Marianas Variety

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    Saturday, August 18, 2018-8:44:57P.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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OPINION: Banzai

“There are three things that are too amazing for me,
four that I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a young woman.”
— Proverbs 30:18-19

WE would go for days or weeks at a time without mentioning it. Under the hum of the daily activities, the papers to grade, the noisy children and the slurred chatter of local drunks who sometimes wandered through the schoolyard, always lurking somewhere in the backs of our minds the thought would be there; but we wouldn’t talk about it. Not until it was time to go. It seemed to beckon us, a sort of siren song which could only be resisted for so long before one had to capitulate to its call. In that moment we would lift off, as if in some kind of nature film where a flock of gulls seemingly independent of their own reasoning and without any sort of preliminary committee to organize and direct them, all take off at exactly the same time, in the same way, and go to the same place.

There were two good times to go. The new moon was one, because there would be stars. Up at the northern end of the island, there are few residents and those there limit themselves to only the bare necessities of modern civilization- burning electricity all hours of the night is not one of them. On a clear night, dozens of constellations would be visible. Shooting stars could be seen every couple of minutes, and the sound of the ocean exploding against the cliff face out of the blackness was ineffably humbling.

My favorite time to go, however, was the full moon.

As dusk fell, we would begin growing restless. Tasks that normally would be completed without a second thought dragged on, as hands and minds began fidgeting. A few minutes after dark, when we could contain it no longer, there would come a tapping on a door. Pillows would be snatched from couches. Hoodies would be donned, pupils would be dilated. The bed of Rusty, the aptly named pickup who had been the trusty steed of several generations of hapless optimistic youths far from home (otherwise known as student missionary teachers) would be transformed from an inhospitable dust covered plastic and sheetmetal box to a  luxurious nest, suitable for female habitation. Quiet laughter, hushed voices, and the excitement of being on good terms and in close physical proximity to the opposite sex hung in the air.

It was about a 30-minute ride, our migratory flight, and seldom would there be much conversation.

To get there, you drive north on each of the island’s two main roads in turn. From the lot our duplexes sat on in San Antonio you would start out on Beach Road. You would pass our school, a few mom-and-pop stores and apartments, the mayor’s office, Sugar Dock and a Taco Bell, the dusty vestiges of a thriving town built around former glories.

Past the shells of the garment factories with their surly squatters, the road moves closer to the water. You can smell the salty sea air mixing with the sweetness of the marijuana somebody further ahead is inevitably smoking. The waves quietly lap against one another out of the darkness to your left; to the right, the bright lights of a Toyota dealership, coffee shops, and dubious karaoke or massage parlors where late-middle aged Mandarin women smoke cigarettes and wait for clients. Eventually you come to Garapan, where most of the tourism centers are located. Tourists shuffle around, crisscrossing the street between shops. There are of course numerous dive bars, several of which offer live music which spills out onto the street. Old ex-pats mingle inside with the pretty Filipina waitresses, subjecting them to rowdy, good-natured coquetry in exchange for hefty tips drawn from their retirement packages; Outside, sailors from the ever-present merchant marine ships on the western horizon vie for the attention of tipsy tourist girls in long silky sundresses while a reggae version of Hotel California or Stairway to Heaven sung with an island accent drifts through the warm night air. On the left side of the road are a few American chain hotels boasting some of the islands best beaches and lousiest mojitos; On the right is the Duty Free plaza, where vacationing Chinese businessmen buy themselves Rolex watches, Coach purses for their lovers, and trinkets for their children bearing the likeness of the islands unofficial mascot “Saipanda”: a peculiar amalgamation of a panda and a banana. Usually somewhere along this stretch there would be one or two shirtless local boys adorned with palm leaves playing a drum or other native instrumentation to the beat of a modern pop song, much to the delight of a small chatty crowd.

We observe these minor characters in our story with a mixture of amusement and disinterest as we pass. They certainly don’t notice us.

Presently you make your way past and the lights, music, and commotion begin to fade into the distance. You cross over onto Middle Road and continue north. There are no street lights now, and the ocean is a little further away. The windows are seldom rolled up, and tonight is no exception. The humid air off of the Philippine sea spills into the cab of the truck. It engulfs you, fills your lungs and lifts you high above the rustling palms. One last long straightaway, a lazy right turn, and we’re there.

It is a somber place. It is clean. People respect the history that lingers in the air, settles in the Bermuda grass, crushes against the iron cliff face chipping away at the island. There are twenty-something monuments standing like Samurai along the edge, granite and marble pillars bearing Kanji inscriptions about sacrifice, forgiveness, hope, and honor. Near the end of the Battle of Saipan in July 1944 the approximately 1,000 remaining Japanese civilians on the island, terrified by the lies of the doomed Imperial military officials and following the order from their Emperor, committed suicide by jumping to their deaths in the sea below at the location now called Banzai Cliff. The children who were too young to understand were thrown off by their parents or older siblings who then followed. Now, during the day their countrymen come face to face with their memory here as they murmur prayers, burn incense, and leave flowers. But they are all gone by the time we arrive.

There is a wide staircase that goes down from the parking lot to a lower sort of observation area. Around the observation area is an aged guardrail of sorts, made of crumbling concrete shaped and painted to appear as though it was constructed from large, straight pine trunks — a detail probably lost on many considering there is no such thing as a large straight pine tree to be found anywhere on the whole island that many never leave. The railing and stairs are cool to the touch, despite having been at the mercy of a tropical sun all day. Even the air is cooler than you might expect, given the latitude. Out to sea, the moon would hang like a paper lantern, illuminating enormous clouds with a silvery harshness and leaving a straight and narrow path over the waves. We often would split up at first, each person going off by themselves to be lost in thought for a little while. It is a nice compromise sometimes, to be alone but not quite out of reach. I don’t know what the others would think about, I’m not sure what I thought about or if it was only feeling things without much thought to it at all. Either way, thermodynamics is often a catalyst for human interaction and after some time spent staring out to sea the coolness of the night air would cause us to wander back towards the truck and take our places in the back. Somebody would produce an old iPod from a hoodie pocket, and Michael Bublé would quietly croon through a tiny speaker.

How can I explain it? How can I put an experience like this down into words? It is easy to describe the things I saw going there, because they existed in another dimension altogether, one I could understand. But who can write in the language of the heart? Who can weave words into the way a young woman smells when her hair brushes against you, or the feeling of its many strands? Who can articulate the musical quality of her voice as she whispers how beautiful the night is, just like she always does up here? There is no word her equal.

Eventually we would go home. The drive back was always a little bit lighter; the girls would be chatty behind me. We felt good, as though our souls had stretched their necks above the waves of the day-to-day and caught a breath of air. It was good to go, but like our bird friends from earlier who migrate back and forth like the tide, so we also could not stay at that place forever. It exists only as a memory now; the silvery clouds, the crush of the waves, the stars. I feel that there must be, there must have been some point to all of it. The longer I live, the farther away it gets from me, there is only one thing I can conclude from it. There is only one reason it happened, there is only one reason I remember it, and only one reason now I tell you about it.

It was beautiful, and beauty is something worth preserving.

***

Here’s to the nights we felt alive

Here’s to the tears you knew you’d cry

Here’s to goodbye

Tomorrow’s gonna come too soon

— Eve 6

David Butterfield is the owner of WeJustClicked Photography Co. and lives way out in the jungle up north with his wife, son, daughter, boonie dog, stray cat, several cameras, a monitor lizard, and a bunch of chickens.