08 September 2012

Of bugs and other fun things

Helen was home with us now - we had two children!  Johnny turned 2 in July, 1977.  We had now been living here for over a year, and were getting used to some of the interesting fellow occupants of the house.  Termites, for one thing.

The house was built of concrete - in fact, not even of concrete block, but poured, steel-reinforced concrete walls, a steel-reinforced slab floor, up on pillars, a steel-reinforced roof - shaped like a shallow funnel to drain rainwater into the tank.  This was useful as both water and electricity were significantly intermittent, and the water supply simply ceased for 5-7 months of the year.

The internal partitioning in the house was not built of concrete.  It was built of untreated timber.

I recall talking, once, with one of the men who worked in Public Works - who maintained the house - about treated timber.  He agreed that treated timber was a good idea.  Occasionally they used it.  Most of the time, the need for timber was sudden; what was available in Guam - their source for it - was often untreated.  Maybe next time.

Susan's counters in her kitchen were Formica-topped.  She will recall the day, sometime during 1977, when she noticed that one of these was sagging a bit.  She pushed slightly on the metal-framed edge of it - it moved!

One imagines a doctor, opening a patient's abdomen for a simply appendectomy, only to find his inner organs riddled with cancer.

Susan lifted the counter top.  The space underneath was not occupied by wood framing riddled with termite droppings.  The space underneath was occupied by termite droppings - together with many termites.  These it was that was holding the top up.

A regular set of tasks concerning termites characterised our whole stay in Yap.  On the above occasion we contacted Public Works.  Someone came around, found that essentially all the wood in the house was in a parlous state from termites.  The internals of the house were stripped out completely and rebuilt - with untreated timber.  This had to be done at least once more during our total of eight years there - possibly more than once.

Termites eat wood.  Books are made from wood.  Perhaps books are a treat to termites, since books are already partly pre-digested.  I had a great many books.  One of Susan's daily tasks was to go through a shelf of books - I had many shelves of books in the house - and to remove each book.  Where termites had got in, bug spray was applied (in the case of many books, they simply had to be discarded.  There was not enough readable material left in them.  I have still today many partially-eaten books, still usable).

Termites also are wingless - except during the mating flight.  I don't know what triggers these.  Wikipedia says that in areas with a distinct dry season, the first heavy rain often does so.  I do know that we kept a close watch on the fly screens of our house for the arrival of winged termites.  On seeing one, panic stations were manned.  On go the porch light; off go the house lights.  A pan of water is placed below the porch light - to catch, and, one hopes, drown the beasts.  Whether this did any good, I cannot say.

Termites seem ant-like to us, but they are, in fact, closely related to the cockroaches.  This page tells me that the Oriental Cockroach is about 25 mm long - but that "tropical cockroaches are much bigger."  Could be.  Ours were big enough.  Having lived seven years in Honolulu, cockroaches were not new to us.  Nevertheless, only in Yap did I discover that they can, when pressed, fly - yuck!

I had by now a well-established work routine.  In Honolulu, Bob Hsu and I had created a computerised (main-frame) database of the Yapese dictionary work that I had done, together with material from his own Yapese research.  I had an enormous print-out of this - some hundreds of large-format fanfold pages bound in a folder - that I took, every day, to the Yap Museum.  There I went through the very tedious work of checking pronunciations, meanings, getting example sentences, and generally filling out the work.  The intention was for this material to be sent off to Honolulu to be used to modify the computerised database.  This would then be re-printed, sent to me, and the work would continue.

This process was becoming irksome, and beginning to seem ridiculous.  I had been first introduced to computers in 1960, had been an active user of them since 1962, and had been dependent on them for much of my work from 1964.  I knew that mini-computers, such as the DEC PDP-8, were beginning to become available in ways the I thought the Education Department might be able to afford.  In 1977, I began to make enquiries.

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