Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Seven words to remember

About ten years ago I had booked a Windjammer Barefoot Cruise on the Flying Cloud in the British Virgin Islands. It was my second Windjammer Cruise (the first was on the Polynesia cruising the French West Indies).

I hooked up with a friend of mine, Bill, from Chicago in the Miami Airport and we flew to St. Thomas where we were going to transfer to a ferry to Tortola, BVI to meet the Flying Cloud. We had time to kill in St. Thomas, but had to hang around the ferry terminal area, so we walked into an open air bar at a nearby hotel.

We sat down at the bar and ordered a couple of Red Stripes to begin winding down from the long plane ride and get into the spirit of the upcoming cruise. That's when we met Martin.

Martin was sitting at the bar looking thirsty in that way people who have been down on their luck for a few years look. The bartender ignored him as she sat our beers down in front of us. He glared at her for a few seconds and slid over next to Bill and I.

"Tourists," he said. It was less of a question than a declaration.

"How could you tell," I asked, half hoping Martin wouldn't ask me for money.

"Everyone in St. Thomas is a tourist," Martin replied. "Buy me a beer."

Again, it was more of a declaration than a question. I motioned for the bartender and she reluctantly came over.

"A beer for...?"

"Martin, she knows me." Martin stuck out a hand. He fixed each of us with a probing stare as he shook hands. For a barfly, Martin had amazingly piercing blue eyes. He also had one of those handshakes that make you wince.

It wasn't until the bartender slammed Martin's beer on the bar that he broke off eye contact with me. I was relieved. He had the look of a man whose drinking was measured in days, not hours and he had the air of someone who had a short fuse that was easily lit if he thought he was being humored and not listened to.

It struck me after a few minutes, that Martin looked strikingly like Ernest Hemingway. He looked to be in his mid- to late 50s. He was tanned, had white hair (topped with a baseball cap) and a white beard. It seemed appropriate to be in a bar in the Caribbean with a Hemingway lookalike.

As the beer took the edge off Martin's aggitation, he became more talkative. Turns out he had lived in St. Thomas for about 15 years. According to Martin, he had once been a successful stock broker in Atlanta. One day he had simply sailed off in his sail boat to the Caribbean, apparently leaving behind a wife and kids.

"They don't talk to me anymore," Martin said with a shrug.

Can't imagine why, I thought. As if reading my mind, Martin fixed me with his hard stare.

"Do you know how to handle yourself in a bar fight?" he asked. I looked at Bill and we both hoped we wouldn't have to demonstrate our abilities. Martin didn't wait for an answer. He hopped up from his stool and got into a fighter's stance.

"You put your shoulder into it as you throw your fist. It puts the entire weight of your body behind the punch. Throw the first punch and you knock the fight out of the other guy."

Bill and I nodded. Martin smiled.

"I like you two. I'm going to share my secret with you." Martin hopped back on to his bar stool and leaned toward us conspiratorily. He looked over his shoulder and then back at us as he whispered.

"There are seven words you should always remember. Seven words to live your life by. " he said. "These seven words have got me through all of the bad times." Bill and I nodded.

"Don't shake your heads like you know," he hissed. Bill and I stared back at him.

"Do you want to know what those words are?" he asked, staring intently back and forth between us.

"Yes," I stammered, hoping he wasn't going to hop off the stool and continue his bar fight lesson.

Martin extended both of his hands in fists and began counting off the words as he said them,"Never...Forget...How...Great...You...Really...Are."

Bill and I just stared at him in silence.

"Repeat after me," Martin instructed. "Never...Forget...How...Great...You...Really...Are." We repeated the words. Martin smiled and nodded with satisfaction. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a battered old wallet. "I've got a list here of people on the island that the CIA have had killed."

Bill elbowed me.

"We've got to catch the ferry to Tortola." I threw some cash on the bar and Bill and I grabbed our bags.

"Tourists," Martin said as we walked out the door.

Bill and I laughed about the whole scene as we boarded the ferry. Later during the cruise, we shared the secret Martin had let us in on with fellow cruisers over beers and tequila. We all got a kick out of it and it became the running joke during the cruise.

Funny thing, although I don't remember much of the cruise (other than it rained a great deal), I have always remembered what Martin confided in me over a beer in a small bar in St. Thomas. The more I've thought about it, the more I've come to believe that Martin actually was on to something. Because despite how low you may get and how much you've been through, there is something you really need to depend upon to get by. And it isn't what others thing of you. It's how you perceive yourself. So....

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