“Mucha di Brakapoti”
By; Will Johnson
I wrote this in 1987 for the Amigoe newspaper when the brothers the “Kruisvaarders van St. Jan.” (The Crusaders of St. John”), commemorated the fact that they had been on Curacao for fifty years. It was later translated into Dutch by me for the 80th anniversary of the Order at their request in a book entitled “Kruisvaarders als locomotieven”, (Crusaders as locomotives). For “Under the Sea Grape Tree”, I will leave it as much as possible in its original form.
“The year was 1955. My mother was getting me packed up with my first pair of shoes. For my first communion my mother had borrowed a pair from someone but as soon as the ceremony was over they had to be returned. A toothbrush and toothpaste was also required. For me it was such a novel experience having my own suitcase and responsible for its contents. Years later when I was a Senator I recall arriving at my hotel on Curacao and upon opening my travel kit, there was neither toothbrush nor toothpaste. I panicked. What was I to do? These were irreplaceable items when I left home for the Boys Town. I had to sit down and meditate on my predicament. Then it came to me. With a good laugh at my own worries of things past I took the elevator and went downstairs to a store in the lobby and for self assurance bought two toothbrushes and two tubes of toothpaste. I once told this story to friends of mine and they had a good laugh about it. No matter how much material things you acquire in life, once you have grown up in poverty the memory of it follows you all the days of your life.
I departed from Saba on an old sloop and after two weeks or more at Miss Browlia Maillards on the Back Street the great day to leave St. Martin had arrived. It happened to be September 22nd, 1955. I had made 14 that day. It was to be my first plane trip to Curacao. A DC3 operated by the KLM. It was a 3 and one half hour flight. Although it carried only 32 passengers there were 2 stewardesses on board and a good hot meal was served on the way down to Curacao.
Recently, to be exact, this year September 22nd, 1987, I was once again reminded of that first trip. Once again I was headed for Curacao, leaving St. Maarten at midnight, passing through hurricane Emily. It was a rough ride. My fellow Senators, Marcel Gumbs and Kenneth van Putten congratulated me on the way down. I told them then of my first ride in an aero plane. My first trip to Curacao! To Brakkeput! Away from home and family for the first time! To new beginnings in what for me was a strange culture, a strange world.
The old DC-3 arrived in Curacao in the night. Saba had no electricity in those days, and St. Maarten had only a small light plant in Philipsburg which operated only a few hours in the evening. You can imagine my awe, my fascination with seeing the lights of Curacao for the first time and from the air! I am reminded again and again of that first trip each time I fly over a large city at night, all lighted up.
“Overste” Francois Soontiens and Brother Smeins were there to meet me in a Studebaker car. On the way to Brakkeput I remember they were asking me a number of questions in Dutch. On Saba we received very little Dutch in those days, but enough that I can recall Brother Smeins telling “Overste” Soontiens;”Maar deze jongen kent geen fluit Nederlands.” (This boy does not understand one bit of Dutch).
When we arrived in Brakkeput, before the car could come to a proper stop, I was greeted by a fellow student from Saba, by the name of Christian Zagers, who poked his head in the car window.
Now on Saba where practically the whole population at the time was either Hassell or Johnson, it was not customary to call people by their last name. Only as a matter of respect! Not as a means of identification. But somehow the “Promised Land People” to whom Christian belonged, had the habit of calling people by their last name. From the moment the car stopped, Christian poked his head in the car window and said: “Johnson boy, they does serve you black tea with lime in it in this place!” The next morning much to my distress I realized he was not exaggerating. It was black tea with a slice of lime. And with that introduction to Brakkeput, the first lap of my journey was completed.
I spent five years in Brakkeput. I arrived at age fourteen and left a few months before I made nineteen and was working on St. Maarten, so that most of my formative years, my teenage years were spent there.
I have many wonderful memories of Brakkeput. Of the food I tell my children now of the “boonchi-stoba” and the “pan-francees”. I have yet to come across a “boonchi-stoba” as good as those we used to have in Brakkeput. And I will always associate “Pan Francees” with Curacao.
It was that same Christian who got me in my first fight. Aubrey Sealy (yes Aubrey!) was playing a game of pool with another boy from Bonaire. I had never seen a game of pool before. On Saba we had no games. We got our exercise and sports from doing odd jobs on the flanks of our mountain home.
Aubrey said something in Papiamento and Christian said to me: “Johnson boy, that fellow curse your mother, man!” Without questioning Christians knowledge of Papiamento (he had only arrived in Brakkeput a week before I did), and already homesick for my dear mother, I flew into Aubrey and the fight was on. The first fight was a draw. The next day with the Bonaire delegation edging him on, Aubrey won the second fight. A few days later with the Saba team backing me Aubrey lost, and worst of all he cried. You never cried in Brakkeput. It was the worst sign of weakness. Even if you lost a fight you retreated with a few “Coba Mama’s” and you retained your dignity. After that and until this day Aubrey and I have been friends. As a matter of fact the two of us now have the Dutch Government in Court (2014) in a case of human rights for our people to getter a better old age pension. Pachecko Domacasse will tell you that we had a fight also. He claims he won. I think I did. But we are still friends. The same goes for Franklin Every “Mopsie” who won a fight which I started. I tried to beat James Maduro of Statia twice, but old “Chuchubi” as he was affectionately known to all in Brakkeput won both fights. After that it was smooth sailing all the way, everyone knew even if I lost I would not back down from a fight, and there are no more memorable fights to look back to. When Minguel Pourier was a Minister and I was one of the Senators supporting his government there was a commemoration in Brakkeput for the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Boys Town. Minguel was the guest speaker and commented on my article and said he did not realize I was such a hooligan. The day before at a reception for the Venezuelan President Luscinchi then on an official visit to Curacao many of the dignitaries present had come over to me complimenting me on this article in Dutch in the newspaper, and also on the fact that in an interview in Papiamento on Curacao television, how surprised they were at my command of that language. I have both to thank for my years in Brakkeput and on Curacao.
I like to think of the men of Brakkeput today as the “Brakkeput” army. The place was run like an army camp. At 5am the brother would come out from his room and put on the bright lights in the “grote slaapzaal”. At 5.05 am your bed must be made. Any delay the brother would make a second round, turn you and your cot upside down and with those big feet Dutchmen have, sometimes he would plant a kick in your backside as well. At 5.15 you must have brushed your teeth, bathed, and be finished with the bathroom and headed to church which started at 5.30 am and at 6 am you were back in the dining room. At 7am we gathered to the sound of the bugle, in formation, in front of the old “landhuis” (plantation house) building, said a prayer and then we were off with the bus to school with old faithful Benny the driver from Montana. In my case it was Mgr. Zwijsen College first, then Radulphus College (where I got in trouble) then back to Zwijsen where I obtained my Mulo diploma on July 2nd 1960. Those schools were run by the Fraters (also brothers, but dressed like priests) who in 1986 commemorated the fact that they had been establishing schools and teaching on Curacao since 1886. I count myself privileged to have gone to school to a number of these Fraters.
In Brakkeput each boy had a task and there was no time for idleness. The idleness, which breeds corruption in our youth of today! We had a farm with 135 Holstein Cows run by a Dutch farmer. We had some pigs, many goats and chickens, and used to harvest and peel oranges for the production of the “Curacao” liqueur. We had sailboats; we fished along the coast of the lagoon. We had several sports fields and our day was laid out for us with a combination of activities. The names of students from Brakkeput sounds like an honor roll, Minguel Pourier, Jandee Paula, Max Pandt, Damien Leo, Rudy Ellis, Angel Salsback, Lou Halley and his brother George, Leonaris Buncamper, James Maduro, Aubrey Sealy, Pacheko Domacasse, Broertje Janga, Dr. Aurelius Scot and his brother Mervin, Roy Smith, Ben Vlaun, Boysie Richardson, Louis van Heyningen, Hilton Hassell, Ronnie Johnson, Ramon Hassell and his brother Alva, Sammy Wilson, Franklin Every and so many others that for this article I cannot list all of the names. Brakkeput was the keystone to the building of a nation. Boys from the various islands were brought together and formed lifelong relationships. Today we ask ourselves, why were these institutions allowed to collapse for lack of proper government funding? We feel that a great opportunity was lost and we lament this.
Among my fondest memories of Brakkeput are the various weekend excursions which we used to make to every crick and corner of Curacao.
In 1985 I took one of my children with me to see Brakkeput. It had all changed by then. It was then nothing but houses along the shoreline and the “Grote Eiland” all built up, yacht club and all. We used to wade there along a causeway which would dry up at low tide to go exploring and fishing all over the island. There was only one house on the opposite side of the causeway. It belonged to an Italian contractor who had an attractive daughter who used to take the sun on a wooden pier close to the house. I could have swam to that pier it was that close. I went fishing a lot in the hope of seeing her, but for fear of a complaint and expulsion from Brakkeput I was too much of a coward to take the swim. Many years later at a reception in The Hague among the guests there was an attractive looking lady and we started talking. I hesitate to tell you that she was the one I used to admire across those silent waters of the past. When I told my story we had a good laugh and then she told me her story. That her big hope had been that I would have swam across to talk with her.
To me the Brakkeput of my youth will never change. I identify places and events with smells. I have a great sense of smell. I travelled to Curacao frequently in the past fifty years. On one of my many trips there I was driving with a friend through the countryside during a big rainstorm. We used to long for rain. So accustomed to it on Saba it was one of the things we missed most. We would savor the rainfall when the rainy season finally arrived.
Suddenly during that rainstorm the smell of the countryside rose up to meet me, and once again it took me back to Brakkeput. Long ago and far away! Pleasant memories of a wonderful youth! I have great memories of dedicated brothers, who looked after our welfare, though we did not know or appreciate it at the time. After these many years I say with all sincerity, with all those “Kruisvaarders van St. Jan” in mind who molded us from young rebels into future responsible citizens; I say with complete honesty and humility and thankfulness, having even acquired a taste for black tea with lime. Thank you and God Bless Brakkeput.