The permanent temptation of life is to confuse dreams with reality. The permanent defeat of life comes when dreams are surrendered to reality—James A Michener
Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” a collection of WWII stories became the movie South Pacific in 1958, which had a profound effect on me as a youth. You might say it planted the travel bug in me. With haunting music by Richard Rogers, South Pacific featured a young man’s dream—an exotic island paradise of tropical forests, waterfalls… and TONKINESE…
Forbidden Bali Hai | A Soldier’s Paradise
A beautiful Tonkinese girl named Liat awaits her fate on forbidden Bali Hai island while her entrepreneur/con artist, grisly mother, Bloody Mary, searches for a husband for her daughter…
Enter Marine Lieutenant Joe Cable, a regular guy and the papaya of Bloody Mary’s eye. She entices Joe to Bali Hai where she pairs him with Liat. They dive into a waterfall fed pool… Joe and Liat fall in love… The Marines order Joe on a risky assignment… He may never see Liat again…
Fast forward to 1974 when a different war, the “Cold War,” has brought the spirit of Joe Cable back on active duty to inspire me. But this was the “North Pacific.” Instead of cinnamon-skinned girls named Liat, the women all looked like Bloody Mary. An island shaped like a banana that had been run over by a steamroller had replaced tropical forests and gushing waterfalls.
The Kwajalein Atoll | High Tech Wizardry on a Speck in the Pacific
“Kwaj,” a missile test range in the Marshall Islands group, is a speck in the northern Pacific. Missiles fired off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central coast of California splashed down in the lagoon about five thousand miles away. This involved a lot of top secret stuff, but my job as a Communications Technician consisted mainly of jumping into helicopters and zooming off to isolated islands where our commo equipment hummed in air-conditioned shelters.
Entertainment on Kwaj consisted of either drinking beer at a singles bar on a deserted beach or taking a ferry at night to Ebeye, where the Marshallese natives lived. Joe Cable shook his head at Ebeye, about a mile long and a couple hundred yards wide. No Bali Hai, it had its share of Bloody Mary’s, though. The Marshallese would occasionally import cabaret acts from Hono or Guam/Saipan for a weekend. A group of Asian girls in hula skirts knew how to work the crowd of single guys.
The families, whose dad’s worked for TRW, Raytheon, and Kentron, lived in furnished villas on Kwaj. They had it all—a movie theatre, school, a chapel, hospital, pool, grocery store, and even a radio station. I wondered if the kids were ordered under their desks at school when a missile flew in from Vandenberg A.F.B.
The main thing I got out of Kwaj was a bad back as a result of a helicopter near crash landing and an appreciation for what it meant to be alone. The back injury would bother me for years, until I discovered Thai massage (another story).
The Brochure “Washes Ashore”
After a year on Kwaj, Joe Cable longed for Liat. “Cabin fever” had settled in. The shores of Waikiki, a suitable substitute for the South Pacific, beckoned.
With a one-way ticket in hand I waited in the departure area for the Continental Airlines flight to Honolulu. Before the plane departed, a co-worker named Ed G. handed me a brochure and said, “You’d be a good candidate for what these guys are looking for.”
My flight from Kwaj to Hono consumed five hours and four beers. The Foreign Service brochure stirred my imagination. The U.S. State Department actively sought radio, telephone, and crypto techs at embassies worldwide. This could be my ticket to adventure.
At a Honolulu library I spent hours pecking on the typewriter. When I finished, the long application form held confidential information, like what color of underwear I preferred (well, not quite, but it was thorough!). I mailed the thick envelope to the U.S. Department of State in Washington D.C.
Later at the movies, Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws convinced me that that I had enough of the blue waters of the Pacific for a while. Quite honestly, I felt like I had just put the proverbial message in the bottle and had thrown it out to sea.
As I waited for a flight to L.A. at the Honolulu International Airport departure lounge, Joe Cable bid “Aloha” and whispered in my ear what Bloody Mary had told him, “You gotta have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”