The Mennonites, who had so graciously accepted me into their fold, so to speak, and allowed me opportunity to serve others and God alongside them, also had a working relationship with FEMA. They provided needed volunteers to help with various rebuilding projects after disasters within the US and its territories. About the same time as I was studying at UW a major cyclone hit the island group of Chuuk, Micronesia, destroying many of the homes of this island nation, located several hundred miles southeast of Guam. Since Micronesia has a close relationship with the US FEMA sent materials to the islands to help rebuild homes devastated by the cyclone and the Mennonites sent volunteers to do the work building and training Micronesians how to build. Sensing a wonderful opportunity for an interesting adventure I applied to be a volunteer and was flown to Guam and then on to Chuuk to help with the rebuilding effort in the summer of 2003.
When I got off the plane at Chuuk International Airport on the island of Weno I felt I had been dropped into a blast furnace. Coming from the temperate region of the Pacific Northwest in no way prepared me for the heat and humidity. By the time I was shuttled to my accommodations on the other side of the island both of my feet had already swollen to the point I had to loosen my sandals to their limits. I wasn’t well suited to this environment. Nevertheless, there was work to be done so I joined a small group of volunteers and native Micronesians as we loaded up one of the motorized longboats used to taxi people from island to island, piled in ourselves, and headed out on our hour-long boat ride to reach my first building site on the island of Uman, some ten or so miles to the south.
The houses were simple stick construction with a deck platform up on wood pilings, light framing with plywood sheathing for the walls, and composite shingle roofing. We just built this simple shell and left the rest to the homeowners to finish as they wished later. Most of the materials had already been delivered to the site and on this particular house the pilings and floor were already completed when I arrived. It was hard work but great fun lugging our tools and generator and fuel up from the beach, through the trees to the building site. On most days the local women prepared our lunch which consisted of fresh tuna caught that morning and breadfruit, a local staple which was mashed and had coconut added along with sea-salt, as well as sweet potatoes and rice. It was a wonderful meal, made all the better enjoying it with the locals who we were working with and forming friendships.
Chuuk is an island grouping comprising a large lagoon in the midst of the Pacific Ocean. It is famous among divers because of the many ships sunk throughout the lagoon during WWII and is a destination for this reason, as it has some of the best preserved underwater wrecks in all of the world. I wasn’t a diver but several of those I was volunteering with were, and on Sunday, our day off, I joined a small group heading out to dive the Fumitzuki destroyer several miles off the west coast of Weno. While they dove down to the wreck I swam on the surface, which still afforded amazing views of the wreckage as I looked down through the crystalline waters.
I was a fairly good swimmer, having competed in several triathlons earlier in life and still routinely swimming for exercise, but I had never before swam alone, miles out in the open ocean. The others in my group had all dove down to the wreck, leaving me alone on the surface. I jumped in over the side of our small boat and got out a few feet from the side when I was overcome with panic. The immensity of the ocean caught me off-guard; and the closest land was several miles away, and barely perceptible on the horizon from my vantage point in the water. I reached back to the side of the boat and held myself there as I took deep breaths and regained control of myself. I slowly acclimated to the open waters by putting my head underwater and breathing out, while holding to the side of the boat. After a few minutes of practicing breathing and submerging my head in this way I relaxed and took a short swim out and back. Once this became routine I was ready to venture out and over the wreck of the Fumitzuki destroyer.
As I swam through the warm clear waters, gliding gently over the bow of the destroyer below me, I forgot all about my fear of swimming in the open ocean. The entirety of this warship revealed its fascinating secrets to my greedy, enraptured eyes. I couldn’t believe I was actually swimming over the top of a Japanese destroyer sunk back in WWII and it was still nearly intact. I floated over the forward guns on the deck and then over a portion of the bridge and the funnels. Depth perception was difficult through the water but, as I discerned these elements and some of the communication antennae rising up towards me, the reality of this vessel struck me, as well as the beauty. It had become a reef for all sorts of fish and sea life which I could see swimming in and around the gun turrets, through the open funnels, and across the deck of the ship. The scene was mesmerizing and other-worldly. I crossed over the length of the ship a couple times, enjoying new details each time and then finally made my way back to our boat.
Next we visited a Japanese fighter plane that had been shot down and sunk upside down in only about 10-15 feet of water. I was able to swim down to this one and touch the wings while one of my companions actually pulled to the surface a portion of the original flight mask and hose for us to examine before he dove back down and returned it to the cockpit. At one point, as I was swimming along, one of the others in our group suddenly yelled over to me excitedly and asked if I had seen ‘it’? Seen what I asked her. “The shark that was following you,” she said. “It was following you for about fifty yards, right behind you, didn’t you see it?” No I hadn’t, and I’m very glad I didn’t, because seeing a shark trailing me in the open water isn’t on my bucket list.
The rest of the following week I spent building homes on the island of Udot, about an hour by boat, west of the main island of Weno where we spent our nights. The weather was mostly clear and beautiful while I was in Chuuk but one day as we worked, the clouds came in and we were warned that a storm was heading our way, and we should hurry back to the main island. We gathered our tools together and set out in our boat. All of the water taxis were driven by locals who knew the waters well, so I never had much concern and besides, the weather had always been perfect and the ocean calm. As we set out from Udot towards Weno the fog came quickly in, so that soon we were completely enshrouded without any visibility. The waters were very calm, and there was a strange stillness as our driver cut the motor and attempted to discern our location. He and his companion didn’t speak English but I could tell there was a problem, based on their expressions. Soon I came to understand that they were lost, and on top of that they hadn’t brought along enough fuel with them for the motor.
As we drifted through the thickening fog I couldn’t help but recall several stories I had heard earlier that week about folks who got lost in these little boats and drifted out beyond the barrier islands that encircled the lagoon and on out to sea. Apparently this wasn’t all that uncommon, but there was nothing I could do about it. If our pilots were lost and they were both born and raised here, I certainly wasn’t going to be able to help. Eventually we heard other voices through the deep mist, and slowly the dark outline of another boat with several occupants emerged. Our two boats came abreast and we tethered their boat to ours. It turned out that they also were lost and drifting but they had fuel. This was a Godsend as our pilot filled our tank and started up the motor. The fog began to lift, along with the wind. The folks in the other boat didn’t have experience on the water and asked to be towed by our boat, so we dragged them along behind us as we made our way back to Weno island. The island was still far away as the clouds grew darker and more foreboding and the winds increased. We were racing the storm now and hoping to make it safely to harbor before the waves grew much higher. We made it back to shore in time and got inside when the first of the rains and high winds hit the islands. It didn’t end up being a significant storm by their standards, but it was still much better to be on dry land than out on the water.
We didn’t do any more building after this. FEMA needed to divert resources to a different natural disaster, so the funding was suddenly discontinued, and we were told to leave the island the following week. When I returned to Seattle V welcomed me home, and the following day asked for a divorce.
(to be continued)