The airport on the north end of Eleuthera was about as big as a rich man's closet. When we flew into it I was told by the natives that my luggage didn't arrive. It was around noon and I told my wife and daughter to go on and take our rental jeep to the house we had rented some sixty miles south to Govenor's Harbour. A swanky place called THE TWIN COVES back in the jungle and secluded on the ocean. I told my wife, Chesteen, that I would wait for the next flight to come in hoping to retrieve our luggage which included my spear gun and diving gear as well as my metal detector. Eleuthera was settled by the English in the 1600's and the island is covered with the skeletal remains of English and Dutch houses from the 1700's --- a paradise for metal detecting. No one on this outer island in the southern part of the Bahamian chain cared anything at all about old stuff.
As I contained myself, all but alone at the airport in the typical Bahamian heat, I felt an Estill county urge to locate a beer colder than a mother in law's love. I had left the mangling strife of Kentucky some 1,200 miles north and my inner domain begged to keep it there. Attached to the airport was something of a liquor store no larger than a poor man's closet. Sitting on a chair was a native guarding over a cooler. The Kalik beer inside it was $5.00 each. I looked at the quart bottle of coconut rum proudly standing behind him. It was $6.00.
Now, I was never worth a damn in math. The only significant accomplishment I can recall regarding anything at all to do with the horrible subject was when I led an expedition one Halloween night omletfying my high school's algebra teacher's house, vehicle, and husband.. We spent a lot of money on those extra large jumbos. A whole case. Twelve times twelve. It was a glorious moment in math.
"Give me the bottle of rum," I said. "And would you be so gracious as to give.
I was just finishing my first large cup of rum when the next plane came in. Little planes, the kind drug runners appreciate. No luggage again. The next plane would be in another hour or so. The only sure thing in the Bahamas is that nothing is sure. I managed more ice and poured another cup.
I wasn't real sure about the metal detecting laws in the Bahamas. That's why I had taken my metal detector completely apart and placed it in several different pieces of luggage. I did know what the laws were regarding bringing an arbelette spear gun and that is why I had done the same for it. I tried to make them look like something they weren't. Something innocent. A part of a tripod. Or part to a pole spear.
With my cup empty the next plane came in. Again, no luck. I did the only thing any Estill countian could do.
I went back for more ice.
That quart was over half gone as I began pouring my third drink. It was stagnant hot but I felt nothing. I asked the ice giver about old stuff and he looked at me with pity. You could see what he thought of me. Not much. The last plane of the day came in. Short of the rum, again, no luck. It was past suppertime and I went over to a dirty old Ford van. It was my chariot. Not what I had rented but what I had got. I got in it and swiped the dust off the seat and dash. Nothing beyond the bare basics on it began to work, hadn't worked in years. I fired her up took a big huge drink and headed south.
An hour later, I was back where I had started.
The quart had been licked dry. The sun was beginning to drop. My gas gauge was kissing zero. I knew I had missed my turn. This time, I wouldn't.
In the Bahamas, you are supposed to drive on the wrong side of the road. When you are dogface drunk from Estill county nothing could be more challenging, especially in a Ford.
This time locating my correct turn which was indicated with a purple painted two by four I applied my sandal engaging the engine into warp force. Well, not actually. But almost. I sped by quaint residences with the solo thought of reaching my loved ones before dark . I envisioned a return of brave Ulysses, minus the luggage. As I approached an area called "WHALE POINT" I came onto a straight stretch and met a taxi torpedoing directly at me. The fool, I thought. Why doesn't he get on his side of the road? Can't he see me?
Just seconds before the head on I cut hard to the right and went off the road flipping my van upside down. As I slid over an embankment I could hear the jungle around me scraping everything. Downward I continued realizing that the next stop would be the last layer of Dante's Inferno. I tried to quote the 23rd Psalm but forgot the words. I really didn't have time to say it anyways.
Then, the van slid to a complete stop, wedged in between two coconut trees growing precariously at the edge of a cliff where on rare occasion a whale is spotted. The two coconut trees may well have been the very trees that donated the coconuts used in my rum. Little things like that have a way of sneaking their way into a true story. You couldn't have guided my van upside down and wedged it in between those two trees with finer precision.. At first I had trouble realizing I was still alive. Then, I knew if I died I sure wasn't going to wake up and find myself on some beautiful island in the Caribbean. Yeah, still alive. Wild drunk. Hurting. Looking at reality upside down. That's customary for me.
Eleuthera often has those BALI HAI sunsets wherein the island whispers and calls to you. This wasn't one of them. As the sun disappeared into the ocean I found myself crawling out of the window. On the cliff above a small girl was standing and holding the taxi cab driver's hand. "HE'S ALIVE!" she shouted, pointing down in my direction. My left side was in pain. The double edged rum was helping me hang on. I felt like I was in a bad dream. I crawled up the cliff to the two observers. At their feet I rolled over looking at them.
"You are very lucky," spoke the taxi cab driver. "God has saved you for a great purpose. Another man went off this cliff two weeks ago. We never found his body."
"Do you know where The Twin Coves is?" I asked, standing.
"Yes. But I need to call the police."
"Let's leave the police out of this."
"I have to call the police. If I don't I could lose my license."
Just what I need, I thought. You get fed every third day in a Bahamian jail. A small fish head. Raw. The eyes are desert. Fish scales serve as toothpicks. For just a micro fraction of a second I wished I was back in Estill County. At least there you could pay off officials and get out of a mess like this. All my Estill county blood wanted to run. I stood there in the dark like some early French missionary awaiting a Huron inquisition. If there was a rack on Eleuthera I would be ten feet tall by dawn. I had to hold positive. I thought of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS and THE COUNT OF MONTE
CRISTO. I wasn't sure if they had electricity on Eleuthera. If they did I was confident it would all be used on me. The Germans at Nuremberg couldn't hold a candle to what I had coming.
In about an hour the only policeman and the only cruiser on Eleuthera pulled up. He looked over the situation. Measured that I had gone 300 feet over the cliff. Then he asked that the taxi driver and I get into his cruiser. I sat at my normal place in such situations, the back seat. The officer held my license and read it with a flashlight. I sat in the middle of the backseat seeing the backs of two human shadows. Through it all I was still plastered.
"Mr. Robbins," spoke the officer not turning around, "Have you had anything to drink?"
"Yes sir," I answered, too drunk to lie. "I bought a quart of coconut rum at the airport and drank every drop of it."
The officer raised his head and looked at the taxi cab driver. The taxi cab driver looked at the officer. There was the longest silence after I had spoken. That officer was allowing matters to digest. "Well, Mr. Robbins, I am not going to do anything to you. It is so rare to meet an honest man. I knew how much you drank. The man that sold you the quart called me. He said that you might have trouble making it. All I ask is that you go to our station sometime before you leave and make a statement. There will be no charges."
After the law left I felt like Charlton Heston looking back at having crossed the Red Sea. For $100 the taxi driver would take me to The Twin Coves. Everyone on Eleuthera knew where the house was located. A bunch of drunks from England had just filmed a movie entitled THREE at the very place. The sex kitten, Kelly Book, and Titanic's star, Billy Zane had tried to give the film credibility. Ah distinctly I remember, though my body hurt, but limber, Mingo, the name of the driver. The green branches of so many tropical plants slapping our window as we spiraled through the heart of darkness.
And then we were there. One yellow outside light reflecting my dream.
Mingo helped me up the steps and into the house. I laid on the floor looking at the shadow of a ceiling fan as Mingo explained all that had happened to my redheaded wife, Chesteen, a beautiful lady and school principal.
"Well, you've got us off to a great vacation," spoke Chesteen. "I hate to think how much you'll owe for the van." She walked to a bedroom and said that it was mine. Then she walked past me disappearing to the other side of the large house.
My left side was beginning to increase in pain. Needles were jabbing into me. It was all I could do to breathe and not cry. I felt like Richard Burton in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA. I went to the adjoining kitchen. It was a huge old yellow tiled thing built at the end of WW2 by New York millionaires. I opened the refrigerator. There, alone, queerly, stood a quart of unopened coconut rum. The exact same brand I had battled all day and night. I had no pain pills. Mingo had not offered me any marijuana. I did the only thing an Estill countian could.
I took the bottle.
I crawled back to my bed and unscrewed the top. Profusely, I drank. I had to fight the pain. In a while I was back into coconut heaven. In my mind as well as outside the tallest of Palm trees swayed against an island sky. And make no mistake. The night sky of the outer islands is special.
And then the bed collapsed. Not all of it. Just the two legs at the end where my feet where. The drop had jarred my body sending pain. I took another drink. I laid there a few minutes with my body inclined looking at the ceiling fan remembering Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. Then the ceiling fan stopped and a small electrical fire began at it's center. I got to a switch and turned it off. Again the pain continued and I had another drink. Or was it two. At some point as I lay silken sad I thought I felt something lick my toe. Was I dreaming? A few minutes later I felt the lick again. Yes, it was real. I was certain. I leaned to turn on a night lamp near the bed, again feeling
sharp pain. After locating the chain I turned to see a rat. Not just any rat. A rat as big as a groundhog. The rat was at the bottom of my bed. Quite tame. He stared at me with all the indifference in the world and wondered why I had interrupted his Kentucky toe dinner.
As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly, I sprang from my bed. It was not the night before Christmas. Far from it. For a full minute I was Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. Only I was naked. My sword was a rum bottle. And All the King's men were one growling rat. For some time I jousted, employing all my Estill County instincts. Estill County is loaded with rats. All in high offices.
Attack and defense. Man verses beast. At long last my willpower won out and I cornered the giant in the kitchen. As Thor I burst the bottle over the rat's head exploding the floor in brains, blood and coconut rum. I fell to one side like Spartacus and in came Chesteen. She had no idea of the struggle or what had led up to it. "YOU'RE REALLY SETTING A FINE EXAMPLE FOR YOUR DAUGHTER!" she declared, shaking her head in disgust, turning off the light, disappearing. I struggled across the floor. The kitchen looked like the end of the third day at Gettysburg. I felt like Lee. The rum was vanquished. The word, Eleuthera, is a Greek word meaning, freedom. I didn't feel free. The ocean smell of morning was near, my comfort. I was never meant to live in Kentucky. I am one with the sea. But for all my sins I have been exiled there. The very worst of all tortures. Particularly, Estill County.
As dawn made it's presence I thought of The Bataan Death March. There's nothing like being on vacation. All year long I had lied, stolen, cheated and even worked to be here.
While I nodded nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. Who else but this big guy named John that I met at The Sunset Inn a year ago. I'd promised I would take him diving upon my arrival. He hadn't forgotten. He owned all the patience of a giant termite. I had absolutely no idea who the man was or what he did. Well, I did have suspicions. I figured with all his talk of owning several homes, jet-setting around in the Caribbean and his mention of Columbia more than once, that he was in the sugar business. And not Betty White's. He had made a manic cut through the jungle showing me one of his houses. I'm sure we left a muffler and transmission somewhere in the thick. So goes a rental. But hey, who was I now to talk of treating rentals with kindness. He also showed me a sailboat he winched to that house. The boat supposedly hit a reef out in the ocean in front of his place. Who knew? You could see right off he had a lot of Estill County blood running in his veins. The way he treated beer with no mercy I was sure he was from Estill County whether he knew it or not.
Chesteen directed him off in my direction. It was as though she was directing the garbage man to where the garbage was located.. I was peering at a coconut tree when he entered my bedroom. "Are you ready?" he asked.
Pain dominated my left side. I felt like I'd been shot out of a cannon to a planet yet discovered. "I can't today," I responded. "I wrecked a van, went 300 feet over a cliff. My left side hurts. I can barely take the pain."
"Roll over," spoke John.
I wasn't sure why a drug lord was asking me to roll over. He proceeded to touch my side and ask me smart questions. He sounded just like some doctor. "You talk like a
"I am a doctor," said John.
"A real doctor?"
"Yes. From the best I can tell, you have four broken ribs. There isn't anything I can do. If you went to a hospital all they would do is wrap you."
"Just give me some time. We'll dive next week."
John left. I heard his rental knock down a tree on the way out. At least some fresh coconuts would be on the ground. I wasn't sure if voodoo was practiced on Eleuthera. He only said he was a real doctor. Never said what kind.
A week or so must have passed. My luggage arrived. I assembled all my illegalities. Treasure was out there. So were lobsters, both out of season. I had cried my 96 tears. Each droplet, the exact same solution as The Caribbean Sea. Only more polluted. Somewhere out of revulsion I Lazarusdized my begotten ribs.
I found myself in conversation at the Coco Demama's bar with a man named Jim. He was running some kind of marine biology school. There didn't seem to be a drop of marine biology in him. He bragged about the money he was clearing on his operation. He kept trying to feel me out. As the coconut rum continued I explained that I was a great archeologist. Kentucky's finest secret. I found lost cities as easily as you could order a happy meal at Macdonald's. After a few more rums I explained that Jacques Costeau and Mel Fisher didn't have anything on me. Or was it Mark Spitz?
Jim asked me if I knew about skeletons. The question was going somewhere. I told him that I had dug several hundred burials. Had degrees in anthropology. Was tutored about skeletons by Lathiel Duffield at The University of Kentucky. The best biological anthropologist in America.
Jim eyeballed me right hard and asked if I knew a white man's skeleton from some other race. I told him that I was from Estill County. From the land time forgot. That evolution had been going backwards there since Adam and Eve. I explained that I knew the difference between an orangutan and a republican, which takes years of careful study. And that there was little about a skeleton that I didn't know, especially if it was the frame of some gorgeous dame. I'd been studying those skeletons a damn long time much to my travail. After hearing all that and me buying him four more coconut rums he concluded that I was an expert of some kind. He invited me to be at his marine biology school at dawn. I was told that one of Eleuthera's native bushman had found a secret cave wherein a skeleton was just inside its entrance. The Eleutherainian was afraid to go near. Jim wanted me to conduct a skeletal analysis.
When morning broke I was at Jim's place. It was a wonderful set up, thrown together with driftwood. Something like Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe would have imagined. Chesteen tagged along wearing a black thong bikini. Correct attire for serious anthropological studies. Our Eleutherainian appeared. Jim's wife eyed Chesteen and slammed the screen door behind us as we left.
We jeeped northward along The Queen's Highway until we finally came to a turn off near Hatchet Bay. We drove over red dirt that supposedly blew in from the Sahara. Going past The Hatchet Bay Cove we went over a hill and eventually parked in grass that was the height of a basketball goal. In Kentucky it's the only measurement we know -- that, and how far it is to the nearest bootlegger.
We whacked through the weeds with machetes. I saw Chesteen and myself as Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger in KING SOLOMON'S MINES. You couldn't see where you were going. And only knew where you had come from by the trail you left behind. I trekked through the bush in boardshorts and sandals packing a camera, frog-light, and a quart of coconut rum standard Bahamian anthropological equipment. After much of going this way and that we arrived at the most queer of places. A naturally formed coral Stonehenge. Spiders were everywhere. Off to the left was a small overhang. The bushman pointed towards it and backed away. I leaned down and entered. Raising back up I saw a large room before me. The air was dank. In the middle of the foreboding room was a pond of water. Near my feet lay a skeleton. It was Indian. The teeth. Extreme cranial deformation. A male in his 30's. A smoker. Ate ground food. Had been strong and healthy. No trauma. An Indian, alright. An Arawak. The Arawaks were the first people Columbus met when he voyaged to the New World. They were a people having originated out of the Amazon. When Columbus came to Eleuthera it was called, Cigatoo. After he enslaved and Christianized the Arawaks they soon became extinct.
There are four tides in a day. We were lucky to be at this tidal cave during low tide. It allowed us to continue our journey. As we walked through the middle of the cave in the cool water our feet often sank in the mud. In the water we saw several skeletons. I continued to stop and talk about each one to Jim and Chesteen. Some skeletons were on high areas above the water. One male had a conch that had been made into ahorn beside him. After some three hundred feet or so we reached the end of the cavern. There at the back were three skeletons, an old woman with two young girls. There was something beguiling about them. I couldn't say what. But I felt their presence. Sometimes I feel things. Things that are haunting and true. They had been close to each other. A grandmother and her granddaughters. I counted eighteen burials total. It was the largest group of Arawaks ever discovered. Jim had a camera and was shooting the entire trip.
You don't always have to be blind stinking drunk to have a good time. But it helps. I was drunk on Arawaks. I picked up the skull near the entrance and without all the scientific clay modeling I could visualize the man's face. Very smooth features. Almost feminine. He owned a most dramatic sloping forehead. From his supraorbital margin his entire frontal eminence went straight back rounding off into something of a cone. Very extreme. Very beautiful. Such a shame that Columbus ruined everything. We should fly flags at half mast on Columbus Day instead of celebrating.
It was better than the front page story once headlined in Estill County's newspaper: "MISSING LINK DISCOVERED ON BARNES MOUNTAIN!" That wasn't news. Everyone knew that missing links lived on Barnes Mountain. On Pea Ridge and Cobb HIll, too. I got a gallon of second run off rye from them every Thanksgiving. Stuff that would make you slap your grandma.
I was a child and she was a child, in this kingdom by the sea. Chesteen, she watched as I laid the skull back down. It was vexing to hold the head of a man that surely saw Columbus. I kept pondering the cave. Both sexes. All ages. Dying at the same time. Does smallpox leave a sign on bones? There were voices inside that cave. I heard them. I felt an ethereal presence. Burial caves are like that.
The next morning Chesteen and I jeeped to the north end of Eleuthera to locate "Preacher's Cave." In 1648 Captain William Sayles and a group of Puritans set sail from Bermuda in search of religious freedom. They wrecked on the reefs and found refuge in a large blue tinted cliff where they lived and held sermons. Leastways, that's the story. I figured if any of it was true I had a chance of finding something. As fate dictated, I discovered a large iron chest several feet deep. Nothing was in it. It was too heavy to bring back. I salvaged its odd iron and brass lock, wonderful workmanship for the period.
On our way back we stopped at The Rainbow Inn to have a coconut rum, or was it two. I noted black glass bottles from the 1700's and the 1800's standing at various places throughout the bar. After hurricanes, the bottles were found in Governor's Harbour.
The next morning found me at low tide in the middle of the settlement on the Caribbean side. I was amazed to see so much black glass washed ashore. Necks to rum, wine and gin bottles. Pontilled bases indicating the1700's to the 1800's. Pieces of early crock and transfer ware as well as iron buckles were there for the taking. I smelled a wreck. I walked out to waist deep water continuing to find Dutch and English pieces. Then I saw the most beautiful blue something. I reached down and got it-- a glass bead. It was multi-sided. Each side owned several cartouches. Egyptian. How a relic from Egypt made its way to the Harbour was a story in itself. An Estill Countian finding it, another.
The early morning buzz is well the best. Estill Countians know this. And inasmuch as that may be correct it wasn't correct the next morning. The tapping at my chamber door was a representative from Stanton Cooper, the gentleman that rented me the Ford van. I was handed something of an itemized bill for the destruction I had wrought.
I looked at the bill with Estill County eyes. The way those numbers trailed off. Bogus bills are bread and butter in Estill. I had never seen so much scribbling, inserting and corrected erasing. This guy needed formal Estill County training. "Come on in," I said. "Would you like to have something to drink?" You could see the man was standing there wide eyed and rather expectant that I was going to reach into the atmosphere and hand him around twenty grand. A rich tourist such as I had money coming out of my ears. Or so he hoped. I went into the kitchen and emptied out nearly a half quart of coconut rum over ice into two large glasses and returned with a smile. He took a sip and then another. I knew he would. If it's anything Estill Countians have an instinct about it's a fellow con artist and drunk. Both just have a natural way of going together. I asked the man about the merits of fresh coconut water and gin, a most prescribed concoction employed by the natives. He smiled, knowing we were on the same wave length. "Look," I said, "I'm not rich. I work in a warehouse. I've been demoted all my life. Sometimes they have to create new positions just so there is something lower than I already am. My father was born in a tent in a coal mining camp. He sold fruit and vegetables on the street. I was raised on whatever went rotten."
The man threw back his head and downed the whole cup. I did the same. I exited to the kitchen and emptied out the rest of the bottle. I didn't throw the bottle away. You never knew when another rat would appear. Four or two legged. Jousting with the two legged variety is always more formidable. Fortunately I had lucked into a universal weapon. I returned to my bill collector handing him the drink. I held up the piece of paper. Hardly a word was spelled correctly. There were three different instances where the same destroyed item was listed in different places. "You have down that I owe for a broken antennae and radio. There wasn't a radio in that van."
"Did I put that down there?"
"Right here. Six hundred and fifty four dollars and thirty two cents."
I almost appreciated the way the man had the cents figured in on each item. It almost gave it that feel of being a real. I handed the bill to the man. He took another big drink and starred at it withdrawing his pencil from his shirt pocket. He began erasing several areas and re-adding. He handed it back to me.
The bill was handed to me. I liked these figures but they still needed improving. "My uncle is in the used car business," I informed, "a stalwart within our community. Occasionally, I go with him to the sales. I know what vehicles cost. And I know that that van wouldn't have even got a bid. It was nothing but scrap. It's a testament to my driving abilities that I was able to get it as far as it went."
The man finished his drink and asked for the bill. He took his pencil and markeda giant "X" through everything and wrote a number at the bottom.
I looked at the figure. It was round. This was more like it, an honest bunch of numbers. After all, the van had already been salvaged. God only knew about what was what regarding insurance. I never could get a straight answer. The Ford was over in the bushes. The natives had picked the skeleton down clean. This is still a little high. But I guess fair is fair. I can't give you the thousand right now. I still have two more weeks vacation. I don't know how my money will hold. I've got a family to worry about. They have to eat. Give me your name and address. When I get back to Kentucky I'll send you the money."
I always go to the sea. When I am not there I am still going. I always go to the sea. If not in body, then in mind. I love her and she loves me.