KEN LANS The Bejeweled JackassMy earliest memories of Trinidad are of Pointe-à-Pierre. I can remember go-ing for walks in the afternoons, and seeing crabs scurrying away at our ap-proach. We were living at that time in one of four small houses which were tothe left side of the Southern Main Road as one left Pointe- à -Pierre, goingnorth. It was almost at the bottom of the hill, before the railway bridge cross-ing the road. From there we moved to a small apartment near the top of St.Vincent Street in Tunapuna, a small town east of the capital Port of Spain onthe densely populated transportation route called prosaically “the East-Westcorridor”. It was very close to where our maternal grandmother and auntlived. So close, that one of my older cousins was usually at our home to helpmy mother with the young ones on weekday afternoons and on Saturday
KEN LANS The Bejeweled Jackassmornings. Our next move was to a rented house on Bowen Street whichwas off the mainstream of traffic, but it was near enough to be withinconvenient reach of all the places we considered important, it was alsodown the street from the houses of my aunt and grandmother. An un-plastered and unpainted tapia house, standing on one lot of land, stoodbetween the homes of my grandmother and aunt. Their homes were alsomade of tapia but were plastered and white washed, and therefore had amore finished look. These houses would be called wattle and daub (with
KEN LANS The Bejeweled Jackasstapia grass) in other countries. There were nofences separating the houses. Boundary plantsclearly defined the limits of the properties and inthose days that was all that was needed. Weused the street in front of the houses to journeybetween them except in mango season when wehad blanket permission to enter the neighbour’syard to pick up the fruit when they fell. Most ofour activities and social events were focused on“Up the hill” due to the absence of other childrenin the neighbourhood. At the time of our movingthere, I was the second of five children and theonly boy.My mother made my first roller from a large tincover nailed to the end of a discarded broomstickand its manufacture coincided with my first solotrip to the shop on St. Vincent Street, the street
KEN LANS The Bejeweled Jackassnext to the one on which we lived. On later reflection the play activitiesmy mother introduced to me always seemed to be a direct relationship tothe type of errands which I was old enough to do for her, and to thespeed at which she needed it to be done! Mastery of the messages andthe roller gradually increased the size and the speed of the gadgets, andthe distances that I traversed. Some of them were only to be used on theflat if the message had to be hand-carried. This pre-planning ensured mysafety, the safety of the message, the safety of the money and the safety
KEN LANS The Bejeweled Jackassof the gadget. While I was permitted to go up the hill with any of myrolling stock, coming down was a different matter once I had a messagein my hand! The chariot had to be left parked up the hill, to be retrievedon another trip. I was told that this was to lessen the chances of fallingwhile I ran down the hill. However, I believed, but did not voice my be-lief, that this was a ploy to get a ‘free message’ transmitted!‘Trouble’ was, and still is a beautifully challenging word! It is a wordwhich adults love to use when they are either laying down the rules, orwhen they are admonishing their off-spring! The meaning is never clearly
KEN LANS The Bejeweled Jackassdefined, and because of this, interpretations vary, not only from par-ent to parent, but from week to week, and they are sometimes de-pendent on the time of year, or the religious observances that aretaking place at the time. It was the vagueness of the interpretation,and the absolute certainty of the punishment when one was caughtsailing over the boundaries, that made it challenging. One soon be-came an expert adventurer on the Seas of Trouble; the glow of suc-cessfully getting away with it, the only prize.One episode took place one week after the Emancipation Centennial
KEN LANS The Bejeweled Jackasscelebrations in San Fernando. It was a swelteringly hot and humid day inearly July; so hot in fact that we elected to spend most of our lunch hourin the sea at Flat Rock. Our good friend, a.k.a. ‘Big Fish’, was ridinghome for lunch, being one of the lucky ones that owned a bicycle; helived on Lower Marryat Street. He had to ride uphill to get home and hepassed us pushing his bike and blowing profusely. He complained aboutthe heat, and as he spoke he saw the ice-cream vendor going down toservice the lunch-time crowd. His eyes lit up and he remarked that at
KEN LANS The Bejeweled Jackassthat minute he would do anything to get an ice cream cone. It is trulyamazing what children can produce at a moment’s notice. Out of thethin air it seemed a yellow Cayenne pepper was produced. It had ahealthy glow and a pungent smell that showed real promise. ‘Big Fish’was invited to eat it in order to be rewarded with an ice-cream cone.He took the pepper and ate it hurriedly.While he bent over choking and gasping for air, we scampered downthe hill, stuffing down our sandwiches and dropping our clothes on thesand before diving into the sea. We spluttered on the salty sea waterwhile watching ‘Big Fish’ hurriedly riding to his house for liquids andlunch.
KEN LANS The Bejeweled JackassAlthough we were frequent lunch hour visitors to the sea at Flat Rockwhere we swam and played around, none of us had swim suits, forthey would have needed explanations at home, and they would havebeen a bother to lug around, especially when wet. We swam “ aunaturel” which was logically simpler. The warning bell usually gave usample time to scamper out of the water, don our clothes and run upthe hill to take our places in the line. Harry had joined our group snick-ering after the escapade with ‘Big Fish’, a frequent tormentor of his.Not a regular lunch-time swimmer he decided to make up for previ-ously lost opportunities by staying in the sea to the last possible mo-ment. He watched us scamper out to dress and run up the hill but he
KEN LANS The Bejeweled Jackassdecided he would skip the assembly line and sneak into the classroombefore the teacher arrived and then boast about it later.One of the lessons we had learnt from experience was that bread andjam sandwiches were a definite no-no when you were going down tothe sea “in ships” as we were fond of calling our experience. We knewthe location of all of the ants’ nests at Flat Rock, and took care to dropour clothes a safe distance away. Since a safe distance from ants inindeterminate over a period of an hour we usually kept them busy bydiscarding our wrappings close to the ant hills. As always we turned
KEN LANS The Bejeweled Jackassour pockets inside out and inspected them before we put on our schooluniforms and we also checked each other’s uniforms-laughing as weraced up the hill-for while changing, one of our group had movedHarry’s clothes close to a nest of stinging ants. We looked behind us ashundreds of yards away Harry was walking on the sidewalk beating athis short pants and bare legs. Not wanting to take his shorts off in pub-lic to remove the ants from sensitive areas Harry took a short cut andran full tilt up Paradise Hill to the school yard where we heard later thathe had beaten off the intruders on the bathroom walls.
KEN LANS The Bejeweled JackassWe however trooped back to school by our favourite route that passedin front of the San Fernando Town Hall and Police Station on HarrisPromenade. It was just after midday and the sun was beating down onour heads. This was not the usual time for fancies which are far morelikely to sprout into belief when the sun has quit for the rest of theday, and when the moon is reluctant to perform her regular duty. Wewere surprised to see a crowd of people, probably about four hundredin all, standing and milling around the front of the Police Station. Ourfirst impulse was to detour onto Court Street to avoid the crowd, but
KEN LANS The Bejeweled Jackassas we got closer we saw no signs of menace, and curiosity won outover caution. We went into the crowd to find out what was happening.Nowadays a crowd of four hundred would put a paid-to-party celebrityto shame but in 1940s Trinidad a crowd of that size was unusual, espe-cially as there was a World War being fought, and this crowd was infront of the largest Police Station in south Trinidad.We had been taught at school and reminded by posters in all the publicplaces to be careful of “loose talk”, of the possible presence of spiesand this message was reinforced on many of the war bulletins, so weknew that the correct and safe way to get information was to casuallystroll through the crowd with a studied air of indifference.
KEN LANS The Bejeweled JackassThere is no better way of eliciting information from Trinidadians. Thesight of an indifferent face passing through the phases of polite lis-tening to increased interest, then amazement and incredulity, is im-possible to resist, and everyone tries to be first with the “scoop”. It sohappens that the crowd had gathered in the hopes of seeing a don-key that was being held in police custody. It was no ordinary “hee-haw” but apparently one with gold teeth and an expensive wristwatchon one of the forelegs. After all of these years I cannot remember if itwas right-footed or otherwise.
KEN LANS The Bejeweled JackassThose details escape my memory–fed as it was by hearsay rather thanby any visual confirmation on my part.And so it was that we were late for school that afternoon and missedHarry’s ant removal and any revenge planned by ‘Big Fish’, or put an-other way, we loitered in the School of Rumor far longer than we in-tended, for as we moved through and circled in the waves of humangossip, the rest of the stories came out. The donkey was not only be-jeweled but could actually speak. Then came the moment that thecrowd was awaiting; a policeman came out of the Station and thecrowd surged forward to pose questions. We could not hear what hesaid, but what we were told was that he had confirmed that they had astrange donkey in custody, and that it was really a Chinese shopkeeperfrom Princes Town, a smaller town further south, who had the abilityto “turn” into an ass.As to how he knew that it was a Chinese man, the policeman explainedthat the donkey spoke with a Chinese accent and was asking for Chi-nese food!
KEN LANS The Bejeweled JackassWe never found out what eventually happened with the crowd, forthat last remark reminded us that we had a Dean of Discipline at Na-parima College who was able to “make us speak in strange tongues.”We ran back to school paraphrasing a verse from Shakespeare’s AsYou Like It that we were studying in English literature: “ if it came to pass That any man turns into an ass, Leaving his wealth and ease, Only to please his stubborn will, Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame: Here shall he see Fools as gross as he, If only he will come to me.”Now wrapped in the cocoon of safety of distant years, I feel that itwould have been worth the punishment to follow the Greek call offools into a circle-ducdame. We might have been able to see thatdonkey eat with chopsticks!