World War II in Guyana through the eyes of a childwe turned back the hands of time?
Godfrey Chin looks back to the forties
January 21, 2001
Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun inspires me to record my memories of World War II in my native Guyana, far away from Tobruk, Midway, and the Bulge. My earliest recollection of the war years, was being required to baby-sit my younger sister, just toddling, so that mom could run to Bourda Market, a corner away. With our age difference of 1 year 3mths , if she toddled at 15 mths , I safely deduce I was 2 years 6 months and the date thus around Dec 1939.
Hitler would have started his conquest of Europe, and Churchill would have been inveigling isolationist America to get into the fray. Roosevelt agreed to the Lend /Lease Programme in September l940, making possible the establishment of the American Base, 25 miles up the Demerara River, called Atkinson Field . That Day of Infamy- Dec 7 ,1941- Pearl Harbor, was the next year, and two years later,my father got an electrical linesman's job at the Base, while my Grandfather R.J. Koo, 134 Regent Street was the contractor to supply vegetables, fruit, and eggs to the US Forces. Local flying services were the Art Williams Sea Plane taxiing from the Rowing Club, south of Stabroek Market.
The war naturally brought severe shortages, no bicycle tyres, grass filled inner tubes, patches on patches, no flour, petrol rationing and the daily meal was boiled cassava /eddoes topped with butter. Cassava bread, quenchie the sweet kind with coconut was king, while George VI ruled at Buckingham Palace. When St Vincent de Paul gave away bread at Brickdam school, the lines were orderly compared to those in the sixties/seventies. I am sure I developed a phobia for lines then , because today I would miss a sumptuous buffet meal rather than wait in any line. My defining experience occurred in the late seventies, joining a line at Bentick and Main St at 4 am. After waiting two hours, I noticed in the daylight that most of those patiently sleeping and waiting in line had containers, bottles and cans. Enquiring why the lady in front nonchalantly advised me 'Mr, this is the kerosene line to Gajraj, the US Visa line is over there". Believe me, after so many lines I even gave up fishing and kite flying later. You even had to have lines to wheedle deedle necessities in the seventies.
A huge cigar-shaped US Zeppelin passed Georgetown overhead daily at daylight to patrol off the coast for German Subs and returned at dusk. ZFY on North Rd closed their daily broadcast at 9pm, with John Philip Sousa's rousing Washington Post March.
East Street was a canal, as was the Merriman Mall - the Lama canal flowed through Bourda there, to the Water Works at Camp Street. The narrow wooden bridge over this canal at Cummings Street provided a view of abundant fish life - and the site there later, was a roller skating rink, much to the annoyance of the Ramsahoyes, living opposite the forty foot trench, parallel to Lamaha Street was our schooldays swimming facility, before the Luckhoo public pool, started in 1960 from public donations. The GFC pool was the only other swimming facility, other than the mudlocked Sea Wall . Lama Canal was our backyard Back Dam, our own Garden of Eden with profuse guava, jamoon, ante-desmond, sea-side grapes, monkey apple, bread and cheese, provided you knew where these orchards were hidden. Designer compress (now sno-cone) was popular, when an enterprising Georgetown native, pressed the shaved ice into hearts or spades mould, and added sweetened condensed milk to the exotic tropical fruit flavors, for the handsome price of a penny.
With world deaths mounting, my father took the precaution to join the Mystic Friendly Burial Society- 50 cents a week with a guaranteed $50 for burial. Sebastiani's, Albert St., Lee's at Lamaha and Camp Street and Lykens, Norton Street were the city's undertakers. To avoid funeral parlour rental for viewing , the dead would be kept in your living room, under ice, in a coffin box. All night wakes were cards and domino sessions, while the kids shivered from fear of the dead in the same room.
Two days after the Bookers Great Fire, Feb 23 1945, I watched from the top floor of the miraculously saved Chronicle House, the smouldering embers of the Assembly Rooms, Fogarty's, Post Office, Ferreira & Gomes and the Demerara Meat Company. Six months later the Japanese surrendered on Sept 2, 1945, and. VJ day was a Public Holiday. Music Teacher, Iris Leitch, Smith Church Congregational crash programmed a teaching of patriotic songs, to enable students from fourth standard up to join other schools in celebration. At 7 am one week later, in white shirts, socks and yachting shoes and short khaki pants, we marched to the Astor, and were assigned the pit benches, as other schools and colleges, took their place, in the upper chaired tiers. In front of the stalls the Guyana Militia Band, sparkled in their ceremonious white gold and red epaulets uniform. Major Henwood conducted -relieved by Lynette Dolphin, LRSM, as we raised our voices in unison and thanks, singing-God save the Queen- Land of Hope and Glory, the high pitched US Stars and Stripes Anthem, and of course Valerie Rodway's Dear Land Of Guiana. Our favourite chorus was Onward, Upward. The reward for our performance was, a brown paper bag of buns, a soda, and one hour of Three Stooges, plus cartoons. Lining up outside the cinema after, we all marched to Main Street for the salute by His Excellency the Governor, standing royally on a rostrum, in a plumed white 'Bug House', his symbol of authority.
The world, and British Guiana, was at peace again.
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