Diablo Views: Steel drums beat for Trinidad | April 24, 2009 | Danville Express | DanvilleSanRamon.com |


Danville Express

Column - April 24, 2009

Diablo Views: Steel drums beat for Trinidad

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

When Leo Newman, 87, heard about Obama's visit to Trinidad and Tobago to attend the Summit of the Americas last weekend, it brought back a flood of memories. Newman lived in the Caribbean for 30 years following World War II, much of the time in Trinidad. He eventually married Betty, an American Embassy employee, and their daughter Karen was born in 1966 in the clinic at the U.S. Naval Station, just outside Port of Spain.

The family found their way to Danville in the late '70s but Newman's eyes still shine brightly when he reminisces about his years in Trinidad and his love of the people. "We worked hard," he remembered. "But when I was a supervisor, head of utilities, once the lines were repaired I'd get a bottle of Scotch and we'd sit down and drink it, right out of the bottle."

"It was while living in this island that I also encountered a world that was in every way different from the world I had known in the United States," said the native of New York City, "and where my understanding of culture and history began to grow."

Newman was working in the Norfolk Navy shipyard when the U.S. entered the war, and at first had an occupational deferment. Once drafted he became an Army engineer and was sent to Puerto Rico and then Zandery Air Base in Dutch Guiana, now Suriname, on the northern coast of South America. His love affair with the Caribbean began.

I traveled to Suriname in 1980, where my husband was considering a job transfer with Dole Foods to head up its shrimp division. I enjoyed hearing Newman's descriptions of the Alcoa mines because most of the expatriates I met 30 years later were still employed by the corporation. Newman also traveled on a small river boat to French Guiana and visited the infamous Devil's Island prison known to many through the book and movie, "Papillon."

"After the Army I went back to the Norfolk Navy yard," he said. "But it wasn't the same. I loved the Caribbean, to be with different people, and the food."

He wrote to a friend who was in charge of the power plant at Chaguaramas Air Station in Trinidad, one of dozens of U.S. bases. Newman moved there in 1947 to work as a utilities manager, living in nearby Port of Spain. When there was a reduction in forces after the Korean War, he took a job as an engineer at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base but returned to Trinidad in 1963.

When the Trinidad base was closing in 1967, Newman spent two days photographing the magnificent Carnival, both with slides and movies. A few years ago he worked with Hank Bochenski to create a film called "Trinidad Carnival 1967," an exciting blend of Newman's parade shots set to the lively rhythm of steel drums. They entered the documentary in the 2003 California Independent Film Festival in Livermore.

Newman was the last American to leave when Chaguaramas closed. Wanting to stay overseas, he took a job at a U.S. base in Morocco; after 10 years the family relocated to Ansbach, Germany. Then they decided it was time to settle back in the States. Newman was hired as facility manager at the Alameda Naval Air Station and came ahead to search for a house. He traveled to France to board the Queen Mary to cross the Atlantic. "In Cherbourg I couldn't find one of my suitcases - the one with my good clothes and my bonds to buy a house!" he said, recalling his alarm. The suitcase was finally located in a back room and he journeyed on to the Bay Area.

"The real estate agent took me all over," said Newman. He finally decided Danville would be a nice place to raise a child - and to grow old - and bought a house with a swimming pool. He retired at age 62 from the Naval Air Station but a few years later he attended a farewell party for someone else and ended up being rehired. He re-retired at age 71.

Newman shared his photos of the grand old architecture in central Port of Prince including the Red House Legislature. "Obama will probably go there," he conjectured. He hoped to get a glimpse on the news of the small island country he remembers so fondly.

-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.


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