Lost Alohas by Gary Ives

Friday, July 23, 2021
A career Navy sailor falls in love with a Micronesian island, and a Peace Corps woman living there; by Gary Ives.

In the spring of 1967, I was Chief Engineman aboard the destroyer escort USS Tinker. From Pearl Harbor we were to begin a Westpac cruise, normally six months of exercises and patrols around Japan, Taiwan, Guam, and the Philippines. On this cruise however, we were tasked with a couple of unusual missions. First, a United Nations project to reduce childbirth fatalities among remote Pacific islands. Our mission was to deliver midwifery kits, throughout the Trust Territories of Oceania. Before leaving Pearl, we took on nearly 100 small boxes marked with red crosses: medical kits containing post-natal medical supplies; antiseptics, antibiotics, sutures, and bandages. A destroyer escort is a small ship whose space is dedicated for weapons, not cargo, so these boxes ended up stowed all over the ship. We had twelve in our tiny machine shop.

The other mission was a diplomatic service requested by the State Department. We sailed from Pearl Harbor to the Marquesas Islands for a port visit to Tahiti then delivery of a generator to a small island also in the Marquesas. Afterwards we sailed west to tiny Alexander Humboldt Atoll to begin distributing the medical kits among the smaller Pacific Trust Territories.

At Papeete we took on a five-kilowatt generator for delivery to the island of Nuka Hiva also in the Marquesas. Tinker's crew was excited to experience the South Seas islands.

Tahiti rose into sight at sunrise one beautiful tropical morning as a huge purple and green mountain jutting straight out of the sea with brilliant colors that reminded me of a Mardi Gras float, happy and bold. A warm land breeze wafted the scent of flowers and wood smoke. Then, the capital, Papeete, was a moderately busy commercial port, not so much a tourist destination as now, rather, still the old-time fleshpot it had been for sailors since the days of whaling ships. Our three days there were a farrago of beer, ladies, rented motor scooters, and French cuisine. On our final day, a crane lowered the big generator onto our fantail. Chief Conklin, our machinist mate, called it one fat-assed piece of gear. From then on, the generator was called Fat Ass. We lashed Fat Ass securely with steel cable to cleats, ring bolts, two bollards and a canvas tarp cover. In Papeete, Tinker's crew burned the candle at both ends, so I reckoned the two days passage to Nuka Hiva were needed to sober up and rest. Papeete had been such a jolly port that there was happy speculation about what we would find next in Nuka Hiva. That joy died instantly when the XO announced that there would be no liberty ashore. We would be off-loading Fat Ass at the leper colony on Nuka Hiva.

We circled the island twice before the captain found the narrow passage through the reef into the lagoon where we anchored off a tiny cluster of huts at the windward end of the lagoon far from the island's little village. We set about building a raft of shoring timbers and empty lube oil barrels to float Fat Ass ashore. The ship's motor whaleboat carried the captain and XO ashore for a conference with the French and Belgian nuns who cared for about 100 victims of Hansen's Disease, as leprosy is now called. It was arranged that a landing party of seven of us would remain ashore for a few days to build a generator shed and set up Fat Ass. I was to oversee the machinery, design a fuel system that the nuns cold manage, and to teach them how to operate Fat Ass.

Those chosen were called into the wardroom where the XO explained the nature of Hansen's Disease and assured us that although we would be safe, our participation was strictly voluntary. Contagion of leprosy, he said, requires continued exposure by direct contact and we would not be in direct contact with the lepers. No one complained.

Only at a distance did we see the poor lepers. They were very shy. Some looked normal, a few wore strange face masks, some were amputees, some in wheelchairs, and many on crutches. The sisters told us there was much curiosity among their patients and while we did not often see the lepers, the sisters assured us that we were under the lepers' constant observation. In a tiny community where not much happens, we were an attraction. My last afternoon on Nuka Hiva while walking to the guest house, I encountered an old woman who had fallen on an intersecting path from the leper's huts. She sat in the dust reaching for her crutch. I felt such enormous pity for this poor unfortunate whose face so resembled my own mother's. I knelt and, careful to avoid touching any flesh, gently lifted her, handing her the crutch she'd dropped. She seemed weightless. "Merci. Dieu vous bénisse," she whispered, barely audible. All of us on the landing party had nothing but sympathy for these poor lepers and tender respect for the nuns. We were pleased to help.

I held classes for the good sisters before directing them through hands-on operations and simple maintenance procedures. Their eager willingness to roll the heavy barrels into place and operate the levers and switches contrasted their soft and pleasing French accents and gentle manners. Lafleur, a Cajun gunner's mate on the construction crew had bragged all the way from Pearl that he'd score big in Tahiti and Nuka Hiva because he spoke French. However, his Cajun patois fell hard on the ladies' ears in Papeete and with the nuns in Nuka Hiva. One of the sisters asked me if Lafleur were quite right. "Ees talk zounds a leetle crazy lak ee make up zum word lak leetle bebe." They were admirable women, eager learners and showed much appreciation for our efforts, cooking and baking delicious desserts for their marins beaux. On our last day ashore, they presented each of us with tiny delicately carved dolls, images of St. Elmo, patron saint of all mariners. Each little figure wore cowls hand-sewn with the finest stitching and was in a protective little carved box lined with cloth. On the morning of the ship's departure the nuns turned out the entire leper colony which lined the beach waving tiny French and American flags.

One week out from Humboldt Atoll, with no sheltering islands within 200 miles, we rode out a wicked typhoon. We took green water over the open bridge; the pilot house deck was awash in a foot of water. In one hellacious roll the junior officer of the deck, Ensign Freeman, suffered a badly broken leg. Had the captain not grabbed his belt the poor man might have been washed overboard. The clinometer registered a phenomenal 67 degrees roll. Fortunately, a French aircraft carrier 100 miles away sent a helicopter two days later and the hovering helo managed to lift the Stokes stretcher and winch Ensign Freeman aboard. He was not the only casualty; among the crew two suffered broken arms and one a broken wrist. I suffered no more than a smashed crystal on my Timex wristwatch. Capt. Blaine's skill had seen us through and kept us from turning turtle in the typhoon. He was as confident and capable ship handler as any seasoned old merchant master. He had grown up in Maine working lobster boats before the war, then served on PT boats in the Pacific, earning a commission and eventually his own command, a rare achievement for an ex-enlisted.

Entering the lagoon at Humboldt Atoll the captain told us of his time at Ulithi Atoll in 1945 as part of one of the largest armadas in history preparing for the Battle of Okinawa and the planned invasion of Japan. There were more than a hundred craft from PT boats and tugs to battle wagons.

Alexander Humboldt's lagoon was magnificent, with the clearest water imaginable. Once we anchored, I tossed a dime over the side and watched it sparkle for several fathoms waffling its way to the bottom. Little islands circled the lagoon like a strand of pearls with coconut palms, thatched huts, the curl of smoke from cooking fires, and now and then we could hear a dog bark or the voices of children. This was a tropical Eden I had dreamed of in my youth. Echoes of Melville, Jack London, and Somerset Maugham, but this was not imagination, this was real and all around to absorb, to see, to feel, to smell and touch. I felt so fortunate, so appreciative in those first moments at anchor, nothing less than an epiphany.

The captain planned a few days anchorage in the lagoon for repairs to a steering casualty we had suffered in the typhoon. Historically these islands had passed through Spanish, then German ownership, and then occupation by the Japanese, but at the war's end they fell under control of the United Nations which recognized the islands' autonomy and assigned them as a protectorate of the United States to guarantee their independence and defense for 20 years while Micronesians wrote a constitution and organized into the Federation. The United States Navy administered the islands from the Naval command on Guam, and to protect the fragile island culture, the Navy restricted all travel to the islands. No vessels were allowed into Humboldt's lagoon, other than a monthly mail and food delivery from Guam and one small Japanese tramp cargo ship that visited once or twice a year to trade and buy shells with which an Osaka company made custom buttons. So, Tinker's arrival was a big deal to the islanders. That afternoon the captain, XO, and the island chiefs worked out a protocol for crew members to visit ashore. No more than 20 sailors at a time would visit islands of Korimantu, Launi, and Kurulau in the atoll and only during daylight hours. Similarly, islanders were granted permission to visit the Tinker but only two canoes at a time. To my good fortune the services of a mechanic were requested for repairing portable generators scattered among the atoll's islands. Only the chief hospital corpsman and I were allowed overnight privileges. Chief Merriweather would set up a clinic on Korimantu to distribute the medical kits and instruct midwives on antibiotics and proper suturing. On tiny Launi Island I would be the guest of the teacher, a Peace Corpsman, where at the island school I would repair generators brought from the outer islands by canoe.

The captain called an all hands meeting. The crew mustered on the fantail while the XO laid down the rules. He explained a little of Micronesian history and customs and stressed how the natives might appear strange, even primitive. The difficult part of his talk concerned tits. "Sailors, the natives don't wear traditional western clothing here. The men wear something called a thus, the women wear colorful lava-lavas, but," he paused for a moment, "nothing on top. Now when you go ashore, I have to warn you, you're gonna see women's naked breasts."

A cheer went up.

He explained how he expected every man to respect local customs and to not stare at the ladies. Carnal relations between any sailor and a native were forbidden and could even result in a court-martial, he threatened. Natives visiting the ship were to be met with friendliness and kindness. Small pilferable items should be stowed. "They will want to trade; be generous with them. Some will eat in the crew's mess - be helpful and don't stare. We are the first outside ship to visit since the war, so keep in mind some of them may still be 1940s. I expect every Tinker sailor to be a gentleman."

Despite the prohibition on sex, there existed a worry that someone in our crew could possibly introduce a venereal disease to an unprotected population. This moved the captain to direct the chief corpsman to perform short-arm inspections, as he put it, on every swingin' dick aboard ship. VD suspects would be restricted to the ship.

On our second morning in the lagoon the boat crew took Chief Merriweather with his childbirth kits and me with my generator kits to tiny Launi Island. Curiously, as we stepped from the boat there was a strong odor of crap, and looking down the long beach, I could see piles of shit here and there. But a smiling throng of men, boys, women, and girls crowded around the boat greeting us with smiles and coconuts to drink from. The XO had been right. A stunning display of breasts met us - breasts of all sizes, all ages, all unabashedly on display. A beautiful teenaged girl sat in a wheelbarrow holding a little pig between a lovely monumental pair. Merriweather said quietly to me, "Bobby, we're not in Kansas anymore." He was then taken by canoe to Korimantu to teach midwives how to suture with proper surgeon's knots and antiseptics.

A gaggle of happy boys led me through a beautiful grove of tall, curved coconut palms and wandering chickens to the little thatched-roof cinder block structure that was the schoolhouse and quarters for the Peace Corpsman. Expecting a college-aged youth, I was surprised by a woman in her mid-30's. An intelligent face, not pretty but pleasing with hazel eyes and long sand-colored hair adorned with a red hibiscus. She had a nice slender figure and good posture and wore a lava-lava with the same striped design of the other adult women, but unlike the islanders she wore a bra beneath a thin white short-sleeve blouse covering her breasts. I could not think of anything to say. She smiled and extended her hand, "Hi, I'm Geraldine Woodstock, but please call me Gerry. What's your name?"

"Bobby, Bobby Matawashee. Good to meet you, Gerry. I guess you know I'm here to fix generators."

Later, explaining the bra and blouse, she said she had anticipated boatloads of horny sailors who would ogle her American breasts if she dressed the usual island custom. Still, she said she was over-delighted to see Americans and hear unbroken English. "Let me show you around, Bobby." I saw no wedding ring. I have always been a little shy around white women but felt at ease with her.

"Chief Lapunaha told me you would be fixing generators and for me to tell you that you are welcome to stay here. The Peace Corps quarters are built for two; there used to be two of us."

"What happened to the other?"

"Kelly dropped out of the program to marry a Micronesian. She went native. She lives on Kurulau and will have a baby soon." Gerry shrugged, "It happens sometimes."

After a quick tour of the quarters and the school, she took me to meet Chief Lapunaha, a fat, heavily tattooed, handsome man with a head full of thick grey hair and smiles. He was in his sixties and spoke authoritatively in easily understood pidgin.

"You fix electric, ver' good, sailor man. Mebbe stay men's hut, yes? Mo bettah you stay with daughter, yes?" He grunted and chuckled at this then said to her, "I tol' you, happy sailor fella him come."

So, I had a choice to stay with Gerry or in the Long House. I thanked him. Gerry had been adopted by Chief Lapunaha, and the affection between them was evident. Speaking to Gerry in Chuukese, he said something that brought a laugh from both of them. I was not going to question the quarters assignment.

So small was Launi that Gerry's tour took only a short while. Throughout my stay on the island, wherever I went I was followed by groups of children. In the course of my days there, we seldom encountered crew members, as the crew's attentions lay on the larger island of Korimantu with many more ladies and what later came to be known as jungle jumps.

Around noon she called over two of the older boys telling them to bring a certain kind of fish and, if they found any, octopus. "Lunch," she said as she started a fire under an outdoor grill. In less than half an hour the boys came holding iron tipped spears dripping wet with a few small, dressed silver and blue stripped fish. Gerry set them on the grill over the hot coals. These she served on a banana leaf with some rice scooped from a brown pot; we ate with our fingers. When I said that I should get to work on the generator, she said maybe the generator could wait, that I would be expected at the Long House. "All the men gather in the heat of the day there and they will have all kinds of questions."

"What'll I do? What about the generators?"

"Let them wait, Bobby. You need to visit in the Long House. The men will chat, they will formally welcome you and ask tons of questions, and nap. Just about everybody naps. Chat with them then stretch out when you feel like it. Once you lie down, they won't talk, the men are polite."

It was just as she said. Men and boys drifted in singly and in pairs, sat down cross-legged and chatted. Chief Lapunaha stood reeling off a spiel in Chuukese then embraced me with a strong hug. Everyone smiled. The adult men were beautifully tattooed with fishes, porpoises, turtles, and some with geometric designs on arms, legs, and backs. Several invited me to sleep at night in their huts; all were friendly. I was besieged with questions until after seeing several men stretch out to nap, I did the same. Once reclined, no one bothered me. A few little boys however, clustered around me like bodyguards. I asked if it were the same in the women's hut, but the men hemmed and hawed, evading answering. I later asked Gerry, who told me the women's hut was where women were confined during their periods, a subject taboo in the Long House.

As soon as the sun went down the island retired. The light of only two or three candles could be seen as quiet fell over the island like a cloud. Gerry hung a modesty sheet between the two single beds in the tiny quarters. But we lay awake talking deep into the night. I felt so damned lucky to have met such an agreeable, compatible, intelligent woman and sensed a reciprocal feeling. We lay awake talking softly and sometimes dreamily deep into the night.

The next day the captain was given the tour, after which he invited all the atoll's chiefs to a big lunch aboard the ship. The Long House was just about empty that afternoon as the chief took along sons and nephews. I got to work on generators. Repairs were simple. Gerry watched and we talked, talked, and talked. I learned that she had grown up in Honolulu, the only daughter of a retired alcoholic army colonel, her mother long deceased. "I was pretty much raised by my Filipina amah; she was like a mother to me. When I went off to college, Maria moved back to the Philippines. After college, I taught school for a few years on Oahu then joined the Peace Corps after my divorce to get away from my ex, my dad, and a routine I'd grown tired of. Well, service to the third world too." An older brother Gregory, an airline pilot, lived on the big island, Hawaii. She wanted to know all sorts of things about my family and life on the res. Had I ever been married? Nope, joined the Navy at 18. At first, I tried to confine the res descriptions to good things, but unavoidably strayed into the morass of poverty, sickness, and substance abuse.

"That's why I think about teaching on the res after I retire, Gerry. Like you. Maybe I can make a difference. I want my people to be happy like these people."

"I did believe joining the Peace Corps and teaching could make a difference. But now I'm not so sure I want to make a difference here. I guess I'm an idealist, but a pragmatic idealist. My dad was furious and said I was stupid and wasting years - years I should be using to build a lucrative career. When I told him I didn't give a shit about money, he told me I was a goddamn fool. But I believe education is the surest way to raise the quality of life. They are happy here, aren't they?" She continued, "but they do have problems too. There's substance abuse, which is limited to pot and beetle nut, and sometimes someone ferments some coconut into tuba, but none of the hard stuff has materialized. Yet. We have tried and tried to teach simple basic hygiene. Like preventing all that shit on the beach. It's mainly the kids, the pigs, and the dogs, but sometimes adults still shit there too. So, we have a terrible fly problem whenever the breeze dies down, and sometimes bouts of diarrhea. We built the Peace Corps school and United Nations prescribed outhouses which they use most of the time, but they are so prone to act instantly on any urge. And kids come to school only if they feel like it. You'll see. You said your officers have forbidden sex with the Micronesians? Good luck with that. Heading into the jungle at the other end of the island, here that means for sex, and it's no different than drinking from a coconut when thirsty. It's just scratching an itch. Well, maybe a little more than that," she smiled. "I promise you, Bobby, plenty of your guys will get laid. Sex is the norm here. Sex is these islands' entertainment. Two years ago the old priest over on Korimantu died and they sent an even older priest from Ireland as replacement. He ranted insisting the women wear t-shirts and demanded a stop to wicked, sinful fornication. Bobby, he drowned in the surf late one night after only two weeks. Go figure."

Would I too get lucky? But she was too damn nice. White women have always seemed unapproachable. But not Gerry. She was very curious about life on the res and how Indian I was, but I perceived no prejudice. She had no hang-ups about saying shit and talking plainly about sex. Was she as comfortable with me? Talking sex excited and pleased me and I wanted her to like me.

"Life here is unchallenging. Only in games is there competition. There's always food from the lagoon. You saw this afternoon how easy that is. And coconut, bananas, sweet potatoes, and taro are easily grown and abundant. When the Japanese were here the islanders became hooked on rice, and then during the war Americans introduced the cigarette habit. Get this. Last year two boys were swept out to sea and drowned when they tried to paddle a small canoe to the next island in a storm because Launi had run out of cigarettes. Of course, there are no jobs. A little money comes in when the women sell crafts, beetle nuts and shells, but any money usually goes for tobacco. My superiors in the Peace Corps think I should push the young men to try for jobs over on Koror or Palau, introduce them to avenues to improve their lives, but these boys and girls are content, and no one wants to leave families. The high school is over on Korimantu, and when the outer island kids are ready for high school the whole family sometimes moves to Korimantu to be with them where they'll stay for three or four years. I guess their reluctance to change is a kind of cultural hindrance on one hand, while on the other hand a powerful factor that binds families. There's no compulsion to work. Me, I kind of admire them. Like you said, they're happy, why change?"

"No jobs. Unwillingness to change. Sounds like the res. Maybe some of the sex thing too. It's pretty rampant and a lotta babies are born with no daddies. But unlike here, so many families are screwed up.

"But there it's different. Your res is surrounded by a competing culture and in the States everything is about money. Everything. At least these Micronesians have managed to resist the rest of the world's addiction to profit. There's abundant alcohol too, and you've got television on the res, don't you?"

"So how do you come to terms with your Peace Corps bosses?"

"I don't. Neither did Kelly; she's the girl who quit to marry a Micronesian. That's very telling, isn't it? Actually, other than the beach shitting, I don't want things changing. Closing the lagoon to ships was the best thing the Navy could have done. I hope we can stay isolated for as long as possible. Bobby, I've got to let you get some sleep. Here I've rambled on through the night."

"No, no, Gerry. It's wonderful talking with you. I am fascinated by Launi. It's like a place in a Jack London story. And you. You have such a reasonable, sweet approach to their sensibilities. I'll bet they love you."

"You are so different from what I expected a sailor to be, Bobby. I appreciate your empathy for these sweet people. Were you to stay here a year, like me, you'd fall in love with this wonderful little island. Talking with you is so good; maybe that's just because I'm starved for intelligent conversation, but I'm very happy you're here." She sighed a little then and said, "I'm keeping you awake."

"No. Come over here. To this bed. Let me keep you awake."

The next morning, I repaired two generators brought in from the outer islands then Gerry and I went for a swim. Of course, troupes of children joined us frolicking like seals. Boys fetched up a nice octopus that Gerry salted down then roasted for our lunch. I skipped the Long House to be with Gerry and we spent the afternoon in the shade propped up against some palm trees talking among a bevy of kids. A few girls around me were grooming one another. Occasionally one would pop a louse against a thumbnail, and one little cutie wiped dead cooties onto my shirt sleeve. That night the ship brought a screen and projector over to show a movie. Launi's population was about 40 adults and maybe 30 kids. A couple dozen sailors and every islander turned out for the movie, the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night. They did not understand the movie, but how they loved it. Later the captain said he chose that film because it was the only film aboard without violence. I was so impressed with the salty old warrior's sensibility. After the flick Gerry and I walked to the far end of the beach and sat together watching phosphorescent waves wash the shore. A breeze came up and I put my arm around her. She snuggled against me and I kissed the top of her hair. She lifted her face and our lips came together like powerful magnets. She had no qualms folding into my arms, hugging me with a soft sigh. "Let's go home," she said.

The next day we were so besieged with questions about the film that the captain decided to show it again on Korimantu, and this time the cooks baked half a dozen sheet cakes for refreshment. Chief Lapunaha summoned me asking "Why Korimantu him get plenty cake, Launi no?" Gerry sent a note to the captain recommending some token for Launi to prevent jealousy. That afternoon the projector crew delivered Gerry's suggestion of a dozen cans of condensed milk and several pounds of sugar for the chief. This made an exceedingly sweet concoction with coconut milk that the islanders loved. The chief then told me the women would dance on Korimantu the next day. "Bring all fella ship Korimantu tomorrow fo' big happy fo' you ship."

That night after dark in the candle-lit Gerry brought out a joint and a bottle of sake she had saved. We skipped movie night and cake on Korimantu.

Then on our last day, dancing on Korimantu was a wonder. I counted 22 women in grass skirts and palm frond wreaths and hibiscus flowers in their hair. The women danced in a kind of march with an accompanying barefoot chant that none of us understood. Gerry told me that this dance was the story of the wartime Navy when so many ships sailed past the lagoon like lines of ants boiling out of the ground. Captain Blaine brought ashore cases of Sapporo beer for the assembled chiefs. Pictures were taken and everyone was happy, except me and Gerry.

We returned to Launi for our goodbyes. I gave her the little St. Elmo doll the nuns on Nuka Hiva had given me, and she gave me the pretty necklace puka and abalone nacre she wore. In a month her term would be finished, and she would return to Oahu. We promised to write and agreed to meet in Honolulu when the Tinker returned to Pearl. We had hopes, although doubts too. Was what we felt strong enough to endure separation? When I saw that she was crying, I had to turn my head. As I climbed into the boat to return to the ship, she clasped my arm for an instant, but said nothing.

"Write, please." I said.

After Alexander Humboldt Atoll the novelty of the islands diminished island by island, each place pretty much like the last, and delivering the medical kits to the islands became routine. Of course, unexpected things happened as they always do at sea. Lafleur, the mouthy Cajun, suffered a broken arm falling down a ladder. Understand that aboard ship falling down a ladder is a euphemism. It seems Lafleur fell down a ladder soon after he had been caught cheating at poker. On another Lafleur note, he had been the only sailor who failed his short-arm inspection back at Humboldt Atoll and had been restricted to the ship the entire time the rest of the crew was enjoying jungle jumps. He told me, "I din't wan' fool around with these cannibals, eh?" Sour grapes. While ferrying some Marshallese between islands, Chief Merriweather delivered a baby aboard ship. She was appropriately named Tinker. And near Kwajalein at the end of June we rescued three fishermen whose boat was sinking. I love life at sea.

My mind frequently conjured situations with Gerry, past and imaginary. Tinker, we learned, would spend five days at Pearl Harbor on our way home to Long Beach. I put in for leave and wrote Gerry to plan for our five days together. I am not a good writer, so I wondered if my letters might reflect poorly.

Tinker finished in July and entered Subic Bay to resume regular Westpac patrols. A packet of letters from Gerry was waiting for me. I rushed to the ship's machine shop to be alone. I was in no mood for the usual chief's quarters bullshit and teasing while I read these precious pages. I sorted the letters by date and began with the earliest, postmarked from Guam.

Bobby Dear,
Waiting for my flight to Honolulu ETD in three hours. Oh, how I miss you already. Tears ran down my face watching your boat disappear, then again when the Tinker sailed out of the lagoon. A gloom fell over the entire island. No one wanted to talk, not even the children. Some trickster god had stolen the spirit, the joy. Felt a little better next day because I knew the next boat I saw would take me towards Oahu and then you. My heart is full of hope. Mattewashi, my handsome Crow, please write and tell me what I so very much want to hear. Do you realize that when your ship stops at Pearl Harbor on the way back to the mainland it is possible that we could be together in just eight weeks - 56 days darling man! Love, love, love,
Your Gerry

On our way to Pearl, the captain called me up to the bridge. In his hand was the message board from the radio room. "Hey Chief, good news. You've made Senior Chief. Congratulations."

The biggest event of a career Navy enlisted man is to be promoted to chief petty officer. Making chief, an affirmation of expertise in one's field, requires years of professional, unblemished service. About 25% of career sailors ascend to CPO. However, two other pay grades above chief exist: senior chief petty officer and master chief petty officer. These promotions above chief petty officer are reserved only for the best. This promotion would mean prestige, a pay raise, and an increased pension benefit when I retired; however, accepting the promotion would require three years of additional service. Further, if I accepted the promotion, I would receive orders to the United States Embassy in Santiago, Chile. What a plum. Having submitted my request for retirement I had not expected the promotion nor the orders.

In August, Tinker arrived at Pearl. Gerry was waiting on the pier, waving. I bounded down the bow and gave her a big hug and a kiss. The next days were filled with excursions from her brother Greg's home on Hawaii. We swam at the beach, attended a sumptuous luau at a hotel, and made love every night. On our last night together Gerry questioned me about my retirement plans.

I had told her on Launi that I intended to teach on the res once I retired from the Navy.

"But you've got 20 years' service, don't you? Can't you retire anytime?"

I told her then of the promotion to senior chief and the requirement of additional service. "You could come to Santiago, maybe get a teaching job there." She was crestfallen. "Gerry, this doesn't mean we're through. Come on, gal."

"Was I wrong to think about some kind of future for us? Together? Me and you? I thought the future was kinda set. You'd retire out of the Navy, get a teaching job, maybe on the res, maybe someplace else. We'd be together. Shit, Bobby, I wrote you all about this, and now you say you're stayin' in the damned old Navy. How am I supposed to feel? Huh?"

On the flight back to Oahu she was cool. The shift had occurred, and the best I could do was to remain quiet. Our last night together was simply going through the motions, feelings shrouded in a grey mist. The next day at lunch at the chief's club in Pearl Harbor, she said she would not come to the pier to say goodbye. "I did that once already."

"We just need a little time to settle things out, Gerry," I said. "I'll write and call you when we get to the mainland."


I did call her, and I wrote. But her expectations had been crushed and I was too dumb to restore affections. From my embassy posting in Santiago, I sent post cards, a birthday present of a tapestry. In that first year she wrote just two letters, one in the second year, then none. They were just short notes wishing me the best, and without news of her life; none of the spirit of earlier letters. After three years I was transferred to Pearl Harbor for my retirement processing. I wrote Gerry with the good news but heard nothing. Once I was settled into chief's quarters, I looked for Gerry, but she had moved from the last address I knew two years earlier. I remembered her brother Greg on the Big Island and phoned him.

"Yes, Bobby Mattewashi, sure I remember you."

"I'm trying to get in touch with your sister."

"Maybe not such a good idea, Bobby."

I had to pump him for information and ultimately he gave me a phone number to try with the promise that I would not divulge who gave it to me.

Back at chief's quarters I dialed the number.

"Molokai Clinic."

"I'm trying to get in touch with Geraldine Woodstock. Tell her this is Bobby Mattewashi."

There was a long delay.

"I'm sorry sir, she in treatment, bro. No can come to da phone. She say she no wanna talk you."

"In treatment. For what?"

"Dis da Molokai Leprosarium. Wha' you tink, bro?"

My heart felt as if made of lead. I hung up the phone.

Subsequent phone calls were refused.

Two days later during my Navy retirement physical at Tripler Hospital, small painless skin lesions discovered on my lips, my mouth, nose, and scrotum were diagnosed as an advanced case of leprosy. "Looks like you've had this for a few years, Chief."

The doctors quizzed me. Had I been anywhere that I could have been exposed to leprosy? Even years ago? Only then did I realize that I had carried the disease since Nuka Hiva. It was I who had contaminated Gerry.


  1. Oh what an ending! I never expected that.
    An enjoyable read. Took a bit of getting into, probably too much by way of working in, but once mc met Gerry the story became a page-turner. Interesting that author revealed mc was Indian mid-way through. This certainly added another dimension.

  2. Moving tale, vivid and nostalgic. Such a tragic ending, felt bad for both of them.