Everywhere I look I am faced with contradictions, both internal and external, personal and public. I don’t know if contradiction is the right word, but I am going to run with it for now.
Getting off the plane in Chuuk, in a reasonably modern airport, we loaded our luggage and gear into a old but adequate late eighties Ford Bronco and drove the five miles from the airport to Xavier High School. So far; so good.
After less than a mile, paved avenue gave way to a rutted out, barely drivable “road” for the rest of the drive. I imagine looking down on the roads from above and seeing an old, grizzled snake swallowing a younger one in a show of dominance. The path was well seasoned with ruts, potholes, and puddles, although the puddles were more like small ponds. When we drove into; yes, into–not over, not through, not around, into; each one, it was impossible to gauge how deep it went. As we drove into each one, I wondered if this was the one that we’d sink in and flood out the engine. Father Rich McAuliffe, who was driving, intimated that he felt the same way–and this is his reality. The night drive was dark, and in our headlights from time to time as we approached one of the flooded out ruts, a crab would emerge, scurry out and scuttle sideways into the brush alongside the road. Again, I’d like to point out that calling this thoroughfare a road is an extreme compliment to any deer run I may have wandered across while walking in the woods and an extreme insult to roads everywhere else in the world.
Over the course of the five mile/half hour drive Father Rich told us about Xavier. A recent graduation was attended by the President of Micronesia. A recent student received a Gates Foundation Scholarship. The commencement ceremony was held on the basketball court. This sounded very familiar and reminded me of my high school. Scranton Prep had more than its fair share of alums who went on to become governors or senators or ambassadors, and they all dropped by to speak at convocations held on school’s basketball court. I know this drill. But in daylight I see that Xavier’s basketball court is a concrete slab on top of a plateau surrounded by what could best be called a jungle. Backboards attached to posts hold rims with no nets.
The campus buildings are all part of what was once a Japanese military communications outpost—-four foot thick concrete walls, solid steel doors. Apparently the main building took a direct hit during Operation Hailstone when the U.S. sunk the Japanese fleet in the lagoon right outside my window. Bullet marks from strafing runs pock the walls of the school. Fresh paint and refurbishing make it look somewhat school-like, but it is clearly a military institution. A military institution with a statue of St. Francis Xavier on the front lawn. What was I saying about contradictions?
I’m staying in a relatively spartan dorm room. A cot, a sink, a closet, a family of cockroaches. The shower down the hall is a barrel of rainwater in a shower stall with a large ladle. I’m not complaining, mind you, it’s just not an image that usually comes to mind when I think boarding school. My East Coast is showing.
But perhaps the most interesting detail that stuck me is the mural to the fallen Japanese who died on the island. Some students painted it in a stairwell in the main building. It struck me as odd. The Japanese built this military outpost with slave labor drawn from the local Chuukese population. Yet here is a memorial to the Japanese fallen. Revisionist history? A testament to the power of forgiveness? You be the judge. But even more interesting was the visceral reaction I had when I first saw it. I’ve never seen any memorial to the Japanese and their role in World War II. On the contrary, I’ve heard nothing but tales of atrocities, sneak attacks, and death marches. All of that is so deeply ingrained in me. I had trouble taking pause to gain perspective. The soldiers who died here were men like anyone else. They didn’t necessarily make policy. They had wives, kids, lovers, tales to tell, and mountains to climb just like anyone else. But even as I write this, I still stumble over all I was taught in school, in books, and in movies. Every time I walk past the mural, I feel revile and compassion holding a debate in my head. I’m still not sure who’s going to win. Ask me in six weeks.