My Friend, Be’nug

Be’nug was a kind, simple man ­– a native Yapese. I knew him well and considered him one of my best friends. I was a missionary who was a guest on Yap in 1983-84. Yap became my home. I learned the language and lived the customs and culture. In my mind, I had become a Yapese for a short time. Be’nug was one of my teachers – not in an official sense; he was just a great example of kindness, and I valued his friendship and looked-up to him.

Be’nug lived alone in the village located on the outskirts of Colonia, Yap’s business center. He was born with a simple mind and lived a simple life. The villagers loved him and helped provide for his needs when necessary. It was a community where everyone helped each other survive and thrive.

There was a legend circulating around the island that made me chuckle and kind of spoke to Be’nug’s style. There was a bet that Be’nug could eat more than anyone on the island. So, one day, he agreed to a little contest to see just how much he actually could eat.

Someone gave Be’nug a ten-pound pot of cooked rice and a five-pound can of corned beef. He took it all into the jungle and sat down under a coconut tree and the contest was on. The story goes that Be’nug peeled back the corned beef lid, scooped a big helping into the rice and started shoveling it in! He finished eating everything a couple hours later, drank half a bottle of whiskey, then laid back and slept for 12 hours. After awakening, he mumbled something about being full, and walked home.

My friend Be’nug had a great sense of humor. He loved to hear a good joke and often had one of his own. But one time, someone played a practical joke on him, and he didn’t get it.

He was admitted to the hospital one day because of a big sore that was festering on his arm. Yap hospital was supported by the United States due to the island being a Trust Territory. All natives of the island received greatly reduced medical and dental care, as a result. If you had any ailment at all, the hospital would give you a room, hook up an IV, and treat you for what ailed.

I and a few friends went in to check on Be’nug and make sure he was going to be alright. We visited and offered to bring in some extra food if he wasn’t getting enough from the hospital. He said he felt fine. Before we left, Jeff Reaboam, one of the friends, told Be’nug that he had consulted with the doctors, and they had all decided on a correct course of treatment. He said, “Be’nug, they are going to cut off your arm and attach a baseball bat in its place! It won’t hurt a bit. And think of how great it will be when you play baseball; you won’t even need to bring a bat!”

Well, Be’nug took Jeff seriously and was terrified. We all chuckled and tried to convince him that Jeff was just joking; they weren’t going to cut his arm off and replace it with a bat. But he didn’t believe us. That night, he escaped from his hospital bed and walked home. The next day, he checked in with the village witch doctor who fixed his arm with ancient, natural remedies!

Jeff was a big jokester, and he really did like baseball. He was able to get a TV sports channel on some kind of cable television deal offered on the island. He didn’t miss a baseball game for any reason. He was so in love with the sport that he named all his sons after famous baseball players – Willie Mays, Roger Maris, and Mickey Mantle. And when you addressed those boys, you used both the first and last names. I loved it.

One day, we heard that Be’nug needed a new house. His old hut had blown over in a typhoon that recently hit the island. He was desperate for housing as he and his stuff had become a soaked mess. Rainy season had just begun. My missionary companion, Pita, and I agreed to build it for him. He told us that he had gathered the materials; all we would need to do was construct it.

So, the next day we headed to Be’nug’s village. We got there a few minutes later than planned. Be’nug was sitting under a tree, waving a stick in the air, and chanting some melodic verse. As we walked up, he looked surprised and said, “I was using a bit of island magic and asked the spirits if you were coming.”

“What did they tell you?” I asked.

“Oh, they said you were on your way but running late!”

“Ha! Be’nug, we didn’t give our calendar out to those spirits; they had no idea what our schedule was,” I said.

“They know everything!” he replied. “Spirits know stuff even when you don’t tell them.”

“Okay, whatever, my friend,” I said smiling. “We’ll take that under advisement.”

Be’nug just laughed and pointed over to a pile of wooden posts and bamboo poles stacked haphazardly on the ground. We all walked over to examine the building materials. Next to the posts and poles was four or five sheets of old rusty, corrugated tin. Next to the tin was a coffee can full of nails and an old ball-peen hammer. I picked up the hammer and instantly noticed the cracked and broken handle.

“Looks like we got all we need,” said Pita. “Where do you want your house to sit, Mister Be’nug? He asked.

Be’nug walked over to a place under a tree and indicated that this would be a good spot. Pita and I quickly got to work, dug some deep holes and set the posts in by tamping dirt and rocks around them. Next, we toe-nailed some bamboo on the posts a few feet up from ground-level and laid some split poles across those to form a floor. We then nailed some bamboo on the top of the posts to form roof trusses.

The corrugated tin was nailed to the roof trusses, overlapping just enough to keep out the rain. Last, we nailed split bamboo vertically between the floor and roof to make the outer walls and a small doorway. Of course, the walls were recessed back from the front of the hut so Be’nug would have a porch to sit on that faced the trail coming up from the road.

Pita and I spent about four hours on Be’nug’s new digs. After we nailed the last piece of bamboo up, we stood back and examined our handiwork. Pita walked up and shook the hut. It was solid! Be’nug came up behind us, put his hands on our shoulders, and began to cry.

“Now I have the nicest house in the village! Thank you for building my house,” he said as tears ran down his cheeks. “You’re my best friends.”

I didn’t have much to say when my own tears started to flow. Both Pita and I gave Be’nug a big group hug and then headed back home. I’ll always remember what Be’nug taught me that day. Gratitude is simple and lovely. And a small, one-room hut sitting in the middle of the jungle can feel like a mansion when it will keep you and your stuff dry and is all you’ve got.

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