Befo’ time, when lumber was King in the settlement of Belize at the mouth of the Old River, there lived some of the richest, wildest, bregginest black men you could find anywhere. It seemed as if lumber could never “finish,” and all the community life was built around it. There were those skillful and hardly enough to “fall” the large trees, load them on to the tractor-drawn truck-wagons which took them down to the water-side, ride the logs down to the mouth of the river, operate the tug-boats that hauled the logs to the “bogues” from which they were loaded on to ships that took Belize mahogany, pine and other types of lumber across the seas.
The “contractors” who invested in the log-production part of the enterprise had their “works” away from the town, and therefore had to organize what we might now call “ travelling factories,” consisting of the crews or gangs that were needed to perform the variety of jobs which interdependently contributed, almost in “reverse-assembly line” fashion, to the finished logs for export.
Some men left their wives and families for months – usually from mid-January to mid- December when “GENG BRUK”, or the gangs broke up, having completed a season’s production – and all the bottled-up spirits exploded in that month-long bacchanalia which went on night after night.
Many were the stories of “show-off” hoarders of gold pieces pouring their accumulated wealth into the laps of their spouses and demanding the purchase of all the luxuries they felt were the just desserts of men who had sacrificed for months on a subsistence level. They wanted the costliest food and furnishings that money could buy – perhaps to impress those around them of their worth and establish and underline the fact of their existence to a seemingly disinterested world … a kind of “Me come! … watch me!” declaration.
“Throw me down my no. 75 handkerchief,” an ol’ man would shout to his exasperated wife, so that his neighbours could hear and note that he had at least that many — he was no common crab! Possessions seemed to represent their worth and the more lavishly they could adorn their wives, children and homes the prouder they felt of their achievements.
When going to the “bush” the gang-man had to stock up on whatever items could last long in the jungles in the line of preserved foods and medicines and – of course – drinks to “while away” the evening hours far from home.
The story is told of the half-deaf man writing out the grocery list for his partner, on his dictation. “One sack of flour,” the partner called out; and “one sack of flour,” he repeated, writing it down. “One sack of rice” came next, dutifully repeated and added to the list. “One tin o’lard” was next intoned: “One bottle of rum” droned the echo.
“I never said anything about rum!”, declared the partner, “I said, one tin o’lard.”
“Beg pardon,” replied the list-maker, “One tin o’lard.”
And so it went on with one calling out the items and the other writing them down, punctuating every third or fourth item with “a bottle of rum.” After some four of five corrections, he demanded indignantly, “And da no you wah be the fust one fi ask whe di rum de?”
Of course, some “drink-partners”, anticipating the eleven-months separation, yearned to prolong the “geng bruk” celebration or, alternatively, persuade their partners to join the “geng” when there were vacancies in the work force, one drink-partner going so far as to engineer the employment of his fisherman friend as a tractor-driver.
“You know something? I could mek you into wah tractor-driver, you know? Anybody whe could steer boat must could drive tractor!”, he reasoned confidently. “Go to the patron and tell ahm you da wan fust-class tractor-man, and leave the rest to me!”
Of course, he knew what ground he stood on, as the patron had a lot of confidence in him and usually checked out his employees with this particular worker. When asked about his fisherman-cum-tractor-man friend, he modestly replied: “They say he is better than me, sir.” With this recommendation, the patron immediately hired the new man, paying him a three-month advance of $90.00.
But it was not too long before his ineptitude became noticeable. “Helluva tractor man that, and can’t even unload the tractor off the boat to the wharf!” grumbled the patron one day. A few days later it was another complaint. A couple days more, still another complaint. Finally, the patron, short of patience, decided that he had had enough. “That man is no tractor man!” he shouted. “Get him off that tractor! And he will have to work out his advance!” Thus our friend was demoted to “loader” and was obliged to spend six months at the “works” instead of three. The lumber works must surely be responsible for the “advance” system tradition in our country – to our everlasting regret.
But to come back to those long months in the bush, some men took their wives and families with them and tried to make life as comfortable as possible away from the towns, seeing they spent such a long time at the “works”.
A young couple, who started their married life there, went to town only once in a while. The young wife happened to be a first-class cook and her fame spread around the camp. It happened that an unfortunate single man, enticed by the young husband’s boasts, and no doubt goaded by monotonous camp fare, finally wangled an invitation to eat with the couple. So delighted was he with the bride’s “hand”, that nothing could prevent him from accompanying his friend for weeks afterwards. It reached the stage where the couple directed less and less subtle hints for him to break off the habit of visiting them at dinner-time, all to no avail.
Finally, the husband and wife decided to “set him up”: the husband would utter some criticism about the wife’s cooking, some slight imperfection, and would solicit the visitor’s support for his opinion. If, as they felt sure he would, he made the mistake of agreeing with the husband, the strategy was that the wife would then, with righteous indignation, drive him out.
So the scene was set and went as planned … up to a point … but the visitor refused to cooperate; his only comment was: “Me no come ya fi find fault.”
They tried another tack. She would complain of some slight dissatisfaction with the husband’s behaviour, and if the visitor agreed with her, the husband would then drive him out. But, all to no avail; the visitors’s only response: “Me no come ya fi find fault.”
Finally the husband and wife came up with the perfect strategy to deal with their persistent and unwelcome visitor: they would stage a mock quarrel between themselves – developing into a physical struggle, if necessary – and the moment he opened his mouth – no matter for what reason, to placate, to separate or whatever – they would transfer their energies to him and chase him out! This one not even he could escape, and, as Creole say, “Two head betta dan wan, even if da goat head!”
I can remember when my “patron” first change from tractor to “camion” for carting logs to the water side. As you may know, “camion” is the Latin American name for the motor-driven truck and, for some reason, the word was used in preference to the ordinary English one – perhaps it had connotations of some giant enterprise that appealed to our ancestors in the lumber business. Anyhow, the foreman persuaded the patron to try one of them out and so an order was placed.
In the first days of the camion everything worked like magic—but it wasn’t long before the workers were joyriding on it every chance they got. One day the patron said: “You know something? From the camp to my house is about twice the distance as from my house to the river: yet it take the camion twice as long to come past my house from the river on the way back to camp than to come from the camp past my house! You notice that?”
Not too long after that he pointed out another discrepancy to me … and in another few days still another … and I began to realize that the patron was getting wise to the jancunu the younger workers were dancing with the camion.
One day the driver reported to the patron that there was some difficulty with getting the camion started, and the fat was in the fire! Finally, the patron called me one day and said: “I suppose you know that when da fella was taking the load down to the river this morning one of them big tree move from outa the ground and jump right in front of the camion and wreck it?” Right away I knew what was coming. Hear the patron: “Yu know what I want you to do for me? Take a gallon of gasoline, pour it over the camion, strike a match, light it, and bun it up! Henry money no done!”
When I told the foreman what the ol’ man had instructed, he was quite unperturbed, as he was used by now to his “temperish” behaviour. All he did was include on the list of spare parts for the tractors the items needed for the camion, and in no time the camion was working full-blast and the patron was converted. Hear the bally now: “Yu know dem camion do a damn fine job! We ahn have to get rid a dem tractor; dem can’t touch dem camion!’’
Foremen had a lot of influence in those days and that is probably why they had so many Godchildren. It was common thing, as we say, for the foreman of a camp to have several of his “compadres” on the payroll. I remember once a friend of mine made his foreman the Godfather of his little boy and the “compadre”, as was expected of him, was quite generous with little extras for his Godson. One of the items my friend particularly enjoyed was the extra sugar in the rations he received.
As time went by, however, my friend was called upon to do little extra favors for his “compadre” for which he could not expect payment; after all, they were on a “hand-wash-hand” basis! He would chop extra wood, bring extra water, run extra errands … all for a little extra sugar!
Well, the time had to come when he would reach breaking point, and, enterprising fellow that he was, he made up a little tune which he just happened to be singing on the occasions when he was working around the foreman’s house: “I’ll work until my agreement’s done, And come back no more!”
After a while the foreman began to take note of these little performances and, realizing that they were aimed at him, did a little composing of his own. And one day, as the last note of the worker’s little ditty faded away, he was right on cue with: “Glory, halleluyah! Sugar no more!”
(Ed. NOTE: This article was originally published in the Christmas 1979 issue of FUN & GAMES magazine, an effort by the staff of Amandala and various superb contributors which lasted for six months in 1979, four decades ago. “John Direc’ly” was the pen name of the lady who is responsible for FROM BRITISH HONDURAS TO BELIZE, a novel which is presently being published in serial form in this newspaper. The lady is the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan.)Amandala