On the kindness of strangers

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(380 words)

A short story, to begin 2021:

The Marshall Islanders like to tell stories about their ancient prowess as warriors. Upon the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century if any ships ran aground the crew was killed and the cargo taken. But in 1883 the Rainier, an American merchant vessel bound for Japan, struck the reef at Ujae Atoll, breaching the hull and forcing them to abandon ship. The daughter of the captain, newly wed to the first mate, was bound with ropes into a large armchair by the crew, hoisted over the side in a heaving sea, and planted with much fanfare into a lifeboat. The sailors offered to blindfold her, fearing the worst as they were about to be overrun by brutal savages. But instead she bravely insisted that she wanted to see what the islanders were going to do to her, telling the sailors: “I am not afraid.” She was rowed to shore wrapped in an American flag.

In the end all aboard the Rainier were given shelter. As the Ujae Islanders tell it now, in stories and songs carried down through the generations, and celebrated in an annual festival, the story of the wreck of the Rainier has become like a fairy tale, all because the ruler in Ujae at the time was a kind man. The Americans were all taken in and given shelter, no small sacrifice given the limited food and fresh water available to the several hundred islanders. In their telling of the story, they welcomed those in danger, the refugees, who in turn shared their shipboard provisions with them. The islanders provided shelter to the castaways over many months until a rescue ship arrived. 

The Marshallese tale ends with a modern coda: during World War II an American naval vessel arrived, and then a landing craft rode up the beach and an officer stepped off, thereby closing the loop of human kindness across the generations, keeping faith with a parallel narrative tradition, passed down from parent to child on the far side of the planet. An American family story. The naval officer wanted to thank the people of Ujae for saving his ancestors, without whom he would never have been born.

And then the crew and the islanders celebrated with a party and played baseball.

Photo: Majuro Atoll, by author.

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