Dateline: Phillipsburg, Sint Maarten –
I’d forgotten how conducive cruise ships are to decent sleep patterns. The gentle rocking of the boat, plus after dinner cocktails usually leads to a good eight hours or so. That was certainly true last night. I dropped off sometime just after midnight and didn’t stir until about nine o’clock this morning. The ship was docked in St. Maarten (the Dutch side – St. Martin, the French side is a few miles away – both countries seem to have been cohabiting one rather small island for centuries without much issue). I have very specific memories of St. Martin from a prior trip (which I will go into detail with later in this post) which has made it something of a touchy subject in my life. I therefore did not feel a particular need to go ashore other than for a brief walk through the cruise port where I contributed my twenty dollars to the local economy by buying a T shirt. Instead, I used the day to read, to do some writing, to continue to get the new blog site in order (it’s more or less complete up through the first half of the Thailand trip), and to avail myself of the ship’s spa without having to battle with a dozen muscle queens for space in the hydro pool.
There were three other ships in port besides us, all bigger than we are which means something over 10,000 cruise passengers were descending on a town whose permanent resident population is somewhat smaller than that. I figured that was also a good reason to stay close to the ship. We pulled out about three in the afternoon with a Valentine’s themed tea dance happening on the pool deck. You could see the passengers and crew of the other ships gathered at the rails to watch us depart and it wasn’t too hard to pick out the look of longing on some of the faces. We know we’re fabulous and much more fun- come join the party.
After that, gala dinner in the dining room (Asiatic duck and shrimp cocktail) and then I went to the casino where I managed to turn $50 into $200 on the slots and wisely stopped playing before I could lose it all again and went and sat in the piano bar instead and sang along to show tunes. The dance party tonight is classic disco which is much more my music than most of the current techno so I’m going to head for that for a bit before bed.
I’ve been in a bit of a funk all day and it has to do with the combination of Valentine’s Day and St. Martin. Often times when I get moody, I’m not really sure what’s causing it. This one hits me right between the eyes. What’s the connection you may ask? It’s Steve.
Steve and I met sometime in mid February of 1989. Neither of us could remember the exact date so we always used Valentine’s day as our anniversary. Those of you with basic math skills have by now figured out that, had he lived, today would have been our 30th anniversary. He’s been gone more than 17 years now so I only get little pangs when I think of him and our special moments, but I always feel him when conversation hearts hit the stores. (I was actually able to find a bag this year, despite the national shortage. This made me happy.)
In 1999, when we had been together for ten years, we booked ourselves on an Atlantis Events trip to a resort on St. Martin. It was in late October and in celebration of having survived our first year in Birmingham together. Our first year in Birmingham had not been especially happy. There was a lot of culture shock for two gay boys from California. I was still reeling psychologically from the wanton destruction of my career at UC Davis by forces far beyond my control. Steve had been unable to find a job other than temp work. He was so miserable, he kept threatening to move back to California and leave me there. And then the summer hit. Neither of us had ever lived in a climate with humidity and we learned to hate it quite rapidly.
Steve had been a smoker earlier in his life and had had some mild asthmatic/chronic lung issues for a few years but that first summer, when we met the Southern climate head on, his breathing got worse. We assumed it was due to the weather and it would get better in the fall after the heat broke and we were dealing with saner temperatures again. Neither of us was especially worried about it. By October, things were cooling down slightly, we were both more or less resigned to life in Birmingham and we had a week of fun in the sun to look forward to with a number of friends.
We were due to fly out of Birmingham Friday night to Miami, spend the night in an airport hotel so we could catch the Atlantis charter flight to St. Martin on Saturday. I came home from work at noon on Friday to get us ready to go only to find out that Miami was under siege from Hurricane Irene, the airport was closed and the flight was canceled. They were willing to rebook us that night through Houston but with no guarantee on when they could get us to Miami. I said no thank you, we looked at each other and then we drove to Atlanta and spent the night at an airport hotel there. Miami was open again the next morning and, with all the disruptions, we had no problems finding a morning flight there and we arrived hours before the charter was due to leave.
Atlantis now had the unenviable task of trying to track down guys all over the country booked on their charter whose travel plans had been upended. The charter would be delayed. Steve and I settled down on a not particularly comfortable piece of floor of the charter terminal as guys trickled in. We were joined by Russ King (better known as Miss Richfield 1981) who was joining the gang for the first time and we first got to know him during the endless hours of waiting. Eventually, eight or so hours late, the charter took off and we arrived in St. Martin and were bussed to the hotel arriving sometime around 3 AM.
The next couple of days were lovely. The resort was nice with a great beach, we toured the island, we did some shopping. All the usuals and it looked like it was going to be a restful and reenergizing week. Now, unbeknownst to us, a couple of things were happening outside the confines of the resort. First, this was in the early days of large scale gay travel and the locals were deeply suspicious. Word had gotten out, egged on by some local conservative preachers, that we were there to recruit children and have mass gay weddings on the beach. This led to a number of the resort staff to call in sick so they wouldn’t have to wait on us and a certain amount of hostility in town. There was nothing overt, just a lot of dirty looks. Second, another hurricane system, Hurricane Jose had formed and was speeding directly towards St. Martin. This was pre smart phone and everyone was pretty unplugged from news that week so we didn’t know about it (although we should have gotten a clue when we saw everyone boarding up their windows while out and about on tour).
The afternoon before the hurricane was due to hit, Steve started to complain of being more short of breath than usual. We were walking up the hill from the pool to the building where our room was and I could hear him panting behind me. When I turned around to look at him, he was cyanotic. And there wasn’t a whole lot I was going to be able to do about it on a tropical island preparing for a direct hit from a hurricane. I put him to bed that night and told him to take it easy. He felt better the next day but decided mainly to nap. The winds had picked up, the staff was pretty much gone, and we were all left to fend for ourselves. We had been told no alcohol which of course meant that we all drank every drop in the place at the mother of all hurricane parties on the beach.
As evening approached, the winds continued to increase. The deep sea birds, albatrosses and the like, came in and hovered over the sand, turned out to sea… waiting… The rains started shortly after dark. Steve and I had economized on a ‘garden view’ rather than a ‘sea view’ room so our room was on the ground floor and at the back of the resort, well away from the beach and the winds that came howling in off the ocean. Even still, the windows kept buckling slightly and water kept pouring under the door. Steve, who was already having respiratory problems, descended into full out hyperanxiety and panic attacks. I had two things with which to treat him. A decent bedside manner and a brown paper bag. As the wee hours of the morning wore on, the winds finally died away but the rains continued to come down in torrents (and did so for the next three days).
The resort was a bit of a mess when viewed next morning. Some of the roofs had come off, a lot of windows were broken. Power was back on thanks to a generator and the manager and his family, the only staff on site, somehow managed to produce a hot breakfast for several hundred bedraggled queens. Those who had splurged on sea view rooms had had to spend most of the previous night in their bathtubs for protection. No one was seriously injured and everyone made the best of it over the next few days until the buses came to get us and take us back to the airport. There we found we were the lucky ones. We were on the French side and had more or less been free to do as we pleased. On the Dutch side, everyone was in a lock down curfew in their hotel rooms and had been miserable for days.
One final memory of bumping down the semi-washed out road from the resort on the way back to town was turning for one last look and seeing a column of smoke rising from one of the buildings. The hotel was on fire: a perfect metaphor for the week.
Steve’s breathing had not really improved, but with the storm over, he was no longer having panic attacks. I do not advise anyone to spend time with someone having such things during a category 2 hurricane. It’s highly unpleasant. We got back to the mainland, spent a night in a hotel in Miami and eventually, somewhat the worse for wear, made our way back to Birmingham. The first thing I did when we got back was drag him down to my clinic and get him a chest X-ray. When I saw the film, I didn’t know what was wrong but I knew he was going to die. It looked that bad. This was the week that the pulmonary fibrosis that was to kill him two years later made itself known.
Those of us who survived that Atlantis trip have never forgotten it. Wayne Moore, Bruce McDonald, Rich Campbell – you were all there. I’ve always thought we should have had special pins made ‘I survived Atlantis Events St. Martin 1999’. It’s not too late.
It should be pretty clear now why I wasn’t terribly keen to get off the boat. How ironic that I would spend our 30th anniversary in the one place on the planet that has the worst connotations for the two of us. It wasn’t planned. It’s just the way it worked out and I didn’t even realize it until this week. Steve’s either completely pissed at me or laughing his head off. I don’t know which. Maybe I’ll figure it out the next few days.