By Canoe Into My Father’s War

Chief Willie powers our dugout down the Rendova coast as if time matters in the Solomon Islands. The wake from his 25-horse Tohatsu engine ruffles a glassy sea. Its shrieking wail assaults the Sabbath morning.

Without warning, Chief cuts starboard, then slows. The man-made breeze dies and sweat drips from beneath my hat, drenches my shirt. It’s early December.

Bare-chested and hatless, Willie points landward. “Iu lukim desfala riva? Do you see that river?” he asks in Pijin.

Unbroken forest stretches to the sea, hiding the coastline. No markers identify a river: no roads, no houses, no bridges, no silt-laden plume spewing into this pristine bay. I finally locate a crack in the jungle. A river emerges from beneath the dense canopy. “Ies, mi lukim. Yes, I see it.”

“My land ends at the river.”

“Your land?”

“Ughele’s land. Our village land,” he says.

We’ve been cruising at breakneck speed since we left Ughele thirty minutes ago. How far does his land run on the other side of Ughele village?

His answer translated from the Pijin: “Long way, little bit.”

Forty-five minutes later, we zoom through a reef passage into the bay facing isolated Lokuru village. Willie cuts the engine, and our other passenger—Radio—leaps into waist-deep water and drags the canoe onto the beach. Radio’s not a nickname. His father served as lookout to a GI radio operator in World War II. It’s the family’s badge of honor. He’s my age, fifty.

Chief and I step dry-footed onto coral sand so dazzling it seems to singe the extra-heavy tint from my prescription sunglasses.

Lokuru has no resident minister, so Willie, chief of Ughele village, doubles as aide to Pastor, Rendova’s circuit-riding preacher. I’m Willie’s houseguest, back in the Solomons to train a group of new Peace Corps volunteers. This 1991–1992 stay is my second in the Solomons, an 870-mile-long chain of islands northeast of Australia. My wife and I lived here from 1977 to 1980 when we directed the Peace Corps in this part of the South Pacific. I’m alone this trip. My wife’s back in Colorado with our two kids, the younger of whom was born in the Solomons.

We scrub off the salt spray in the village creek. In mid-morning heat, this tepid water seems as cool as a Rocky Mountain stream. Willie leaves to prepare for the service. I linger.

Willie returns in Sabbath uniform: dark pants, long-sleeved white shirt, and tie. He escorts me into the dirt-floored church, and as sweat soaks my walking shorts, Chief Willie delivers his sermon as coolly as if it were an October day in Colorado. In Pijin, spiced with passages in Lokuru, he hammers together relevant point, concise anecdote, Biblical quote, and plank by plank builds his irrefutable message that God’s love holds salvation for every Solomon Islander, and—with a nod toward me—for our visiting white man.

Saturday, the Sabbath in a Seventh-Day Adventist village, isn’t for the faint of heart. We worship from ten until one. Hand-hewn planks serve as backless pews. They offer no comfort.