I imagine few on the Rock of Sages know much about Roberto Clemente. Actually, he was a Puerto Rican born in 1934 who went on to become a legendary baseball player. He was a champion of the people off the field, especially for his charity work at home and throughout Latin America.
Clemente died in an aviation accident on December 1972, while en-route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He was posthumously elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, becoming the first Latin American to be selected and one of the two Hall of Fame members for whom the mandatory five-year waiting period had been waived. The other was Lou Gehrig. Clemente’s statue stands outside of PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
At the passing of the then unrecognized legendary American solider Darrel ‘Shifty’ Powers, who had succumbed to cancer, Clemente famously said: “A nation without heroes is nothing!”
The baseball player’s observation came to mind last week while I was rummaging through some of the thousands of rare photographs in the STAR archives. The trigger was a photograph of a young man whose name, I can almost guarantee, will ring few bells in Saint Lucia.
One day before the 1998 arrival here of Nelson Mandela, two weeks before the South African leader turned 82, the young man, though well aware of the ominous possibilities, had selflessly attempted to rescue a visiting couple from the notorious killer riptides at picturesque Grand Anse Beach.
His efforts had finally been only half successful: he had managed somehow to help the husband to safety. On the other hand, the man’s wife had not been as lucky. She perished—along with her would-be lifesaver, the recently elected representative for Babonneau, a widely beloved former cab driver, grossly underestimated by many, especially his election opponent Junior Bousquet.
Junior’s father Allan had for several years been the area’s MP and for several years the island’s education minister, and it was generally taken for granted Junior would make easy meat of the upstart.
Indeed, it was Junior who turned out to be out of his league. If memory serves, the combined efforts of the most seasoned of UWP campaigners, to say nothing of the imagined limitless influence of John Compton and Daddy Bousquet, were not nearly enough even to save poor Junior’s deposit!
Small wonder that at Kenneth John’s burial ceremony, reflective of all the pomp and ceremony and controversy associated with Mandela’s visit (it had been arranged several months before the 1997 election of Kenny Anthony’s Labour Party) the new government was in a mood to make more than the usual hollow promises. For one, there would be established within months a Heroes’ Park (we need not go into the pledges kept and otherwise to the grieving young widow!).
Keeping in mind all that had transpired in and outside the packed Babonneau church immediately preceding MP Kenneth John’s interment, the rivers of tears shed by the new prime minister, his mournful Cabinet and their sobbing echoes, surely it says much about us that some fifteen years later relatively few Saint Lucians have the smallest clue who was Kenneth John, let alone that he had died attempting to save the lives of two total strangers.
For a time it seemed the Kenny Anthony government had actually been serious about erecting a Hero’s Park on the opposite side of the recently established Serenity Park.
For more than five years after the MP’s passing the particular area that to this day serves as an arcade for two or three vendors of coconut-husk birds and other presumed tourist favorites was promoted as the site for the promised Heroes’ Park. As I recall, there was even a plaque to that effect and four or five aluminum pipes pointed to the skies, often photographed by visitors who imagined they symbolized heroic activities by unidentified special Saint Lucians.
Following several revealing STAR articles accompanied by photographs of tourists capturing the site with their new-fangled picture-taking cell phones, the water pipes were taken away and, for all I know, donated to WASCO!
“A country is nothing without heroes,” said Clemente. And, truth be told, we are not altogether without our own—if by heroes we mean the three Saint Lucians whose busts may be found at Vigie Airport and in Derek Walcott Square. The erection of the first cited was primarily arranged by the Saint Lucia Labour Party in posthumous recognition of its original leader. The other two busts are of Nobel laureates Arthur Lewis and Derek Walcott. Mention of whom reminds me of Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s “show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
Not only was Lewis referred to by his own people in print as “a black Anglo-Saxon” and someone who had deserted his country (the Morne college was named in his honor way later than it should’ve been!), Walcott continues to be treated with ignorant disdain by citizens of influence who certainly should know better!
But all is not lost. Margo Thomas, for one, has created her own Heroes’ Gallery at the National Trust. A modest effort, yes, but considering the funds at her disposal, what she has done is in itself heroic.
Talk about doing more with less. Who knows, perhaps Kenneth John will soon be included among Margo’s exhibits.
Since I cannot quote a Rock of Sages “best brain” who has on the record spoken of the need for heroes not necessarily supportive of a particular political organization, I have little choice but to turn to another non-national, this time to the Japanese scholar, military and political philosopher and teacher Yoshida Shoin:
“The mind of the superior man is like Heaven. When it is resentful or angry, it thunders forth its indignation. But once having loosed its feelings, it is like a sunny day with clear sky: within the heart there remains not a trace of a cloud. Such is the beauty of true manliness.”
Shoin it was who also said: “Neither the lords nor the shogun can be depended upon to save the country, and so our only hope lies in grass-roots heroes!”
The philosopher’s words are as true and relevant today as when they were first written in the mid-1800s. With Independence Day around the corner, I dare to say our presumptuous hero-making politicians would do well to heed them, if only for the sake of future generations!