29 October 2012


It sometimes seems to me a miracle that the human race has survived as long as it has.  We who were born in the mid- to late-20th Century in a country like the United States, in a prosperous family, have perhaps been nurtured in one of the safest environments in history - and yet in my own childhood I nearly put one eye out (at the age of 2 or 3); severed my right Achilles tendon (at the age of 12); and survived untold potentially-fatal automobile accidents.  I have spoken of Johnny's fall off the roof.  Helen's turn came next.

One lovely day in, probably, March, of 1978 - when Johnny was close to three years old and Helen was about nine months - Susan was startled to find that Johnny had run outside.  Neither of us is certain what happened.  I have a memory of Sue's opening the door to go hang out laundry, or possibly to bring it in.  She doesn't remember precisely the circumstances - but Johnny had dashed outside.

We had already had the afore-mentioned incident with Johnny.  Another time - possibly before this - he had managed to clamber his way down the 10 or 20-metre cliff that separated our house from the road and had been picked up by a passing friend and brought home to us - and his return to the house was the first we had any intimation of his disappearance.  So Sue was, understandably, sensitive to the dangers threatening our children.  She dashed out of the house after Johnny.

Leaving the back door open.

Helen could not walk yet - but she could crawl, and she could pull herself to a standing position using vertical objects.

Hearing the door slam, Susan's first thought was that this was good - it would keep Helen safely inside.  Then she heard her scream.

The next few minutes are a little unclear.  Sue must have 'phoned me at the office - if we had a telephone by then.  Neither us us is sure that we did.  In any case, I appear to have taken one of the Education Department trucks, come home, and we rushed Helen to the hospital.

Yap had, at that time, acquired its first surgeon.  Dr Zantua was a young Filipino surgeon - ambitious and, we think, using his time in Yap as a springboard to get a job in the US.  There was also a young America interne when we arrived at the hospital.  Dr Zantua was there and Helen was taken immediately into his surgery, with the interne accompanying him.

Not long after, the interne came out, with a grave expression on his face.  The accident must have been, he said, more serious than he had thought.  Dr Zantua had found it necessary to remove the last joint of the ring finger on Helen's left hand.  He - the interne - hadn't realised that would be necessary.

In reality, it may not have been.  The interne told us, privately, on another occasion that he was quite sure that a smashed finger, at that age, would have regenerated with little permanent effect.  Whether or no, it was now too late.  Indeed, over the next month or two, as the injury itself healed, the bone of the last joint had begun to be exposed, with consequent danger of osteomylitis.  It had to be excised.  Over the first several years after that there were occasional problems with the nail bed regenerating.  I think we had to have that excised as well.

My impression is that Helen only became aware sometime that her finger was different from other persons' when, at about age 8, she, with our other children, began taking music classes - initially, playing the recorder.  Was she disturbed by this?  I do not know, but it seems to me she was not too deeply concerned.  I remember saying, once, years later, when she was a very accomplished flute player, that that particular finger being short was an advantage, for the particular notes she plays with the left hand.

A few months after this occurrence, when we had lived in Yap for over two years, we experienced something that is regular in the life of oversears contact workers: our first furlough.

20 October 2012


God's blessings come in unexpected ways.  The divorces with which my and Susan's two families have been surrounded must seem like a curse. Perhaps a curse is a blessing in disguise, depending on how you receive it.  Susan told me the following story only many years - perhaps twenty - after it happened.

By the time we moved to Yap in 1976, we had made two international moves and faced many situations that were often complicated and demanding.  Sometimes John and I had problems that could be very distressing.
I thought that these things didn’t bother me too much, but the stress of them was building up inside and there wasn’t much help.  My family was a long way away and they were having their own problems.  When I meet new immigrants in New Zealand, I understand their problems.
By 1979 I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in Yap much longer.  I visited a friend who was a lawyer and he said he would help me to leave the island if I wanted to  - it was a turning point for me in many ways.  Until then I had not talked to anyone about my feelings.  I can remember walking back from his office thinking that I had to make up my mind.  I prayed and asked God for help in doing this.  I really felt at the time that I knew something about marriage and what I had wanted and what it was supposed to be and the fact that I seemed to be surrounded by divorce in my family.  When I looked at the numbers (as I had not done before) there were few relationships that had not ended that way.  My parents were divorced.  John’s parents were separated.  My father’s parents were divorced.  John’s father’s parents were divorced.  John himself was divorced.
I can’t really say that I know what all of my reasons at the time were for what I decided.  I had two children.  If I left John, where would I go?  How would I take care of me and my children?  What if, somehow, I couldn’t take them with me.
But somehow I am certain that there was something else.  I knew, in my heart, that God did not want me to do this – that this was not something I could do.  I simply could not walk away.  I made a determination at that time – one which, I know, others have made before me, and sometimes you can stick with it and perhaps sometimes you cannot.  But I determined that, if it was up to me, my marriage would not end in divorce.
Susan only told me this many years later - perhaps around 1999 or later - at a time when I think we could both say that our marriage had changed.  She would, I believe, have been unwise to have said anything about it before.  Would I have used the story for manipulative purposes?  I fear I might have done.

It may be no coincidence that when she went to see the lawyer in Yap, she had come back, some six months previously, from our first home furlough.  I had better talk a bit about that next time.

14 October 2012

Troubled waters

Well before we were married, Susan had begun to discern what would become serious problems in our relationship.  Indeed, from the beginning, my own behaviour was erratic.  This, perhaps, she and I were willing to impute to my drug-taking, my lack of moral formation, the breakup of my first marriage.  At the end of December, 1969, I had turned to Christ; by the end of March, 1970, I had stopped taking drugs.

Yet in 1971 we still had a pattern of serious fights - principally of the sort in which I would become angry about something; Susan would apologise; I would believe I detected in her apology insincerity - with resultant very troubling hours-long fights - with her final submission.  Susan attempted to break our engagement about this time.  It is, I think, an indicator of the very personality issues I had that her decision, after all, to marry me was as much an outcome of the same over-bearing approach to problems which characterised our disputes.

By the time we had been married for four and a half years, and had lived in Yap for a year and a half, a very distressing habit had been formed: reasonably normal life punctuated by frequent such events.  One night - the 23rd of November, 1977 - one such resulted in what could have issued in disaster.

Susan will tell the story:

I remember this clearly as it was unforgettable.  It was one of those events that one hopes never happens twice.

It was the night before Thanksgiving, 1977 and there would be four days of vacation from work for John.

Johnny was just two years old and Helen was a baby at the time.

Our house was in town, on a cliff overlooking the bay and then out to the ocean.  There were a lot of trees around the house and a set of stairs leading to the house from the main road.  Depending on the time of year, the house was not very visible from the main road because of the trees.

The house was large and rectangular. The room we slept in was in the middle of the house and it had no windows.  There was one door into it.  As I recall, we later had this room air conditioned.

John and I had a disagreement about something and I decided to go to bed as it was about 9:00pm.  He stayed up and worked on his ham radios that were in the front room of the house.  I remember hearing glass breaking at one point - it was one of the radio valves that he had dropped on the floor.  I remember thinking that I would let him clean it up - I was half asleep.  He could do it himself.

The next thing I heard was something, again, that sounded like breaking glass.  I was irritated by this thinking of the mess that was to be cleaned up but again decided to do nothing about it.  Later, I found out that it wasn't glass but someone trying to enter the back kitchen door of the house.

I then realised that someone was opening the bedroom door and I assumed it was John.  I opened my eyes, and although it was very dark, I could see someone with shorts on.  I assumed again that it was John.  The person left the room and the next thing I knew was that someone was on top of me.  This was really bad because the futon map we slept on was placed directly on the floor.  It was cooler that way.  I had little hope of throwing this person off and I was in real terror because of that.  I also couldn't understand where John was - why this was happening.....where was he?

It turned out later that John had left the house without telling me.  His office was about a ten minute walk up the road and he had decided to walk up there and get some papers that he would need over the holiday period.

Just a bit of backstory for the moment.  My father, as my sister also knows, spent a lot of time with us trying to prepare us for the unknown - he was constantly asking us what we would do in certain situations - It used to be rather boring - what was going to happen to us?  He had a business that took him away from the family a lot and he was very careful - when this person was on top of me and placing his hands around my throat and beginning to squeeze it, all I could think of was where was John and I heard my father's voice - "Get Out - you can't do anything without help."  So I somehow pushed myself up and the person stopped - I screamed and I screamed - another thing my Dad had told us - if you can, draw attention to yourself - go nuts....depending on the situation.  I knew that I might have very little time to do anything.  I turned on the lights in the house, and ran out the back door.  the person had left the house - but out the front door and left it wide open.

I ran next door - through a lot of bush - and banged on the neighbour's door - that turned out to be of little help.  The woman there threw me a towel - I had practically nothing on - and told me she thought everything was going to be fine - what? - right, they were all drinking and smoking pot as it was a holiday - who knows what fine meant to them?  I left them without saying anymore - I had already screamed that I had been attacked, John was missing and there were two kids in the house.

I then ran up to the hotel that was on a little rise above the house - again, screaming and yelling for help.  I ran into the bar - I figured there were people there who might help me.  Fortunately, there were a couple of policemen at the bar and they came back to the house with me.  This all happened very quickly.  I was extremely worried and didn't want to be away from the house for long.

The policemen came into the house and found the kids - they were fine - and John returned.
We, now, can laugh about what happened.  Susan was not seriously harmed - although she had bruises on her neck and was hoarse for several days after.  Neither Johnny nor Helen appear even to have awakened.  Yet not so long after this, the wife of another expatriate couple - whose husband was away on the field trip ship - was attacked in her kitchen by a man with a knife.  She escaped because she seized the knife blade, cutting her fingers seriously.  The man slipped in her blood on the floor and she ran from the house to a neighbour.

It is possible that Susan's assailant was less a violent than a mentally disturbed one.  I have spoken before of Russ and Verna Curtis, the elderly American Quaker couple who ran YCA - the Yap Cooperative Association.  Some weeks, or perhaps months, before this, a man had crept into their bedroom, where they were both sleeping in their double bed, and began fondling Verna.  Apparently Russ awoke and shouted or something and the man fled.

Some weeks later a man - the same man? - entered their bedroom again, and began the same behaviour, to the person on the same side of the bed.  Russ and Verna had, in the interim, changed which side of the bed they slept on.  The Yap expatriate community had some innocent pleasure in imagining gentle Quaker Russ's reaction to this affection :-)

That man may have been Susan's visitor.  He was, in fact, a relation of Kloulubak, the Palauan neighbour of ours to whom Susan had gone in the first place.  Kloulubak's family saw to it that he returned to Palau, so we will never know for sure - but it seems likely.

It is not pleasant to talk about some of these things that are, in fact, a result of my own bad behaviour.  There is one more occurrence that must have its place in this narrative.  It will be, you may be relieved to know, the last.  Next week's post will have Susan talking again about something whose long-term implications were wonderful, indeed, but this was not apparent at the time.  She seriously considered divorcing me.

06 October 2012

Flying babies

I did not know until writing this post that the frangipani (also know by the genus name of Plumeria), although iconic of Pacific Island leis and other decorative uses, is native to the tropical New World, and is introduced to the tropical zone in the rest of the world.

Our house in Yap had a flat roof, tar-sealed, with a drain in the middle to catch water for the water tank.  It was tar-sealed - but sometime around the end of June, 1977 or early July, the seal began to leak.  As it was a government house, Public Works - the government department responsible for maintaining the government buildings - sent two men out to renew the seal.

The front of the house had a feature that made it unnecessary for them to use ladders.  A frangipani tree grew there, with branches that provided a very easy climb to the roof.  It was quite safe.  You could carry things up with you easily.  Even a two-year-old child could negotiate the climb.

One evening - Sunday evening, we think - Sue and I with Father Horgan and Sister Rose (a Maryknoll sister, principal, I think, of the Catholic school) were sitting in our living room.  Pleasant weather, not raining, though - fortunately, as it proved in the event, it had rained quite a lot that day - the rainy season is from around May until December.

We sat, chatting, perhaps having a glass of wine.  Susan was looking out the window through the fly screen - to see two-year-old Johnny plummet past, riding a coconut.

The workmen had, of course, taken drinking-stage coconuts onto the roof - and left the empties there.  Character appears very early in children.  Johnny, in particular, is of the see-it-do-it sort of personality.  He was that in 1977.  He had seen the men go up and down the tree to the roof all day.  As I recall, they had enjoyed calling down to him off and on during their work.  The attraction for him was irresistible.

The men had gone home for the day.  The hard part of the whole climb was getting into the tree itself.  There was a steel railing around the trunk of it that you had to climb up onto in order to get into the branches that led to the roof.  Johnny managed this, and climbed to the roof.

I think we actually had some advance warning of what was going on, but didn't interpret it correctly.  Just before the accident, I recall hearing a thump on the roof - wondering what that could be.  It would have been Johnny dropping his coconut.

He landed with his forehead on a concrete footpath.  That ought, one supposes, to have put paid to any hope of his survival - at least of his escaping without serious injury.

But ... the coconut itself landed in soft earth, next to the footpath.  It had been raining that day, and the footpath was covered with fairly thick, and soggy, leaves.

There was not a mark on him.

Nevertheless, we ran up the hill to Dr Haight's house.  Dr Haight examined him.  No sign of problems.  Whew!  It would be a good idea, he said, to wake him up once or twice during the night, to see if any sign of concussion might be developing.  We woke him once.  It was perfectly clear that there was nothing the matter with him.

A little later in this year - 23 November, 1977, in fact - something happened which, though without any lasting physical effects, was worrying in a different way, and to this day, has left at least emotional scars.  Susan was attacked.