THINGS THAT MATTER: Flight paths and missing connections @ Barbados

Sir Henry Forde says that it is regrettable that more Barbadian public figures - who have done interesting things or made a big contribution to Barbados – “have set aside time to record their experiences and the contributions which they have made to public life and the development of our beautiful country Barbados.” Certainly we’ve had some valuable biographies, but no autobiography of any National Hero or Prime Minister, Governor or Governor General, Bishop or Chief Justice, as far as I’m aware. In fact the only knight of the realm to publish an autobiography was Sir Alexander Hoyos – The Quiet Revolutionary (1984) until Sir Garfield Sobers’ My Autobiography appeared in 2003.

Jill Walker’s beautiful production Barbados: 50 Years of Barbadian Life Recorded in Jill’s Drawings and Paintings appeared in 2002, and since then we’ve seen a number of delightful, chatty autobiographies by Bajan writers committing their lives and a fascinating chunk of lost Bajan culture to posterity – such as Sydney Simmons with Strangers in the Village and Austin Yearwood with Down Danesbury Gap: Echoes of Memory. Perhaps the most entertaining have been hotelier John Chandler’s Hotel Barbados and doyen of realty Nick Parravicino’s Nick’s Life.

Our first politician to have the courage was Sir Frederick Smith with Dreaming a Nation, written with his nephew Alan Smith. And two great, inspiring medical lives have been Sir Frank Ramsey’s A Life of Service and Sir George Alleyne’s recently launched The Grooming of a Chancellor (Reviewed in my column last Sunday). Now hot off the press is Pat Callender’s Flight Paths & Missing Connections @ Barbados.

Pat Callender is an extraordinary man, and he has lived an extraordinary life, witnessing extraordinary events as Airport Manager for many years at the Grantley Adams International Airport. When I read it (and I read it twice, actually) I kept thinking of Arthur Hailey’s bestselling, heart stopping novel Airport published in 1968. Many of Pat’s stories are the stuff of a great action novel.

Pat was a product of the closely-knit community of Clapham (like the novelist Austin “Tom” Clarke), and like the latter he writes in a beautiful, smooth and easily readable style. Unlike Tom his memory, which like that of many autobiography writers may be selective, tells everything in a positive light, with candour and just enough detail to sustain our interest. His childhood was regaled with many amusing experiences, sprinkled with aperitifs of Barbadian history and culture – from sugar cakes, raising goats and the fear of the strap at St. Giles Boys School to the drama of the traditional funeral and Sunday School at the African Methodist Episcopal Church. These chapters – from birth to leaving school – are full of sage insights of every kind and are absolutely fascinating. They help to explain the accumulated wisdom and experience of a young man who would be able to cope with the drama of his later life’s work.

He attended the Boys Foundation School in the days of headmaster “The Iron Man”, Lee Harford Skeete, my father-in-law. He described Foundation as a robust school, and his Saturdays at the British Council and the now abandoned Carnegie Library were well spent. He was clearly a voracious reader with wide interests. I was amused by the irony of his quote from Virgil’s Aeneid on the siege of Troy, read while he sat on a branch of the tamarind tree: “My poor countrymen, what monstrous madness is this?” (Written perhaps at the height of our recent political crises?)

Pat left Foundation in 1959 and taught for two years at his old school, St. Giles. On January 4th, 1962 he joined the Civil Aviation Department as an Air Traffic Control Cadet at Seawell Airport. He was to spend almost 40 years of his life there, with the demands and the drama of the job constantly taking precedence over his family life – like that of an emergency doctor. His technical training, training and experience as a pilot, involvement in the trade union movement and post-secondary education in Canada all prepared him for the events which punctuated his career.

The body of the book includes accounts of the Cubana aircraft disaster in 1976, the New Jewel Revolution in Grenada and the horrendous events surrounding the death of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and members of his cabinet, and the “rescue-invasion” of US armed forces in 1983, using Seawell Airport as the base of operations. Here is a sample of those tense events:

“There was frantic activity to get things ready for the next step – the support of the Grenada intervention. Time moved swiftly; the sky to the East was just showing the first signs of morning light, but the airfield at the end of runway 09 was still in darkness. The parking apron was brightly lit and full of aircraft painted in duck egg green and grey. There was a sliver of light showing in the East when the nine Black Hawks started their engines in a cacophony and moved to the central taxiway. A few minutes later they took off in a spectacular syncrhonised manner. It was still dark as they headed South. They formed a menacing silhouette for an instant against the skyline and disappeared over the cliffs near Paragon, heading for Grenada.”

In summary, I can do no better than to quote Sir Henry Forde in his introduction, that we will all “find his narrative interesting, delightful to read and a treasure of information to retain.” It’s a must-have book!

Bouquet: To Alvin Holder and Desh Ranjan of Old Dominion University (ODU) in Virginia, for securing a large and prestigious award – a US $ 1.5 million MARC grant “Maximizing Access to Research Careers”, funded by the National Institutes of Health. This is a multidisciplinary collaboration led by these two faculty members of ODU. The money, spread over five years, will be used to help under-represented minority undergraduates in STEM fields to pursue careers in biomedical and behavioural sciences research.

Alvin is an old Lodge Boy, a former undergraduate and graduate student of U.W.I., Mona Campus, Jamaica, a former Lecturer in Chemistry at U.W.I., Cave Hill Campus, Barbados, and is now an Associate Professor in Chemistry at ODU. Prof. Ranjan is an Endowed Professor in Computer Science at ODU. While we have lost the skills of brilliant alumni like Dr. Holder, he flies the Barbados flag brilliantly in his research field in the USA.

Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Clinical Website:

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