AN INTRODUCTION TO BEING
The phone rang, and Barbara the secretary informed me that my brother
Garth was on the phone. I glanced up at the clock and noted that it was
12:20 p.m. I said to myself, "That was kind of quick!"
In reaching for the phone I said, "Wa hapin sah?"
He responded, "Bouy dem decide fi let me out a here."
My response was, "OK, Dr. Vaz. I guess that was another way of
On this date in question 27 January 1989 at noon, Garth was supposed
to meet with the Academic Status Committee to decide his fate. Instead
Dr. Hill met with Garth to tell him that they voted in favor of him
graduating. He told me that he wanted to meet with them to thank them,
but he was too overwhelmed and went back to his room.
My immediate question to him was, "Thank them for what?"
He replied, "You re right."
After I hung up the phone from speaking with him, I was suddenly
pushed back in time to when it all started--to the night of 5 October
1947, on the Caribbean island of Jamaica, in the parish of Westmoreland,
in the little village of Bluefields, in a section that was nicknamed
Sabbito. That night my sisters Lois, four; Pansy, two; and myself, then
six, were placed in a bedroom to the west of the house to sleep in
preparation for an event I was not quite aware of at the time.
As we slept, all three of us were awakened by a cry I could not
positively identify. I could not tell whether it was coming from a cat
or a baby. Factually speaking, a baby was the furtherest thing from my
mind until my sister Lois cried out, Mamma has a baby! Mamma has a baby!
Without further aging, we all bolted toward the door of the room from
which the strange sound was coming. We were graciously stopped by
someone standing guard at the door.
That someone was none other than the midwife, Nurse Parchment, who
had come to perform yet another act of kindness. She had delivered all
three of us without charging, and this night she was on another mission
of gratis. This time, however, she risked her own life by being there.
The only means of transportation she had to answer the call was a
drunken driver. The distance from White House, where she lived, to
Sabbito was almost ten miles, so walking was out of the question.
From the time she stepped into the automobile in White House until
the time she stepped out in Sabbito, she had several near brushes with
death. In another decade or more this same lady was to perform yet
another act of kindness to the Vaz family when she rescued me while I
was fleeing for my life.
I can t even tell if we had a glimpse of the baby that night, nor can
I remember ever seeing him for the first time.
My father, Herman, proudly named him Garth Olstein Enrico Vaz. He
said he wanted Garth to be a great singer like the great Caruso. Little
did my father know that he was doing Garth a grave disservice that would
take him well into the first decade of his life. You see Garth was never
satisfied just to say, My name is Garth, when people asked him his name
but would continue to rattle off the rest of the story. The most people
would gather from his enunciation was the number of syllables involved.
This would really get him short. He would repeat it with greater
vehemence each time, hoping that the fool, whoever he might have been,
would have enough upstairs to understand. What amused me the most about
his pronunciation was the special effort he took to make his th sounds.
He would double over his bottom lip to fit between his teeth and give an
f sound instead of the th sound. I thought that one day for sure, if he
continued like that, he could probably lose his bottom lip.
Sabbito, where Garth lived for the first three years of his life,
stood about one hundred fifty feet above the approximately one-half mile
from Bluefields Beach. It was from Bluefields Bay that Sir Henry Morgan
sailed in the late 1600s when he made the infamous attack on Central
As a child I got the impression that Sabbito was built on a humongous
pile of rocks that constantly moved from under your feet as you
walked--kind of a world without foundation. These rocks were not the
best of friends to Garth because they constantly scarred him as he tried
to walk through them. He had so many ulceraed scars that I nicknamed him
One day he and I stole a stroll across the street. We went across the
fence in a southerly direction from our home to explore what lay beyond
the woods directly in front of it. A couple of days before our southerly
expedition we began hearing a constant roaring sound. It was a noise
that sounded like muffled thunder--definitely a noise that was full and
fascinating. I learned afterwards that there was the presence of a
hurricane somewhere in the Caribbean.
Our trip was less than a hundred yards, but at the end of it there
opened up a new world. Who would have thought that so close to our
doorstep the ocean raged war with the rocks more than a hundred feet
beneath where we now stood. Garth's eyes gleamed with intrigue as he
verged closer to the action. One step closer and gravity would have
donated to him a fall that was free. I quickly stretched out my hand,
grabbed him by the collar, and pulled him back to safety. I was
disturbed that he seemed to have no fear and wondered if he was normal.
I recalled that before he could even walk, he fell several feet from the
front doorstep, face first between rocks. Now I could not help but
wonder if that had really been an accident.
We stood there above the ocean and watched the billows toil as the
rocks resisted. In my childish fancy it seemed a thousand feet below. To
Garth it seemed to be forty feet, for he exclaimed, That s forty feet
deep! You see, forty was the extent of Garth's infinity. He continued to
say, I thought we left the sea forty miles far away down on Bluefields
Beach. I wonder why the sea followed us here?
We returned to our home. Our journey had been undetected and
unnoticed. Except for a few extra scratches caused by the picketed
undergrowth, there was nothing to give us away. The couple of new
scratches were an essentially undetectable addition to Garth's vast
Garth was a robust little fellow who was very deliberate and resolute
in whatever he did. He inherited a pair of boots from a great uncle of
ours who had recently passed away. The boots were a perfect fit for
Garth. It is true that our great uncle was well under five feet tall,
but to have a child less than the age of four wear the boots of an adult
said something for the foundation on which Garth was placed. The boots
gave him extra drive. He did not just walk but marched around proudly
when he had them on. He did not ever want to take them off. In the
mornings at family worship he would appear with his boots intact, which
kind of made me wonder if he slept with them on.
At family worship he just sat and stared because he knew all his
memory texts. It did not seem a great feat to me then, but I remembered
the comments of grown-ups who visited with us.They were surprised at how
quickly Garth learned the memory texts.
Everything went well with Garth until that night. I cannot exactly
pinpoint the period, but the forties had been totally spent, I believe.
What fraction of the fifties had been used up I am not quite sure.
It had rained heavily the preceding evening. The sky seemed to have been
stripped totally of its clouds, except toward the horizon where the sun
was beginning to set. Every container that was left out of doors was
full and running over. Just before twilight my mother came outside and
found Garth partially submerged in a bath pan, enjoying the ripples that
he made by the motion of his make-believe fins (his hands and feet). She
hastily snatched him out of the water and took him inside where she
removed his wet clothes and dried him.
That night, as far as I could remember, we retired like all other
nights only to be awakened by cries that seemed to reach up to the
heavens. My sisters and I zeroed in to investigate and found that the
cries were the cries of my parents. There my father stood with two hands
reaching up to heaven. He seemed to have been holding up a pillow with
both hands, but at a closer glance the pillow turned out to be my
I did not understand what was happening, but whatever it was it did
not look good. The scene seemed to have gone on for several hours, even
longer than the hours in a single night would have permitted. Looking
back in time now, I realize that it could not have lasted for more than
As my father started to lower Garth to the bed, I could not help but
wonder if it was all over. When he was placed on the bed I saw him move,
and eternity was lifted off of me. Garth had developed a high fever that
night and had gone into convulsions. I think it had something to do with
the water he was playing in that evening. I recall that the doctor s
report stated that Garth had an enlarged spleen.
I am sure the sun came up the next day, but I do not remember seeing
it. Everything around seemed so dismal and desolate. The time came for
me to go to school that morning, but I did not want to leave. The school
bell rang out through the village from its tower as it did every other
school morning, sounding for miles around, but this morning the chimes
seemed far and long between each other. This made me feel within my
heart that somehow the bells tolled for Garth. It was to be discovered
later in life that although that morning the bells did not toll for him,
the events of that night had taken their toll on him.
As Garth continued to grow, his physical features changed
considerably. No more was he the robust little fellow with the great
memory. No more did he show interest in the Bible texts. Did his
interest change from probably wanting to one day attend to the spiritual
needs of man to maybe wanting to attend to man s physical needs? He
provoked these questions in my mind when he started playing doctor. He
drew quite a bit of laughter when he was caught trying to take the
temperature of a puppy rectally. To this day, I don t know where he got
It was so evident that his creativity took over from his memory. If
you asked him if he could perform any task, his answer was always in the
affirmative and that he had done it some forty times before.
I can remember that a couple of months after the incident of that
night the entire family took a trip to Bluefields Beach. It was within
walking distance, and it was about 9 a.m. that Sunday morning when we
arrived at the beach. The sun was still low over Brighton so that the
wild grape trees had their shadows cast over the silky, sobering sands.
You got a feeling of complacency and contentment as the waves chatted
with the shores. I watched my sisters approach the sea with caution and
respect as they tried to drown their fears by familiarizing themselves
with the water once again. Before they could have that accomplished,
there came Mr. Garth playing the hungry shark, grabbing them from behind
somewhere below their knees. This was the first time I saw anyone run
without feet, because when they reached the shoreline, I saw them both
literally look down at their feet to see if they were still there.
After Garth's mission was accomplished, he stayed in the water to
splash. When someone called out to ask him if he could swim, his answer
was, Yes, I can swim. I swam out and touched the skies forty times
I think the ocean must have heard and objected to his creativity. No
sooner had he finished telling fanciful stories of his exploits when,
from out of nowhere, a wave came in and knocked him under. Now if you
have ever been through the trauma of almost losing a loved one, you can
understand the panic that swept through me at that moment. You must also
understand that in your mind the individual becomes so delicate that
even the sting from a mosquito could be instantly fatal. I stood there
helpless, waiting for Garth to resurface, but he did not. I looked out
at sea to see if the current had taken him out, but everything was
obscure to me. The waves had been too angry for me to see within their
bowels. Then suddenly, closer in from where he went under, another wave
belched him out.
No sooner than he was able to stand his ground, Garth started running
away from the ocean. At first I thought he was trying to get the hell
out of there, but then he turned around, picked up a stick, and once
again headed toward the ocean. He was seemingly arguing with the great
body of water from the bits and pieces I could hear. Part of what I
heard him say was, I am going to give this sea a beating it will never
forget. I came from behind and grabbed him for fear the bigger fellow
would once again retaliate.
There were occasions when our horse Sally and our dog Gennie would go
swimming with my father. There was one pet that stayed home then and
that was Pretty Paul, the parrot. I was not so sure he could swim. I
always wondered where Sally and Gennie learned to swim and thought it
was not fair to us human beings when I found out that they did not have
to learn. It just came naturally to them.
Sally came to us when she was three years old, and Gennie was six
months old when she joined the family. As for Paul, no one knew how old
he was. We children were so happy to have our pets around and thought
they would be a part of our family forever. Pansy was the same age as
Sally, and she wondered why it was that Sally was so much bigger than
she was. She apparently took exception to the fact and started doing
something about it.
Around this time Garth was closing in on age four, and ur parents
were getting ready to move the family to Cave, the home base of the Vaz
family. We were going to occupy the house of the late great uncle whose
boots Garth had inherited. If I had not seen the house before, I would
have been led to believe that the house would have been a perfect fit
for Garth only. But previous visits to Cave took care of that concern.
It was in early 1951 when we folded our tents because I remember
spending Hurricane Charlie at Cave. I remember my mother talking about a
1933 storm that devastated the western end of Jamaica. Then she talked
about a hurricane that was coming. Upon investigating the nature of this
hurricane, Garth learned that it was another name for a bad storm and
not sugarcane in a hurry.
All afternoon and well into the evening our father was busy battening
down windows and foundations only to have Garth ask him, How are we
going to see the storm outside when you board up the windows? After his
job was accomplished, our modern day Noah took us inside and closed the
door. I'll bet he thought he was nailing for 120 years.
Snuggled inside, we kids waited in excited anticipation. I remember
my mother repeating an old Jamaican proverb. Yung bud no noh hurricane,
when translated means, the young bird does not know a hurricane. When
interpreted this means that young people without experience cannot see
trouble when it is coming.
The next day came, and we were still waiting. What had happened? Did
Charlie change its course, or did it burn itself out when it came cross
Cave Mountain? We scrambled outside to investigate. Garth was first,
wearing his inherited boots. I don t think that he had ever put them on
Once we were outside, the scene we saw was very disappointing. Charli
had come and gone, and we had not even seen him. How bewildering it was
for us kids. We felt cheated out of the excitement of a childhood
because we slept through it all. A large breadfruit tree, however, was
laying on the roof where my sister Lois and our cousin Vera, who was
spending Charlie with us, were sleeping. We did not hear when it fell.
Charlie had, however, provided some excitement by opening up the woods
so we could see clear to Mearnsville, where my sisters and I attended
The distance was two miles or more by road, but as the crow flies the
distance might have been less than a mile and a half. Charlie cleared a
path to the bay area that stood between us and the school. Our line of
vision was mostly over the Caribbean as Mearnsville School was
precariously perched on the opposite coast of the bay, about two hundred
feet above sea level.
Garth told us that he could stand outside the house and see us going
in and coming out of the school forty miles away. Garth had all the time
in the world to create his stories because he was home everyday with my
mother while we went to school and my father went to work.
Garth was proud to be man of the house and considered himself the
lord protector. One day he was heard to say, "Suppose Mamma didn't
have me, though. I wonder how she would manage?"
Shortly after Charlie and before its deluge could be cleared away
properly, it was warned that we were going to be given an opportunity to
see Charlie s successor in action. Just as the afternoon session had
begun at school, my father came to the school and announced that a
hurricane was on its way. It was the worst that would ever hit Jamaica.
I don t know where he got his information because in those days
hurricane information was carried by newspapers, which sometimes got to
the rural areas long after the storm struck.
After all the preparations, we were once again forced to go inside
and wait. At this point I expressed my concern about people getting
hurt, as I had anticipated the powerful intensity of the storm. Garth
chimed in and said, If anybody should get hurt, I will go out and doctor
them. The rest of us started teasing him and called him a doctor bird.
The only response he gave us was to say, I don t care. I am going to be
a doctor someday. This prompted the rest of us to state what our future
vocations were going to be. I am sure we had done this several times
before, but this time it left a marked impression on us. I wanted to be
a minister of the gospel, bringing good tidings of happiness and hope to
sinful man. Lois, the sister that followed me, wanted to be a registered
nurse. Pansy, the next sister in line, wanted to be a school teacher,
and Garth, of course, had already spoken his piece. It is interesting to
know that all of us fulfilled the vocation of our childish wish save
one. Little did we know that our father had other, less inspiring plans
for us. Only one of us would formally finish high school and that was
without his blessing.
We were still waiting for the hurricane when the news came that it
had passed overhead at sixty miles per hour. This news must have been
relayed from the post office, which was a couple of miles away. I don t
know how much was lost in the mouth-to-ear contact as the message came
across the hills. The supposed fact that it passed overhead still does
not sound right to me today.
Sometime after all this the family took a trip over to Darliston to
see our mother's father. We forgot Pretty Paul the parrot was in his
cage outside. It had rained heavily while we were gone.We came back only
to find a sick, weather-beaten Paul. He died two day later, and we kids
buried him in the family s burial plot. I preached the burial sermon
while the rest cried. It was a sad occasion. Before we could get over
our grief, however, Sally went away, and all we had left was Gennie.
Despite all the excitement and disappointment in the air, we had made
it through Christmas and the beginning of the new year of 1952. Once
again the nomadic spirit was in the air. One evening our father came
home from work an announced to us that we were moving to a new place, a
place that sounded like paradise. My father was a civil servant employed
by the Parochial Board as a assistant inspector of poor (nicknamed poor
inspector). As the job description implied, we did not live in luxury.
This place called Font Hill was going to be a land of plenty and
promise. He salary was going to be higher, and everything we needed was
going to be virtually free. We were going to live in a Great House
supplied by the estate my father was going to manage. The great House
sat high on a hill and had a long driveway with both sides decked with
weeping willows. He said there was more to Font Hill, but he was going
to wait and see how our wild imaginations caught up with the things that
were to come. This place called font Hill that sounded like paradise was
probably one of the stabilizing factors which would take Garth through
the turmoil he would encounter in the ensuing years.