
Walter told us how he had gotten there and explained that he needed to construct 50 units to qualify for the lease and at present he had only 38 completed. He and George entered in discussions and we ended up leasing four acres with four of the old government buildings.
By the beginning of the 1957 season we had two buildings complete containing the 12 units ready for business and Walter's lease was solid.
The Phillips managed the rentals, saw that our cisterns had water in them, took care of minor repairs and provided maid service.
There were some funny incidents. One night, just as I seated 4 friends from Michigan to dinner, Walter arrived with a twinkle in his eye. He said he heard we had some rats though no one ever remembered seeing any. What we did have was a very large resident lizard we called Uncle Fred. The only thing that trap ever caught was about 4 inches of Uncle Fred's tail.
The first couple of years were a very busy time. I designed the units and laid them out on graph paper. Our first friends on the island were Walter Swettman and his wife. He was an architect and agreed to oversee all the construction from the cisterns to the roof.
Walter Sweatman (L) and George Freeman (R)
We traveled back and forth from Michigan continually to make sure the details were just right. We wanted to make sure, for instance, the kitchen serving counter was low enough to sit at for meals and the bookshelves were placed properly. There were two sets of shelves on either side of a pass through to a closet/dressing area that accessed the bathroom. To maintain airflow the dressing room was closed off from the living room by a set of saloon style bating doors open above and below. The fact that they only concealed you from anyone in the living room from mid chest to mid thigh was a constant source of rather ribald humor.
The book cases were a source of great amusement for Floride who saw no particular sense in them. Over the years, however, guests filled them up with books left for the next guest, a variety of sea shells, corals and starfish as well as a sea urchin or two. They were also a handy place to put cameras and sunglasses and so forth.
Mr. Swettman said that during construction he probably served a couple hundred gallons of cool-aid to the workers. When they were done the buildings were perfect. We all loved the east wall of the east building, which the men decorated with beautiful pieces of shell, coral and red brick.
It was a wonderful time and I was very sad when it finally ended. We met many wonderful people, both residents and guests and of course Walter and Floride. I was very pleased to hear that they were both put to rest on the island they loved.
Floride & Walter Phillips
Jim Freeman has shared his experience of flying in and out of St. Thomas during the 1950's;
In the 1950's and 60's we flew an Airline called Caribair out of San Juan, PR to St. Thomas. Their fleet was comprised of old Douglas DC-3's and C4's. They were tail draggers meaning that when at rest on the ground they sat at quite an angle. They told us kids that they were old military aircraft which we thought was pretty cool. I have no idea if it was true. They sat four to a row, two on each side of the aisle and maybe 15 rows in all.
They always landed coming in over the water and took off in the same direction. Usually the door to the flight deck was closed, but one day when we were flying back to San Juan, they left the door open. We couldn't see anything at first because of the angle at which the plane was sitting but when they got up to take off speed the plane leveled out to normal and we could see out the windshield. It was quite a shock to find that we were headed into the side of a hill. There was nothing but green scrub brush in front of us. We got a little panicky even though we had made the flight several times by then. Suddenly the plane lifted off and angled sharply upward and we flew through the saddle between higher hills on either side. The flight path angled quickly to the south which took us over Water Island close enough to get some pictures.
Since then they have dug out saddle and extended the run way to handle larger aircraft with longer take-off runs, but in those days it was quite a ride, especially after we knew we were always headed into a hill.
This is the aircraft information from the plane Jim Freeman was flying that day!
More Recollections from Jim -
Through the years, there were 2 donkeys on the island; Frangipani and Jerusalem.
Every afternoon about 4:00, Jerusalem would wander over to Sam Brown's store and stand patiently at the door until someone came out an fed him some cookies. His next stop was at the Jorgensons who always left a bucket of fresh water out for him. One time one of the Jorgenson's guests who didn't understand the routine, filled the bucket with sea water. Jerusalem, nobody's fool, kicked the bucket so far into the brush that no one ever even hunted for it. They just bought a new one.
Frangipani was a patient, long suffering soul. She was frequently corralled by the staff and decorated for photo shoots with the young guests. When not so employed she was free to roam the island anywhere she wished.
One night two of our guests, Helen and Walt Sauer, had gone to the hotel for dinner and, rather than hitch a ride back up the hill, decided to take a romantic walk home in the moonlight. They were about half way there when, unbeknown to them, they passed Frangipani's resting place for the night in a dense thicket just off the road. She greeted them with a loud "Hee Haw" from only a few feet away. Helen said all she could think of was banshees as she leaped into Walt's arms. Walt later said that all he could think of was that that was the most romance he'd had in the last 25 years of marriage.
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Water Island Memories by Jim Freeman
My father, George Freeman, was originally from Detroit, MI where the family owned a small manufacturing business producing knitted elastic foundation garments for ladies, girdles. In the 30's his father moved the company to Sturgis, MI where my brother Tom and I grew up. My mother, Betty Freeman, grew up in Western Springs, IL and they met at Olivet collage. George transferred to Northwestern U. and after graduation they married and he joined the family business. In the 40's the company expanded from its foundation garment focus into the surgical/orthopedic brace business. George served as president of the corporation until his death in 1974. His brother Richard Freeman was vice president. To my recollection, George's brother was not involved with the development of Flamingo Bay Apartments though he visited the island briefly from time to time.
In the late 40's Puerto Rico offered a 20-year tax exemption to any company opening a business there employing a minimum of (?) 50 workers. George and his brother formed Frederick-Lee Corporation located in Mayaguez to pre-assemble garment blanks that were then shipped to Sturgis for finishing. It was on a trip to Mayaguez that George heard about Water Island and he and I made the first visit around 1954. George was quite taken with the island and brought the whole family, mother, brother Tom and me down the following year. I believe George and Walter Phillips discussed the possibility of the Flamingo Bay operation on that first visit. At the time Walter had converted 5 of the army structures to rental units to complete 38 of the 50 units he needed to comply with his lease agreement and Flamingo Bay was to add at least 12 more units to complete the deal. There was also a large building on a knoll above the five units that was converted to house the lobby, restaurant and bar.
The Flamingo Bay development was comprised of four of the old army buildings on about four acres of land situated on the hill rising to the south of Flamingo Bay. Two buildings were on the same elevation, the third about 50 yards uphill and the fourth the same distance downhill.
On advice from Walter and the contractor, the two middle buildings were selected for conversion to apartments. It was necessary to construct cisterns in front of and parking areas behind the units and keeping the excavations all on one level made it simpler. The bulldozer operator, a guy known only as Lime juice, could just make several parallel cross slope cuts to complete the initial work. My parents planned to use the upper building for their own residence and to rent it out when they were not there. The lower building was to be used for storage.
George and Betty collaborated on all aspects of the building and even produced the brochure for the apartments with Betty doing the photography and layout and George the text. They were frequent visitors to the island for more than 20 years until George's death in 1974. Betty passed away in 2009 and through the intervening years visited the island to see old friends, however, over time there were fewer and fewer of them left and her health began to fade making travel difficult. I think her last visit was probably in the mid 80's prior to Hurricane Hugo. My parents loved the island and had George lived they might have retired there.
I was not there at all during the construction phase which lasted through about 1956, but the folks were constantly back and forth during that time. After the work was completed the whole family went down at Christmas or Easter and sometimes for several weeks in the summer. Those trips were always working vacations and everyone had jobs around the apartments fixing and repairing the wear and tear that rental units sustain.
I recall one of my regular jobs was clearing faucet screens of the sand and gravel that got pulled up from the cisterns. Then, window frames needed to be cleaned of salt rime to hold down the corrosion, weathered louvers had to be replaced, window cranks needed lubrication, paint had to be touched up and brush needed to be cut back from the terraces and parking areas. As always in the tropics, there was a never ending list of jobs necessary to keep things from going "back to the bush".
The Phillips managed the units, handling the bookings, arranging for maid service and general amenities for guests, making sure there was water in the cisterns and taking care of any major problems. I assume that relationship passed to the new owners when the Phillips sold the hotel, but I have no information on that or of the final disposition of the Flamingo Bay property.
Many of our close friends from Michigan and George's business associates visited over the years. The friends from Michigan were never ones to sit idle and pitched in cheerfully to work on various projects. The plentiful supply of cool rum drinks on a hot day may have influenced them. It was just a continuation of the relationship they shared in Michigan. They were a great bunch and could always be counted on to give George suggestions for improvements; some quite fantastic and wildly expensive, some practical. I imagine a few of the latter got incorporated. The reward was always cocktails and dinner on the terrace to watch the sunset on one side or a cruise ship sliding in or out of Charlotte Amalie with lights ablaze on the other side and always, the star-filled sky.
It was a great place to grow up, full of sunshine, sparkling blue water, adventure and wonderfully memorable people.
Memories of Water Island by Jim's Mother, Betty Freeman.
Betty Freeman's remembrances edited by Jim Freeman.
Mother recorded a few sketches of people and events on the island just before her passing. I have filled in where I could to complete her thoughts.
Alex Donovan, the most helpful man on the island, was Walter's assistant. I believe his history on Water Island went back to the military construction days. There did not seem to be anything he couldn't do or fix and he solved many problems for us. He was always patient with our boys and taught them a lot about maintenance and fixing things around the units. I think he was both impressed and amused that we put the boys to work under his guidance. We became very good friends and were honored to be invited to his home in St. Thomas for dinner.
Many years ago Alex accompanied Walter to Caneel Bay on St. John when Walter visited Laurence Rockefeller. Mr. Rockefeller told Alex to buy all the land he could. "It will make you rich." he said. In 2007 my son Jim visited Water Island with his wife Grace and looked Alex up. It seems that Alex followed Rockefeller's advice and now owns several pieces of property on Water Island. I recall that when we were still there he had acquired property in St. Thomas that he rented out. His close friends used to kid him about being a slum lord. Alex showed Jim and Grace a beautiful new home he was building on Water Island. I am so very happy for him. He is a lovely man and I really wish I were able see him again.
I probably knew Leroy better than any of the men except Alex. Leroy drove our Jeep and was entrusted with getting our renters to and from the boat dock, lunch at Honeymoon beach, and dinner at the hotel. He also took them on tours of the island.
Part of his job was light maintenance around the apartments, cutting the scrawny grass that grew between the buildings, cutting back the brush around the parking areas and so forth. The boys were helping with the cleanup one day and I still remember walking out to find Leroy showing them how to put an edge on a machete and to use it properly when trimming grass and brush. The boys were about 14 and 16 so I was a little skeptical, but George said the most they could do was lose a finger or two. I was never sure if he was kidding. They still have all their fingers so I guess the training was good.
Leroy had a tooth growing out of the roof of his mouth. I offered to pay for a dentist to have it removed but he said, "Mrs. Freeman, that tooth is my good luck. I will never remove it." Now and then I wonder how his luck is holding out.
Time and distance are fading my memory but I think the man that ran the Water Island Ferry was named Randy. He was a very nice man and the one who made the extra late night trip to deliver George and Jim to the island on their first visit. When we began showing up every couple of months and staying a few of weeks, sometimes as long as a month, we were considered real Water Islanders. From then on, Randy would give me a hand shake and a kiss on the cheek when we arrived. He was a good man, but he had a wiry beard that got scratchier every time he kissed me. He was taking piloting courses all the time so he could pilot larger and larger boats and eventually took a much better job working in the British Virgins Islands. We missed his smile and friendly attitude when he left.
Eloise is the only lady from the staff at the Phillips hotel that I knew very well. She worked in the kitchen, but was always available to entertain people with her bottle dance. She had a fancy liqueur bottle that she balanced on her head as she danced to the island rhythms of a steel drum. Never in all the years I watched her did the bottle ever fall off.
One time, Floride helped her do her income tax. She claimed she had six children but when she came back to work the next morning, she reported to Mrs. Phillips that she had seven. She had forgotten the one that was being raised by her sister on another island.
If the temperature got below 75 in the evening, she would pull on an old wool stocking cap. She loved stories about Michigan where we sometimes needed not only hats but also fur lined coats, and boots.
SAM AND ANN BROWN.
Two of the first people we met on Water Island were Sam and Ann Brown. Sam ran a small store that seemed to always have what we needed. He saved us a lot of trips to St. Thomas. Whether it was canned pineapple or orange juice (essential for rum drinks), salt and pepper, bread, butter, beer or Danish canned hams it was there. Insects were a part of life on the island so he carried various sprays and powders. They just never seemed worked on the bugs that kept getting into his adding machine and jamming it up.
On Wednesday afternoons Sam used to fill a washtub with ice and Heinekens and the men all gathered to sit in the shade talking and swapping jokes and stories. The wives always gave them a list of groceries to bring back. Sometimes they remembered.
BOB AND GINNY HICKS
Probably the second couple we met was Bob and Ginny Hicks and their two high school daughters. Bob had a laundry in town and Ginny's smiling face was always at the desk of the hotel. They diplomatically solved any situations with the help and could answer most of the tourist's questions. They took care of many problems before Walter and Floride even knew about them.
BILL AND LIL HAUFMAN
I remember Bill and Lil Haufman. I believe he was a broker and conducted business from the island. Bill died shortly after we met, but Lil, who had been on the stage in New York City, remained on the island. She had a lovely voice and participated in all the amateur programs put on by the hotel and enjoyed helping with the productions.
Ann Taylor was another friend and resident on the island. One year we arrived to find she had broken her arm some time earlier and couldn't drive her jeep for four or five weeks. Someone needed to drive her for groceries or dinner at the hotel and parties. With the cast, she needed help climbing in and out of a jeep and the task fell to whichever man was available. Part of the job also involved zipping up her dress and there was much amusement about who got to take her home and unzip her dress.
Madeline Bateman lived across the road from us to the east. I don't remember her husband but met her son once changing planes in New York. She had been a nurse during WWII and received recognition from the Red Cross for her outstanding contributions.
George and I traveled to Europe and Russia with Madeleine, visiting five capitals in each country. a Russian menu
When we first met Stormy he announced that his name was spelled Olsen,"with an E" and that he was Norwegian, not Swedish. I told him my maiden name was Salvesen, "with an E" and that my grandfather was born in Norway. He let out a loud whoop and said that one of his cousins in Norway had just married a Salvesen so we were kissing cousins. At that point he gave me a big hug and a kiss. I never knew if his story was true, but he greeted me that way every time we met whether it was once a month or three times a day. Fortunately our spouses were tolerant of all this.
Note: Betty did not leave any notes on Steve-the-Bartender but he was one of the main characters on Water Island so I'm recording my memories to give him his due.
Steve was the Phillips bartender for years. He was great at his job and could mix anything you asked for. We kids thought he was great because he always served us at the bar. We got glasses of soda water flavored with Grenadine and garnished with a cherry. He always had a snappy comeback and enjoyed a lively exchange with guests. Occasionally he would take up his ukulele and sing a few songs. The only one I recall is Bellbottom Trousers, perhaps because I wore them from 1967 to 1971. He considered himself in charge and was a bit of a tyrant with the rest of the staff. He never brooked any slackness , especially if it affected his bar. They could have been resentful of his brusque manner but they just rolled their eyes and went about their jobs. Steve was just Steve and it was hard to shake their island attitude.
The bar was to the left of lobby as you entered the main building and had a large terrace just outside. It was a wonderful place. It had the typical long counter with high stools and a foot rail, comfortable low chairs and tables. It was dark and cool even at mid-day. In the evenings Steve put out a huge round of delicious cheese, a cheese slicer and crackers. Guests just helped themselves. The cheese was probably 16 inches across and laced with some kind of seed. Many years later I came across a Dutch cheese called Leyden with caraway seeds that looked familiar. I tried some and the flavor instantly transported me back to Water Island, Steve's bar, steel drum bands playing on the terrace and guests trying to do the limbo.
There were two cocktail tables I remember. One was located in the lobby. It was glass topped and displayed a labeled collection of shells that Walter and the help had collected around Water Island. In the bar was wooden table, maybe four feet long, cut in roughly the shape of Water Island. Someone had drawn a map of the island showing the beaches, buildings and roads and then stained it in appropriate colors, blue water, white surf, tan beaches and green land areas. It was a neat piece of work.
ZELLY'S AND TOM'S DOGS
Tom and Zelly were both contractors on the island. They were together a lot as were their two friendly dogs. One day, Tom's dog came running down the road, pulled on Tom's pant leg, then ran up the road to the jeep and then ran back again and pulled Tom's pant leg again and kept doing this.
Tom figured the dog was trying to tell him something was wrong, so he got in the jeep and followed the dog all the way up to the fort where he found Zelly's dog had fallen into a deep concrete basin that was partially filled with rain water. (Note: possibly one of the gun mounts) The sides were deep, smooth and vertical and the trapped dog would never been able to escape. The poor animal was nearly dead from exhaustion when Tom him pulled out.
Two Water Isle heroes - Tom and his dog!
One of the best parties I went to was on Limestone Beach. The New England bunch (no names given) put on a shore dinner. At dawn, they brought in a cauldron of ocean water and heated it all day over an open driftwood fire. From time to time, they would toss in a couple dozen oysters or clams or whatever else goes in a shore dinner. The things that needed the shortest time to cook were put in later in the afternoon. This wonderful feast was served with sea biscuits. By the time we ate, a little after dusk, the Queen Elizabeth II was sitting about ½ mile off shore with all of her lights on. When she set sail about 10PM, a full moon was rising behind her. It doesn't get any better than to be with 40 or so friends on a perfect Caribbean evening with great food and drink and a view like that.
HANGING RUM IN THE TREE - TOM (?)
Tom (no last name) owned a home above our units with a lovely view and a great terrace.
Every few months six or eight of the fellows would get together, put an equal amount of money in a pot and someone would go over to the rum factory** and buy a wooden keg of rum. They would hang it in a tree near the terrace of the house and the men would come by on Fridays and fill their bottles up till the keg was empty. Then they would go get another keg. The man who owned the house said he also used the rum to clean the salt rime from the windows facing the trade winds. He said it was cheaper than Windex or water and worked better. (** I'm not sure what 'rum factory' Betty is referring to. I remember Bacardi in PR and Cruzon in St. Croix but not one in St. Thomas.)
WOODEN WATER TOWER
When we first got to Water Island there was what looked like a water tower on the hill above the units we eventually leased. Walter explained that it had been a radar tower, part of the Army installation put there during the war. Even then, in the 50's, it seemed sort of rickety to me, but George said it appeared stable enough. Eventually, he and the boys climbed to the top and found a way inside the tank. George was curious how they could have built something that wouldn't interfere with the radar. It turned out that wooden sides of the tank were held together entirely with wooden pegs. I think there is a picture he took of our units from up there.
Island residents were always speculating about whether the tower was built from the ground up or if it was built on the ground and pulled up. While showing the pictures at a talk I was giving about Water Island in Chicago 10 years later I found a man in the audience who helped built the tower. Turns out the whole thing was built flat and levered up.
Note: Jim Freeman. That was not the only time my brother and I climbed the tower. It's just the only time mother ever knew about.
This photo appeared in the VI Daily News on August 25, 1964
THE PINEAPPLE -THE QUEEN AND STEEL DURMS
Whenever I returned to Water Isle from Puerto Rico, I would take something to Floride. One time I arrived about 11 AM with a huge 12-pound pineapple for her. She said "You're my other hostess; I'm having a luncheon on the beach. That pineapple will make a terrific fruit platter, but the guest of honor is incognito. Put on your best bathing suit!"
Imagine how delightful it is to be entertaining 40 people on a sun-filled beach when you didn't have to make a guest list, mail invitations, cook a meal, decide on a dress or clean up afterwards! It turned out that I had met the guest of honor 10 years earlier in New York through her uncle, one of the ambassadors we had met on Water Island. She didn't remember me, but I remembered her. She was now queen of Sakim, the small country just north of India and she had the prince and princess with her.
Down the beach from our luncheon for the queen, a small steel drum band played on the tops of old oil drums that, it was said, were brought in during the war. I still find it amazing that they could produce such beautiful sound by pounding indentations into the tops of those old drums until they made the right note. They were making beautiful music out of trash!
Once when the QEII was in port we went aboard and they had 70 or 80 steel drums all playing at once. It sounded like organ music. It seemed the more you got together the better they sounded.
Walter and Floride used to bring in steel bands a few times a year. They played on the open terrace off the big bar at the end of the main building while Steve, the bartender, served up drinks and kept up a line of patter with the guests.
The band played right up until it was time for the final ferry back to St. Thomas. One night the band was starting to pack up to get the last boat off the island and Doris Kirkby, one of our guests, asked them if they played anything else. They asked, "Like what?" and she said, "How about a little "Boogie Woogie." So they played that for the next half hour while Randy, the boat pilot, and a couple of St Thomas residents waited. Many of the guests had gone back to their rooms when the band started to pack up so they missed a real treat. Someone asked where they had learned that kind of music in the islands and the guys laughed. They were all from Brooklyn.
Mardi Gras Parade
We never missed the Mardi Gras Parade. None of the big floats like New Orleans, but stilt dancers six and eight feet high and everyone dressed up in costume. I loved the little children in black and yellow bumble bee outfits. There were many steel bands and the parade watchers danced to the music, some in place and some following the bands down the street.
WATER ISLE FERRY DOCK
I remember that they occasionally cleaned out the debris that collected in the water off the ferry dock and once found over 200 bar glasses. I guess no one wanted to leave one of Steve's drinks behind just to make the last boat to St. Thomas.
Whenever one of island women had a baby the family and friends would bring earrings to the hospital in case it was a girl. The ears were pierced with circular wire hoops with a turquoise bead.
And, speaking of babies, here is a great photo, circa 1965, of Betty Freeman with her Grandson Trey enjoying Honeymoon Beach. Trey is the son of Ellen Freeman Herscher and Tom Freeman and the nephew of Jim Freeman.
Thanks for the great photos Ellen!
THE ORCHID and WALTER
I once found an orchid in the area just off the terrace of the west building. I dug it up and hung it in a tree by the terrace where everyone could enjoy it. After it had been there for a year or so I gave it to Walter who grew orchids. He said it was a new variety and named it after Floride. I chided him because a new species was always named after the discoverer so he should have named it Elizabeth. It was a lovely thing and I was happy to have enjoyed it for a couple of years and for Walter to have an orchid unique to the island.
We had two favorite taxi drivers in Charlotte Amalie and we would always arrange to use them when we were there. They would take our guests and us on long tours of St. Thomas, knew where all the best views were, and the best bars and restaurants, and managed to arrive at a good eating place when we were all hungry. When we went to Charlotte Amalie in the evenings, the deal was to take us to the restaurant, pick us up and get us to the Water Island dock in time for the last boat. We only paid them at the end of the evening and George made a deal with them. If they got us back in time to catch the ferry there would be a good tip, but if we missed the boat he wouldn't have to pay. It was sort of a game but in 20 years we never missed the ferry.
There were several gardeners who would show up from time to time. The only actual gardening they did was to cut off old dead coconut fronds and plant new Century plants when the old ones died.
I had a small flower garden on the terrace and used to put coffee grounds on it for fertilizer and loads of land crabs would come running up when they heard me out there. I did it mostly to help the garden, but sometimes to show guests what the crabs looked like.
Early one morning about dawn we were awakened by several men whispering on our terrace. The gardeners had discovered what I was doing and had come to catch the land crabs for bait. They told me that the coffee grounds acted like an aphrodisiac on the crabs and they couldn't resist them.
One hot, muggy day a crew of men spent at least six hours carving out the thick, tough underbrush to take a hose from the water barge to the catchment basin where all the rain water collected only to find they had taken the wrong hose connection and had to go all the way back for the correct fitting. Welcome to Water Island.
The workmen were fascinated with the water supply at our cottage in Michigan. We had a free flowing artisan well that provided 15 gallons an hour of excellent drinking water. After our pressure tank that supplied water for the house was full, the rest would flow into the lake where it would have gone anyway.
It was quite an adjustment on Water Island where we had nothing but rain water or expensive water brought in from Puerto Rico. Conservation became a way of life and we always had a bit of a problem educating new guests. The drinking water was always a little warm and if you wanted a glass of cold water you learned to put a jug in refrigerator. We put in spring loaded faucets to prevent the guests from running the water waiting for cold water that was never going to come. As I recall, at first we recycled the "gray" water from the sinks and showers to flush the toilets, and later may have used salt water. All the units had posters in the bathrooms urging guests to "Save Water – Shower with a Friend".
Doing it the Hard Way
By Jim Freeman
In August of 1962 Betty tried to make flight reservations to Puerto Rico connecting to St Thomas and found that all Eastern Airlines flights were grounded by a strike of the Flight Engineers' International Association. Our route in those days was Chicago to Miami to San Juan with Eastern being the only airline flying to Puerto Rico. There didn't appear to be any way around the problem, but mom always liked a challenge and we really wanted to see how things were going on Water Island.
Since 1949 George's company in Michigan had a subsidiary in Mayaguez, PR. and they shipped material back and forth on the A. H. Bull & Company freighters out of New Orleans. On a whim, Betty called them and found that the ships actually had cabins for eight to ten passengers and had some openings. They said their cabins were pleasant and the food was excellent and they were right on both counts. They weren't luxury accommodations but they were very comfortable transportation. The next step was getting to New Orleans in time to catch the ship.
With Eastern on strike, other airlines were heavily booked and while we could easily drive to Chicago's O'Hare Field, we couldn't schedule a flight to New Orleans that put us there in time for the departure. Dad suggested trains and mom found there was a Chicago/New Orleans run that would work. Dad wasn't sure about where we could park for several weeks near the train station so he arranged to leave the car at the home of friends in Chicago. From there we took a cab to a bus terminal and a bus to the train station. I had never been on a train (nor a bus for that matter) so it was a new and exciting adventure.
The train schedule put is in New Orleans three days early, but that was fine as Mom and Dad had always loved the city and got to see the French Quarter for the first time. The shipping company told us they would sail around seven PM and that we should be on board by six o'clock. We got checked in and settled into our cabins and after unpacking went up to the bridge to watch the preparations for getting underway. It turned out that they were still unloading a shipment of canned tuna fish and then had to load whatever it was that was going back the other way. It was early the next morning before we finally left.
I always thought of New Orleans as being on the coast and was surprised to find we had to travel, as the song says "on down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico." It's another 70 or 80 miles before you actually reach the Gulf. Once at sea, the captain set a course for Puerto Rico that took us about ninety miles off the coast of Cuba. We couldn't see Cuba but we did see a couple of freighters heading toward Cuba with large covered containers on the decks. Dad and I were outside on the bridge speculating on what they might be when our captain joined us and said he had heard they were transporting school buses.
About then there was a tremendous ear-shattering rush of noise and four US Navy jets flew over our ship at about 500 feet heading for the freighters. As we watched, they split up and circled around to fly past the ships, two on each side and very close to the water. They continued circling high overhead and we could see their contrails over the area long after we lost of sight of the freighters.
A day or so later we disembarked at San Juan and caught a CaribAir flight into Charlotte Amalie and then the Water Island Ferry to our home away from home.
The saga wasn't quite over. When we got to Water Island we found there was a nuclear submarine moored off shore and Water Island was full of Navy frogmen. To our delight, one of them was from our home town. He was in the area because of the Cuban situation and filled us in on the missiles and what was going on. He said there was a tight ring of US war ships around Cuba that had been there for several weeks and that US frogmen were camping on the Cuban shore every night.
The folks invited him to eat with us as long as he was on the island and he seemed to appreciate the home cooked meals. He in turn would swim out into Flamingo Bay with a mask, fins and a spear and after a several hours in the water bring back a string of fish or lobsters. It was a great arrangement. One morning we woke to find that the nuclear submarine had departed during the night and the frogmen with it. Life went back to normal on Water Island but we really missed the lobsters.
We had traveled by car, taxi, bus, freighter, plane and ferry, through the middle of the Cuban missile crises to get To Water Island.
When you love a place, no challenge is too great.
EXPLORING THE ISLAND
by Jim Freeman
Although my brother and I spent a good deal of time working around the apartments there was still plenty of time to explore the island. We swam at Honeymoon Beach and snorkeled in Flamingo Bay and Limestone Bay, explored the fort, the radar tower and anywhere else we could walk to or climb. We used our new found skills with machetes to hack out trails up to the fort and down to the beach.
One day while snorkeling at Honeymoon we worked our way into the rocks and coral a hundred yards or so past the south end of the beach area. There was almost no swell so we could stay fairly close into the rocky shore. We kept working our way farther and farther along until we were well out of sight of the beach. At that point it just seemed like good idea to keep going to see if we could make our way to Flamingo Bay. We had no idea how far it might be but teenage brains just work that way. It was a great adventure. It was mostly an easy swim along the shore but as we rounded one point we began to have a problem. The rocks and coral on the shallow seafloor seemed to be funneling the swell into a narrow channel. The resultant current kept pushing us into the sharp rocks and coral along the water's edge. As I recall, the sea urchins were also a problem.
There were a couple of similar spots and because we were nervous about the currents, we climbed out of the water onto dry land rather than swim farther out from shore then got back in the water further on. We had tied our tennis shoes together and carried them around our necks so climbing up the rocks wasn't a problem.
We found a couple of small hidden sandy beaches that were inaccessible from the land side. One beach we found, however, was accessible from the house above it. We surprised a couple sunbathing in the nude in what I'm certain they thought was a totally private spot. Who would expect anyone to come along the shore over that jumbled terrain? I still wonder if they ever dared to use it again.
The island had a lot of challenges for rock climbing. One was just across Fort Hill Road from the east building on the windward side of the island. Once past the Pope Nose cactus that grew there in profusion, there was a long downward slope to the water and a pile of very large boulders; pieces of Water Island that time and weather have crumbled into the ocean. We used to have foot races down the slope to the water's edge. We liked it there best when the Christmas winds were blowing and the waves were crashing in and sending up great sprays of water and foam. The challenge was to get as close to the water as possible and time your retreat to escape a dousing. It's a wonder we didn't get washed in and drowned or beaten to death by the surf on the rocks.
Having successfully navigated our way from Honeymoon to Flamingo, we decided to see if we could get to Flamingo Bay around the south end of the island. Not one of our best ideas. The wave action along the east side of the island made it impossible to swim at all and the terrain at sea level became much more broken and difficult to traverse the farther we went.
I don't know how far we clamored along the shore, probably no more than a few hundred yards, but we finally reached a rock shoulder that plunged straight into the water leaving us no way to go but up and over. At that point we were about 15 feet above the water and going any further involved going up another 15 feet or more, then crossing a narrow sloping strip over the top of a sheer drop of maybe 30 feet. Common sense finally prevailed and we gave up the quest.
Heading back it occurred to us that it might be quicker to go up rather than back. We knew Fort Hill Road ran along the top of the cliffs and getting to that seemed a lot easier than a long trek back along the rocky, broken shore.
It is possible to have two really bad ideas in one day.
From where we started our adventure, the road was an easy uphill walk from the shore. Now, however, the cliffs were much steeper and the distance from the shore to the top much greater. We were about half way up when we learned what happens to ancient rock constantly battered by the trade winds, salt spray, and rain. It gets crumbly and unstable and really dangerous. Safe looking hand or foot holds suddenly pulled loose leaving you hanging, literally. Some areas were scoured clean leaving no handholds at all. I'm sure the cliffs weren't as high or steep as I remember, but it was still a very long climb with no easy way back once you were well started. At one point I couldn't see any way to proceed and for a long time just froze there. I imagined myself stuck there until the birds came to pick my bones clean. Prometheus had nothing on me. I finally collected my wits enough to look around a little more closely and saw a possible way up that required moving sideways several feet across the cliff face to what looked liked firmer rock. I very slowly inched my over and found a way up to the top. Much relieved and a little shaky, we scrambled through that tough Water Island scrub brush and cactus (a lot more of it than we anticipated) to reach the road and walk home.
We were skinned up from the rocks, full of scratches form the brush and hadn't achieved our goal. However, sometimes just surviving is the victory.
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