Letter from Guam By Sam Stephenson March 23, 2011
This is an excerpt from a blog by Sam Stephenson located here: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/03/23/letter-from-guam/
I want to tell you about a man I met in Saipan who helped me track Smith’s path through the island. He’s sixty-three-year-old historian Don Farrell, and before I left home I was told he’s the best battlefield tour guide in the Pacific. He grew up in the American West, in various places like Spokane, Washington, and Billings, Montana. He was sent to military reform school for making explosives. He was kicked out for making corn liquor. Farrell roamed around and eventually worked his way through Cal-State Fullerton with a degree in biology in 1974. He moved out to the Northern Marianas in 1977 to teach math and science and later worked for the local government in Guam. His wife of thirty years is a native Chamorran, and they live on Tinian. This place is his home; he’s not a visiting scholar. He wrote the local history textbooks they use in schools here, and he became tearful telling me a story about a Chamorran family that was elated to find the only known photograph of their grandfather in one of his textbooks. It was the first time the family had ever seen that picture. Not many university academics can tell a story like that.
Have you seen Terrence Malick’s Pacific-war movie The Thin Red Line? I’ve probably watched it seventy-five, maybe a hundred times. Sometimes when I’m working in my home office, I’ll play it on the TV in the background, like it’s classical music or opera. The rhythms of its audiovisuals are sublime. Some critics are annoyed by Malick’s use of voiceover, though. I know what they mean: While Malick’s camera pans an intricate jungle root system with sunlight cascading through foliage, a character’s voice softly murmurs such things as “What’s this war in the heart of nature?” “Why does nature vie with itself?” “Who are you to live in all these many forms?” It can be tedious. But I’ve got to say, after spending some time with Farrell walking through the lush jungles of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, pondering the unimaginable carnage that took place on these tiny dots of land populated by uninvolved natives, abstract thoughts and unpredictable images begin floating through your brain. Even today, the insanity of war is accessible here. The European theater is more definable, with home territories and borders; the Pacific is hazy and hallucinatory.
Farrell and I were standing on the top of Saipan’s twelve-hundred-foot Mt. Tapochau looking down into Death Valley, imagining Smith crawling around with his cameras, and he squints at me like a pirate and says, “Are you getting what you need?” Yes, I am. He also paid me a high compliment: “You are the only writer and East Coaster who is willing to come out here and get sunburned and walk in the jungle. Professors have written untold volumes without ever coming out here, and you can spot the errors and misimpressions in their writing immediately. It’s total fucking bullshit.”