By Chris Cholas
For as long as I lived in Puerto Rico I had a yearning to visit the Windward Islands. Someone had told me that those islands were more removed from the vicious materialism and racism that infected the US Virgin Islands and I wanted to see if that was true for myself. I used leg braces and crutches to get around, as I had had polio as a small child.
In 1983 my chance came and I arranged a weeklong jaunt to St. Lucia. I was to be the guest of a dear Canadian pioneer in his 70’s. Arthur Irwin was well known in Canada for his many years of Bahá’í teaching work among the indigenous, especially in the western Provinces. Now, retired from his career, he served as a pioneer to the Caribbean Island of Saint Lucia. I was anxious to meet him and learn from him.
Arthur was a short man with glasses, balding head and a hearing aid. He drove a VW bug that he said he had recently been lucky to purchase at a rather reasonable price. The one, major defect of the car was that it sometimes had to be rolled forward to start. Arthur told me that for that reason, when he came home from errands he would back his car up a small inclined driveway in front of his house to park it. In that way when he needed to go somewhere, he could get in the Bug, take off the emergency brake, take it out of park and the car would start rolling forward. Then, Arthur could turn the key and presto, the motor would start up and run perfectly.
A young St. Lucian believer named Cliff lived with Arthur. They seemed quite compatible. Cliff liked to cook and help out around the house, and Arthur provided a stable environment and served as a mentor to Cliff, who was coming out of a few personal problems and trying to be a good Bahá’í. Arthur’s hearing was failing, but Cliff had the patience to repeat things when Arthur didn’t clearly hear him or someone else. The home environment that I entered, then, was quite hospitable and relaxing. I even had my own guest room while I stayed there.
Cliff liked Arthur and commenting about Arthur, told me that first day as an aside, “Doesn’t he remind you of Mr. Magoo?”
Yes, I thought, Arthur even talked a little bit like Mr. Magoo, the poor sighted, hard-of-hearing cartoon character with the gentle, good-natured heart who went through life oblivious to the real dangers that lurked about him.
Cliff shared a few things about his own past with me, that he had only recently become an active Bahá’í and that he had firmly decided to leave a troubled past that included drug use behind him.
After a wonderful first evening together, I slept well and was awakened at dawn by the sounds of a shower, which I mistook for a gentle rain, but which I learned a while later that Arthur, home from his early morning two mile daily jog, was using the bath shower.
That morning the three of us were headed to the principal city of Castries to do some errands and later meet more of the Bahá’ís. Once parked by a park in the center of the city, Arthur and Cliff set off in different directions to handle their particular errands, while I asked if I could just wander around close to the park and explore a little on my own. We agreed to rendezvous at a set time.
I strolled around a few shops and greeted a few people, starting to feel the friendly ways of the St. Lucian people. When the appointed time drew near, I headed back for the park and noted Cliff walking closely to an older woman in a tan uniform. As we approached one another, I saw that Cliff was handcuffed to the woman, who bore a badge on her blouse indicating that she was Detective Somebody. Cliff casually informed me that he had been arrested for an outstanding warrant on a marijuana possession charge from the days before he was an active believer. The stoic woman tugged at his arm to get moving, and, as he was led away, Cliff asked me to tell Arthur about the situation.
Arthur, upon hearing of the new situation, wasn’t about to lose his newfound friend and housemate, who he treated as a son. He insisted on going to the Police Inspector and arranged for Cliff to be released to his custody until the court day. So my first, full day in St. Lucia had completed a small cycle of crisis and victory. As the three of us ate together, we thanked Bahá’u’lláh for letting Cliff have another chance.
I learned that an Austrian believer who spoke only a little English was also visiting St. Lucia at the time. I remember her name as Vivian, though I may be mistaken. Vivian had a room at a fancy resort hotel where she enjoyed a combination of beautiful beaches in the daytime and lively St. Lucian dance shows in the evening. So, Arthur and Cliff had invited the woman to come to their home for a traditional St. Lucian dinner lovingly prepared by Cliff. Afterwards we would be her guests at the resort’s floorshow.
I set the table and helped straightened up the house, while Cliff cooked and Arthur set out to retrieve the guest.
Vivian was a large, bubbly woman in her 50’s who worked as a physical therapist for a private clinic in Switzerland. Every year she had a one-month vacation, which she would take to a different part of the world for rest, relaxation and a chance to meet and mingle with more Bahá’ís. When we spoke slowly and repeated ourselves in short sentences, Vivian usually understood our English.
So over dinner we heard in choppy bits and phrases about Vivian’s last vacation to Sri Lanka, where the Bahá’ís held a most spectacular 19-Day Feast that went on most of the night in a spirit of music, dance and joyful fellowship.
“What’d she say?” Arthur asked, turning to Cliff.
“She said that she went to a Bahá’í Feast in Sri Lanka?” Cliff answered.
“A priest in Sir Who?” Arthur quizzed.
“Sri Lanka,” Cliff repeated raising his voice a notch, “Sri Lanka. Next to India. She went to a Bahá’í Feast in Sri Lanka.”
Arthur nodded, having half understood. “Oh, oh, Sri Lanka! A Buddhist priest became a Bahá’í?”
“No,” Cliff patiently repeated. “She went to a Bahá’í Feast in Sri Lanka.”
“Oh, I get it,” Arthur said, though we weren’t sure if he did.
Then Arthur would share some story about his travels to Belize or to some Indian tribe in Canada, which Cliff and I would try to explain in simple English to Vivian, who missed more than half of what was said.
With the given language and hearing problems, we ended up talking about how tasty the dinner was and how much longer Vivian and I would be staying in St. Lucia.
With dinner finished, Vivian reminded us of her invitation to join her at the hotel to see the evening floor shore. We agreed and headed to Arthur’s VW parked on the incline by his house. Arthur suggested that Vivian and Cliff sit in the back of the two door VW bug and that I sit in the passenger’s seat with my crutches, so I could have a little more room. Vivian looked around to see who was going to sit where. Cliff released the seat lever and pushed the back of the driver’s seat forward motioning for her to get in. Then he climbed into the back seat on the passenger side. After pushing the passenger seat back, I entered slowly and closed my door. Arthur did the same.
Arthur took off the emergency brake, shifted the car out of gear and waited for the VW to start rolling so he could turn the key, but the car did nothing. He turned the key and nothing. He grumbled something and opened his door and tried pushing the car with his foot, but nothing. Cliff shouted that he’d get out and push, asking me to open my door and lean forward and he could squeeze out without me having to get out.
Arthur, by that time was already out of the car and shouted to Cliff, “No, I can do it. Just stay seated.”
I had started to open my door and Cliff was releasing the seat latch. Vivian, observing all this, suddenly said in her broken English, “Ya, I can help!” She automatically started messing with the seat back lever, and the seat back went forward into the steering wheel.
At the same time, having heard Arthur shout that we should just stay in the car, I closed my door and Cliff sat back in his seat and turning to Vivian said, “No, don’t get out! Arthur can do it!”
At that moment the car began to roll forward, Arthur having pushed on his open car door. Unfortunately, the back of the driver’s seat was still leaning against the steering wheel and Arthur could not jump back into the moving car. Vivian, struggling with the seat latch, could not get the seat back in its proper upright position.
By now the car was rolling down the driveway and into the highway. Arthur’s feet were in the car, but his body hung onto his open door with his head leaning through the window and him shouting, “I can’t get in! Put the seat back! I can’t get in! Put the seat back!”
Cliff and Vivian frantically struggled with the stuck seat, as I took over steering the car from the passenger’s side. The car gained momentum on the winding mountain road. Arthur’s pleas now turned to a panicked “Help! I can’t get in! Help!”
It seemed that we were in a real Mr. Magoo-type of situation, but our Mr. Magoo was not staying as calm as the cartoon character. The car went faster and faster on the highway, and I steered as best I could, now wondering how to steer and somehow push on the brake with one arm, because my leg braces kept me from using my feet to brake. Meanwhile, in the back seat, both Cliff and Vivian were bent over trying to undo the seat lever, which somehow has become stuck, preventing the seat from going back.
So there we were in a Volkswagen bug rolling down a highway filled with curves, and a little old man, who looked like Mr. Magoo, hanging on to the open door, shouting his head off.
As Arthur gave out another desperate cry, the back seat pair finally budged the lever, the seat popped back into place and Arthur swung into the seat, cartoon style, closing the door as he entered with me still steering until he could take over control of the wheel. He turned the key and the motor immediately turned over, purring like an old cat.
The trauma only lasted a couple of minutes, but we felt as if an hour had transpired. Shaken but relieved, Arthur pulled over to a wide spot on the shoulder of the road. Leaving the motor running, the four of us, safe and thinking about what had just happened, laughed unceasingly for a good fifteen minutes.
I thought to myself, “Oh Magoo, you’ve done it again.” No fancy floorshow could equal what we had just experienced.
We went through a full range of emotions that day: The anxiety stemming from Cliff’s arrest; the peacefulness that permeated our dinner with Vivian; the frightful scare of Arthur’s car rolling uncontrollably down the highway; the elation of relief that when Arthur regained control of his runaway vehicle and the burst of laughter the followed. But the day was not over. We now headed to the fancy resort where Vivian stayed. A few miles from Arthur’s home we came upon a large group of people on the roadside. Slowing down to pass the group, we noticed an older man lying lifeless on the ground, apparently from being struck by a car. A wave of sadness fell over us, and we immediately said the “Remover of Difficulties Prayer” several times followed by an empty silence that hung over us until we reached the resort. Sadness and emptiness were added to our list of the feelings we experienced that day. Now we wanted to relax and enjoy our time with Vivian on a happier note. But first we hit an unexpected hitch. The St. Lucian door man let Vivian, Arthur and I pass, but told Cliff that he could not come in. Locals were not allowed in as guests. Cliff’s demeanor tightened by this sudden embarrassment, and anger and surprise flashed across his face. Arthur immediately explained that Cliff was with us, but the doorman held his ground, saying it was a policy of the resort. Vivian looked puzzled, not fully understanding what was happening. Arthur explained the situation to her. Arthur and I said that if Cliff was not allowed to enter with us, then we would not stay. Vivian told the doorman bluntly that we were together as her guests and she had personally invited the three of us to join her. The negotiations continued for a time with the doorman checking with a supervisor. The supervisor, not wanting to have an ugly incident on his hands, told the doorman to let us in together. We entered, but with a feeling of indignation. Prejudice is a blight. Cliff tried to relax, but the incident dampened our mood for the evening. The floorshow? Native St. Lucians shared some typical island dances, including the “Limbo” with the dancers being able to pass backwards under a pole. After each pass the pole is lowered for the dancers to pass under it again, until the pole is a little more than a foot off the ground. Impressive!
Pioneer with family to Vieques, Puerto Rico, 1980-84