The size of a place doesn't set the boundary of exploration.
|By ‘nowhere’ I don’t mean Nebraska. Think farther away, more obscure. Replace endless fields of corn and soy beans with waves of blue. Stare off in any direction and observe the different shades of sea and sky separated only by a distant horizon line. I lived on Kwajalein Island in the Marshall Islands between Australia and Hawaii where the international dateline and the equator meet. That is what I tell people. Most of the time they stare back, overwhelmed with the amount of information they are forced to process. Their minds are so concerned with locating this near imaginary place that they only manage to utter a stupefied, oh.
It’s actually not as difficult as all that.
Banana shaped, Kwaj barely filled a one and a half square mile space. The island community was much like those of other small towns; places like Avon, Smallville, or Haugen. This Haugen happened to be run by the U.S. Army, which employed my rocket scientist father to work on their radar projects (When I colored on the walls as a child, he was a mad scientist). You had to be asked onto island and accepted by the personnel office before traveling to Kwaj.
Our small community was not unlike a closely knit farm town where every person knows the gossip and history of everyone else. And Kwaj was safe; our nearest neighboring island was a twenty minute plane ride away. So long as we stayed clear of army-only facilities, we civilians had the run of the island.
I was six years old when I first explored Kwaj on my own. I abandoned the monotony of my Fisher Price jungle gym for greater adventure. Those first steps out of my backyard meant nothing to me, only the steps that followed held my attention. I went to the pier where I watched a school of squid floating squished together in the low tide. They wibbled and wobbled like algae floating on lake water. I walked to Emon Beach and hunted for hermit crabs and specks of white ghost crabs dancing across the sand. I followed the whole coastal bike path from lagoon side to the tip of the island and back down the Australian pine trail on Kwaj’s ocean side.
Later, the afternoon sun flared a hazy orange behind the community recreation center. I realized how my feet ached and that I was tired. I called home using the free public phone outside the building. After two rings my mother answered with a frantic voice I hadn’t heard before. There was a moment of relief once she knew it was me, then her voice hardened.
Yes, I was all right. I was at the CRC. No, I didn’t ride my bike; I walked. I was really tired. Could she come pick me up? No, I didn’t know how much trouble I was in, young lady. I just went for a walk around the island. Yes, I would wait right there.
My mother arrived five minutes later and biked me home in her burley. That evening my parents vigorously scolded me for leaving the yard without telling them. I could have fallen into the north side shark pit or bashed my head open against the beach’s boulder wall. They agreed, though, toward the end of the argument, that so long as I told them when I left the house and where I was going I could explore the island and go adventuring to my heart’s content.
All of Kwaj, my whole world, became my backyard. I learned how to catch guppies in the tide pools. I found the best place to locate the long dried exoskeletons of skittish crabs and the rock wall where the biggest waves exploded up when the tide came in. I knew the ins and outs of my island and made the jungles my second home.
I was free to do what I wanted to on Kwaj. Our isolation required us to develop a sense of self-reliance, and self-reliance sparked ingenuity in the younger island inhabitants. I built nine tree forts during my years on Kwaj. The wood and rope came from the pier’s warehouse; my father’s tool box supplied the hammer, nails, and duct tape. My sense of architecture improved with my skills, and my final fort near Emon Beach drew from the talents of a number of friends. It had three levels, benches, ladders, a rope swing, a pole slide, and a monkey bridge connecting to a higher platform on another tree. We worked together to create something we could all share. It was our tree castle where we played pirates and Swiss Family Robinson.
The summer I turned twelve, my family moved from tropical, obscure Kwajalein to the frigid, suburban Midwest. My opportunities broadened for what I could see or do, but one Saturday I stepped outside my house to take a walk, and my mother called me back inside. There were no secrets to discover here in the states, no adventure without shadowy threats. My backyard gained four fenced-in walls with locking gates, similar to those of our neighbor’s tightly packed-together houses. All the theaters, stores, and restaurants out there, and my parents wouldn’t let me leave the block.
I couldn’t play by my own rules anymore. I couldn’t cut through yards to maneuver around the neighborhood. What was I doing on their driveway? I couldn’t build castles in the park. Hey, that isn’t my tree! People living in the states made clear distinctions between ‘me’ and ‘them’ and resented any change in their private, self-contained lives. Everywhere I went, I felt the eyes of others on me defending their lawns, their cars, their sides of the sidewalk.
I long for my days in the tropics where I could discover things on my own. Over the years, I have felt contained, hemmed in by the anticipations and judgments of the people around me. In a country of wide, open spaces and endless freeways, there was nowhere I could go on my own.