MY FRIEND RALPH
MY FRIEND RALPH
Something strange when you look back on a lifelong friendship and cannot remember when and how this friendship started. When I heard of the passing of my good friend Sir Ralph Berkel on St. Eustatius yesterday, I searched my mind to try and remember when I first met him.
It may have been in 1969 when I was running with the URA party and lost the election on Statia with only 22 votes. We used to keep our internal meetings at the home of Mrs. Christine and her husband William Flanders where they also had a snack bar. I met his wife Elizabeth around the same time.
Ralph was born on Curacao on December 6th, 1938 but the family moved to Aruba and it is there that he grew up and from where most of his memories of growing up were from.
In 1970 he and I were among those from the three Dutch Windward Islands who formed the political party the Windward Islands People’s Movement (WIPM). I was living on St. Maarten at the time and despite the good showing I had at the polls in 1969 the new party was being formed without me. It is Ralph who when invited to join told the others that he would not join without me and also told the others “What message are we sending to the people who voted for Will? I would be hard pressed to explain to people what reason there could be.” Jocelyn Arndell was also in my corner. Remarkable is that after all these years the WIPM party is alive and well on Saba and governs that island.
The following year in 1971 the party won the elections on both St. Eustatius and Saba and acquired a majority of seats on the Island Council of the Windward Islands. With internal differences in the party on Statia the WIPM after only two years in government had to make a coalition with the Democrat Party of Mr. Vincent Lopes.
We were also knocking at the doors of the Federal Government on Curacao for recognition. And so in 1975 Ralph and I were appointed on the Kingdom Committee to represent Statia and Saba in the negotiations for the independence of Surinam.
Ralph and I both tried hard to keep the territory of the Windward Islands intact. We used to love the Island Council of the Windward Islands and used every opportunity in the combined meetings to throw licks into Claude Wathey’s skin but we could yet be magnanimous when required. In 1981 the WIPM had 8 seats and SPM of Vance James Jr. Had two seats with a combined combination of 10 seats for the coalition and 5 seats for the Democrat Party. Island Council Member Claude Wathey’s friends wanted to commemorate the fact that he had served thirty years on the Island Council. Lt. Governor Max Pandt a boyhood friend of mine called me and asked if I would be willing to come to the meeting and form a quorum. Without us the meeting was impossible and he told me that Ralph was willing to help out but not the SPM. So without me with five seats on the Island Council of Saba the meeting could not go through. I called Ralph and we agreed to go. I went dressed up in my usual Fidel Castro outfit. The meeting was attended not only by Mr. Wathey’s family and friends but many dignitaries from around the world including the United States consul on Curacao. I remember Ralph mentioning in his speech that even though we were separate from Mr. Wathey in our way of thinking but who knows he said: “You can never tell, Mr. Wathey in his infinite wisdom might see the light and one day decide to cross over and join us.” After my speech and when the ceremony was over Mr. Julian Conner told me that several times during my speech he had his heart in his mouth fearing that I would spoil the party, but that in the end I had made it all right. I used that opportunity to throw some blows first and then say that I recognized that this was a ceremony which Mr. Wathey and his friends and family were looking forward to and then went on to point out that even though he had defeated us in several elections that the Johnson’s had beaten him in their numbers. While he was the only Wathey to have served on the Island Council we had some 8 Johnson’s who had served on the Island Council.
Ralph and I really tried to make the Island Council work. However at the Federal Government Level we would never have been able to get representation in the Legislature with the phenomenal growth in the population of St. Maarten We therefore came up with a plan to ask the people of Saba and St. Eustatius to do something different and they followed our advice and boycotted two elections.
In order to get some form of representation in the Legislature on Curacao we had to break up the Island Territory. The representation we got was limited to a Spokesman in Parliament who was put under so many restrictions that it did not amount to very much. Ralph and I had served on many committees since 1971 and attended numerous meetings together because of the desire of Aruba to achieve an autonomous status. We learned a lot from those meetings on a personal level as well.
I remember once after a whole week of meetings with more to follow on Monday we decided to go to Aruba for the weekend. I stayed at the Astoria Hotel a magnified name for a few rooms above a Chinese restaurant. At the airport on Aruba I saw Ralph talking with Mr. Henny Eman. We had been with him in the meetings on Curacao for most of the previous week.
While I was busy checking in at the Astoria they told me that there was a call for me. I wondered who could have known where I was staying. The person calling told me that Betico Croes had just arrived from the United States and that he would be calling in at the hotel to see the political leaders of Statia and Saba. He first had to attend the opening of a large store in Oranjestad. After several calls he showed up with his wife and small daughter. In the meantime a sizeable crowd had gathered outside. Though they were not his voters he was such a celebrity at the time that they wanted him to see them as well. We pleaded with him to take his family home and get a rest as we would be meeting with him on Monday anyway. Finally he left and I went with Ralph to a ‘snack’ along the road for him to buy some Salem cigarettes. On the way back to the hotel he asked me if I had seen Henny Eman and him talking at the airport. I told him yes and he said: “See the difference between the two men. When I greeted him he asked me who I was and if he had ever met me before. “And Betico tired as he and his family were had come to greet us as two heads of state.”
I don’t know if the doorbell incident took place on that trip. His sister lived in the vicinity of the village. I walked across from the hotel to meet Ralph there the following day. While banging away on the door one of his teenage daughters was coming from school. She promptly walked up and asked me why I was trying to knock down the door, and said “Just ring the doorbell”. Who would have thought that a house in the village would have a doorbell. Ralph was not amused and I told him that his daughter meant well, so laughingly he accepted my plea to have mercy on her. A joke we shared for many years.
We travelled for so many years together that he got to know my habits very well. In the beginning years I was a heavy drinker and smoker and ate very little. In later years when I stopped both habits and started eating a regular meal he would say in amazement: “Well look at Johnstone finishing up his food.” He and Clem Labega both called me “Johnstone”.
WE also served together in the Pourier government. I was a Senator and his cousin Kenneth van Putten was the Senator elected on Statia. Ralph served as State Secretary for some years and once again we travelled a lot together and saw each other on Curacao.
Our final Committee we served on together was the Jesurun Committee. We came to the conclusion that the Netherlands Antilles in its new form after 1986 was unworkable. The Dutch had to take responsibility for the smaller islands, something which they had always refused to do.
So many memories I have of Ralph and his family. Once he called me to book a hotel for his sister-in-law. I told him that she could stay by me as I had an apartment which was not being used. Just like her sister she was a knockout with good looks. When I had an operation in Eindhoven there was a gentleman in the same room with me who had four daughters who all seemed to be nurses and all good looking. One night after my wife and son had left the room, a beautiful lady entered carrying a bouquet of red roses. She spoke so softly and all I could remember when she left was something she said about Ralph. The ladies jumped on me right away to find out who the mystery lady was. It was then that I remembered that she was the sister-in- law of Ralph. She too was a nurse and Ralph had called her to look me up.
On another occasion Ralph and I were standing up opposite the Finance Department in The Hague. There was a huge demonstration going on with teachers heading to Government headquarters to state their grievances. All of a sudden a woman broke ranks with the crowd and started running towards us. I thought she had bad intentions until she shouted out “Ralph” and started hugging him up. Turns out she had gone to teachers training college with Ralph when he was studying in The Netherlands.
On another occasion on the pier in Nevis in 1983 Ralph and I were waiting to go back to St. Kitts with a coastguard boat from Trinidad and Tobago. I saw a woman running towards us. Turned out to be Margarita Palacios a friend of mine and Secretary to President Lusinchi of Venezuela. This was the independence day of St. Kitts and Nevis and Venezuela had a huge man-of-war there for the occasion. Margarita insisted that Ralph and I join her on the trip back to St. Kitts. The Commander was in agreement. We went on board and ended up in the commanders private salon and joined in a game of dominoes. All of a sudden we heard a bugle playing. Turns out it was for then Prime Minister Don Martina. When he came into the salon he looked at us a bit perplexed as if he did not know who we were. He started laughing as he joined us and I told him that Margarita Palacios had brought us on board as her guests.
The last years we were not in regular contact but I knew I had a friend in Ralph and he knew the same of me. The last time I saw him he was going into Cost-U-Less with one of his daughters. Since all three of them live on St. Maarten he would spend lots of time there as well as going up to Sweden to visit his son Robby and his family.
I have to end this on a sad note. As I am typing this I remember the following. I am unsurpassed as a eulogist for funerals on all three Windward Islands with many eulogies for friends on all three islands. On St. Maarten I did a number of eulogies among them one for my friend Eddy Buncamper. As I walked out of the church Ralph was standing in the crowd outside the Roman Catholic Church. When he saw me coming out of the church he shouted out to me:” Johnstone boy when I pass away I want you to do the talk for me.” We were both a lot younger then with death far away from our minds. Little could I realize then that indeed I would be here writing out the “talk” for my friend Ralph.
Our sympathy goes out to his children and other family members and to the people of St. Eustatius who have lost a great son. He could have remained in Holland or he could have gone to Aruba where he grew up. As a teacher the opportunities were there. But he chose to come to Statia which at the time had no electricity and lacked most of the conveniences which people enjoy there today. He and his wife put up with many inconveniences but he never gave up on his people on his beloved St. Eustatius!
May his memory be always blessed and my friend Ralph rest softly.