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Remembering Norris E. Wade and HHL

Few people in this world tried harder to make life’s road easier for me to walk, so this corner cannot allow Mr. Norris Edgar Wade (N. E. Wade, Mr. Wade, My/The Boss, Norris) to go into the hereafter without a public salutation.

He was a hero in Belize Agriculture when Central Farm was under the stewardship of the first wave of university-trained local scientists – pioneers named Norris E. Wade, John E. Link, Elias Juan, Godsman Ellis, and Balmore Silva. Ah, it was the age of the Green Revolution and they were the first ones charged to lead Belizean farmers into the brand new world. Oh! what an exciting age. That story, their stories, and the stories of those who followed shortly after, are the stuff of legends.

N. E. Wade was my boss on my first real job. I was about twenty or so when I went to work at Hummingbird Hershey Ltd. (HHL), an experimental cacao farm owned by Hershey’s (Hershey Foods Corporation of Hershey, Pennsylvania, USA) at about Mile 35 on the Hummingbird Highway. It was envisioned by Hershey’s that HHL would become the single largest cacao farm in the world. I was not the only young fellow hired to work in second tier management on the farm. There were colleagues of mine from the Belize School of Agriculture – Anthony Castillo, Charles Garbutt, and Gaspar Martinez – and Simon Willacey, a young junior college graduate, working there too.

Norris E. Wade, the farm manager at HHL, and my uncle, James V. Hyde, were very close friends. They were both university-trained. In a country where many did not have such opportunities, I guess that gave them a special camaraderie. From the day I met Norris, he was in my corner.

I traveled from Belmopan with my boss and his driver/mechanic/friend, a young man about my age named Dennis Swift, to and from the farm every day. Sometimes Norris drove, and old JB Hutchinson, a very close friend and advisor of his, accompanied us. Those were fun trips, always … talking and joking about dis, dat, and tara … about life, and local politics, and whatever.

The first job Mr. Wade gave me was to survey the old cacao fields set for replanting, and the new land set aside for expansion. I had a roll of tying wire, and a tape measure, and an assistant, Douglas Flores, who would become my most loyal captain in the fields when my status was increased. The farm was set on a long, narrow strip of rich alluvial soils on the banks of the Sibun River and we routinely walked upwards of ten miles daily to get our job done. Ah, in no time the survey was complete and I was ready for bigger jobs.

I was then attached to the assistant manager, Fred Hunter, Jr., who had responsibility for Plant Protection. Freddy’s heart was in livestock, not cacao, and he soon left. By default, the portfolio, Plant Protection, fell into my hands.

My job was to supervise the control of weeds, black pod disease, and wee wee ants, as well as the planting of new seedlings. Oftentimes there were things I wanted to discuss about the job with Mr. Wade, but I wasn’t invited to the weekly meetings for senior staff. Maybe I wanted his attention, why one day I tweaked the herbicide program. That didn’t go down very well with my boss when he found out. Boy, I got chewed out for that. At my level of experience I didn’t have the full game together, so of course I deserved it.

Shortly after Freddy left, a powerful wind named Greta blew in from the sea. Overnight the entire old plantation went down. Norris and the owners were not deterred. We embarked immediately on a major operation to rehabilitate the old trees and get ready for planting of the new seedlings.

My boss gave me a crew of five or six operators, which included Joe Ingram, Raymond Warren, Mervin “Merv” Armstrong, Philip Rubio, Sr., Philip Rubio, Jr., and a number of machete men. Our job was to prune the few trees that could be saved, to cut down the many severely damaged trees, and to pile the severed trunks and branches in the windrows. Morning till night, you could hear those Homelite chainsaws wailing in the fields. By mid-December that job was done and we were ready to start planting.

Norris gave me the formidable task of supervising the planting of 80,000 cacao seedlings in two months, between mid-December 1978 and mid-February 1979, before the dry season set in.

I had two gangs of planters working under me. The more important gang consisted of about thirty-five or forty young studs; this was the gang on whose shoulders the future of the farm lay. I challenged this group daily, to do more.

Some of them were tasked with carrying and spotting plants in the fields. One day a very strong young man named Wilhelm Hamilton came and blew away our game entirely. Where a spotter carried two plants at a time, Wilhelm carried five – one in the crook of each arm, plus three in a small sack set on his back.

One day, Owen Hyde planted four hundred seedlings, more than twice the regular output. The next day he did not report to the fields. I got the answer to Owen’s whereabouts from Melvin Mendoza, a senior captain who was one of Mr. Wade’s favorites. Melvin, who made it his business to keep a close eye on what the little paper tigers on the farm were doing, scoffed at my naiveté … my “greenness”. It’s not every day a man can work like that, he told me. Owen is resting. He’ll be back on the job tomorrow.

The second gang consisted of about eight or ten elder guys, all of them old enough to be my dad, a couple of them my granddad even. This was a fun crowd, very entertaining. Oh how I enjoyed being with them. But one day, ha, dehn jam mi gud. They were always complaining about the rate paid for planting a seedling. We argued about that every day. One day we came to an impasse. They put down their posthole diggers and demanded to speak to the boss.

I acquiesced immediately and went to the office and asked Mr. Wade to come to the fields. The gang gathered in front of him the moment he arrived.

What’s the problem? he asked them.

Merv, the spokesman, said: Boss, things rough. We can’t make it with this rate. The cost of flour gaan up. Pigtail at the commissary cost sumoch a pound.

My boss smiled, and then he broke into a big grin. Okay, you got your rate increase, he said.

Boy, just like that! Gudnis, that old gang – off the top I remember Elick “Smokey” McKoy, Dan Gutierrez, Alan Castillo and his cousin, Theophilus, Mr. Valencia, Don Nick Santos, and Merv – were all over me, rubbing my head, bouncing me with their shoulders, tapping me in my chest … all playful, of course. I learned some new phrases that day … about why you shouldn’t send a boy to do a man’s job, and, don’t know his blank from his elbow, and, this classic from Merv, how a lee bwai like you will set rate for big man when you don’t even know the price of panty fu man wife an lee daata.

Ouch, I got it good. But I enjoyed every minute of it. I was glad for them, and I was glad for my boss’s compassion for these men who, but for life’s injustices, would have done better, much better than slaving in the fields for small wages all of their lives.

Whoa, if you think my boss undercut my leadership here, well, no. This was a unique situation. As I said, all of the men in that gang were veterans, well past their prime. And, they were contract workers. The contract worker is very much his own boss. My primary job was to see that they did it right, not so much to motivate them to produce work. It helped that I didn’t have airs, for after all I was, as tough guys at HHL like Melvin Mendoza and Peter Harris liked to say of the boss’s young farm supervisors … yes, just a little paper tiger.

In some blocks, those which only needed a few plants, the rate cut it a little close and it took some effort to keep my workers happy. There came a time when I felt that the young studs needed a rate increase too. I fought hard with my boss and his head accountant, Richard Burn, begging for that rate increase.

I couldn’t give my workers what I thought they deserved. This led directly to a crisis. Melvin Mendoza was the one who opened my eyes that things were not going too right in the fields. Somebody better pay closer attention to his job, he warned me. He was right. Some of my workers were cutting corners, doing a shoddy job.

After doing what I thought I had to do, I immediately went to Mr. Wade’s office to explain what had happened on my watch. I think you should fire me, I told him, I let down.

You’ll learn, he told me.

Sometimes you have to tough your way through. When pressure comes, that is the time you have to be at the top of your game. I wasn’t. Oh, as for what I did, oftentimes when I think back, I agonize, that I might not have been entirely fair.

To my boss, all his workers were family. One time I wanted him to do things to a guy who I felt wasn’t pulling his pound. He flat out refused.

But he wasn’t raising me to be a softie. When my boss increased my pay by fifty percent I felt greatly indebted to my hardest workers – Wilford Andrews, Winston Casimiro, Charles Jones, Claude Martinez, Israel Manzanero, Seliano Manzanero, and a few others. I couldn’t put in for a rate review for them for some time, so in the meanwhile I did all the little things I could to ease the monotony of their labors. Norris felt I was going overboard. He told me to beware of being too kind, because I was inviting the day when they would take advantage of me.

He told me this story, from a time when he worked at CCB (the Citrus Company of Belize) in the Stann Creek District. One time when I went out to the fields I saw my workers sweltering in the noon day sun and I came up with the wise idea to send ice and water for them, he said. I did this every day. One day I couldn’t get any ice. My captain came back from the fields and told me they were on strike. And that they said they wouldn’t go back to work until they got their bucket of water – and ice.

My boss was interested in my education. More than once he tried to get me to go abroad to study. One morning he came to the fields and said: I was at a party last night…with some professors from the University of Connecticut. They told me that they were taking the top student (Belize School of Agriculture) back with them. I told them, “No, you are not taking back the top student because he is working with me.” They said: “We are here for the top student.” Colin, that scholarship is yours. I am meeting with those professors again tonight. Say yes and that scholarship is yours.

I went off by myself to think things over for awhile, then I came back to speak with him. You are a brilliant talent, Boss, I said, and you’ve got the education. There are enough educated men in Belize. What Belize needs is men who can execute on the ground.

One of these days you will regret your decision, he told me.

Norris E. Wade, from the little village called Crooked Tree, was the first Belizean to earn a degree in agronomy. The young Norris wanted to get involved in politics. But that didn’t work out. Maybe he thought I could go where he felt he had been denied. Or maybe it was just his nature to take care of his charges, like they were his family.

I was a very hasty boy, didn’t take two, as we say. If things didn’t go my way I was ready to leave, and everybody knew it. A rolling stone gathers no moss, N. E. Wade told me. You need some responsibility. You need a family. When you get one you will act differently.

He wanted to make me his assistant, Assistant Farm Manager. I thought he was bias, that he was giving me too much for my level of education. Well, I knew the cut of my jib too, that I was hankering to go out to the forest on my own, and that I wasn’t designed to stay in one place very long. I did a lot of squirming to get him to pass me over.

I went to sea with my boss after he sided with the accountants when they complained about one of my work gangs earning more than their bookkeeper. I sat in his office an entire day, refused to leave. The accountants held sway. I told my boss, I noh happy. He said: I don’t want you working here if you are unhappy.

But he wasn’t so mad with me. When I sought his advice a couple months later about my vegetable farm, he didn’t hesitate to drop by and assist me.

In later years I have thought, sometimes, that walking away was a great failure in my life. I had no intentions to stay at HHL forever. But my timing was wrong. I quit on my boss and, I should have stuck it out for my workers … continued the fight. But other times when I think on it, I think maybe it was best for me to go. At that time Norris was not only farm manager at HHL, but general manager too. General Managers are more wont than Farm Managers to keep a very tight rein on the wages.

I got reacquainted with Norris E. Wade three or so decades later when I went to purchase suds at Grape and Grain, his family’s wine and beer parlor near the entrance to Belmopan on Constitution Drive. It was like I had never gone away. Especially when he was alone, we chatted about the things that concerned us in this world, and joked about the things that amused us.

I can’t say that Norris E. Wade did right by everyone in this world. God knows that like us all, he had his faults. His were very public. He drank and partied a lot. He did not have a designated driver. On a couple occasions he was involved in fatal alcohol-related accidents. The state exacted its pay. The rest is between him, his God, and the people who were affected.

But there were spectacular achievements. And he did right by many people. He did right by me. As I said, few people in this world tried harder to put the wind into my sails.

Of course the story of Norris E. Wade goes beyond, far beyond those two exhilarating, formative years (1978-1980) I spent with him at HHL at Mile 35 on the Hummingbird Highway. Heck, this is just my little window into the life of this Belizean superstar in academia, in agricultural research, and in citrus and cacao production.

Hey, many of the players in this short story, mostly the older ones, have gone on. And now the great hero is gone too. There was a time when Mr. Wade and HHL were the center of my world. I cherish that time. That is why I pause, to put down on paper, this adios – to my boss, my mentor, my friend.

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