Uncle Bill Installment #11

 

Photo by Bill Scales.

Our final evening on Sal Salvador island arrived. We were to meet Juanita Vernecia at the tip of the island. Juanita’s son owns Dis Da One, a grocery store in North Victoria Hill.

When we arrived, we were met with a friendly “Hello!” Garnell (Juanita’s daughter) is a lovely wisp of a thing. Dressed in slacks and a suit jacket, she welcomed us and gave me a hug. Garnell is a teacher at the local primary school.

There was a bit of a hubbub as Garnell and her sister, Denise – who stayed in the periphery during our talk – set up chairs in the yard between the store and the house. Juanita emerged with her dog Teddy, an adorable little terrier with white fur and button eyes.

“Is that your vicious guard dog?” I asked. We all laughed as Teddy checked us out. Garnell sat next to Juanita and we arranged ourselves in a semi-circle opposite. Dressed in a tshirt and jeans with a watch cap on her head. “I’m Juanita or Vernicia. That’s what it says on my passport anyway. ‘Vernicia.'” She smiled. Juanita Vernicia has a hard time hearing. When we didn’t speak loudly enough, Garnell helped by repeating our words … LOUDER.

She was born on November 20, 1936 at the house just next door to where we are seated. She is 87. She would’ve been just 21 at the time Uncle Bill disappeared. She remembers that day well, she says. When she learns that we have spoken with Nat Walker she tells us that Jenny Mae, Nat’s wife, is her cousin. Jenny Mae’s father and Juanita’s mother were siblings.

Juanita Vernecia and Teddy.

As far as the island’s involvement in the cold war era Eastern Range, she said the US Army Corps came first with their tents. Supplies were parachuted in. “There was lots of Bell Brand bread.” she laughs and shakes her head. “I remember that.”

I asked about her life during that time. She had gone to find work in Nassau at the time the base opened up. “Mama said, ‘Child come on home now.” There were good jobs to be had. She came home and was hired right away, working jobs in the mess hall and laundry.

She saw Bill and Don as they came down the line at the chow hall during lunch. That day, they talked about seeing a “monster fish” and were going out for another dive to see what it was. “Some animal took them. It was so sad. Folks found only a fin.” She recounted Don Diehl’s memorial. The family gathered on the island. They went out in a boat with a wreath. There was no service for Bill. Juanita said Bill had been a friendly and quiet young man. “He and Don rode all over the island on motorcycles, taking pictures.”

A few pictures Bill took around the island. Circa 1957, or so.

 

Photo: Bill Scales.

 

Photo by Bill Scales. Some colleagues, taking pictures around the island. Circa 1957.

I asked if she’d visited The Rip? She lit right up, emphatically nodding her head, “Oh yeah!” Then added, “I had my fun!” Everyone went to The Rip and danced.

She laughed as she spoke about fraternization between local women and the men from the US. “There’s kids all around here. She’s one!” she pointed at her daughter, Denise. “She’s one!” she repeated, laughing. “Her nickname’s Shaggy.” I immediately joked, “Is she Bill’s?”

“Don’t joke about that.” John cut in.

Juanita shook her head. “I’m open about it. I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not ashamed of her.” she said.

Juanita Vernicia eventually built her house in 1959. She raised 2 girls and 4 boys there.

 

Garnell then spoke about the different entities that had studied San Salvador’s history, topography and archeology. San Salvador is well researched. Loyalists brought their slaves here and created large plantations. Watling’s Castle (the place with the ruins and creepy banana trees in the well?) had been a manor house for a plantation. The owners had documented their day to day activities.

Garnell Williams

“If you drive down that way [she pointed east], you will see some steps going up into the hill. There are two graves of the plantation owners and the whipping post. This island has gone by other names…”

Me: “Wait. Back up. The whipping post? There’s a whipping post?” Garnell nodded her head.

THAT’S what we saw up those steps way back in installment number whatever.

The graves up the stairs … by the whipping post.

Garnell has been working with different agencies to keep a library and open a museum on the island. That 5 mile by 12 mile island has so many stories to tell, an open museum would be a huge asset.

 

The Gerace Research Center (formerly the Navy Base) hopes to have a working museum.

With our thoughts turning to the beginning of our trip home the next day, we stood to say good-bye. Denise came to help gather the chairs. I had a few airline flights ahead of me. Lots of time ahead to gather my thoughts.

Back at the Airbnb that night, I checked comments on my blog. There was one from a “Marie” on Installment #2. She said she was present when we spoke with Juanita. This began a private dialog between the two of us. I’ve found there’s much to learn about “Marie”…

 

Back to installment #10.

Forward to Installment #12

You can keep track of updates and photos, beyond what I post on my site, on my Whatsapp channel “Outermost Uncle“.

5 Responses

  1. Thanks for feeding my need to find the ending for “Uncle Bill”! Your writing is so easy to read and picture yourself with the people being interviewed. PLEASE write a book! ❤️

    1. Deb: As of today, there is no ending. The adventure continues. I started this as just a fun photo project. Now, every time I fit a piece of the puzzle in, 1800 other pieces appear.

  2. Awesome piece! It takes you back to that time in history on the island. Well said by these individuals Marcy. Great real life story. Keep writing revealing the past to future generations.

  3. #11 doesn’t disappoint. Fascinating Uncle Bill search and discovery of long ago adventures, history and daily life on San Salvador island.

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