Living on a faraway island can leave a lasting impression

Imagine being given the task of teaching natives on a small island in the Pacific and, when dropped off, you find you can’t understand their language. And, as you were forewarned, there is no electricity on the island, or motor vehicles of any kind.

Such a scenario remains ingrained in the memory of Little Falls’ own city administrator—Rich Carlson. For nearly two and a half years, starting in June, 1968, Carlson, as a Peace Corps volunteer, served the 400 inhabitants of the tiny island of Puluwat, one of the thousands of islands that make up Micronesia.

(Pictured: Rich Carlson, in 1970, was a half-world away from Minnesota. Submitted photo)

Originally from Fergus Falls, Carlson attended Moorhead State University, majoring in history and geography education. Having been interested in the Peace Corps for some time, he looked into the possibility of joining when, during his junior year, a recruiter and several volunteers who had been to Africa, visited his college.

“I remember the moment it came to me that ‘I was going,’” he recalled recently. “I guess it was the adventure and the chance to help others that appealed to me. Youngsters are quite idealistic at that age.”

Joining the Peace Corps right after his graduation from Moorhead State in June, 1968, Carlson was first sent to San Diego, CA. Meeting individually there with a psychologist, the 400 in his group were narrowed to 200. Chosen as one of those to continue on, Carlson was first flown to Guam where he experienced a humidity “beyond belief.” Explaining further, he recalled, “We got there at five in the morning. Going to bed, we found the sheets and everything else covered with slime. It was simply all the moisture. But, you get used to it. Heat and humidity don’t bother me now.”

From Guam, Carlson was sent to Truk—now known as Chuuk— Micronesia, to learn, in two months, the language and culture of the Micronesians. “The country is an independent country, but is a US protectorate,” related Carlson. “We got it from Japan after World War II. Today, they use our money and their government is similar to ours.”

Learning the language of the Micronesians at the classes held in Chuuk proved difficult for Carlson. “I was the slowest in the class,” he said. “I hated memorization. I kept getting warned that, if I didn’t pass the test, I’d be sent home.”

Carlson did finally learn the language. However, when taken to the island of Puluwat, it was discovered he had been taught a language different than that spoken by the people. “Well, they could understand what I was saying, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying,” he recalled.

In fact, the people on the island spoke three languages—the one spoken just to women, the one spoken between men and the one spoken by the chief to the people. They also had 21 different ways of counting, with the counting based on the shape of the objects, or of specific items such as people and fish.

This entry was posted in Morrison County Record. Bookmark the permalink.