The funeral will likely be the biggest ever seen on St John. A motorcade of late-model cars will wind its way over the island’s sun-struck hills to deliver dignitaries and politicians who’ve come from St. Thomas to pay their last respects to their old teacher. The old Moravian church overlooking bucolic Coral Bay will be packed with people crowded around its stately arched doors and windows, down its broad flight of yellow brick steps. A little before the last long-drawn-out burial hymn keens to a close, the crowd will start shifting to the Sputnik Bar, where the women will serve food while the men, in traditional, dark woolen suits, stand in clusters under the blazing sun, Heinekens in hand, discussing the deceased. “What do you think, Mr. Benjamin?” I said, looking up from this manuscript. “Is that first paragraph too stark? Anticipating your demise?””No, mon! ‘T’is pure Twain.””Excuse me?””Twain, Mark Twain. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn attending their own funerals. I love it,” he said. “Everybody should have their funeral while they can still enjoy it.”A breeze from the nearby harbor rustled the leaves of the gri-gri tree overhead. “Shade and a sea breeze – God’s air conditioning,” he said contentedly. “Go on, keep reading.” Somewhere in the Bible it says that the days of man are numbered three score years and ten. If so, it must be one chapter of the Bible he hasn’t observed, because at 95 years old, Mr. Guy Henry Benjamin has all faculties oiled and humming – especially his brain. Now frail, his skin stretched tightly over his prominent cheekbones, his eyes large and luminous, his head bare, he reminds one of Gandhi without the glasses. Like Gandhi, he lives very simply. During his illustrious career he had the opportunity to feather his nest by siphoning off federal largesse. He chose instead to keep his wants minimal, to live in a very small house stuffed with books; a few goats and a large wandering goose have provided company. Benjamin was born to humble stock in a flourishing village tucked into the lee of the rugged peninsula of East
End. Subsistence farming, fishing and artisanry were the ways most people made their living. In an age when few were literate, Guy Benjamin was something of a prodigy, learning to read when he was 3. He had an idyllic childhood, swimming for hours a day in the clear sea, helping the rest of the village pull the long seine nets to shore, and climbing trees with friends to gather the day’s freshest fruit for his grandmother, who raised him after his mother died. When he came to attend the little, one-room East End schoolhouse, he excelled in his studies – so much so that lodgings were found for him in St Thomas where he could attend grades 7 through 12.”As the day came to sail off to St. Thomas, my grandmother took me aside and told me, ‘Guy, you will never be big enough to work with your back, loading the sloops with sand and gravel, but you would be a fine janitor.’ Such was my start in the school system.”At 16, Guy Benjamin was the first St. Johnian to graduate from high school – as valedictorian, no less – and was sent to relieve the pregnant teacher at John’s Folly and Hard Labor, two remote settlements on the western shore of Coral Bay. Forty years later he was the superintendent of schools for St. Thomas and St. John, having taught a couple of generations of Virgin Islanders along the way, while picking up a bachelor’s degree in classics and a master’s from NYU in English literature. Meanwhile, St. John went from donkeyback to Lear jet, almost in one generation. Construction of new houses and villas by wealthy “continentals” kept the island booming even when recessions stalled the stateside economy. Mr. Benjamin, seeing the writing on the wall, wrote a book to capture the traditional culture’s beauty before it vanished; Me and My Beloved Virgin
is his legacy. Written in glowing cadences, it is often witty and filled with wordplay, using the King’s English or deep Calypso, according to his purpose. In short takes he sketches vivid memories – “The Hurricane,” “The Wedding,” “The Tidal Wave.” The stories serve as an anthropological treatise and spot-on primer of Virgin Islands dialect, steeping the reader in time and place, drawing him in and making him realize that – when the hurricane strikes and roofs go shrieking into the night – we are all brothers under the skin, trembling under the same sentence. “My grandmother expressed it well,” Mr. Benjamin told me. “She would say, ‘I can’t get my food swallow if we have and I think some other person has not.'”Then he added, “If we were poor, we didn’t know it. I thought I was the luckiest boy in the world.” Today, 80 years later, the excited young boy has morphed into the gaunt, ancient figure with the respect of his entire community; the Coral Bay public school bears his name and he still directs the choir in his beloved Moravian church. In pleasant weather you may find him under the gri-gri tree by the road to East End, selling and autographing copies of his book while chatting with passersby. Frequently consulted as the voice of wisdom, a petition with his name atop the list will persuade many to sign without bothering to read it. Two or three years ago there was a report that the Moravian church regional headquarters in Antigua was going to sell the Coral Bay church’s land – extremely valuable property – to developers for a marina, 150 hotel rooms, condos and a shopping mall, right in the heart of quiet little Coral Bay. Rumors swirled like whirlwinds in the ensuing uproar. Inevitably, Mr. Benjamin’s opinion was called upon. He seemed stung and angry in public on his way to a meeting with the principals, where he let it be known that he and the Coral Bay church members stood unalterably opposed to the project, which died an unmourned death. Without Mr. Benjamin’s moral authority, the results might have been quite different. No mere lawyer or politician could have done the same – only an icon would do.
St John lost a giant this week.