by Grace Allman Burke
Cecil Braithwaite, a tall, skinny kid, was nicknamed
‘Beanpole’ by his classmates. He didn’t like the name and was
always getting into fights because of it. Time after time he
came home with a black eye or a bloody nose after slugging it
out on the playground.
“Can’t you just walk away without fighting?” his father
asked. “Try to hear them but be deaf to what they’re
“I can’t. I must defend the Braithwaite name.”
Cecil knew though that the crux of the matter was jealousy.
He was the smartest boy in the class and the others weren’t
pleased. He was determined to stand his ground, however.
Cecil was born on a Caribbean island in the late 1940’s in
a tiny rural hamlet called Pegwell Boggs. No one is quite sure
how Pegwell Boggs got its name. Rumor has it that it was named
after Pegwell Bay, a shallow inlet on the coast of Kent in
England. After all, the Brits left their names all over the
Only two roads led out of Pegwell Boggs when Cecil was
growing up. One was Enterprise Main Road which the villagers
took after walking, bicycling or even riding a donkey cart to
reach it. The other, an unnamed road at the far end of the
village, led up the steep and jagged Thornbury Hill. Footpaths,
known as cart roads, afforded the only means of travel from one
part of the village to the other.
Everyone lived simply back then in “The Boggs” as the
villagers affectionately called their little corner of the
world. Neighbors knew each other well and most attended church
together. Cecil, dark and handsome with thick bushy eyebrows and
a ready smile, was at age twelve a choir boy at St.Bartholomew’s
At the local primary school that he attended, he often
heard the mocking whispers, “We all know who will be named Head
Boy again this year: Cecil of course.”
Sure enough at the end of the term, the Headmaster called
his name and he proudly stepped forward to receive the coveted
Cecil made an unexpected announcement as he sat at
breakfast with his family one morning. “I really want to be a
doctor one day. I want to find cures for diseases and help
sick people get well. If I study hard, I know I can make it.”
Cecil’s parents, Maisie and Seibert Braithwaite, smiled
with understanding. They had great plans for their only son.
“You will make it,” they encouraged. “We know we’ll be very
proud of you one day.”
By the time Cecil reached his teen years, the island was
firmly established as an agricultural society with sugar cane
its dominant crop. The cane plants, often growing as high as
thirteen feet tall, grew on acres and acres of land, dotting
almost the entire landscape. They dwarfed the small wooden
houses and buildings that surrounded them. Imported originally
from Brazil by the Dutch, sugar cane gradually became the main
wealth generator of the island.
During cane harvesting season, which occurred from February
to June each year, Pegwell Boggs literally came to life.
Everyone participated in some way to the rush of activities. Men
did the back-breaking work of cutting the canes in the fields by
hand. Women stripped and loaded them onto carts for transport to
the factory. Once there, the canes underwent several grueling
processes until the final product emerged—SUGAR!
Traditionally, a grand celebration known as “Crop Over”
erupted spontaneously at the end of the season. People danced in
the streets to the lively music of steel bands. Food and
merriment was the norm in thanksgiving for the harvest.
The Braithwaites, sugar cane growers themselves, owned a
small plot of land not far from Gibbons Plantation, the site of
a large sugar factory. During harvesting, Cecil took time off
from school to help with the cane cutting.
“I’m glad that we can sell our canes to the factory,” he
told his parents.
Though young, he realized that these sales contributed much
to his family’s income.
Cecil learned early on that, in addition to sugar, the
factory produced molasses and rum from the canes. Though nearly
all of these products were exported to countries abroad, some
were kept on the island for local consumption. Indeed there were
those in The Boggs that looked forward to cane season when rum
was in abundance. Miss Lottie, Cecil’s godmother, was a case in
point. Having a special taste for this pungent beverage, she
often imbibed a tad too much. On several such occasions, Cecil
helped her find her way home. Father Fenty, the priest at St.
Bartholomew’s, chided her gently whenever this happened.
By his mid-teens, Cecil’s parents suggested he take a job
at Gibbons sugar factory. He applied and was hired to assist the
men that operated the huge grinding machines. He quickly learned
that these machines worked tirelessly to crush and grind the
canes to extract the cane juice—the first step in sugar
“Remember to stand away from the machines,” his foreman
warned. “Keep your eyes on the wheels and grinders and always
Fascinated by the factory operations, Cecil stared open-
mouthed while trying to keep pace with his job. He’d never seen
anything like it. The whirring and grinding sounds were
deafening. He watched as tons of cane juice rushed endlessly
into vats at the bottom of the machines. He mopped perspiration
constantly from his face because of the hot humid air.
Back home, he chattered incessantly to his parents. “I feel
like a midget next to those machines. I’m so excited. I enjoy
“I’m glad,” Maisie replied. “Remember what your boss told
you, however. Stay alert and keep your eyes and ears open.”
One day Cecil was sent to help out in the factory’s Boiler
Room. Here the next step in refining the cane juice took place.
Boiler machines, set at extremely high temperatures, removed
impurities from the juice. A worker showed Cecil how to
carefully open the valves on the machines to enable the juice to
flow out slowly. Pans attached to the ends of the machines
received the juice and held it there to be cooled.
Due to his inexperience, Cecil opened the valves too
quickly, causing the scalding cane juice to rush out, splashing
directly into his face and onto his upper body. He uttered a
blood-curdling scream, then fell unconsciously to the floor.
Panic broke out as several workers ran to his aid. Wrapping
him in towels, they lifted him onto a stretcher then onto a
truck. Rushing down Enterprise Main Road, they arrived at the
island’s main hospital. Cecil’s life was changed forever. For
several days, he floated in and out of consciousness, hanging
between life and death. It seemed certain that he wouldn’t
survive the awful third degree burns that he suffered. His
parents kept hoping for a miracle and anxiously sat vigil with
him throughout the ordeal. The entire village of Pegwell Boggs
offered prayers to God for his recovery.
Mercifully, young Cecil made it. After months of surgeries
and treatments, he finally went home from the hospital. Sadly,
however, he bore no resemblance to the attractive young man he
was before the accident. Grotesque scars lined his face and were
difficult for anyone to look at. As he entered The Boggs that
day, villagers lined the cart road that led to his house.
Grateful that their prayers for him were answered, they
enthusiastically welcomed him home.
Cecil’s convalescence was long, tedious and very emotional.
He could hardly look in the mirror without bursting into tears.
“I don’t think I can live like this,” he anguished.
Father Fenty and even the boys in his class came around to
help keep his spirits up.
About a year after returning home, Cecil made a surprising
announcement. “I still want to go to medical school to become a
doctor. It’s something I know I must do.”
No one believed that he could. It seemed so impossible.
Nevertheless, with dogged determination, he finished high school
and gained entrance to the island’s university. It was clear
that his spirit was alive and well despite the scars that he
carried. He was resolved to become somebody in life and not just
Outside of his village, ignorant people stared and made
unkind remarks. However, exceedingly grateful to be alive, he
somehow managed to stay focused. His brain was still intact
and his intellect got him through.
Five years after the accident, Cecil completed his
university studies, graduating with Honors. As he walked across
the stage to receive his medical degree, his parents wept while
the villagers that attended cheered with respect and pride. He
finished just in time to take over the practice of their elderly
doctor who was retiring. From that day onward, Cecil was dubbed
“The Hero of Pegwell Boggs.”