Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Way back in 1951, at the age of three, I as the junior (tag-along) member of my family, had the opportunity to venture to the South Pacific where we lived for a year and half on the tropical island of American Samoa. We flew from Chicago (where the original family home was) to Hawaii and from Hawaii to Fiji.

There was no plane service to Tutuila, the main island of American Samoa. In Fiji we caught a cargo ship that carried us to the vicinity of the Samoan Islands where we transferred to a smaller island vessel while still out at sea. That was an adventure in itself because we had to climb down a steeply slanting ladder to a small boat bobbing up and down in the sea swells. It was powered by oars.

We were rowed to the smaller vessel where we had to climb up a ladder to the deck. I think somebody picked me up and handed me to the crew members above. This smaller vessel was called the Manua Tele and was about the size of a tug boat. In fact, I think it had been a tug boat in a previous life.

The Manua Tele pulled into Pago Pago harbor late that night, just in time for us to go to our new house, quickly unpack some of our things and go to sleep. Our new home was right along the waterfront of the harbor. The house was situated just a few hundred feet from the pier where the Matson Steam Ship Line cargo and passenger vessels would tie up.

Behind the house was a gigantic ever bearing mango tree that towered fifty or sixty feet into the sky. My father told me that if I went to the tree, I would meet a great many Samoan people and even some boys my age, but he cautioned me that the first words I would hear from the Samoan boys would be "Fia Fuso," which means, "Do you want to fight?" Dad explained that the answer to that was the Samoan word "Le-Ai," which means "No."

Being an adventurous child, I ventured out to the mango tree, which was also along the main road that ran the length of the island. There, I was approached by a Samoan boy about a year or so older than I was. The first words he spoke to me were the only Samoan words that I understood, "Fia Fuso."

Dad was right. I quickly tried to remember the order of the syllables for the word, "No." Not certain if it was Ai-Le or Le-Ai, I retreated to my house as quickly as I could. The Samoan boy laughed at me. I was not yet determined to be a gallant warrior.

I returned to that mango tree a little while later and was promptly challenged to another fight, which I politely declined with the use of the proper word as instructed by my mother. I wanted to get to know these boys who had the freedom to throw rocks up into the mango tree to knock the fruit down to eat. They were very good at throwing those rocks and could usually knock down a mango in two or three throws. Back in Chicago I was not allowed to throw rocks.

This time I stayed, and nobody hit me or hurt me. In their culture, boys are taught to fight at an early age, but they are also taught to respect the wishes of others, especially, little ones like me. No older Samoan child present would have allowed a four or five year old to hurt a three year old, even if I was a Palagi (Samoan for "white fish"-used to describe the white or pale skinned people of European descent who now lived among them, and interfered with their beautiful island lifestyle)

I was fascinated with the brown skinned children. They wore very little clothes, either shorts, worn underwear, or strips of cloth that they wrapped around their waists. These cloths, I learned were called lava-lava, and they were the standard attire for most Samoans before the missionaries arrived. As it was, most Samoans continued to wear them. With a lava-lava you had a lot more freedom than if you wore pants or dresses which were hot and restrictive.

Caucasion children, for the most part, stayed covered, even though it was hot and humid. Our clothes were soon wet with sweat and we foolishly walked around all day like that. Every Samoan knew that there was something wrong with the Palagi (white people) judgment. The Palagi were not as smart as the islanders in this regard. The less clothes you wore, the more comfortable you were. Any Samoan knew that.

In Samoa, it rained almost every day, about an inch a day on average. That is right, over 300 inches of rain a year! There was a rainy season, and a "less than rainy season" (never a really dry season). In the rainy season, Samoa would receive more rain in half a week than Southern California receives in a whole year. The Samoans never carried those ridiculous things called umbrellas. If it rained, it rained. A person caught in the rain would try to find shelter under a tree or overhang, but almost always got wet. That was no problem, you took your lava-lava off and twisted it sort of dry, put it back on and proceeded on your way. If you climbed a coconut tree, you would tie the lava lava in such a fashion that your crotch was covered but legs were free to grasp the tree. Samoan men used their legs and feet in climbing as much as they used their arms and hands. I never saw a woman climb a tree. That was men's work.

Many of the women did not cover their breasts. This was gradually changing as the missionaries convinced the islanders that they had to cover their nakedness. Not all of the women believed that nakedness applied to breasts. Breasts were for feeding babies and had to be available for that purpose. Besides, covering their upper body made the women uncomfortable because of the heat and humidity.

In the outlying villages far away from the churches almost none of the women would cover the upper half of their bodies. In the capital of Pago Pago, the little children covered their nakedness, but in outlying villages they would run around naked as a newborn without a care in the world.

Usually the children would be covered by the time they were five or six. Girls would be covered earlier than boys. Both would only be covered from their waist to their thighs. In Pago, the adolescent girls would cover their breasts when they developed past the one inch sprout stage. All of this was a tremendous education for me. Back in Chicago, we were always clothed.

I used to go out by that mango tree behind our house a lot. The Samoans who could find the room would ride in crowded buses on that one road past that mango tree on their way to market or hospital or home. When they passed by, they would always be singing as they slapped or pounded on the outside of the bus to keep time, "Oh le see pi, Oh le ah nai, a pah a no enga eh la oh le oh nai," or sounds to that effect. I didn't have the slightest idea what they were singing about, but it sure sounded like fun to me. The people always appeared to find a reason to be happy in their everyday activities. If they were fishing or working in their gardens or transporting produce to market or building houses they did it with joy and quite often with song.

Actually, their houses, or fales were made out of thickly layered palm fronds for the thatch roofs. Pillars positioned in a circle supported the roof. Walls were made out of highly decorated woven palm frond mats that were suspended between the pillars. All of their houses were open on all sides. Some or all of the mats could be lowered for privacy during the night. With the wall mats rolled up during the day, the cooling winds could blow through the house as well as could the children. The Samoan women would work around the fale, while the men would go out on the reef to spear fish, or up into the mountain to catch pigs or bring fruit or vegetables back to the women to prepare. There was woman work, and there was man work, and never the twain would meet.

The men's work always involved large amounts of hard physical exertion, sweat and dirt. The men always built the U-mu or oven that was used to cook the pigs and other foods. They would build a large fire into which they would put about a hundred softball or larger size rocks. Using sticks they would take the extremely hot rocks out of the fire when it died down and use the rocks to line a pit that they had dug in the ground. Into the pit they would place the pig, which had been heavily wrapped in banana leaves and securely tied. They would also place the other items to be cooked in the pit alongside the pig (i.e. wrapped fish, squid, taro root, and packets of taro leaves that were mixed with coconut milk. The latter food was delicious and was called palasami.) Once you have tasted it, you will never forget it. Banana leaves would cover all of the food items and then the remaining hot rocks would be placed on top and the U-mu would be totally covered with dirt. The heat from the rocks would cook the various foods. After several hours, the whole lot would be uncovered, and everybody would enjoy a fantastic feast of island delicacies. Their food was superb.

Feasts were a common thing in Samoa. The adults were almost all very, very large. The Samoans are a large people, both because of abundant eating and because the vast majority have thick body frames. The men are just naturals for the American sport of football. The high schools play it on the islands with gusto, sometimes without the benefit of all of the equipment.

Their culture has some fascinating aspects to it. Thousands of years ago, the women banded together and explained to a gathering of high chiefs (Ma-tais) from all of the islands that a lot of their work required great strength, which many of them did not possess, and they wanted the help of the men to complete their chores. This request, of course, violated all of the traditional values with respect to men's work and women's work. The decision of the Matais was that any seventh born son to a family would be given to the women to raise. This seventh son was to be used for "woman work," and could not work with the men. They used a term to describe these men performing as women. It was Fa-fa-fene, which means, "In The Way of a Woman." Eventually, Fa-fa-feine came to mean "homosexual."

Another example of their logic concerned the problem of raiders coming in from other non-Samoan islands. Much like the Vikings, the islanders of the South Pacific would raid other island villages. Early in the morning, usually way before sunrise, ten or more war canoes (Outrigger canoes or double hulled canoes designed to carry fifty or more men) would come racing into a village. The men would jump off as soon as they reached shore, and proceed to club any man who rose to fight them. The raiders would plunder and pillage and grab any young virgin that they thought might be desirable and escape back into the ocean for their return to safety of their home island.

The high chiefs from all of the Samoan Islands gathered together again and decided that enough was enough. They would effect a solution that would eventually free their island villages from attack from the neighboring non-Samoan islands such as the hated Fijian islands. Their solution was to throw all of their small undersized children into the sea. Any child that was born small or deformed was returned to nature (the ocean) to become a turtle or shark. At least, that is what their folklore told them would happen when they threw the new born babies into the ocean. Only the children with large body frames were allowed to grow to adulthood.

Eventually, over the next few generations, the Samoans became the biggest and most feared people in the entire Pacific. Because of that, no other island would dare to mess with the Samoans. If there was any form of transgression on the part of other islands, the Samoans would attack en-mass and destroy the population that offended them. The words, "Samoa Ta-Pu" were understood all over the South Pacific. Samoa was Taboo or forbidden to any foreigner. All the other people of the Pacific soon learned that you did not mess with Samoa.

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil-because I am the meanest and biggest man in the valley.

Talking about attacks, it would appear that our house was the only structural casualty of the Second World War on the island. A Japanese submarine had secretly pulled into the coastal waters on the other side of the island of Tutuila and lobbed a series of shells over the mountain into what could best be described as downtown Pago Pago. There really isn't a downtown area per say, just a small area where there are some official buildings, a jail, a pier, some storage sheds, and a parade ground. One shell hit our future residence. near the rear of our house and blew the kitchen to pieces. The other shells hit trees and open spaces. The kitchen area of the house had just been rebuilt before the family arrived in Samoa from the frigid environs of Chicago in winter. Of all the houses in Samoa we had the most modern kitchen.

To a child approaching the age of four, Samoa was a new land filled with wonder. There were the coconut crabs that lived in holes in our front lawn. They were quite large and could pinch a child's hand off. I used to chase them just the same, but I was always cautious not to corner one. They sure were fast! I used to love the smells of the bay that was located right in front of our house. The water was clean and clear. You could watch the octopuses and multicolored fish and other sea life as if you were looking down on an aquarium.

Our house and a whole string of houses just like it had been built prior to World War II to house naval officers and their immediate family members who had been assigned to the big island in an administrative capacity. The string of houses were built along the waterfront close to the main pier in a tract that we called Centipede Row. They were wood frame, elevated from the ground on cement piers. The outside of the house was screened on three sides. Essentially, we had a screened in porch that went three quarters of the way around the house. This provided for breezes to blow through, and yet gave us some limited privacy. About six feet inside the outer screened wall was a structural wall that surrounded the rest of the house. Inside that wall were the actual house elements as we would know them, two bedrooms, two baths, a living room and a kitchen. There was also a maids room that was on the same unscreened end of the house as was the kitchen. Between the maids room and the kitchen was a small walkway that led to the rear screen door. Out that screen door was one small storage shed, and beyond that was the mango tree. It was about fifty feet from the shed.

Between the mango tree and the shed was a large grassy area that ran the length of all the houses on Centipede Row. Halfway down that row of houses was a school that my older sisters went to during the cooler morning hours of the day. School seemed like a great mystery to me. When I would ask Lorelei what she did there almost every day, she wouldn't tell me, so I was left to wonder until I started kindergarten.

I could sit on the front steps and watch the traffic in the harbor. The occasional large Matson Liner would tie up at the pier just a stone's throw from our front door. Samoans would be fishing from their canoes and small boats. People would walk past and say hello to me, and I would respond in kind. Navy warships would tie up at the pier, as well as would other commercial craft. All of the boats and ships held an alluring and enchanting fascination for me. They were a means to go out and see the world, something that I knew at a very young age I wanted to do.

Across the harbor, just as if it were a shining light was a Catholic church, painted white. I wanted to know what went on over on the other side of the island. My little boy brain wanted to know why that white church stick out so much from the other structures on the other side of the harbor. The answer, of course, was that the church was the only white structure across the water. It just drew your attention to it.

I started asking questions about this unusual new world around me, and was informed that we were on an island. A three year old does not understand geography. When I asked what that meant, I was told that an island was something that you could walk around; that if you walked in one direction long enough, eventually you would circle around the island and come back to your house. This sounded very promising to me, so early the next morning after breakfast, I set out to walk around the island.

With my stomach in, my chest out, my chin up, my spine straight, and my arms pumping I headed out in the direction of that Catholic church. Dad had taught me that a man always carried himself that way, and I most certainly wouldn't do anything that Dad wouldn't approve of.

I walked and walked and walked. After a long while, I had ventured a couple of miles around the volcano rim that formed the harbor and was at the white church. I stopped briefly to look at it. It didn't seem to shine so much now that I was near it. I did not venture in, as I was somewhat in awe that I had come to see it. The attraction was on the outside. Once I had seen enough, I ventured on, and on, and on.

On the way to the church there were no end of fales, so I was always near people. Eventually, I started seeing less and less houses, and more and more foliage and free running pigs. The dark green vegetation was growing higher along the side of the road. The ocean was always on my right, and a flower and shrub covered mountainside was to my left, my chin was up and my feet really started to hurt from all the walking.

Boy, did my feet hurt! I had never walked so far before. After each turn in the road, I hoped that my father's house would come into view. Even if my feet fell off, I was going to make it to Dad's house, but now I was starting to have serious doubts concerning what I understood about walking around the island. Had anybody said how long it would take?

Chin up, chest out, stomach in, spine straight, and arms pumping and feet hurting I was continuing my trek when a Jeep passed me by and stopped with a screech, stirring dust up on the dirt, coral and gravel road. In that Jeep was an acquaintance of the family who told me to get in.

Back then, parents did not have to warn their children about going with people other than family members as much as they do today. I had some reservation about getting in the Jeep, because it would mean that my journey of new exploration would be at an end. But, heck, my feet hurt something awful. Well, I could always take up my journey at some later date. I jumped in the Jeep. The man who was driving took me directly to our front doorstep in Pago and dropped me off, informing my mother that he had found me hiking on the north side of the island. I was admonished by my mother because "She was worried almost to death!"

I was in a learning mode, and I learned a valuable lesson. I always told my mother where I was going after that.

As the year and a half passed, I was able to see numerous Samoan celebrations, which consisted of group singing and ritual dancing. There was a tremendous beauty and grace to their culture that had developed over thousands of years. Frequently, when I dream at night I venture back to that time and place. The memories are pleasant.


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About Me

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Born Chicago. Lived: Palos Heights Chicago, Illinois; American Samoa; Mexico; Escondido and San Diego, California; and then I finally graduated from High School. Subsequently, 12 years in the Navy took me all over the world.