Michael Young, the longest-serving red cap porter at the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, prepares to assist this passenger with his luggage.
Bryan Miller, JIS Staff Writer
Being styled an ambassador often conjures up notions of buttoned-down diplomats shuffling from one city to another, striking economic deals, brokering rapprochements and pruning a country's international image.
But Michael Young, a 40-year veteran of the red cap porter service, has been an unofficial Jamaican ambassador, welcoming foreigners and locals alike with an endearing smile and a willing hand.
Now 63, the Sandy Bay, Hanover, resident has worked at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay for his entire tenure. Young has managed to lead a successful life, despite surviving solely on tips from travellers. Red cap porters are not salaried workers.
Young, or 'Cracker Jack' as he is affectionately called by co-workers and friends, was recruited as a red cap porter at the then Montego Bay Airport in 1967.
"It all got started while I was a reserve soldier at Jamaica National Reserve, and working from the base at the old airport in Montego Bay, one could see the planes coming in and passengers disembarking. Then someone told me that they were going to form a new service at the airport to carry the bags of the passengers, and I went over there and applied," Young shared.
With the shine on his shoes and the confidence of a soldier, he was immediately selected to be one of the founding 15 members of the red cap porter service.
"We started with 15 of us - 15 men. We were selected and then we had to go to Kingston to the Police Academy to train for the work. We did drilling and educational training," he stated.
Cracker Jack said he is the only one of the original 15 remaining in the service today. Some have passed away, some retired and others have migrated.
"I am married and have six children and I decided that I was not leaving here to go anywhere else. I am sticking close to my wife and children," he boasted.
But how does Young view his job in relation to Jamaica's number one foreign exchange earner, tourism?
"I love to meet people," he said, adding that his years in the service have given him the opportunity to meet several persons of different political, religious and social backgrounds. On the enviable who's who list are former world heavyweight boxing champions Mike Tyson and George Foreman and American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
"And even if I did not get to carry their bags, but I got a handshake or to say a word to them. I feel very good in myself," he said proudly.
The Ministry of Tourism, recognising that red cap porters at Jamaica's two international airports - Norman Manley and the Sangster International - are among the first and the last persons visitors to the island have to interact with, levelled some amount of recognition on that grouping at the beginning of the 2007/2008 winter tourist season. Through the Jamaica Tourist Board, functions were held in Kingston and Montego Bay in December 2007 to recognise 40 years of operation by the red cap porters and the invaluable service being rendered to the tourism industry.
At the Montego Bay reception, held at the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort, Director of Tourism Basil Smith described the red cap porters as resource persons who could provide insight into the history and development of modern tourism in Jamaica. He made reference to the fact that the room count in the tourist industry has grown from a little more than 4,000 in 1967 to approximately 27,000 and counting.
"What has not changed is the requirement for our tourism workers and Jamaicans as a whole to play an outstanding and untiring role as contributors to and ambassadors for tourism," he stated.
Showered with praise
At the function, Young was recognised as the longest-serving individual in the red cap porter service in Montego Bay and was showered with gifts and a plaque in recognition of his long and dedicated service.
Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett described the porters as the face of tourism, as they carry the weight of ensuring that Jamaica's tourism image is preserved.
"You are where it all begins for us because it is through you that the visitors find their first real expression of the Jamaican people," he stated.
Bartlett describes the porters as the "moment of truth" for Jamaica's tourism, and called them service ambassadors.
Young was oozing with satisfaction and fulfilment.
"I feel proud being a red cap. I feel proud when I assist a guest and say, 'Sir, please come back to Jamaica because I know that I am playing a part in building tourism," he stated.
This is a special Gleaner feature in partnership with the Jamaica Information Service.