While our belongings were trucked and then flown to Guam on a military cargo plane, my dad drove us in a 1977 Chevrolet Caprice Classic Station Wagon. It was dark brown with fake wood paneling on the sides, with a burnt orange headliner inside. Oh yes, it was 1970s styling. We drove across the continental United States, from South Carolina to California, often well into the night and the next night and the next. I would wake up from the back of the station wagon (where my parents had folded down the seats to make a makeshift bed for the kids) and see everyone asleep except for my dad, steering the land boat straight and true, upon an unknown highway. When I couldn’t see beyond the headlights, staring into the inky darkness, I would think, “We’re gonna fall off the Earth.”
My memories after that are a blur as my dad arranged transport of that station wagon to Guam as my mom, my siblings, and I visited relatives in California. I don’t remember the Los Angeles International Airport, the stop-over at Hawaii, or even finally arriving at Guam’s airport and checking in at the nearest hotel.
My first memory of Guam is waking up in our hotel room, which seemed pretty posh after sleeping in the car, cheap road-trip motels, and relatives’ spare rooms. We were so way up in the multi-story hotel that I could see the Pacific Ocean well before me outside the balcony window. It was late dusk. I heard loud voices and rhythmic music below me. When I looked down, I saw two half-naked fire dancers, each twirling and tossing two sticks, the ends aflame.
With a first impression like that, I knew that Guam was going to be magical.
Most non-military folk in the States know nothing about Guam. I certainly didn’t until I lived there for four years – 1978-1982. Guam is a tiny, tropical island, about thirty miles long and between four (at the narrow middle) to twelve miles wide. It only has two seasons – rainy and dry – and the average temperature is about the high 70s to low 80s Fahrenheit with cool breezes. It is about 1300 miles north of Papua New Guinea, 1500 miles east of the Philippines, 1600 miles south of Japan, 4000 miles west of Hawaii. In other words, from a bird’s-eye view, Guam looks like a tiny, mountainous green bow-tie tipped on one end so that it’s crookedly vertical, surrounded by nothing but clear, blue ocean and having the deepest part of the Earth’s ocean to the east of it, the Mariana Trench.
My family lived in military housing on the mid-southern, west-facing coast of the island. The majority of military housing in my neighborhood was the same – one, long, single-story, flat-roofed, white stucco rectangle divided into a duplex, with a carport for each half. The entire inside of the house – walls, ceiling – was white and needed to remain so, per military housing guidelines.
The front door, which we entered from the carport, lead straight into the kitchen. The kitchen was pretty straightforward, with a deep sink, simple white laminate counters, off-white linoleum floor, a green portable kitchen table with foldable legs, and a refrigerator. What sticks to my mind is the smell, of white rice cooked in a huge rice cooker and the sour-salty-fishy smell of adobo chicken and tamarind fish stew.
Keep going, and we would pass the narrow laundry area leading to the backdoor and the backyard. If we happened to glance at the tops of the washer and dryer, we would see laid out small fish, butterfly-split open and salted and then air-dried, which contributed to the fishy smell of the kitchen. Once out the backdoor, we would see a huge banyan tree, its wide-leaf evergreen branches nearly blocking our view, a little bit of grassy yard, and beyond that a low hill that slid down into the backyard of the duplex behind us.
Turn right, and we would cross a doorway into the big common room that served as the dining room (with more linoleum flooring) and living room (with green shag carpeting). It’s in the common room where we would see the heavy, wood furniture that my parents had transported from each successive move, from the beginning at Taiwan. The formal dining room table – oval, seating for six – took up most of the dining room area, with an electric organ tucked in a corner on one wall. On the other wall – which took up most of that wall – was a matching dark wood china cabinet on steroids, with intricate scrollwork, glassed-in cabinet doors, and oxidized bronze handles to match. Tucked next to the china cabinet was more heavy, wood furniture – a matching sideboard, where the spare cutlery lived, and a fully-stocked bar with mahogany leatherette on the edges of the countertop, with a real brass bar below as a footrest and matching swivel bar stools.
The living room had these weird Kelly green-lemon yellow-splotchy black plush fabric sofa and matching U-backed chairs that had casters on them so that they were easy to move around. When our parents weren’t around, Wendy and I would tip the U-chairs on their backs and see-saw across the living room, but we always remembered to put them back where they belonged. The coffee table in front of the sofa was heavy wood with a marbled green paneled top and a center storage area with little cabinet doors. Matching the coffee table and the china cabinet was this massive cabinet-wall unit that nearly spanned the entire back living room wall.
Designed by my dad (who had post-secondary training in engineering and design but could never find a job in the Philippines doing either) and hand-made in Taiwan, it was the centerpiece of their furniture collection. My mom decorated it with Asian-style vases, jade flowers, Japanese dolls in glass boxes, and reference books that my godfather gifted me on occasion of my baptism when I was a baby. (Those reference books will come later in my post-Guam life.) My dad used the wall unit as a music station, placing his massive reel-to-reel and vinyl music collection – lots of disco, lots of Elvis Presley, lots of Filipino serenades for party sing-alongs — in the lower cabinets while placing his reel-reel tape deck, receiver with its many nobs and buttons, and speakers in the central and lower shelving spaces.
Sitting in the back corner, like an immense altar, was the television – a huge wooden cabinet housing a cathode ray tube that glowed green when we turned it on (either by hand or the infrared remote control) until the colors faded into place, like a Polariod picture developing before our eyes. Just like in Taiwan, Great Lakes, and Charleston, the TV was a large part of the household, immediately turned on in the morning and left on as long as someone was in the house, awake. TV programming back then wasn’t twenty-four hours, as it would end its programming around midnight – with an image of the American flag waving and the national anthem before the TV signal would end. If we woke up early enough (usually just before daybreak), the signal would come back on with an image of the sun rising and the Beatles’ song “Here Comes the Sun” playing in the background. Our family was a devoted TV-watching family, and this was the only TV. So we watched a lot of family fare, like Little House on the Prairie and The Electric Company, as well as what my parents liked watching, like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island.
Almost like an afterthought was the tall grandfather clock (dark wood, of course) with its brass cylindrical weights and pendulum, placed next to the wall next to the hallway heading for the bedrooms. It would chime on the hour and half-hour and would sometimes scare me when I wasn’t expecting it, especially when going into the kitchen for a late-night glass of water.
As I can attest, having to pitch in with chores when I turned seven years old, all of that wood furniture was a pain in the butt to dust, and my siblings (when they were old enough) and I used many Old English-infused rags to keep all that wood gleaming to our mom’s satisfaction.
After the splendor of the common room, the bedrooms seemed almost like an afterthought. Walking along the long hallway, we’d see three tiny bedrooms and the hall bathroom. Wendy and I shared the back bedroom (sleeping in two twin beds), while our parents shared the tiny master bedroom with Eric (who would’ve been a toddler) and then, in fall 1979 when I started second grade, my youngest sister Cheryl, whose crib was squeezed in a back corner of my parents’ bedroom. The bedroom closest to the living room was the play room, where we kept all of our toys (and God help us if Mom saw any of our toys out of that room) and a couple of fake-leather bean bag chairs that had a tendency to leak tiny Styrofoam balls.
The reason our house – especially the common area – was so bedecked was the fiestas. Yes, there were celebrations for big events like birthdays and holidays. But there really needed no special reason to cook a massive amount of Filipino food, like lumpia egg rolls, pancit noodles, grilled beef and pork, and mountains of steamed white rice and then open the front door to what often felt like the entire US Navy and Filipino community on Guam. However, my parents weren’t the only ones doing this. It seemed like every weekend, someone in our neighborhood would put something on a grill and it would turn into a block party. For really special fiestas, a group of fathers or grandfathers or uncles would go up into a mountain farm, chip in on a huge pig, and take part in its slaughter and grilling into lechon, roast pig, whether it be on someone’s backyard or on the sands of Gab-Gab Beach, only five minutes away from our neighborhood.
During those parties that lasted well into the early morning, the men and women sang, drank, danced, talked, and played countless round of mah-jong. We kids ran around outside, playing tag or red-light/green-light, or scaring each other with monster stories of the taotaomona (Guam’s ancestral spirits, which we would learn about in school) rising from the banyan trees and getting us. When the mosquitos got too bad or it got too dark, we piled all inside the house, going to either the kid’s bedroom or (if it was my parents hosting the party) in the playroom, turning off the lights and playing Marco Polo and screaming like crazed banshees.
Cathy, Janet, Oliver, Jon-Jon, Marcy, Sarah, JoAnne, Mary, Laura – my playmates who felt more like cousins. Countless women and men who were not blood-related to my parents but who we kids all called “Auntie” and “Uncle”. It was like living in a village or a small town, in which everyone knew everyone else, every parent looked after every other parent’s kid, and every kid saw each other as a playmate and cousin. With everyone helping each other, nobody ever felt poor – and nobody ever felt lonely.
Between parties and playtime, my parents took care of our own needs. While Pa (that’s what we called and still call our dad) was away on duty on the USS Proteus, a ship that supplied and supported submarines, Mom had a cottage industry of babysitting toddlers, sewing and altering clothes and linens, and crocheting cozies, curtains, tablecloths, and elaborate, sculpted doilies. The money Mom earned supplemented Pa’s Navy pay, feeding and clothing three and then four young children.
It was with Mom’s money that I had my first bike – a used, red beauty with a banana-seat, deep gorilla handlebars, and coaster breaks. The words “The Clean Machine” were in groovy white letters, painted on the bike chain cover plate, so that’s what I called it. After racing Marcy on training wheels and one of the wheels fell off but I kept pedaling, Marcy’s dad took off the other training wheel, and that was that. I was on The Clean Machine everywhere. I would explore the neighborhood, hopscotch from one friend’s house to the next to play, have more bike races, or go to the playground. But when I wasn’t doing any of those, I was running errands for Mom, who would have to stay home because of babysitting. Often it was to buy stuff like rice or milk or whatnot from the Seven Day Store, a corner convenience store nearby. Mom, one of nine children to rural, hard-scrabble rice farmers, never had a bike and never cared to learn how to ride one, even when she could afford one, but she understood the need for a bike.
Even though she gave up the farming life, Mom still would’ve preferred to have a garden in the back, but housing rules also limited what she could plant. So instead of having decorative bushes in the front of the house, we had Chinese Red Hot Pepper bushes – pretty and edible. Mom would pickle the red, orange, and purple peppers in vinegar in jars. Also, we had a tall coconut tree in the front yard, which Mom would climb to get the heavy fruit. She even did that when she was pregnant with Cheryl. I remember Wendy (who would’ve been five-going-on-six years old) and I (who would’ve been seven), screaming, “Mommy! Mommy!” as our tiny, five-foot, eight-months’ pregnant mom, craving coconut, scrambled up that tree like a manic monkey, a machete clenched between her perfectly white teeth.
“Catch!” she exclaimed after she chopped one-handed, as one and then two more heavy green orbs dropped from the underside of the tree.
Too afraid to have the coconut fall on our heads, we let them fall, watching each one bounce on the spring grass. Mom scrambled back down, scolding us for not catching the coconut, just in case they split open, spilling and therefore wasting the coconut juice. Fortunately for us, they didn’t. After Mom removed the tough, fibrous outer husk and chopped off the tops of the smaller brown-shelled balls of coconut, we drank the watery juice of fresh coconut before she cracked apart the shells so that it would be easier eating the crunchy white coconut inside.
When Pa would be home from sea, he would night-fish off the white-sand shores of Gab-Gab Beach. Bringing his spear gun, a hand-net, and a hand-made floating net made with an inner-tube and fish-netting, Pa, a certified diver, snorkeled under moonlight and a tiny visor light. In the morning, I would often wake up to find Pa’s night-time catch in the kitchen sink – many kinds of flopping fish of various sizes and usually an octopus or two, slipping along the bottom of the sink, changing color angrily at me.
The first time I saw an octopus in the sink, its tentacles rising up from the sink, I screamed, my sister screamed, and Pa – woken up from his sleep – laughed.
Besides live sea life that would become lunch and dinner, I saw tiny geckos no bigger than my pinky finger, finding their tiny round eggs on the front screen door and seeing them every once in a while on the ceiling of my bedroom, their funny little feet secured as they saw me upside-down. Unlike the angry sea life in the sink, Wendy and I weren’t scared of these little visitors. Since we weren’t allowed a dog or cat, these island geckos were the closest thing to pets we had.
The green tree frogs, however, I could live without. During an especially heavy downpour during the rainy season, our front yard become a frog pool, and Wendy would be terrified to walk to the bus stop.
“Come on, Wendy, we need to go.”
“No! No!” she’d cry out, and I’d have to pull her along, past the frog pool, to walk down McMillen Drive to the school bus stop on the corner.
While I wasn’t as scared of the frogs as my sister was, I was sick to my stomach when I’d see the brown tree snakes that would come out of the jungle, trying to get at those frogs. Inevitably, they’d be run-over under the wheels of the cars and jeeps that ran in front of the bus stop, and seeing squashed snakes after morning breakfast of fried rice or blueberry muffins wasn’t a happy start to an already wet, froggy morning during the rainy season, which ran from July to November.
While us military kids and some military-affiliated civilian kids lived on the coast, our local public school, New Piti Elementary School, was further in and further north from us. So the little yellow school bus would wind its way from the military housing complex, going no faster than thirty miles an hour, as it climbed up roads cut from the mountain jungle. It would stop every once in a while for a kid, waiting in front of his or her rural house or farm, usually a brown Chamorro (native Guamanian) kid, but we were mostly brown little kids, as white kids (usually military dependents) were actually the minority on this island. Chamorro and Filipino-American made up the majority.
We knew were close to the school when we saw the Veterans Cemetery to the right of us, with its white crosses. It’s weird now to think of an elementary school across the street from a cemetery. Back then, however, we didn’t think any of it, although my friends and I sometimes wondered if it had any taotaomona.
The bus would arrive in front of New Piti, and we’d all file out, all dressed in either T-shirts, shorts, jeans, Hawaiian shirts, sensible buckled shoes, sneakers, or even sandals. Since New Piti was a school that went from kindergarten to sixth grade, we ranged in age from barely five years old (like Wendy was when she started kindergarten) to eleven-going-on-twelve (for the older sixth graders). The campus was a series of one-story cinderblock buildings, painted light blue and white, arranged into three squares with three open courtyards in the middle of each square of buildings. The classrooms opened into their own inner courtyard, with perimeter fenced playground areas on the outside of the classroom buildings. The front building was the administration building which also held the cafeteria (where they would serve such specialties as fresh fish with rice and chicken with gravy on bread) and the library.
I don’t recall the library when I was in first grade, in Miss Willeford’s class. All that comes up in my memory is Picture Day (when I wore a homemade lime-green and white dress that itched like crazy), counting to a hundred, and going to my first field trip, watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture (more on that later). It was in second grade, with a teacher that I can’t remember her name to save my life but was nice and very pregnant, when I first remember going to the library as a class. We single-filed out of our little, open-windowed classroom, crossed the asphalt-paved courtyard with its many chalk-drawn hopscotch squares and numbers, and entered the library.
The library was mainly one-story high, but it had a little mezzanine-level where the audiovisual stuff were. There were huge, heavy wooden tables and high, wooden bookshelves with jars of preserved Pacific sea animals, like lionfish, sea cucumber, and porcupine fish, swimming in formaldehyde and sitting on top of the lower shelves. The tallest bookshelves lined the walls of the main area of the library, and we would have to use the rolling ladders attached to reach the higher shelves.
Everything felt heavy and lush and woodsy and I was enchanted.
We kids were left to explore, and it was there, sitting criss-cross on the carpeted floor, that I discovered the fictional works that would obsess me for the next couple of years: the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and then the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series, created by Robert Arthur.
As mentioned earlier, my entire family watched Little House on the Prairie on TV, enjoying and relating to the misadventures of the Ingalls family. Like the Ingalls family of the late nineteenth century, the Ramos family moved around a lot, following the lead of Pa, of better opportunities. Like Caroline Ingalls, Mom quit her elementary schoolteacher position when she married and then moved away with Pa, albeit by commercial airplane instead of covered wagon. Traversing the Great Plains by covered wagon was like crossing the States by station wagon, and finally setting up a somewhat permanent home in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, with Mary, Laura, and Carrie helping out their Ma and Pa when they weren’t going to school or church felt a lot like my family finally setting up a somewhat permanent home in Naval Station Agaña, Guam, with me and Wendy helping out Mom and Pa, when we weren’t going to school or the Catholic church down the street. I saw myself in both Mary and Laura – being the oldest and therefore required to be more responsible, like Mary; being a tomboy and sometimes getting into trouble with the grown-ups, like Laura.
So when I was exploring the library, looking through the stacks, I instantly recognized the title The Little House on the Prairie on the spine of a book. When I noticed that the author’s name was Laura Ingalls Wilder and that there were eight more books (two before and six after) in the series, my seven-year old mind suddenly felt ten times larger than it had before. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a REAL person! Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote these books! Wait, Laura marries Almanzo Wilder?
While by the second-grade I was a proficient reader, I had never read a book all the way through, and here were nine of them, and they all looked fat with stout hardcovers. But just like the Millennials and their younger siblings twenty years later, I wanted to know what happened to my favorite hero, Laura Ingalls. Motivated as I was – and happy to see that there were some black-and-white pictures here and there in the book – I checked out the first book in the series, Little House in the Big Woods.
The first sentence I read was “Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.” Much later I would know that the book was originally published in 1932, so the “sixty years ago” would’ve been 1872 – but I didn’t think of that at the time. I already knew it was during the pioneer days because of the TV show. I don’t remember how long it took me to finish that book, in between schoolwork, housework, Sunday school, and playtime with friends, but once finished, I returned it to the library and checked out the second book, Farmer Boy, which turned out to be the childhood of Almanzo Wilder.
Then Little House on the Prairie, when the Ingalls family moved to Kansas. On the Banks of Plum Creek, when they moved to Minnesota. By the Shores of Silver Lake, when they finally settled down in South Dakota. The Long Winter. Little Town on the Prairie. These Happy Golden Years, when Laura and Almanzo marry. Finally, The First Four Years.
Sometime before the end of my second-grade year, I had read all of the Little House books and learned a few things. One: the books were very different from the TV series, and I liked the books better. The descriptions of pioneer life were gritty and real, sometimes alarming. Two: people from the 1880s weren’t much different from people in the 1980s, regarding their hopes, their disappointments, their problems – especially dealing with disagreeable and sometimes scary people and situations beyond their control. Three: I knew new words and was a faster reader. And four: I was hungry for more books. Since I binge-read the Little House books, I had to look elsewhere.
That’s when I discovered the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators children’s mystery series in the school library.
I don’t know what drew me to the Three Investigators series. Perhaps it was re-runs of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour or The Hardy Boys Mysteries on TV. All I know is that I became obsessed. Since the first book of the series – The Secret of Terror Castle — was published back in 1964, written by Robert Arthur Jr., and other authors like William Arden and M.V. Carey also wrote in the series, bringing the book total in 1979 to thirty books, I had plenty of books to pick from Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators.
The plots were Scooby-Doo type stories, minus the comic relief of Shaggy and Scooby-Doo and the late-teen/early twenties’ interactions of the rest of the Scooby gang. Instead the Three Investigators were three fourteen-year old boys, all school friends, who started an amateur detective agency, headquartered in a Los Angeles family junkyard, to tackle local mysteries. Chubby Jupiter Jones was the brain and leader (“First Investigator”), tall and athletic Pete Crenshaw (“Second Investigator”) was the muscle, and the smallest of the three, Bob Andrews (“Records and Research”), was the bookworm.
Sure, they were older than I was at the time. But unlike the Hardy Boys (or any other mystery or detective show on TV), Jupiter, Pete, and Bob were limited in their mobility (since they couldn’t drive), their resources (since they weren’t rich), and their access (since they were underage). Yet they always solved the mystery and won the case, with their logic, observation, and persistence.
I mean, they were kids AND detectives.
Also, while Pete may have fit the stereotypical male “hero” in his looks, he respected and followed his leader, the definitely non-heroic-looking Jupiter, and he also respected and worked along with his peer, Bob. Mixed into the mystery was action-adventure (car chases! kidnappings! secret traps! espionage!) and the glamor of Hollywood and LA’s international culture. As a Navy brat and tomboy, how could I not be obsessed with these books?
Thanks to the Little House books, I was a faster reader. I tore through the school library’s collection of The Three Investigators like potato chips. When I couldn’t find more books in the library (or if the library was closed but I didn’t have a book with me), I would beg Mom to bring me to the bookstore in the Navy Exchange and leave me there when she was out shopping in other places in the NEX (laid out similar to a civilian mall). Since she was more than happy to have one less kid to think about and knew that I would stay put, this became our shopping routine. Mom would drop me off at the bookstore, and I would go to the children’s books section. Once I would find The Three Investigators books, I would sit down on the carpeted floor in front of the bookshelves, carefully take out a book that I hadn’t read yet, and start reading. Since The Three Investigators books in the bookstore were in paperback, I always made sure never to break the spine – Mom would rarely buy me the book since it wasn’t budgeted. Then I would read until Mom showed up, shopping bags and siblings in tow, to go home.
Of course, these days, bookstores – what few brick-and-mortar bookstores are left nowadays – would never allow unattended, non-teen children in their stores. Any parent doing that today would likely also get in trouble with store security, the store manager, or even Child Protective Services. So, I would definitely not recommend any parent to do that with his or her child.
But the late 1970s to early 1980s was a different time, and Guam back then was a different place. Parental non-supervision outside the home was commonplace for any kid older than six. First, parents taught us kids common-sense skills and assumed that we wouldn’t do anything stupid and could figure out problems on our own – just like Laura Ingalls and Jupiter Jones. But most importantly, they trusted the adults in our neighborhood, just like Mr. Rogers trusted the ones in his, too keep an eye on us, just in case. In my case, even though the workers in that bookstore didn’t know me or my mom by name, they knew we were part of the Navy family community and, therefore, belonged there. I certainly didn’t feel that I was with strangers, as customers perused the bookshelves around me, as the staff left me alone, and as I tore through the pages as fast as I could before Mom arrived and thus my time was up.
I don’t remember if I managed to read all thirty-four Three Investigators books that were published between 1964 and 1982, but I know that I read everything that I could find at school and in the bookstore. What’s odd is that there was a local public library, yet I don’t recall going there on a regular basis nor checking out books. The habit of free-loading off of the NEX’s bookstore – and the store staff’s tolerance of me – was more ingrained than the habit of going to a non-school civilian library.
Either way, I satisfied that craving to binge-read, and I haven’t read another Three Investigators book since Guam. (The last one, #43 The Mystery of the Cranky Collector, was published in 1987.) I wondered if that childhood obsession of mine stood the test of time, so I recently checked out a couple of Three Investigators books, The Mystery of the Screaming Clock (#9 in the series) and The Mystery of the Deadly Double (#28), from – irony of ironies – my local public library. After reading both, the repetitive nature of the Scooby-Doo-like plotlines, the overly dramatic dialogue, and the often unrealistic deus ex machina devices that quickly resolved into happy endings hit me; these books were not meant for grown-ups. While I was a seven, eight and then nine-year old kid, these books were irresistible, and I gobbled them up like circus peanuts and candy corn. But just like with circus peanuts and candy corn, I – as a reader – outgrew them.
However, I wouldn’t have grown as a reader if I hadn’t gone through that Three Investigators obsession, when I developed that habit of reading for leisure, for fun, and not just for school. Sure, it wasn’t great literature, but it was my own personal discovery, my own choice; the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series was mine. As a young kid, who had very little control or power over her destiny, that was a massive realization.
And once I became a reader, nobody could take that away from me.
Not even in the middle of a blackout. (But I’m getting ahead of myself.)