By April, Dad had his backers in place and $300,000.00 sitting in the bank. I couldn’t believe the speed with which this was coming together and was stunned when Dad said it was time to start thinking about putting our staff together.
When it came to a Chief Pilot, we both agreed that position had to go to Brandon. The whole Island-Airline idea had originated with Mike. He was the one who learned about the British Virgin Islands needs, and he had the experience to get us up and running.
There was only one problem. Shortly after our return to Canada, Brandon decided he’d had enough of teaching Pre-Pubic kids to fly and had gotten himself a highly-prized job flying twin-engined aircraft in northern Quebec. The experience he got there would quickly allow Brandon to move into a high-paying airline job … so I doubted he would be interested in our lesser-paying, high-gamble “job offer.”
But when I called Brandon and told him the deal, he only had one question …
“Pre-Pubic, is this on the level? And so help me, God, I’ll wring your scrawny little neck if you’re making this up.”
“No, Mike,” I answered. “Dad’s put together a group of backers, and your first job would be to pick up our Beech 18 Airliner in Mexico City.”
“Give me a sec, would you?” Mike said.
I thought he might be running the idea by his long-suffering wife, Betty, but instead, I heard Brandon yell, “Hey, you Bastards. I quit.”
“Be there tomorrow morning,” said Mike.
And he was.
Quitting my job at Central Film Services hadn’t been that hard. Officially I was an “Assistant Film Editor.” Unofficially, I did little more than splice film together for the real Editors who did the creative work. My boss, Stan Cole, had been particularly supportive. “How often are you going to get a chance like this?” he said. “Go for it. I would.”
Bob Koblovsky had been my best friend for years, but when he heard I was quitting my job and tossing away my editing career for some mad scheme – that was flimsy at best – he got downright angry with me.
The following day he turned up at my office, saying he wanted to go along.
We couldn’t imagine going off on an adventure like this without our mutual friend, Jimmy Bradley, so we set off for the basement apartment where he lived with his parents. Jimmy was in bed when we arrived and refused to wake up long enough to hear the latest mad plan we’d concocted. We ignored his objections and told him anyway, but when he heard we were going to live in the Virgin Islands, he hurled obscenities at us and told us to go away.
We declined the suggestion and jumped up and down on his bed instead.
Jimmy tried to ignore us, but when it became obvious we wouldn’t leave, he simply said, “If I say, I’ll go – will you let me sleep?”
“Yup,” we answered.
“Then I’ll go,” said Jim. “Now LEAVE ME ALONE.”
We left immediately because we knew Jimmy was an honest man. If he said he was going, he was.
And he did.
As our charter turboprop touched down on the runway at Virgin Gorda (The Fat Virgin,) we couldn’t wait to get our first glimpse of the airport that would soon be home to our very own airline. But by the time the plane took off, a few short minutes later, all we wanted to do was fly back to Canada as fast as we could.
Virgin Gorda’s “runway” was a level area of gravel and sand. Its “Terminal” was an open shack, which would provide little more than a bit of protection from a tropical deluge.
To say we were disappointed was an understatement.
The owner of The Lord Nelson Inn – my father’s BVI partner – picked us up in one of the Island’s ubiquitous Mini-Mokes and drove us back to his hotel, located far from the water, in the middle of the dusty island.
Shortly after supper, Lord Nelson asked how we would be paying for our room.
“Um … Excuse me?” I said. “Dad told me you’d be able to put us up until we get the airline up and running.”
“Don’t know where he got that idea,” said Lord Nelson pleasantly. “I’m sure I can come up with some long term agreement once we’re in business, but until then, I’m afraid it’s cash or credit card.”
“Ah,” I replied.
The next morning we watched Virgin Gorda retreat into the distance as our Ferry crossed the waters to BVI’s capital, Road Town, on the island of Tortola. Dad had arranged for a meeting with the Island’s Governor, and as I wanted to make a good impression, I was wearing a suit and tie. This lead to a lot of strange looks from the Islanders, including the Governor, who wore shorts and an open shirt to our meeting.
Despite the near-heat-prostration I was suffering, the meeting went well. The Governor had arranged our charter, and we would be ready to go just as soon as our plane arrived … and the government fee was paid. I promised I’d get that money from Canada right away, shook hands with the man, re-joined Bob and Jimmy, then tore off my tie and jacket.
Some friendly B.V. Islanders gave us the valuable information that the cheapest place to live in the Virgins – while we waited for our airline to start – was to cross back to the American islands where we could rent a tent and live for next to nothing.
That turned out to be good information and our only real regret was that we hadn’t arrived a week earlier. If we had, the neighbouring tents would have housed Cass Elliott, John & Michelle Phillips, & Denny Doherty – “The Mamas & Papas” themselves – who had been “living on their American Express Card” until they’d finally been forced to return to LA.
We didn’t know that at the time. All we knew was, it appeared we were living in Paradise!
The campgrounds on St. John were located right next to one of the most beautiful beaches in the Islands. The long curve of white sand was protected from the deep ocean by an offshore reef, and the underwater scenery was spectacular!
This was Skin Diving heaven and we were in the water within minutes of our arrival. The first time I stuck my head under water, I could barely believe my eyes. It seemed as if one could see as far below the surface as you could above. And there was a lot to see. The lagoon was home to an extraordinary variety of sea life.
The sunset was spectacular, as it always seems to be in the tropics, but as soon as the sun was gone, we were attacked by a cloud of sand flies. When we discovered their bites hurt, we ran for the safety of our tent. And it was only after we’d sealed the door and killed the last marauding insect that we realized we dare not set foot outside again.
On this night, we were so tired we didn’t care. But by the following day, we began to realize that living in paradise had severe limitations – especially during the tropical summer.
During the day, we had to go in the water – had to. The blistering heat made it impossible to stay too long on the shore. As soon as the sun set we had to – had to – run for the tent. If we stayed outside, the sand flies would eat us alive.
To make matters worse, the “tuck shop” at the campgrounds had a very limited assortment of food and drink for sale, all of which came at exorbitant prices. But as we couldn’t afford a rental car, we had little choice. The other truly troubling discovery was that the store had sold out of suntan lotion and wasn’t expecting any new supplies until the following week.
I wasn’t too worried about this. After all, I was spending most of my days Skin Diving. What I hadn’t thought through was the fact that, when you’re snorkeling, most of your body is underwater – all, that is, except your back.
By the evening of the second day, Bob and Jimmy said they could almost read from the glow of my sunburned back. And while I tried staying out of the water the following day, I didn’t last more than 15 minutes before the intolerable heat drove me back in.
Sometime around lunch, I decided I couldn’t take much more, so I headed for the pay phone and called my Father for an update on our situation. By now, Brandon should have paid for the plane and might very well be on his way from Mexico City. That’s what I was hoping to hear … but instead, my Father spoke these interesting words:
“I’m afraid I have bad news, Son …”
“Oh,” I said. “What’s that?”
“Well, it turns out one of our investors is an embezzler.”
“Oh dear,” I responded – wondering how this might affect our current situation.
“Yes … and … well … I’m afraid he managed to get at our money.”
“How much?” I asked, with increasing interest.
“$300,000.00,” said Dad.
“Ah … so that would be all of it.”
“I’m afraid so,” he responded.
Passing this news on to Bob and Jimmy wasn’t the easiest thing I’d done. I tried getting in touch with Brandon, but by then he and his wife Betty had climbed down the fire escape in the back of their Mexico City hotel, pooled all the money they had left and bought bus tickets back to Canada.
They only had enough cash to get to Calgary, so that’s where they went. (Brandon became an Air Traffic Controller, Betty went back to nursing, and they still live there today!)
As for us … the prospect of returning home with our tail between our legs – a little more than a week after we’d gone “to live in the Islands for the rest of our lives” – was pretty hard to bear. But with few other choices, we scraped together enough money for a one way ticket to New York on “Trans-Caribbean Airlines.”
The DC-8 that flew us back north must have been one of the very first built. The old airliner shook and shuddered from the moment it took off (at which point, most of the overhead bins popped open showering the screaming passengers with their baggage.)
The three of us sat in angry silence for most of the flight and didn’t really say much until we realized a) we were overdue, and b) the plane sure was doing a lot of banking. I peered curiously out the window and was surprised to see the lights from several other airliners circling below us … and overhead. A few minutes later, the Captain announced that weather had closed down New York City and we were being diverted to Newark, New Jersey.
We must have been running on fumes by the time the jet finally landed … but our troubles weren’t over as the plane barely managed to clear the runway before being forced to halt behind the long line of diverted planes in front. It would be another three long hours before we finally got off the plane and by then, the mood of everyone on board can best be described as “homicidal.”
We made our way through the humid terminal to the Trans-Caribbean carousel and patiently waited for our bags. An hour later we were still waiting and the passengers appeared to be seriously considering doing bodily harm to Trans-Caribbean’s lone employee. The woman was starting to look afraid by some of the threats being hurled her way, and it was just about then that I noticed a tractor-towed line of baggage carts parked nearby.
“Can’t someone unpack the plane with that thing?” I asked.
“Sure – if you can find someone to drive it,” she said.
Bob, Jimmy and I thought about this for a moment, looked at each other, then headed off towards the tractor. We were actually trying to start the machine when a harried-looking ramp-man rushed over and asked what the hell we were doing. We explained the situation, then asked if he could drive the tractor. He told us he could but was on his way to unload another airliner.
“Hmm. Well you’d better explain that to them,” we said – pointing to the 150 angry trans-Caribbean passengers glaring in his direction.
The poor man literally gulped then said, “But I can’t unload it myself…”
“You won’t have to,” I said as we motioned him towards the driver’s seat of the little tractor.
It seems hard to believe in this post-9/11 world, but no one questioned the driver as he towed Bob, Jimmy and me out to the DC-8. And after the Driver opened the cargo door and left us on our own, no one said a word as the three of us unloaded the airliner ourselves.
And when we drove the full baggage carts back into the terminal, our triumphant entry was announced by the loud cheering of our fellow passengers.
To put icing on the cake, Trans-Caribbean’s rep was so relieved not to be lynched that she gave Bob, Jimmy and me free meal coupons – and travel vouchers that got us from Newark Airport to Grand Central Station. And there, we scraped enough together for train tickets to Montreal.
I have always thought that the early part of my life ended on that train platform in Montreal. Bob couldn’t face the humiliation of returning home so soon and decided to go and live with his grandparents in Quebec City.
Jimmy and I tried to talk him out of it, but Bob’s mind was made up … so our triumvirate ended there and then, leaving Jimmy and I to travel back to Toronto in relative silence … lost as we were in the overwhelming question: “What do we do now?”
Watch for Episode 14 of Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
“Enter The Widget,” on Sunday, June 27th, 2010.
Abridged excerpt from Glenn Norman’s book, “Living On Stolen Time”.
Due for release in the fall of 2010.