Columbia Star

1963        Celebrating 60 Years      2023

Devil’s Island, my own Papillon— May Day! May Day!

Originally published March 31, 2006

Frank’s footprints led down this path to the sea.

Frank’s footprints led down this path to the sea.

The tropical sun slowed us to a nap in a patch of banana trees. Images of slow-moving men in baggy, broad-striped pajamas moved through my dreams when, all of a sudden, I realized I was alone. Frank’s clothes and valuables were in a neat little pile on the edge of a mat of banana leaves. His footprints lead down to the surf. One hundred yards out in the channel Frank was struggling against the current that had swept many a desperate escapee out into the shark-infested Atlantic. He was going to Devil’s Island to sit on Dreyfus’ bench. Or die trying!

Frank’s strong strokes were being ignored by the current that was pulling him out to sea. I called to him from the shore. He was following his obsession to sit on Dreyfus’ bench on Devil’s Island and stare across the Atlantic to the France he loved so much.

There was no one to help. The French tourists were on the south side of the island. The dock was on the west.

I considered my options—jump in and try to save him, run for help, watch him perish, or pray for his soul. Without reaching a decision I ran out along the rocky peninsula, the closest point to Devil’s Island, at the narrow inlet where Frank would be swept out to sea.

As I reached the farthest boulder my friend stopped swimming and disappeared behind the swells.

I screamed, “May Day, May Day…”

I looked for sharks…

I felt the desperation that must have been worn into the consciousness of that terrible island.

Nothing happened.

For seconds…

For minutes…

Then far out in the channel I saw his face bobbing like a cork. Frank not swimming, but he was moving toward me. Slowly.

Before I could understand what was happening he was standing waist deep in the surf, covered in seaweed. Moving slowly toward me.

His head was bowed as he made his way along the sand bar, slipping occasionally into the seaweed that had saved his life. Fifteen minutes later, he fell exhausted on the rocks at my feet.

“I tried. I tried. But I couldn’t make it. I’ll never sit on Dreyfus’s bench,” he cried.

On the way back across the island we stopped at the concession stand located in the old administration office and shared a bottle of French wine and a baguette.

Devil’s Island had beaten us just as it had hundreds of others before us. They died quickly in attempts to escape or slowly in attempts to survive. We walked away as we had come, free men.

The last time I saw Frank was in Georgetown, Guyana, a week later. He was going inland to check out a mine on the Guyana-Venezuela border he had heard about. He felt that once the Marxist regime lost power in Guyana, its resources would be worth an investment.

His plan was to travel inland to visit a new town established by an American preacher, and then go up into the mountains to the mine. We kissed cheeks, and I boarded the plane for home.

When I arrived in Miami, the headlines read, Congressman, Jim Jones, 100’s die in Guyana. It was November 19, 1978.

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