Naked in Front of Unnaked People

By ©Jack Niedenthal [1986]

It happened to be one of those viciously hot days that made one dream of being elsewhere. The year was 1986, and I was still just another frustrated inhabitant of Kili Island. I stood leaning against the plywood air terminal watching the festivities that normally surround an aircraft during the unloading of dignitaries and the press, something the Bikinians have grown used to since their 1946 exodus from Bikini: their incredible nuclear legacy--though a half century old--still draws media people to their islands each year, as it should.

Everything was being rushed, and for the people living on Kili, who were used to the uninterrupted calm of their daily routines, this automatically translated into immediate confusion. Who will locate the visitors luggage? Who will put the leis on the most important people? and just who are the people considered to be the VIPs on the plane? Who will ride in what car? Who will eat lunch where? Who will make sure that members of the community know where to be, and when?

I somehow knew that the confusion would eventually create for me, a handy expatriate bystander, an unusual set of problems. I eyed the stream of sweaty passengers as they deplaned from the 748 island-hopper. It is difficult situation for anyone arriving for the first time on an outer island, but it is even harder to be the one to show the newcomer around, especially on Kili, which has to be one of the most cramped and uncomfortable islands on the planet. Moreover, we were expected to have an intense hour-long meeting with our attorney. It is difficult to describe what it feels like to stand between two very different cultures when they collide momentarily for an afternoon of quickie meetings, let's just say that it racks the nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard.

First off the plane came Ralph Waltz, or "LaBako," the former liaison and interpreter for the Bikinians [Ralph died in 1987]. Then, the lawyer stepped down. Next came the people from the media followed by the local islanders who were aboard. This orderly flow reflected the traditional island protocol for disembarking from an airplane on Kili.

It was a simple task to pick out the media people. They were the ones who were taking pictures of anyone or anything: pilots, the airplane, cases of Pampers, cases of colas, trees, boxes, lizards, stop signs, policemen and prematurely rusting Toyotas. At this point, in 1986, I had been living and working as a teacher on Kili Island for more than two years, and had been on the outer islands of the Marshalls for five consecutive years. I had been out here long enough to know that with every airplane comes a whole new set of circumstances, that even the arrival of a few more people can change the personality of an entire island.

Kili could be a lot like Disneyland when outsiders arrive for a visit. Cars, filled with islanders trying to catch a glimpse of the visitors, rumbled around the island. Dressed in their best and brightest colored clothes, the people of Kili would walk from place to place on the island knowing that around any corner may appear a strange looking foreigner--and an instant source of entertainment. All the best island delicacies would be cooked up on the grill, lacing the island with an aroma of sizzling meats. And the gossip about what news the visitors might be bringing was on the tongue of every man, woman and child. For someone like myself whose major decision each day was what color T-shirt to wear, this was pure madness: the carnival was back in town.

On this day our lawyer, Jonathan Weisgall, the heat stripping away most of his Washingtonian formalities, was dressed in faded tan pants, threadbare alligator golf shirt and worn-out tennis shoes. He had travelled 8,000 miles to Kili to talk to his clients about money--and how to get more of it. Whenever important outsiders arrive, most normal activities invariably stop. The younger women leave the older women to take care of the children, cook the food and do the wash, so that they can go to the meetings and take part in the festivities. None of the men venture out onto the sea to go fishing or do work around the house. The tiny stores, the take-outs and the small coffee houses remain empty. The school closes down. Routine island life is totally readjusted so that the Bikinians can have a community meeting to discuss the various issues of the day: the lawsuits, the cleanup of Bikini, and in 1986, the various Washington, D.C. political situations that were delaying its funding.

Everyone walked around the airplane and shook hands with each other. Many of the men smiled giddily as if they were at the opening day of an election campaign. The excitement rapidly pumped blood throughout our idle, island-dulled brains. Though reluctant to leave the comfort of my own island-induced tranquility, I decided to push-off the wall and shake a few hands.

Photo at Right: Ralph Waltz [center]

LaBako introduced me to the media people. Because no one else was capable of dealing with all the excitement that outsiders brought to the island, LaBako became the organizer by default; by the time he approached me, he was a mesh of sweat-covered nerves. After going through all the hoops and the smiles of palm pressing, he pulled me aside, and whispered out of the side of his mouth: "Jack, I'm going to be busy translating for the attorney. Do you think you can handle that photographer? He's here on assignment for Newsweek magazine. Just show him around the island and answer his questions."

As I glanced over at the man who LaBako was cautiously indicating, I slowly exhaled: Time for a quick rush to judgment. The journalist was about 35 years old. He wore yuppie horn-rimmed glasses; his hair a brush cut, was neatly combed straight back. The man jerkily moved about in his slim body sort of reminding me of a young Jerry Lewis. Knowing what was already expected of me, there was only one way I could answer: "Sure, I'll show him around."

LaBako, hurrying to get people where they should be for the day, found the photographer and escorted him over to me. It was when the journalist returned my smile with a crunching half-grimace that I knew I would be in for a long day.

He extended toward me his damp twitching hand, and though we had already been introduced, he repeated, "Hi. Richard Smith [name changed to protect a reputation that I am sure has long since gone by the boards]. I'm on assignment for Newsweek." So I replied again, "I'm Jack." Then I asked, "So, what are you interested in seeing?"

Richard scanned the surroundings briefly, his hand cupped above his eye brows to shield himself against the glare of the hot sun, and said, "Well Jeff, I thought that since we would only be on the ground for an hour or so, we might begin with a wander down the road and then get a group shot of the Council."

This was the first time anyone had ever referred to me as "Jeff." I didn't bother correcting him, however, as I figured it would be a quick hour and then I wouldn't see him again for the rest of my life, one of the many advantages of life in the tropics. I smiled, mentioned that the Council members would probably be at the church; in fact, everyone in the community would soon be gathering there, but that we should get started if we were going to walk.

As we strolled down the dirt road he asked all the classic, introductory questions, and I gave all the standard answers:

How many people live here? Over 800.

How often does it rain? Well, from June to December we have a dry season, and from January to May we have a dryer season.

What do the people eat? Mostly USDA Food, but on occasion we have breadfruit, pandanus, chicken, pig, fish, papaya, bananas and coconuts.

Are there many mosquitoes or rats? Yes. And shrews, lizards, sand flies, dogs and cats.

What kind of jobs do people have on the island? Well, we have a general labor force, policemen, firemen, councilmen, fishermen, recreation directors, council staff members, teachers, construction workers, health aides, farmers and maids, basically, whatever one could dream up for a job description, somebody had the title and performed the function.

Our first session also included a one-minute crash course in Marshallese, the language that had taken me five hard years to learn. I carefully explained to him: Yokwe, like "aloha" in Hawaiian, meant hello, good-by and love. Kommol is the word used for thank you. Richard nodded gratefully, said, "Okay Jeff, got it." As we walked down the shady, coconut tree-lined road, he started repeating his newly acquired Marshallese words: "Kom-mol, Kom-mol. Yok-we, Yok-we. Kom-mol, Kom-mol. Yok-we, Yok-we."

Each time that Richard would spot an islander alongside the road, he would immediately begin snapping pictures of the startled but amused subject. At one stop, as I stood in silent disbelief watching him kneel and bend and stretch his body to get what he felt to be great photogenic angles on a couple of old women who were hanging-up cotton diapers to dry in the sun, I felt the urge to step in and call him to a halt. Maybe it was just this rising level of weird excitement that he brought to such an insignificant event that prevented me from saying anything. Mostly, though, I knew the media was important to the Bikinians, so playing the part of the good camper, I just stood back and watched him snap away.

When that photographic session came to a close, Richard began bowing from the waist in the direction of the two women as if he were visiting in some remote prefecture of ancient China. With the palms of his hands clasped together as if he were praying, he bent forward and softly sighed,"Kom-mol , kom-mol, kom-mol, kom-mol." As if to show his subjects even more than the normal amount of respect that he thought to be required, he held his pose. But it was a respect that was totally foreign to the incredulous women; they quietly snickered at the strange antics of the man, as did I: this was getting good.

With little trot-steps, Richard moved briskly away from the scene. He displayed a nearly suppressed, childlike grin on his face. After releasing a heavy sigh of contentment, he looked over at me with a benevolent expression smeared across his face. "You know Jeff, this certainly is an incredibly beautiful place." I wanted to respond, to tell him that I considered it a prison, as did all of the Bikinians on the island, that Kili, this tiny little droplet of land, fills this community with despair from its inadequate food supply and the crowded housing all the while surrounded by three hundred and sixty degrees of open rough ocean. But I stayed quiet, he'd be gone soon enough.

We entered the village, climbed the small hill which led up to the church where the proceedings were ready to commence. I walked through the doorway of the church, interrupted the preliminaries of the meeting, and requested that we assemble the Council for a quick group picture. Richard was determined to experience the entire island in an hour, though even in this short amount of time we had already covered half of it.

A group of Bikinian men, that included some of the members of the Council and our senator, began to assemble outside the church. They complained about having to be lined-up for a picture under the midday, excruciatingly hot, equatorial sun. I admit that I felt guilty about that; but I felt even worse when I watched Richard run up, push these dignified men together, and bark commands at various revered elders to stand and to straighten their backs or to sit down and stay still just so he could get his shot.

Just when I thought everything was all set, Richard rushed forward and again rearranged the benches so that their alignment in relation to the sun would be a bit more suitable for his picture. The photographer, to ensure that the colors of their hula-shirts weren't clashing with one another, unhesitatingly grabbed these old men by their shoulders and shuffled them back and forth as if they were no more than cards in a poker deck. The intensity and briskness of his movements had the good natured island men saying things about him, jokingly, under their breath: "Jack, what is it with this guy? Tell him to give me the camera, I'll take the picture."

Walking slowly backward upon his tiptoes, Richard began to move away from the group. While still in motion, he prepared to take his pictures by pressing his eye to the view finder of his camera. He halted about twenty feet from the men, eased into a squatting position, and started to shoot what must have been dozens of pictures.

It didn't take long for me to see that something was not quite right. A very unusual phenomenon tipped me off: Every single Bikinian had a wide smile on his face. Some of the men were laughing so hard that they had to cover their mouths with their hands. I had never before, during all the time that I had spent on Kili, witnessed this type of behavior from them. Normally, when it came time for a media representative to take a picture, the men would plaster a stoic look on their faces, like George Washington on a dollar bill.

I turned to LaBako, who was standing beside me, and asked him what was going on. Ralph hesitated, covered his own broad smile with his hand, and then pointed toward the open space between Richard's gym shorts and his legs: Richard was not wearing any underwear...His dangling manhood, entirely exposed, swung like a pendulum before these demure old gentlemen as he squirmed around to get his good camera angles.

The islanders, who had been posed in two lines for the picture, were laughing so hard that they were having trouble standing up. Unaware of his entertaining display, Richard continued to snap-away at the group with his camera.


After shooting another roll of film, Richard began bowing-down from the waist toward the men. He was into his "China routine" again. He bent forward several times, while chanting, "Kom-mol, kom-mol, kom-mol, kom-mol." His body movements caused some of the men to burst out laughing and sent others into short stints of dancing, whooping and clapping.

Richard, finally realizing that, perhaps, he was missing something, leaned over to me, and whispered, "Hey's so funny?"

I just shrugged in ignorance: after all, my name is not Jeff.

I suppose that he attributed their enthusiasm to his own high degree of professionalism. He turned his body back toward the men, and began kneeling down, and repeating one of his two Marshallese words: " Kom-mol, kom-mol, kom-mol, kom-mol." Amid the wild rounds of laughter and applause of the islanders, he continued to bend, crouch and nod. Ignoring the hoots and hollers, he lifted his chin and said, "You know Jeff, I have to get some shots of the older people. I need photographs of those elders who were moved-off Bikini Atoll in 1946, and who are still waiting here on Kili to go back to their islands. This will be, for many Americans, an emotionally packed issue. You know, with these pictures, we can capture the essence of this horrible mess."

Richard, turned, walked away and thus proceeded to take command of the tour. I lagged behind him, a lackey now, listening as the men from the group photo began to discuss with merriment the recent event that would quickly become a legend on Kili.

As we wandered down a narrow dirt road I noticed Richard slow, then stop. He was glaring at old Martiban Bejiko, who was languidly staring at the sky, swimming happily through his eight decades of memories.

The withered old man was sitting on the front porch of his plywood house. Richard, sensing, perhaps, a sensational addition to his photo collection, strolled on over to the unsuspecting subject.

Now, to me, Martiban was the personification of the word, "elder." I knew from living next door to him for over two years that he never had very much to say to anyone, except for an occasional scratchy, high-pitched, "Good morning" (in English). Martiban had beautiful, shockingly white hair; Einsteinian, it was always tousled beyond belief. He rarely shaved his beard, unusual for a Marshallese man except when they approached his age. His facial hair, at that time, was a quarter inch of pure, snowy-white stubble.

Martiban passed most of his days sitting cross-legged on his front porch. He would stare out at the world through a pair of jet-black, horn-rimmed, orange-yellow tinted glasses that probably had never been cleaned. He provided a picture of absolute contentment as he sat shirt-less in his black polyester pants. Each day he had the same relaxed look on his face, as if to say to the rest of humanity: I have finally figured out that it doesn't really matter why the heck I am on this earth; yet, here I am, nevertheless.

He was a bit of an enigma to those of us living on the island because he just kept right on living and living and living. Occasionally, he would make an appearance for a Sunday church service. And, often in the middle of a song or a sermon, we would see him suddenly slump onto his side, passing out right there on the bench. A few men would casually stand-up and go to his aid. They would lift him up and carry him out of the church over to the dispensary or his house. Each time this happened, I, like many others I am sure, thought: Well, Martiban has finally met his maker.

After church, I would walk down the hill toward my house. As I would stroll by Martiban's plywood dwelling, to my amazement, there he would be, sitting shirt-less and cross-legged on his front porch staring out at me from behind those black goggles of his. He would hear or see my approach, smile, nod, and then say, "Good morning," as if announcing to all concerned that he was still in God's good graces.

Now Richard stood before Martiban, who was again sitting on his front porch. The old man, as was his habit, nodded his bushy white head at us. With a wide, toothless grin, he piped, "Good morning." Martiban, with his mouth hanging wide open, perhaps realizing that we weren't immediately going to move right along, began to stare back at Richard through a clear spot in his bottle-bottom thick glasses.

Richard, totally engrossed by the old man's appearance, stood dumbfounded for a few moments. I could sense that he wanted something here, bad.

Martiban, too, remained still, quiet, stone-like; he soon appeared to become disinterested.

After several minutes of languor had passed, Richard broke the silence. He leaned over and whispered to me, with his hand cupped onto the side of his face as if the elder might understand what he was saying to me, "Jeff, do you, ah, think you could get this old gentleman to close his mouth so that I could take a picture or two?"

I thought for a moment, then I cupped my hands and whispered back, "I don't know, Richard. It'd be kind of awkward for me, you know, I have to live and work with these people here after you leave. And I, well, I just don't feel comfortable asking old Martiban to close his mouth. You can ask him, though."

I stepped aside. Richard reflected on my challenge. Martiban now seemed totally unaware of the two Americans who stood before him.

Richard, apparently having resolved himself to action, gently placed his camera on the porch. He moved close to the old man, leaned over, put his face to within 5 or 6 inches of Martiban's. The journalist put one hand on his own lower jaw and the other hand on his upper jaw. He began to ask in a loud but firm voice, "Okay, Pops, can you close your mouth?" while opening and closing his own mouth with his hands as if to demonstrate to a small child.

As Richard kept opening and closing his own mouth with his hands, he continued to speak into Martiban's face: "Come on, Pops, clooosssseee your mouth. Please, clooosssseee your mouth."

Martiban just sat calmly with a blank, mindless expression on his face. His mouth still hung open. For Martiban it seemed as if Richard, who continued with his Oriental routine, was not even there.

The stupefied look on Martiban's face spurred the American to talk even louder. In an attempt to gain the old man's attention, Richard started to open and close his jaw faster than ever: "Jesus, Pops, will you close your mouth? Come on, please, please, close your mouth!" Then Richard paused for a long moment, took a deep breath, and glared at his subject in the hope that Martiban would finally comprehend what he was trying to ask him to do.

Martiban ended the stalemate. The elder slowly turned his head in my direction. A toothless smile swept across his face as he pointed toward Richard's bright-red, frustrated face. While looking up at me old Martiban chuckled delightfully, and asked, "Ita loñin lallep en?" "What's wrong with that guy's mouth?"