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Membership Has Its Advantages

by Rhonda Lee Stephenson

For six months in 1989, beginning in May and ending in October, I was retained by Club Med International to perform as an entertainer at their Turquoise location in the Turks and Caicos Islands. My “swabbing-the-deck” job by day was to manage the resort drugstore.

During September our little island of Providenciales, located southeast of the Bahamas, was threatened by extremely bad weather. It was standard procedure that all GOs or Gentil Organizateurs learned how to “batten down the hatches” quickly in case of emergency or evacuation. Sometime in the second last week of September we got the red light that a hurricane–seven miles by 150 miles, with 150 mph winds, and named Hugo–had wreaked havoc on some of our brother islands to the southeast.

And so we found ourselves taping down windows, sinking lawn furniture in the main pool, and getting good and drunk on the beach as our last hurrah.

Anyone who has ever checked into a Club Med resort knows that the bank that holds your precious money does not hold it with interest, nor does it hold any of its employees’ money with interest. As a matter of my own interest, I decided from the get-go to move my salary month by month to a local island bank where I made a whopping three per cent.

When the storm threat became more and more of an evacuation reality, I ventured forth on a moped to retrieve my bankroll and deposit it into the Club Med safe in the event we had to leave in a hurry.

So, on the night that we did escape Hurricane Hugo’s clutches, I was the only GO who signed out of the bank with real money. All of the other GOs had something along the lines of an IOU note from the club. I should explain that we all operated within the club with virtual money. We signed for everything. And because we were making a whopping 49 cents an hour, plus room and keep, a GO’s monthly pay would be next to nothing unless you had a position where you could get things or trade things, and you weren’t blowing your hard-earned bucks at the bar or on expensive goods.

I not only held such a position, but I lucked out with one of the only air-conditioned jobs in the joint. This had both advantages and disadvantages because I sweat twice as much as everyone else and because I played camp counsellor to a bunch of adults on vacation who at one time or another would inevitably need something from the drugstore. But my point here is that I actually had some money! I also had some personal cheques that came as early birthday presents from Canada.

There had been a boyfriend in the picture. A fella from the States­a real boy-next-door type who unbeknownst to me had expensive taste and a drug problem. I was from Wyoming, Ont., and I was young…and, oh, so naive! He had borrowed money from me from time to time, which he had paid back. However, at the time Hugo reared his ugly head, there was an outstanding balance of more than a few hundred bucks. A drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of the universe, but not when you’re earning 49 cents an hour!

I soon found myself at the Provo airport with 749 other folks who believed they were going to die at the hands of Hugo. Of course, I had made several pals on the island, folks who were at the airport, too.

I think it was during one of my goodbye hugs that my waist-pouch was hijacked. Of course, upon reflection, I realize there were only a handful of people who knew I had real money on me. But the really important point is that I had lost all of my identification, including my Canadian passport and my driver’s licence. When I reported my loss to our chief, he simply stated: “Rhonda, I have 750 people who think they are going to die. I have to take care of them. Now, go fix yourself!” That was code for you-know-what!

The plane that carried us via Mexico to Miami, Fla., was cramped, lacked air conditioning and stank with the sweat of drunken GOs. I was fearful for myself at the least. The journey, which usually takes two hours max, lasted about 13. I was a basket case by the time the plane got to Miami. And of course, there were the stories, including the one about the Aussie who was a props master. This fellow built fake guns that were very realistic. He had wanted to take them home from Club Med as part of his portfolio, but unfortunately the guns got him arrested and thrown into jail for six weeks.

Upon entering Miami airport, I decided to say a prayer and give one last-ditch attempt to ransack my luggage for anything that might tell a person who I was. Low and behold, deep down in the outer pocket of my large suitcase, was my most precious and amazing Royal Canadian Legion membership card. How it got there I have no idea.

I should also mention that there was a very horrific discovery that stood between me and the membership card. As I opened the zipper to the outer pocket, I released about a hundred of the most grotesquely huge cockroaches and water bugs I had ever seen.

OK, so there I am tightly squeezing this card as I enter the lineup to immigration. Suddenly, some very military-looking type grabs me from the lineup of people and escorts me–ahead of everyone else–into an office with a big chair. I might mention that at the time I was a deeply tanned, slim, long-legged and dimpled blond who was obviously distressed.

The Man in the Sparkling White Suit asked me: “So, you’re from Tunisia?”

“No,” I replied. “I’m from Canada.”

He then asked me if I was from some other country I had never heard of before. I checked myself and determined that no, I was not deaf or obviously half-witted. Again, my reply was: “No. I am Canadian.”

The Man in the Sparkling White Suit looked right at me and sternly said: “Prove it.”

OK. Here was the moment of truth. I casually and flippantly tossed my Legion membership card onto his desk, and said: “Well, this is the only thing I have. Do you want to hear my story?”

He picked up the card slowly, did a fast read, eye-balled me and said: “Nope.” He then proceeded to stamp my “papers” for admittance into the United States. He also instructed me that I would have to have somebody waiting for me at the border upon my return to Canada to ensure my citizenship with my birth certificate and so on.

Later, while at the Club Med we were posted to in Miami, it was learned that Hugo had managed to circle outward into the ocean and miss our little island completely. Workers would be returning to the club as soon as flights could be arranged, but I had decided to return home, though not before spending a little down time in Florida, a decision I soon regretted.

On my 24th birthday I decided to take a wee junket out on a catamaran with a youth of 19 who swore up and down he was an expert sailor on this type of vessel. The body of water we were to sail was actually a brackish water inland river, and we had been warned by the locals that alligators often deposited their eggs on the opposite side from where we set sail and that it would probably be in our best interest to stick to the Mother shore.

Everything was going just grand until a storm suddenly blew up. And I do mean suddenly. This boy and I went from “hanging off” in our best form, laughing and taking in the water, the wind and the rest of it, to…cartwheeling through space and time across to the far side of the river.

Scurrying aloft the pontoons, we found ourselves dismally looking into the depths of very brown, muddy water in hopes of not spotting a powerful set of jaws. It was a little hard to see because I believe there were tears in my eyes. Panic consumed both of us. And it was a most inopportune moment for him to let me know that until now he had never crewed or even sailed one of these sailboats. So, he really had no idea of how to turn it upright.

There was a string floating on the surface and I guessed it played a role. So with a “one, two, three” we plummeted into the water again to pull the catamaran full through to correction. I don’t think I have ever in my life had the same encouragement to swim so fast to safety as I did that day!

My birthday was also marked by my return ticket to Canada, home sweet home and into the arms of my much- missed and loving parents. Thanks be to The Royal Canadian Legion and, of course, Our Father who oversees all of life’s trials, tribulations and victories!


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