Stories about the upcoming event were printed in the Dominica Chronicle and Mrs. Alfrey’s Star. The British expatriates at the club were delighted and anticipatory. Prince Philip had flown in for a visit a while back and although it seemed the ladies enjoyed seeing him more than did the men, still, it was quite a thrill for almost everyone.
Prince Charles also recently visited the island, while on duty with the Royal Navy. That was another first for Dominica. The trend toward independence for most of the British possessions was said to have caused the sudden interest in visits to these outlying places by the Royal family. On his escorted tour of the island, Prince Charles was taken to the Dominica Club where a fresh page in the visitors’ book was turned, and later preserved. His signature was the one name; Charles.
No reigning monarch had ever visited the island and Queen Elizabeth was to arrive on the royal yacht, Britannia, and stay for more than a day.
Margie and I were rarely excluded from events at Government House, which were the concern of Dominicans, or the British, but there were some things such as local politics in which we had no business; we were guests in this house, this “wonderful great green rock,” as Margie called it.
It was therefore, with great surprise that I received a request from the Ministry. They asked if I would come and meet with them to discuss decorations for the Botanical Gardens where the Queen was to have her traditional ‘Rally’ for the citizenry.
Although I was quite certain that all the government wanted was ideas, I still felt honored and grateful that something could be given back to this country for the continually wonderful treatment we had always received.
I was wrong. The meeting was for the purpose of determining how much help I would need from The Department of Public Works to construct my own design for stage decoration of the cricket pavilion at the Botanical Gardens; the place from which the queen would speak.
When the meeting was over I raced up to Island House to tell Margie the wonderful news.
The cricket pavilion was a small covered stand, which accommodated dignitaries during matches. In a very British way the Botanical Gardens had allowed ample room within its boundaries to include a field and spectator area for their national game.
Physically the pavilion was perhaps twenty-five feet square. It was open except for two sturdy columns in front and a solid back wall and contained half a dozen tiers of masonry seats. At the top of the seats was a level area, which would accommodate some standing room for an overflow crowd.
Traditionally in a Rally Her Royal Highness first rides back and forth through a large gathering of school children arranged carefully in squares separated by isles wide enough for a vehicle. A specially rigged canvas topped Land Rover was prepared so that with the canvas top removed the Queen could stand in the back as the vehicle slowly moved through the groups of children. She steadies herself by holding a bar provided for that purpose. Around this group of children the rest of her subjects, attending the Rally, stand. After the drive the Queen addresses her subjects. The cricket pavilion was to be the place here.
My design began with the construction of a platform at the height of the next to highest step. To make it large enough for the Queen to use comfortably in her address to the Rally crowd I had it built almost all the way to the front. The stage was built to look as though it were suspended, or floating, above a larger diameter box which was to be filled with the agricultural products produced on the island. The island’s chief occupation and export was agriculture and agricultural products and its flag contains the motto “Apres Bondie Cest la Ter,” “After God, the land”, in French Creole.
Representatives of the Agriculture Department and I agreed on an attractive mix of fruits, vegetables, and ‘ground provisions’; tubers such as dasheen, (or dachine), tanya, and various yams. Stems of Bananas, the island’s leading export crop, would be featured with specially selected bunches strategically placed as a border.
The decoration of the rest of the pavilion was to be simple. The Carib Indians sometimes wove whole palm fronds into mats for the sides of their houses and this seemed the ideal cover for the bare masonry walls and posts of the pavilion. The problem was that the mats had to be done ahead of time and would not all be of uniform color, ranging from green to light brown. In Barbados, however, I had noted that some of the local crafts workers weave coconut leaf hats to sell to the tourists and we had learned that the beautiful uniform dark brown of these hats was achieved by placing the woven green hats in the freezer overnight. It would be easy to have these large woven pieces stored over night in the freezer rooms at our plant, the Dominica Ice and Cold Store, to be collected the next morning, beautifully chocolate brown.
Once we had the woven panels up, covering all of the building and the two front posts, almost all the work was essentially completed. We were then on standby with a lot of last minute details, which had to be accomplished the following morning early; before the Rally.
The next morning was tense. The agriculture department brought over the fruit and provisions and they were carefully arranged. We had brought down several hundred dozen fresh cut pink anthuriums from our farms and each bloom stem was inserted in the weave of the palm mats until they seemed to dominate. The building was now quite tropical, warmly textured, and the fresh pink blooms showed beautifully against the dark brown.
I rushed back up to Island House to join Margie, the children, and our visiting family members, Margie’s sister, and my brother, who had special late invitations.
We were invited to the reception at Government House after the Rally. Forewarned that I might possibly meet the Queen, our friend, Mary Griffin, had tried to instruct me on how to respond.
“When you meet her, you bow. Just a little. Just tilt your head forward. That’s it. And then you answer her ‘Yes, Mahm,’
I tried it.
“You have the bow, but it’s Mahm, not Mam. It doesn’t rhyme with ham. Try that again.”
I tried it again.
“Oh, you Americans,” she said, “I guess you have it. Now, what if you meet the Duke of Windsor? Are you going to pronounce it Dook?”
“Duke, I tried.”
“Oh, that’s awful. We spell it, D u k e, but I want you to pronounce it, J u k e. Can you try that? Remember J u k e, with a J.”
“Juke,” I said, “The Juke of Windsor.”
“By George, he’s got it,” she laughed, mimicking the song from My Fair Lady. “Just remember, it’s Mahm, not Mam.”
We were soon on our way down to town, dressed to the nines.
Coming into town we could see the Britannia at anchor in the roadstead; it looked very large.
The jam of humans and vehicles at the entrances to the Botanical Gardens was agitated, and worsening. An officer of the Royal Dominican Police Force allowed us to enter when we were recognized.
We joined the large group of spectators standing on the shady south side of the field under several massive trees.
The government a year or two before had passed a law making the Shirt-Jack an appropriate dress for formal occasions. This is a short sleeved shirt, usually white, sometimes with decorative stitching, which is worn outside the pants without a coat. Few wore them this day. They wore suits, no matter how dated. There was just too much tradition in this visit. Almost every woman was in a dress, and most wore hats.
The Rally began and the Queen, standing in the back of the Land Rover slowly rode back and forth between the children dressed in their blue and white school uniforms. The object was to allow each child to be near enough to see her up close.
After driving the field, the Queen was escorted to the platform in the pavilion from which she addressed her subjects; then the Rally was over.
We proceeded the few blocks to the reception at Government House, the official residence of the British Administrator. The grounds had been transformed into an appropriate venue for a garden party. As an acknowledgment of the likelihood of rain, or to be hot when it was not, small, single post, umbrella-like thatched temporary rondavals were dotted over the front lawn of the large garden. Every structure would provide cover for approximately a dozen people.
Each shelter was designated for specific guests. It was necessary that we be separated from our family and assigned to number three. We found ourselves in rather important company.
Soon we saw the royal party arrive through the front gate and watched as the Administrator walked with the Queen to a shelter across the lawn near us. She met and talked with several people in that group and then was led on to another rondaval and repeated the brief exchange with some persons there.
I was thinking a little nervously about Mary’s instructions on proper behavior if I was introduced to the Queen.
A Dominican friend and his wife were in our group and I noticed that each time diffidence compelled me to move back, closer to the center post, they and others moved forward. Finally, despite Margie’s whispered scolding, I was leaning against the center post and the rest were crowding so far out that if it had rained they would have caught the drip.
I was happy to be back in the shadows and Margie was resigned to my decision when the Administrator and the Queen approached our shelter.
“Your Highness, that is Mr. Brand,” he said, pointing at me past the others. Everyone in front of me moved to the side. I think Margie gently shoved me forward, because it was obviously the place for me to be when I was being introduced.
“Mr. Brand,” the Queen smiled, and she was much lovelier than any picture of her I had ever seen, “We want you to know that we thought your work on the pavilion for the Rally was splendid. It was a very beautiful representation of Dominica; all the local products, and those anthuriums you grew. We are all most appreciative. Thank you.”
I am sure I tilted my head in a bow when she first spoke and Margie tells me I did the “Yes, Mahm,” but I have no independent recollection of having done so.