Uncle Bill Installment #9

Photo by Bill Scales.

Introduction to Installment #9 :

Installment #7 had a lot of hullabaloo (or should I say ballyhoo?) about my initial island impressions. I’d gone to San Salvador island to see where my uncle had disappeared, shoot with his film cameras and, possibly talk to someone who was of age during that mid-century era.

Having been told I needed to visit Nat Walker who lives “just before Kenny the woodcarver”, and  Clifford Fernander – otherwise known as Snake Eyes (who lives not far from Dorette’s and carries a red shopping bag and buys oranges- just ask anyone) I set out first to find Nat’s. My initial attempts to find Kenny the dang Woodcarver failed. On into Cockburn Town I went, stopping at the Holy Savior Roman Catholic Church where I met Deacon Gregory Taylor. (“Oh yeah! Nat Walker … he lives just before Kenny the Woodcarver. Just ask anyone.”) I got a description of the house this time, so I was good to go.

There’s a funky old telegraph station near the church.
It doesn’t appear to be working.

After stopping at Dorette’s (you can’t pass through Cockburn Town without stopping, there’s always something you need and Dorette’s has every necessity), I continued north in search of cold war era stuff – which was much easier to find than Kenny’s … just ask anyone.

The Gerace Research Center. As it turns out, this was the site of a 1950’s US Navy base. The gate was open so I drove in. I banged my fist on metal doors with no response. After speaking with some guys who were driving a garbage truck, and were in agreement with me that no one was around, I moved on.

 

A massive abandoned dock structure where thousands of conch live.

 

On the hill above the dock I spotted a strange building with a round top. I bookmarked it in the back of my mind for future exploration.

 

Did I mention the scenery is devastatingly stunning?

 

Dixon Hill Lighthouse.

This was the day my cousin and his wife were to arrive. For some reason, I felt like I needed to set up an itinerary. There remained that nagging thought that we were going to be bored on a beach … though that thought was fading rapidly. I had already found the spot where my uncle had disappeared, gotten leads on at least two people to talk to about it, and found some cool cold war era stuff we could explore. Life was good.

I headed back to the airport and picked up my cousin and his wife.

John and Gabe are from L.A. Bahamas Airlines, being unpredictable, had already dropped them off by the time I arrived (which was actually about 20 minutes early).  We headed back to the Airbnb … with a stop at Dorette’s because that’s what you do.

John, at Dorette’s.

Heading back to the house, the L.A. contingent was mesmerized by the pot holes. That evening we ate spaghetti and hung out (“hung out” being code for “drank rum”).

The next morning, after (at the insistence of the L.A. contingent) recording a pot hole video, we stopped at Nat Walker’s house. (I never did find Kenny the Wood Carver.) When Nat answered the door, I was surprised to see some guy who looked like he was about 48. I thought he was Nat’s son. It was Nat. Nat is 84. There was initial confusion, which turned out to be a funny thing later. Nat was getting ready for church (it was Sunday) so we decided on a time the next day to get together. Then… off we went… north. Cockburn Town meant a stop at Dorette’s. Dorette not only gave us directions to Snake Eye’s place, she took us outside and pointed the way. This is what the locals do. They don’t just tell you the way. They SHOW you. This happened more than once. By this time I had figured out that you don’t approach a house on the island via its front door. Always pull around the back. At Snake Eye’s that’s just what I did. Clifford Fernander got the nickname Snake Eyes  because he is an ace domino player. I had been warned not to engage. Clifford answered the back (front) door. He had company and maybe we could come back the next day? We set a time.

John, Gabe and I moved on, to the last known place Uncle Bill had been seen. Ever. The beach off of which the PAA boat had been anchored. The place he never returned to.

 

You can see the white sand under the water… then the dark line. That’s where the coral reef just drops. Like a cliff. It drops hundreds of feet.

 

Right … there. The boat would’ve been anchored right out there. (My cousin John points.) The airport runway is behind us.

“So where did he launch from?” John speculates out loud to himself. We decide to try our luck at Club Med, which was the original RCA compound and right next door to where we were standing. We schmoozed our way past the guard shack, convincing them we were interested in talking to the dive shop about a dive.

In search of anything 1950’s-ish, we pass what appears to be (and turns out actually IS) the original Central Control.

Uncle Bill’s pic of Central Control, circa 1957.

 

Central Control as it looks today. Club Med uses it as a laundry facility, etc. Its paint job and general appearance reminds me of a Best Buy or Target store.

 

Below Central Control, near the beach, is the boat house where Uncle Bill launched the PAA boat. It’s still there!

 

John gathers sand for Ross Taylor.

We spend the rest of the day doing lots of stuff (including another stop or two at Dorette’s). We drive around in the HiJet and look at cold war things. We see steps … like a hundred of them, leading through the brush. We follow these steps to two graves and a weird pole thing. Further down the road, we hike up to the weird round building I’d spotted earlier.

John knows what it is and I gather it’s something relevant.

 

The weird round-topped building, photographed using Uncle Bill’s Minox spy camera.

 

Inside the weird round building.

 

More inside the weird round building.

 

We have lunch at Charmaigne’s (there’s no sign, but a guy not only gives us directions – he shows us – then drives behind us to make sure we find the place).

Char’s Kitchen.

 

John and Charmaigne, taken with Bill’s Minox camera.

We go to the lighthouse. We visit cemeteries. We go back to the Airbnb (on the way, stopping at Dorette’s yet again) and set up the gas powered fire pit. As it turns out, this firepit is brand new,  has sat in the same spot for quite some time, and NO ONE has EVER used it. We lit the night.

Enjoying the night with a fire by the sea.

The next day dawns and John and I hike to Watlings Castle, which isn’t far from where we’re staying.

Watlings Castle is a late 18th century plantation. A bunch of ruins, really.

 

If you follow a little used path that descends the hill below, you end up in what appears to be a mini Cintra (I’m exaggerating a bit).

 

Steps descend below a huge rock slab. I think it’s an old cistern, or place to gather water. And, yeah, I went down there.

 

There are banana plants and it’s creepy.

 

There are seed pods that resemble the plant in Little Shop Of Horrors.

We did a bunch of other stuff. Then we made good on our rendezvous time with Nat Walker.

Here’s where Installment #9 begins:

Nat Walker’s daughter, Dena, met us as we approached the back (front) door. It was a beautifully sunny day, and there were chairs set outside. Jenny Mae, Nat’s wife was seated near the back of the house. Jenny Mae happily accepted our gift of chocolates. Nat sat in front of us as we settled in. Nathaniel Walker has a professional, yet casual, air about him. He has worked at every tracking station up and down the Eastern Range. He is well dressed and well traveled.

Nat Walker, at his home in Sugarloaf – just before Kenny the Woodcarver’s place.

John began taking notes. This being our first “interview”, we didn’t really have a plan. I began asking questions. We started out with the basics.

Nat: “I was 18 in 1958 … you know, when you came yesterday, I thought you were looking for your father.” We have a bit of a laugh over this as, I think he thought I thought HE was my father. We share a chuckle over the initial confusion.

“When the Americans come, they spoil.” At first, I thought he meant they spoiled the island. Dena set me straight. “He means Americans are spoiled.” Dena said. Then, Nat gave us a bit of a historic timeline of U.S. involvement on San Salvador Island:

On 9 June 1949, 12 Jamaican surveyors came in a sea plane, landing in a lake.  In four weeks they had laid out the entire base. The Seabees came and built the base. In October of 1950, the first plane landed on the new runway. That was just the beginning.

Eventually, the USAF Missile Base had 300 personnel: 1/2 military and 1/2 civilian. They launched a rocket every morning at 9 AM to measure the ionosphere. (The ionosphere, a region of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, is constantly changing due to various factors such as solar activity, geomagnetic storms, and atmospheric conditions. These changes can affect the propagation of radio waves, causing them to bend, scatter, or reflect differently. For applications like tracking missiles, where precise communication is critical, it’s important to understand the state of the ionosphere to ensure accurate transmission and reception of signals. By monitoring and measuring the ionosphere’s characteristics, such as electron density and ionization levels, operators can mitigate the effects of ionospheric disturbances on radio wave propagation, ensuring reliable communication and tracking systems.)

Ultimately there were three US bases on the island:

 – Coast Guard

 – Navy

 – Pan Am

Nat worked for Pan Am. The United States’ objective was to have a missile tracking station about every 100 miles. San Salvador was the third Bahamian island to get a missile base. After the Bahamas stations, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, and Barbados, there was a long gap to Ascension Island. This gap was filled with ships that carried tracking equipment. These stations could command a “destruct”, if a launched missile went out of control.

He smiled as he recounted some of his travels. Pan Am sold tickets to its employees at a 90% discount. This was Nat’s chance to see the world, and he took advantage of it!

I asked him about our Uncle Bill’s diving incident. Did he remember it?

Nat, reading portions of the government report.

“Bill and Dean stayed in Barracks 4 of what is now Club Med.” Nat said. He remembered the diving accident. He believed they found a fin and that was all. Afterward, as part of Diehl’s memorial, a concrete marker was placed near the barracks; it was removed or destroyed when the site was repurposed for Club Med.

I asked if the Americans socialized with the locals? “Oh yes!” Nat, Dena and another daughter who had showed up mid-interview laughed. Dena said, “You see them around the island. The white kids that were babies of the Americans.”

I asked , “Does anyone in your family dive?” They live, surrounded by water, but don’t swim. Nat’s daughter referred to it as “suicide”.

We finished asking our questions and said our good-byes. Heading for the HiJet, we all felt we had a lot of information to chew on.

We had to get home and settle in for the psychic medium Zoom meeting I had scheduled for that evening. I would tell that story right here and now, but I think this post is getting really looooong. We bounced down the road, toward our home away from home, the L.A. contingent once again oh’ing and ah’ing over each and every impressive pot hole.

At that moment I received a Whatsapp message from Janet Storr, the “Ambassador” of San Salvador Island. A local woman named Garnell Williams said her mother knew Bill and Don. She remembers them going down the chow line on the day they disappeared.

Back to installment #8.

Installment #10

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

5 Responses

  1. The research and story with before and after images are getting very interesting. Love your using your Uncles Minox. Just sets the overall mood well.

  2. So great that you made connections with people that knew your uncle! Can’t wait for the next installment!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *