A Necker Island Moment, Before and After the Storm

| 11 Nov 2014 | 09:47

    My brother Jeff, who'd orchestrated the trip to Necker Island, a relative speck of land owned by entrepreneur Richard Branson, not far from Tortola and Virgin Gorda, was scheduled to spend the night before in Little Dix Bay, and then sail over to Necker to organize before everyone else arrived from various parts of the world. Jeff spoke to the woman who ran the lodging facility he and his wife Mary were scheduled to occupy and she simply said, "Pray for us. I think we'll be washed away."

    Back to New York City and the cab ride: I'm telling Junior, who along with his brother and Mrs. M had been looking forward to this expedition for almost a year, that the chances Necker would be operational were only 50-50. He scoffed at those odds and whispered in my ear, "I'm smelling Necker. It's just a feeling, but I'm smelling it! I'll bet you 10 bucks." Sure enough, later that Friday, Jeff told me that Branson's few miles of paradise had survived, with just some trees knocked down, a lot of windows blasted out and enough coconuts on the sand to build a fort. Junior called me at work after school, I told him the news, and he screamed: "Yes! I knew it!" He then cried out to Mrs. M and MUGGER III that the journey was on.

    This was my nuclear family's third successive T-Day on the road?we'd been to Nevis in '97 and San Juan in '98?and by far the most luxurious. After an uneventful American flight out of JFK to St. Thomas, where we coincidentally sat next to my niece Traie and her husband Doug, we arrived in St. Thomas, waited an eternity for luggage, bumped into my brother Randy, sister-in-law Barbara, nephew Caleb and niece Bronwen, and boarded three helicopters en route to Necker.

    There was some sort of snag about the transportation to our five-day home, and Doug was huddled with the managers for 10 minutes or so, resolving nothing, until Randy took care of the situation with about one sentence of common sense. Not that I blamed Doug one bit for the snafu; personnel at tiny airports in the Islands are, as a rule, very pokey and officious and make you jump through about 18 hoops before letting you leave their jurisdiction.

    (While I was at the carousel, a sun-beaten matron fetched her Gucci suitcase, ripped it off the line, just about knocking MUGGER III off his feet. "You shouldn't have your child so close," she sniffed. I told her to fuck off and gave her the finger as a send-off, counseling my boy that this was an extreme situation and to ignore my hostility and sailor's language.)

    Once in the air, we surveyed severe storm damage along the way, but it was a magnificent ride. I'd been in a chopper just once before: when I was 12, my parents came up with a creative birthday present, a ride around Long Island, my first time ever higher than a ferris wheel. My kids can't believe that today, given how airplane travel is so ubiquitous, but back in '67 it was still somewhat of a big deal. Past the point, I guess, of people dressing in their Sunday duds when flying, but not much. I don't think the Greyhound of the Sky really took off until Freddie Laker appeared like a comet and left cheapo outfits like World Airways in his wake.

    (World, by the way, made me a white-knuckled flier for almost two years. When I was coming back from a newspaper convention in San Francisco in 1980, the pilot crash-landed in Baltimore, jerked back in the air, with babies crying, luggage flying, people kneading their rosaries, and then calmly said, "Sorry folks, I was testing out the brakes." It wasn't until I was forced to fly in a four-seater from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo in '82, loaded on rum and cokes, that I got over that particular phobia.)

    Count Branson is a man who doesn't waste a minute of his life, whether it's hot air ballooning, challenging British Airways, creating Virgin Megastores and Virgin Cola or simply establishing this spectacular resort. The Necker complex, which has three houses and is rented out for the nine months or so Branson isn't there, has a clear but not exclusive Indonesian motif, with open-air lounges and bedrooms, bathrooms that are semi-outside and reproductions of famous Asian sculptures, with colors leaning toward orange, pink and robin's egg blue. A 46-year-old macaw natters away by the bar in the living room of the House on Devil's Hill, which is rectangular with breathtaking views of ocean and faraway mountains outside every window. The roof timbers are made of Brazilian Ipe and the floor is Yorkstone. So a bit of this culture, a bit of that, all impeccably built. (The other residences, which my two oldest brothers occupied, are called Bali Hi and Bali Lo.)

    In fact, with the cacti, palm and coconut trees and thatched roofs, at times the site resembles Gilligan's Island?if, that is, Mr. and Mrs. Howell had designed it and brought along the skilled staff of eight full-timers. (Introductions: Jay Wesley, Kristy Sexton, John Taylor, Liz Bluck, Jamie Winslow, Kathryn Aitchison, Troy Smith and Macolm Bird, a combo of Brits and Californians.)

    One day we played a game of who could throw the coconut the farthest: my brother Doug's daughter Xela was a competitor, as was his eight-year-old girl Kira. Junior, who invented the game, didn't fare as well, but more than made up for it in enthusiasm. My nephews Quinn and Rhys weren't present for this contest, but they'd have been hands down winners; and Uncle Jeff's grown daughters Jenny and Zoe were sure to let their smaller cousins come home with the blue ribbons. It was a remarkably cohesive group, and although there was a small flare-up over the meaning of "tradebacks" and "callbacks" between the New York City and London boys (don't ask me, that's a language I don't know), for a group that numbered 22, there wasn't the friction that can sour the mood of a dinner or afternoon of sailing and swimming. Maybe it was the early cocktail hour each day that mellowed everyone out?drinks running from margaritas to rum punches to martinis to a simple Bombay on the rocks have a way of smoothing over any unintentional slights.

    Of course, one night Caleb cracked up the table with stories about Traie when they were kids. Caleb, 30, had just finished sampling a 1928 bottle of red wine, was looking forward to the 1900 port and was rocking with imagination. I had MUGGER III on my lap, fascinated by Caleb's intensity. The story had Traie in a stinky diaper crawling among benevolent woodland creatures who, after shunning her, decided to make her a beautiful queen. Traie was doing a slow burn as Caleb's yarn grew more and more fantastic, like when monkeys bathed her in the scent of oranges, beavers de-matted her hair and a squadron of squirrels disposed of that dirty nappy once and for all. I'd be irritated too, but my five-year-old looked up adoringly at his cousin Caleb, asked for another story and even Traie, who had smoke coming out of her ears, cooled down and joined in with a laugh.

    Everywhere on Necker you'd see wasps?most of which didn't sting?lizards, snakes, geckos, ground doves and hummingbirds, one of whom had a real taste for breakfast preserves. Off in the distance, as I wrote on a laptop one morning, I saw a pair of pelicans flying overhead, their wings spread like they were small aircraft, suddenly diving down at jet-speed to gobble up fish in the ocean. There were also hornets, which we avoided at all costs, and fleets of moths?at night, every bed was equipped with mosquito netting. Every morning, when asked how he slept, Junior would reply, "Well, not too bad, except I've been up the last two hours because of that darn laughing gerbil." I asked for a little more explanation. "No, Dad, it's real, I saw it on the wall and he started laughing at me." A few days later, Mrs. M and I were up before the boys and heard a nocturnal bird right outside emitting a tremendous squawk. Thus The Laughing Gerbil.

    Junior also conquered his fear of large dogs when a brown Lab, one of Branson's pets, took a shine to him. Sushi would sit by him at lunch and dinner, raise her paw, and wait for handouts: Junior would let the dog lick him, a first (besides George and Wendy Tabb's Scooter), and so throughout the trip he kept on a constant lookout for this boy's best friend.

    Overstuffed couches with dozens of pillows surrounded the living room, with a pair of hammocks, a chessboard, piano, snooker table and a giant tv where the kids watched The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldfinger and a damn football game on Thanksgiving. The rough slate can be murder on bare feet?both MUGGER III and I bloodied our toes a few times during the trip?and you'd never know when a blinding storm would whip through the dining room and entertainment center, but even so the tropical setting is ideal for a large, unruly and ego-fueled crowd.

    Branson's builders and designers made sure there are activities for everyone: kayaking, jet-skiing, banana boating, waterskiing, snorkeling, windsurfing, a fully outfitted gym and workout center, and, for the faint of heart, like MUGGER, plain old swimming. There was plenty of sand to make castles with which to daydream about the future. One day, the lot of us were ferried over to Prickly Pear Island in a pair of swift motorboats?I'd like to say cigarette boats, as a true Kennebunkport-style Bush shill, but they weren't quite that slim?where we played volleyball, swam, tossed the pigskin and settled in for a lunch of conch fritters and burgers at the Island Bar. The fritters weren't much, far too bland with no hot sauce to kick them up, but just the idea was swell and a lot of the crowd wasn't tasting much anyway, with all the sixers of Carib and the blender drinks consumed on this Thanksgiving afternoon.

    As is tradition this time of year in the Smith family, as in countless other families, I'm sure, we try to guess Time's "Man of the Year," although the twist this time was "Man of the Century." Out of 16 participants, the guesses went like this: FDR, six; Churchill, three; Hitler, two; Gandhi, four; and Reagan, one. I doff my cap to the fella who picked the Great Communicator for the honor, but I don't think he quite finishes in the Top 3. In fact, while I'm sure Franklin Roosevelt will be the boring choice?if you're playing straight, come down on Churchill's side, not only for his enormous courage, brilliance and charisma, but for that famous saying that'll never be forgotten. I'm paraphrasing now, but: Winston was in a row with a straightlaced lady one night and she spat out that he was drunk. He shot back, Yes, ma'am, but in the morning I'll be sober and you'll still be ugly. It's astonishing how much Churchill accomplished given all the booze he consumed, at any time of the day.

    Hitler's out because he lost. Gandhi's the Californian choice and preempts Martin Luther King, but his legacy hasn't left much of an imprint. Teddy Roosevelt was bandied about, with his rugged individualism, his internationalism and his goading the country into a new age. But there is the matter of his trust-busting, and he's really too much of a 19th-century man for consideration. Myself, I choose the fellow who invented air conditioning. Not a particularly original thought, but think about it: If a.c. didn't make life bearable in the South and Sun Belt the entire infrastructure of the United States would be different today. Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Phoenix, L.A., Las Vegas and Dallas wouldn't be vast population centers; power would still reside in the Northeast.

    I also think a cool choice would be Babe Ruth, for a couple of reasons. One, it would aptly lampoon the entire idea of constant list-making, and who better than Time, which started a lot of this nonsense, to make fun of themselves? Also, the Babe was truly larger than life, not a snotty braggart like, say, Donald Trump, but a man who had a bad start in life, did a stint in reform school, hit it huge in an emerging sport and lived every second of it: blasting home runs, eating and drinking and whoring like it was his last day alive, the idol of every boy and of most men in the country. Now there was an unadulterated American hero: he had nothing to do with killing people or saving their lives; didn't invent a new medicine; wasn't involved in statesmanship or politics; and wasn't a brilliant man. Just a strong kid who hit the lottery in life and made the most of it.

    The ages of our group spanned from oldest brother at 57 to five-year-old MUGGER III. My boys hadn't seen their California cousins, Xela and Kira, in quite a while, though they're old buddies with Quinn and Rhys. The six youngest got along splendidly, with just a minimum of culture clash. Quite a feat, since we're talking San Luis Obispo, London and New York City. As in years past, during most of the nights after dinner there were songfests, and it was fortunate that we were the only guests on the island, so that the staff, which is paid, were the only ones who had to bear witness. An odd shift has taken place in the last five or six years, with this vacation only more pronounced because we were together for so long. After the original Smith Brothers faded out with songs from the 50s and 60s, the next generation took over, due to stamina and the ability to drink till the wee hours.

    I'm biased of course, but look at the Bros. playlist, compare it to the next generation's and you decide. We started with some Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, Del Shannon, Frankie Lymon, early Stones and Animals. When Caleb belted out "Jeremiah was a bullfrog..." I felt like I was 100 years old. And it just got worse: Police hits, the Grateful Dead, possibly Billy Joel, 90s tunes I simply don't know and on and on. I took a break with my brother Gary out by the pool and we just shook our heads in disbelief, not only for the travesty inside, but for all the memories we've shared.

    The next night a local reggae band was shipped in but I was too bushed from a day's activities to participate in the rapping, game of limbo and dancing. I read Junior a Dr. Seuss book as he went to sleep and I was amazed he could drop off with all the racket; as for me, it took five pages of another Kennedy book and the sound of Traie's husband impersonating Dr. Dre to do the trick.

    The chefs at Necker are quite astounding. Every morning the main dining room table was laden with croissants, English muffins, bagels, platters of fruit with the best pineapple I've had in a year, star fruit, red and purple grapes, mangoes, papaya and bowls of jams and cream cheese. The heartiest among us had eggs and bacon with a side of sausage; I got my oldest brother in the doghouse when I inadvertently told his wife his white egg omelet had about a pound of cheese in it.

    It was dinner when the kitchen really shined. One night it was kangaroo in a blueberry sauce with bacon on top, with lamb or red snapper as a next course; fresh mahimahi every day, conch, potato-leek soup, quail in a lime/chili vinaigrette, tuna spring rolls, beef carpaccio, tempura prawns, beef with asparagus and whipped potatoes and grilled grouper. The kids didn't do badly either, at least those who were adventurous: one night delicious baby roasted chicken, the next a quiche that was more like pizza, and then fajitas. Junior, on his usual Spartan diet, stuck to Cap'n Crunch, fries and maybe three or four bites of hamburger (not cheese, because once again, he's lactose intolerant, except for when it comes to ice cream), but MUGGER III more than made up for it with his tomato and cheese scrambled eggs, hot dogs and fried chicken, tastes of rack of lamb and the kangaroo or anything else with cheese in it.

    By Saturday night, some of the group had already departed?it was 15 hours to California and 19 to London?and so our group was a little more reserved, tuckered out from so much sun, food, gab and sporting activities. However, at lunchtime, three of my brothers and I told the remaining kids about the dining habits of the Smith Family at 123 LaRue Dr. in Huntington. Randy allowed how he'd never seen lettuce except in a porcelain bowl in the kitchen. Jeff told a story about when he first started dating his wife Mary: he went over for supper one night and Mrs. Hilderman offered him some sour cream for a baked potato. Jeff, who was so used to the sour milk that was in the home fridge (a laboratory unto itself) politely declined, thinking, "Why would anyone want something that's sour on purpose?" Gary threw in the true story of how Mom's idea of a "snack" consisted of day-old bread and jelly; the only problem was that you usually had to scrape off the crust inside the Welch's jar. For my own part, I remember how for about two years each of the five boys was limited to one soda a week, and it was always a No-Cal, a precursor to diet drinks. It was poisonous shit, but we looked forward to them just the same.

    Then there was the time that Jeff, as chairman of some event at Huntington High School, brought home over 200 sandwiches leftover from the concession stand. Yellow wrapping was for tuna salad, pink for ham?and straight into the garage freezer they went until the supply dwindled down to the last dozen or so, about a year later. Now, tv dinners were a staple of the 50s, as were canned peaches, pears and vegetables, and we had plenty of this cool new convenience, especially the fried chicken and turkey options. Trouble was, Mom would save the tins and use them for her leftover meat loaf at any dreaded time.

    Anyway, those are the old war stories that my brothers trot out each time the family's together, and the second generation is usually patient in putting up with the dashes of hyperbole, although I swear most of it's true. I'm still not sure if Randy was exaggerating when he claimed to write a letter of complaint to Alpo when the dog food he ate in his penniless college days was too gritty, but it sounds pretty plausible to me. We all raised toasts to the family's fortune and how no one among us, unless it's their wish, has to eat canned fruit cocktail ever again.

    November 29

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