My cousin Bernard a man for all trades and seasons
My Cousin Bernard a man for all trades and seasons.
By: Will Johnson
James Bernard Johnson was born at Behind-The-Ridge on Saba on November 12th, 1933 and died tragically on September 13th, 2014. His sister Ethel and his brother Elmer passed away years before him.
His mother went into a depression when they were small children and his father Peter James raised the two boys while our aunt Sylvie Simmons raised Ethel. I never asked him when and why they left their home at Behind-The- Ridge to live at their grandfather James’ house below the church on Hell’s Gate. As a boy growing up I remember his father living there after Bernard left for Curacao.
Bernard started working here on Saba for himself as a young boy farming and fishing and then decided to follow many cousins and other Sabans to look for work on Curacao. Bernard was a caring person and although he never told me so I am sure that the motivation was also to see his mother who remained on Curacao in the mental institute until her death. Although she had recovered there was no incentive to come back to Saba as her husband had in the meantime passed away. He never thought of leaving Curacao until his mother passed away in the nineteen seventies.
Many times he told me about going to Curacao and leaving his old father behind. It was a hard decision for him and he never saw his father again. He went down on the monthly steamer the “Kralendijk” and I remember him telling me that they had to spend an extra day at St. Eustatius to load yams and sweet potatoes which back then were shipped to Curacao for sale there. Bernard was only seventeen when he left so that would have been in the year 1950.
On Curacao the men from Saba were known as Navigators and so he found work on an oil tanker which belonged to the fleet of the SHELL Company transporting crude oil from Lake Maracaibo to the large oil refinery on Curacao. They also carried refined products to countries like Panama, Colombia and so on. He did this for a couple of years and then started to work as a bartender. When I went to Curacao in 1955 he was working at the Hato airport in the restaurant. He later worked in a nightclub named Bahia on the waterfront in Willemstad where from behind the bar he could see the ships coming and going into that lovely harbour.
Later on and for many years he worked for the Chinese owned restaurant the “Lido” on the later named Dr. Gomez square not far from where he used to work in the nightclub. It was at the “Lido” where he used to make quite some money for those days. His salary was thirty guilders per week, but he had a deal with the owner of the restaurant that he would get ten per cent of sales which he made as an incentive for him to work as hard as he could. Also he was allowed to keep all the personal tips he received. Lido was one of the few strategically located Chinese restaurants and in those days the Grace Line cruise ships brought in a number of tourists. There were also many tourists from Venezuela and Colombia who came to Curacao to shop. Bernard quickly learned enough Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento to be able to communicate with his customers besides his native English. And so for those days his income was a lot more than the other cousins and acquaintances from Saba were used to. When the workers revolt took place in 1969 he suddenly received a minimum wage of one hundred and fifty guilders a week, five times that which the restaurant owner had volunteered to pay him in the past.
Bernard had a good personality and became close friends with the other waiters and bartenders with whom he worked for many years. People like “Kiki” from Bonaire, and Joseph “Josie” Woods from Saba and many others were close friends and lived with him like family.
They lived at several locations in Willemstad. When our cousin Hortencia “Tencie” went to Curacao she was later joined by Bernard’s sister Ethel and his brother Elmer. I used to visit them from time to time but not often as in the Boys Town where I lodged we were under restrictions. Study and discipline came first and family visits were only for those Curacao boys who lived at the far end of Curacao “Banda Bou” and whose parents lived there.
We became closer when in October 1962 I was sent from St. Maarten to Curacao to take a course in taxes. I lived at the Washington Hotel and it was run by Irma Hassell of Saba. I worked in the customs building on the corner of the floating market and the entrance to the harbour. From Hotel Washington it was but a stone’s throw from where Bernard and his family lived. His sister Ethel was married in the meantime to Otto Hassell and started her own family. Bernard stayed with her and a number of other Saba people boarded there in order to help with the monthly rent which at that location was quite high for those days.
Bernard loved to play the horses and buy numbers and lottery tickets. His number never came in and he was happy for me when mine did. On Curacao I was quite often broke and Bernard would finance me and several times that I owed him more than I could ever repay him I would buy a number and to his and my surprise would win enough money to pay him back. Even the day before I left and after having made arrangements to send him the money I owed him from St. Maarten at the last minute I bought a number which he thought would not play as it had played just a week before, but it won and I was able to not only pay him back but carry the surplus with me to St. Maarten. Up until he died he took care of my lottery tickets and the last conversation we had the night before was about the tickets which had played the day before. He was not an envious person and was a caring person for others. Perhaps because of the tragedy with his mother knowing that she was alive but at the same time he could not see her or feel a mothers touch this gave him an extra incentive to help others. His nieces and nephews were his only children and especially when his brother and sister passed away at relatively young ages his role as a father figure expanded and remained constant until his tragic death on September 13th last.
After the Lido restaurant closed down he went to work for a Chinese restaurant in Salina named Lam Jung, where he worked with old friends.
In 1969 I encouraged him to go on the list of candidates of the URA party. He was still living on Curacao then and our list of candidates was for the elections of a Senator for the Windward Islands. An election which I had absolutely no chance of winning but it was a good opportunity of introducing me as a candidate for the first time even though I had been politically active since my school days.
Saba started calling to him in the nineteen seventies. He brought his nephew Raymond first and I obliged him to give his nephew work with the Public Works department. He said he could not go back to Curacao in peace before that happened and so already he was fast becoming the father figure which his nephews and nieces needed. Accustomed as he was to work for Chinese employers, when he came back to Saba he started working as bartender and waiter for Choi’s Chinese restaurant here. When Her Majesty Queen Beatrix, visited here as Queen for the first time in 1980, he was one of the waiters at the Captains Quarters Hotel.
Here on Saba he went back to fishing and was always known as a good fisherman. He also loved to farm and to keep cattle. For some years he worked here in The Level and planted Irish potatoes and kept some large bulls. He always over estimated the weight of his bulls and would show boyish disappointment when they were below the expectations of other people.
When his brother Elmer passed away suddenly he asked me if he could stay in the house of my deceased parents. It was empty at the time. Without asking my brothers I told him to go ahead and live there. Up until his death thirty years later he lived in the house and took care of it as if he owned it. He was a great help to my Brother Eric’s family while he lived there and also our many other cousins here like Estelle Simmons and our Uncle Leonard’s children in the United States. He would go on vacation to New York and other places where our cousins lived and would help to paint their homes while he was on what he called a vacation.
After some time he got fed up with the restaurant business and started out as a house painter. He was never out of work. You had to line up to get him to come and work for you. And he continued painting until he started having heart problems and had to go to Colombia for bypass surgery some year’s ago. I would call him or his nephew Raymond nearly on a daily basis to find out how he was coming along. He recovered quite well from that but he was getting close to eighty and finally started to take it easy though he was always on the road being helpful to others.
He loved to watch the boxing matches and horse races and considered himself an expert on the various horses running. Wherever I was he was call me to remind me that the Kentucky Derby was coming up and we would discuss the horses with the best chance of winning. He was usually right of course. And even if he was not right he was so stubborn in his opinions that he became known for that. So to maintain the brotherly relationship we had always enjoyed I never argued with him.
After he acquired his satellite dish the Chinese television news guided his opinion of world affairs. I guess having worked for Chinese employers most of his life he became prejudiced in their favour. He also liked the Russian television, so much so that when I was in St. Petersburg I brought back two small stones for him from that lovely city on the Baltic and declared him the Russian ambassador. When I saw something of interest on another channel I would give him a call and tell him about it as he also loved nature shows. Even last night I saw a woman being interviewed in the Crimea who said that in 1991 there had already been a referendum and that overwhelmingly the people had voted to go back with Russia. However she said that Yeltsin had been drunk for ten years and had let Russia go down the drain so nothing came of the referendum. Without realizing I said to myself: “I have to tell Bernard about that one.” But then I realized that there would be no more almost daily calls to Bernard and it dawned on me that he was gone.
As sad as it is that he went in an accident, it was classic Bernard that he was doing a job and died on the job. I never thought of Bernard dying in a hospital bed or in his chair watching the Chinese news channel. He was a good driver and very proud of his driving skills and perhaps fate meant for it to be that he would meet his end behind the wheel and on the job.
He will be sorely missed not only by his family but by his many personal friends like Franklin Every, Alfredo Hassell, Jeremy from Haiti and so many others in the community at large. One of his hobbies was also carrying people around the island on its various trails. He knew them like no other and had wandered them since he was a boy. We had been born on the cliff just above the sulphur mine and he also loved to carry people there as well. The last project we were working on was to identify all the various names around the island and all the fishing rocks by name around the coast. He also kept the records of rainfall on Saba going all the way back to the nineteen eighties and was often consulted on weather events such as hurricanes long before we had all these weather channels we now have. In the last two years he spent quite a lot of money fixing up his family cemetery where his father is buried and he will be laid to rest next to his cousin Howard Johnson where hopefully they can continue their conversations on farming and fishing and life on Saba as they knew it and loved it.
Bernard my cousin, my brother rest softly. You deserve the rest. And to his family and friends rest assured that Bernard has left behind a legacy of helpfulness to not only his family but to all of those who came into contact with him over the years. RIP.