John Frum America

The night my wife threw me out — told me to leave, and never come back — I drove down to the marina and slept on my boat. The next day, I took the boat out sailed around for a while, before finally anchoring off Dana Point for the night. I spread a sleeping bag out on the foredeck and lay there staring up at the stars and realizing that I actually never had to go back.

I just kept living on the boat, spending as much time as possible out offshore. The boat’s shower had never worked, and eventually my boss made a pointed suggestion that really, the company had a generous policy on remote work which was gloriously suited to the needs of a technical writer, and why didn’t I just go ahead and take advantage of it?

Previously, I’d relied heavily on going around to people’s cubicles and talking to them about the things they built, as a means of information gathering the information I needed; but I soon found that email was just as effective, and I got used to the practice of escalating contacts to people’s managers when they didn’t respond promptly.

I would sail out and set a drift anchor, just letting my little boat float for days on end, writing documentation and firing off emails when I came to something I didn’t know; it was pretty easy to set up my email so that all those outgoing emails stacked up and fired off all at once when I finally came into shore, at the same time collecting all the responses from the last batch while I was getting a beer and a cheeseburger at the marina bar.

I bought a hammock and strung it along the boom; at night I’d take the mainsail down and rig the boom off to port or starboard and sleep the night hanging out over the water.

It was the most productive I’d ever been, and I was only working a couple of hours a day; somehow, reducing the amount of social contact that happened over the course of the day meant that my two-hour workday produced more than eight hours in the office.

One night, about three in the morning, I was woken by the sound of engines. I peeked out of the hammock; a fog had rolled in, and the shape of a big motor boat looming up beside my little sail boat inside the little pocket in the fog just terrified me.

Someone was shouting something, from the other boat, but I couldn’t make it out; it didn’t sound like English, and it wasn’t any Spanish I knew, but I figured if I kept quiet they’d assume the boat was derelict and just take it, and only then find me tucked away in my little pocket hanging from the boom.

“Hello,” I shouted, and went through the ungraceful dismount that was the only real drawback to the hammock.

There was silence from the motor boat, and then a gabble of voices all speaking at once; finally, someone on the big motor boat shouted, “Hello!”

If I was closer to Mexico, I’d be terrified of pirates; as it was, I grabbed the hand held radio and held my thumb close to the “emergency call” button, which would bring the Coast Guard to my location in short order.

Well, in a couple of hours.

I hoped.

“Can I help you?” I tried to pitch my voice right so I wasn’t yelling at them, but so that it carried enough; shrouded in fog, it felt like my voice was muffled by soft white cotton.

The voice which had yelled “Hello,” responded with something that took me a while to interpret as English; the accent was so thick that it took several tries to penetrate it. He realized that they’d probably been speaking English all along.

“We come from Vanuatu,” the man was saying, “And we’re looking for food, and the City of Angels.”

I shrugged, then realized the man couldn’t see it. “I can give you some cans,” I said, “But Los Angeles is right over there.” He pointed toward shore, where normally there would be a glow on the horizon, but tonight the fog wrapped them up tight and blinded them.

A small man dropped nimbly onto the deck of his boat. “The cans we would be grateful for,” the man said. “We have sailed for months, and we have run out of food, even in the big ships.”

The man gestured, and it became clear that the shadows looming out of the night were not just tricks of the fog: At least two big ships, rusty looking cargo vessels, were occasionally visible through the whiteness.

“John Frum,” said the man, “He told our Chief Frederick, go to the City of Angels, all of you, and get all the cargo you could ask for.”

On the big ships, the rows of faces lining the rails were just visible in the fog.

Six months later, walking on Venice Beach, I ran into the guy that’d boarded my boat that night. He was squatting beside the Boardwalk in a way that was distinctly not American, looking like he’d literally just swum ashore from somewhere across the Pacific — which, I knew, was more or less literally the case; he was wearing a loin cloth and body paint.

He honestly didn’t stand out all that hard, on the Boardwalk.

I stopped in front of him and he waved his cup at me, and swayed back and forth; he bobbed his head at someone else who walked past. He seemed like a Disney vision of “Jungle Savage,” just sitting there, watching people roller skate past.

“Hey,” I said. “You boarded my boat, like six months ago.”

He stood up and leaned forward, peering at my face as though he was nearsighted — which, I realized, he might in fact be. After a second, a big grin spread across his face.

“Hey!” He reached out and chucked me on the arm in a gesture that was both distinctly American — I think I might have seen the same gesture on Happy days — and distinctly foreign, in the context.

“How are you doing?” I looked around, like hundreds of other Vanuatu tribespeople might be hiding nearby. “Where is everybody else?”

“I’m doing good!” He reached into his loincloth and grabbed a handful of dollars. “Money comes easy here,” he said, “And there’s so much, and so many people…” He looked around and grinned.

I smiled and nodded back.

“Where are the rest of your…” I didn’t even know what to call them. A tribe? A cult? “Your people, from the ships.”

“Oh,” he said, “We sold the ships, and we bought a… “ he looked like he was carefully arranging his mouth in preparation for unfamiliar sounds. “Garden Apartments,” he said, carefully. “We bought a Garden Apartments. In El Segundo.”

He said “Garden Apartments” and “El Segundo” with no accent whatsoever; or rather, I should say he said it in a pretty good approximation of an Angeleno accent.

Then we stood and stared at each other for a while; he was grinning with the happiness of having met another person, I was basically reliving the experience of standing on the deck of my boat watching a primitive island tribe invade through the fog.

I had a lot of questions, not least about the legalities of it all. Nobody I met that night had seemed to have a grasp of the idea that you had to fill out forms to do things like cross borders or emigrate.

He suddenly seemed to realize that there were still niceties that hadn’t been observed: He stuck his hand out — stepping back a bit to make room — and I automatically grabbed it and shook.

“My name is Caleb,” he said. “You must come with me, to the Garden Apartments. We will have dinner, and you can meet everyone!”

I shrugged, helplessly. There was a time, not that long ago, when I’d have regarded that kind of invitation as a Threatening Situation, where I might have worried about the social obligation of it all or just imagined that I might lose my personal autonomy to be bored by my self for the evening or something, and found an excuse to beg off.

But recently my wife had left me, and I’d moved onto my boat, and a tribe of Vanuatu cargo cultists had come out of the fog and shown me that life had more to offer me if it wasn’t so predictable.

“Sure,” I said. “That would be amazing, thank you.”

Caleb had a dirt bike. It was a badly beat-up two-stroke thing with no license plates that was almost certainly not street legal; he had a helmet, though, and an extra one, strapped to the back of the bike. I put the helmet on — it was one of the skull-cap kind, the ones that don’t actually protect you from anything except tickets — so the fact that it didn’t fit at all was not the most worrying thing about it; then I got on the back of Caleb’s motorcycle and we went to the Garden Apartments.

The ride itself was harrowing — I had been to the third world, to places in Asia and Central America where orderly American ideas about how driving should work are not widely held — so I at least recognized that Caleb was not just being a maniac. He laughed, I swear, the entire trip, enjoying every second. It was hard not to smile.

The Vanuatuans’ Garden Apartment had a control tower.

The Garden Apartments itself was pure Los Angeles: three stories of seventies plebio-futurist architecture wrapped around a big open space that had at some point been converted into a parking lot and then converted back to a garden space, leaving a lot of parking-lot ambiance behind. The whole place looked like it had been squatted in by surfers for years.

The control tower had obviously been made by the Vanuatuans in the last little while; it was made of what looked like shipping pallets and cut up shopping carts. For all that the building materials were recognizable, though, it was a wonderful structure, whimsical and unexpected; it had a spiral staircase leading up from the roof of the Garden Apartments to the Tower, which had the outward-sloping walls that said Control Tower. There was someone manning it, wearing what looked like a big gaming headset.

I was still staring up at it when Caleb was greeted by people in the large courtyard. There seemed to be a barbecue in progress, and a lot of people were milling about the courtyard in some sort of uniform.

Caleb introduced me around; I think I shook a hundred hands, men, women, and children; and then a bugle call sounded, and all the guys who seemed to be wearing uniform began to scramble into formation and everybody else scrambled out of their way. Even the big half-an-oil-drum barbecue was pulled to one side as all the young men lined up.

Someone up on the control tower called a command, and then someone else on the ground called another command, and all the young uniformed men formed two lines, facing one another. Three men, bare chested but for a complicated double cross painted on their chests, came walking out of one of the Garden Apartments, one in front and the other two flanking.

They three of them made their way to the three flag poles that had been erected in the courtyard, just in front of the control tower; one at a time, they lowered the flags — their own blue flag, center and tallest; the American flag, to one side of it; and what looked like the Swiss flag, red with a white cross, to the other side.

Everybody stood silently — the young men in uniform at some semblance of attention, and everyone else at least quietly and reverently — while the three men took down each flag, one at a time, folded them into the classic triangle shape, and then marched back the way they’d come.

The trumpeter blew something that wasn’t taps, but might have started out as taps; and then the barbecue party was back on.

I was grinning around the courtyard. Someone gave me a glass of something fruity that came out of another barrel; it occurred to me to ask someone about the procedures they’d used to clean the barrels or whether they’d just found them beside the road, emptied them somewhere, and begun using them, but I decided not to ask.

There was some sort of commotion near the front of the courtyard; I heard an American voice yelling angrily, so I went over there to see if I could help.

A large man in working blues — dark blue pants and a light blue button-down work shirt with the name ‘Williams’ over the pocket — was engaged in an argument with nobody in particular; or possibly with the entire crowd of Vanuatuans; I wasn’t sure.

“I told you about the fucking trumpet,” he was saying. “My wife works nights, she’s got two more hours to sleep and you bastards are playing a fucking trumpet. You knock it the fuck off, or I’m calling the fucking cops.”

I stepped forward, hand out, and introduced myself; and I talked to the man, and spent a little bit of time listening to his problem, and explained the ceremony: That the John Frum cult had originated with the influence World War Two American soldiers on the Vanuatuans, and that the flag ceremony was a religious thing, and probably not something he could do anything about… it was, if I do say so myself, a masterpiece of fast talking.

Mister Williams calmed down and eventually left, promising to return soon to witness the ceremony itself, and then the barbecue party started again; but in Mister Williams’ wake, I couldn’t see the Vanuatuans as quaint, island people settling into the diverse stewpot of Los Angeles; I was seeing them as incredibly, dangerously poor and unable to interact with the modern world.

I decided to do something drastic: I would call my wife.

Cheryl, my wife — my soon-to-be-ex wife — was a social worker. Or rather, she was an upper-middle-manager somewhere in the misty heights of the bureaucracy, high above the heads of people who worked with actual poor people; nevertheless, I was sure she would know what to do about the Vanuatuans.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t trying to get their children taken or have them declared incompetent or put on a reservation or whatever; but given that they were in conflict with their neighbors and spare-changing on the Venice boardwalk, eventually they were going to have a run-in with social services; I figured a controlled encounter with a friendly superior might be the best chance they had.

I met her on the street in front of the Garden Apartments at seven in the morning. The Vanuatuans had been up and active for hours already; dawn had been at 5:16am, and there’d been a coincident flag ceremony, the entire crew of young men lined up and the folded flags marched out and put up their poles.

There’d been a chorus of the Vanuatan version of revile, on the trumpet, to the audible chagrin of the neighbors in surrounding buildings.

Cheryl stood at the curb and stared up at the control tower and the three flags fluttering on their makeshift poles.

“It’s a cargo cult,” I said.

“A what?” Cheryl was far more versed than I in the working details of the various ethnic groups that made up Los Angeles County; she was culturally fluent in most of the Central American, Korean, Indian, Chinese, and other groups that made their homes here, but she was never one for random Anthropology for fun.

“A cargo cult,” I said. “In Vanuatu, there are several of them; they have a messianic figure, John Frum or John From, who is supposed to return and bring Cargo, treasure. They dress as American servicemen and build mock airfields to convince planes to land and bring more cargo.” I waved up at the flags. “You missed the flag ceremony, there are uniforms.”

“What are they doing in Los Angeles?” Cheryl was still staring up at the control tower; she turned to look at me. “And how did you end up involved?”

I told the story of how I’d met them, in the night, far off the coast, and how I’d met Caleb again over on Venice beach, and explained my reasoning for having called her. She nodded along, but after a while I got the idea that she was watching me more than she was listening to what I was saying.

“Getting involved is not like you,” she said.

Our relationship had always been strange; she was someone who throve on people, on talking to people, interacting with people, solving people’s problems. I was never that person: I throve on reading and writing and more or less being curled up in a hammock.

The fights about her need for me to get out of the house had led to my buying the boat, but it turned out that going out on the water alone was not what she had in mind. Her insistence that I have other friends was what led to our fight — all of our fights — and eventually to the last one, which led to my being alone and asleep in the fog.

I shrugged, uncomfortable.

“Anyway,” I said, “I thought if you met them, you could at least give them some idea what was going to happen, what they need to do…”

She looked at me again, and then nodded.

Caleb had seen us hanging around out front, and come out to say hello.

“You must meet Chief Frederick,” said Caleb. He had taken Cheryl’s hand when I introduced them, and then hadn’t let it go, instead gently tugging on it in a sort of tour-guide gesture that should have been creepy but somehow wasn’t.

We met Chief Frederick. He was a big smiling man who had the kind of optimistically forceful personality that could convince people to cross oceans.

Cheryl launched into what was clearly a well-traveled set of questions about the community and its constituent membership that started with why they’d come to Los Angeles and more or less lasted for two days.

“And when you’re done, you’re going to need to go back to the DMV and show them the signed form, so they’ll know that the motorcycle is real.”

“But I will ride the motorcycle to the DMV.”

“I understand, but the form is to make sure that the DMV and the CHP both agree that the motorcycle is the same motorcycle that you are registering.”

Caleb was still struggling with the idea that he might be somehow riding a fake motorcycle.

“People have, in the past, performed complicated tricks, where they register one motorcycle as another one, mostly in order to hide the fact that it was stolen.”

Comprehension dawned on Caleb’s face. “I see,” he said. Then his face darkened again. “But what if it was stolen, what if the man I bought it from had stolen it?”

Cheryl was nodding. “In that case…”

Twenty minutes later, we left Caleb with a detailed set of written instructions. Cheryl’s encyclopedic knowledge of how the various city, state and county agencies worked, combined with my ability to make a good, coherent checklist — which is, when it comes right down to it, what technical writing is — meant that we’d been able to walk everybody in the building through all the things they needed to do in order to stay out of trouble with the authorities, get their kids into school, acquire residency and and entitlements…

It turned out that a missionary in Vanuatu had done a great deal of legwork in making sure that they were legal, before they’d gotten onto their boats, so it wasn’t as big a problem as I was afraid it would be, but there was still a daunting amount of stuff to be done.

Somehow, I’d agreed to go back regularly and make sure it was getting done, along with someone Cheryl would send from Social Services; so I was going to have a reason to hang around here for at least a couple of months.

“I’m proud of you, John,” said Cheryl. “I did not expect you… I mean, you’re not normally one to get involved like this, with other people.”

“I’m not sure I got involved with them,” I said, “I think they got involved in me.” By almost running me over in the fog, I didn’t say.


The sun was setting over the Pacific; the Garden Apartments was close enough to the beach that the Control Tower had a lovely view of the sunset, every night. I considered asking her if she wanted to go up and watch the sunset, but then her stomach growled, and I said, “You know, there’s a pretty good taqueria around the corner.”

“I don’t feel like tacos,” she said.

“Well, what then?” The nightly barbecue was getting underway, in the courtyard; soon the weird South Pacific taps would ring out, the angry cries of aggrieved Angeleno neighbors in refrain, and then there’d be pork and chicken.

“Not barbecue either.” She looked around; “Not every night,” was clearly engraved on her features.

I shrugged. “Okay,” I said, “Let’s just walk until we find something.”

And she looked at me in a way I hadn’t seen in a long time: affectionately.

“Okay,” she said, and she took my arm and we walked away into the sunset, looking for something that wasn’t tacos or barbecue or sushi or…

And we found it, eventually, because this is America and there’s so much, and so many people.

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