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Monday, August 5, 2002

Island in the Stream

By John Hutchison

There are a half-dozen of us, thirteen-year-old boys draped over the gunwales of an old World War II landing craft as it clears the reef-enclosed harbor and heads for open water. We are a group of Sea Scouts, sons of U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officers stationed at a super-secret training base on the island of Saipan in the Marianas, and on this Saturday morning in 1956 we are headed for the island of Tinian, ten miles to the south. The two adults accompanying us are CIA personnel, founders and supervisors of our Scout chapter, each of them skilled in small boat handling, an expertise they put to use weekdays training Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist guerrillas for sabotage missions on the Chinese mainland.


My friends and I are aware of the incongruity in our lives: This 12-by-5-mile island thousands of miles from anywhere, inhabited by an indigenous Saipanese population of spearfishermen and subsistence farmers. And in the middle of this landscape, atop the island's highest mountain, a ready-made American suburb with carefully planned streets with sidewalks and streetlights, two- and three-bedroom homes, and a modern shopping center.

Mere steps from the edges of this unlikely compound is the jungle. All but the restricted area on the island's northern end where the guerrillas train is available to us, and much of our free time is spent cutting machete swaths through the brush or following narrow dirt roads through overgrown inland valleys. Where a year before I and my young comrades would have been spending our after-school hours on the ballfields of Washington, D.C.'s bedroom communities, the terrain we now visit introduces us to more problematic contests. The detritus of the World War II battle for the island is everywhere. We clamber into burned-out tanks and crashed aircraft, discover pillboxes and caves, speculating like archaeologists about the remains of soldiers' bones and equipment we find, our reedy adolescent voices solemn with our first reflections about death in the afternoon.


Each boy gets a turn at the helm. I steer as we thread the channel through the Tinian reef and then glide across the glassy lagoon and drop the bow ramp onto the beach.

We've ferried a jeep over, and before we set out a Coast Guardsman from the island's loran station directs us to some nearby prehistoric ruins. We soon reach a clearing of large, capstoned pyramidal pillars set in a dozen double rows and standing at least twelve feet high. Remnants of the House of Taga, probably dating from around 1500 B.C., the guardsman said; the dwelling of a legendary Chamorran king who ruled over the Marianas and was said to have been ten feet tall.

We sit quietly for a long time in the soft grass and depart reluctantly. Throughout the morning one of the men has talked about the World War II Tinian air base. Suddenly we are upon it, a deserted plain of limitless and gleaming coral runways, eroded at their edges by the ever-encroaching jungle vegetation.

We hurtle the runways at top speed. One of my friends keeps insisting he knows how to drive, and the men finally let him, though his feet barely reach the pedals. Crammed together, we jerk and careen for miles, howling with laughter at this diminutive maniac behind the wheel.

As we pull up to a small, lone wooden building at the airfield's boundary one of the men says flatly, "This is it." We fall silent and stare at the bare floors and barn-high ceilings, the room yielding no evidence of what occurred here eleven years earlier. I try to imagine it, and have a sense of its aftermath, remembering what I saw some months before on a family vacation to Japan: long stretches of dusty Tokyo lots, still barren from firebombings during the war. I reread the inscription on a plaque nailed to the wall outside. It mentions nothing other than the names of the military units and aircraft, and the dates upon which the atom bombs assembled here were flown to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Later we sail up to the narrow end of the lagoon and anchor. Above us 25-foot limestone cliffs drop abruptly to the water. Off the bow a small cove bisects the cliffs, with a pristine patch of beach at its base.

We tumble naked over the side. None of us has seen water this clear and dazzling anyplace in the islands, and as we snorkel we practice the technique the Saipanese fishermen use: Be still, a part of your surroundings; become fish yourselves.

We're able to find footholds in a cliff wall and gain access to a ledge near the top. We dive off it for hours, arching into caressing skies and plummeting through to welcoming depths. Occasionally I look toward the men on the boat, these colleagues of our fathers, men in the business of overthrowing governments, and I wonder what they're thinking about.

The boy who drove the jeep earlier scrambles up for one last dive before we sail home. He begins clawing the remaining cliff face and manages to crest the bluff, thrusts out his chest, spreads his arms wide and bellows, "I am Taga, godammit, invincible ruler over this domain!" He runs the entire length of the cliffs, directly along the edge, flapping his arms and shouting. We loudly cheer him on, certain, as is he, that any misstep will be cushioned by a forgiving sea.

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