If you know me personally, you have probably heard some of my tales from my time in Guam. Here are all of them.
I tell people, “I was sentenced to Guam by the US Navy from 1989-1992.” I use this term because it felt like I was being confined. Not by geography, I was transferring there from Hawaii so I was accustomed to living on an island, but rather by the collective idiocy of the people in general.
Below I present some of the facts of Guamanian life and stories that happened while I was there.
First of all, the weather. You might think Guam is like Hawai’i, with soft breezes and mild temperatures. It’s not, by a long shot. Being only twelve degrees above the equator, it was 90+ degrees and 90+% humidity, every day, all day, interspersed with typhoons and earthquakes.
There was something about typhoons in Guam. When one threatened, all of the pregnant women who were in their third trimester had to go to the hospital and shelter there for the storm. Something about the stress of the event and/or the low air pressure caused women to go into labor.
There are very few birds on Guam because of the brown tree snake. While it is not poisonous, it is venomous, which means a bite from one is a very unpleasant experience. At least one person a year is bit on the butt because they are sitting on the toilet when a brown tree snake comes up through their plumbing.
The snakes would also climb power poles, and when they would crawl across two phases, it would short out the electrical power and cause an outage. I was at the USO and just so happened to watch a brown tree snake do just that, along with the ensuing arcing and sparking and the power going out at the USO and the surrounding area.
In a recent Really Special Stupid Thing (see below) back in 2015, the Guamanian government decided to try and kill off the snake population by dropping thousands of dead mice (on parachutes!) into the jungles of Guam. These mice were injected with massive amounts of acetaminophen, which is poisonous to the snakes. I don’t know who reasoned that the snakes would be attracted to dead mice, go figure.
1. The majority of the native Guamanian population is Roman Catholic, enough that Guam has its own Archbishop. The Guam Legislature was debating a very strict anti-abortion bill. To show his support of the bill, the Archbishop appeared before the Legislature and said (in his official capacity), “I will excommunicate anybody who votes against this bill.”
2. Ricardo Bordallo, the first post-war Governor of Guam that was re-elected (split term, 1975-79 and 1983-87) was convicted of obstruction of justice and witness tampering (his convictions on bribery and extortion were overturned). On January 31st, 1990, 90 minutes before he was due to get on a plane to serve four years in California, he wrapped himself in a Guam flag, chained himself to the Chief Quipuha statue (like King Kamehameha for Hawai’i) and committed suicide. I just so happened to be driving past that when it was still a crime scene.
I bring this up because he was Catholic and committed a carnal sin by completing suicide. He was buried in sanctified ground (his suicide should have prevented that) and the Archbishop gave the Eulogy. Because of what the Cardinal said about the exception, the teen suicide tripled for several months after that.
3. Joseph Ada, the succeeding Governor who was in office during my stay, 60 days before his re-election, declared a “tax surplus.” This meant every Guamanian was going to receive $2,000. Except they didn’t. First of all, over $250,000 of these checks were found in the dumpster behind the Guam Post Office. Second of all, they ran out of money in the Q’s, so all the families whose last name started with R-Z didn’t get anything at all. That’s okay, because Ada was back in office for his second term by then.
4. Speaking of the Post Office, mail in general and magazine subscriptions specifically were a hit-or-miss proposition back then. Out of twelve issues for an annual magazine subscription, you’d be lucky if you got eight. The ones you didn’t get usually ended up on a Postal workers’ coffee table. They were also delayed a bit. You would get the December issue about May of the following year.
1. Guam, being an island, has a stand-alone power grid. At the time, it consisted of two 66MW generators, four 20MW generators, and over a dozen 1.5 MW generators. The 66MW and 20MW generators were in one location, the 1.5MW generators were scattered among the various military bases to provide emergency power for certain buildings and to provide power during peak demand times.
One of the 66MW generators was down for an overhaul, which didn’t pose an issue because there was enough total power generation to handle both of the “big boys” being off-line, but only at minimum load (i.e. at night). What the island couldn’t handle is when one of them was off-line for an overhaul and one guy flubbing the start-up sequence of the remaining 66MW generator. His screw up resulted in an explosion, seriously damaging the operational 66MW plant.
For the next 2 months, until they repaired the damage or finished the overhaul on the other (I don’t remember which), I came home to a cold dinner every day because there were rolling blackouts during peak times. Why they chose to cut power to our circuit every day from 4-6pm, I don’t know. Smart people might think, “Let’s group all of the residential districts into several groups and rotate that 4-6 peak outage between them. That way they are not out of dinner power every day” or something like that. Nah, that would require critical thinking skills.
3. In construction zones, you always see signs that declare “SLOW MEN WORKING AHEAD” which you read in your head as, “Slow, men working ahead.” In Guam it means, “Slow men, (sorta) working ahead.”
One time I almost (unintentionally) hit a guy filling pot holes. You see, it was Highway 1, the main road between the north and southern ends of the island. There were two lanes Northbound and two lanes Southbound. The Southbound lanes were undergoing major maintenance, so that traffic was diverted to one of the Northbound lanes. On this day, I was heading Northbound saw a road crew working on the active lanes. The asphalt truck and crew were parked in the lanes being resurfaced, and the crew were filling potholes in the active lanes by one guy holding an orange traffic cone upside-down, pinching off the tip. A second guy would shovel hot asphalt into the cone and the first guy would run out into traffic, dump the asphalt into the hole and dart back out of traffic to let the cars compress the asphalt.
4. Guam tap water is about two steps below horrible. It’s not brackish (I've tasted brackish), but it’s close. If you drew a glass of tap water straight from the tap and held it up to the light, it was so full of particulates it looked like a snow scene globe, where you shake it and it would “snow.” I used a Water-Pik tap filter on it to start the process. Those filters (white at the start) was supposed to last three months. After two weeks they looked like the end of a used Marlboro filter, a very deep brown. I took that water, and poured it into a two-chamber filter in my fridge. What came out of there I turned into Gatorade to make it palatable. I had a flooding situation in the utility room in my base house because the water had corroded a section of pipe until it just fell apart. This is why I use the W.C. Fields quote, “Never drink water. It rusts pipes.”
5. The base housing my family and I lived in was made out of concrete blocks. That in and of itself was acceptable. The fact that the inside walls were unfinished (nothing over the concrete blocks) was also acceptable, after all this was enlisted military housing. What sucked was they used a standard interior latex paint meant for drywall on the concrete blocks. This meant two things: 1) if you came into contact with the wall, the paint would separate from the concrete and if you pulled on the loose paint, a whole strip would come off with it. 2) When the air conditioning failed (3-4 times a year), the walls would sweat linseed oil.
1. Affordable food came via freighter. Due to shipping laws, only US flagged freighters can go directly between two US ports. In other words, only a US flagged freighter can travel directly from the US mainland or Hawai’I to Guam. All non-US flagged freighters had to stop somewhere else (Japan usually) between the mainland/Hawai’I and Guam. This made shipping times a lot longer.
2. Filled Milk was the staple dairy product in Guam. It is basically condensed milk that was reconstituted using coconut oil. To say it was an “acquired taste” is an extreme understatement. Regular dairy milk had to be frozen so it would endure the long voyage. It didn’t thaw well, so it was only marginally better than filled milk. We had very little milk during our stay.
3. Cheese more often than not in the Commissary (military supermarkets) had tags from the base Veterinarian stating, “This food, while past the expiration date is still suitable for immediate human consumption. Do not store.” The cheese (usually shredded) had green mold growing on them.
4. Orange Juice is one of those staples of life you take for granted, until there is none. Someone must have forgot to order orange juice for a shipment, so the entire island ran out for about three months. A civilian supermarket chain decided to fly in (via 747 Cargo aircraft) a load of Sunny Delight from Australia. It cost $15 a gallon in 1990, which in 2016 would be about $28.
REALLY SPECIAL STUPID THINGS
There a few times when even a double-facepalm does not adequately express the amount of stupidity of these acts.
1. Guam is a big destination for Japanese tourists. It was actually cheaper for a Japanese businessman to fly himself and family from Tokyo to Guam, turn his wife and family loose in the shopping district and play a round of golf every day for two weeks than it would for him to play the same number of rounds of golf in Japan.
So to accommodate the multitude of Japanese golf players, plans were developed to build a golf course in the northern area of the island, directly on top of the primary drinking water aquifer. When someone asked, “don’t you use a lot of herbicides and fertilizers on a golf course? And wouldn’t that get into the drinking water?”
The developers said, “We just realized you’re right. So here’s what we’re going to do…”
I’m taking a moment for you to prepare for the stupendous level of stupidity to which you are about to be exposed. You will need it…
“We will lay a sheet of plastic under the entire golf course to keep the contaminated water from reaching the aquifer…”
I don’t think I have to point out the obvious and numerous mental and factual errors and consequences of this action. Needless to say, the course was not constructed.
2. There was a “mini-installation” I had to drive to occasionally, I don’t remember what it was for, only that it was at the end of a long two-lane road. They had cut the jungle back on both sides of the road about 50 yards and on one side of the road was the power line stretching to the installation. I’m sure to make it aesthetically pleasing, between each power pole they planted a coconut tree. So when these fast growing trees reach the level of the power lines, the first typhoon to come through will make sure those trees whip around enough to snap the power lines many, many times along its length.
3. It made the local news when they had to tear down an almost-completed building because a good portion of it was built over the property line and on the next lot which wasn’t zoned for that kind of building. Apparently the surveyor didn’t lay out the stakes to show where to put the building was to go properly.
Because Guam was 14 hours after the US East Coast (actually, it’s 10 hours before) it was far enough away that the geosynchronous satellites used by US networks to distribute their programming could not “see” Guam. So what happened was that the TV stations in Guam made a deal with somebody (the TV stations or private citizens, I do not know) to videotape Los Angles broadcast TV and FedEx them to Guam we got so see everything (including sports games) a week late. We also got to see what Mainlanders paid for things, then we went to our stores and saw that they cost 10-15% more because of the shipping fees.
The only network we got to see live was CNN Headline News. That is, until the motor controlling the satellite dish burned out. Geosynchronous satellites actually move back and forth in a sideways “figure 8.” When this motor died, it locked the receiving dish into one part of the path of the satellite. So we only had about a quarter of the time as good reception.
Star Trek: The Next Generation came on the air in September of 1987. It hit a big peak in June of 1990, when Captain Picard was captured by the Borg and Ryker, after having the sensor array modified to destroy the Borg Ship gave the order to fire.
In August, The local TV station KWAM acquired the rights from Paramount Pictures to exclusively broadcast ST:TNG in Guam. And they had to start from the beginning. The hue and cry from the local populace was so great that they agreed to broadcast one episode a week, rather than the standard 26 per year. As a result, part 2 of The Best of Both Worlds didn’t broadcast in Guam until February of 1992.
I will now leave you with a history lesson and a “bucket list” item, especially if you are a scuba diver.
In Apra Harbor, there is something that is very rare, a double shipwreck. What makes it rarer is that the ships are from two World Wars.
In 1916, The SMS Cormoran II, a Russian cargo ship captured and fitted as an auxiliary warship by the German Navy, steamed into Guam, seeking supplies to outrun the Japanese warships pursuing her. She ended up under detention and was not allowed to leave. On 7 April 1917, when the US joined the war against Germany, the crew scuttled the ship. After the War, the US Navy partially salvaged her, and she currently sits in 110 feet of water on her Starboard side.
On August 27th, 1943, the submarine USS Snapper sunk the Tokai Maru, a Japanese transport. The Tokai Maru ended up touching the Cormoran at the end of Cormoran’s shaft, near the Tokai Maru’s keel. The Toaki Maru is laying on her Port side, and the one spot in the world you can with one finger simultaneously touch a WWI wreck and a WWII wreck is there, 100 feet under water.
All-in-all, these are the stories I tell most about my time in Guam. There are probably more in that dense fog of my mind which I might recall later.