Blackbeard Doesn't Come Here Anymore
And for that matter, neither do the Bahamian picnickers, or the drug runners, or the gentle eccentrics who once made Gorda Cay their home. Of course, that was before Disney bought the place, and grandfather's island magically became Castaway Cay
By Robert Antoni
At 6:30 a.m. I stumble out onto the small deck attached to our cabin. I stick my head into the soft salt breeze and rub my eyes. My wife and our two-year-old son sleep curled together on the bunk behind me. The sea is dark and calm, with the sun just rising behind the small island half-a-mile off our bow. It's flat and green and shrouded with a layer of light mist, floating between the line of white beach on the southern side and a row of enormous, furry casuarina pines projecting above the horizon. I stare at them for a couple of minutes, still half asleep. Slowly I begin to hear, from the distance of memory, my grandfather's lilting voice telling us how he'd had Bob, the caretaker, plant those casuarinas as seedlings, so that one day they'd grow up to shade the road that runs along the north shore.
Staggered among the pines I pick out a few slender chinee coconut palms; now I recall my grandfather's story of how he'd brought them as a load of nuts in the bilge of his boat — all the way from Trinidad, at the other end of the Caribbean — the first time he actually set foot on the island.
Along the western side is a thin line of blue-gray rock, an exposed shoal, just at the edge of the deep channel. It's this deep water that attracted my grandfather to the island in the first place — something he knew distinguished it from almost all the other Bahamian cays, islas de baja mar, the shallow-water islands, as the first Spaniards to arrive here called them. The combination of deep ocean and shallow flats makes for the astonishing array of colors in the surrounding waters, and it also means easy access for a marina, a large ship, even a cruise ship. This, my grandfather realized at first sighting, is the island's real value. At least as a piece of real estate.
Approaching the island at just this hour, at just this angle, is a sight I know very well. My father or my grandfather at the wheel — or me, when I was old enough. We'd make the 60-mile run from our home in Grand Bahama in the early hours of the morning, when the sea was calmer. Then half-a-mile off shore we'd throttle back, easing into the sandy bank south of the exposed shoal. There we'd drop anchor for a couple of hours, until the sun rose fully to illuminate the water in innumerable shades of turquoise and sapphire. Only then could we read the bottom sufficiently well to work our way around the tricky shoal and in over the reef. If the wind was blowing out of the north, kicking up a surge, we'd wait for Bob to come out in his puttering dinghy and pilot us in through the shoal's southernmost cut — a hair-raising 30 feet wide, frightening no matter how many times you'd done it. There in Pumpkin Harbour, off the curved beach in front of the tiny village, was a perfectly protected anchorage in all weather. Perfectly serene. Far away from anywhere.
They're disconcerting, the emotions running through me now. A mixture of deep longing and sudden apprehension. The softly anachronistic sensation of dreaming, of being transported in a dream to someplace I'm not altogether sure I want to go.
I've imagined this day often enough — the day I would introduce my wife and our son to this island. I've played the scene out in my mind, but now my thoughts seem to short-circuit. I'm vaguely aware of the welcoming smell of the new teak deck below my bare feet — I go to boat shows just for that smell — but this morning it's not working any magic.
All I can think is that the island before me, though I associate it with some of my earliest, most vibrant memories, is scarcely as old as my son sleeping behind me. Too new to even appear on the charts. It has been through several metamorphoses since I first knew it — from a little-known paradise, to my grandfather's own hideaway, to a smugglers' stronghold off-limits to all but the rifle-bearing traffickers — but no transformation has so changed the island as the present one.
The closer we get, the less familiar it seems.
None but a few abaconians and a handful of yachtsmen had ever heard of Gorda Cay before 1950, 10 years or so before my grandfather came to the island. Two treasure hunters from Nassau, Howard Lightbourn and Roscoe Thompson, stumbled onto a 72-pound silver ingot in 15 feet of water, just off the exposed shoal. Its markings showed the bar to be the property of Spain's King Philip IV, and beside it Lightbourn and Thompson also found three coins from the same era — the booty seemingly from the remains of the San Pedro, one of more than 100 Spanish galleons known to have sunk in the northern Bahamas.
These waters fall to one side of the Straits of Florida, a popular homeward route to Europe from the former mine-rich Spanish colonies, and the island's hidden harbors provided perfect refuge for pirates and privateers — characters such as Blackbeard and two female favorites of Bahamian lore, Mary Read and Anne Bonney. Back then the galleons traveled in groups for safety and doused all lights at night; they sailed — nervous, hurriedly — just south of Gorda Cay.
My grandfather came to the Cay a good bit more circuitously and with much less trepidation. Alvin Tucker was a descendent of English planters and French Huguenots who'd gone to Trinidad in the late 18th century, the former group looking to colonize, the latter for religious freedom. There's the story of one relative who owned, in addition to his sugarcane estate, a rum distillery; in accordance with his last request he was buried in his own seasoned barrel. Cane and cocoa failed in close succession in the Caribbean, and by the time of my grandfather's birth the family was dirt poor. To close his hardscrabble childhood, he left home at the age of 13, bound for the oil fields of nearby Maracaibo, Venezuela. My grandfather had just a few years of education and could write only with difficulty, yet as a young man he patented three inventions connected with drilling rigs — one of which, the sand trap, paid him royalties up to the time of his death in 1984.
He had a colorful life, a rich fount for his many tales. In Maracaibo he lived among the Warrahoons, a tribe of short, potbellied Indians who hunted with powerful bows that were as long as they were tall. From the Warrahoons my grandfather purchased a shrunken head, which he kept for years under the bed, much to my very Catholic grandmother's chagrin. One of his favorite amusements during those years was to wrestle huge macajuel snakes; the matches, he told us, sometimes lasted for six hours. In our family album we have pictures of my grandfather, his overalls covered in oil, a dark plume shooting up above the tall derrick in the background, or dripping in mud, smiling, an eight-foot macajuel stretched between him and a smiling Warrahoon.
In later years my grandfather returned to Trinidad, where he ran his own small oil refinery and established a company to service the oil rigs on the island. He became a boatman and on one occasion brought a steel-hulled motor yacht all the way from Holland. Later he grew infatuated with airplanes, and though he never learned to pilot them himself, he was among the first Trinidadians to own a single-engine plane. In the late '50s he made his initial trip to the Bahamas, then (with the exception of Nassau, the capital) a country of a few isolated villages for all of its 700 islands.
Grandfather fell so in love with this part of the world — eventually he became a Bahamian citizen — that when he returned to Trinidad he sold everything he could not bring with him. In addition to his plane and boat, he had two great obsessions: business (which consisted mostly of developing virgin property) and beaches. In the Bahamas, the two went hand in hand. Wherever he found a spectacular, unspoiled beach was where my grandfather looked to invest. Of course, these islands have another thing going for them, especially insofar as the investor is concerned: no taxes, property or income. Making the Bahamas every bit as beautiful as their beaches.
Gorda Cay, as it turned out, was among his first purchases in the Bahamas. He bought it from the air, without walking either of its two lush beaches. In those days the only access to the island was by boat, so a real estate agent from Nassau flew him over the Cay — over the transparent blues and greens of the surrounding waters, the lush green of the land, the two powder-white beaches. He asked to circle the Cay again, and then again, and before they stopped circling he was sold.
This is how you arrive at the island these days: aboard the Disney Magic, a 964-foot-long cruise ship, which sails from Port Canaveral, Florida, twice a week, 2,400 passengers aboard, $4,225 a pop. The cruises, which are usually combined with a few days of sampling the rides at the Magic Kingdom, call at Nassau for a night of adult entertainment in the casinos and, as the grand finale, a day at Castaway Cay, née Gorda Cay. And thus we are on the Disney Magic. For some time now we've been waiting to meet our host, Mickey, and suddenly here he is, waving us off the ship. My son is as unsure about all of this as I am. He won't go near Mickey. All he can say is "big, big" (he can't understand why a mouse should be so tall) and "globes, globes" (what's he wearing gloves for?). He says he's scared. He says "no picture." Of course, he'll mouse up to Mickey for a photo before the cruise is over.
As soon as my wife and son see the white beach in the distance, our Mickey trauma is forgotten. Mother and child smile radiantly. I'd smile too, but my problem is that I've never seen this beach before. Not this beach. The stretch of rocks is the same; only the fluorescent orange buoys blocking off the entrance to Pumpkin Harbour have been added. But the little half-moon beach that I remember is now tucked up into the corner beside the mangrove lagoon, and has somehow grown to three times its former length and width. It's gotten whiter, too. The sand on this beach was always slightly marshy, not as nice as the beach on the north side. Later I learned that Disney improved on nature by dredging sand from out in the bay, from where they'd dug the ship's berth. They'd also ground the sand before spitting it up on the beach. But scarcely anyone would realize that this lovely beach is man-made.
We board the tram, and the driver's Bahamian voice comes over the PA system, welcoming us to the Cay. Slide over, hold on, be sure to collect our belongings at the end of the ride. "An' please to watch you heads when dishembarking from the tram."
More than anything on the Cay thus far it's that word that pleases me — dishembarking. Not the way it's pronounced, but the word itself: antiquated, too big for this humming little tram. It's a nautical-sounding word, a word no American would easily use.
But no sooner am I comforted when another recorded voice interrupts the driver. This is the generic Disney voice — daddy talking to the kids. If anything, it's distinctly American. It's a storytelling voice, and the story is about the making of Disney's newest park, Castaway Cay.
A tall tale of the original castaways who drifted ashore here, like Susie, who used to sell seashells but now only offers Castaway logo critters, and Cookie, who'll be serving up a delicious Bahamian lunch of baked beans and hickory-smoked ribs later on. (What about the peas 'n' rice, I think, the grouper fingers and cracked conch?) It's a story of the first shipwrecked folk who paved the airstrip and roads and at the same time constructed the Magic's 500-foot dock. The flying doctor who crash-landed at the end of the runway and then used parts of his plane to build his shelter, the Castaway Air Bar.
There's the crew of oceanographic explorers who set out, with wives and children, looking for a giant white whale so big it was indescribable. Shipwrecked in a storm they found not Moby Dick, but this island paradise — and conveniently enough, the phantom whale's skeleton.
Father Time caught up with those original castaways, who left behind little but their legend and the charming, weatherworn cabins and shelters, perfect havens for today's shipwrecked families. These days the Cay is deserted, informs our disembodied guide, except for a handful of Disney islanders, here to lend a hand.
Private indeed, at least according to the brochures: "a thousand acres of personal paradise." What Disney does not tell you is that you're only allowed on 110 acres, which is not a whole lot of island for a cruise-ship-ful of pretend castaways.
Gorda Cay was deserted when we first visited the island as children, except for a few farmers from Abaco who spent part of the year there, and my grandfather's caretaker. Bob Adderley, a Bahamian fisherman with dark skin and transparent blue eyes — he claimed as one of his forebears an Irish sea captain — was the only permanent resident on the Cay. He'd spent more time here than anyone else. Originally he came from Sandy Point, a settlement seven miles away on the mainland of Abaco. He must have been in his fifties when we first met him, and he always talked with a slur. Not only because he drank heavily, especially when we came to visit and brought him the present of a bottle of rum, but because he only had a few teeth in his mouth.
Bob's hut occupied just a few square feet, yet it was a wonderland for a child, overflowing with debris like a corner dime store. Bottles, knives, a piece of broken mirror, sticks wrapped with fishing line, a sewing machine and a vacuum cleaner rusted far beyond use, and hanging on the wall, for decoration, a doll's head and a magazine picture of Dean Martin. There were kerosene lanterns for light. The walls consisted of piled stones, without mortar, and the roof of sheets of plywood and corrugated tin ransomed from a boat that had washed up on the beach.
Bob had a three-legged mongrel cat, my sister's favorite, and he kept a constant conversation with it. The cat had gone along with him on a trip to Nassau, a day and a night in his dinghy. During the night Bob had hooked a barracuda, which he'd flipped thoughtlessly into the bilge, almost on top of the sleeping cat, and the cat lost a leg.
The land on which he had his house — before independence in 1973 it was Crown land — was leased from the Bahamian government. My grandfather owned 150 acres of the 700-acre island, but that included the two beaches and the best land; the rest was mostly mangrove swamp. The island was round, and it seemed to have built up behind the exposed reef rather than on top of it — unlike most Bahamian cays, which are long and narrow — giving the island its name, Gorda ("fat") Cay. Because of its unique formation, the soil was rich and relatively rock-free; thus there was always a handful of people who'd come from Sandy Point to farm. Like Bob, they leased their small plots from the government, growing mostly vegetables. Their homes were a series of tiny huts arrayed along the beach off Pumpkin Harbour, on the Cay's south side — the island's lone village.
The only such villager we knew well was Tiny Darville, a woman who suffered from elephantiasis and had a hugely swollen right leg. Bob used to tell us that she was his girlfriend, which always provoked a stream of verbal abuse from Tiny. Our father, a physician, used to bring medicine for Tiny and several others who came hurrying across from Sandy Point to see "the doc," and they wouldn't go home happy until he'd given every last one a "sounding" through his "sounding rod" — his stethoscope. Tiny was always throwing her arms around my father in great bear hugs, a habit that worried us, since he explained that if a mosquito bit him directly after her, his leg would swell up too. We were sure to keep our distance, and if we did go to visit Tiny's hut we made certain to spray ourselves generously with bug dope.
In the evenings, on those flat, calm, full-moon nights when the sand flies rolled in from the nearby mangrove groves, we'd take refuge in the warm, knee-deep water. All three generations, lying on our backs with only the circles of our faces exposed, telling stories and laughing. On those nights puffer fish would lie hypnotized by the moon at the edge of the translucent water, so gentle you could stroke them. Huge loggerhead turtles would crawl up on the beach to lay their eggs. For us kids the sand flies were hardly a nuisance, and we'd lie happily in the water until the sun rose the following morning.
The last trip I took to the cay was in 1980, with my family, a few years after grandfather sold the island. We never made it ashore. There were five of us in the dinghy — my mother, father, and younger brother and sister — and as we approached the beach a white man holding a rifle suddenly appeared, two Dobermans barking beside him. My father spun the Zodiac around so sharply that my mother almost flew overboard, and flew from the island as fast as our screaming 3.5-horsepower Evinrude could carry us.
We'd spent the morning on the Cay's opposite side, spearfishing along the reef that stretched out a couple hundred yards from where we'd anchored our boat. In the Bahamas it's illegal to spearfish with tanks, and the only guns allowed are fairly primitive Hawaiian slings: nothing but a block of wood with a piece of surgical tubing attached, the spear fired though a hole down the center of the block. But once you're used to spearing with a Hawaiian sling, you'll never trade its simple utility for anything else. My brother and I let the Zodiac drift on a slack tide, and in two hours we filled it with so many brown-and-white-striped Nassau groupers, gray snappers, and bright red hogfish that there wasn't any room in the dinghy left for us. The only way we could get the Zodiac back to the boat was to swim it.
After my grandfather purchased the island, he'd made plans to build a house for himself and to clear a runway for his plane. There were a number of short, mostly grass airstrips among the out-islands. But my grandfather never thought small, and already he had the idea of trading in his single-engine plane for a twin. He wanted his runway to be long, and he wanted it to be tarred. Thus he paved a 2,400-foot runway, which even today remains one of the best private airstrips in all the Bahamas. Though a shrewd businessman, my grandfather could never have predicted the type of commerce that would come to his island, and as it turned out, that same overly ambitious airstrip would be the cause of much concern in the years ahead.
The Bahamas may have crystalline waters and powder-white beaches, but their most important physical blessing has always been their strategic location. In the days of the treasure ships and pirates it was their position proximate to the homeward route; in the days of slavery, blockade running, and Prohibition — and in the most recent era of refugee fleeing and flouting — it's their location a stone's throw from the coast of Florida.
In the late '70s my grandfather heard rumors that the island — and his runway — were being used to smuggle narcotics coming like the galleons' treasures from Latin America, now bound for Florida. According to the rumors, the island was abandoned except for an old caretaker (the owner lived in Grand Bahama and only visited a few times a year), and this caretaker could be bought for a bottle of rum. There seemed no way to control the situation; the law enforcers were said to be the ringleaders.
Thinking back, it's difficult to reconcile how quickly the drug-smuggling era came upon us, and how completely it consumed our lives. We'd lived with our doors unlocked; our police carried nothing but nightsticks. Suddenly we were installing alarms. In the out-islands machine-gun scourges could be heard regularly at night. To go to sea in a private boat was to take your life into your own hands. My grandfather visited Gorda Cay less and less. Now, when he did go there, he knew he was taking a substantial risk, even in brightest daylight. So as rashly as he'd bought the island 15 years before, my grandfather decided to sell it. And he sold it twice in quick succession: The initial buyers, after the down payment — we can only assume, after the first few hauls — disappeared. The second buyers paid up. The Cay now belonged to a company called Leisure Club Ltd., registered in the Bahamas and represented by a firm of Nassau lawyers, Maillis and Maillis. That's all my grandfather knew. So far as Gorda Cay was concerned, he considered himself lucky to have gotten rid of it.
By 1980 little Gorda Cay had made the big time, at least in terms of notoriety, appearing in the headlines of the Nassau Tribune. Although drug smuggling was written all over the story, the words remained unmentioned: FOREIGNERS TAKE OVER GORDA CAY. According to the story, two Sandy Point fishermen were found on tiny Upper Gorda Rock, a mile off the Cay, having spent the night and most of the day there. They'd gone to Gorda Cay the previous evening to catch land crabs — it's done using a flashlight beam to stun them at night — just as they always did, when a guard and several Dobermans held them up. He walked them to his boss, who ordered the guard to take them a mile offshore and dump them overboard; the guard carried them 700 feet from the rock and told them to swim for it.
The article described the Cay as a place of refuge for fishermen caught in bad weather. It had some of the finest beaches in the Bahamas, and for years had been a first-class picnic ground for Abaconians, especially when coco plums and sea grapes were in season. Interviewed were several "respected members of this Sandy Point community," who told of counting up to six light airplanes landing and leaving Gorda in a single night. The island was now off-limits to Bahamians, the residents alleged. When Tiny Darville attempted to go ashore to check her farm, she too was greeted by armed guards and dogs: "Onliest thing me could try and do is run," she said. "And me can't even run too good."
Another story came from a fisherman named Bob Adderley, who up until a few months previous had been caretaker of the island: "One day some American gunsmen come, they order me off the Cay by sundown. Then they burn down me house."
The men informed Bob that Americans owned it now and the "big boss" didn't want any more Abaco people on the Cay.
"How the hell," Bob answered, "and we been doing this all we life?"
They told him it was a different thing now on Gorda Cay, they were taking over the island. Leave.
When we do disembark from the tram, the three of us take off running for a beach umbrella. The gangplank has been down for only an hour, but already they're almost all taken. The umbrella that's waiting for us is near the end of the family beach, just beside an almond tree and a group of coconut palms, and suddenly I'm very happy to have trudged this far in the sand. Those palms, I'm almost certain, are the same ones that had once stood outside Bob's house.
Scarcely do we drop our stuff when my wife and our water-winged son are soaking in the water. I leave them there and take off on a rented bike, pedaling far too fast for the heat, anxious to find my grandfather's old house. I follow Disney's red brick road for a hundred yards and then I'm on one of the walkways my grandfather laid down for his constitutionals, the blacktop now so worn it's only visible in spots. Arching above are tall casuarinas, a row on either side of the road, so enormous there's scarcely a scrap of cobalt sky between the branches. Suddenly I stop the bike, shut my eyes, and listen — breathe.
This road, I know, intersects the runway in one direction; in the other it comes just short of running into a line of rocks which edge the water. The same rocks we used to climb up and walk along in our bare feet as kids, looking for hermit crabs, bleeding teeth, and brittle stars. I decide that the quickest way to the house is to head toward the rocks, leave the bike there, and cross the mangrove swamp on foot, around to the beach on the north side.
I'm not even close to the mangrove trees when one of the Disney islanders comes running my way. She's a bruiser, and she informs me in her Australian accent that this part of the island is off-limits. I assure her I'll walk only as far as the sign, which when I get to the edge of mangrove I read: DANGER! STAY AWAY FROM ROCKS! It's back to the bike and the marked path.
Outside the Castaway Air Bar a few minutes later I meet Obie, a Bahamian. He's busy beneath the hard sun, swabbing down the deck and picking up plastic cups. We get to talking about the Cay, the recent renovations. Obie's from Nassau, and he's been living on the Cay for a few months. Though not ecstatic, he says he'll stick it out for a while. All things considered, he thinks himself pretty lucky: Disney, he tells me, only hired about 20 Bahamians, most, like Obie, in "sanitation services."
"Worstest ting dey make me shave off me mustaches," he says. "An' cost me 'bout three years to cultivate dat, you know. Mustaches, beard, earring — dey don't got no toleration for none like dat! Don't even allow de womens to wear makeup." Obie chupses: He sucks his teeth in exasperation.
Obie tells me the living accommodations are good, with only two to a room, and the dorm has air-can-do. The food is decent, though he's tired of hambeyja and macaroni pie.
I explain how my grandfather once owned the Cay, how he'd built a small house that I can't find anywhere. Obie tells me he's never heard of no Alvin Tucker. But there is an old house, he says, over in the bushes beside the runway.
The two of us take off sloshing in our sneakers down the airstrip. After about five minutes Obie stops and points behind a clump of sea grape. All I can make out, hidden behind the bush, is the slightly peaked roof of a large storage hanger, painted dark green for camouflage, and it's twice the size of my grandfather's house, twice the height. I've never seen it before.
"Look," Obie says encouragingly. "Look you granfaddah house!"
My grandfather thought he had turned Gorda Cay over to ambitious Nassau lawyers, but in fact the new "big boss" owner was a man named Frank Barber, an American who lived in a ranch-style house in Delray Beach, Florida, with a compound large enough to land his twin-engine Cessna in the backyard. He'd been one of many using the airstrip on Gorda Cay "without permission" for years, and now that he owned the island, he began his drug-running activities in earnest.
The merchandise likely arrived by barge or freighter fresh from Colombia — the airstrip of which my grandfather was so proud was long enough to accommodate even small cargo planes. At Gorda it was off-loaded, often directly into light aircraft, which popped in and out like bread out of the toaster, or into screaming Cigarettes and Scarabs, which on a quiet night could make the Delray Beach inlet in a little over an hour.
Meanwhile, Barber had the Maillis lawyers busy applying for work permits, spending hundreds of thousands with architects on plans for constructing a hotel and yacht club resort, including a good many hours of discussion with the minister of tourism and the minister of economic affairs. It seems that in addition to his smuggling — or maybe after he'd retired — Barber had other dreams.
He was supposed to be a retired businessman who'd recently sold a chain of clothing stores, together with the largest air-conditioning plant in Memphis, and he was worth $50 million. But according to the Immovable Properties Act, enforced to prevent a company from purchasing and developing property in circumstances in which the government cannot identify the true owner, the Maillis lawyers were required to produce character references, which they could not come up with. The applications did not meet with approval from the Central Bank.
Notwithstanding these refusals, Barber was able to purchase the Cay and to operate there as owner for three or more years — in the end, reportedly even from his stateside prison cell. Barber shuttled a lot of heavy equipment onto the island and took the first steps toward developing his resort: a hangar beside the airstrip where bales could be stacked in 20-foot-tall piles, fuel tanks hidden in the bush. He also had an underground vault dug out beside the house — keep the valuables close at hand — with a trapdoor that, once the catacombs had been loaded with coke, could be further obscured by driving a tractor over it. (The biggest problem a smuggler faced in those days was not keeping his merchandise out of the hands of the police, who were bribable, but out of the hungry paws of his colleagues.)
In addition to planning Barber's resort, the Maillises were available to buy him the occasional light airplane, usually with styrofoam coolers containing $250,000 in cash — in U.S. Franklins, the common denominator during that era of Bahamian history. To bolster his smuggling activities Barber also ran a lucrative rent-an-airstrip service. And if prior arrangements were not made, Barber and his helpers simply held up their fellow smugglers at gunpoint; he then sold their product himself. Barber's difficulty, of course, was in convincing his business associates to pay his rental fees. After all, the Cay's runway and harbor had been a public — and mostly American — thoroughfare for years. Barber himself had used it long before he purchased the legal rights. So why should he suddenly get greedy? And who was to say that Barber or the Maillises, or the Bahamian government for that matter, was the rightful owner of the island and its runway, anyway?
Owner or not, the quantity of narcotics that Barber managed to smuggle through Gorda Cay — or assisted with his rent-an-airstrip service — is inestimable. But between the first seizure at Gorda Cay, in 1977, when $30 million worth of marijuana was discovered in two yachts anchored in Pumpkin Harbour (the police found Barber on the island not long after, the passenger seats of his plane removed), to the last bust, in 1983, involving $100 million worth of cocaine (five days before Barber went to jail), scarcely a month went by when a drug run was not made through Gorda Cay. Perhaps it was Judge Roettger, who sent Barber to prison for five years for trafficking (after Barber finked on the very DEA agent he'd had on his payroll for years), who put it most succinctly: "Marijuana. Cocaine. Quaaludes. He smuggled quantities on the order of what General Motors orders from U.S. Steel." Barber never saw his ambitions for Gorda Cay come to fruition. A few years after Roettger's pronouncement, before he'd even served his five-year sentence, he was already dead.
I soak with my wife and our son in the warm, knee-deep water. We're all three tired, sunburned, waiting for the ship's whistle to call us back aboard. My wife admits she's never seen any place so spectacular as this island. Our son has been building castles with the other kids. He's even climbed to the top of Robinson Crusoe's fort, rising out of the water on a sandbank a hundred yards from the beach. He's as happy as could be. I know he'll never experience this island the way I did as a child, beginning from the time when I was about his age. He'll never come close. Still, there are hundreds of other Bahamian islands every bit as beautiful as this one, and many — at least for the moment — are not much different today than they were 30 years ago. Not much different from a time when Bob and Tiny lived here, when my grandfather used to lie in his hammock looking out at the sea. Not much different from a time when the first Lucayan Indians had these islands all to themselves.
Before reboarding the ship I decide to make one last tour of the place; breathe in a final breath of personal history. One more effort to find my grandfather's house. I pedal hurriedly back toward the runway, turn onto it, and head down the left side, almost colliding with a tram coming the other way. I want to stop the Bahamian driver and ask him what he's doing on the wrong side, but both of us are in too much of a hurry.
In under two minutes I'm at the other end of the runway, which I can hardly believe; walking its length beside my grandfather in the hot sun seemed to take forever when we were kids. I lean the bike against a coconut palm and cross out onto the beach. This one is just the way I remember it — the same beach where we used to watch turtles come up and lay — but no sooner do I walk a hundred yards than I run smack into another stop sign. The house, if it's still standing, would be somewhere just beyond it. This time there's no one around, but I decide to stick to the sea oats for camouflage just in case.
After a few minutes of trudging along, the sea oats' razor-sharp leaves slicing red stripes across my thighs, I stop and look around. Now I find myself staring up at another Disney native. This one's male, German, a head taller than I am. The message I read in his expression is clear enough: This is his territory. I'm the guest, and I've trespassed my privileges.
I don't even bother to tell him my story.
Robert Antoni wrote about Montserrat in the May 1998 issue of Outside.
Photographs by Russell Kaye