A Micronesia Diary: Home Is Like No Place There

5/24/17: Today we tracked down Dad’s old colleague Bumoon, with whom he taught at the school in Kanifay during our first year on Yap, starting in 1966. Like Chigiy, Bumoon was surprised and pleased by our appearance at his doorstep. When our whole family came out in 1998, we spent a memorable Christmas afternoon with his whole family.

Lonnie and Bumoon in the driveway

Christmas 1998 with our family and Bumoon’s

5/24/17: This building used to be Alaw School, where I attended third and fourth grade. My most vivid memory of Alaw is of our Palauan teacher, Mrs Rumy, getting fed up with the antics of me and another American kid, David Barry, and having us cut switches with which she whipped our asses in front of the class, no doubt to the delight of our Yapese classmates. I also remember my outrage that the principal, who happened to be my father, refused to intervene when I complained about this abuse.

Alaw

Lonnie Graduates from eighth grade at Alaw in a Yapese thuw. His classmate, Ngaden, went on to become a doctor, but then died of hepatitis.

5/24/17: We first looked for Dad’s old colleague Bumoon yesterday, but he wasn’t home. Since he lives near the old Japanese airstrip, we went looking for the old airplane wreckage we played on as children. We found one I didn’t remember: a Nakajima Torpedo Bomber of the type that was used to destroy the US fleet at Pearl Harbor. The Zeroes we used to play on have deteriorated considerably in the intervening 50 years. As have we all.

All that remains of a Nakajima Torpedo Bomber, caught on the ground in a surprise raid.

5/25/17: The red clay of Tomil. Theo once told us that if you looked at the zoris (flip flops) gathered on a doorstep and saw one crusted with red, you knew someone from Tomil was inside.

Today we went exploring on the bumpy dirt roads of Tomil and Gagil, lurching through the villages of Wanyan and Gachpar, which were the centers of high caste power in the pre-Contact era. We also looked for the second old Japanese airstrip, which I’d never heard of before, and the remains of a Japanese lighthouse. We found signs for both, but not the things themselves. We did find the remains (basically just the engine) of another Corsair that had flown on a raid from Peleliu. The marker said it was seen going into a bombing dive that it never came out of. According to the marker by Tomil harbor (the main harbor for Yap) over 40 U.S. aircraft and over 140 men were lost in air attacks on Yap. I had not thought death had undone so many on Yap in WWII.

5/26/17: When we saw Bumoon on Thursday, he invited us to a family gathering the next day for a visiting relative who was returning to her home in Portland. When we showed up we were shocked to be introduced to another of our father’s old colleagues, Henry Worswick.

Henry Worswick still looks ready to rumble

When some of us came out in 2002, we looked for Henry but thought we were told he was dead. Apparently not. Henry was flabbergasted and deeply moved by our appearance too. He and Bumoon agreed that Dad was a great man, that they loved him deeply, and still remembered his face clearly. I didn’t point out that this “great” man had failed to protect his poor helpless little son from the Palauan witch with a switch, Mrs Rumy. I did tell Henry that when I was a little boy, he had the reputation of being the strongest man on the island, capable of walking into the toughest bars in Colonia and wiping the floor with all comers. Lonnie said we have a slide of him winning the weight-lifting contest at a U.N. Day celebration. (Micronesia was a U.N. Trust Territory when we lived here in the ’60s, so U.N. Day was celebrated. All the elementary students made flags to carry in the parade. For some reason I made a South Korean flag.)

Henry lifts a weight at a U.N. Day competition in the ’60s

Henry ducked these comments about his strength by claiming that his brother, John, was even stronger. Their father was an American GI who married a Palauan woman from I believe he said Peleliu. They moved to Yap in 1963. Through his mother he claims to be related to just about everyone in Micronesia. Once he and Bumoon had finished praising Dad to high heaven, they moved on to decrying the idiot politicians running the FSM, while we feasted on taro, yams, sashimi, barbecued chicken and pork, rice, spaghetti and much, much more. It was a splendid evening on Memory Lane.

When I got back to the US, Dad told me that Henry had been in prison when Secretary of Education John Mangefel told Dad about him. Mangefel said Henry was a good man who deserved a second chance, and he persuaded Dad to hire him as a teacher at Alaw. No wonder he worships the ground Dad walks upon! Dad didn’t remember what crime he was in prison for.

5/26/17: Henry Worswick, kept giving Bumoon’s dog, Boom Boom, tidbits from his plate and then exclaiming with enormous innocence, “Louis, your dog keeps following me. He must really like me!”

5/26/17: Went snorkeling again today. We got my swimming cap and mask adjusted correctly, so no Yapese Neti pot. I still had problems with confidence, dry throat from breathing through the snorkel, and cramps in feet not accustomed to using fins, so I still didn’t make it out to the best snorkeling areas, but I managed to see a couple of sea cucumbers and some gorgeous angel fish with broad bands of black and yellow and a long white streamer coming off the top fin. (Probably a Moorish Idol.) I gained some confidence in the process, so maybe next time I’ll make it out to one of the holes where the best snorkeling has always been.

5/27/17: I’ve been sleeping like a sunken log out here. It takes me a gradual while to rise to full consciousness every morning. I’d like to think it’s because my body is committing its full resources to fighting the cancer, but it’s equally likely that the experience of being here has been so immersive that it takes all my energy to process it.

In any event, we are in our final days on the island, and the next three evenings we’ll be dining with various folks. Tonight we dine with the governor. He was the first familiar face we met when we got off the plane, and he came over and shook our hands after Terry went up to him and explained who were. “Ah yes, Theo told me you were coming.” When we got through Customs and found Theo, he told us, “Tony said you guys don’t need to worry about paying for the apartment in Kaday.” Thanks, governor!

5/27/17: This is Gaanelay School, which I attended for first and second grade in a classroom in the far building. My only memory of Gaanelay is of learning how to read the hands of a clock. I want to think Luce Nelson taught that class, but I’m really not sure sbout that. Luce was our neighbor — a Filipina who was married to an American from Salt Lake City. She introduced us to the wonders of lumpia.

The mention of lumpia got a lot of love from my Facebook friends.

My sister reminded me that my time at Gaanelay is also the source of another favorite family story, which is about the time in second grade when I got up on the desk and mooed like a cow. I told her that I only remember the incident through the family story, but the more I thought about it, the more it came back to me: sometime before we moved to Yap some farm cousins taught me that cows don’t really say “moo” but more of a “merrrr,” and I was trying demonstrate this sound for Yapese kids who had never seen or heard a cow before, although memory tells me there was a single cow on the island when we were there in the ’60s. Who knows?

5/28/17: In the immortal words of Jim de Liscard, “Fuck fuck fucketty fuck fuck fuck!” Yesterday after Terry and I paid our respects at Dave Vecella’s grave, I had a seizure while we were driving to town to pick up Lonnie. I was able to warn Terrry it was coming and ask her to head back to the apartment. The seizure was very similar to the ones I’ve suffered in the past. I was conscious the whole time and was in partial control of my body. The major symptoms were shuddering in my chin and jaw, raling breaths, and uncontrollable contortions of the mouth.

It was mostly over by the time we got home, and I was able to slurrily ask Terry to feed me a dose of Zopheram, which is intended to nip seizures in the bud. Eventually she got me into the apartment and onto the couch. While I rested and she tried to figure out what to do next (Lonnie was expecting us to pick him up after a dive), I felt my chin and jaw start to shudder again, maybe a half hour after the first seizure. This time Terry was able to get a Zopheram into my mouth immediately, and sure enough the seizure abated.

Terry (my guardian angel) then drove into town where she could get cellular reception and called the emergency number at UW Medical Center. To my surprise and vast relief, the nurse she talked to said I was unlikely to have any further seizures before I fly back to Portland on the 31st. If I do have another seizure, I’m to seek immediate medical attention. Meanwhile we’ll do our best to make sure Terry is seated by me all the way to PDX, with the vial of Zopheram clutched in her fist.

So much for dining with the governor! This trip was always a calculated risk. I chose adventure over moving directly into a new treatment plan, although we tried to hedge our bets with the daily microdoses of chemo. Apparently that trick didn’t work, but we won’t know the full extent of the damage until I get my next MRI on Friday. The seizures aren’t a good sign, no doubt. But we’ll see what step comes next. Stay tuned. [In case you haven’t already heard, I should mention that the seizures were a kind of false alarm. The MRI actually showed that the cancer had diminished since the previous MRI.)

Dave Vecella’s grave

5/28/17: As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted by the seizures, yesterday Terry and I paid our respects at Dave Vecella’s grave. Dave and his wife Terry and son Ryan (a source of constant amusement in our family) lived across the lane from us in 2002, and Lonnie, Ryan, Jolie, and I took the basic diving course from him. Jolie and I went on to take advanced diving from him as well. We became good enough friends that I was devastated to hear of his death in a tragic diving misadventure in 2008, about which we learned more details on this trip. I’ve thought of him often on this trip. If you google his name, you’ll likely find the memorial website his brother set up for him, bursting with testimonials from people all around the world who dived with him and got a dose of his pungent personality and warm sense of humor. I asked Ryan, who showed us the grave in their front yard, whether his Dad had ever given him the top secret recipe for Painkiller, a powerful cocktail that Dave served us on one of my last days here in 2002. Of course, he hadn’t, because he wasn’t expecting to die. Rest in peace, Dave, I miss your smiling face.

Dave in 2002

5/29/17: Thinnifel, family, and friends unleashed the Yapese magic on us last night. Some of this food I’d never tasted before, particularly the land crabs served in their own shells. The land crabs have been out in hordes on this trip, scurrying around with their claws held above their heads. Theo said he’s never sure whether the gesture is menacing or a friendly wave. It always looks menacing to me, but also a bit comical. I got out of the car yesterday and saw one scuttling away and raised my hands over my head and made claws out of them. It promptly raises its claws over its head in response.

Taro, plaintain, tapioca, crab, chicken, some kind of spring roll, and I don’t know what else

I asked Lonnie whether he really stuck his hand down a land crab hole when we were kids, and he said his theory was that you had a second to feel whether you were touching the legs or the claws. My theory is that you should never stick your hand in a hole inhabited by an animal with claws. Ah well, Lonnie still has all his fingers, although a giant hermit crab once took his thumbnail off. Like father, like son. Cody tried to pick up something curious in the mangroves around Nan Madol and yelped when it turned out to be a crab that drew blood when it nipped him.

Theo says that on Yap slobs are called crabs, because when crabs dig their holes they leave the dirt strewn at the doorstep. Who knew that slobs tasted so good? They were delicious, as was everything else. Home cooking at its finest. Kammagar, Theo!

5/29/17: The itty bitty gecko that lives in our upstairs bathroom came out of the drain to bid me adieu this morning. We leave tonight in the wee hours. Bye bye, itty bitty gecko, eat plenty of bugs, especially mosquitoes, grow big and strong, chirp your gecko song, multiply your tribal throng, and prosper and live long.

Itty Bitty Gecko

5/30/17: Yap is not only the Island of Stone Money, but also the Island of Stone Paths. A network of these paths connected the villages in pre – Contact days when the only mode of land travel was by foot. As we prepare to leave the island by more ethereal paths, we say Kammagar for the homecoming hospitality and Kafel to all our island friends.

Dad and I disappear down a stone path in days gone by

5/30/17: In case anyone is feeling really sorry for me because of the recent health blip or for Lonnie and Terry because they’re worried I’ll have another, perhaps it’s time for me to confess that benefactors upgraded us to the coddled class all the way to PDX. Chairbeds turn out to be a very, very comfortable way to fly the seven hours from Guam to Honolulu. Thanks Mom and Dad! For the first time in my life I was the first person off the plane. On the other hand we’ve been through Customs and TSA in all three terminals we’ve been through today (Yap, Guam, Honolulu), which is kind of a grind.

Coddled Class

CODA:

The question on everyone’s mind

So, in the end, was it worth it? It wasn’t what I dreamed of, because in my dream I had recovered from treatment, and was able to hike and snorkel as much as I wanted to. But in terms of a trip down memory lane with people I loved, it was absolutely wonderful. I have no doubt that the experience gave a boost to my system, and that Yapese food and love of my family, American and Yapese, helped my recovery. Whenever I go out there, I feel it in my blood, but I also feel I’m always an outsider. Eventually I’d like to have some of my ashes spread out there, but that’s not something I need to worry about quite yet, seizures be damned.

You probably can’t see it in this picture, but Yap is over by my left elbow.

 

 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *