First Word / Last Word

    Peace Corps prepared me for my South Pacific assignment in Samoa with six weeks of language training in Carbondale, Illinois. I learned two things in the classes:
1. Don't get in the low language group during the NEXT six week training in Western Samoa.
2. Don't get TITO!
    This message meant a variety of things, not all of which I understood. One thing I did deduce. My group was destined for Polynesian Western Samoa, hundreds of miles south west of Hawaii, shades of Margaret Mead and Robert Louis Stevenson. Another element of the message I deduced (and didn't like.) I had six MORE weeks of training "IN" Western Samoa. The part about the low language group made sense. But, The TITO reference evaded me.
    Weeks later in Western Samoa, a few more facts wormed their way into my thick cranium. There were three linguistic groups - high ability, medium ability, and the low group...the morons, the group. And at long last I knew what a TITO was. TITO was not a what. He was a who. The biggest, most solid who I had ever laid eyes on. That is noteworthy comment about Samoans.
    Samoans, as we learned in training, are the largest people in the world. A few people here and there on the planet are taller (the Tutsi of Rwanda for one), but none out-weigh Samoans. And TITO, my TITO, was the biggest on the nine islands. TITO, it turned out was the language instructor for the linguistically challenged group.
    Most Samoans are carefree. Legends claimed Samoans were so imbued with joy they taught the birds to sing. Polynesian myth alleged the ancient Samoans radiated an ebullience so bright it made the stars shine in the celestial heavens. Mirth itself resided under the very breastbone of all Samoans, save one -TITO.
    TITO was one cold cup of water. He didn't say much and when he did it was delivered in a powerful grunt. My language group and probably most of the country was terrified of him. When he said recite, we recited. We didn't understand a mangled word, but we smiled and sang back at him.
    Our TITO-led lessons were conducted in thatched huts a stone's throw from the tempting white sand beaches. When lessons were completed in other groups, that group waded out in the light-blue sun heated ocean splashing around for a break. There, within our sight, the freed volunteers tormented the slow group.
    And on this day, the norm played itself out in the usual fashion. The morons weren't doing too well. My group sat in a row and TITO strode before us. "What is this?" he asked in Samoan. "What is that?" and each time we blew it. Intimidation and fear choked what might have been an appropriate answer.
    TITO stood before me. "Paul, what is this?" he demanded in Samoan of some object.
    "I don't know," I whispered in English, making not one but two errors. The first, not to know and the second to speak English-the greatest of all faux pas.
    TITO stiffened, and raised an opened hand before my face as if to slap me. The volunteers on either of my sides sucked in their breaths. The volunteers behind us gasped. One anonymous voice declared,
    "TITO'S gonna' kill Paul."
    I closed my eyes and expected life to be smashed from my body.
    "Don't move!" TITO ordered. I did not move, but I opened one eye. TITO slowly moved his hand closer to my face and gently poked me on the cheek. A sigh of relief came from the group and my sphincter eased up.
    "Paul, what is this?" TITO demanded in Samoan.
    On the tip of his finger, a small spot of blood and the remains of a once living winged-creature lay pulverized. The wheels in my brain turned and I did a mental search. "NAMU! NAMU!" I blurted.
    The group clapped and TITO smiled. Some said it was the first smile to have ever graced his massive face. He touched me in a fatherly way on the shoulders and said "Good" in English. Fifty years from now I may be drooling in my own oatmeal. I won't know my home address, and I won't be able to buckle my own pants. But I will always remember how to say mosquito in Samoan.




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