I was born in 1947 at the Belize City Hospital. Mine was the last Belizean generation to enjoy, as teenagers, the long school holidays when the holidays were basically in April and May, the most beautiful months in Belize, as opposed to in July and August, as has been the case since 1964. Belize had become a self-governing colony in January of 1964, thus becoming eligible for American foreign aid. I was 17 then, about to enter my second year at St. John’s College Sixth Form, that summer when the holidays were changed. At the time, I thought the change was to synchronize Belize’s school year with that of the United States.
In the 1970s and 1980s, almost every year around April and May I would write a column or an editorial in this newspaper lamenting the change of the long holidays from April and May to July and August, the latter months being historically known in the settlement of Belize as months of rain, when the mosquito insect thrives. No one paid any attention to me, except for my dad I suppose, and after many years of vox clamantis in deserto (voice crying in the wilderness), I grew tired and now no one cares, not even myself.
My childhood was pretty comfortable. My father was a senior civil servant, and my mom supplemented his income by sewing dresses for special customers. My mom was so gifted she even made hats for sale at Rita’s, a small store at the corner of Albert and Church Streets which was owned by a distant relative.
Where we children considered ourselves blessed beyond measure was in our family’s access to a private caye – Spanish Caye, which was about 9 plus miles south, southeast of Belize City. Easter was, of course, divine, but it ended in the twinkling of an eye. The long holidays, eight to nine weeks basically in April and May, were the bomb.
We children slept on sheets on the wooden floor of our house on Spanish Caye, so much so that when we returned to Belize City after the long holidays, we used to find it difficult to fall asleep on the mattresses on our bunk beds. We had gotten totally used to the floor.
I was 14 when Hurricane Hattie struck in 1961. The years before the hurricane were fabulous, because the fishing at Spanish Caye was awesome before Hattie. The fishing was still very good after the hurricane, but there was one specific area where things changed dramatically. Most of the reef which runs between the Spanish Caye beacon northeast towards the Middle Rock beacon (the beacons being wooden structures in the sea to guide ships along the channel which runs towards the Goff’s Caye/English Cayebreak in the Barrier Reef), the trolling down from Middle Rock along the reef towards the Spanish Caye beacon and Robinson’s Point, used to be spectacular. That changed after Hattie. But other fishing grounds, like Southern Reef, and the channel itself, remained very beautiful.
Spanish Caye never had a nice beach or wonderful bathing grounds, like say Goff’s Caye o rPlacencia, but the fishing was out of this world. And, the prize of privacy on the moonlit nights when the southeasters blew fresh and salty at the same time, was very special indeed. In those days of the late 1950s and early 1960s, AM radio still ruled the world, as opposed to FM in the modern reality. (The AM signal is a less quality sound than FM, but the AM signal travelled much further than FM.) I remember we could hear a station named KAAY in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the night, and they would be playing hits by people like Paul and Paula, and Brenda Lee.
Brenda Lee was the princess. She was maybe 14 or 15 years old, but she had a grown up voice, husky and strong. When I grew older and travelled to America, I realized that Brenda Lee, a white girl, had a black vibes which had a special appeal for us Belizeans without our understanding why. She was probably from Memphis, or somewhere in the South like that where Black rhythm-and-blues was influencing white singers like Elvin Presley. (I checked stats, and Brenda Lee grew up in Georgia. She was born in Atlanta.)
(In Belize City, I remember listening to a station blasting 50,000 watts all the way from St. Louis, Missouri, and the announcer for the St. Louis baseball Cardinals was the inimitable Harry Caray. I heard Caray before Hurricane Hattie, two decades before Belizeans became fascinated with him as the Chicago Cubs’ announceron WGN television in the early 1980s.)
All this nostalgia arose because the apparent suicide of a 7-year-old in Seine Bight during the August month of the modern long holidays just blew me away. I can’t believe or understand it.
I did some major digressing in the paragraph before last, and now I beg your indulgence to do some more. In those days it was all about sailboats. I remember that our family mooring post was in the sea along Southern Foreshore almost directly in front of the Eric Bowen (father of the more famous Barry) home at the corner of the Foreshore and King Street. In those days, Mr. Bowen’s was merely one of three families known for bottling lemonade, the other two being the Bradley and Chavannes families. But after Mr. Bowen acquired the Coca Cola franchise, sometime in the early or middle 1960s, I would say, his family’s fortunes took off.
The sailing adventure for us in those days was trying to get out of the Belize City Harbour after we hoisted sail (and jib)and cast off from our mooring post. Sometimes you had to make several sharp tacks before you could clear the harbor mouth, because you had to head directly into the southeast wind to begin the journey to Spanish Caye. Complicating the sailing maneuvers was the fact that the large waves (breakers) rolling into the harbor mouth from the open sea were increasing the degree of difficulty.
A couple weeks ago I phoned Sandra Coye to ask her if she knew if and when other British Caribbean countries had changed their long school holidays to suit the summer holidays in the United States, as it appeared to me, in 1964 and thereafter, that Belize had. She introduced the idea that the British school year may have played a role. I knew that no one explained anything to us in 1964.
I will die believing that the 1964 change of holidays from April and May to July and August was one of the worst things ever to happen to Belize. Before 1964, when the long holidays began almost all families from the urban areas took off for the cayes, the coastal villages, and countryside villages to spend the holiday time. The children learned to swim, dive, fish, and sail in the sea; they learned to swim, dive, fish and hunt in the countryside. In 2018, all of you try to take your children to America. What do they learn of value there in July and August in the crowded American cities? Back at home, people have to scramble to finance and organize summer camps to keep the children off Belize City’s mean streets.
On this one, as Taegar used to say, I am a majority of one: moving the holidays from April and May to July and August was bad news then, and it is bad news now. Straight up.