Friday, January 9, 2015

Spring Breaks '74 and '75 : Climbing to the 18th Floor via Balconies : Kicking a Shark in the Face

Spring Break '74 and '75, Caribbean Flights, Antilles Air Boats, Grummna G-21 Goose
Spring Break '74 and '75, Caribbean Flights, Antilles Air Boats, Grummna G-21 Goose

My first thought about this post was, who wants to read about college kids and their spring break antics? But then I thought, this journal is about writing down memories, particularly the memories that get repeated over and over over the years. A couple of the memories in this post I have repeated many times; nostalgia ad infinitum. So here are two stories; one of Spring Break 1974 and one of 1975.

The year was 1973 and Robert Topolewski, Steve Kidder, and I, already experienced European travelers, were on an American Airlines flight out of New York City bound for San Juan Puerto Rico and more misadventure.

Here are the memories from Spring Break '74:

On Puerto Rico... we spent a couple of nights in San Juan, met a 'friend' on the beach at the Condado who tried that night, with his 'friends', to roll us, which it didn't work out too well for them... being out of money once again (that's never changed), yet somehow managing to cash our personal checks at the Coast Guard Station Officers Club after meeting and having lunch with several officers' wives... finding ourselves at the boat/sea plane ramp in Fajardo waiting for an Antilles Air Boat pilot to show up.

The flight we booked with from Fajardo to Charlotte Amalie on a Grumman G-21 Goose, an airplane with a capacity of eight passengers. The three of us were waiting on the seaplane ramp with six other passengers, which of course doesn't add up to eight. We soon found out that since there would be no copilot on that flight, there was room for an additional passenger. The pilot finally showed up 20 minutes late. When he spilled out of he taxi, he was a picture of classic vintage; a tanned face behind Bausch Lomb sunglasses, an all white uniform with tropical shorts, in wrinkled disarray, sandy brown hair completely disheveled, brown leather dress sandals scuffed and sock less, and an aviator looking watch on his wrist, which he checked as he walked to the aircraft for his preflight inspection - classic! I remember, once we were in the water, Robert, sitting in the forward left passenger seat, being asked by the pilot, to crank up the landing gear, also classic!


A note on Antilles Air Boats:
The pilot on that first flight with Antilles Air Boat seemed like a good enough pilot though he seemed a bit sketchy when we first met him. I had always remembered that airline as Antilles Airways, but looking it up for this post, I found it was my memory that was sketchy as it was "Air Boats" not "Airways.

I also discovered some additional facts about that airline. It was owned by a guy named Charles F. Blair Jr, a United States Air Force Brigadier General, a US Navy Aviation Captain, a test pilot, an airline pilot, and a notable aviation record holder. His wife was Maureen O'Hara. Yes, the actress who played the Mom in "Miracle of 34th Street" and John Wayne's the love interest in "The Quiet Man".

Charles Blair's life was so extraordinary, these days one would say, "unbelievable". He had logged in more that 10 million miles and 45,000 hours as a pilot. I would love to relate his life here, but even the highlights would be too lengthy, longer than this post. He is buried at Arlington Cemetery. Please read and remember this man here.

Well, we had a certain impression by the wrinkled clothes of that first pilot we flew with but first impressions can be misleading. Sadly, in 1978 Charles Blair died in a plane crash, piloting a Grumman Goose from St. Croix to St. Thomas.

Once on the island of St Thomas... finding an abandoned motel, late at night, with all the conveniences in place except there was no management or guests, so we mixed our own drinks, leaving money on the bar of course, as we played shuffle board all night sans clothes.

After a ferry ride, we were on St. John.  

Antique map with Grumman G-21 Goose
Antique map with Grumman G-21 Goose

On the island of St. John... finding a 'back yard' inn, a plywood shack, $10 per night for the three of us, amenities of the inn included an outdoor bar across the yard with nightly calypso entertainment, the clientele were mostly local and always colorful... to save money we purchased a bag of bird seed, to go along with the gallon of red wine... you don't need to, or want to actually, know what bird seed and red wine puke looks like... finding a bar called "The Booze Boutique...

We strayed into this bar after seeing its sign on a gate at the top of a little hill. So, we walked in a sat down. There was a couple at the bar and another couple seemed to be tending the bar. The look everyone had for us was, indeed, very weird. Finally the guy behind the bar, who appeared to be the proprietor, came over and asked how he could help us. We ordered drinks all around and he said he's see what he could do. It took awhile but we finally got served. We ended up drinking there all afternoon, later in the afternoon, after conversations were more free flowing, we found out that this was not a bar after all, but instead was the home of, and we were in the back yard of the couple who were behind the bar. The other couple were simply visiting friends. We all became friends.

On another afternoon of exploring the island... and hiking around in the hills, we wandered down into a park, most of St. John is national park, campground and concession area. I guess it was off season and late in the day, but once again, there was no one at the open air bar. So - once again we drank way into the night, taking turns tending bar, leaving our money on the bar for each drink of course, and of course we comped ourselves every third drink. That night we went back up on the ridge above the bay and slept cowboy style right on the ground with no cover. It rained during the night, but that tropical rain was so warm, we slept completely unbothered. Of course, there is the slight chance the rain didn't bother us because of our inebriation.

On another night, drinking on the beach, we were overcome with mosquitoes and other unknown flying insects. Our solution was to wrap ourselves, our faces and hands, in our underwear. Falling asleep wrapped in our underwear, we found ourselves later that night being overrun with hundreds of Hermit Crabs, which was kind of creepy, but they didn't seem to bother with us much, just walking over and past us on they're way to the water.

All this fun was indeed very fun but on the way back to school, back in San Juan, perhaps the memory that sticks out the most is climbing 17 floors of balconies. Steve, Robert, and I were street partying with all the other local inhabitants watching and following a parade. Walking along, I spied a hotel that looked quite climbable. The rock wall facade on the front of the hotel appeared lead one easily to a 3rd Floor balcony and from there climbing balcony to balcony looked easy as well. The little guy below right is demonstrating the method I used for climbing from balcony to balcony.

Climbing 17 floors balcony to balcony at night...
Climbing 17 floors balcony to balcony at night...
When I stood on the top of the railing I could just barely reach with my finger tips the bottom of the next slab over my head. Stretching as best as I could, I would inch my fingers out to the outer lip of the slab above me, arching back slightly I could eyeball the top of the next slab, flex my knees just a little and jump those 4 to 5.5 inches which is the thickness of a typical cantilevered concrete post-tensioned slab, after the little jump, grabbing, i.e. latching onto, the top of next slab, then alternating each hand higher and higher on the railing until I could bring a heel up to the slab, continuing to alternate my hands higher, I could now latch the top of the rail with one hand then bring the heeled foot underneath me, then standing bringing the other foot up. Now, the tricky part as I would need to bring one foot up to the railing, balance, bring the other foot up, balance, then stand in one fluid and confident motion until my finger tips reached the bottom of the next slab. 
I simply continued in this manner until... until what? I really had no exit plan.   

Stick figure going for it...
Stick figure going for it...

Thinking I might not be able to summit the roof and if I did, what then? So, eventually I came to a balcony with a light on in the room and it appeared someone was home. So, knocking on the sliding glass door, I hoped to gain egress to the hallway. A gentleman answered my knock with one of the most incredulous expressions I've ever seen. I explained my situation in a calm manner and he let me through his room, nice guy, huh? I remember counting fourteen balconies, plus the three floors to the first balcony, putting me on the 17th Floor, but in the hallway I saw the rooms with numbered with an "18". Ah! In the elevator, I saw that there was no 13th Floor.  

One year later, here are the memories of Spring Break '75:

Robert and I returned but this time Kurt Johnson joined us. The three of us flew to San Juan, but we didn't tarry in San Juan, we grabbed a taxi, which the locals called a 'publico' and headed straight to Fajardo where Robert and I once again flew on, and we introduced Kurt to, our favorite airline, Antilles Air Boats. Again, we didn't tarry on St. Thomas but took the ferry to Cruz Bay, St. John.

The 'Booze Boutique' had changed names and had grown up into a real business although I can't remember the new name. Out over the hill we had climbed up to reach the gate, was now a deck and on that deck was a thriving business, the most happening place on the island. One could get breakfast, lunch, dinner, and party all night long! And yes, they remembered us.

This year we secured more conventional accommodations. At that same campground we visited the year before were concrete bungalows. So we secured one and set up house for the week. This time we hiked and explored much more of the island, learning a little about its history and its flora and fauna.

When not hiking or sunbathing we mostly hung out at the 'booze boutique'. If while partying there in during the night, and I needed something from the bungalow, I would simply take off running that 10 mile round trip, sometimes doing it twice. Boy, I was, we were, in good shape back then.

View from bungalow, St John, 1975
View from bungalow, St John, 1974

The memory that I suppose sticks out the most from Spring Break 1975 was kicking a shark in the face. No, I'm not kidding. At least I don't think I am. Here's the story...

Robert, Kurt, and I were standing waist deep in a cove one evening drinking rum & coke. Into the cove swam two Hammerhead Sharks, they circled us two or three times, it all seemed kind of fast. Then one broke off and came straight for us.

Hammerhead shark fin, circling us in cove, Spring Break, St. John Island, US Virgin Islands, 1975
Hammerhead shark fin, circling us in cove, Spring Break, St. John Island, US Virgin Islands, 1975

I yelled to Robert and Kurt, RUN! I just stood there and watched the shark fin approach for that one or two second time frame. I judged the timing, lifted my feet off the bottom of the cove, dropped my butt, flexed my knees, and kicked out aggressively, forcibly, and with every inch of my being.  

Early Evening Hammerhead Shark Attack and Kick, Spring Break '75, St. John Island
Early Evening Hammerhead Shark Attack and Kick, Spring Break '75, St. John Island

I connected. The shark split, the other shark split, and then I too ran and joined my friends on the beach. There were a few people on and a bit of excitement on the nearby dock. After the excitement and after everyone dispersed, the three of us sat on the end of the dock, singing a bad rendition of Otis Redding's "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay".

When I had first gone into the Army, sitting on a dock in Oakland, California, the day before I reported to AFEES, Armed Forces Entrance and Examination Station, someone had the radio on and playing was "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay"... "sitting on the dock of the bay watching the ships roll in"... "sitting on the dock of the bay watching the tide roll away"...

What about spring break the year after this, Spring Break '76? I went climbing in the Shawangunks, though I didn't get much climbing in that week, it rained the whole time.


  1. That was the right action in that moment, although they were probably just curious. I'm sure it was exhilarating! I live for the moments, underwater, with the Sharks. There is a dialogue between my body and the animal. All present. Very cool story, Robert.

  2. Knowing you have experience with sharks and an affinity for them, I wanted to run this story by you and to see your reaction. I have thought about the experience many times over the years, not knowing anything about sharks, then or now, but thinking that perhaps they were just curious, but of course not knowing what really would have been the right action. So, thank you Katy for responding. Have fun in the Bahamas. I'm watching 'Black Sails' right now. Druce and I will be back to the Everglades Challenge again in early March. I love those waters.

  3. I have enjoyed listening to your stories over the years and really enjoyed reading them as of late. I would agree with Kate. I am sure you took that shark by surprise with a kick to the head like that. Especially if in fact it was just curious.

  4. Now I see where you got the affinity for all those Rum and Cokes or "Roman Charlies" we used to mix up at those awesome after climbing parties you used to host back in the early eighties. Another great story Robert.

    1. Come to think about it, I guess that is where the affinity for roman charlies came from, LOL alittle.