TODAY’S TOPIC: ‘Ex-Vols’ Opt for the Island Life
POHNPEI, Micronesia (AP) _ As a straw-haired schoolgirl back home in Teutopolis, Ill., Marialice Burford had a dream.
″I was going to be a Chicago Cubs sportswriter someday,″ she recalled.
Then she found her South Sea island. ″And my dreams all went away.″ There was a heaven beyond Wrigley Field after all.
For a generation now, the ageless allure of the Pacific - the jewel-like waters, the lush little islands, the languid, laughing people - has been luring Peace Corps volunteers like Marialice Burford into sinking new roots in remote old societies.
Dozens of volunteers have stayed behind after their tours of duty ended, becoming part of island life, operating businesses and practicing law, keeping taverns and advising governments, studying anthropology and writing novels.
Some liken themselves to old beachcombers, those 19th-century adventurers who counseled island chiefs on the ways of the outside world.
Today, 394 Peace Corps volunteers are assigned to the Pacific islands, 94 of them in Pohnpei, the Marshall Islands and other places in Micronesia, a U.S.-administered territory 5,000 miles from the American mainland. They work on agricultural projects, as teachers, as advisers to businesses.
No one knows just how many of their predecessors have settled in the islands. But on Majuro atoll, a slender ring of palm-fringed islets that is the capital of the Marshall group, ″ex-vols″ turn up everywhere.
One runs the coconut-oil factory. Another manages the big store. A third owns a handful of small businesses. But none has plunged more deeply into atoll life than Jerry Knight.
A Chicagoan who arrived as a volunteer in 1967, Knight later decided to stay on and ″get inside the culture.″
First, he worked as a Majuro fisherman for two years, perfecting his knowledge of the musical Marshallese language. Then he cast off into the unknown - sailing 400 miles up to isolated Rongelap atoll, where he lived for four years among the 150 Rongelapese, an ocean away from Western civilization.
In his lagoon retreat, the self-taught anthropologist took down the oral histories told by a traditional island narrator. He later published a book of the stories.
″I was planning to stay there till I died,″ said the wiry, mustached Knight, 37. But he finally was recalled to Majuro for overstaying his visa in the Marshalls. Later he re-established himself in Majuro, and as curator of the local museum continues recording Marshallese tales and music.
Down the Majuro road, ex-volunteer Ralph Waltz has plunged into community action, on behalf of a historically special community - the people of Bikini atoll.
The former college linebacker from Menomonee Falls, Wis., arrived in the Marshalls 18 years ago to work as a Peace Corps teacher on Kili island, exile home for people evacuated from Bikini in 1946 for U.S. atomic weapons tests. The assignment changed his life.
After his two-year tour, he married a Bikinian, settled down on impoverished Kili, fished, harvested coconut and began long-distance lobbying of the U.S. government to get radioactive Bikini decontaminated so that its people could return home.
″Before coming out here, I wasn’t aware of how my government had taken advantage of these people,″ said the burly Waltz.
His fight continues. He and his shy, slim wife, Heity, live in Majuro with two of their children. Two older children are at a U.S. high school.
The transplanted Americans say they miss the excitement of big cities, good bookstores and hardware stores.
″I miss McDonald’s hamburgers and french fries,″ Marialice Eperiam, nee Burford, said with a grin.
A 29-year-old University of Missouri journalism graduate, the onetime aspirant to the baseball press box now works for the Pohnpei Congress, and she and her Pohnpeian husband have opened a liquor business.
She laughed at how she has adapted in the eight years since she arrived as a volunteer.
″I remember being amazed at all these naked kids waving at us in the bus,″ she said. ″Now it’s my two kids who are running around naked.″
Whatever yearnings they have for old roots, these ex-volunteers are hooked on islands and island people.
″Out here,″ said Waltz, ″it’s people that are important. And I liked the people immediately. They’re honest, sensitive to each other’s feelings.″
The 42-year-old Waltz does plan to move on someday - but farther out over the horizon, to distant Bikini, if it is made habitable again. He made a brief visit there once, and the vision won’t leave this island-lover’s mind.
″A lagoon full of lobster. Fantastic fishing,″ he said. ″The most beautiful island I’ve ever seen.″