Puerto Rico

I have few images of my three years in Puerto Rico.  I do, however, have many memories.  I was in the 7th, 8th, & 9th grades of school (1961 - 1964) - a hard time for many, for me the hard times came later.  Puerto Rico was an adventure.

Until I was 20 I was constantly around airplanes, my father was in the US Air Force and we had ample opportunity for plane viewing.  At various times I was very familiar with B-52’s, KC-135’s, and U-2’s - for instance.

One of my vivid memories is of my first airplane flight (when I was 11), from Charleston, South Carolina, USA to Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico (now closed).  Our family was flying down for a three-year tour and the plane that took us was a “Connie” - a Lockheed Constellation (photo below from the Pima Air and Space Museum).


Enroute I noticed smoke coming from an engine and the flaps moving up and down - I asked my Dad what that was about.  He looked at the engine and without the least bit of concern said, “It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.”  I watched for the rest of the flight, I wasn’t scared, not because of what my Dad said but because of his demeanor.

We landed at Ramey, pulling up in front of what I would later learn was the hanger where my Dad worked.  As we walked down the steps a band played “America the Beautiful” (like, I soon  learned, they did for all arrivals) and behind us a fire truck was busy spraying down the engine.

Over the next three years I was to spend many hours in that hangar.  I visited my Dad often at work and at one time we had an after-hours job scrubbing floors in the place - I knew that hangar.  I would often watch as a new group of base residents would walk down the stairs from the plane.  It was from the balcony of the  hangar that I watched U-2 pilots walk to their aircraft, dressed in “space suits” and carrying their personal air conditioners.  The U-2s were magnificent, truly beautiful airplanes.  Their long slender wings had to be held up by runners as they taxied and began their take-off.  They would swish over the base in total silence then ignite their engine and scream straight into the heavens.  


While I was in Puerto Rico my father helped move the material which was used to build the Arecibo site - the world’s largest dish telescope.  He would periodically go to the site and report back about the incredible and mysterious work which was going on in the mountains.  Now it is used for a variety of research activities and as a movie set at times (James Bond and such) but for me, for me - it is a place of my childhood.  (Photo from the observatory’s official site.)  (Update from December 2020.  The antenna has now collapsed.)

My father was a non-commissioned officer (NCO), that meant that we were poor, that meant that we were close to the bottom of the military serf system, that meant a good many things.

Ramey had base housing for those who qualified, as an NCO family we did not qualify at first.  Our first home was off-base near the town of Aquadilla.  Our home was on a small coral spur off the main road.  It was concrete, consisted of a living room of about 15’ x 20’, two bedrooms of about 10’ x 10’, an attached wooden room which served as kitchen.  Outside there was an outhouse.  Into this space we fit Mom, Dad, and four boys - I was the oldest.

The spur from the main road was a one-lane track which would challenge many a four-wheel-driving urban dweller today.  It was “coral bed rock”, everything was built on coral bed rock until you reached the bottom of the small hill were there was dirt - and sugar cane fields.  Thirty feet up the hill there was another house of about the same size as ours in which a young couple lived.  At the junction of the spur and main road there was a large house where the family made brooms of various sizes and shapes from palm fronds - something I got rather good at doing. Across the spur there was an open field where guinea fowl and a donkey roamed.  In the back of the house there was a henequen hedge which separated the three houses along the spur from a banana field. 

Our front yard was undulating coral and no soil.  My Mom, however, loved flowers so we dug “pots” into the coral with a pick-axe and filled them with soil and phosphorus we pilfered from the sugar cane fields.  She filled the many pots with zinnias, she loved zinnias.  The coral pots we chopped into the front yard were easy compared to our major upgrade effort - a new outhouse - a two-holer.  The hole was deep and big, we chopped the coral with the pick and loaded the small pieces into a bucket, eventually the bucket had to be hauled upward by rope.  The wood for the structure had mysteriously appeared from the base.  Making do. 

Although the Air Force gave us little it did give me the opportunity to see and experience many places and things which many others never do (or have).  It also provided a first-class education.  During school session we (myself and two of my brothers - Mike and Terry) would walk up the spur to the main road and wait for the school bus which came from the base to take us to school.  The travels to and fro made for a long day.

We would wait for the school bus at the rum shack which was across from the spur on the main road.  Rum shacks dot the island of Puerto Rico they are small (generally wood) structures which were about 15’ x 15’ in size.  All rum shacks are owned and operated by Col. (fill in your choice of Spanish last names). There are a lot of colonels on the island.  These small stores sold the basics, what I remember most was that they sold Malta India and Malta Corona.  They were non-alcoholoic sodas which smelled like beer.  In writing this piece, I found that you can buy Malta India on Amazon.  (Uncommon Caribbean has a great review of this stuff.) Strong smells can last long in our memories and when I recall the smell of this stuff I always get nauseous.  One morning we were invited behind the rum shack to witness the gutting of a pig, that made me nauseous as well.

Which brings us to bread - why bread you ask - because the rum shack is where we would go to wait for the bread guy.  He would come along leading his donkey which carried many loaves of fresh baguettes (or as we would call it - French Bread).  A long baguette fresh out of the burlap bag was worth the wait and worth the assignment to spend a bit of change.

The rum shack was also the local distributor of the kerosene which my mom used in the small camp stove that was our kitchen.

When it came time to eat the bread I, or my brothers, would be dispatched to find the youngest of the crew - Britt who was still young enough to walk unsteadily and not be thought drunk.  It was a different time, we roamed at will and there was none of the fear that pervades our society today.  Finding Britt was not difficult, however, especially if the air was heavy with the smell of rice and beans from next door.  Britt loved rice and beans.  When its smell filled the air he was off, we would find him sitting at the table of the young couple eating a large helping of rice and beans.  We spoke little Spanish, the couple spoke little English, but there was a definite fondness between our families and after verifying his presence at their table we would wander home with our report and dinner - with instructions to fetch him when we were through with our meal.

The male of the couple next door was very accurate with a rock sling and on one occasion he knocked a mongoose unconscious and was set to dispatch the creature which was raiding his chicken coop.  I think it was Terry who was upset with this possibility and wanted to keep the mammal as a pet.  So we found some wood, quickly built a sturdy box and placed the mongoose inside.  Everyone, except Terry, doubtful about the endeavor.  The next morning we found the box empty and a hole where the mongoose had eaten its way out.

We did not roam far from the house.  Generally we went no farther than the sugar cane fields below, a place to go to gather soil, fertilizer, and the occasional stalk of cane.  An unpleasant place of tall grass, easily twice as tall as we were and spiders - big spiders.  It was also the place to harvest an “occasional stalk of cane”.  For the proper poaching, cut a stalk then cut that stalk into several foot and a half sections - being sure that the stalk joints were close to one end or the other.  Tuck them under your arm and return home.  At home you can take your time to strip off the outer layer of the cane and chew on the sweet innards until your teeth root.

Once a strong storm blew one of the banana trees next door onto the henequen hedge.  There was a stalk of green bananas growing on the plant and I took a paring knife from the kitchen and slowly hacked the stalk off.  I knew this was not the correct thing to do but the glory of all of those bananas.  Like many a young thief I misjudged the obvious evidence.  I took the stalk into the bedroom I shared with my brothers and “hid” it under the bunk that I shared with one of my brothers.  The owners of the tree made a big deal of the event, I professed my innocence, and my mother found the bananas - a banana stalk under an army-sized bunk is not really that hard to find.  My parents coughed up the cost of the bananas…

Eugenia uniflora fruits

There was a small tree (Eugenia uniflora) which managed to grow from the coral in the front yard.  It was one of the varieties which produces a yellow fruit, quite tart.  On one occasion I fell out of the tree while gathering some of the fruit from the top, landing on my back - on the coral.  The fall knocked the wind out of me and was rather frightening.  (Photograph of a red variety courtesy of Guilherme Barbaresco - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29958841).

There was a boy of roughly my own age who lived in the “broom factory house” at the top of the hill.  The family bought palm fronds, split them, and shaped them into brooms of various types and size.  I would often sit under the porch of their house with the rest of his family and shred the fronds into the “straws” which made the broom.  My friend introduced me to my first language trauma.  One day we decided to play some football and we went to our respective houses to fetch our footballs.  On reconvening for the game we stood in amazement looking at what each had brought back, if that wasn’t enough we each found that the other guy had not a clue about the rules of the game.

From this small house we moved to a very large house in the middle of sugar cane and cattle fields near Isabella.  Much was the same here with a few exceptions.  The coral road spur we lived at the end of was about a half mile long.  At the junction with the main road there was a rum shack much as described above, although as I remember the kerosene containers which we carried back and forth were larger and we hardly ever drove the car over the road - much too rugged.  The school bus stopped for us at the rum shack.

I would often go out along the coral road and sit and wait for my Dad to come home.  We would walk the last quarter of a mile to the house in silence, a very special time for me.  I came to think that I had a mental connection with my father because as I sat I would sense that it was time to stand up and I would see him walking up a hill toward me.  I suppose it was the timing, he “carpooled" to work with other airmen who lived in the area and their quit time was pretty set. There were significant levels of disability in the local population, things like elephantiasis.  There was a local guy with a deformed skull and significantly reduced mental capacity.  We would often see each other along the road and although friendly enough he could be quite scary.

The house was the family estate of a Doctor who then lived in San Juan.  The bottom level was used to store his family’s unused items.  A broad set of stairs led to a broad long porch which fronted the main level of the house.  Stairs on the other side of the house led to the top story which consisted of a single room at the end of the structure.  A large water cistern was at the end of the house opposite the stairs to the main floor.  The porch opened onto a large yard where my parents had a large garden.  Surrounding the house on three sides were the sugar cane fields.  My life tended to be focused on the area defined by the porch.  During the rains the porch was a beautiful cool place to sit, or better yet there was the area below the porch.  A long area about eight feet wide and six feet high, covered by the porch.  A perfect place to build cities and canals while “playing cars” with your younger siblings.

Before the sugar cane harvest they would burn the cane fields to rid them of as much loose debris as possible.  This was a bad time for my mom who was at the house all day and had to live through all of the smoke.  Perhaps worse from her perspective were the large cane spiders which were driven from the fields by the fires and swarmed the house.  She did not seem to mind the lizards which were everywhere.

Terry, Mike, and myself would roam the cattle fields in the area and set out mapping the area and claiming specific parts for our “empires”.  This rather human inclination (and that is not a positive statement) came to an end when I unilaterally announced the acquisition of large parts of my brother's empires.  Conflict ensued.  My parents deemed an end to empires and empire building (wouldn’t be nice if all of humanity had parents).

We lived at the two houses above for about six months each.  At the end of that time an opening occurred in the FHA housing on base, these were the housing units for NCO’s and consisted of townhouse units.  It was a pretty setting in an isolated area of the base, far enough away that school buses came to take us to class.  It was here that I had my first paying jobs, cutting lawns with a push mower and trimming the hibiscus hedges which surrounded each yard with a machete.  This was my introduction to one of the most useful tools in the tropics, a good sharp machete is an essential part of living in the rural tropics.

This is the first time I remember large mango and breadfruit trees, they grew everywhere.  Flamboyant trees (Delonix regia) grew in every yard.  This was a beautiful place, the Air Force ensured that the yards were kept in a manicured fashion (as in steady employment for a boy with a push mower and a machete). In the fields that surrounded the housing cattle were allowed to graze and their were small guava trees.  Mangos and guavas were my boyhood fruits of choice at this time.

The breadfruit were a bit of a mystery, quite unlike other trees I had seen.  They were large trees, tall (60’ - 70’) with a thick trunk and massive branches.  The leaves were larger than anything I had seen before.  The fruit on these trees weighed about five pounds, you did not want to be under a breadfruit tree when fruit fell.  And just as bad, the fruit made a gooey mess in the area below the trees.

The mangos were a different matter entirely.  True the mango fruit is large and falls from a substantial height, but they are good to eat - at that time in my life I preferred them green.  The mango trees here were as tall as the breadfruit trees and their trunks were just as thick.  About fifteen feet above the ground they would branch and it was in one of the areas where many branches extended from a truck that friends and I built a “magnificent” tree house.  A great place to play house with a girl friend until her father decided that he did not like the idea.  It was an argument about this tree house which resulted in a 2”x4” board landing squarely on the side of my head and three stitches.  When I hunted down the culprit and pushed him through a hedge, he had carefully avoided me for several weeks following the effort to knock some sense into me, I learned - once again, about the serfdom of the military - my father, being of lower rank was chastised roundly for not having control of his children.

The mosquito trucks would drive through the housing unit every night spraying DTD.  We would run behind the trucks, in and out of the billowing smoke.

I would ride my bike through the housing units in the evening and quite frankly I still remember being serenaded with Bobby’s Girl, I just don’t remember what the girl’s name was who sang to me.

After a year, we moved to the main housing units on the base for NCO’s, these were single level duplexes with larger yards and the ability to walk to school, or the base theater, or…

This was my freshman year of high school.  I was on the varsity wrestling team - super light weights and finished second in the Puerto Rican wrestling tournament.  Being on the wrestling team meant long hours of training, lots of conditioning runs - generally to Crash Boat Beach where the crash boats were stationed in case of a plane crash.  It was a long run down the cliff to the beach, longer back up the road and to the high school.  It was a bit surreal to be running up the road and suddenly see a B-52 take off, dropping below the cliff edge before it began to gain altitude, all of this within a hundred meters of where I was running.  Crash Boat Beach was where we once had a “company picnic”, lots of free food, and a good dose of cactus spins for those running about in the sand without shoes.  The finals of the state wrestling tournament were held at the base gym and it was a painful reminder of a psychological defect I have.  I was wrestling this kid from Mayagüez, he was much stronger than I but I had more skill.  I did not use that skill for fear of what would happen if I failed to get it right - so I failed, losing by a point.  My lack of weight is apparent in the photo below.

Ramey Wrestling Team

Crash Boat Beach was not the only beach of my Puerto Rican experience.  A few hundred yards from our house in the main part of the base was the security fence which ran along the top of the cliff.  'Knowing kids', but perhaps not the base security force, knew of an undercut of the fence which provided access to a way down to the beach.  A very steep trail involving a lot of hanging on to branches and roots.  At the bottom, however, was a beautiful beach with tide pools large and small.  Not having a swimming suit I would venture into the larger pools in my gym shorts.  If girls showed up I stayed in the pools a long time, gym shorts apparently become transparent - or at least translucent - when wet.  Our favorite “family beach” was along the north shore of the island not far from the base.  The area is now full of resorts but back then we had the place to ourselves.  We called this particular beach ‘submarine beach’ because there was a rock which looked like the cunning tower of a submarine which is surfacing - especially when the waves crashed over it and ran down the sides.  This was a beautiful beach with sandy stretches, tide pools, and space to roam.  The waves crashed where they met the sand, deep water close to shore and wicked undertows.  On one occasion I was watching the waves when Britt suddenly dashed for them, he was a distance away but I managed to catch him just as a wave crashed on us, I held on tight and then felt a hand grab my arm and my Dad pulled us from what would probably have been our deaths.  We visited that beach several times after that but it was never much fun for me.  I had had nightmares, in a bit of transference, it was my father who was swept out to sea.  Whenever we returned to the beach, I would follow my father - at a discrete distance - as he roamed about, making sure he was okay.

This particular beach had a stream which ran down from the hills above, easy to cross - but not to wade through.  We were constantly warned about the danger of liver flukes in the water.

There were fewer lawn cutting and hedge trimming jobs on the main base, not that the requirements for manicured lawns were different - maybe it was that I had other things to do.  Like sell subscriptions to the "Reader’s Digest”.  Which brought in ‘good money’.  It also brought headaches when Reader’s Digest was less than diligent about fulfilling their subscriptions.  In any case, I had some spending money and I began coin collecting.  Puerto Rico was a great place for coin collecting because there were a lot of old coins in circulation.  For those who had money and transport a popular approach was simply to go to the banks on the island - the farther away from Ramey or San Juan the better - and buy rolls of coins - reward was assured.  There was a base coin club and I dutifully attended the monthly meetings.  Although I no longer collect coins, I appreciate them, their history, and their beauty.

The base theater was, as was true of all base theaters at that time, inexpensive.  There were periodic events where there was a showing of a movie, the title of which was kept secret.  One such show turned out to be “West Side Story”.  For weeks, all of the kids in the know walked around with a swagger, snapping their fingers, and singing little snippets like “when you’re a jet”…. I admit to still doing that from time to time.

We walked to school, no buses here.  I remember little about my school experience at Ramey except a few experiences which affected me deeply.  My science teacher took me under her arm and when I won a prize at the base science fair transported me and my display to Mayagüez for the regional fair.  The second thing I remember is developing a distinct dislike for the study of foreign languages (in this case Spanish).  To this day, my tongue can not be made to make all of the sounds of English much less Spanish, German, or…. 

Almond trees were common on the main base.  These are small trees.  The almond nut lies in the middle of a hard husk which is surrounded by fleshy meat until it falls from the tree and dries out.  What that biological sequence means for freshman boys is that there is a ready supply of things to throw at each other.  And, I might add, the throwing of an almond is a work of art.  Its weight changes significantly as it dries out, fresh fruit flew true and fast but was generally forbidden ammo - too messy.  It was the lighter crop which was allowed and they did not travel far, fast, or true - but there were techniques…

We were at Ramey during the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’.  Soon after it began all of the school children on the base were summoned to the base auditorium where the Base Commander briefed us on the situation.  Lacking any bedside manner he informed us that a warning would not be given should the Cubans launch missiles at us - and that we were a prime target - because the time from rocket lift off to impact was less than half a minute.  He also told us that the B-52’s were being kept airborne with double crews until further notice, a matter of personal interest for many of the kids in the auditorium.  He did not explain why we were a prime target if the B-52’s were not on the ground.

I was not a political animal at that time but I had recognized the overt bigotry and stupidity of the right in the previous election.  That happened when a Sunday school teacher informed us that no one should vote for Kennedy because he would take orders from the Pope.  I returned home and informed my Mom that I was through with that tripe, she did not argue.  Then we, somehow, got through the Cuban thing and I was accepting of Kennedy as a reasonable President (remember such things?).  When he was assassinated I cried.  It was a sad day for America.

We would sometimes go for Sunday drives.  I enjoyed the drives into the highlands; narrow roads through the hilly jungle, lots of rum shacks and fruit stands.  The fruit stands sold small bananas we called ‘lady fingers’ and oranges with very thick skins, both being the finest examples of their type I have ever experienced.  We had to drive through the low lands to get to the hills and during sugar cane harvest this was problematic.  All of the roads were narrow two lane and high centered so that the rain drained off.  The sugar cane trucks which hauled cane to the refineries were loaded much too high.  Thus, they were also high centered and they would not deviate from driving down the middle of the road, tires on each side of the central ‘hump’.  So when a sugar cane truck was met on the road, you had to get off the road, generally there were no shoulders.

A school field trip took us to a sugar cane refinery.  The wretched smell of raw sugar was everywhere but the mounds of sugar, thirty or forty foot cones of brown were simply amazing.

Our stay in Puerto Rico ended with a bus ride to San Juan and my first flight on a jet, a Boeing 707.  From San Juan to New Orleans to Los Angeles.

© Robert Barnes 2023-2024