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On the Trail Of Columbus

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For better or worse, change is inevitable. Even if it occurs five centuries after Christopher Columbus sailed a course that no man had sailed before.

A familiar story that needs little clarification: On October 12, 1492, Columbus came ashore in the Bahamas on the easternmost-lying island called Guanahani by its native inhabitants. After the Italian navigator planted the standard of the sovereigns of Argon and Castile, Admiral Columbus called to Rodrigo d’Escobedo, inspector of the fleet, and Rodrigo Sanchez, the notary of the expedition. He asked them to bear witness as he took possession of the land, which he christened San Salvador in the name of their Catholic Majesties. The event launched the creation of today’s American civilization.

Columbus named the whole chain of 700 islands, which begin in the Atlantic about 50 miles off the coast of Florida, 'Bajamar,' in Spanish meaning low-lying. Indeed, the soil of San Salvador is so poor that slaves were given half of every week off to work their own subsistence plots. This self-reliance only increased when the island was more or less abandoned by Europeans.

The 7-by-12 mile island of San Salvador would remain, more or less, the same for centuries after Columbus’s discovery. It never developed into the thriving slave-based sugar plantation economy that would cause so much trouble in other Caribbean islands such as Jamaica.

It took close to the 500th anniversary of the Columbus landfall to have San Salvador finally undertake major change. I should know, because, just as Columbus made an abbreviated stop by boat, so did I in 1985. Just like Columbus, the only reason I stopped was to seek shelter from the elements.

At that time there was not even a hotel open on the island; the Riding Rock Inn, the only one, was currently closed. Now the island has a Club Med.

In 1985 there wasn’t a Port of Entry at Cockburn Town, the island’s central settlement. Immigration authorities were not around. Its harbor lights were not functioning and its dockyard derelict. The island had an airstrip – an abandoned U.S. Air Force Base that everyone joked was taken advantage of at night by certain pilots from South America.

Located 200 miles from Nassau, the very small population of 500 natives fished or farmed for their living.

Nonetheless, the island was known in sailing almanacs for its pristine beaches and superb scuba diving.

Besides sea, sun and sand, points of interest featured the Farquharson’s Plantation, the Dixon Hill Lighthouse, Watling’s Castle, and the Columbus and Olympic Monuments.

The greatest point of interest for me would be none of these. Just like Columbus searching for an Asian connection, my discovery was the last thing I’d ever suspect.

Blown towards the Cockburn anchorage by an open Atlantic lightning storm, our 42-foot sailing yacht dropped anchor for rest and repair. After solving some rigging problems, I was allowed to go ashore. My goal was to seek out the Columbus Monument on the leeward side of the island. I set off in blistering mid-day heat for a three-mile walk in search of a bit of history.

I hadn’t trekked more than halfway when an open air Jeep passed by me going in the opposite direction. It was the only car I’d seen so far. It stopped, swung around and came up to me.

'Get in,' said the voice.

I’m headed towards the monument,' I said.

'Yeah, I know.'

I studied my driver. He was deeply tanned. He sat rock-like wearing a simple tee shirt, bathing suits and sandals. His shoulders and chest were big as a Buick. He had thick black matted hair and a five-o’clock-shadow with stubble that could have been used as fence post. His arms were as big as watermelons and his eyes had the look of compressed oil about to come in at the bottom of a well. He was near enough to sit for a portrait, but, for some reason, seemed as far away from me as history.

'You’re Jack Reynolds, aren’t you?' I said plainly, not ready to realize that it could possibly be.

But it was. It was Jack 'Hacksaw' Reynolds. The notable middle linebacker created his nickname at the University of Tennessee when, after a disturbing loss to Alabama, he tore apart a car with a chainsaw, or something to that effect. He’d graduated to the pro ranks, starting for both the Rams and 49ers in Super Bowls.

I had to blurt it out.

'I crossed the Atlantic in January on a 27-foot sloop. It was rough. There were just two of us. We didn’t have electronics, nor an engine, not even a stove to cook food,' I explained.

'It took 27 days to reach Antigua from Cape Verde,' I continued. 'But one night we allowed ourselves to listen to the radio.

You see we had no engine to recharge our batteries so this was a special moment. We somehow came upon the Super Bowl.

You guys blew out Miami. It was great. I mean it gave us strength. We were hard put. We came into Nelson’s Dockyard 12 days later through the reefs under sail in the middle of the night. You know what I mean?

'I can see.' He was looking at me. He hadn’t smiled once. Then the loom of his eyes softened.

'That was a good game,' he said. He looked untamed.

'I leave for mini-camp soon,' he quipped suddenly. I felt accepted. He said words he hadn’t had to.

He ended up not only driving me to the Columbus Monument, but back to the dockyard. He even invited me there into the 'Harlem Club' bar for a beer. He took me to his house he’d built on the island in the 1970s. It was a modest beachfront with a large garden, a weight room and a game film library.

I was to learn that his wife had been an Air Force WAVE stationed at the former base on the island. It had been her idea to build the retreat. San Salvador was a great place for the kids. He worked out and the islanders left him alone. He had a shortwave to call in a private plane whenever he needed to get mainland.

Two weeks later, the 49ers released Jack Reynolds. He’d played 14 seasons.

Months later, after two years at sea, I returned to my home in Lake Tahoe. Nobody believed my story about San Salvador. The earth was flat as far as they were concerned.

Then my buddy Baldy went to run the annual Bay to Breakers foot race in San Francisco. Jack Reynolds was the honorary starter. With the steely nerve of a conquistador, Baldy made it up to where Reynolds stood. He asked him about my tale.

Reynolds only said,' Yeah, that’s right. I think that guy had been out there too long. Whatever happened to him?' He gave Baldy an autographed photo.

Columbus sowed the seeds of change. Little did he know, among other things, how his brave new world would evolve.

Maybe it was ironic that the spot he actually first set foot on would resist change the longest. San Salvador used to be truly a world away. Just ask Hacksaw Reynolds.

~ Discuss this article with the author. Email rfrohlich@moonshineink.com.

 
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August 9, 2018