Some memories are lost in the haze of the past. Some create an indelible impression on our psyche and are emblazoned in our minds forever. Such is the case with the year-and-a-half I lived on Yap Island. Those memories will never die; my experiences there became part of who I am now. They will remain with me, for good or ill, for eternity.
My story of Yap started in the winter of 1982 shortly after I returned home to Salmon, Idaho at the end of winter semester at Brigham Young University. It was time for me to “send my papers in,” parlance in the lingo of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for applying to become a missionary for the Church. It involved filling out some paperwork, having interviews with local Church leaders, completing medical check-ups, then sending off the paperwork to headquarters in Salt Lake City.
It usually took a month or so to hear back or “receive a call,” which is to learn where, exactly in all the world, I would be sent to serve. When my call arrived in the mail, I sat down with my family the first week in February 1983 and opened the large envelope and began reading. I had been called to serve in the Micronesia-Guam Mission. Church president and prophet Spencer W. Kimball’s name was scrawled at the bottom of my call, in blue ink.
The next few months were spent getting all my necessaries in order. I had to get some passport pictures taken, apply for a new passport, buy new clothes, and say goodbyes. It didn’t take long – just required a lot of running around and legwork. I spent two-and-a-half weeks in the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah where I learned the required lessons that I would be teaching in the mission field. From there, I was flown to Guam, where this story begins.
“Gilligan” was a guy in my MTC group of ten who headed to Guam. He was chosen as leader of the group a few weeks before, when we were all introduced as the “guys headed to Micronesia” by our leader in the MTC. Gilligan was a moniker that seemed to fit nicely for a guy with an intense personality sporting a high level of unlikability. Some might’ve considered him a jerk; I just saw him as a pain-in-the-butt who I could easily ignore. There’s an outlier in every group. He was ours.
As soon as we landed in Guam, we were split up; half the group was assigned to the southern part of the island, the rest of us ended up in a place called Dededo, up north. I was partnered with a Samoan guy named “Nonu,” or in mission parlance, he became my ‘companion.’ He was one of the nicest guys I’d ever met and instantly liked him.
We new guys put our stuff away, rested awhile from the long flight out, and got something to eat. Suddenly, the veterans of the mission started moving the furniture in the apartment aside to make a large ring in the center of the living room. “It’s boxing Tuesday!” one of the veterans yelled. Nonu and another guy put on boxing gloves and prepared for the first and only match of the day.
I had no idea boxing was a thing on a mission. I looked around at the rest of the new guys who were as surprised as me. I figured boxing was good exercise, and there was a need for missionaries to stay in good physical condition. So that’s how I assuaged my cerebral dissonance of the moment.
It didn’t take Nonu long to knock out his opponent. I could tell that both guys were decent boxers, but Nonu had a strong jab that eventually wore out the other guy. A left hook was what finished the job and left his opponent knocked out in a heap on the floor – down for the count!
Within a few days, we had a large mission meeting and our leader, a guy named Ferron Losee, interviewed all of us new guys. When it was my turn, I introduced myself and told President Losee a bit about my background growing up in Idaho and attending BYU.
“Can you take care of yourself in difficult circumstances, Elder Hicks?” he asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said.
“Can you work hard even when there’s nobody around telling you what to do?” he wondered.
“Yeah, I can. I get along fine, even when there’s no leaders around,” I replied.
“Good, that’s what I like to hear,” he said.
With that, the meeting was over. Just what I liked – short meetings – quick and to-the-point!
After we all had our turn meeting with the president, we got our final pep talk from him and his wife. Sister Losee, as we called her, was a kind woman who, I think, saw her role as our surrogate mother. She spoke to us about being kind and loving all people, regardless of who they were or where they lived. I figured she was referring to all the island people whose lives and customs were so much different than ours.
Then it was President Losee’s turn. He gave a rah rah speech on being good men. “I can’t be everywhere in this vast mission, so you’re all going to have to get stuff done without being told what to do,” he said. “I trust most of you will do just fine.” Then he began giving assignments. About halfway through the list, I heard my name called. Elders Hicks and Sorenson will be going to Yap. Sorenson was our man, Gilligan.
It was a bright day when Sorenson and I flew out to Yap in a Continental 737. We stopped in Palau first, since that island was the first stop on the loop. From the air, Palau was a beautiful place, with lots of rock islands dotting the ocean surrounding the island. A group of people exited the plane and then we flew off, headed west to Yap.
Yap is located in the Western Caroline Islands. Some of the first explorers to discover Yap were from Portugal. As legend dictates, the explorers pulled their boats up to the sandy beach and pointed to the land and asked, “What is this called?”
The islanders who met the explorers thought the newcomers were pointing to the outrigger canoe paddles laying on the beach. So, they said, “Yap!” which is the Yapese name for a canoe paddle. The explorers noted the name on their map, and it was forever after known as Yap. The actual name of the island is Wa’ab.
We circled Yap and made our approach. Just before touching down, the captain came on the intercom and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please assume the crash position, as this landing strip is rough and short. We will hit the reverse thrusts very hard the moment the wheels touch the pavement.”
Sorenson was sitting in front of me, so I couldn’t see his expression. But he was obeying the captain by sitting, hunched over in his seat with his hands clasped on top of his head. I smiled and did the same. I looked over at the guy sitting in the row opposite me. He looked like an old pro as he leaned over and assumed the crash position.
The captain wasn’t lying. The moment the wheels touched the pavement, reverse thrusts and brakes brought the plane to a quick halt. We taxied to the end of the runway and turned around. Off in the jungle next to the end of the runway, I noticed the wreckage of a Continental jet that had crashed the year before. The undergrowth hadn’t yet hidden the pieces of fuselage and wings still brightly reflecting sun light. The whole scene just looked like a grim episode of bad luck!
The landing strip was the same built by the Japanese during World War II. Not far from the strip was a number of Japanese WWII era bombers and Zeros sitting right where the Japanese left them after deserting the island at the end of the war. The engines had rusted and fallen off the planes and lay in the dirt at the front of each plane. The whole scene looked kind of eerie and held a suspended feeling you might have walking through an old mausoleum.
It wasn’t long before Sorenson and I were at the customs check-in. A guy stood in the shade of a small bamboo and hibiscus hut and checked our bags. “Got any perishables or illegal stuff in your bags?” he asked with a bit of an accent.
“Okay, you’re alright. How long you going to be staying?” he said.
“I don’t know; probably a year and half or so,” I replied.
“Okay, just be sure to update your visa when it’s time,” he said as he zipped up my last bag.
I grabbed my stuff and headed away from the hut with Sorenson in the lead. Suddenly, two guys wearing church clothes and name tags walked up. “We’ve been expecting you two. I’m Lunde and this is Pita. Welcome to Yap!” a guy with sandy colored hair said. We shook hands and talked about nothing for a few minutes as we walked to the parking lot.
I looked over at a long bamboo bench under some trees not far off. Eight or ten women wearing nothing but knee-length woven skirts were sitting there. They each had a basket-like purse next to them and were chewing betel nut, which made a bright red juice that they frequently spit on the ground in front of them.
“Well, here I am,” I thought, as I crawled into the cab of our small, Toyota mission truck. I quickly noticed it was a newer model truck but was already rusted clear through in some spots. “Here’s home for the next year-and-a-half!”