by Bobbie Bergesen
Again we have the pleasure of offering up a vignette recounting the experience of the author, a sketch taken from her years as the spouse of a Foreign Service officer. You may click here for other of her tales of a diplomat’s wife abroad. —Ed.
In 1969 we left Lisbon, where my husband headed the political section in the American Embassy. It was the year before António Salazar died. The longtime dictator of Portugal had suffered a fall, probably due to a stroke, but was allegedly still in control. At the national zoo in Lisbon, earlier we had bought the puppy of a Rhodesian Ridgeback given, it happens, to Salazar, who, it seems, had not been inclined to keep it. (Evidently, the breed was considered rare and exotic enough to be housed at the zoo. or maybe it was because the dog was his.) We named our pup Shaka, after a famous Zulu warrior-king, but it was a relief top us when he unexpectedly died of a heart attack before he was a year old. Powerful and rugged, he had tolerated us, but he was a dog with a touch of wildness; our children never completely trusted or felt at home with him. In his native land, we were told, Ridgebacks were used in lion-hunting, and two or three could bring a lion down.
|Dian [the dog] with friend Sue Canham on the spectacular Saipan beach.|
After a few months, we attended a dog show in the Portuguese capital where we fell in love with a five-week-old Labrador retriever. His coat was a handful of thick black soft fur, which gleamed like polished obsidian. Only his tongue was pink. His mother was a well-bred Portuguese and his father an Irish champion. He was broad-chested, heavier than the American breed, and had a square blocky head with large, meltingly brown eyes. We named him Obsidian (Dian for short) for the shiny black volcanic glass his coat resembled, and because he was born in an “O” year in the official Portuguese dog-naming calendar.
When we left Portugal to go home on leave, Dian came, too. Since he had not enjoyed the Potomac River as much as the Portuguese beaches he had known, naturally, he jumped at the news of our next posting. We were to go to the remote, thirteen-mile long tropical island of Saipan, a Trust Territory in the Northern Mariana Islands, set in the vast Central Pacific. Alf was to be the State Department’s liaison officer to the Micronesian Status Negotiations.
Historically, Portuguese explorers were renowned for their discoveries in Asia and the Pacific. Little did we imagine Dian would emulate his Portuguese forebears, like famed Portuguese navigator, Magellan (“Magalhaes”), for example, and land in the Marianas. It was a long and torturous trip he took by air with us, with stops in Hawaii and Guam, where he was not allowed to stretch his legs much, due to strict quarantine regulations. When he finally landed in Saipan, he underwent a six-week quarantine in the government-run kennels, but at least we were able to visit him every day.
Although dogs as pets were not too highly regarded in Saipan, Dian soon became notorious for his heroic efforts to improve the local stock of “boonie” (“boondocks”) dogs. He worked constantly to upgrade the image, while also trying to be the answer to every boonie maiden’s prayer. Between times, when he lay sprawled out on the cool tile floor of our bungalow, snoring lightly, you’d never guess at the interesting life he led. He loved Saipan, which he found to be an explorer’s paradise of reef-fringed beaches to nose about in, enticing lagoons to paddle in, sand galore to dig and roll around in, and, of course, the “boonie beauties” to check in with.
One of only three State Department representative stationed in Saipan, Alf covered a beat that encompassed the widely scattered islands of Micronesia throughout a vast area of the Pacific. The islands included, among others, Saipan, Palau, and Yap (the latter famous, among other things, for its massively heavy money made of round stones big enough to wheel from one location to another). Life on Saipan itself being rather quiet, I took a job teaching English to local employees of the Trust Territories under the aegis of the training department of the Trust Territory government. A Peace Corps girl who taught typing and I worked together. My immediate boss was an American of Japanese descent from Seattle, and Pete, her boss, was from the island of Ponape. On Ponape, he said, a special language was still in use to address high-ranking island chiefs. He also told me a story about a distant cousin of his who had come to visit him in Saipan. After only a day or two, the cousin abruptly left, saying he had to return home immediately. He had not heard from home, and could not explain why he felt he had to leave. Later, Pete learned that the cousin’s father passed away the day after he got back home. His death was completely unexpected. Pete himself had no explanation for how the cousin knew he must return home early, but simply said that sometimes islanders seemed to have such capabilities — like some kind of ESP. Living in near isolation on a small island completely exposed to the vagaries of nature might lead the inhabitants to read meanings into innumerable small signs and changes in their environment which might go unnoticed in busier and more crowded surroundings. Even the flickering movements of a gecko, the small local lizard, might herald a change in weather or have a specific meaning for those who watched it.
We had a pet gecko which appeared on the kitchen window sill every afternoon, waiting patiently for Alf to put down an empty glass of cola. He would then leap onto the glass and clinging to its top edge with his padded toes, delicately lean over to lap up the cola drop by drop from the inside of the glass. No earthshaking meaning could have been read into his behavior, except that perhaps he became hooked on American cola.
The chief of police was one of my students, and in another of my classes was his niece, a high school student. I had to be careful not to favor one pupil over another. As an outsider, however, I might not be aware of family relationships among my students. It was typical, I found, that on a small island, local folk might well be related. As long as students attended my class, they were awarded a certificate of “Satisfactory” when they completed the course. Of course, they were already government employees and taking my course was a way to help them brush up their English language skills.
Never having lived on such a faraway island before, I was struck by the fact that every stitch we wore, every pin in the pin box, every nail in the house, had to have come from a mainland somewhere. We were a long way from anywhere. Even from Hawaii, in itself already a far cry from Washington, D. C., the flight to Saipan took about twelve hours. Very little produce was grown on the island, and even tuna fish was imported, in cans from California. Lettuce flown in from the United States cost $2.50 a head. Through the centuries, typhoons sweeping completely over the small island could drench the soil with salt, temporarily wiping out any hopes of growing crops. Our one-story concrete-block house in the government’s Capitol Hill area — solidly built on thirty-five-foot pilings to withstand cyclones — was set high enough that on a clear day we could see across the blue Pacific all the way to the island of Rota, seventy-five miles away. On such days, too, the wide horizon was a pronounced curve, marked enough to discourage any members of the Flat Earth Society and show them the error of their ways.
|The author, on the Saipan beach|
Snorkeling in the translucent blue water was popular with outsiders in Saipan. Some regularly scuba-dived, but I didn’t like the idea of swimming beyond the coral reef, far away from shore and deep enough to see sharks. Other Americans working on Saipan said that whenever they dived outside the reef, they always spotted gray reef sharks nosing about. But, they assured me, the sharks never bothered them. Dian and I swam only inside the reefs, in the tranquil lagoons, where the water was so clear you could see all the way down to the black sea cucumbers and large starfish Iying on the sand. On every beach we went to, at one time or another, I found all sizes of bullet casings, as well as half of an American metal mess kit and numerous blue and white shards of broken Japanese rice bowls. The shards, which I glued artistically onto a piece of driftwood, made beautiful collages and kitchen decorations. I amassed quite a collection of them. Once, energetically digging in the fine white sand of a lagoon, as was his favorite beach pastime, Dian retrieved and brought me a thick, long bleached white bone. An American nurse picnicking with us that day, who was visiting the island en route home, said it was a human thigh bone, probably American, as she thought it possibly too large to be Japanese.
Saipan was the scene of bloody battles during World War II. Late at night, we sometimes heard the loud reports of leftover mortars and munitions from those battles resounding in the still air as they exploded deep in the tangled, overgrown northern reaches of the island. In the daytime, we toured the high cliffs where groups of Japanese women and children had jumped off into the roiling, shark-infested waters rather than be captured by the Americans, who would torture and kill them, as they were told by the Japanese military stationed on the island. We visited the nearby caves with their narrow, eye-slit openings through which the Japanese fired at the enemy. While living there, we attended a ceremony arranged by a Japanese delegation especially flown in for the occasion, which massed the skeleton heads of their fallen soldiers, laboriously collected for the purpose, into a large pyre, and ritually burned them, bringing a ceremonial closure to their lives.
Parts of the center of the island were not to be traversed by bicycle or car after dark, my students advised. “Brujas,” or evil spirits, were said to be out there, who would harm those attempting to cross at night from one side of the island to the other. It was best not to go through the middle of the island at all, or at the least, to take the longer, but safer, route along the coast. I only traversed the center once, that I remember; for some reason I’ve forgotten, I had to drive that route one night. Dian happened to be with me in the car. It was pitch black all around, with only the car’s headlights for visibility, but nothing unusual happened during the short trip. Rather than worry about the superstitious belief, I was more impressed by the use of the local term — the Spanish word “brujas” (“witches”) — for the evil spirits. Through the centuries, so many different nationalities, including the Spanish, had overrun the island that no indigenous natives remained; but vestiges of all kinds of cultures were part of everyday life.
Another part of myth or legend was the recurrent and ever-varied story of Amelia Earhart. An old woman guided me to the roofless ruin of a rusty-barred jail cell, with its broken concrete floor, where the Japanese military allegedly held the once-famous woman pilot after bringing her to Saipan. The story went that Earhart had been transported there in 1937 after crashing somewhere in the South Pacific. She was said to have been kept prisoner until she died of malnutrition and dysentery. The truth is illusive, however; the world may never know what really happened to Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, when they disappeared mysteriously after leaving New Guinea on their way to the United States.
When we were ready to leave Saipan after our two-year tour, we wondered how to get Dian home. The solution came in the form of a Fijian freighter which was going the long way round to land — eventually — in California. The captain agreed to take Dian along with the sheep and other animal cargo they were carrying. We put him on board with a month’s supply of dog food. But after our own arrival by plane as scheduled, we had to spend almost two more weeks in California, during which we toured the redwoods and took other interesting side trips in the Northwest, before the ship with Dian came into port. When we went to pick him up, we hardly recognized him. He was grossly fat. Apparently, the crew had been unable to resist feeding him cakes and cookies, and a quick check-up at a local vet’s showed he had also developed a kidney infection.
But his tail wagging spirits were undiminished, and we were all happy to be back together again to return to Washington on home leave and await our next assignment. This was not long in coming. Off we went to the UN in New York.