Category Archives: real freedom

Chainsaw Phil


Once upon a time I lived on islands. Not always the same one, but always
islands. The first time I moved to one it was in the Caribbean and it was
supposed to be for a couple of months. I didn’t come back to the continent
for 12 years. And even then I lived on barrier islands. For awhile I lived on
two islands at once–one in the Caribbean the other a Florida barrier
island–and commuted.  On Fridays I’d walk to the dock, take a ferry to St.
Thomas, a surrey-bus to the seaplane terminal, then the Goose–a
seaplane–to St. Croix, then a surrey bus to Christiansted or Frederiksted, do
my work and return home the same way.

I met a lot of interesting people.

One of them was Chainsaw Phil–or, as people called him more or less
affectionately, Chainsaw–the most consistently pessimistic, skeptical, cranky person I ever met.

BTW, on this particular island there were three things one was never supposed to ask.  “Where are you from, what’s your last name, what do you do for a living?”

Chainsaw just kind of appeared on the Caribbean island at some point,
having migrated from the Pacific Northwest where he’d been a lumberjack.

He was, and probably still is, the second most profane human being I have
ever met. Because of his profession, and the fact that much of the bush to
be cleared was cassia, which is full of thorns, Chainsaw was always
scratched, cut, bleeding, and with a patchwork of other occupational wounds in
various states of healing/scabbing. His T-shirts suffered the same fate and were invariably torn in several places.

Chainsaw, however had hidden depths. Brilliant, literate, and with a
massive database of general liberal arts information, Chainsaw was quite a
conversationalist. He could riff on various obscure philosophers, contemporary fiction, history, you name it. We had a number of fascinating chats over the years.

I only ever saw him happy once. After a huge hurricane had pretty much
squashed the island, all the locals had to pitch in to clear the roads and get
the power back on. None of the airports were open so each island was pretty much on its own.

I came around a corner and there was Chainsaw, dangling above the debris strewn roadway from one of the few trees still standing, by one arm, the other swinging along with the chainsaw like a damn bullwhip, cutting the hanging branches dangling from also-dangling wires and trees, just a-whoopin’ and hollerin’ like a cowboy gettin’ some little dogies along on the dusty trail.  He sounded like Slim Pickens in the final scene of “Dr. Strangelove” (one of the greatest films ever made).

Chainsaw had this huge grin on his face.  I’d never seen him smile–normally even when he laughed he frowned.  I wasn’t even aware he could smile

*BTW for Goose flights they would have to take passenger weights to determine if the lumbering aircraft could safely get airborne and land.  Seems as though I recall that here’s an old VI Daily News photo somewhere of the Lt. Gov. or Gov. or head of the legislature, something political…wading in the shallows having been forced to abandon a Goose plane for reasons I can’t recall.  The seaplanes had a reputation for being rickety but there were a limited number of ways to get to St. Croix from St. Thomas, and the Goose was the quickest one.

Apocalypse Wow–Riding Windsurfer Bill’s Honda 90 in a Caribbean Hurricane


Life in America is way too constrained.  There’s too much pressure to conform in oh so many ways, despite our unsupported belief that here in the USA we are wild, free and nonconformist.

So I happened to be thinking wistfully about the time Windsurfer Bill rode up to my place in the Caribbean, on his Honda 90, in the middle of a hurricane.  He burst in and said excitedly; “All the boats are draggin’ anchor in Chocolate Hole.  Wanna go get some champagne and watch expensive boats crash?”

It sounded like fun so I said sure.  Now, at the time, I was living up in Bethany on a dirt road which was steep, full of rocks, and would wash out during the infrequent rains. It was no simple thing for Bill to have gotten his underpowered little vehicle up that road in a damn hurricane either!  That boy had some onions.

Who wouldn’t jump at a chance for an adventure like that?  So I hopped on the back of Bill’s tiny motorbike, sans helmet of course, and we rode into town (Cruz Bay) and went to the deli/restaurant at Mongoose Junction to get some Dom Perignon.  (What else would you drink to watch an apocalypse?)

Tom, the owner, had just closed up.  After we explained why we needed a bottle of Dom he allowed as how he just happened to have one on ice in the back of his jeep that he’d be willing to part with in support of such a good cause.  “I always carry one” he said “in case I get lucky”.  Tom must have been a boy scout at some time to take preparedness to that level.

So we got the champagne and had a fairly harrowing ride up to Bill’s place, which was up a much steeper and rockier road than mine.  Since he lived right at the top of a big hill on the south side shoreline, it was blowin’ like snot up there.  Huge things were flying through the air and, in fact, millions of dollars worth of sailboats were already being pounded against the beach like cockroaches that accidentally wandered into a flamenco fiesta.

It was grand!  We hauled out a couple of chairs, plunked down on the deck and sipped the Dom until it ran out.  Then we switched to a more plebian Cold Duck, or something along those lines, and got fairly tipsy from the alcohol and the wildly dynamic scene playing out for our fun and amusement.  It was soooo fun!  It was like the end of the world but without pain–the wind was screaming, roofs were coming apart, the sea was smashing everything that was in its way, and the noise was deafening.   It was chaos incarnate, if a hurricane can be said to be an incarnation.

People don’t do stuff like that here.  Here they prepare seriously and take precautions. But that was the glory of St. John back in the day.  People did things with panache and free spirited attitudes.  (Once  a St. Johnian sank his new–and very expensive–boat, but stayed on board since part of it was still out of the water.  A friend of his had a case of champagne delivered to the stranded sailor via helicopter.  (No word on whether he thought to report the sunken boat–we’d all heard about it from another boatie.)

Recently I re-connected with an old friend/colleague from the St. John days. He wrote a novel about St. John at that time, in order to memorialize a golden moment when, as Sarah Palin wistfully noted once, people were free.  I asked if he remembered when I tried to shoot his dog, and he laughed that, yes, as a matter of fact, he did.  The name of the book is Back Time in Love City & it definitely, even definitively, captures the zeitgeist of that time and place.  I would recommend it to anyone who has ever dreamed of jumping their traces and taking off into an unknown place for adventure.

One time I rode my big race horse into that iconic Cruz Bay pub, the Back Yard.  She was huge, very high strung and prone to going into wild frenzies of hysteria where she would buck and kick and race around trying to chase any human who crossed her path.  So I rode her up to the packed bar and Dougie Sica didn’t blink an eye, just said, “What’ll ya have?”  Kamikazes seemed appropriate for that particular moment.  So I sat on my big horse and drank kamikazes at the bar, then rode her on out and went home.  Neither of us wore shoes.

Ya can’t do stuff like that in America anymore, except maybe out west or in Texas.  Nope, now and here, decorum is required and one must comport oneself in a manner that couldn’t possibly offend anyone.  Yeah, God forbid that anyone might have their delicate sensibilities offended.  I’m pretty sure there must be a clause in the Constitution about that.

So I sigh and plod on, bereft of any scintilla of spontaneity or free-spiritedness.  We don’t approve of such things in America anymore.  More’s the pity.  But at least I know what it means to have been free, wild and stupid enough to have adventures, to do stuff people wouldn’t approve of.  Sad to say I don’t think all that many Americans get to have that luxury anymore.

What would Jesus say?  “Did ya like my storm?”

Sigh.  I miss being free.