28.1.07

Back in Wisconsin...

In the fifth grade, we all had to do a report on a specific explorer from the Age of Exploration. Some kids chose Vasco de Gama. Others presented reports on Francis Drake or Francisco de Coronado. I chose Ferdinand Magellan, the first man to circumnavigate the globe. In researching and ultimately presenting my report, I came across the name of a small island in the Pacific Ocean, where, after months of hard transoceanic sailing, Magellan and his crew stopped to refresh their water and food supply. This island was Guam. Little did I know at the time, this would not be our last encounter. Unlike countless other American school children, I would not be able to simply forget Guam’s existence once the report was over and graded.

It was the summer before 6th grade. We lived in a small wooded community on the extreme outskirts of Milwaukee County. It was almost suburban. We had been living in that town since we moved from California so my dad could help run an airline in Milwaukee.
There may have been another town in there as well. I don’t know. We moved a lot. Dad worked for Continental airlines and had been transferred from airport to airport. We followed close behind, packing up our lives and moving from Illinois to California, California to Wisconsin. We always moved. That was a given. How far was the thing that was up in the air. Would there be a change in time zones? Or could we maybe keep the same phone number for once?
Of late, Continental had not been doing well in Milwaukee and was going in and out of business there. Consequently, dad was working either the hour and a half drive to Milwaukee or the hour and a half flight to Detroit. We all wondered if Detroit would be our next “home.”
That summer, dad had received a call from an old boss of his whom he had worked for in Chicago. He was in Guam, and felt dad was the right man to fill the city manager position. Mom and dad had flown out to interview and check out the island. For that week, there was no school and no parents. It was just my older brother David, my younger brother Erik, and me.
David was six years older than me and practically an adult. He remembered Illinois better than Erik (two years my junior) or me, since we left when I was only three. He knew our grandparents. He was also balding, even though he was about to begin his senior year. Erik and I made fun of him for that.
Erik was the “creative” one. He was a strawberry blonde firecracker. Because he was extra-tall for his age (we were all tall) everyone assumed he and I were twins. That wasn’t true, but we were known to draw closer together in situations outside the safety of home.
The day mom and dad were to come home from the interview, we went to meet them at the airport. Erik and David had made banners on the computer that read “WELCOME HOME GLOBETROTTERS!!!” We had seen the Harlem Globe Trotters that previous winter, and surely this is the farthest that a Pavesic had ever traveled. While classmates of mine often took winter vacations to such exotic places as Florida, we only went to the Wisconsin Dells and, if we were really lucky, to a trailer park in Iowa on a dammed up river.
To make the reception more “island,” we each dressed in colourful, tacky, mismatched clothing. The islands, as we saw it, were brilliant and dazzling exotic locations where people dressed brightly so as not to be eaten by tigers in the jungle. Erik had on red and white striped shorts and a yellow t-shirt. I had a on a pink shirt with green shorts. David, certainly the most authentic and prepared, had on a real Hawaiian shirt and Panama hat that some friend of his must have bought for him on their travels.
Aside from the excitement of seeing mom and dad again, we were terribly anxious, almost frantic. What was it like over there? Were there headhunters? Was it like Tarzan or 20,000 Leagues under the Sea? Did they get the job? Were we going? Did they bring us anything? Did they bring us any tropical diseases? Would I get my own room? Oh yeah, did they like it?
My parents are larger than life people, even now that I’m taller than they are. But when I was still little, they were enormous. My dad was Santa Claus, benignly towering, with white hair and a white beard. His belly didn’t shake like a bowl full of jelly, but his gruff booming voice still could not hide his warmth when he smiled and laughed. He annually donned his Santa outfit for company and school parties. Kids at school would look at me in awe on those rare occasions that dad was not at work and picked me up.
“Your dad is Santa Claus?” they would say with a mixture of amazement and disbelief. I’d smile knowingly and bask in the brief fame and adulation such a status would bring me among my classmates. It was the only thing I was famous or adored for.
Outwardly, mom was the opposite of dad. Her favourite costume, aside from the comfortable nightgown that was the uniform of her housewife profession, was more about Halloween. She would dress as a witch, an outlet for her more assertive side. Though benevolent to her own children, who had gotten used to the cackling and sinister smile, she was often viewed outside the home as “bitchy.” It was not that she was sinister. Her smile was really quite pleasant. However, age and three children had done something to her eyes that turned her genuine smile into something with more going on behind it than one was comfortable thinking about. She was also dangerously intelligent.
After their long trip, they were excited to have their sons pick them up and drive them back to the house they’d recently bought on Woodward Street. It was a giant two-story colonial-style home in the woods. Covered in white siding and brick, it sat back off the street, veiled behind the branches of the large trees which populated our neighbourhood. It was the oldest house we’d ever lived in, built sometime before mom and dad were married. Made of wood, it groaned and creaked with the wind or a footfall. It was a warm home.
It wasn’t long before my dad received a call saying that he was wanted for the position. “When can you get here?” Family meetings began at once to determine whether or not to accept. For once, Erik and I were included in the decision. We were put in charge of finding out more information about Guam to help the family make up its mind. Hitting the World Book Encyclopedias and National Geographics, we prepared our presentation on this tropical island in the Western Pacific that was 36 miles long, 6-12 miles wide, populated by close to 150,000 people, ringed by coral reefs, had no major exports, and was an unincorporated trust territory of the United States.
I felt so adult to at last have a say in a family move that I couldn’t help but stamp it with my approval. We always moved, and it was always the adults’ decision. So now that I was a grown-up, it was only natural that I vote for Dad to accept the job. We sat around the dinner table, a large solid circle of reddish coloured wood around which we’d eaten for years. The table was blanketed in maps, picture books, encyclopedias, lists, notes, and the remnants of dinner, including dad’s beer stein.
After much debate, with me stomping my feet and pouting in the best argumentative style I knew, it was decided that the Pavesics would go to Guam. Well, most of us. David was starting his senior year in high school and wanted to graduate with his friends. Mom was not wild about it, but finally consented to let David move in with some friends from Boy Scouts who’d make sure he would go to school and behave.
Dad was to start right away, which left mom, Erik and I to close up life in Wisconsin. We started school that fall with the understanding that this would be temporary. We were leaving the United States. We had passports. For once, there was something interesting about me. The kid who wore thrift store and garage sale clothes to a school populated by pre-teen fashion plates was going “abroad.” The kid from the older neighbourhoods was leaving. I would be the worldly one, well traveled and cultured.
I’d bring the picture book I had to school to show off. It was a glossy book with full-page pictures showing life on Guam, circa 1974. In it there were pictures of jungles and wood and tin shacks. There were pristine white sand beaches and water so blue that no Crayola set could compare.
And there were Chamorros, the native people of Guam and (according to my research) distantly related to the Filipinos and Vietnamese. We lived in a small town in Wisconsin where you were looked at with suspicion if your last name didn’t end in the traditionally Polish “-sky.” There had been one black kid and two Puerto Rican kids I had befriended throughout my childhood there. I had, however, never seen an Asian. Chamorros had rich brown skin and bright white smiles. They had straight black hair that was mussed up and sticking in different directions from beneath Budweiser baseball caps. They dressed in strange clothes reminiscent of pictures I’d seen of Mexico, or minimally in a pair of pants and nothing else. In the pictures, they were all standing smiling with their grandmother in front of a shack, playing volleyball in a bare dirt patch in the jungle, surfing on small waves in a bay or sitting behind the counter of what appeared to be a primitive convenience store.
I was afraid, of course, that while I was enjoying this new-found fame at school, I would soon be living in one of these clapboard shanty-town homes with a tin roof and plastic windows. I wasn’t good at volleyball and didn’t have a grandmother. I didn’t really even know what surfing was.
If the kids were fascinated, the adults in the community were abuzz with the news as well. Neighbours came by to chat, drink coffee and offer packing assistance to my mother (who was now alone since her husband had gone off to work overseas). Rumours spread around town that we were moving to “Guatemala” or “some place in Africa.” With each new announcement, we’d patiently await the standard confused look and inquiry into where Guam was exactly. When David told one his classmates that his parents were moving to Guam, the high school senior looked back at him puzzled and asked, “What’s a guam?”
These came not only from kids but adults as well. I was able to correct their mistake in what Guam was and give a precise location and description of the island. It made me feel superior, a feeling I still enjoy to this day. I had known about the existence of Guam for years. I was not just passing along information I had just learned. Guam was old news to me, since that school report on Magellan. Many of the facts I was passing along were things I’d known for quite some time. I imagined this was how old-money felt toward the nouveau riche.

With much fanfare, hoopla, cardboard boxes and tears, we finally said goodbye to the house on Woodward Street. In the course of four months, we had sold, donated and discarded a large volume of the possessions that had cluttered our monstrous home. We had packed my dad off to Guam where he would call us from tomorrow (due to something called the International Date Line). We had packed up my older brother and moved him into the home of friends. My mom had coordinated selling the house and being drill sergeant to a crew of moving men. They loaded our belongings and furniture into a truck and drove it to the sea, where everything would be loaded into a ship.
After a five hour flight to Los Angeles, a six hour flight to Hawaii and an eight hour flight to Guam, we were there. Endless hours of seeing nothing out the plane windows but an unbroken expanse of white clouds and blue ocean made it good to be back on the ground.
We arrived at five in the morning. The first thing I noticed was how heavy the air was. Wisconsin summers are not dry, but the humidity on Guam was oppressive. Even though the sun was not yet up, it felt like I was breathing water. It was warm and sticky, and the nice travel clothes felt highly inappropriate for my new life as a jungle explorer. As we exited the plane, we could see my dad’s red face beaming white teeth over the heads of everyone else in the terminal. The cold tile floors were a blessing following the brief moments of walking allowed on the airplane. The clacking of people’s heels as they rushed along to immigrations, baggage claim and customs was music.
The airport was a massive structure of concrete pillars enclosed in glass. Each solid pillar rose straight up, only to fan out into a bowl shape where it met the ceiling. Dad pointed out that these pillars were shaped like latte stones, the stilts on which the Chamorros built their traditional homes. The walls were covered in big-game fish and native implements made out of coconuts, coral and woven palm fronds. Sharks and Marlin and Tuna hung on the walls next to the monitors for arrivals and departures. A strange canoe with a long pole running alongside it on struts (I’d later learn to call this an outrigger) sat on a platform in the middle of the baggage claim area. It was like a museum with flight announcements and luggage.
Outside, the sun was just coming up over the water that was the horizon. Gigantic clouds caught the first rays of light and turned from their evening deep blue to purple and orange. The airport was situated on a cliff. The air was even more oppressively hot and sticky. Dad marched us along to a car, a tiny white thing that was nothing like the gigantic station wagons we had back in Wisconsin. As we drove, I marveled at how different early morning Guam looked from my picture book. Buildings were made out of concrete. Cars moved down paved roads with traffic lights where carts pulled by beasts of burden on dirt tracks should have been. It was quiet. My dad explained that the buildings had to be strong to stand up against earthquakes and typhoons. I didn’t remember that coming up in my research or our discussions on whether or not to move. Neither did mom.
We pulled into a driveway in front of a bright pink concrete box. “Welcome home!” my dad said cheerfully in his husky voice. There was something different about him, but I couldn’t place what. Mom, Erik and I stepped out of the car and stared at the tiny, nondescript concrete structure dad referred to as home. We had been warned that houses here would be smaller than in Wisconsin, and definitely smaller than the beast we had been living in. But this house looked no bigger than the garage we emptied and left behind. It was a stout bunker of a house with a flat rood that overhung the walls by a couple of inches. We noted as we passed through the door that the walls were almost a foot thick. I know David would have beat my mother to it were he here: “Are we expecting a bombing?”
Unlike the warm, soft feel of the one we left, this house had no carpet. The cold floors were tiled. The walls were bare and white. There were no beams in the ceiling, moulding along the walls or other flourishes. Everything was stark right angles. Since our furniture was somewhere on a ship in the middle of the ocean, my father had rented a couch and a TV. In my bedroom, a bare futon pad lay on the floor. Erik’s bedroom was the same. I tried hitting the wall to feel the shake and hear the hollow sound you would when you did the same back in Wisconsin. It hurt. There was no shake, no sound.
I then realized I was exhausted. Dad pointed out that it was nighttime back in Wisconsin. He had to go back to work and left us to “settle in.” Mom went to bed and was out like a light. I tried to sleep, but couldn’t. Everything felt out of place and foreign. I couldn’t trust it all enough to close my eyes. When I gave up on the idea of sleep, I decided to explore the neighbourhood. There were no trees to speak of. At least nothing I thought of as trees, like the massive oaks and elms I was used to. Each house on our street was the same as ours. Featureless boxes of concrete were lined up along the block. Nobody had a lawn, just gravel or red dirt. Each house was painted a different ridiculous colour. You just don’t colour a house blue, purple, pink or green back in Wisconsin.
Woodward was a great name for the street we left. Any lot that had a house on it had a least ten trees. Those that didn’t were still dense forest. All the houses were made of wood. I imagined someone turning onto that street and seeing the sign. The driver would know what he was in for. I assumed our new street would be named Concrete Street. I decided to ask my dad that night what the street name was, since there was no sign. He explained that this was a brand new subdivision and hadn’t been named yet. Later, he informed me that the town of Dededo had finally named our street Biradan Kopa De Plata. I again tried to imagine someone about to pull onto our street and see that written on a thin green sign. He’d expect something foreign and awkward, and that’s what he’d get. At least that’s what I got.
When it came time to go to our new school, dread finally set in. Everything had been strange and unfamiliar, but at least it was all from the vantage point of a small house that contained my mom and little brother. The school was situated on a cliff overlooking a beautiful bay. Like everywhere else, the buildings were solid, and new-looking. My mother took me in to meet the Headmaster. She was a smiling Filipino woman with a mane of black hair and a pleasant smile. Her name was Mrs. Santos. Although I was a tall eleven year old, my impression was that she still towered over me. This added to my intimidation. She led my by the hand through a series of outdoor pathways to a building on the very edge of the cliff. This was it. My doom.
I was never one for going back to school. Each year was an ordeal of tears and pleas that finally ended with me being in class and mom safely on her way back home. It crossed my mind that I might be able to overpower her and escape, but to where?
We came up to a door and she knocked. She then pushed the door open and before me was a primitive classroom. It was dimly lit in contrast to the bright tropical sun just outside the door. A roomful of foreign looking children turned away from the chalkboard to look directly at me. So did the teacher. It dawned on me that as strange as everyone in this room looked, I was the outsider. I was in the minority. I was exotic. The freak. They all wore uniform white tops and navy blue shorts or skirts.
I was given a desk right between Lisa, a Chamorro girl, and Wendy, a Chinese girl. They had round faces and bright large eyes, unlike the image of pinched squinty faces kids back in Wisconsin had of Asian people. They greeted me warmly, and much of my fear began to fall away. They helped me get up to speed on the class lesson my entry had interrupted. They got in trouble for talking in class, because they, of all people, took the time to let me know what page we were on. They had familiar first names, which made it easy, even if their last names were Castro and Chen.

My family stayed on Guam. My parents still live there. As kids do, I quickly adapted to my new life as a Guamanian. Those kids, who seemed so foreign and strange at first glance, became the status quo for me. I would go on to graduate from high school with many of these same students, including Wendy and Lisa.
I was still odd to them. I constantly compared things to the past life I led, always prefacing it with “back in Wisconsin…” Soon, my classmates would make fun of that. Mimicking the elongated vowels of my Wisconsin accent, they’d push their eyes together (in opposition to the way kids back in Wisconsin would stretch theirs out to pretend to be Chinese) and say, “Baack in WiscONsin.”
The friends I had left behind, back in Wisconsin, never wrote to me. I made new ones on Guam. I experienced my first typhoon and first earthquake and wondered how people could live through blizzards. The idea of residing in a house made of wood seemed foolish and dangerous. I became “allergic” to wearing long pants. I had gone from checking myself for ticks after tromping through the forest to watching out for monitor lizards while trekking through the boonies. I learned to love the taste of salt water on my lips, the sting of sea water in my eyes. Last names like Castro and Chen became common and natural names for people to have. Names like Kowalsky and Peterson took on an unusual sound to my ears.
When we returned to Wisconsin for my brother’s graduation from high school, everything seemed foreign. It had become as strange as Guam seemed when we first arrived there. The faces of old classmates, now into puberty, were different. Their pale skin and freckles looked unnatural and alien.
Within a year, I could hardly remember the life I left behind. Years later, when I moved back to the States, people would ask me what it was like to grow up in Guam. The only reply I could offer was, “I don’t know. What’s it like to grow up in the States?”
At the end of the school year in Guam, we had to pick a country to do a report on. For some unknown reason, I chose the small Asian country of Bhutan. As I presented it to the class, my mind started to wonder if someday I’d be packing up my life and following my parents to this tiny mountain kingdom. Would I be meeting new kids? Would we have to learn to live in an entirely new type of building? Would adapting to a new school be easy? Would kids there soon get over my being exotic, adopt me as one of their own, and eventually stop teasing me every time I said “Back in Guam…”

1 comment:

AmericanScot said...

Hey Matthew, Scott here! Love the story of how you ended up in Guam! Now your in the desert! Crazy!