Micronesia: An Introduction

When I was diagnosed with gliobastoma multiforme in December 2015, the first thing on my bucket list was a return trip to Yap Island, where my family had lived for four years from 1966 to 1970 (ages 5 to 9 for me). If I was able to do that, I thought it was also high time for me to visit the mysterious abandoned stone city of Nan Madol on Pohnpei, which serves as the entrance to the subterranean world in A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool, and was also allegedly the inspiration for Lovecraft’s R’lyeh, where Cthulhu lies dreaming.

Micronesia (meaning “small islands”) was settled by humans millenia ago, although anthropologists and archaelogists aren’t sure exactly when. Magellan discovered the Marianas Islands, including Guam, in 1480, but the islands became particularly important to Spain when the Spanish were looking for an alternate route to China and the Spice Islands in the 17th Century. Spain took control of most of Micronesia in 1885, but lost control of Guam to the US at the end of the Spanish-American War; the rest of their Micronesaian possessions were sold to Germany at that time. After WWI the Japanese were granted rights to the islands by the United Kingdom and the League of Nations as a reward for their naval support against the Germans in the Pacific during the war. In WWII the US fought its way across Micronesia, launching its atomic strikes against Japan from the Northern Marianas islands of Tinian. After the war the islands were designated the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which was administered by the US.

Bomb crater and wreckage of Japanese Zero from WWII

By the late ‘50s there was a worldwide uproar over the US’ failure to provide the TTPI any support. When JFK was elected in 1960, he responded to the criticism by sending Peace Corps volunteers to the islands, as well as hiring teachers and administrators to work on behalf of the TTPI. That same year, my father earned his Master of Education and started teaching. Not long after, he and Mom were looking for a place where he could teach and they could save some money. He thought about going to Perth in Australia, but he saw an ad in an education magazine looking for teachers for the TTPI. He says what clinched it for them was the final line: “No poisonous snakes.” Apparently the Daggetts across the street had taught in Africa for a time, and told tales of fending off snakes.

Bumoon, Dad, and Falatnug at Kanifay in 1966

Our family Christmas card in 1966 or 1967

So in the summer of 1966 we moved to Yap. Dad taught at two different schools, starting in the village of Kanifay. He was such a success there, that the Yapese Secretary of Educaton John Mangefel hired him to be the principal of Alaw, which was in the capitol of Yap, Colonia. Life on Yap was a formative experience for even the adults in our family. My parents had never been out of the country when we flew to Yap on a Pan Am propeller plane. My brother Lonnie was twelve, and it probably left the deepest imprint on him. He took his wife Terry out there in the late ‘80s and connected with some of the old crowd and some younger folks who became our main points of contact, particularly Theo (an old schoolmate of ours) and his wife Antonia (Yapese names, Thinnifel and Garek). By that point, the islands of the TTPI had become independent nations, although still dependent financially on the US. Yap was part of the Federated State of Micronesia, along with Pohnpei (formerly Ponape), Chuuk (formerly Truk) and Kosrae (formerly Kusrae). In 1998 our whole family, now expanded by three grandchildren, returned to the island, where Dad was greeted and feted as a legend out of the past. The governor of the time, Vincent Figir, admonished Thinnifel to watch over us, and he did a great job of it. In 2002, Lonnie and his family returned for six months in Theo and Antonia’s village of Kaday. Our niece, Jolie, joined them, and I came along for nearly three months.

Dad and Bumoon on Christmas Day 1998.

Family portrait on Christmas 1998

So it was natural for me to ask Lonnie if he’d be interested in another trip out there, and of course he was. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him and Terry. They did all the planning and organizing of the trip, and saw to my comfort when I was struggling to find the stamina to do much of anything that I’d hoped to do. It didn’t help that right before we headed out there, I was told that my cancer had returned and had spread, and I was put on daily “micro-doses” of chemo for the duration of our traveling. My oncologist wasn’t thrilled about the idea of my heading out to the middle of nowhere under these conditions, and warned me that the worst-case scenario was that I might have some serious medical problems and then be stuck waiting for a medical professional to accompany me on the return trip. Still, in the end, she thought that it was the right quality-of-life decision for me to take a trip that was very important to me, and she was hopeful that it would actually help me find the ground on which to resist the resurgent cancer. I also had three infusions of Avastin before the trip for good measure.

I had to have my blood tested three times on Yap to make sure the chemo wasn’t doing too much damage.


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