Uncle Bill Installment #7

Photo by Bill Scales.

Taking Uncle Bill’s cameras to the place he was last known to have been (San Salvador Island in the Bahamas) was, at first, just a little spark of an idea. Learning more about my Uncle Bill over the past few months brought a significant shift in my thoughts, moving this photo project from the recesses of my mind to the forefront of my focus.

I’d been keeping my left eye on the website Going.com (formerly Scotts Cheap Flights), waiting for a good deal on a flight to Nassau, Bahamas.

Gasp! There it was! (My heart always skips a beat when I know I’m going to get a good deal – something passed down from my dad’s genes, I think.) I snagged a flight to Nassau.

I spent the first part of this, the month of February, skipping off blindly and naively into my Bahamian adventure. If I’d only known then what I know now. I would’ve:


1.) Given my trip more time (like, at least a year on the island).

2.) booked my Bahamas Air flights first.

3.) brought different pants.


I could envision how this trip was going to go down: I’d take a SCUBA lesson. I’d sit on the beach. My cousin and his wife would meet me about 4 days into it. We’d drive around looking for remnants of the cold war era San Salvador and things my Uncle would have seen. Maybe we wouldn’t find any? I’d scheduled a psychic reading for the night after my cousin arrived. None of us are exactly sit-on-a-tropical-beach type people, but that is exactly what we would do until it was time to depart. That’s what I thought.


Due to a series of events beyond my control, I ended up going solo for the first few days of the trip. Most flights to anywhere beyond Nassau still originate in Nassau. My flight from Seattle to Nassau was uneventful, even though the Alaska Air crew said it was their very first time landing at Lynden Pindling International Airport – information that wasn’t at all unnerving?  Nassau was in the midst of a weird February storm. By the time I left the little airport for the hotel, it was dark of night, the rain was pounding and the wind was whipping sideways. I generally travel with just a carry on bag and this trip was no exception. Uncle Bill’s cameras were safely stashed inside. The TSA folks had no qualms about hand inspecting my film. (This is a camera website, so I have to mention these bits.) My photo project, shooting Uncle Bill’s last known sighting with his own cameras, was taking shape. The taxi driver, Jacquie, gave me tips on where to eat, while she maneuvered the mini van through flooded roadways and around downed palm trees. I asked her about the violence that had made the news back home. The violence in Nassau that every single person who heard I was going to the Bahamas made a point of telling me about. Jacquie said, “Oh no! You don’t need to worry about that! That’s over where WE live. Not over here.” (She said it like that was ok. Like, where she lives is a completely different world from the tourist side of the island – and I’m sure it is.) She said, “It’s just gang stuff, you know? Like, ‘you killed my cat so I have to kill your dog.’ ” Well, ok then. She told me to eat at Twin Brothers and have the cracked conch, which I did and it was supremely delicious. Strips of conch, battered and deep fried. They gave me a steak knife to cut it, but it was so tender I could manage with just the side of my fork. The batter, fried to an irresistibly fluffy, crisp crust, was served with fried plantains and peas ‘n rice. I had walked the half mile from the hotel – through the crazy nighttime weather, my spirits bolstered by the fact that tropical violence won’t encroach on my world. Jacquie said so.


All night long, the wind whipped loudly and the surf roared. I tossed and turned in that Nassau hotel room, considering the possibility that my next flight might have issues. Finally, I drifted off to sleep … an unseasonable storm… a small aircraft … headed out to the outermost island of this group of islands … the Bermuda Triangle … what could possibly go wrong?

I would like to say ‘the next day dawned …’, however I had to be at the airport before it got light so there was no time to wait for dawn. Once again, Jacquie and I careened down water-soaked roadways, between whipping palm trees, through the light pre-dawn traffic, retracing our route of the night before- Jackie inquiring after last night’s dinner and me, prattling on about the conch.

In the airport I had a truly authentic Island experience – coffee at the departure terminal’s Dunkin’ Donuts. Dunkies gave me the caffeinated courage needed to finally board the little aircraft that was waiting to take me to San Salvador Island. I had seat 1A. As it turns out EVERYONE had seat 1A. You simply form a single line, walk outside toward the rear of the little plane and, as you brace yourself against the wind on the tarmac, a flight attendant instructs you to take any seat between rows 6 and 9. The last person to board ended up being my seatmate. A local San Salvador Islander, she was very upset about having had her bag checked. I told her I’m sure it’ll be ok. “It’s a small plane. How can they lose it?” My seatmate, with more emotion than deemed necessary, “You don’t understand! My sister had a package on this airline and they lost it and it took months before they got it to her!” She was young, probably in her late 20s, maybe 30? Well dressed. As we took off, she assumed the crash position – which she kept throughout the flight – white knuckles grasping the back of the seat in front of her. The flight was only said to be one hour with, I think, about only 45 minutes in the actual air. It was a little bit bumpy, but I never thought it got all that bad. With every bump, she would cry out in Bahamianese! … I think flying bothered her.  The landing was … ok. The pilot seemed to overdo it brake-wise and I was glad for the seatbelt which kept my face from slamming into the back of the seat in front of me.

Me, shooting some aerials out the window of the plane to San Salvador Island, with my Uncle Bill’s Minox spy camera.

Charlie, the manager of the house I’d rented, was waiting for me at the tiny San Salvador Island airport (ZSA). San Salvador Island is only 12 miles long and 5 miles wide with many inland lakes. I followed Charlie in my HiJet (supplied by the Airbnb folks!) to the house, a three bedroom home on the southwest side of the island, in an area called Sandy Point.

The little HiJet.

The power had been out so the internet was screwed up and, while Charlie fixed it, I slid out to gather supplies. (“Gather supplies” is code for I-searched-for-a-liquor-store.) Back in Cockburn Town [seriously], there’s a grocery store called Dorette’s. I stopped at Dorette’s for snacks to bring back to the house. There was talk of the weather and the unseasonable storm.

Back at the house, the storm raged. As it turned dark, the temperature seemed to rise and the storm picked up, with flying coconuts and everything.

Photo taken off the deck’s back steps.

I had chosen the upstairs bedroom, a circular room with many windows and wonderfully dark wood floors. It took up nearly the entire upper floor.  The room was on level with the tops of the whipping palms, surf roaring all around. For now it was me and the darkness, which had a feel that it was never ending. Certain this storm was going to go on forever and no airplanes would be able to rescue anyone, my survival instincts kicked in. I’d once completed Air Force basic survival school where I learned to remain alive you need air, then water, then shelter, then food.  The first thing I did (after pouring me a rum) was to download a stack of library books onto my Kindle. If I was going to face roughing it, I wasn’t going to do it without stuff to read. I didn’t read much though. I sat and watched the Atlantic. I didn’t want to miss what it might do next. Plus, I wanted to gather my thoughts and make a list of questions for the upcoming session with the psychic.


 The next morning I had scheduled a SCUBA dive class. My first ever dive. The weather had settled somewhat and I showed up at Club Med (where the dive center is located) at the allotted time. Though the island is only 12 miles long, the drive up to Club Med took about 25 minutes due to pot holes and curvy roads. I have to admit, I took to driving on the left side of road more easily than I thought I would.


The first part of the SCUBA lesson took place in the resort’s pool. Veronica, my dive instructor, was from Paris and, most likely due to the weather, I was the only student. It felt like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. One on one with my dive instructor. The pool session went well and I learned about tanks and valves and what to do and how to be underwater. Hand signals.

SCUBA dive class. I was the star student. The best student and the worst student. The only student.

The afternoon dive was still questionable due to weather. Though the water was turbid and choppy, the dive boat decided to give it go. I went out on the dive with a boat full of French folks. There was only one other American who was surprised that I was staying in a house. “I’ve been to this island 4 times and I thought the only things here are Club Med and the Dive Resort.” Like… huh. Who knew?

The pool session had gone so well, I’d like to tell you that I wasn’t the blubbering, hyperventilating, trying-to-cling-to-the-slimy-hull-of-the-boat-in-the-choppy-water tourist. But I was. It took a bit for me to relax enough to descend. Once below the surface, the planet shifted. No, it was a different planet. I was very, very near where my Uncle had disappeared. Where my Uncle had taken his very last dive. Almost on top of it.


Oh! Barracuda! (To quote Ann Wilson.) Photo: Marcy Merrill.


One of my Uncle Bill’s shots of this very reef. Photo: Bill Scales.

I saw the fish and I saw the shelf, which is really a coral cliff, that drifts off and descends below to a darkened nowhere. I saw a shark. I saw crazy amounts of coral and a puffer fish with spines. I saw a baby turtle and a whole slew of barracudas. I saw schools and schools of neon fish in every shape and size and every color of the rainbow. I could breathe underwater. My Uncle had done this dive many times. The rest of the boats’ passengers were experienced divers and they headed off, over the wall as soon as we arrived.


Divers heading off, descending down “the wall”. The wall is an ancient coral reef – a deep sea cliff. Photo: Marcy Merrill


Skin diving, San Salvador Island. Photo: Bill Scales.

Veronica had told me, in her French-English, “Don’t ever hold your breath. I want to see bubbles. All za time, bubbles.” I burned through those tanks in no time. We headed back to the boat.


Heading back up to the boat.

Everyone returned to the boat one-by-one and in small groups, excitedly chirping French. Me? I snotted into a Kleenex and tried to quell a bloody nose. One French guy said to me, “Don worry zis happens all za time.”

What I’d thought at the time was the apex of this adventure was complete. I had survived, mostly unscathed, with only plugged ears as an uncomfortable side effect.


By the next morning, the weather had calmed. The surf was high, but the wind had died down. I set off for French Beach, just to the south, and a nice little hike. French Beach is up a sand track. I parked the HiJet and climbed the dune. There in the sand I saw some bumps. It turned out to be a conch shell!

It was an exciting find! But less than 24 hours later, I realized there are 800 gazillion conch shells around the island beaches. Still…

I heard voices behind me. A couple was coming over the dune, toting snorkel gear and what looked like a floatable tub. I met Ray and Margaux, who were in search of some dinner. They own a house here on the island, but also have houses in Maine and Africa. Ray donned his wetsuit and I asked if I could take a picture of his gear.

A galvanized washtub inside an inner tube. When you snag a lobster, you swim up and toss it into the washtub. The flag is for visibility – so folks above the surface know where you are.

I headed east along the beach. About a mile up, there’s an estuarial area that turned into what appeared to be mangroves. A good place to turn around. I’d spent the mile absorbing it all, when it occurred to me … I need to talk to that couple. Now! I almost ran back to the beach access. Margaux was still there and Ray was beginning to haul in the washtub. As Ray drug the washtub over the rocks, Margaux asked, “Did you get anything?”

“I’ll show you what I got.” said Ray.

It was fucking gargantuan. Lobster caught off the coast in the Bahamas do not have the giant claws of the traditional Maine lobster.

I told them about my uncle and why I was here. Did they know anyone who might know someone who was around during the time when the military bases were here? Nodding their heads toward each other, agreeing, “Yes! You need to talk to Nat Walker.” They had a few names for me. Among which were Nathaniel (Nat) Walker and Snake Eyes. I gave them my contact info and we parted ways. (They were completely oblivious to my hints that I really wanted some of that lobster.) “Nat Walker lives up by Kenny the woodcarver. Just ask anyone.

“Just ask anyone.” This is the mantra of the island. Everyone, when asked, finishes their answer with, “Just ask anyone.”

From Ray and Margaux I gleaned that Snake Eyes lives in Cockburn Town. Dorette will know where but, “just ask anyone”.

I left them to their meal. When I arrived back at the house, I received a message from a Janet Storr via Whatsapp. Margaux had gotten the ball rolling by contacting her. Janet had some leads for me to follow. Janet is referred to on the island as “The Ambassador” of San Salvador. She is the most genuinely helpful and knowledgeable person I have never met. She mentioned the same names Margaux and Ray had mentioned earlier. When asked about how to find Nat Walker, “He lives just before Kenny the woodcarver. Just ask anyone.”

Installment #6


Installment #8

You can keep track of updates and many more shared items on my Whatsapp channel “Outermost Uncle“.



7 Responses

  1. We’re at the other end of the trip with John and Gabe. They shared some of their photos and tales of the trip. What an adventure you all had. Thanks for letting share.

  2. Heck ya! Love this ongoing saga girl. Spy camera and lobster mmmmm yes! They do look different. What an adventure! Did you get to talk to that fella? Nat? Do tell!!!!

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