Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Thunderstorms are great majestic beasts. If you had never seen one or heard of one in your life, imagine your surprise if a lovely peaceful day suddenly clouded up. Then it started to rain. Then it was pelting down hail. Then a blinding bolt of lightning blew your ears off … you’d think the world had gone mad.
We accept them without thinking because we know them. But truly, what an unpredictable and magnificent thing for nature to manufacture out of a clear, beautiful sky and a pinch of sun and water. As you may know, I think that thunderstorms and other emergent phenomena (tornadoes, hurricanes, El Niño, East Pacific fair-weather gale) along with other phenomena act as a homeostatic regulator of the global temperature.
So I thought I’d tell a story that start and ends with thunderstorms. This was in … mmm … maybe 2007, in the Solomon Islands (near the Equator above Australia.) This is the story of the tropical wedding of my friend Mike’s son. It begins in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, on the island of Guadalcanal.
The Point Cruz Yacht Club (above) is misnamed, as much more drinking than boating goes on there. Mike and I would be happy to say that we are members only so we can use the boat ramp. Except we can’t say that.
On a beautiful morning, up before tropical dawn. Looking forward to a ninety mile (150 km) boat run on the water. Drive to the yard, hitch up the boat trailer. Sky perfectly clear everywhere … except in the medium distance, between the launch ramp and the nearest island, sat one lone renegade thunderstorm that had refused to die the night before. I reckon it was night-adapted, and peacefully grazing on the energy where some warm ocean currents met.
Think of thunderstorms as great grazing dinosaurs that feed off of warmth. They move in the direction of warmer areas. Warm areas of the ocean are low pressure areas, so the grazing thunderstorms are moved in the direction of warmth by pressure differences. As long as they have fuel for their massive thermodynamic engines (they act as a refrigeration cycle heat engine), they will persist. Curiously, this usually means that they must move to survive. After a while in one spot they’ve sucked out all the energy they can. Like sharks, they have to keep moving to stay alive.
We put the boat in just before sunrise, floated off the trailer and headed west. Things were going swimmingly, we ran at thirty mph (50 kph) for about an hour, boat was feeling good. We’re running towards the thunderstorm. I’m wondering how it made it through the night. Thunderstorms are heat engines, they usually die out after dark. But temperatures had been running warm, with thunderstorms until well after midnight. Definitely this was the only cloud in sight.
Then the alarm goes off, “Low oil reserve”. Say what? Oil injected two-stroke engine, pretty new, we check the oil reservoir, it’s working perfectly. Full to the brim. Engine is running well, but we decide to err on the side of caution and come back to port. Looks like we’re flying out west to the wedding. Better than drifting out to sea for the wedding. Ah, well, it was another part of life’s rich pageant, and a beautiful one. In the morning I thought the dawn thunderstorm would build up with the day, but to my surprise, it faded quickly with the morning warmth. Always something new to see. Any morning spent messing about in a small boat on a vast island-studded ocean is a very good morning.
Plus I got to fly over and around the thunderstorms in addition to boating under and around them. What’s not to like?
So, we flew to the wedding in the afternoon. By then, the afternoon buildup of thunderstorms was underway. We flew between them, small planes don’t dare go inside one. The power of the internal winds is immense, with air rocketing upwards in the core of the storm. The clear areas of slowly downwelling smooth air between the storms is where the pilots go.
The airstrip is on a tiny, exactly one small-airplane airstrip sized island just offshore from the town of Gizo. See the water at the far end of the grass and coral airstrip? From there it’s a short boat ride to town.
Gizo is also small, about five thousand people. Despite that, it’s the second largest city in the country, which tells you something. It is a seaside provincial capital in a country where everyone travels by canoes large and small. The town stretches a couple of km along the harborside on both sides of a single road, with calm clear water everywhere in the harbor. On the sea-side of the one unpaved road are mostly Chinese shops. These are built on land and extended out over the water on pilings. Along the waterfront are boats of all sizes, from the inter-island trading ships at the main wharf, to the small paddle and sailing canoes tied up everywhere from the main market to the far end of town.
When we got to Gizo everybody knew about the wedding. All the guys in the boat taking us from the airstrip to town knew about the wedding. People at the hotel hailed us. Social event of the season. For me, a rare chance of watching the social whirl while being outside of it. I’m well-known in that town, I lived for three years on a nearby island, I’m some kind of custom uncle to the groom. Mike’s lived in Gizo on and off for twenty years.
The wedding, like all island weddings, was a long, complex affair. Mike (the father of the groom) and I had absolutely nothing to do with putting it together. It was all “sait blong Meri” (“side belong Mary”), which means women’s business. So his wife was in charge, we were just out-of-town guests. Mike’s house is atop a hill overlooking the harbor and the endless ocean. It’s up the hill to the right, out of the picture above. You can see over a dozen islands from his house. It has a roofed second story verandah all around the house, tropical style. We sat up on his verandah watching the wedding preparations fall apart and come together. When we got there they were putting stakes in the ground to hold up the bunting at the entrance to the reception.
Now, everything in the South Pacific islands happens by consensus. As a result, we watched as it took an ever-changing assembly to put a small waist-high stake in the ground. No sledgehammer, of course, so they found a stone. Much laughter among the relatives, comments and speculations, jokes about still being in the Stone Age. Mike’s from Iowa, his wife is from Choiseul Island in the Solomons. After the stone didn’t work, Mike’s oldest son, about 35 now, a bear of a man, came up with what looked like the gearbox of a long dead bike, gears and all. More laughter. He gave the stake a few strokes of the gearbox. Just enough to show how easy it is. At least it’s easy if you have biceps the size of my thighs, as he does. He then handed the gearbox to some younger guy, probably a relative, and walked away. His part was done.
The younger relative staggered, the gearbox was much heavier than it looked. He quickly set it on the ground to think things over. This was followed by a lengthy discussion among the assembled stake advisory group. The talk was about where and how the stake should be placed. All of this was intermittently audible from where we’re drinking up on the verandah. Different folks squat and look at the stake. Under their direction, the gearbox man pulls the stake back to vertical. He gives it a stroke. Then they decide it’s in the wrong place. It is pulled up. Then it is held up in several places, to much discussion. They finally settle on a spot a few inches from where it started.
Then the gearbox man gets the nod. He’s young and strong, but clearly not a man to make weighty decisions like when to whack a stake without a nod. He gives the stake a few more strokes, and sets the gearbox down again. The sun blazes. Someone (not the gearbox man) pulls the stake back to vertical. More laughter. More strokes. Now, clearly, the stake is almost deep enough to hold. The question of whether it is in fact deep enough to hold brings much hilarity and extended discussion. The decision is finally made for a few more strokes of the gearbox.
Unfortunately, during the discussion the gearbox man has walked away to do something else. After time and further discussion, another man is selected, and he picks up the gearbox. Another couple strokes. More discussion. Finally the verdict is in. The stake is good, everyone is satisfied. For now. And next … next, Mike and I opened another beer, and watched them put in the second stake.
All this time, a constantly changing cast of lovely folks has joined and left the stake advisory group. In the South Pacific, the number of advisors rises proportionally to the complexity of the problem. This second stake had the additional needs of being level at the top with the first stake, as well as parallel to the first stake. With the added challenge of being both level and parallel added to the stake problem, a larger group of advisors was inevitable. The opinions of people walking past were solicited and discarded. Soon, it was clear that there were factions developing among the advisory group. Some advised moving the first stake. Someone would tilt the stake to the right, and then someone else would tilt it back to the left. Another couple of blows with the gearbox.
And all of this accompanied by the laughter, and the comments, and the total lack of any sense of hurry that make the South Pacific such a great place to live. Yes, it did take a group that varied between three and ten people at least an hour to drive two stakes in soft soil … but I tell you it was an hour spent in joyful pursuit of a social interaction that had absolutely nothing to do with productivity. It was a pleasure and an honor to have the opportunity to watch them contribute their part to making a fun reception for everyone. Mike and I opened another beer.
Mike’s kids and their in-laws were out in full force. Every single one was there, the oldest son in from his house on the island the holy man gave to Mike. The groom. Mike’s youngest daughter, who is a lawyer. His most traditional son and his wife are in from his wife’s family’s ancestral village on Choiseul island (and now his, because he married in). Mike’s two youngest sons (aged 21 and 24) are there, and his oldest daughter and her husband and kids. Scads of grandchildren. People had already built the floors of the pavilions for the grooms and brides parties on the hillside outside Mike’s house. They rolled out some tarps, and they started to wire up some lights so they could work after dark … but by then it was heading towards dark, and people had put in a full day. Then everyone went home.
The work wasn’t done, and the wedding was going to be the next day, and the lights weren’t wired. I scratched my head … Mike and I had another beer, watched the sun set into the ocean.
Then, this being the South Pacific, after a couple hours a half-dozen guys came back. To the accompaniment of much joking and horseplay, we watched from the verandah as they wired up the lights after dark using flashlights … I nodded my head. South Pacific style. Don’t wire up the lights when you have sunlight. Wire them by flashlight. Mike had another beer. When the lights were finally wired up, they continued working into the night, laughing and putting the tarps up over the floors in case of rain.
Next morning they had the wedding. Assuming that our compadres would find us there, and assuming that a stiff drink was likely the proper foundation on which to start such an auspicious day, the father of the groom and I wandered down to the bar of the only hotel in town. Finding both assumptions perfectly true, we sat on the second story with our friends. That’s it on the top left.
We watched what seemed like the entirety of the little town stream by on their way to the church. It was 10 AM, and already smoking hot. I had on my suit, but I hadn’t put on the coat and tie. The wedding was to start at 11:00AM.
So we sat overlooking the wharf. A whole passel of kids, kids all the colors of the rainbow, took advantage of a ship with a high bow. They were climbing up the ropes from the dock and jumping into the sea. Boat’s crew worked and watched. I sat sweating in my suit, envying the kids. At 11:00, one of Mike’s sons called us to make our appearance. I tied my tie, put on my suit coat, and went out to face the music. We walked the few blocks to the church. It was very hot by eleven.
Of course, this being the South Pacific, it was a false alarm. They weren’t ready for the father of the groom. But about then his wife drove up with the truck. She parked it across from the church and we got in and sat in air-conditioned splendor watching the folks arrive. Finally, they did require the father and mother of the groom. At which point they went to get pictures taken. The bride looked ravishing, everyone was duded to the max. All four of the groomsmen were Mike’s sons. The angelic looking young ring bearer was his grandson. And no angel in real life, I assure you.
A charming gentleman was at the front of the church. He asked which family I’m with. I said the groom’s. He directed me to the left side. I found a spot directly under a fan. But this is the South Pacific, so after while the same man came up to me and called me by name … no idea how he knew it, I’d never seen him. He said he’s sorry, but I’m on the wrong side. I look around, he’s right. I get up, go round, and find a spot near a fan on the other side. I continue to sweat.
All the dignitaries were there. The Premier of the Province. Provincial Members. The local holy man who gave Mike an island was there. His eyeballs always look like they might spin like pinwheels at any moment. Interesting guy. The church was jammed, packed to the rafters, with people standing outside and people looking through the windows.
The officiating minister gave an alternately impassioned and inaudible sermon, with the impassioned part blasting out of the poor overdriven church speakers in an almost incoherent stream. We stood. We cooked in our suits and formal dresses. We sang. We sweated. We sat. We perspired. The pastor said that the institution of marriage had been created to save man from the sin of adultery. I could feel my brain cells dying. We said “amen” as necessary. We watched the groom sweat in his immaculate white suit. Mercifully and to general relief, it was over and none too soon. Everyone streamed out laughing and fanning themselves with the programs.
The next three hours were consumed with setting up for the reception. The hot stone motu cooked food was brought to the central location. It had been cooked in a pit earlier in the day, first lots of hot rocks from the fire, then a layer of banana leaves, put in all the good kaikai wrapped up, pigpig and dalo and kumara and banana pudding. More banana leaves, a layer of soil, job’s done, more beer. Now those were all dug up and brought in. Last minute adjustments were made to the bunting, level and parallel. The wedding cake set up under the cake tent. People started streaming in, every family bringing one and often two big trays full of food. People milled around, talking story, laughing, and chasing flies off the food.
Since it was almost time, Mike and one of his many sons and I went down to pick up the holy man, who leads a flock of maybe 5,000 people in villages scattered around north New Georgia Island. He is in fact a British OBE as well as being very strange. His title is the “Holy Mama“. He’s bought an old dive boat that he travels and lives on. I went on board. It’s like a floating village. I mean it’s just like a village, people sitting around, things hanging everywhere, boxes scattered around on deck, general disarray, bunches of fruit hanging off of the winches. There he was, chewing betel nut and with his hair totally frizzed out. He remembered who I was from three years before. He got in the truck with his people, and Mike’s son and I rode in the back of the truck up the rocky, rutted hill to the wedding. The Holy Mama got out and was led to his easy chair. Notable people sat in plastic chairs, there were enough chairs for maybe forty people, and hundreds of others stood or sat on the ground.
When everyone had arrived the speeches began. The Master of Ceremonies was the groom’s maternal uncle. He’s the highest-ranking man in that branch of the family. Entranced with the sound of his voice, he spoke to himself, too softly to hear, and even those who could hear him were not paying attention. The PA system wasn’t much help either, but with maybe three hundred people there, all of them wanting to talk to each other, the PA system didn’t really have a chance.
He was followed by the father of the bride. I wandered around in the crowd, sometimes able to hear the speaker, sometimes not. I drifted around the tables where some food was already placed. When I came around the far side, I found a long string of kids. They were sitting on a very long, low bench made of boards laid on beer crates in one long row. I could see why the kids liked it, you could hear the PA system, you could see everyone at the bride’s and groom’s tables from there, plus you could see all the people in the chairs and standing round. It was perfect for people-watching, the kids knew it. I exchanged greetings with the kids in Solomon Islands Pijin, “Iufala hao?” (You fellow how?) I said. “Oh, mifala oraet.” (Oh, me fellow all right).
“Hemi oraet sapos mi sitdaon long hia wetim iufala?” I asked them. (Him he all right suppose me sit down long here with him you fellow?”). “Hemi oraet”, they replied in chorus. I sat down at the end of the row of kids to watch the show.
After the bride’s father finished his speech, the MC gave a rambling monologue and turned it over to Mike, the father of the groom. He gave a much more rambling and slightly inebriated monologue about family. He thanked everyone, he mentioned a whole bunch of people in particular, pointing them out in the crowd, but they were hard to see.
Then he mentioned my name ’cause I’m uncle to the groom and all, and pointed me out. At that moment, I realized I had overlooked a serious problem with sitting in a good place for people-watching. If I can see everyone, everyone can see me. Everyone in the seats looks over at me, the dignitaries under the tents and the bride and grooms tent all stop talking to look at the only adult sitting in the sun on a twelve inch high bench with an entire row of school kids, wearing shorts on a short bench with my knobby white guy knees sticking up in the air, the crazy gringo, me. People standing up behind the seats look over at me. Heck, even the whole row of my traitorous six to ten year old ex-friends, at the end of whose line I had been chatting in peaceful harmony, turn as one child and look at me, their eyes wide. I tip my hat and smile to one and all, pull the brim down over my eyes, and studiously consider the makeup of the local soil until Mike mentions other people in the family and the carnival moves on …
I laughed about that as I drifted back through the crowd. Timing is everything, I thought. I went back up to the second story verandah. I could feel a thunderstorm brewing. The MC kept MCing, and he had almost gotten to the food part, when the father of the bride decided he wanted to talk again. I could smell the rain was coming. A thunderstorm acts like a refrigerator. A cold rain falls, accompanied by a vertical cold wind. When that cold wind hits the ground it spreads out away from the foot of the thunderstorm. It blows out over the surrounding area, you can smell it, it smells of the rain and the cold upper atmosphere. My nose said the rain was coming, and the father of the bride wanted to talk some more. Finally he gave up the microphone, and the multitude was loosed on the tables of food. I heard a couple more peals of thunder.
Now, there were three serving tables, which the MC had decided were Table One for the honored guests to get their food; Table Two was no pork (for the Christian Seventh Day Adventist folks); Table Three included pork dishes. But he announced this in a very confusing and inaudible way, and he was wrong anyhow, so everyone lined up for table 3 and the line stretched until forever … I didn’t go down, I sat on the verandah and watched … drank some more beer. Some people got some food and sat down to eat. Food was delivered to the bride and grooms’ table and they began to eat.
Meanwhile, I could see the thunderstorm bearing down on us. In the afternoon, thunderstorms like to walk off the ocean and up the sides of islands, drawn by the hot rising air over the land. I could feel the thickening of the air, and the rise in humidity before the rain, sure signs it was real close. Breaking my vow not to try to influence events in any direction, I went downstairs and out to the groom’s table, and asked the groom’s mother if she realized that the thousands of dollars worth of wedding presents were approaching inundation. She said yes. I said OK. I had given the happy couple cash in hand, so I wasn’t worried, my present was safe. I went back up topside to the verandah to watch things unfold. Meanwhile, the lightning and thunder had gotten closer.
Soon the first raindrops came. Fortunately, it started out light. This gave people a bit of warning. One of the groom’s sisters started to move presents. Some other people joined her, and as the rain increased, the tempo increased. Just as the last presents made it under the house, the sky burst open, pelting rain, with lightning and thunder blasting insanely close by all around. Half a second or less from the flash to the boom. It was so overpowering that a few people just covered their heads and whimpered at the intensity of the storm, but most everyone jumped up and vanished. Disappeared. It was amazing how fast people could move when impelled by driving rain, lightning and thunder. Within about ten minutes, all of the people, the entire wedding party were gone. Not only that, but every scrap of food on the place had vanished as well. Nothing left for a forlorn wet village dog who was the only living creature still braving the rain. All the food that had been put on the serving tables had been picked up on the fly as people fled the storm, boxes were emptied into cars, assorted pig parts snatched up on the run, every woman had found her own pots or plates, they folded it up and vanished. The family stayed, the folks under the tarps were ok, but the tent over the wedding cake was starting to go, and it was only screened in on the sides. Two young guys grabbed a tarp and wrapped it around the tent to keep the cake dry, they stood there totally drenched in the tropical downpour cracking jokes until someone found a piece of rope to tie the tarp down.
The bride and groom, and the families, and me as well, were glad that the rain had driven the people away. Saved us having to pry them out of drunken corners at midnight. After the rain, it was clear again and cool. That’s the rainstorm’s job, to cool the surface, the evening was lovely. Which was good, because there was still the customary traditional part of the marriage to attend to. So the bride went home with her father and her people to get ready for that.
Then the women of the groom’s family all painted their faces with stripes of yellow clay, and took some particular tree branches. They, and the men (except for the groom) all piled in the trucks and drove to the bride’s home. There, the women all yelled and waved the branches and shouted for the bride to come out. They screamed for her to come with them, to go away to her new home, describing all of her new relatives manifold virtues.
The father of the bride came out. He explained that first off, he had returned two of the three bands of shell money that was paid as bride price, along with all of the cash money. This was a serious matter to be placed on the public record. He did it because the bride’s family is from an island where the land passes through the matrilineal line, and the bride’s mother is a princess in that line. So the first thing the bride’s father said was, even if the bride did go, unlike in most marriages of her tribe, she was not giving up all membership in her tribe to join her new husband’s people. As symbolized by them returning two of the three bands of the shell money bride price, she still retained land rights and tribal rights in her own line.
And then, with that recorded for all history in the oral records, he said what custom demanded. Which was that in any case none of that mattered ’cause she wasn’t going any dang place anyhow anytime soon, no sirree. She was just too precious to them, he was her daddy, it was all over. She was their darling little snowflake, they couldn’t let her go, forget about it, no way it would happen, the nice ladies from the other island might just as well go home, they were wasting their time. He was sorry to be the man with the bad news but there it was, and there was no changing it.
At this, the women from the groom’s side redoubled their screaming, and they danced a threatening dance, with the branches held as though they were bird wings. Back and forth they danced, chanting some ancient half-understood chant. Then the women all rushed the bride’s house, where against token resistance one woman tried to pick up the bride … but the bride was a truly woman of gravity. So one of the larger aunties picked the bride up, tossed her over a shoulder like a sack of rice, and carried her to the truck. They drove home screaming at the top of their lungs all the way, louder than I’d have thought possible, and when they arrived back home they once again picked the bride up. This time they didn’t mess about, six women picked the bride up and carried her into the house where the groom was and put her down. Everyone cheered, the bride and groom beamed in an abashed fashion. They’d been living together for almost a year. And at last all of the marriage festivities were over, and they were married.
Now that, I thought while sitting on the verandah, enjoying the cool tropical evening and opening another beer for the father of the groom … that was a South Pacific wedding.
CODA AND THRENODY
In putting this together in final form for posting, I am reminded now that on another thunderstorm night, sitting on that same verandah of Mike’s house on that same hill, in 2003 I had written a letter to my friends as follows:
Of Sharks and Men
In Fiji, there is an ancient god named Dakuwanga, the Shark God. Even today, it’s hard to find out much about Dakuwanga — when I mention his name in Fiji, conversation slows to a crawl, and then people look away and speak loudly of other, much more important matters than some nearly forgotten pagan deity …
I went to an art exhibit in Fiji a few days ago, and I ran into some old friends. I asked them about Mike Loxton, a long time mate of mine. Mike was living in Viani Bay, on the island of Vanua Levu. Viani Bay is a lovely green hidden valley that lies a few miles across from the island of Taveuni. Every weekday, he got into his skiff and crossed to Taveuni, where he worked. Because there is no dock at the hotel where he usually landed, he would beach the skiff, offload his gear, take the skiff a little ways offshore, drop the anchor, and swim to shore. I used to scuba dive with Mike, we were good friends.
On December 14, 2000, he followed his usual routine. Thinking his usual thoughts, dreaming his usual dreams, reflecting perhaps on the day’s work to come or on the days gone by, he offloaded his gear, took his skiff out and anchored it, jumped into the shimmering sea, and was immediately struck and killed by a tiger shark. Startled by his entrance, it had turned and bit his leg, a single bite that severed his femoral artery.
And so, dear friends, reflecting on his passing I write you with a simple purpose, which is to thank each one of you, individually, for your contribution to my life. Some people say that everything worthwhile they learned in kindergarten; but for me, everything worthwhile in my life I have learned from my friends. For this I am immensely grateful; but in my recurring delusions of immortality, in my fantasy that there will always be one more day to clean up my loose ends, I rarely acknowledge your gift.
So I thank you all, deeply and profoundly, for all that I have learned from you. Mike Loxton sleeps his dreamless sleep in the soft, silent, verdant soil at the head of Viani Bay, while you and I are in the midst of life. I am in the Solomon Islands now, on a hilltop where lightning is flashing and a warm, torrential tropical rainstorm is stirring life on the land below and the sea around.
And in the midst of this thunderstorm of life-giving rain, I am thinking of Mike’s death, and of my friends, and I am forcefully reminded of Dakuwanga, that most ancient of gods, who does not ever sleep but is always cruising slowly through the uncharted oceans of this existence, hidden behind a curtain of moving water, waiting with perfect patience for his preordained opportunity to deliver one single final, fatal bite …
… from Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …