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May 1946 NAS Agaña, Guam
"Attention in the terminal ..."
Vivian Camacho Avery flinched at the command over the loudspeaker. As the crowd of Americans in the navy airport hushed to listen, she held her breath. Vivian had witnessed the horrors of war and faced her own death, but she had never left her father's side or set foot away from her island home. She was doing both for the first time in her life. Anxiety churned her insides.
A moment later, the loudspeaker buzzed and crackled again, and the voice announced, "The flight to Honolulu, Hawaii, is now ready for boarding."
Whistles and cheers erupted among the servicemen and civilians waiting to go home. Vivian and her husband, Navy Commander Philip Thomas Avery, waited also. Amid the rejoicing, Vivian prayed. Her heart raced in her chest and pulsed in her ears. She had seen airplane machine guns slice through people's bodies, spray holes in buildings, and mow down jungles. The thought of climbing into a craft that did those things petrified her, as did traveling the unimaginable distance ahead. Philip was taking her to the other side of the world, to New York, to meet his parents, her new in-laws, strangers who might not accept her.
Vivian was Chamorro, a native of Guam. She wore trousers and a long-sleeved shirt, not to hide the pale-honey color of her skin but to protect against the chill inside the airplane. Her best friend, Bernice Cruz Frasier, insisted she also bring a sweater just in case. Neither had ever flown before and didn't know what to expect. The sweater lay on Vivian's lap. The showy diamonds of her wedding rings contradicted her humble upbringing.
Until the war, Vivian led a quiet, sheltered life, reared by her father since her mother's death when Vivian was four years old. Now, at twenty-five, she still had the fetching smile of innocence, but the depth of horrible experience shone in her dark eyes. In contrast, Philip Avery was a rich and worldly onetime playboy with Hollywood good looks. He was a self-assured thirty-year-old Seabee civil engineer and combat veteran. A scar across his forehead could have passed as a war wound, but it wasn't.
Vivian and Philip were married in February, three months earlier. They would have been married for five years if an automobile accident and the war hadn't disordered their lives. Some would say fate tore them apart because a white man didn't belong with a brown woman. But love doesn't recognize color or race or social class. It fears no distance, marks no time, and listens only to the heart. Love brought Vivian and Philip back together.
Now sitting beside Philip, away from the rowdy crowd, Vivian wanted to appear excited for his sake, but she couldn't hide her fears. Philip wouldn't go home after the war until he had found her again and married her. That done, he was ready and eager. Philip felt Vivian trembling beside him and tried to comfort her. He stroked her hand, kissing it now and then, not caring if anyone took offense at his affectionate display. He smiled at her often, to reassure her. At the boarding announcement, Vivian paled. Philip cupped her face in his hands and kissed her.
"I'm right here with you, Vivvy," he said, not letting his eagerness to begin his journey home add to her distress. There was a smile on her lips but uncertainty in her eyes. The Averys rose to their feet and Philip led the way out onto the tarmac.
Outside, Vivian hesitated and looked around. What was once a barren strip of flattened earth now bristled as the formidable US Naval Air Station, Agaña. The Americans had wrested it from the Japanese and built it into an airport. But the improvements didn't erase Vivian's memory of the backbreaking weeks she, her father, and many others spent cutting down trees, hauling away rocks, and tamping the ground flat to build the airstrip for the Japanese.
Vivian wavered until Philip urged her toward the Pan American DC-4 gleaming before them. She stared up at it, astonished by its size. How does such a thing get off the ground? she wondered, having never seen an airplane up close. She had seen them spiral to the ground with a trail of black smoke and knew they didn't always stay aloft. If this one falls, at least I'll die with Philip. Resigned to the possibility, she followed Philip up the passenger stairs.
Vivian wanted to think of her trip to the United States as a grand adventure — of seeing the other side of the world, of going places and doing things she had never done before. She hoped it would be full of exciting discovery. It helped take her mind off the menacing inevitability of facing Philip's family and their judgment.
Philip told her about his family, about Albany, his hometown, and New York City, where he attended engineering school. Vivian wondered what it was like to be among crowds on busy city streets, to see tall buildings pointing at the sky. Motion pictures made New York City look intimidating, with harried people rushing past each other with single-minded purpose. Philip made it sound energetic, full of life, and exciting. The marvels Philip described were beyond Vivian's imagination, and she looked forward to experiencing them. He told her New York City's population numbered in the millions. Guam's population of less than twenty thousand couldn't compare.
"That makes you and your people quite rare, my darling," Philip said as she nestled in his arms on their wedding night.
Cuddled beside him, her head on his shoulder, Vivian thought back to the day in 1939, when she met Philip. She was eighteen. He was twenty-three, a junior lieutenant who had reported to the navy's engineering division, his first duty station, in Agaña. Vivian's father, Constantino "Tino" Flores Camacho, also worked there.
Philip didn't like the spartan quarters allotted to him in the walled headquarters of the US Navy Government of Guam. The wall enclosed the old, Spanish-era Governor's Palace and its associated buildings, which the navy then repaired, modernized, and took up residence. Philip hoped to find better lodging in town. He learned from Ensign Parker W. Reed of the comptroller's office that Tino, the clerk in Philip's office, had a room available nearby.
Vivian and her father lived yards from the navy government compound. After his wife's passing in 1925, Tino put up the three-bedroom top floor of his home for rent. He and Vivian lived on the ground floor. The house's proximity to the compound made it attractive to navy renters. Ensign Reed, their only tenant at the time, was eager to find housemates to share the rent. He introduced Philip to Vivian, who handled the rental transaction.
At six feet three inches, Philip was tall, even among his compatriots. In his crisp white uniform, he towered over Vivian. His polished manner and confident persona didn't surprise her. She expected it and dismissed him as another pompous navy officer, certain of his authority to rule over her people. But oh, he was handsome. Philip had the most beautiful and unusual gray-blue eyes Vivian had ever seen, like polished silver reflecting a blue sky. She wanted to but didn't dare gaze into them, afraid his eyes would not release their hold on hers.
Upon their introduction, the reserved Lieutenant Avery nodded with a half-smile and offered his hand. Vivian reached for it and returned his smile. When their hands clasped, something warm and magical sparked between them. They felt it but didn't acknowledge it, not understanding what it meant.
They closed the deal and Philip moved in upstairs a few days later. He kept to himself and remained distant for a year after he and Vivian met. His work sometimes took him from the house for a day or two at a time, or he worked late. Vivian wouldn't see him for days. They lived in the same house but in different worlds.
Although they had few reasons or occasions to interact, Vivian enjoyed watching Philip whenever she could. She admired the way he carried himself, his self-assured confidence, his handsome face, and his wonderful eyes. He had a college degree, professional credentials, and a career — achievements she respected and wished she had. Vivian soon had a crush on him. But as an American and a naval officer, Philip ranked high above her station.
Vivian made up Cinderella fantasies, pretending the gallant Prince Philip found his true love in her. But she knew her make-believe stories would never become real. Vivian wasn't the beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed scullery maid of the fairy-tale, or a lily-white princess in the movies. Handsome princes didn't fall in love with "gooks."
Vivian never dreamed the sophisticated Mr. Avery would also fall in love with her. And he would fall with a love so deep that a near-fatal accident and the war itself couldn't keep him from fighting his way back to Guam, to find and marry her.
Nestled together on their wedding night, Philip caressed her arm with one hand and gestured in the air with the other as he spoke. Relaxed, unguarded, and even talkative in the bond of marriage, Philip welcomed Vivian into his privacy, sharing his thoughts and ideas and hopes for their future. He talked about the places he wanted to take her to see. Vivian closed her eyes and listened to the music of his voice, trying to imagine the places he talked about.
Vivian looked forward to exploring Philip's hometown and all his favorite haunts, to learn how he became the man she adored. As a civil engineer, Philip had been deep into the jungles, high into the hills, and far into the valleys of Guam — wild places Vivian had never been to or seen. He had lived in her house and worked with her father and her people. Although he didn't speak or understand Chamorro, her native language and culture were not strange to him. Vivian had a good command of American English, but her understanding of American life came only from books, magazines, and motion pictures.
In preparation for her trip, Vivian pored over a world map at her school, searching for Albany, New York. The map divided the Pacific Ocean into two portions bordering the left and right edges, with the continents in the center. Located in the western Pacific, Guam is too small to appear on a world map, but Vivian knew where to find it.
To get from Guam to New York, she would have to go beyond the right edge of the map, navigate the backside, traverse the left portion of the ocean, then cross the width of the North American continent to reach New York on the east coast of the United States. Vivian giggled at the thought; the world wasn't flat. The actual route across the Pacific and the continental US measured eight thousand miles, a terrifying distance.
Vivian sighed. The map's great divide — splitting the ocean in two and placing the pieces at opposite ends — symbolized the divide between Philip and her. She worried also about the many social and political differences between them.
Philip and his family were American citizens with constitutional rights. Vivian and her people were wards of the United States under navy rule. Guam's navy governor decided what rights the Chamorros would exercise.
Preston Avery, Philip's father, built a successful real estate business that survived the Great Depression. He also served three terms in the state senate. Vivian's father worked for many years as a clerk for the navy government but didn't get his job back after the war. Philip's mother, Lydia Porter Avery, came from a prominent Boston family. She grew up in wealth and luxury in high society and was a socialite and community leader in Albany. Vivian's mother, Sylvia de Leon Camacho, was the illegitimate child of an unknown American navy sailor and a teenaged girl who died in childbirth.
Philip's family was wealthy. Vivian assumed they lived in a mansion and Philip grew up in one. Her home burned to ashes in the bombing of Agaña. Now she and her father lived in a surplussed military Quonset hut in Tutujan. Philip moved in with them after the wedding. Vivian learned after their marriage that Philip and his siblings were wealthy on their own. Each had inherited a fortune from their maternal grandfather.
Vivian's parents were not wealthy, nor were they poor. They held coveted navy government jobs, which paid higher than the commercial sector. Sylvia worked as a typist until she gave birth to Vivian. Tino earned a civil engineering degree from a prestigious university in the Philippines, but the navy government, unconvinced of native competence, hired him only as a technical clerk for its engineering division in 1918. By 1941, he was a senior native employee but subordinate to junior lieutenant Philip Avery, the newest and youngest of the division's three officers.
A bright student, Vivian finished high school at sixteen. The navy government recruited her straightaway into its training program to teach in the schools for native children. The children of navy personnel attended their own school, with teachers imported from the States. Vivian completed the program with top honors and felt proud of her training certificate. She loved teaching. She taught the third grade at Leary School in Agaña for three years before the Japanese invasion.
Vivian and her father lived in modest comfort. They saved their salaries and the rental income from their home in Agaña and Tino's parents' house in Sumay. Until a typhoon destroyed the Sumay house, officers of the US Marine Barracks rented it. Tino also owned his lancho, two acres in Tutujan, a farming area inland from Agaña. But the war destroyed everything, leaving them to rely on relief efforts and charity.
How Philip's parents would react to her ethnicity and religion haunted Vivian. She worried about the racial prejudice and discrimination common in the US, and the treatment she would receive. As a devout Roman Catholic, she also worried about practicing her faith in a land suspicious of it. Unknown to her, Philip converted to Catholicism in 1942, while they were apart. She learned of it when he returned in 1945 and wondered whether his parents thought her to blame.
While Philip could trace his ancestry to the United Kingdom, Vivian's origins were not as straightforward. She was Chamorro, but her ancestry was diverse. There was Asian, Malaysian, European, and even New World blood in her veins. The latter from indios and the slaves brought from the Americas by the Spanish to replenish the population. The wars the Spanish waged in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the diseases they introduced almost wiped out the Chamorro people. Vivian also had one clear American relative: her mother's unknown father.
Although Philip proved not to be the elitist Vivian once thought, she feared his family would be as formal and reserved as he had been. The Averys were not common folk. Parker, the other upstairs tenant, once explained Philip's standoffish behavior as typical of east coast American conservatism and exclusivity, especially among the wealthy. Parker came from down-to-earth North Carolina farm folk. Vivian and her father got along well with him.
Vivian knew Philip's family could turn her away. The possibility frightened her, but she hoped. If Philip can fall in love with me, maybe they can too, she tried to convince herself. She put off worrying about the meeting until she got to Albany.
As Vivian settled into her seat on the airplane, Philip leaned over and stole a kiss. With a wink, he reached across her lap to fasten her seat belt. He snickered and tickled her side, his joy palpable. He had survived the war, accomplished what he set out to do, and was going home. Happiness and contentment shone in his face. Vivian smiled at him. He grinned and kissed her again.
But Vivian felt isolated. She hadn't been married to Philip long enough to feel she belonged to him, or he to her, the same safe and secure way she and her father belonged to each other. Papa was her lifelong companion, the closest, most constant presence in her life. He wouldn't be sharing her great American adventure or in any of the wonders she might experience. Worse, he wouldn't be with her to meet Philip's parents, to support her through the awkwardness.
Papa had worked for Americans for many years. He knew their ways, understood their thinking, and dealt with their prejudices. Vivian had only brief and infrequent exchanges with the upstairs tenants. Parker was the one tenant who befriended her. Bernice, who became her best friend after the Japanese invasion, was half American and Vivian's closest association with an American female. But it didn't count because Bernice was more Chamorro than American.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Quonset In Tutujan"
Copyright © 2018 C. Sablan Gault.
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