June 20, 2004 Alan Richardson was cooking up a batch of sprat Saturday afternoon on a grill behind the Joseph Aubain BallPark. It's not what Richardson usually fires up the grill for, but Saturday he had special guests, four Frenchmen.
Now, in Frenchtown that's who you'd expect to see, but these guests had an unusual mission. It is the first, and may well be the last, time that they have set foot together on their home soil in 65 years. They met on the tiny patch of land on which had been their home, and is now no more; this was their goal. The brothers have been here individually over the years, but never as one.
Johnnie Aubain says, "We are facing a reality that it is a moment in our lives that will never be repeated again." Perhaps. Johnnie is 74; Victor, 71; Tony, 80; and Jean, 81, for a combined 306 years. But, it's a lively 306.
The four wandered the ballpark Friday night, greeting old friends, reminiscing, keeping a beat to the music. The Imaginations Brass is a far cry from what they were raised on. "We didn't have anything like that," Johnnie says, "we had Calypso and quadrille."
Richardson, Frenchtown's artist in residence, and his brother Henry, who is helping with the grilling, weren't born yet when the brothers lived here. But they are family now in the ways that the community knows each other. The Richardson's mother, Josephine, and her husband Nell, used to mind the Aubain brothers in summer in St. Barts before she and her husband moved to St. Thomas.
Lots of things have changed in the last 65 years, and, in the eyes of the Aubain brothers, not all of them for the good. "It's nice to have electricity," says Jean "When we grew up there were just candles, so that's good." What's not so good, they all say, is the garbage they see on the streets. "It looks terrible," says Tony. "When we were here, it was cleaner. It seems like nobody cares that much." They expressed disappointment about the looks of St. Thomas because they all say as one that "she will always be the jewel in our eyes and hearts." "And you can quote that," Johnnie says.
The boys all attended Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic School until their father, Louis Almando Aubain, sent for them in the states, where they went school, after which they all joined the service, except Jean who had a 26-year career in the Merchant Marine. The other three brothers all followed their service with careers with the airline industry.
In fact, Johnny says, "There are 14 Aubains in the service in our family. I am putting together a picture of all of them for the museum."
He is referring to the soon-to-be-competed Frenchtown Museum, where the Richardson brothers are cooking the sprat. Out in back they have set up a makeshift grill, and the brothers and others sit around chatting. The museum has been in the works for a few years.
Alan Richardson says July 17 is the day for the unveiling, complete with fanfare, bands, parades. The brothers won't be able to come back for the occasion, but Johnnie's handiwork will be on display. "I made a model of St. Anne's Chapel. It's up there now, but I am donating it to the museum." The pastel yellow chapel cannot be missed, sitting on a tiny hill overlooking Frenchtown.
There's no mistaking the brothers. They are tall, Johnnie about six feet, angular, and wordy. He looks out at the ballfield beyond where Richardson is grilling. "This was named for our cousin, you know," he says, "He died in Vietnam." "Yes," Victor interrupts, "and where we are standing now was all water." He gestures over to the west. "Right about there would have been home plate on our old ball field," Victor says.
When. as young boys, they were growing up in the 30's, the bayside, as the shore area is called, reached up to where the ballpark is now. And it wasn't Frenchtown; the village was called Carenage, which it still is, to some.
"We had a few stores," says Tony, "and they may have had some electricity at night, but we didn't." Looking around they all point out where the old places used to be. "That was Danet's small store," Tony says, "right over there."
About the only structure that still stands is the late Bar Normandie, though it exists under a different name, Noche, and a much altered dynamic. It is now a trendy restaurant, rarely frequented by the local community. The local community or significant parts of it called the old Normandie, home. Business was conducted there.
At mention of the Normandie, Johnnie lights up. "They had a dance about once a month in the old dance hall there. We'd listen to music off records, and my sister Florie and were the best jitterbug dancers there. They played lots of swing."
The brothers have one last story. The name hasn't always been Aubain. It's actually a clerical error. Johnnie says when their father joined the Navy, they made a mistake, adding an extra A in his name. "So, he just let it be and it's been Aubain ever since."
There were a lot of logistics involved in getting together the visit, with the brothers ages and medical problems, which Johnnie says "could have put a damper on our visit." And none of them live in the same town; only two in the same state. "Those were concerns," he says with a big smile, "but, we pulled it off."
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