The Changes I’ve Seen, part 2
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — With a calm demeanor and soulful singing voice, Bernard McFarlane could fit in anywhere, with anyone.
The native of Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands was surprised, then, at what unfolded in 1964 when he and his Puerto Rican friend Morales left their base at Fort Campbell, Kentucky for nearby Clarksville, Tennessee. The duo went in their Army uniforms, “clean as a whistle,” and entered a restaurant with thoughts of two steak dinners, well-done, with potatoes on the side.
McFarlane and Morales sat at the counter and asked for their meals, but the hostess continued to clean the windows, ignoring them. The two asked again, and the woman responded, “We don’t serve your kind of people in here.”
“Ain’t no sign say black or white or nothing, we just hungry,” McFarlane said in a thick West Indies accent. “Army uniform, we figure this means something, at least we should get served.”
Two police cars with six police officers parked outside the restaurant later, and McFarlane, avoiding any confrontation, left with Morales.
The next morning at the base there was a formation, he said, and a sergeant stood out front telling the soldiers how proud they should be of their service.
“So I put my hand up and I said, ‘Can I say something?’ he said ‘Yea, go ahead’,” McFarlane said, remembering the interaction. “I said ‘Listen, this uniform don’t mean shit.’”
He went on to describe what occurred in the restaurant the day before, but the sergeant still became “red in the face” with anger at McFarlane’s comments. Saint Thomas hadn’t been devoid of prejudice either, but he said it was different there, usually based on economic class.
“But the whole thing is,” he said, “when trouble arise, everybody equal.”
If a hurricane or tornado let loose their destructive powers on the island, everybody would pitch in to help, he said.
Moving away from Saint Thomas, no less than three times, was one of the biggest changes McFarlane, 77, has experienced in his lifetime.
McFarlane first ventured out of Saint Thomas in the late 1950s, when he spent a few years in New York City working construction and paying $10 a week to share an apartment with several other men. He said his main reason for moving was just to get off the island for a while. McFarlane’s roommates took to calling him “geechee,” on account of his accent. (Geechee is another name for Gullah, referring to the creole language and people descended from slaves along the coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina).
“But then,” he said, “when they hear me sing, they could understand everything.”
And McFarlane did a lot of singing, sometimes as a full-time profession, but he usually performed on the side, while employed in other jobs. He said his talent at singing the blues is something he was born with.
A nightclub manager in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, offered McFarlane a job after hearing him sing and play the guitar with a friend on stage.
“I turned him down because New York was a little to cold for me,” he said, “and I decided I was leaving the next day.”
Parting ways with both the potential gig and cold weather for Saint Thomas, he spent a couple years performing in the Caribbean and U.S. with a calypso band called Milo and the Kings. Playing the popular Afro-Caribbean style of music sometimes brought him back to New York City. At the Central Ballroom, on 125th Street in Manhattan, he said he recognized the potency of singing from deep inside.
“One time I was singing the blues, when I really put myself into it, and this girl run out of the crowd and threw her arms around me and starting kissing me,” McFarlane said. “So I look back, and my leader said ‘Don’t stop singing, keep singing’.”
The club’s owner asked McFarlane where he learned to sing the blues like that.
“I was born with it,” he answered the owner. “I got that feeling from my [buttocks] to my head.”
Several years after McFarlane’s return to Saint Thomas, he departed again, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1964. Ostensibly for only a yearlong duty, McFarlane said he was enticed to reenlist with the promise of being stationed in Europe. He said he performed well, reaching the rank of Staff Sergeant with an artillery unit at Schweinfurt, Germany.
His Army officers and peers unsuccessfully tried to talk him into reenlisting again. McFarlane said he told them: “I’m going back to the land of sunshine.”
He received his orders discharging him from service several months late in March or February, 1968. This time, his stay back on Saint Thomas would prove to be much longer.
“In ’71 I took the test for the police department,” McFarlane said. “While I was in training, they selected about four of us to work narcotics, undercover.”
He said he then met and started dating his future wife, Valynne, who was from Connecticut. More than 20 years later, now married with a son and daughter, he uprooted his family and moved to his wife’s home state. The high schools in Saint Thomas had lost their accreditation, according to McFarlane, so they settled in Milford, paying $1,400 a month for rent, and his daughter was enrolled at the magnet school, High School in the Community.
McFarlane, however, realized he longer fit in on the Caribbean island he grew up on when he returned in 2002 for his mother’s funeral. Saint Thomas had changed, and McFarlane himself had changed in his periods living off and on the island.
“After the first two weeks, I couldn’t take it no more,” McFarlane said. “If you stay, you’ll wind up drinking with the guys or hanging out with the guys, and I didn’t feel into that no more.”
He hasn’t been back since.
“Once you go up here, it’s a different ballgame,” McFarlane said. “You change, you don’t remain the same, you know.”
The daily routine on Saint Thomas was to leave work and either go home to eat, or go to the bar, where one could drink and play dominoes. McFarlane said he was tired of that kind of life when he last returned. Saint Thomas wasn’t the same for him anymore.
“Besides,” he said, “once you move to the States and you live for a while up here, you don’t feel like living down there again.”
He said he enjoys the freedom to travel by car, bus, or train to reach distant areas of the country. Saint Thomas, after all, is a small island of barely more than 31 square miles.
“You go from one end of the island to the next end of the island, and then you turn and you gotta go back,” McFarlane said.
Other aspects of life on Saint Thomas had changed as well, he said. Sundays were peaceful, quiet days while McFarlane was growing up. An influx of residents from surrounding islands like Santo Domingo and Haiti brought with them an increase in noise.
“They open a little bar here, a little bar and a restaurant next to you here, and they congregate,” McFarlane said. “On Sunday, you see close to a hundred Latin people there, up and down the place, they’re not doing anything but drinking and they make a lot of noise.”
McFarlane is a proponent of visitors taking cues from the host country and fitting in.
“Be like them,” he said. “Quiet, peaceful, don’t get in no problem.”
He said it is an Americanism to arrive somewhere new and make a lot of noise, pushing American ways on them.
Manners, too, had fallen by the wayside on Saint Thomas, he said.
“Down in the Island,” McFarlane said, “if you go up to somebody in the street, you always have a ‘Good morning,’ or ‘Good afternoon’ before you ask a question.
His cousin, another retired Saint Thomas police officer, was visiting during the island’s annual Carnival and walked into s police station. She greeted the officer at the desk, he said, and was answered with a gruff, “Huh, what do you want?”
She said, “Excuse me?” according to McFarlane. “I used to work here, I know when you walk in here the first thing somebody tells you is, good morning, and you reply and you find out what it is you want.”
After that encounter, his cousin told him that “things changed down there.”
Though McFarlane no longer calls Saint Thomas home, and doesn’t have any desire to visit again, he can’t hide the regard he still has for it.
McFarlane pushed himself out of a chair onto his bad knees, not without some expressions of pain. He walked over to a stack of newspapers and books from Saint Thomas, and picked up “The Times of Our Lives — 100 Years in the Virgin Islands.” He thumbed through the pages of the commemorative newspaper produced by the area’s leading publication, the Daily News.
McFarlane’s face clearly displayed a sense of pride, and it was heard in the way he spoke about the people and events, as the images and headlines jogged his memory.
“This is history,” he said. “People don’t know about it.”