My friend Clementie
My friend Clementie
By: Will Johnson
Many times he would tell me: “I want YOU to write my story.” This column is written in such a way as to reflect my personal relationship with the one I am writing about. It is not an exact history of the person. I leave that to others. What I do think though is that a Committee should be established and given a list of names of people who can be considered a National Hero and let someone write a booklet on each one of these persons. A booklet based on historical facts which can be used in schools and libraries. My stories are all personal memories of people I was close to in the islands. So this is not only his story. It is mine as well.
I can remember exactly the day I first met Clem. It was August 2nd, 1960 just two days before hurricane “Donna”. On July 2nd of that year I had obtained my MULO diploma on Curacao. I had returned to Saba awaiting a response to my application for a scholarship to further my studies in The Netherlands. One day on the road to English Quarter Lt. Governor “Japa” Beaujon, who was visiting Saba, flagged me down and asked if I was the boy with the diploma. I was to learn later on that Lucy Smith living on the Backstreet and I were the only ones in the Dutch Windward Islands with a MULO diploma. Mr. Beaujon rightly predicted that I would not get a scholarship as I did not have any political pull on Curacao and he needed me to work in the Courthouse on St. Maarten doing a variety of jobs, but primarily working for the Post Office which was the center of activity at the time.
In the meantime I had become a small contractor. Dolphie Johnson and I had taken on a contract from my brother Freddie, on behalf of Earl Johnson, to dig the trenches for the new movie theater in Windwardside. The trenches had to be a certain depth and width. Located next to Freddie’s house there was no cheating possible on the job. Freddie being a teacher and all of that, as soon as he got home from school, would get his tape measure to check on the job. After what seemed like weeks of work we finally got our agreed on one hundred guilders for the job. Of my fifty guilders no less than thirty two guilders went to pay for my return passage on the M.V. “Antilia”. My brother Eric and his wife Wilda went on the same trip on their honeymoon. The “Antilia” made a stop in Statia where we went ashore. Then it was on to St. Kitts where we overnighted. We went into town to see our fellow islander Mr. Eric Skerritt and his family. He had a bevy of pretty daughters who along with their visiting Lebanese girlfriends gave me visions of paradise. From then to this day I have a warm feeling for St. Kitts. You see how the soul and the mind of man work and that which influences him most? In later years I remember going twice with Clem to St. Kitts. He was good friends with the Prime Minister the Hon. Llewellyn Bradshaw. We stayed at the “Blakney’s Hotel” with Joe Astaphan. The Blakney’s was right across from the Government building. And Joe was always putting hell for Bradshaw. I said to him “Are you not afraid of Bradshaw?” Joe said:” To hell with him. He cannot do me anything, and besides he is married to my wife’s sister.”
The next day on landing in St. Maarten I went to Mr. Beaujon’s office. Back then everyone was seated in the same large room under the house of the Lt. Governor. Since he knew me already he told me to go to Clem Labega who would help me to make a petition to the Minister. That was the first time that I met Clem. I did know his father Mr. Percy Labega who was the wireless radio operator on Saba for some years. On September 1st, 1959 Mr. Percy and I were on Capt. Matthew Levenston’s sloop the “Gloria” and were caught in a storm and nearly got lost.
I started working on October 10th 1960. I used to see Clem often at the Lido Bar where all politics were conducted. We would hang out there and the recently deceased Calvin Lake, bartender at the Lido, who knew me from school on Curacao, would give us a drink now and then and charge it to Clem or Claude. Calvin’s theory accompanied with the necessary expletive deletives was that the government would pay for it in the end. We were not too heavy a burden on the government I hope. A large shot of whiskey was five coppers, and you couldn’t handle too many of those big shots of whiskey. In 1962 when Claude was running for Senator against heavy odds I was sent to Saba to support the D.P. against the then popular Saba candidate Henry Every.
The election results on Saba for the D.P were as follows: Claude 11 and Th.V. Hassell 152. Since Van Hugh was my brother Freddie’s godfather I supported him. The DP got a total of 193 votes and the other party 270. At the beginning of the campaign it was expected that the other party would take 400 on Saba. The DP had a total of 893 votes on the three islands and the W.I.P.P. had a total of 747, so the D.P. won by 146 votes. When I returned from Saba I was given the cold shoulder by the powers-that-be. I thought there would be tremendous appreciation for the job I had done for the party. I was not even 21 yet and could not even vote. Finally some weeks later I came across Clem at the Sea View Hotel. His home was directly opposite the hotel. When I worked up enough courage I asked him the delicate question. With the necessary expletives he asked me who Claude had sent me to Saba to campaign for. Later I understood that it had everything to do with personal votes, and the consequences it would have for the following years Island Council elections on the three islands. Also against all odds and with a bitter fought campaign it seemed as a foreboding of things to come, and I was being looked at as a possible future threat. Clem acknowledged my contribution but pointed out that Claude had sent me to Saba and not Van Hugh.
I remember Clem coming to the office to fetch me one day. There was trouble brewing. My good friend Joseph H. Lake Sr. had joined the DP in 1967 and there were no elections. When in 1969 Mr. Charles Vlaun resigned as Commissioner, Clem decided that he would become the Commissioner and wanted me as a witness. We drove over to the then Government Agricultural Station where Mr. Lake had his printery. Clem just walked in and told Mr. Lake:” I will be nominated by the party tomorrow for Commissioner and I expect your support.” I don’t know what had been promised to Mr. Lake by the party but he was obviously upset, but Clem after having made that statement just walked out and we then went to the airport. The next day I was at the meeting when Clem was elected Commissioner. I think that Mr. Lake abstained but Clem’s election went through, and again he wanted me to go out with him and again we ended up at the airport where Clem told all and sundry that if anyone wanted trouble with him they would be bringing their pigs to the right market
Clem and I became closer as time went on. In 1969 when I joined the URA party and decided to take on Claude for the election of Senator I thought that Clem and I were done with it. Clem knew my hideouts though. In the heat of the battle Clem came by the Pasangrahan beach bar where I was sitting under the sea grape tree. He asked me why I was avoiding him. I told him that I knew we would be ending up in a big argument and I had enough of those to deal with. He assured me that would not be the case and that since “we are going to beat you anyway; there is no need to lose friendship over that.” At that time old “friends” would see me coming down the street and would find an excuse to quickly head down an alley so that no one would tell Claude they had seen them talking to me. Clem to his credit had no such fear. I remained his friend throughout.
In the end I did better than expected. On the three islands I got 592 personal votes and Claude got 1401. The day before the elections bets were being placed that I would not get more than 100 votes on the three islands. Fidel said that you have to write your own history. For whatever reason, I notice that political histories exclude my role in Windward Islands politics. Clem acknowledged that there would have been no elections in 1969 without my stand. In 1967 there were no elections on all three islands and expectations were that the nuisance of having elections was a thing of the past. In an interview with Mr. Fabian Badejo for the special 50th anniversary of the DP on July 23, 2004, Clem in describing when he came back to St.Maarten from Curacao in 1954 to promote the DP said that:” I was refused by the Executive Council to hold meetings. I requested permission for a public meeting at the Oranje School, they turned me down; I requested for the Cole bay school yard, it was refused. All my campaign then was house to house.” Well guess what? Fifteen years later when I asked permission to hold a public meeting at the Oranje School it was refused. The following week the DP held a meeting there. I asked to go on the radio station. I was told that Chester Wathey did not want politics on the station, but the DP was banging away at me every time the radio was turned on. So I turned to issuing hard hitting pamphlets with Freddy Lejuez and others sent from Curacao distributing them. Each time the DP held a meeting it was to respond to my pamphlets.
Percy Clement Desmount Labega was born on St. Maarten on January 26th, 1926 and he died on May 27th, 2009. Around 1942 he, like many other young St. Maarteners, headed to Curacao where he worked for the government radio wireless station like many others in the Labega family. In 1954 he returned to St. Maarten to run with the Curacao based Democrat Party. In 1951 Mr. Melford Augustus Hazel had his own Democrat Party and the colour was blue. Mr. Hazel got 86 votes and was elected to the Island Council.
In the elections for the legislature of the Netherlands Antilles of November 15th, 1954, Clem ran as the number 6 candidate and got 23 votes. He was able to convince Claude to switch his support from the N.V.P. in the middle of the campaign and to support the D.P. instead. Clem ran for the Island Council elections on June 13th, 1955 as the number 6 candidate and got 11 votes. He must have not had time to campaign enough. I guess he was too lonely for his girlfriend Rosie Scott who he had known from Curacao. He decided to get married. Rosie tells me that she came from Curacao and went straight from the airport to the government office and got married the same day.
In the Island Council elections of 1959 (May 25th), Clem got 48 votes. Not a bad amount as Claude got 280 and Milton Peters 44. In the elections of 1963 (May 31st) Clem was the number three candidate and received 64 votes (Claude 275 and Peters 65). The electorate was still small even in 1963. Clem served on the Island council from 1959 to 1971. He also served as Commissioner for two years in the period from 1969 to 1971. Clem preferred though to play his role in the background advising Claude and in the foreground actively campaigning and making deals on behalf of the party on the three Windward Islands. As such the “bush lawyer” Wallace Peterson pegged the name on Clem of “The Evil Genius” and it stuck. Not that Clem was evil. He was my friend and came to my rescue in more ways than one. This article does not allow room for all. Except that he had the police arrest his cousin Fried Richardson and me. We were arguing up under the bar which was located under the A.C.Wathey pier. In the heated discussion Fried recklessly told Clem that he had no power and young and foolish as I was I took Fried’s side. Turned out to be the losing side. Clem went to the phone and then came back and sat down quietly. Minutes later a police car pulled up and Fried and I were escorted down to the Police Station for questioning. No overnighting on that occasion though. We were released and found our way back up to the pier. Clem asked us if we still thought he had no power. And believe you me I never joined Fried again or anyone else for that matter to question whether Clem had power or not.
Clem and I remained friends over the years. I used to spend lots of time with him in the period up to 1973. It was a habit of Clem’s to come to the office and tell my boss Fons O’Connor that he needed “Johnstone” as he always called me, to go somewhere with him. Up until 1983 when I was still involved in the politics of all three islands as Commissioner and Island Council Member, I would see Clem a lot. After the Island Territory split up and I was elected Senator I worked in coalition with the D.P. at Central Government level though it was never an easy relationship. Through it all Clem and I remained “buddies”, one of his favourite words for his good friends. Clem liked to spend time in these little holes in the wall. I knew where to find him. When he changed location I could call his son Erno who would direct me where to find him. I still regret that I was not able to attend his funeral as I was on my way to Holland when someone told me at the airport that he had passed on.
And can I ask someone in government to honour my friend Clem with a real square. Take away the parking lot. Plant some nice Royal Palm trees. Place benches there where young and old can congregate. Let someone build a parking garage elsewhere for the excess cars in Philipsburg. But please give the square some priority. I think that Clem and by extension the Labega family deserve such an honour. How can one call a parking lot a square? The location though is excellent, all we need now is to remove the parking lot and make it a real square. Incorporate the road in front of the Administration building in it as well, and around the square put statues of people like Melford Hazel, Joseph H. Lake Sr, Wallace Peterson and others. Clem I cannot write your full story in this one article, but at least I have been able to put you “Under the Sea Grape Tree”. Back in the day you knew where to find me. I remember also when Mr. Alrett Peters and I were under the sea grape tree plotting a show of solidarity with the May 30th, 1969 labour union disturbances on Curacao. Clem walked in and said;” let’s compromise we don’t need demonstrations on St. Maarten at this time. What about giving the workers a half day off instead?’
Mr. Peters was the boss, but he turned to me and said:’ Johnson is that good enough for you?” We shook hands with Clem who went back to the Government offices just down the street and carried out his part of the agreement and Mr. Peters and the General Workers Union withdrew the request for a protest march. Recordar es Vivir . To remember is to live, and to have many fond memories of good friends like my friend “Clementie”.