CHRISTMAS IN PARADISE, PART 1
The black George Bailey
Dreadlocked doctor-composer inspires Caribbean youth
Posted: December 23, 2004
1:00 a.m. Eastern
Editor's note: Since April of 2001 longtime WorldNetDaily contributor Anthony C. LoBaido has made no less than eight trips to the idyllic Caribbean nation of Belize. In this three-part Christmas special, LoBaido weaves together the stories of an at-risk baby, modern Pharisees seeking to cast the first stone, thwarted would-be assassins and a real-life Cinderella. The latter is Miss Belize, Karen Russell, who not long ago turned the Miss World Pageant upside down but in a way no one ever could have imagined. All of the facets of this story are presented within the context of a nation battling an onslaught of destructive local, national and global forces.
By Anthony C. LoBaido
"Down there in the sea of love, where everyone would love to drown."
-- "Sara" by Fleetwood Mac
AMBERGRIS CAYE, Belize The heat inside the church of San Pedro was stifling, punctuated only by the soft breeze that sporadically blew in through the open wooden doorway facing west. Through those doors the jade-colored reef glistened like the jewels once carried by the Three Wise Men. High above, an army of ceiling fans circled again and again, like faithful seagulls wishing to sooth the brethren. Six tall, white pillars held up the church, or so it seemed, and each of those pillars was decorated with bright tropical flowers.
At the front of the church, a purple curtain symbolizing royalty had been hung upon the wall as a backdrop. A Jesus figure hung on a wooden cross with the word "INRI" crudely stenciled above. To the right was a statue of a Hispanic Virgin Mary. At her feet was an angel who threw up its arms in the air like the little AOL man appearing on the computer screen when you log online.
The church was empty save for three of its favorite patrons. The first was a bespectacled, gentle-looking black man. He was beautifully playing the white Schaefer & Sons piano resting to the right of Jesus with the aplomb of a man tossing aside a drumstick at a Christmas banquet. It could have been Carnegie Hall for all it mattered.
The second person was a man sitting in his customary seat. It was Row 14, Seat 1, to be exact. The man liked that particular seat for a reason. It was the seat nearest to the Station of the Cross that featured Veronica and her famous veil. The one with the face of Christ imprinted upon it.
Standing around Jesus at the Station were a fierce-looking, spear-carrying Roman mercenary, Simon, the man who bought Jesus' tomb, and his sons Rufus and Alexander. If one were to look closely, one would see that Alexander was wearing what could only be described as a dew rag worn by Aunt Jemima of pancake-box fame in a better day, and gang members in present times.
This particular Station of the Cross was terribly water-damaged. Was it a miracle? You know, the sweat from the face of Jesus? The kind of miracle you sometimes read about in one of those checkout-stand newspapers the face of Jesus found in a tortilla in Phoenix, Ariz. (the cheddar cheese beard, olive eyes and so forth) or some such thing?
The third person in the church was the California-bred Carrie Giebel , a six-foot tall Catholic missionary with piercing blue eyes. Pretty, yet carrying the mystique of a holy woman, she sat next to the man fawning over Veronica while clutching her rosary beads. Giebel had pondered much inside the Church of San Pedro from the idea of becoming a nun to potentially starring in a Belize-based TV reality series entitled, "Nun O' That." Mainly, she was trying to concentrate on training up the youth at the local Catholic School by the same name.
Beads of sweat formed on her forehead as she prayed. Then a look of bewilderment passed across the face of both she and the man sitting next to her, for a German Shepherd was walking around the church. The dog wagged her tail just as happily as Lassie might have in one of those old episodes.
"We usually don't want dogs roaming around the church, but in this case we make a special exception," Giebel said with a small wave of the hand and a fleeting smile.
That exception is a very special dog named Sitka. The story of Sitka and her piano-playing owner combine with other local tales to illuminate key elements of the story of Christ. They are the fabric of a unique and amazing morality play now unfolding on what is perhaps the most beautiful island in the world. Make no mistake: This is a journalist's dream, the chance to work on a story for three and a half years slowly and painstakingly.
There are over 200 islands in Belize, but there is only one Ambergris Caye. (Pronounced "key.") What prompted Madonna to pen, "I fell in love with San Pedro," in the hit song "La Isla Bonita"? What is it about the island that draws even top Hollywood stars like Robert de Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio (twice) to recently visit?
Is it the diving on the reef and the chance to swim with manatees, stealthy stingrays, giant sea turtles and gentle whale sharks? The island is also the gateway to inland excursions where one can see the howler (picture ewok babies) and spider monkeys swinging through the trees, colorful keel-bill toucans and scarlet macaws you find on a box of Fruit Loops cereal. The interloper will have the chance to view jaguars stalking about in the dense jungle. Yet all of those things are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The pre-eminent reason for visiting Belize are the people of Ambergris Caye themselves, for they have eclipsed the natural beauty of the island for better and worse.
The black George Bailey
The man playing the piano (much like the angelic character in the Argentinean film "Man Facing Southeast") was Dr. Floyd Jackson. He looks like any other ordinary 37-year-old black man with dreadlocks might look except for the fact that he is an accomplished composer, has a Ph.D. from Yale, went to Harvard, taught at Belize's medical school, appeared as a guest on "Oprah" while still in his early 20s (on an episode about his work with children who are killers) and founded and still runs the local Free School of Music. He also finds time to volunteer his services at the local medical Lions Clinic.
Yet perhaps most remarkable of all is that Dr. Jackson is even here at all. You see, some years ago, while living on a houseboat in Portland, Ore., assassins tried to sink his sail boat and kill him. One man, who identified himself as a member of the local Klu Klux Klan, had come down to the boatyard and threatened to kill Jackson.
"I was asleep when they scuttled the boat. They sabotaged the cutlass bearing (where the drive shaft and the propeller meet). Whoever did this knew what they were doing. But it was Sitka who saved me," he told WorldNetDaily.
And of course, that's why Sitka has always been allowed free reign inside the church.
How Dr. Jackson got Sitka in the first place is a strange tale. He was working late one night at his medical clinic in Lake Oswego, Ore., while a policeman on patrol asked him what he was doing there. That profiling launched a very strong friendship. The policeman, a man named Jerry, sold a German shepherd to Floyd named Nikki for $15,000. Nikki was a police dog from a top-of-the-line breed in Baden Baden, Germany.
Floyd loved Nikki, but Nikki died due to complications when she was spayed. This was a part of the sale agreement with the Lake Oswego Police Department. This breed of dog is very sensitive to the anesthesia veterinarians use. The vet was Dr. Jackson's best friend, and the vet cried and cried when Nikki died. Jackson was so heartbroken that Jerry was moved to give him Nikki's granddaughter, Sitka, who had been born in Germany.
And of course, as the reader now well knows, it was Sitka who pulled Dr. Jackson from the sinking boat, the "Sea Ranger," a 175-footer that weighed a half million pounds.
Jackson described the events of that fateful night.
"We jumped off at the stern into a little dingy. Sitka was barking for me to come and finally I did. I knew there would be a giant vacuum around the area where the boat went down," he explained.
"The next morning, well, I had only my underwear on. Chief Charles Moose was head of Portland's police department at that time (yes, the same Chief Moose of failed sniper-hunting fame) and he came down to the boatyard. He gave me his own clothes. People were very supportive. The Oregonian did a story on what happened to me."
Dr. Jackson, who spent his youth in Catholic school, has chosen to forgive his enemies. He is not bitter about the event.
"You can't really know someone and (try to) do this to them. They didn't know me," he said.
His medical career led Jackson to appear in court on numerous occasions as a forensic psychiatrist regarding the aforementioned children who kill. After that segment of his career began to depress him, Jackson took a job teaching at the medical school on Ambergris Caye. Right from the start, he realized that he didn't fit in for a variety of reasons.
"Some people in the town actually think I am insane," he lamented. "Someone thought I was a crack dealer. There are those kind of stereotypes. I mean, look around at the people with dreadlocks. People see me in the store, Belizeans, and they sometimes say, 'You're a bum. You don't work.' But they don't see me work. Yes, I have received applause and even standing ovations in church during my piano solos (after Communion) but then there are those Belizeans who say, 'Why do you make such noise?' They've never been exposed to classical-type music."
Dr. Jackson takes little if any notice of this flack. He is long used to it. He attended Washington State and was the only black person in an otherwise all-white fraternity. That meant almost nothing, for like A.C. Green or Curtis Pride, Dr. Jackson transcends race with the force of his goodness and seemingly never-ending achievements.
"The people were great there and they treated me wonderfully," he happily recalled.
As in the case of Jerry questioning him, the vet operating on Nikki or the would-be boat assassin, Dr. Jackson understands no one is perfect.
"We all sin. I sin too," he said.
And what better place to sin then Ambergris Caye, which played host to the very first Fox TV reality series, "Temptation Island?"
From Conquistadors to Cubans
The indigenous residents of Ambergris Caye are a unique people who descend from the Mayan Indians. They left behind black dirt hauled from the mainland, which is laced with broken shards of pottery. Those Mayans, whose empire ran all over Central America, began to experience a plethora of incursions from a then-Christian and expansionist Europe. The Conquistadors were engaging in the forerunner of Sherman's March to the sea, and neither the Mayans, Aztecs or Incas would stand in their way.
Belize was opened up to the world by proper pirates known as "The Baymen." They pioneered the mahogany industry with the secretive backing of British military and economic forces. The very name "Belize" is believed to have come from Peter Wallace. He was a Scottish pirate who raided gold-laden Spanish galleons sailing for Cuba from the Bay of Honduras.
Belize boasts every racial and ethnic group imaginable. Residents comprise what one expatriate calls "all the ingredients of A1 Steak Sauce." For example, there are the white Mennonites, who came in 1959 and revolutionized the farming, poultry and furniture industries. There are hard-working Lebanese traders (the current president of Belize, Said Musa, is a Christian of Lebanese descent), as well as the Africans who physically mixed in Saint Vincent with West Indians. They are known as the Garifuna people. They were not brought to Belize as slaves as many erroneously believe. Slavery ended earlier in the British Empire than in the U.S. Rather, the Garifuna came to Belize of their own free will in search of work. They are a strong, spirited people with a rich history.
There can be no doubt that Belize is a maverick stepchild of the British Empire. Formerly known as British Honduras, it achieved independence in the early 1980s. It is the only Anglophone country in Central America, where the Spanish tongue still reigns as king.
The British took Belize from the Spanish through a series of paper compromises and the odd skirmish. The most decisive was the Sept. 10, 1798, battle off Saint George's Caye, where the British defeated the Spanish Armada. (Even today British soldiers still travel there for R&R).
As the 19th century unfolded, the British Empire snatched the nation out from under neighboring Guatemala, which even to this very day wants Belize back in the fold. This is not some dusty issue relegated to history books. Consider that Guatemala didn't even recognize Belize as a nation until 1992. Through the end of Ronald Reagan's first term, the British army had 1,800 troops in Belize augmented by four Harrier jets. The possibility for war was very real.
A 2002 "Differendum" brokered by the Organization of American States proposed, among other concessions, a large southern Caribbean corridor for Guatemala. The border of Belize and Guatemala is disputed. According to Maj. John Knopp of the British army, "If that border blows up, several others in the region will blow as well."
The queen of England is still the ultimate symbol of power in Belize, and her picture graces the currency. The British SAS special forces and their jungle-warfare training are important figures in the nation. Britain trains the Belize Defense Force, whose total budget is $18 million. The British forces also provide weather forecasting (especially for hurricanes) and handle emergencies (pregnancies, divers with the bends) requiring the use of British army helicopters.
Britain would like to hold on to its base in Belize as its primary jungle-warfare training grounds, though the training has slowed over the past few years. This is due to the firemen's strike in the UK (soldiers did fire duty) and the second war in Iraq. The jungle training used to be held in Borneo and Brunei, but when the UK handed over Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997, those training bases in the South Pacific were no longer needed. Belize is half as far away from the UK as Borneo and Brunei. (Britain has other holdings in the Caribbean and carries out military training in Jamaica, but that is a different kind of jungle).
However, Belize is not a steppingstone to the Falkland Islands. The storied war of 1982 made Margaret Thatcher a hero worldwide to rightists. But who knew back then about "the mineral factor"? Ascension Island, centered near the equator in the mid-Atlantic, is the gateway to the Falklands from the UK. And the Falklands, in turn, is the gateway to future mineral exploration in Antarctica for British Petroleum.
Cuba is also a player in Belize, though Castro's effects are nuanced. Cuba exports doctors, cigars and political theory to Belize, and that's not all. Many Belizean doctors and other professionals have trained in Cuba. Then there's the HIV/AIDS treatment program Cuba is seeding around the Caribbean. This is no small affair since Belize has more HIV/AIDS cases per capita than any other Central American nation. (The Caribbean as a whole is second globally in AIDS cases to Sub-Saharan Africa).
Cuba's HIV/AIDS stance is generally looked upon in a favorable way, despite the fact that Fidel Castro dumped legions of HIV-positive soldiers returning from Angola (where they were defeated, along with their Soviet allies, by the elite Afrikaner units of the old SADF under the defunct apartheid regime) into what can only be termed "AIDS camps" in Cuba where they were left to die untreated.
There remains a certain affinity in Belize for Communist Cuba. As noted, many native Belizean doctors and vets cut their teeth in Havana.
One of them is the energetic and dedicated Jane Crawford, who runs a busy practice in Belize City. She told WorldNetDaily: "By the time I trained in Cuba in 1991, the Soviet Union was already gone. All of my teachers were Cubans.
"Though Belize is a capitalist country, many Cubans come here to work. To do so you have to be pro-Castro, or at least say that you are."
Dr. Crawford seems to epitomize the goodness of the Belizean people. She doesn't really care about communism or capitalism. She cares about helping animals, especially Sitka, who was struck down with Tick Fever around this past Thanksgiving and lost half of her blood.
Crawford says Cubans no longer use the term "comrade."
"They say 'companera.' Jesus was a communist," she said with almost an embarrassed giggle.
Dr. Crawford's too busy to even notice that she's a successful black woman and role model. Since there isn't a vet school in Belize, she's thinking of founding one.
This writer was at Dr. Crawford's office when the story of Dr. Jackson and his faithful dog really took an amazing turn.
You see, Jackson was going to give Sitka an aspirin when she fell ill. This would have killed the dog since Sitka was hemorrhaging.
But this writer randomly met Dr. Jackson on Barrier Reef Drive that day in San Pedro and suggested he immediately call the vet in Belize City. The vet in turn instructed Dr. Jackson about the proper, alternative medication.
Jackson expressed his thanks that the phone call "saved Sitka."
"I would have killed my own dog!" he exclaimed.
The "dog who saved Floyd" then was taken to Belize City, where she received not one but two IV drips. The several blue dots appeared on chemically treated paper after a blood test confirmed the Tick Fever. Sitka was prescribed 14 pounds of liver in an effort to help build her blood back up.
As of this writing, it looks as though Sitka might make it. She's 77 in human terms and most dogs that age don't recover from such a parasitic onslaught. But again, this is no ordinary canine.
Tomorrow: Part 2 of LoBaido's series explores the moral decay gripping Belize and a remnant of expatriates and natives who still hold out hope.
Anthony C. LoBaido is a longtime contributor to WorldNetDaily.com.