Living on a faraway island can leave a lasting impression

(Pictured: From 1968 to 1971, today’s Little Falls City Administrator lived with the happy, friendly people of the island of Puluwat, Micronesia. Submitted photo.)

If Carlson was a slow learner in the language classes on Guam, he learned, out of necessity, very fast once on Puluwat. Especially, he related, since he was the only volunteer placed on the island. “I don’t know but, while other assignments had two members put together, I was the only one sent to Puluwat,” he explained. “Maybe they thought 400 people didn’t warrant two volunteers.”

With just two months of training, Carlson found himself living in a profoundly different culture from which he was accustomed. His assignment was to teach English, the official language of the country, and to teach elementary classes in a school he was to build.

“When I arrived, I held school outside,” the Peace Corps volunteer recalled. “We had no paper or pencils; we wrote in the sand. I had one large book to teach with. Then, in teaching English, I couldn’t get the people to say the th sound because they thought it impolite to show their tongue.”

Carlson ran into other problems as the construction of the school got underway. “We were to build it out of bricks,” he explained. “I didn’t know how to make bricks! They kept falling apart. Finally, the Peace Corps sent a carpenter to help me.”

Looking back, Carlson added, “The people were so proud of that school. Once, some youngsters wrote on the walls with some chalk. They caught it good. I know there were much nicer schools in Chuuk. But, they had been made by US Aid. When I went back there, I found they’d been damaged by the kids, with screens ripped out and such. Of course, they hadn’t been made by the people themselves. No pride there.”

The Japanese had built an air and naval base on the island during World War II. Remnants of them were still there during Carlson’s stay, as were a Japanese ship and an American bomber that laid at the bottom of a nearby lagoon.

“I got the feeling that the Japanese had treated the people like slaves,” said Carlson. “They made them work for them, and bow to them. The worst thing for a Micronesian to have to do is put his face in the ground. And then the Japanese told the people that, if the Americans won the war, they would come to eat them because they were cannibals. So, when the Americans did arrive after they had blown up the Japanese supply ships, the natives all fled. The Japanese were lined up for their surrender. But, the American officer wanted the natives present. When they were called to come in, the elders decided they had better come forth and sacrifice themselves for the sake of the others. Instead of eating them, the Americans lined them up in front of the Japanese and had the Japanese surrender to them. It was a great political maneuver that they still talk about.”

Carlson found the Micronesians to be happy, friendly people, with a culture completely nonmaterialistic and bent on generosity to others. “The worst thing they could be called was ‘stingy,’” he said. “If someone admired something they had, they handed it over to them.”

Carlson lived in a bamboo hut the natives had made for him. He paid them $10 a month for rent which was distributed amongst the people. Believing in ghosts, they didn’t want him to live alone but finally settled for him leaving a lantern on all night. They also washed his clothes and made sure he was fed well—fish (often raw), coconuts and fruits like mangos and bananas. “They’re a laid-back people,” he related. “It’s not their tradition to do too much. They maybe have just one formal meal a day; they just eat any time.”

While he was the only non-native on the island much of the time, Carlson was equipped with a generator, a transistor radio and a small, kerosene-run refrigerator for keeping medications. He also had been given some medical training, and had access to a Peace Corps doctor whenever necessary. And, while he was called upon to help deliver babies, set broken arms, pull out absessed teeth and treat illnesses like pneumonia, he recalls the people had their own medicines that could take away a headache in a minute, and even take away hunger pangs.

Strides in better hygene that Carlson was able to make with the island people included getting them tooth brushes, and getting them to understand the importance of washing. “Being introduced to sugar, they began to get cavaties, and so I ordered the tooth bushes for them,” he explained. “Then, when I was training women to be mid-wives, I told them the importance about washing their hands because of bacteria. Well, they couldn’t understand there was such a thing if they couldn’t see it.”

Though he came with no intent to change their native ways, Carlson was able to introduce the people to a few items from “the modern world.” For example, with his generator, he was able to show a couple of movies he had been sent. “One was ‘Zorro,’” he recalled. “I’d show it every Saturday night. They loved it. I got so sick of it. I could run it backward or forward, they didn’t care. Then, every kid wanted to be Zorro. Another movie was from the US Information Agency and showed President Johnson visiting different countries. They loved that, too—him getting off the airplane and the soldiers marching around. I also was sent a cartoon but they didn’t like that—too unbelievable for them to see a cat talking.”

Carlson’s radio also fascinated the people. At one time, he reports, he came upon a few of them taking the back off the radio. “They were looking for the midgets that were inside,” he related.

And then there was Carlson’s pet dog, Ieden—the island’s dog. As he explains, the natives did not believe dogs had any intelligence. Consequently, rather than have them for pets, they ate them. Discovering that Carlson’s dog could obey commands—in two different languages—amazed them and had them giggling.

At one point during his years of service on the island, Carlson himself became so sick that he had to be taken to the American hospital on Guam. While there for a month he met up with soldiers who had been wounded in Vietnam. “It was almost like the MASH show,” he said, “with men screaming at night. In visiting with some of them, they wondered why in the world I wanted to be on an island in Micronesia. I told them I’d rather be there than in Vietnam.”

Carlson’s service on the island of Puluwat was to last two years. However, with the ship coming to the island just every five months, his stay extended to two years, five months. “All the people on the island came for a going-away party for me the night before I left,” he recalled. “They cried. I cried. Oh, there was a lot to eat—including my dog that they had cooked up.”

Since leaving the island in the Pacific, Carlson taught for a few months at the St. Anthony Village High School, served two years in Germany with the Army, worked for Texaco for five years and then, wanting to fulfill his dream to be a city administrator, went to MN State at Mankator to get his masters degree in public administration. He has been the city administrator for Little Falls since December, 1985.

Looking back at his years spent over 30 years ago on the small island in the Pacific, Carlson reflected, “I don’t dream in Micronesian any more, but I do still remember most of the language. You know, I learned more from them than what I taught them. I learned how to sail, about their medicines, and of their lack of commercialism—that there isn’t a real need for all that we have. Yes, I’d love to go back for a visit.”

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