The unique life of The Blade’s voice in Europe; For nearly 40 years, Fernand Auberjonois brought the world to Toledo

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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BANDON, IRELAND — When Fernand Auberjonois does his daily shopping around the narrow little streets of this Irish town, he gets a polite nod and a “yes, sir” from the girls who work in the shops.

It’s to be expected: He’s 89, and at that advanced age, he combines the grace and bearing of a duke with the easy smile and rumbling chuckle of a favorite uncle.

But the shopkeepers probably don’t know the real reasons he deserves their respect.

They probably don’t know that the nice old man who lives in the cottage down by Enniskeane helped plan the Normandy invasion in World War II or that he was targeted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the redbaiting 1950s.

They don’t know that he helped start what would evolve into the Voice of America or that he is one of the best-selling authors in Switzerland.

And they almost certainly don’t know that, for nearly four decades, he brought the world to the people of Toledo.

For nearly four decades, Mr. Auberjonois was The Blade’s European correspondent, traveling hundreds of thousands of miles to write about the news of the world.

But his time with The Blade was just one part of a unique life that put him in touch with some of the biggest names and events of the century.

Today, most Americans who know the Auberjonois name associate it with his son, Rene, a noted actor famous for his roles on Benson and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But to colleagues in London, it can only mean Fernand, one of the most respected American journalists Britain has seen.

The man himself would blush at that. Exceedingly modest, he claims that his life is not worth examination and that his successes have been the result of decades worth of lucky breaks. But his modesty cannot hide one of the 20th century’s most remarkable lives. He saw the century up close, with dignity and style.

“With Fernand, you would have thought he was the New York Times bureau chief, because he knew everybody, he was respected by everybody, and he was liked by everybody,” said William Tuohy, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his reporting in Vietnam who became the Los Angeles Times’s London correspondent in 1977. “He kind of represented journalism at its best as a foreign correspondent.”


Fernand Auberjonois was born outside Lausanne, Switzerland, Sept. 25, 1910, into a home that valued creativity. His father was Rene Auberjonois, remembered to this day as one of Switzerland’s greatest men. He was mostly renowned as an Impressionist painter, but he collaborated with Igor Stravinsky on “A Soldier’s Tale” and translated James Joyce into French as a hobby well into his 70s.

With artists, poets, and writers as regular guests at the dinner table, it was natural that young Fernand would move into writing.

His father was a close friend of one of Switzerland’s greatest writers, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, and one day Fernand asked him how one wrote. “First, you write what you see and what you know,” came the answer. “Then you write what you imagine.” He was convinced that he would be a writer.

But the elder Mr. Auberjonois had been convinced by a paleontologist friend that young Fernand should be trained as a geologist. Father won the battle. “I was not consulted,” young Fernand said. But the only jobs offered after his schooling were in Soviet Russia and the Belgian Congo, and neither appealed. He dreamt of a life elsewhere.

“The dream of any young man was to go to America,” he said. “I felt very constricted and surrounded by other nations in Switzerland.” Hitler was on the rise, and Fernand knew the time was right to cross the Atlantic.

He needed an invitation from an American, so he pretended to be engaged to a young woman from St. Louis who had been attending finishing school in Switzerland. He sold his motorcycle to buy a one-way ticket and in August, 1933, set off for the New World, dreaming of adventure.


On the ship, a slow German steamer, he met German-Americans who had traveled to their homeland and were shocked by the rise of hate they had seen. “It made me feel like I truly wanted a new continent.”

It was the beginning of the strong but sometimes tortured bond between Mr. Auberjonois and America. The ideal of America was irresistible to him: the openness, the freedom, the possibilities for starting over. But throughout his life, America’s reality, from McCarthyism to the Vietnam War, often disgusted him.

His father had promised to help Fernand make his way for a year and sent small monthly checks for that time. But, just as he’d promised, they stopped in 1934, and Fernand, without a work permit, started taking small, illegal jobs.

Today, he remembers his first few years in New York fondly, a time full of exciting uncertainty. One of his first jobs was tutoring French. For several months, one of his clients, twice a week, was a young woman just getting started in the movie business who needed to learn some French for a movie rendition of Joan of Arc. Her name: Katharine Hepburn. (Decades later, his son, Rene, would win a Tony for his work in Broadway’s Coco, appearing opposite Miss Hepburn.)

Fernand even had a chance to use his science skills when he performed a series of experiments for Leon Theremin, the Russian scientist who had invented the theremin, the world’s first electronic musical instrument, which since has become a staple of quite a few rock bands. For weeks he sat alone in a rented room with the thing, trying to discover how it worked.

He fell in love with New York: its bustle, its ethnic villages, its sense of growth and excitement. With his charm and elegance, he managed to make friends with some of the city’s most talented and powerful.

Partly because of his father’s credentials, Mr. Auberjonois was accepted into the artistic world of 1930s New York, where, he said, “one just met people in those days.” He became close to John Dos Passos, the novelist, and translated some of his short stories into French. He got to know Walker Evans, the photographer, sometimes borrowing his car to get around. For a time he worked as secretary to Ernest Ansermet, the great Swiss conductor.


But he still wanted to be a writer, and while he had free-lanced several pieces for Swiss magazines, it wasn’t until he ran into a Frenchman in a restaurant that journalism became his full-time job. The Frenchman was an editor at Havas, the French wire service now known as Agence France-Presse, and Mr. Auberjonois told him he was interested in writing. (“Actually,” he admits, “I was interested in anything: gravedigger, whatever.”)

The editor hired him at $45 a week, mostly to interview such cultural figures as Stravinsky and to work the overnight shift at Havas’s headquarters on Park Avenue. But no matter the hours, the job got his journalism career going, and when the young National Broadcasting Company was looking for someone who spoke French for a new project in 1937, he was ready.

With Hitler firmly in control in Germany, Europe was being flooded with Nazi propaganda on radio stations across the continent. With encouragement from Washington, NBC decided to begin its first regular transatlantic broadcast: a twice-daily shortwave broadcast to the French. Mr. Auberjonois had no radio experience, but NBC decided he had the skills to host L’Heure Francaise.

So he began hosting the show, which became quite a hit in France. It was mostly music, but the sound of a French voice coming from so far away was heartening to many. The broadcasts became even more important after France fell to the Nazis in June, 1940; for many, they were a solitary lifeline to the free West.

During every broadcast, he asked the French to send letters if they could hear his words, and he was swamped with mail.

NBC decided to publish one such set of letters from an anonymous female listener, describing life under German rule.

“We … anxiously await your daily program from America,” the woman wrote. “And when I say we, I mean the millions of Frenchmen who listen to your broadcasts and are at last able to relax – and breathe freely!

“Each evening, your voice (friendly and so familiar that one almost knows when you are tired or happy) brings us the authentic news which we crave, and honest words which comfort us, make us stand up straighter, and raise our hopes. I can find no words to say how much good you do us…. You seem to know much better than we what is going on here: What we think, hope, suffer, and hide.”

The collection was called “France Speaks to America,” and it somehow found its way into the hands of Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the future founder of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of what would become the Central Intelligence Agency.

General Donovan met with Mr. Auberjonois and asked him to join the fight against Germany by joining the Military Intelligence Service.


Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Mr. Auberjonois became a naturalized American citizen so he could join the Army. (He was naturalized alongside two convicted criminals and mistakenly got a stern lecture from the judge performing the ceremony about the evils of drugs.)

His first job was to head for the northern shore of Lake Ontario, where he enrolled in the top-secret Camp X, the British intelligence service’s camp to train Americans to become, in his words, “skilled, professional terrorists.” He learned how to blow up railroad tracks, spy on government agencies, and communicate in codes. To complete the course, he had to write a paper on “how I would set up a resistance network in a given country under enemy occupation.”

He was one of the school’s first graduates; the camp also taught a young Ian Fleming the spycraft he would later put to use in his James Bond novels.

Shortly thereafter he set out on the battleship USS Texas, which had been equipped with a small radio studio. His job was to broadcast clandestine messages on the frequencies of French radio stations. When American forces landed in French Algeria, he said, “I was telling the French, ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!'”

His work brought him appointment as one of Gen. George Patton’s four top aides. After the North Africa landing, he was ordered to go to the offices of Radio Maroc, a pro-German radio station in Rabat, Morocco, and seize it. So, soon enough, radio listeners in North Africa were hearing the mellifluous voice of Fernand Auberjonois.

Once North Africa was safe – he also set up Allied radio operations in Algeria and Tunisia – he was shipped to England to help prepare for the Normandy landing.

History buffs know the Germans were surprised on D-Day because their intelligence had led them to believe the landing would come at Calais, the closest point to England. That’s partly due to Mr. Auberjonois, who worked on a vast effort to convince the Germans that Calais was where the action would be.

He had to prepare “secret” documents detailing the Allied plans for a Calais invasion, then allow them to “accidentally” reach the enemy. He had loud fake conversations with fellow agents in bars where he knew German agents spent their time, saying things like, “Oh, it’ll be wonderful to see Calais again! In just a few short weeks!” He spread rumors to those he knew had become double agents for the Germans.

Throughout his life, Mr. Auberjonois has been noted for his European charm; it certainly came in handy in moments like these.

It was a dangerous operation, but the work of men like him eventually convinced the Germans to concentrate their forces around Calais. Mr. Auberjonois jokes about his role now – “It was just a big gossip operation” – but it played a significant part in the Allies’ successful landing and eventual victory.

Two days after D-Day he too landed on Normandy and was put in charge of interrogating prisoners. As American forces pushed inland, he was asked to inform the newly free French of what was happening, but there was no newsprint, electricity, or staff. He somehow put together the resources, in only two days to publish La Presse Cherbourgeoise, the first free newspaper of liberated France.


Barely two months later he was in Paris, setting up headquarters for the western press that was reaching the city. The building with which he was given to work was a former brothel, so he had to explain the mirrors on the ceilings to men such as Ernest Hemingway and A.J. Liebling.

“I always say that the only part of Paris I liberated was the bar at the Ritz Hotel,” he said. “The champagne was free, but they took American dollars for anything else you wanted.”

After Paris he joined the First French Army at the German front. One day, in the final winter of the war, he found himself not far from the Swiss border. He called ahead to his father and secured a day pass to return to Switzerland to see him for the first time since a brief return to Switzerland in 1936.

“It had been a rather nasty winter on that front,” he said, “and I didn’t look particularly healthy.” Wearing a large raincoat to cover his U.S. Army uniform, he met his father near the border, in the small town of Boncour: the old world meeting the new.

“My father was not a very emotional man,” he said. “This is one of the reasons I immigrated. But on that occasion, I think he was quite moved. It was quite unique for me. I had never seen him in an emotional state.”

He crossed the border, where his father embraced him. “We went into each other’s arms.”

For his actions during the war, Mr. Auberjonois was awarded the U.S. Legion of Merit, France’s Croix de Guerre with four citations, and Poland’s Polonia Restituta. In 1982, the French government made him a chevalier of the Legion of Honor, an honor similar to British knighthood. He also achieved the rank of major in the U.S. Army.

Shortly after the war, a friend at Time-Life asked Mr. Auberjonois to test a theory, “to go back to Europe and do a survey on whether one could launch an English-language magazine in Paris and whether it would sell on the continent.”

At the time European English readers outside England had few options. “I did the research, and I came back saying that I doubted very much that you could make it work at all. They also asked me to do a survey on whether Reader’s Digest would be popular if translated into different languages, and I said it was impossible.

“On all accounts, I was totally wrong,” he laughed.

Even so, the bosses at Time-Life hired Mr. Auberjonois to be publishing director of new editions of Time and Life for Europe. His name was on the title page every week for the 18 months he kept the job. “I had a beautiful office on Place de la Concorde,” he said. “I had the best view in Paris.”

Although he had spent most of his life abroad, Mr. Auberjonois considered himself an American, and he wanted his children to be raised as Americans. So he moved back to the New York area, living in a variety of small towns surrounding the city. In 1950, he wrote a French-language book entitled Mon Village, U.S.A. about life in small-town America.


He went back to work for NBC until its French service was subsumed by the newly founded Voice of America. It wasn’t long before the specter of Sen. Joseph McCarthy loomed over the VOA.

It was a natural target of the Wisconsin Republican and his constant hunt for communists in the State Department. It had a number of employees born overseas, recruited for their language skills, and they were in the business of American propaganda.

“If you were foreign-born and had an accent, you were a target,” said Robert Bauer, 89, a member of the VOA’s German desk at the time and a target of Senator McCarthy. “They picked out a few of us and said we were broadcasting pro-communist programs. They never found anything on any of us.”

On Feb. 28, 1953, Mr. Auberjonois was called to testify before the senator’s subcommittee in executive session. He, like others at the VOA, had been accused of refusing to broadcast anti-communist material. In addition, he had been on the French desk when it broadcast a review of Witness, a book by Whittaker Chambers, a former communist agent. The woman who had written the review later claimed she was fired because her review was too anti-communist for her left-leaning bosses.

Mr. Auberjonois was grilled by Roy Cohn, the senator’s famous assistant, who went on to a career as one of America’s least-admired men: a Machiavellian communist-hunting lawyer who was both homophobic and anti-Semitic, despite being both gay and Jewish.

In the end no subversion was ever found at the Voice of America. But like many of his fellow VOA employees, Mr. Auberjonois left government service in disgust at the witch-hunt. He had defended his adoptive country in war, and now his allegiance was being questioned by men out to ruin careers.

“Everyone figured that it was a good time to be out of government service and to do something else for a while,” he said.

He and a group of fellow State Department employees then co-founded what would become a unit of Hill & Knowlton International, the New York public-relations firm. He handled press relations for the Suez Canal shortly before the crisis at the canal in 1956.

Then one day the phone rang.

“I got a telephone call from a gentleman from Toledo, Ohio,” he remembered, “who said, ‘Mr. Block would like to have lunch with you.'”


It was Paul Block, Jr., The Blade’s co-publisher. Mr. Block was looking for someone to be the paper’s foreign correspondent. Since 1953 the paper had put one of its reporters, Blair Bolles, in Paris to watch European affairs. But Mr. Block wanted a new face in Europe, and he was scouring the globe to find one.

“I asked him, ‘Who on earth told you that I existed?'” Mr. Auberjonois said. “He said, ‘Oh, I met a good friend of yours in Geneva one day, and he said that if you’re looking for a correspondent, ask Fernand Auberjonois – he might be interested.”

Mr. Block asked Mr. Auberjonois to go with some of the paper’s reporters to the Democratic National Convention to see if he liked what he saw. After the convention he visited Toledo and was impressed with the paper and the city.

“I was so well received in Toledo,” he said. “I thought it was such a friendly place, and I decided that to represent one city in the Middle West was much more interesting to me than to be part of a large organization.”

After the trauma of McCarthyism, it seemed like a good time to leave America for a while. He told Mr. Block he’d be happy to take the job.

“From then on, I represented the Toledo Blade in Europe,” he said. “And everyone thought I was working for a paper in Spain.”

Mr. Auberjonois took over an office on the second floor in the London headquarters of Reuters, the wire service. His office was right next door to the Baltimore Sun’s and not far from the Chicago Tribune’s.

Mr. Block, a great Francophile, had wanted the Blade bureau to remain in Paris, in part, Mr. Auberjonois said, because “whenever he had reason to come visit me in the bureau, it would be in Paris, which would be for him very pleasant.”

But Mr. Auberjonois insisted on London, because he knew the stories that would have come out of Paris would have been less interesting to Toledo readers than those from London. “In Paris I would have gone native,” he said. “I would have become fascinated by French politics, which is far too complex and detailed for the [American] audience to be terribly interested in.”

It was highly unusual for a medium-size paper like The Blade to have a foreign correspondent in either city. Throughout most of Mr. Auberjonois’s time abroad, only six other American cities had newspapers with full-time reporters overseas: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, Baltimore, and Boston.

“I was quite amazed to see the Toledo Blade in London,” said Dave Mason, 77, the former London bureau chief of the Associated Press. “It was highly unusual for a paper that size.”

Clearly Mr. Auberjonois was ideal for the job: He was a published writer in French and English and spoke German, Spanish, and Italian. But The Blade’s editors decided something had to be done about that name.

They feared “Auberjonois” would be too difficult for Americans to pronounce. So they took the first letter of his first name and the first five of his last to create “Fauber,” and he became known as Fernand Fauber, a name he disdains to this day.

(When in 1966 he finally convinced editors to give him back his given name, Mr. Auberjonois wrote a mock obituary for Mr. Fauber. “He was just an alias, and living with an alias is even more irritating than living with oneself,” he wrote. “An alias is like a roommate who steals your socks, one by one. The damage isn’t noticed until late in the term. Now it is late in the term.”)

By any byline, Mr. Auberjonois certainly had lots of news to cover. In the aftermath of World War II, western Europe was busy rebuilding itself and figuring out its proper place in a world that was suddenly divided in two.

He covered some of the most important events of the last 50 years. He was in Berlin on the day the wall dividing east and west went up and was nearby when President Kennedy famously said, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” He covered nearly every major political gathering from NATO meetings to superpower summits.


And he saw humans at their worst – in war. As he wrote in 1985: “I have seen quite a number of people killed, innocent and otherwise. I have heard the loud bang of plastic bombs. I don’t think violence makes very good writing. There is a certain monotony about killing.”

In one year, 1960, he traveled more than 50,000 miles, including a six-week trip to India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan for a series called “Behind the Bamboo Curtain.”

The job of a foreign correspondent is as broad as they come; one day he might cover a superpower summit, the next a fashion show. And over the years Mr. Auberjonois covered them all, but he did find a few areas of specialization.

One was western European politics. For those looking back at the history of the Cold War, it’s easy to picture Europe neatly divided at the Berlin Wall, American allies on one side, Soviet on the other. In fact, it wasn’t that neat. Socialist governments ran several western nations, and the Communist Party was a very real power in France and Italy. At times, many western Europeans considered the United States as big a threat to international security as the Soviet Union.

Mr. Auberjonois was keenly interested in British (and, to a lesser extent, French) politics and wrote often about the machinations of political parties and personalities. He developed an excellent network of sources that kept him apprised of what was going on.

During his time in London, British governments had an on-and-off tradition of holding a weekly off-the-record briefing for all American correspondents. Next to their own British press, UK officials considered the American press the most important in the world, and the weekly briefing was a symbol of that consideration.

During the 11 years Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, the man who led those briefings was Sir Bernard Ingham, Lady Thatcher’s press secretary.

“Those briefings were some of the most enjoyable things I did,” said Sir Bernard, whose son is a Bowling Green State University graduate.

“My professional relationship with Fernand turned into a personal friendship. Our briefings were a private debating society.”

Having been in London since 1956, Mr. Auberjonois was now the dean of the American press corps in London, and that informal position had its privileges.

At the briefings, Sir Bernard would usually sit in a chair next to his office’s nonfunctioning fireplace. By common consent, Mr. Tuohy said, Mr. Auberjonois would get the easy chair on the opposite side of the fireplace, while most of the other reporters would be stuck with folding chairs.

Like the legendary Helen Thomas at White House press conferences, Mr. Auberjonois was always given the honor of asking the first question. “Even though his questioning could be tough, it was always done so gracefully that it never alienated the press secretaries,” Mr. Tuohy said. “He was one of the best political reporters in London. Fernand was extremely good at eliciting what – behind the official statements – was really happening.”

But over the years he wrote less and less about politics – “which I feared the audience in Toledo was uninterested in” – and more and more about people.


Throughout his years in Europe he mixed his straight reporting with what the paper called “Letters from London.” These pieces, often personal, skipped over the rulers to talk about the quotidian matters of everyday life: What happens when someone has a great fall in a posh club, or the importance of having the proper accent on the BBC.

He wrote them sparingly while a full-time working correspondent, but in his later years, particularly after his official retirement in 1983, they became more common.

When he was searching for a new place to live in 1985, he wrote: “Having lived in these parts 30 years, I know that ‘quaint’ means unheated and that ‘historic’ applies to the plumbing or to a thatched roof swarming with mice.”

British culture was as frequent a target for his humor as his own life.

In 1974 he noted the collective yawn from Europe when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. The London papers dutifully acknowledged the event, explaining that “the home run is the equivalent of a six in cricket, where the batsman hits the ball over the boundary.”

Mr. Auberjonois added: “The great Babe Ruth is sometimes mistaken for a female cabaret singer, but only rarely, because so few opportunities arise of explaining who he was.”


Through everything he wrote he maintained a formal, yet conversational, style. Mr. Block once said he considered Mr. Auberjonois the best writer The Blade had.

“He had a great reputation for being the best example you could ever find of a great journalist who showed great style, as a human being as well as a professional,” said Myron Belkind, the current AP London bureau chief.

“He could mingle with heads of government as well as the proverbial man and woman in the street. In my 40-plus years as a journalist, he stands out as very unique in the most positive of ways.”

“I thought he was extremely ‘old world,'” Mr. Tuohy, the Pulitzer Prize winner, said. “Gallant, very well dressed, with beautiful manners, and as smart as a whip. And he could spot a phony when he saw one.”

His fellow correspondents showed their regard for him by making him president of the Association of American Correspondents in London. Upon his retirement he was named a lifetime member.

After Mr. Auberjonois’s days of press conferences and frequent flying were over, a friend put him in touch with a Swiss publisher, Editions Metropolis. Over the years, he has written a weekly column for a Swiss newspaper, and an editor at Metropolis, Michele Stroun, believed that a book about his life could sell a few copies.

Mr. Auberjonois started working on his memoirs, first in English, then in French. In 1993, his publishers put out Entre Deux Mondes, or Between Two Worlds. It chronicled the remarkable story of his life up to 1956 and concludes with his hiring at The Blade.

It was an immediate success. It topped the Swiss bestseller list for weeks and went through three editions. It got rave reviews from newspapers in Switzerland and France for its modesty and the remarkable story it told.

Since then he has kept writing. He put together another volume of his memoirs in 1994, followed by books on London and Ireland. Entre Deux Mondes has been reissued. Last year Metropolis published a new book, De Chittagong a Cork, a volume of short memories from his ancestors and throughout his life.

“His books have sold very well,” Ms. Stroun said. “He has wonderful reviews always, and people love his books.”

Since there are only about 1.5 million French-speaking Swiss, the market for books there is limited. “I still hope the French will discover him, but they are much slower,” Ms. Stroun lamented.

Mr. Auberjonois has become a significant figure in the country he left more than 60 years ago. Another Swiss publishing house has republished a short book he wrote in 1950 on Fire Island, New York, to take advantage of the increasing interest in Mr. Auberjonois’s life.

“Now he’s considered among the top writers in Switzerland,” Ms. Stroun said. “He will be regarded as highly for his writing as his father was for his painting.”

(Mr. Auberjonois has published only one book in English, 1980’s Top Dog, a tongue-in-cheek memoir supposedly written by his pet dog.)


After spending decades in London, he and his wife, Helga – whom he met in the 1960s when they both worked in the Reuters building – decided to trade in city life for a small cottage in southern Ireland three years ago. “It’s a sacrifice for my wife, who loves London, but I enjoy Ireland,” he said.

Over the years, for tax reasons, being an American citizen living abroad has cost him a significant amount of money, as some of his income was taxed twice. It would have been very easy for him to get a Swiss passport and end the double taxing. But despite the very real cost, he never considered giving up his American citizenship.

“Oh, no, it’s very precious to me,” he said. “Everything I did was for my American citizenship, and my American passport is the only one I want to keep.”

During the McCarthy hearings and other low points in modern American history, he sometimes wondered if he had made a mistake. “I got very discouraged about America, and I thought the country had become too worried, too afraid. To come back from a war and see loyalty questioned like that was extremely unpleasant.”

Oddly, after his lifelong love affair with America, he has chosen to live in yet another new homeland: Ireland. He has spent less than two decades of his long life in his adopted country.

His son, Rene, said that he has based some of his most famous characters partially on his father. On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, he played Odo, an alien “shape shifter” who can assume different forms. Odo is rootless, with no memory of his past, changing his form as required by those around him, observing and commenting on his surroundings.

“Odo can seem gruff, a little bit too formal,” Rene said. “All of us Auberjonoises are known as charismatic grouches. But Odo has a real sense of honor and dignity, and that’s in part from my father. He’s been sort of the cornerstone of a lot of my characters.”

Odo’s rootlessness has been a running theme in the life of this Swissman who became an American, raised his children to be Americans, but has lived in London and Ireland. “I’m from nowhere now,” Mr. Auberjonois said. “I don’t think I’m of any country anymore.”

Mr. Auberjonois is 89 now, and he broke his femur during the summer in a fall while in Switzerland, but he is still sharp. He recently finished his latest book, a memoir of his war years, and his publisher is eagerly awaiting it.

Still he continues to insist that his life is unworthy of examination. “There is nothing interesting about my life,” he said.

In hindsight, many of Mr. Auberjonois’s amazing experiences were less than happy. From the landing at Normandy, to being the target of a communist witch-hunt, to covering wars hot and cold, his life often took him to situations of despair. He adopted a new homeland, only to have circumstances keep him away from it for decades.

But to understand his philosophy on dealing with bad times, take one look at something he said about his days as a young man in New York, when he was struggling to survive on odd jobs and the generosity of others.

“I never had the feeling I was having a hard time then, because it was all far too interesting,” he said. “That’s what life does.”

Reminders of deep divide, signs of hope mix in Ulster

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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BELFAST — On the surface, it looks like any other cookie-cutter, working-class neighborhood in Europe.

Small, dull houses are pushed up against one another, with a few tiny patches of green grass poking through the gray tones.

But look a little closer at this two-block housing development in West Belfast, and you notice what’s missing: people.

“No one will live here,” says Carl Von Ohsen, a development officer for Making Belfast Work, an agency aimed at bringing peace to Northern Ireland. “This is the border between Catholic Belfast and Protestant Belfast. People know what can happen to people who live here – the beatings, the killings.”

At a time when Northern Ireland is supposed to be at peace, those long-empty homes are a reminder that all is not yet well here.

Last year, the world rejoiced when Catholic and Protestant leaders reached an agreement many thought impossible just a few years ago: a deal for the two sides to put down their guns and share power in a new government.

The date of the deal – Good Friday – brought overtones of hope and salvation. In the euphoria, the top leaders of both sides won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

And while yesterday brought another major political breakthrough, winning over the hearts and minds of everyday people, trained to hate one another for four centuries, will prove more difficult.

“Socially and economically, Catholics and Protestants are in the same situation, and they’ve got the same problems,” Mr. Von Ohsen said. “But each side thinks the other is better off, and they hate each other for it. I’m not optimistic that will change anytime soon.”

You can’t tell the difference between Belfast’s Catholics and Protestants by looking at them. But sometimes you can tell by listening to the words they use.

To Catholics, the second largest city in Northern Ireland is called Derry. To Protestants, it’s Londonderry, in recognition of the Protestants from the British capital who took control of the town in 1609.

Protestants often call Northern Ireland Ulster, as in the name of Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists.

In contrast, the name of one of the two main Catholic parties, Sinn Fein, isn’t even in English; it means “we, ourselves” in Irish. Sinn Fein is the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group aimed at a reunited Ireland, through violence if necessary.

Catholics point out that the ancient boundaries of Ulster actually include three counties now in the Republic of Ireland, and that their goal is to unite them.

The divide in Northern Ireland has even split the language in two. “The differences are important,” said Dominic Doherty, press officer for Sinn Fein. “Words actually mean things here.”

Driving around West Belfast – the part of this 300,000-person capital city hardest hit by the Troubles – shows quickly that the division goes far beyond language.

Police stations look like forts, surrounded by 25-foot windowless concrete walls topped with barbed wire. It’s a rare sight to see anyone actually walking into a police station. Many Catholics and Protestants choose to get their “justice” through local paramilitaries, who use beatings to get their points across to suspected criminals, even of their own religion.

In the most one-sided parts of the city, Belfast’s famous murals of masked gunmen still loom over residential neighborhoods. Ten-foot walls, put up by the government for peacekeeping purposes, divide Catholic neighborhoods from Protestant ones.

Almost comically, the division lasts beyond death. When it was discovered a few years ago that a city cemetery included Catholics and Protestants, locals built an underground wall to separate the two sets of bodies.

“After you’re dead and turning to dust, you’re still on one side or the other,” said Jason Welley, a Catholic West Belfast construction worker.

The battles over Northern Ireland began in 1609, during the reign of James I, the Scot who had become King of England. British military forces were in control of nearly all of Ireland, with the notable exception of Ulster, a province in the northeast.

English officials came up with a solution to their problem: encourage tens of thousands of English Protestants to move to Ulster. This colonization replaced the Catholic leadership in Ulster with a Protestant one. While there continued to be battles between the two groups for centuries, the lines were drawn and Ulster became mostly Protestant while the rest of Ireland remained mostly Catholic.

As punishment for a variety of rebellions over the years, the English enacted punishing laws discriminating against Catholics, stripping them of their rights and their lands. By 1700, less than 10 per cent of Irish land was owned by Catholics.

Eventually, Great Britain began to relent on its stern command of Ireland. . In January, 1922, Ireland was formally partitioned politically – one parliament for the six majority-Protestant counties of Ulster, which became Northern Ireland, and one for the rest of Ireland, which became the Irish Free State.

Still, problems continued. Dissident groups within the Free State, unhappy with the accord with Britain, began waging war against the Free State’s provisional government. Once the groups settled their differences, the Free State turned its attention to gaining economic strength and severing its ties to Great Britain. This struggle continued for another two decades.

It wasn’t until April 18, 1949, that the Republic of Ireland was formed, free of any allegiance to the British crown and the Commonwealth. The next month, the British Parliament voted to keep Northern Ireland as a part of Great Britain. The Republic of Ireland objected, demanding return of the six counties to form a united Ireland. Its leaders have been making that demand ever since.

“There’s no reason for there to be two Irelands,” said Francie Molloy, a Sinn Fein member of the new assembly created by the Good Friday accord.

Catholics began a civil rights movement in 1968, which they intended to put them on an equal level with the Protestant rulers. Catholics earned many concessions, such as equal rights in housing, voting, and employment. But the peaceful movement was also the start of the violence-ridden “Troubles,” pitting nationalists and republicans (who want Northern Ireland united with the rest of Ireland) against unionists and loyalists (who want to keep the North’s association with Britain).

In the 31 years since, the human cost has been substantial. More than 3,200 people have died from bombings, shootings, and beatings, along with tens of thousands injured. The main culprit has been the IRA, but in response to their actions, several loyalist paramilitaries have taken up arms.

The underground paramilitaries have always been small. Some have only a few dozen members, and experts believe that the IRA has never had more than a few hundred. But they’ve caught the 1.6 million people of the North in their crossfire.

“Ulster’s been torn apart,” said Sarah McDonald, a Protestant housewife who lives a few blocks away from the infamous Shankill Road, site of dozens of violent acts during the Troubles. “Some people want to give in to the other side to get peace, and some want to keep fighting. I don’t think we should give in yet.”

Because the two sides’ demands are so far apart, compromise was almost impossible for decades. Either the North would be part of Great Britain, or it wouldn’t. Bombs in Northern Ireland became a regular highlight of the American evening news, and some Irish-Americans chose to help fund the IRA’s militant efforts.

The last few years, however, have seen enormous progress. In 1997, the IRA declared a cease-fire, and representatives of Sinn Fein were invited to the negotiating table at peace talks chaired by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. Finally, last year, the parties announced an agreement to create a government in which members of all the major parties would share power.

The accord calls for a national assembly and a 12-member executive, the equivalent of the cabinet in America. Four of the seats in the executive will go to the Ulster Unionists, and four will go to the largest nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which has always opposed the violence on both sides. As the two largest parties, the UUP and the SDLP have long formed the moderate center of Northern politics; their leaders, John Hume for the SDLP and David Trimble for the UUP, were winners of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Two seats each will go to the more extreme Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, an openly anti-Catholic party that considers the Good Friday agreement treachery against the Protestant majority.

If it all works, it would be the first time since a brief failed experiment in 1974 that loyalists and republicans shared government power. It would allow Northern Ireland to rule itself for the first extended period since 1972, when the British government took control from the fractured local parliament.

But the Good Friday accord did not settle all the tough questions, for either the politicians or the general population.

For the politicians, the biggest problem has been a dispute over the IRA and other paramilitaries giving up their weapons. The Ulster Unionists have operated for several years under the slogan “No guns, no government,” meaning that until the IRA decommissions its guns and explosives, it will not sit in government with any representatives of Sinn Fein.

But that potentially explosive issue was partially resolved yesterday, when the Ulster Unionists voted to join in the formation of the executive tomorrow, the same day the IRA begins negotiations on decommissioning.

It’s not a guarantee of peace – the IRA still has not turned in one weapon, and Mr. Trimble has said he will resign if that hasn’t happened by February – but it’s an important step.

“We need more than assurances,” said Rev. Robert Coulter, an Ulster Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. “We need weapons. If we let them into the government, they have no excuses for armed patriotism any more.”

The stakes are high for the current peace talks, as the last few years of relative peace hang in the balance. “History tells us that when there’s a vacuum, and the political process isn’t working, then in come the people with violent intentions,” said Jackie Johnston, an assistant director of political affairs in the Northern Ireland government.

“If this process fails, you’d be straight into open civil war worse than what we’ve seen,” said Pauline Lindsay, a secretary who works for the Ulster Unionist Party. “It’d be Kosovo all over again.”

But even if the party leaders reach a settlement of their own, the general population of Northern Ireland will still have four centuries of religious warfare in its history, and a pattern of hatred difficult to eradicate. The views of the two sides remain far apart.

While legal discrimination against Catholics has been eliminated, it continues on among the Protestant business owners who have long held economic power in Northern Ireland. Catholic unemployment rates are more than twice as high as Protestant ones; in some Catholic neighborhoods, as many as 65 per cent are jobless.

“I think a lot of it does come down to money,” said Janey Wilcox, a Protestant nurse from suburban Belfast. “It’s economics, really: if you have a job, you don’t want to make trouble.”

And even if the IRA turns in its weapons – certainly not a foregone conclusion – there are still more violent groups ready to enter the fray to scuttle peace. Several extremist IRA splinter groups, most notably one calling itself the Real IRA, are believed to be hoarding weapons just across the border with the Republic, ready to strike.

Still, there are reasons for hope in Northern Ireland. There has been relative peace since the IRA’s 1997 cease-fire, although the paramilitaries on both sides continue to murder dozens of “troublemakers” annually. The economy, fed by the Republic of Ireland’s boom and the U.K.’s continued prosperity, is doing well. Belfast has seen an influx of foreign capital previously scared off by the violence; a new Hilton has just gone up downtown.

And as scarred psychologically as Northern Ireland may be, it has never been the disaster zone other parts of the world have been.

“We’ve never reached the level of the Balkans,” said Dr. Sean Antrim, an SDLP assembly member who will be one of the 12 executive ministers if the government is ever formed. “We’ve never gone over the precipice here. We’ve gone to the edge and looked over to see what’s there, but we’ve always scampered back.”

If the current political debate over decommissioning is solved, and a government is formed, the cooperation that would be created by power sharing could go a long way to building common ground between Catholics and Protestants, who often agree on issues.

“The Troubles are about history, culture, and feelings, not about politics,” Mr. Johnston said. “On health issues, economic issues, agricultural issues, the differences are not large.”

“I think people are getting more mature,” Mr. Coulter of the Ulster Unionists said. “People can work together once you get past republicans vs. loyalists.”

There are real issues to deal with, such as the fact that 60 per cent of the economy is still in the public sector and significant problems with the province’s agricultural business.

In time, the decision on the unification question may be made for leaders by Northern Ireland’s changing demographics.

The Catholic birth rate is higher than that of Protestants. Some Protestants, perhaps seeing an eventual Catholic victory or simply tired of the fighting, have left for England.

Over the last 10 years, the population of the Shankill Road area, long West Belfast’s Protestant stronghold, has dropped 75 per cent.

“Protestants feel as though they’re under siege,” Mr. Von Ohsen said.

“A lot of my friends have moved out to the suburbs, or just left Ireland, to get away from all this,” said Ms. McDonald, who lives near Shankill Road.

As a result, some demographers predict that within a decade or so, Catholics will become the majority.

Currently, Northern Ireland is about 42 per cent Catholic; they already make up majorities in four of the six counties.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has said that his government would allow the North to join Ireland if a majority of voters ever approved such a move.

“It’s a matter of time, really,” Mr. Doherty of Sinn Fein said. “The unionists want to hold on to their privilege and power for as long as they can, and they’re willing to stall and be obstructionist if that will accomplish their goals.”

All sides agree that a solution to the generations of enmity will take time.

Their brightest hope may be the next generation, which may be beginning to look beyond the sectarianism of the past.

At an Internet cafe a few blocks away from the North’s most prestigious college – the somewhat argumentatively named Queen’s University – 25-year-old George O’Neill sips a latte and surfs the web site for CNN.

Mr. O’Neill knows computers, and has a job writing software for a company in South Belfast.

“It’s tragic that it’s gone on for as long as it has,” he said. “But a lot of people my age couldn’t care less what you are. They’re more interested in what kind of a person you are.” Mr. O’Neill said he is a Protestant, but quickly added that “it’s not a big deal for me.”

Sitting at the next computer terminal at the cafe was Jenny McGowan, also 25.

“I’m a Catholic, but that doesn’t mean I hate Protestants or anything,” she said while taking a break from reading up on fashion news at a web site.

“It’s silly to hate people for things that they had no control over and that happened hundreds of years ago.”

Irish-Americans provide money, moral support

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A8

Throughout the three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, those on both sides have looked to America as one of their greatest resources.

And why not: There are more than seven times as many Irish-Americans as there are Irish.

“They’ve played an important part in the conflict for decades,” said Dr. Seamus Metress, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toledo and a longtime activist for a united Ireland.

The famous potato famines of 1845 to 1851 reduced the population of Ireland from 8 million to 4 million. More than 1 million died, and many of the remainder fled to America.

In the 15 decades since, Ireland’s population has struggled back up to about 5.3 million. In the U.S., 42 million Americans are of Irish descent, according to the 1990 census.

Irish-Americans have been supporting the republican cause throughout this century. But beginning with the Irish civil rights movement in 1968 – when images of British soldiers beating Catholics with batons made their way onto the nightly news – more and more Americans decided to get involved.

Some raised money for human rights organizations and wrote articles about the crisis. Others went further, and shipped arms and money to groups such as the Irish Republican Army. A 1973 FBI report stated that the Irish conflict had been largely paid for with American dollars; that trend has continued throughout the bloody times since.

The violent aspect of the Irish-American connection was in the news in August, when four men were arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and charged with attempting to export more than 40 handguns and several hundred rounds of rifle ammunition to the IRA. The IRA has denied it was involved in the gun-running operation; the four men are awaiting trial.

John Finucane, national president of the American Ireland Educational Foundation, estimated that 100,000 Americans have been involved in the Irish conflict over the years, from writing letters to members of Congress to shipping guns to the IRA. That’s a tiny percentage of the total number of Irish-Americans, but still a substantial number.

“It’s hugely important to have that American backing, whether it’s money or just moral support,” said Mr. Finucane, who was born in the United States to Irish parents.

Mr. Finucane’s group advocates a united Ireland, but only through nonviolent means. On some issues, he said, his group can mobilize enough American support for 10,000 letters to reach Congress in a few days.

But Dr. Metress and Mr. Finucane agree that most Irish-Americans have stayed out of Irish politics entirely.

“Most people get in touch with their Irish roots once a year, on St. Patrick’s Day,” Dr. Metress said. A few others get fired up about the British occupation while drinking Irish beer at pubs, he said; he calls them “Guinness commandos.”

Most Irish-Americans concerned about their homeland have had no links to the violence there, they agree.

“Not everybody was sending explosives and guns to the IRA,” Dr. Metress said. “Most of the people who were involved were working with groups aimed at peace and justice in Ireland, not the violent end of things.”

No doubt many Irish-Americans believe that IRA stands only for Individual Retirement Account.

But with the IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein achieving greater standing through their inclusion in the peace process, many Irish-Americans are making their support of the cause more open. In September, Sinn Fein leaders held a $500-a-plate dinner at the Plaza Hotel in New York. The dinner raised more than $500,000 for the party, Mr. Finucane said.

Some Irish-Americans have worked individually for the Protestant side of the fight, but the Catholic republican side has received much more American support over the years. That’s in part because Irish Catholic emigrants to the United States in the 1800s outnumbered Protestant ones. Because they shared a single church, Catholics were more likely to remain an organized community than Irish-American Protestants were.

“There’s never been an organized movement on our side in America,” said Anne Smith, the Washingtonlobbyist for the Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant party.

Ms. Smith said that the work of Irish-Americans has been “very important” to the republican cause. “It’s a fairly small number of people, but they’re very passionate,” she said.

Dr. Metress, 66, is one of that small group. He became interested in Irish history as a child, when his Irish grandmother sang him songs and told him stories about the British occupation of the North. A self-described “radical republican,” Dr. Metress has been to Ireland almost a dozen times and has written dozens of articles on the island, as well as a book, The American Irish and Irish Nationalism.

In Toledo, he leads the local chapter of Clan Na Gael (the name means “band of the Irish”) and has sometimes created controversy. In 1981, at the dedication ceremony for International Park in East Toledo, members of the clan lowered the Irish flag to half-mast in front of a British consul to protest the death of Bobby Sands, an IRA hunger striker.

Dr. Metress said he’s been visited twice by FBI agents as a result of his work, which he said has never involved violence.

2 Germanys struggle under 1 flag; Iron Curtain still shadows east, west after decade

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A1

BERLIN — It is the first question any tourist here asks: Where was The Wall?

Driving through the Mitte district of Berlin, taxi driver Ranier Quambusch points to a thin line of cobblestones snaking through a city street, about two feet from the curb. “There it is,” he said. “That was the big bad Berlin Wall.”

When the wall came down in 1989, Berlin officials had to find a way to deal with suddenly open spaces that cut a gash through the middle of the city. In some places, buildings went up; in others, parks were opened.

On this particular stretch, the wall’s location was integrated into a street, with the cobblestones added as a reminder of what once stood there. On either side are sleek new office buildings and construction crews working on putting up more.

Now, on the line that once divided two global empires, a line of tiny two-door cars sits.

“They’re the real winners of the Cold War,” Mr. Quambusch said. “They got a parking space.”

Tuesday is the 10th anniversary of the wall’s fall. For nearly three decades, the wall was the most visible reminder of the planet’s ideological divide, the metaphorical “Iron Curtain” made real.

When, in a rush of rejoicing, the wall came down, Germans both East and West looked forward to a dynamic future, a united powerhouse confidently pushing ahead in the world. And while Germany is the largest economy in Europe and has become a significant global player, it still is dealing with the pains of reunification.

For every newly vibrant stretch of the former East Berlin – flush with coffee-shop urbanism and cosmopolitan apartment life – plenty of places still have the dull, depressing gloom of old socialism. Growing groups of neo-Nazi skinheads threaten immigrants and minorities there.

The East and West often feel estranged from one another, and the optimism of 1989 has been replaced with the realities of assembling one nation from two. Like much of the rest of the former Warsaw Pact countries, the former East Germany has realized that the end of the Cold War didn’t end all its problems.

“There’s still a lot of differences between West and East,” said Curt Heissig, who left a rundown part of East Berlin and now makes drinks at an upscale bar in the West. “It’s like people speak a different language sometimes. It will take a lot to adjust.”

Berlin’s division dates back to the aftermath of its lowest moment, the dictatorship of Hitler and the Nazis. When the Allies finally reached Berlin, the city was divided into four sectors, one each controlled by France, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. With the start of the Cold War, it became a perfect staging ground for the superpowers to antagonize one another.

First, in 1948, the Soviet Union cut off all land transportation links from West Berlin through communist East Germany, isolating the city from the West and forcing an 11-month airlift of fuel and food. Then, in 1961, came the most dramatic move: the wall.

Fernand Auberjonois, who was then The Blade’s European correspondent based in London, was in Berlin on the morning the wall went up, Aug. 13, 1961.

“I was there to do another story when it went up,” Mr. Auberjonois, 89, remembered. “At first, it was just a barbed-wire fence. Anything could have rolled right over it. I thought it might just be symbolic, as propaganda.”

But within a week, it was clear the fence was becoming a wall. “I remember one of the other reporters coming to get us early in the morning and saying, ‘Something is going on at the fence,'” Mr. Auberjonois said. “We went down to the border, and there were cranes mounted on trucks putting up slabs of concrete.”

Over the years, the wall grew stronger still, with electrified fences and minefields. Buildings along the wall had their windows bricked up to prevent anyone from leaping over. Steel stakes were planted in the ground along potential escape routes; Germans nicknamed them “Stalin’s Grass.”

The East German government called the wall the “Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier,” but in truth it would have done little to protect the East from the West. But it did stop the flow of East Germans to the West. In the days before the wall went up, 1,500 easterners were moving west every day.

The wall didn’t just divide the city geographically, it created a cultural and economic gap. Western powers saw West Berlin as an island of capitalism in the communist East and pumped millions into the city to make it a showcase for Western money. Storefronts hawked the finest luxury goods; the Kufurstendamm strip became the Berlin equivalent of New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Meanwhile, the East stuck to boxy, dirty socialist architecture, with depressing street scenes and smoke-belching factories. The division between the two cities was clear from the air. Even the wall’s two sides showed the gap: the East guarded by armed men in uniforms, the West covered in colorful graffiti and the work of political artists.

Even with the wall, East Germans tried to escape, often by scaling the wall or tunneling under it. In all, 239 East Germans were killed trying to flee. An eastern border guard was given a holiday on the Baltic for every escapee he shot.

But 5,043 managed to make it across the border.

The beginning of the end came in May, 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev made a state visit to West Germany and informed Chancellor Helmut Kohl that the Soviet Union would no longer use force to prevent democratization in its satellite states in eastern Europe.

“We could feel the change coming,” said Oskar Wohlrabe, then an East German factory worker. “The direction was changing, and it couldn’t be stopped.”

That month, Hungary opened up its border to Austria. Thousands of East Germans realized that they could travel freely to the communist country of Hungary, cross the border into free Austria, and then reach West Germany. Within six months, 220,000 East Germans had made the trip.

In a last-ditch attempt to save the government, East German leaders decided to allow free travel. On Nov. 9, shortly before 7 p.m., Gunther Schabowski, a member of the Politburo, announced that the border to West Berlin would be opening. The reform was supposed to be phased in over some time, but Mr. Schabowski mistakenly said the border would open “immediately.”

All across the city, people heard about the change and rushed to the wall. Guards had not been given instructions on what to do, but several decided to let people through. In the next few hours, the wall became a relic of the past, and Berlin became the site of the world’s biggest party. As Americans watched on television, the verdict was almost unanimous: Symbolically at least, the Cold War was over.

“It was amazing,” said Mr. Wohlrabe, who was at the wall that night. “Everyone was excited, jumping around, hugging people they never knew. It was like the whole place was drunk. Everybody was so happy.”

Angelika Wohlrabe, then his girlfriend and now his wife, was with him. “We went around to all the shops and looked in the windows at all the West had,” she said. “People thought that the wall would be there for their children and their grandchildren and that it would always be there. It was magic. It was real magic.”

Germany’s national high lasted for about a year. After the wall tumbled, the nation’s thoughts turned to reunification. On Oct. 3, 1990, East and West officially were united into one Germany.

Then came the hard part, the part with which Germany is still struggling: making that unification more than just official.

“The Ossies [easterners] don’t understand how to run their land,” said Mr. Quambusch, the Wessie [Westerner] taxi driver. “I feel a lot more in common with young Italians, Americans, or French than with these people in my own country. It will take generations for them to learn.”

Berlin is the centerpiece of Germany’s struggle for unity. Like the entire country’s, the city’s reconstruction has been a mix of unrelenting optimism and disheartening division.

When the wall came down, enormous swaths of prime property in the middle of Berlin suddenly was open to development. City planners set about hurriedly trying to determine how Berlin would be rebuilt.

(The last time someone tried to plan a new Berlin was before in the 1930s, when Hitler had his architect, Albert Speer, completely redesign the city, renamed Germania, along a north-south axis, with monuments of a truly Reich size, such as a 700-foot dome and a memorial arch twice the size of the Arc de Triomphe. Speer had a chance to start work on his plan – at least the parts that involved tearing down buildings in Jewish neighborhoods – until World War II interrupted his plans.)

The result has been the largest construction site in Europe and the second-largest in the world only to Shanghai. From the roof of any tall building in Berlin, you can count the huge construction cranes that dot the skyline, with more than a hundred visible from some vantage points. The German press has reported that there were more than 700 cranes in the city at one point.

Certain districts of East Berlin, such as the newly hip Prenzlauer Berg, have seen huge reconstruction efforts, with fancy new stores, luxury apartments, and office complexes. This summer, the German government moved its capital from sleepy Bonn to Berlin, creating a rush on property for the thousands of bureaucrats, officials, and lobbyists moving to the new capital.

But some districts still look out of sorts, with socialist architecture, grimy buildings, and the depressing shadow of the East.

“It makes you sad to be in some of the places in the East,” said Mr. Heissig, who recently moved from his home in grim, decaying Marzahn to the West. “Everything is so decayed.”

East and West Berlin are still quite different but not in the way they used to be. In the days of the wall, the capitalist playland of the West stopped at the wall; a few feet away was the sad grayness.

Now, the area just across from the wall is filled with the fresh cleanliness of newly constructed buildings, along with a few bustling shopping districts. The sad grayness is still there, but it’s been pushed back a bit farther into the East.

Still, nostalgia for the old eastern way of life lives on among some. Not so much among the former East Germans, but among young Wessies who latch onto Ossie kitsch. Dussman, a large bookstore in downtown Berlin, has a separate room that does a brisk business in “Ostalgie”: Ossie nostalgia. In the middle of a completely modern three-story store selling books, compact discs, and DVDs, you can buy a 30-year-old dusty copy of Das Kapital or the collected works of Marx and Engels.

“It’s cool to have these Ossie things,” said Martin Erde, a 22-year-old wearing a stylish leather jacket and a nose stud in the Ostalgie room. He did say, however, that he’d stop short of getting a Trabant, the famously clunky plastic-body car of East Germany.

The idea of celebrating any part of German history may seem unusual to a 20th-century observer, considering the country’s starring role in two world wars and the deaths of tens of millions.

Still, Berlin has a big party planned for Tuesday, the wall anniversary, complete with a rock concert at the Brandenburg Gate and speeches by Mr. Gorbachev and former President George Bush.

But Nov. 9 is not just the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s demise. Tuesday is the 61st anniversary of Kristallnacht, one of the first bursts of organized terror from Hitler’s Nazis. On Nov. 9, 1938, rampaging mobs roamed the streets of Germany, attacking Jews, burning their homes, and destroying their synagogues. In the end, at least 96 Jews were killed, 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed, and 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to some of Hitler’s first concentration camps.

And the significance of Nov. 9 doesn’t end there. It was on that day in 1918 when Kaiser Wilhelm II, his nation crushed in World War I, was forced to abdicate and the Weimar Republic was declared.

It was this event, many scholars believe, that caused a young Hitler to decide to eradicate the Jews, who he held responsible for Germany’s defeat.

In 1939, Hitler wrote the foreign minister of the Czech government: “We are going to destroy the Jews. They are not going to get away with what they did on Nov. 9, 1918. The day of reckoning has come.”

That is the difficulty inherent in celebrating Germany history: How to separate the good from the bad; how to evoke national pride without reviving the totalitarian past.

Initially, the biggest problems with integrating the East were economic. East Germany was years behind the West in its industry, its infrastructure, and in the training of its workers. Thrown into a single economic system with West Germany – and, through the European Union, with all of western Europe – the East simply wasn’t able to compete.

Within a year of reunification, economic output in the East fell 30 per cent. Eastern plants were less than a third as efficient as their counterparts in the West. In four years, 14,000 state-run firms were turned over to private industry and 4,000 more liquidated.

Rebuilding the eastern economy has taken enormous amounts of money: hundreds of billions of dollars went into housing, industrial parks, environmental cleanups, telecommunications, and a myriad other areas. And that has created an enormous amount of bitterness among some in the West. But the eastern economy has made great improvements and is now stronger than any of the other former Warsaw Pact countries.

Now, the differences are less economic and more personal.

“In the United States, you had a Civil War that lasted four years, and people in your country are still working out North against South,” said Alec Hauptvogel, a shopkeeper in the Kreuzberg district of western Berlin. “You still have people with Confederate flags. In Berlin, we had the Cold War for a generation and a half, and it will be a very long time before people are actually united again.”

The country still is dealing with the psychological issues of uniting a people split for decades by a war over ideology. Among the victims: immigrants and minorities. Throughout the 1990s, the former East has seen a rebirth of far-right-wing activity, along with anti-immigrant violence often directed at Turks. One Ossie said that for every communist old man in East Germany, there’s a neo-Nazi son.

Berlin is trying its best to create a new image for itself. Despite being the largest city between Paris and Moscow, most people probably could not name a single monument in Berlin other than the wall. The future, which seemed so heavenly 10 years ago, is more cloudy now.

“Rebuilding takes a long time,” Mr. Quambusch said. “Before, the two sides were going in different directions, because the governments made them. But now, the division is personal, and that makes it harder to put the country back together.”

PITCAIRN: Even today, a visit to Pitcairn is not plain sailing

Sunday, August 22, 1999
Page 1A

Even today, a visit to Pitcairn is not plain sailing


Getting to Pitcairn today isn’t much easier than it was for Fletcher Christian. There’s no airstrip for planes. There’s no regular passenger service of any kind, air or sea. And if you do find a way to get there by boat, it’s entirely possible that the unpredictable South Seas weather will make reaching land impossible for a week or more.

In other words, it’s not just a matter of calling your travel agent. When the mutineers were searching for a place to hide, they did a darned fine job.

The easiest way to get to Pitcairn is to hitch a ride on one of the supply ships that serve the island several times a year. You can join the ship in Auckland, New Zealand; from there, it’s a seven-day ride to Pitcairn. Passage is usually $750 one way.

But that’s how to get there, not how to get back. Once on Pitcairn, you just have to wait for the next ship willing to take you away. It can take weeks; it can take months.

That’s not the only problem. If the seas are too choppy, the ship might not be able to stop and unload, including you. If that happens, you wave good-bye to Pitcairn, then stay on the ship until its next stop, Panama. Then, you wait a few months, fly back to Auckland, and try again. And most of the spots on supply ships are usually filled by Pitcairners returning home from New Zealand.

But you can try: contact the island’s New Zealand government offices (British Consulate General, Pitcairn Island Administration, Private Bag 92014, Auckland, New Zealand).

If you’re willing to accept just seeing Pitcairn, without setting foot on it, a number of around-the-world cruise ships pass by. But their prices – sometimes $20,000 or more – usually aren’t worth it for the average Fletcher Christian groupie. A travel agent can tell you more.

The most reliable way of getting to Pitcairn – the way The Blade chose – is to charter a boat. You can fly from Toledo to Tahiti, then catch Air Tahiti’s once-a-week flight to Mangareva, a small island (population 600) in southeast French Polynesia. Mangareva is as close to Pitcairn as you can get by air. From there, it’s usually a two or three-day sail.

Ocean Voyages, a travel agency in Sausalito, Calif., is the only company that regularly sends charters to Pitcairn, usually once a year. It serves as a broker for yachts and other vessels willing to take people to far-flung locations.

Be prepared to pay anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 to stay from two to 10 days on Pitcairn. And that doesn’t include $2,000 for airline tickets and other costs. But it’s just about the only way to arrange a short, defined stay. You can contact Ocean Voyages at (415) 332-4681.

If you plan to stay on Pitcairn for more than a few hours, you need the permission of the Island Council. You may have to write to explain why you want to visit. Questions? Contact the island government in New Zealand.

Once you get to Pitcairn, be prepared to walk. The hills are steep, and some of the most interesting places, like the cave from which Fletcher Christian watched the sea, require serious athleticism to reach. (Even some islanders think anyone who goes to Down Rope – a small beach reachable by a few slippery goat trails down a 700-foot cliff – is a bit crazy.)

While there, you’ll pay an island family the absurdly low price of around $25 a day for a bed and three huge meals.

And if you love Pitcairn so much that you want to live there? You can apply for a visa to stay up to six months, which must be approved by the Island Council. You can rent space in someone’s home, or ask for permission to build your own, which can cost $10,000 to $20,000. If you get along with the islanders and prove you are not a drain on the society, you’ll be allowed to renew that six-month visa several times, and eventually you might be granted a seven-year residence visa.

After those seven years, you’re a full-fledged Pitcairner, and the whole world will think you’ve got Fletcher Christian’s blood coursing through your veins.

PITCAIRN: The islanders have their own word for it — in plain Pitkern

Sunday, August 22, 1999
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The islanders have their own word for it – in plain Pitkern


“Aboot yawly gwen?”

“I se gwen ah big shep.”

“Humuch shep corl ya?”

“I kawa.”

As bizarre as it may look, it’s a pretty basic conversation: “Where are you going?” “I’m going to the ship.” “How often do ships come here?” “I don’t know.”

The Pitcairners all speak fine English to outsiders, but among themselves they often use a local dialect that has developed over the last two centuries.

Alternately called Pitcairnese or Pitkern, the dialect is a mix of 18th-century English and Tahitian. The English mutineers and Tahitian women knew very little of each other’s language, and they created a language that is something of a midpoint between the two.

In linguistic terms, Pitkern started out as a “pidgin,” meaning a makeshift language used to communicate between two groups who cannot otherwise talk. Pidgins are often used by traders or peoples who have only intermittent contact with others. They are secondary languages; speakers still speak their native tongue to their own group.

In other words, immediately after the settlement, the mutineers spoke English to each other; the Tahitians spoke Tahitian to each other; and the groups spoke a form of Pitkern when they needed to cross cultural boundaries.

But as time went by, as mixed-race children were born, Pitkern developed from a pidgin into a creole. A creole is the primary language of a group and has a larger lexicon and grammar. Even though the Pitcairners speak lots of English, many, particularly the older islanders, use Pitkern almost exclusively among themselves. Linguists say creoles include all the elements necessary to be considered complete languages, even if derived from other tongues.

Some Polynesian structures survive, like the habit of repeating a word to signify magnitude; if a wave or swell is particularly high, it is “illy-illy.” Most of the terms for animals or plants are Tahitian in origin, likely because the Polynesian women had names for them and the English sailors did not.

But for the most part, there is more English than Tahitian in Pitkern, and a native English speaker would have an easier time making sense of Pitkern than a Tahitian would.

As Harry Shapiro, one of the first writers to visit Pitcairn, wrote in 1936: “The Pitcairn dialect today consists of mispronounced English and Tahitian words, with a spattering of coined words, the whole employed in a degenerate English syntax.”

An outsider quickly picks up a few important words: “weckle” means food, “naaway” means swimming, “plum” means banana. And eventually, a few phrases – like “Wut a way you?” for “How are you?” and the ever-present “I kawa” for “I don’t know” – become natural, too.

But some phrases (“Fut you ally comey diffy and do daffy?” , meaning “Why do you come and behave that way?” ) still seem incomprehensible.

PITCAIRN: An expedition, a clash of wills — then mutiny

Sunday, August 22, 1999
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An expedition, a clash of wills – then mutiny


More than 20,000 islands dot the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Most are uninhabited. Many support a few hundred or thousand people, but manage to go unnoticed by the outside world.

It’s an accident of history that Pitcairn got noticed, as the answer to one of the world’s great mysteries: Where did Fletcher Christian disappear to after the mutiny on the Bounty?

The story began in 1787, four years after the end of the American Revolution. When Britain lost the 13 colonies, it lost the major source of food for its slave plantations in the Caribbean. The slaves were usually fed corn from the colonies, and with an independent United States, British officials needed to find some other way to feed their chattel.

Sir Joseph Banks, a botanist who had visited the South Pacific on the voyages of Captain Cook, thought he had the solution. On Tahiti, he said, bread grows from trees: brownish-green fruit the size of a man’s head. If roasted and its pulp sliced off, it produces a fibrous mass that looks and tastes something like dough, or an overcooked potato. A single tree could produce more than a hundred of the fruit in a year’s time, with no labor involved.

The Tahitians called the plant ‘uru. The British called it breadfruit and decided to plant it throughout the Caribbean.

Back in London, the Royal Navy decided to send a vessel to Tahiti to bring back hundreds of seedlings. It selected a 90-foot ship named the Bethia, the navy renamed it the Bounty and gave 33-year-old William Bligh command.

Bligh had never led an expedition, but he had fared well under Captain Cook in the South Pacific. He was a brilliant navigator, an expert mapmaker, and a man of courage and energy.

But he had one great flaw: he belittled his men with a vigor that would make a drill sergeant blanch. His men were always scoundrels, rascals, hellhounds, beasts, and wretches. Phrases like “insufferable disgrace,” “incompetent mongrel,” and “vile, shameful rogue,” tripped off his tongue with ease.

Bligh was not physically cruel; indeed, his men came under the whip less frequently than on other British ships of the period. His weapon was humiliation. He attacked a man’s honor, not his body.

When he assembled his crew for the Bounty, Bligh requested that a young gentleman named Fletcher Christian, aged 23, be added to his band. Christian had sailed alongside Bligh on two previous voyages, and his family had been friendly with Bligh’s.

The Bounty set sail in December, 1787, headed for Cape Horn, on South America’s tip. But the crew faced some of the most punishing weather ever seen by European sailors: raging winds out of the west, huge seas, blowing ice and snow. Bligh tried for 29 days to round the cape but eventually gave up and decided to go all the way around the world: across the South Atlantic, around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, around Australia, and up into the Pacific.

On Oct. 26, 1788, the weary sailors finally reached Tahiti. For grimy, exhausted lower-class men, 10 months and 27,086 miles from their squalid homes, it must have been heaven: green mountains swallowed in clouds, endless black sand beaches, emerald lagoons.

The Tahitian women of that era had a very free sexuality, and the sailors were more than happy to take advantage. Soon, each was associated with an island man and had free access to his wife.

Bligh had hoped to spend only a few weeks on Tahiti, but the October arrival made it difficult to transfer the breadfruit seedlings into pots to be taken to the Caribbean. The Bounty stayed at anchor five months.

During that time, the men became accustomed to the pace and luxuries of Tahitian life. Several, including Christian, got tattoos and became part of island families. They did not look forward to returning to Bligh’s seagoing manner.

By the time the Bounty set sail again, on April 4, Bligh was in a nasty mood. First, after a failed attempt to get water from the island of Nomuka, Bligh spit a string of insults at Christian, calling him a “cowardly rascal” for retreating from “a set of naked savages while he had arms.”

Christian was a man of noble heritage. He was descended from 25 generations of aristocracy; among his cousins were three members of Parliament and two bishops. One did not call a gentleman a cowardly rascal without consequences.

Two days later, Bligh suspected that one of his coconuts had been stolen. Blinded by anger, he quizzed each of his officers on how many coconuts they possessed. When Christian said he didn’t know how many, Bligh erupted:

“You damned hound! You must have stolen them from me. . . . Goddamn you, you scoundrels, you are all thieves alike, and combine with the men to rob me! I suppose you’ll steal my yams next! But I’ll sweat you for it, you rascals – I’ll make half of you jump overboard!”

He cut the food and grog rations for all the men.

Christian was losing his mind. He could not handle being belittled so; although Bligh actually had treated Christian better than the other officers, Christian could not take the constant verbal abuse.

That night, he was delusional; he had to escape. He tried building a raft from a few spare planks of wood, which would have been suicidal. Then he decided that if someone would be leaving the Bounty, it would not be him.

In the British navy, the punishment for mutiny was simple: hanging. But Christian’s mind so whirled with confusion, bruised honor, and rage that he was ready to risk the punishment.

He wasn’t the first Christian to rebel. His great-great-grandfather, William, was executed for leading a rebellion against British authority on the Isle of Man. And just a few months before the Bounty sailed, Fletcher Christian’s brother, Charles, took part in a failed mutiny on board the Middlesex. (The Middlesex was a private vessel, so Charles did not face hanging.)

Christian slept little that night; he was drinking. His head felt “on fire.” Just before sunrise, he and three other men broke into Bligh’s cabin, tied his hands behind his back, dragged him to the deck, and threatened to kill him.

Christian was beside himself; he kept yelling, “I am in hell! I am in hell!” He readied the ship’s launch, a 23-foot open boat, and ordered Bligh and 18 of his allies into it.

The open boat was designed to hold no more than 15 men, and then only for short distances. Christian threw a few days’ provisions into the launch; with the added weight, the waterline was only seven inches below the top. Then Christian, concluding his bloodless mutiny, ordered the boat to leave. A few of the mutineers, laughing, threw potted breadfruit at the launch as it wandered away.

Whatever historians say of Bligh, they agree he was one of the world’s great navigators. For 48 days, Bligh and his men traveled 3,618 miles to Dutch East India, in present day Indonesia.

For most of the trip, the men faced a steady, cold rain, forcing them to constantly bail out their little vessel. They faced canoes full of cannibals and the constant threat of starvation. Bligh set rations : one twenty-fifth pound of bread and a quarter-pint of water daily. When he felt generous, he added a half-ounce of pork and a teaspoonful of rum.

Bligh and most of the others in the launch eventually made their way to England. His first task when he arrived home: outfitting a new ship, the Providence, to return to Tahiti to pick up breadfruit again. He succeeded this time, but in the end, the project was a failure; the slaves in the Caribbean simply refused to eat it, and planters had to search for another way to feed them.

Meanwhile, Christian and the Bounty wandered the South Pacific, looking for a safe harbor. He tried the island of Tubuai but was attacked by natives. He returned to Tahiti to drop off a few mutineers longing for the feminine comforts they had known there.

Then, one night at Tahiti, Christian held a party for Tahitian women on the Bounty. In the middle of the night, he cut the anchor cord to set the boat adrift, kidnapping the women. He knew that he could not form a new society without women, and if he had to take them by trickery, so be it. He set sail again, looking for a place to start anew.

Four months later, he found Pitcairn.

Pitcairn never became the paradise Christian hoped for.

Physically, it was near perfect. What arable land there was threw off food like magic; everything grew with ease. A steady stream was christened Brown’s Water; with timber torn off the Bounty, they were able to build homes.

More important, it was far away from just about everywhere else. Pitcairn is 4,000 miles from Chile to the east, 3,300 from New Zealand to the west. Head north from Pitcairn and you won’t hit land until Alaska; south, and you’ll end up in Antarctica. And Christian had discovered that Pitcairn was mismarked on British naval maps. Even if someone actively looked for it, they would find themselves 200 miles off.

The mutineers had enough faith in their new home that, on Jan. 23, 1790, they cut the final cord connecting them to the outside world. They set fire to the Bounty.

For a few years, their experiment went smoothly. But eventually tensions built between the mutineers and the six Polynesian men they had taken with them, from Tubuai and Tahiti. Nine white men and 12 Tahitian women lived on Pitcairn; each mutineer took a woman for himself, and the six Polynesian men had to share the three remaining. The white men treated the Polynesians as servants, refusing to give them any land .

Eventually, the conflict over women, land, and race led to bloodshed. First, Christian, fearing rebellion, ordered two of the Polynesians murdered by their countrymen. Three years later, the four remaining Polynesian men rose up and killed five mutineers – including Christian – and one of their own. Then the mutineers killed the three remaining Polynesian men.

By October, 1793, 11 of the 15 men on the island had been murdered. And the islanders weren’t done. In 1798, William McCoy, an old brewery worker from Glasgow, figured out how to distill liquor from the root of the ti plant. Soon everyone on the island was living in a drunken stupor, and McCoy, driven mad by his liquor, tied a stone around his neck and flung himself off a cliff.

One of the three men left, Matthew Quintal, had a reputation as a hothead. When he drunkenly promised to kill all of Fletcher Christian’s children, the two other men chopped him up with an ax.

In December, 1800, Ned Young’s asthma caused the first natural death of any of the island men, leaving only one mutineer, John Adams. A London orphan raised in a poorhouse, Adams had next to no education, other than rudimentary reading and writing Young had taught him before he died.

Having previously deserted from a ship, he had set sail on the Bounty under an assumed name, Alexander Smith. But to all of the 23 mutineer children he helped raise, he was simply “Father.”

Using the Bounty’s Bible, Adams taught his flock a somewhat misguided version of Christianity. For example, he misunderstood the concept of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and had the Pitcairners fast every Wednesday and Friday, leading to a few fainting spells.

But he managed to gentle a previously murderous community. With the women sick of violence and children ready to be taught, Adams taught them all to get along. The land produced plenty of food and little reason for conflict.

In 1808, an American sealer ship named the Topaz passed by Pitcairn. Its captain, Mayhew Folger, was surprised to see smoke rising from the island, which was marked “uninhabited” on his charts. He was more surprised to see an outrigger canoe approach.

He was stunned when the “natives” spoke to him in English.

After a few stunned moments of conversation, Folger agreed to come ashore to meet John Adams. They traded information. Folger told Adams about the French Revolution and Napoleon. Adams told Folger about the murders and his hopes for a future on the island.

Folger stayed on the island only 10 hours. Most important for Adams – who feared he would be taken back to Britain and hanged – Folger was convinced Adams had done penance for his crime. As he wrote in his log:

“To do them Justice, I think them a very humane and hospitable people, and whatever may have been the Errors or Crimes of Smith the Mutineer in times Back, he is at present in my opinion a worthy man and may be useful to Navigators who traverse this immense ocean.”

Folger tried to inform the British navy about his discovery, but the navy never responded to his letters. When he died in 1828, in Massillon, O., Folger had not achieved fame, but he knew he had solved the greatest maritime mystery of his time.

PITCAIRN: The dwindling days of ‘a heaven on earth’

Sunday, August 22, 1999
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The dwindling days of ‘a heaven on Earth’


PITCAIRN ISLAND, South Pacific Ocean – Forty people is a crowded commuter plane.

Forty people is a football team, or a Cub Scout pack.

On two square miles of dead volcano in the South Pacific, 40 people is a country.

Forty people is the population of Pitcairn Island, the number of people who, against all odds and perhaps all reason, have chosen to live on this rock hundreds of miles from the nearest human being.

Their ancestors were criminals: mutineers fleeing the law after setting their infamous Captain Bligh adrift in a tiny open boat in the ocean. They knew the British navy would come looking for them, and they went searching for a place to hide forever.

They found Pitcairn, and this lonely island – where fruit trees grow like weeds, where everyone is everyone’s cousin or sister or uncle – is the legacy of their existence.

When the mutineers landed 200 years ago, there was such a thing as “the known world,” and Pitcairn was on the edge of it. Maps were guesswork; they showed great holes marked “uncharted.” Vast swaths of the globe were inaccessible to the outside world.

Back then, it was hard to get to Pitcairn, but it was hard to get just about anywhere.

Now, with one call to a decent travel agent, you can be in Timbuktu in a week. Planes fly daily to the South Pole. Tourists with enough money can climb Mount Everest or dive to the wreck of the Titanic.

But Pitcairn is still almost impossible to reach: no airstrip, no harbor, no safe anchorage. The islanders might go months without seeing any faces but their 40.

And now this settlement is dying.

The young people see the outside world and sail to it, and the population keeps dropping. Just decades ago, more than 200 Pitcairners lived here. The mutineers escaped to Pitcairn; their descendants escape from it.

“We’re shrinking,” admits Tom Christian, 63, great-great-great grandson of Fletcher Christian. “Pitcairn isn’t what it used to be, a real community where everyone got along. That’s been lost.”

Tom’s wife, Betty, is more pessimistic: “I doubt there’ll be anybody left in 50 years.”

Two hundred years ago, Pitcairn’s isolation was its biggest drawing card. Thousands of miles from the nearest anything sounded good to the most-hunted criminals in the world.

Pitcairn’s isolation isn’t just a function of distance. It lies in the middle of two wind belts, the Trade Winds and the Roaring 40s, which means winds and seas can change hourly. Pitcairn doesn’t have white sandy beaches or peaceful lagoons to make landing easy. It’s a big volcanic rock, with one small beach and no coral reef to protect the island from crashing waves.

It’s about the closest nature has come to building a fortress.

Pitcairn accumulates a fan club

But for such an isolated place, Pitcairn has accumulated quite a fan club. Around the world, thousands of people love the idea of Pitcairn, consider it their own vision of heaven.

The mutineers arrived on Pitcairn in 1790 and went unnoticed until 1808, when a passing American ship discovered it was inhabited. By that point, only one of the 15 men who had landed on Pitcairn 18 years earlier was alive; the rest had mostly killed each other.

The one man who remained, John Adams, was understandably worried about what might befall him. The penalty for mutiny in the British navy was hanging, and there was no statute of limitations. Three of the mutineers who had been caught on Tahiti had been hanged.

So he took pains to tell the ship’s captain – and all the captains who would visit over the next two decades, until his death – about what a wonderful, peaceful place Pitcairn now was, despite all the killings in its first few years. Adams had taught all the children the ways of Christianity, and the island was now a true community, where everyone got along in perfect harmony. Adams was raising the entire island as one family and had turned them all to God.

It was a great story, filled with images of redemption, harmony, and goodwill. A band of wanted criminals, escaping to a South Seas island and forming a perfect society; no wonder Hollywood has been drawn to it.

Much of it was no doubt true too, although the captains had only Adams’s word for it. He was the only man left, after all, from the early days, and the women could not speak much English. Adams told different and sometimes contradictory stories, minimizing his role in the mutiny and in the bloody early days on Pitcairn.

But he was convincing enough that the captains took his tales back to England and told them to the press.

Consequently, the navy decided Adams had paid the price for his crimes and decided not to bother to take him back to England for trial.

Then preachers all across England started telling their congregations that Pitcairn was a model community, that all towns and cities should be more like this distant outpost of civilization.

Then came the hundreds of books, poems, and songs. Lord Byron even wrote a (rather bad) poem titled “The Island, or Christian and his Comrades.”

Fan clubs were founded around the world and still exist in at least five countries. People became inspired by the Pitcairn story and became devoted to a place they would never see and thus never be disillusioned by.

Soon, Pitcairn entered the popular culture as the new Eden, where everyone got along, shared what they had, and worshiped God with a true heart. Ever since, Pitcairn has been as much symbol as real place.

In the 18 months it took me to arrange passage to Pitcairn, I communicated by e-mail with more than 100 fans of the island. Some were hard-core aficionados, collecting Bounty memorabilia and forever tracking down Pitcairn lore.

“Pitcairn’s history has been an inspiration to me all my life,” one woman wrote. “Whenever I have been nervous about taking a risk, I am motivated by Fletcher Christian and the mutineers. I say to myself, ‘If they could do it, so can I.’ ”

“My message for the islanders,” a man from Japan wrote: “Whenever you feel isolated and discouraged, remember the rest of the world needs you more than you need them.”

But one man from the Netherlands was more realistic:

“I’m afraid that visiting the island would be a disappointment to me,” he wrote. “It is just an island with a western population, carrying nothing but a memory of what life used to be in the times of the mutiny.”

Getting to Pitcairn

Getting to Pitcairn and back took 31 hours of plane rides and 103 hours on the open ocean. I flew from Detroit to Los Angeles, took a midnight flight to Tahiti, then caught the once-a-week Air Tahiti flight to Mangareva, a tiny island in French Polynesia 300 miles from Pitcairn.

Mangareva, population 600, is Pitcairn’s closest inhabited neighbor, and from there a 67-foot chartered yacht, the Dione, took me and two other passengers on the final leg of our journey. Within a few hours of departure, Mangareva had disappeared off the horizon, and we knew we wouldn’t see land again for two days, until Pitcairn.

The South Pacific is one of the few places left where man has made no visible changes: no air pollution, no floating litter, no distant skyline. It was as untouched as untouched gets: just water and sky and stars.

On the morning of our third day out, we spotted Pitcairn, a gray smudge on the horizon. In a few hours, we had drawn close enough that I could make out a few details. It’s a tiny island – about the size of Wildwood Metropark, half the size of Ottawa Hills – but rugged. In its less than two square miles, the island reaches a height of 1,200 feet.

For such a small place, its landscape is remarkably diverse. The center is densely forested with dozens of varieties of fruit trees. To the west are bare rock cliffs along the shore; to the east, landslides have carved bright red gashes into the hillsides.

As we approached from the north, I began to make out a few white houses dotting the area the islanders call The Edge. Together, they form Adamstown, the one settlement on Pitcairn. To call it a town is a bit of a joke; only 13 occupied homes are on the entire island.

As we got closer, we spotted a longboat filled with a dozen island men and boys, cutting out to us. (Because there is no place to dock at Pitcairn, islanders fetch visitors in one of their three aluminum work boats.) Alongside the longboat were two men in a small speedboat.

“Hello! Have a good trip?” yelled one of the men as they approached us. He was in his 40s and looked every inch an islander – graying stubble on his face, frayed T-shirt, no shoes.

We reflexively yelled back, “Yes!”

“Quit your lying!” yelled back the other man, younger, with a ponytail.

The men, who we later learned were named Dave Brown and Pawl Warren, grabbed our bags and then us. They motored us out to the longboat, named Tin, and executed a perfect midsea transfer of luggage and passengers. Tin then jetted us back to Bounty Bay, and within seconds I was setting foot on Pitcairn.

It was an odd moment. Suddenly I realized, after all my planning and traveling, I was finally here. I climbed onto the concrete jetty the islanders had built, flush with excitement.

Nearly the entire island was there; the arrival of a boat is a big deal on Pitcairn. They didn’t look very different from small-towners in America. Most were in T-shirts and shorts, like people headed for a Lake Erie beach. The teenagers paid a little more attention to how they looked, wearing typical mall gear. The only things missing were shoes. Most Pitcairners go barefoot.

As descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian women, the islanders had a mix of Caucasian and Polynesian characteristics. Some had the tightly-curled hair, dark skin, and large frame of a Samoan; others looked like white suburbanites.

I had plenty of time to look around, because the islanders were busy looking at us. There was no “Hello,” or “Welcome,” or “How was the trip?” When visitors arrive, the Pitcairners spend their first few minutes sizing them up; it’s how they decide with which families each visitor will stay. It is awfully intimidating.

Eventually, Tom Christian – the most famous Pitcairner, because his job as radio officer has him communicating with the outside world almost every day – spoke up and decided I should stay at Big Fence.

Discovering Big Fence

I didn’t know what Big Fence was, but it sounded fine to me. My two bags were loaded onto the back of one Honda four-wheeler, and I was loaded onto the back of another. We both went up the steep incline the islanders call the Hill of Difficulty. It was easy to understand the name; this was the hill all supplies from ships had to be taken up, and it was a doozy. The four-wheeler strained up the dirt road, rumbling over the enormous veins carved in the path with every rainfall.

At the top of the hill was Big Fence, a house built on the spot where, decades ago, a big fence once stood.

Big Fence is one of the newer homes on the island, built in 1984 after the previous one was destroyed by fire. It was huge: 14 bedrooms on two levels. Most rooms are used for storage, though, because only four people live there.

The head of the household is Dobrey Christian, a cranky but lovable woman in her 70s. Staying with her were her daughter Brenda, son-in-law Mike, and Brenda’s 13-year-old son, Andrew.

Like most of the homes on Pitcairn, Big Fence is basic but homey. Its walls are wooden sheets without insulation; it never gets cold enough on tropical Pitcairn to require much heat. The roof was corrugated iron, which was also used to collect rainwater in storage tanks; there is no other fresh water on the island. From the back porch, an amazing view of the turbulent Pacific stretched for miles.

Inside were the modern comforts of a western home: TVs, VCRs, electric oven, microwave, stereos. Out back was a washer and dryer. The island’s electrical generators run only nine hours a day, during the morning and from late afternoon into the night, and the islanders all have lots of things that plug in. But attached to the house, in a shed, was a traditional wood-burning Polynesian oven and grill.

And Big Fence has one thing most homeowners on Pitcairn envy: a working toilet. But not far from the washer and dryer, it also has the more traditional outhouse, called a duncan.

I unloaded my things and met the people I would be staying with. Brenda, Mike, and Andrew are the newest additions to Pitcairn’s population.

Brenda was born and raised on Pitcairn but left in 1972 when she married a Welshman. Except for a year in the mid-1980s on Pitcairn, she has spent her adult life in England. It was there, almost a decade ago, after her first marriage ended, that she met Mike, an Englishman who managed stores for the British armed forces.

They were married in 1997. At the ceremony, Mike announced he had a surprise for his bride: he would change his last name, from Lupton to Christian. It was a present to his wife: to give her back her “Christian” name.

When Mike was offered early retirement this year, they decided it was time to try Pitcairn. Mike was a self-proclaimed “armed forces brat,” so he’s used to moving around. They took the plunge in May.

“We’d been talking about it for years, but there always seemed to be something in the way,” Mike said. “So finally, we just decided to do it.”

“This is home,” Brenda said. “I knew I wanted to come back.”

A typical Pitcairner starts the day with the sunrise. The island’s generators don’t kick on until 9 a.m., so alarm clocks are one of the few electronic gadgets not to have made a big impact on the island’s way of life.

For all their remoteness, the islanders seem to have a real love affair with outside goods. Pitcairn, as a British colony, is governed by a high commissioner based in New Zealand, and two or three times a year, the government arranges for a freighter to take supplies from there to Pitcairn.

So the islanders can order up anything they want from New Zealand – 3,300 miles away – or by mail order from around the world. (The islanders have a single satellite phone that enables them to call in orders, at rates of up to $10 a minute. A passing ship brings mail about six times a year.)

It might take longer than a drive to the mall, but the Pitcairners can get just about anything they want. The one general store on the island – open three times a week, for about half an hour each time – stocks lots of New Zealand junk food, with names like Crunchies and Bigguns.

Pitcairners, as a rule, eat a lot: seconds and thirds of almost everything. Perhaps it’s a holdover from earlier days, when food supplies were uncertain, but the result is that the Pitcairners are now a hefty group. (It also doesn’t help that they use their four-wheelers to get around, even for trips of 50 feet. The steep hills of Pitcairn could trim fat pretty quickly.)

In fact, the everyday lives of the Pitcairners are not too different from what you might expect in an Appalachian community. And as in those small villages, the number of residents is dropping.

Only 40 Pitcairners live on the island now, not including the schoolteacher, pastor, and their families, here for paid two-year stints. The demographics aren’t heartening for Pitcairn’s future.

There’s no one between the ages of 20 and 35.

Only one woman is of childbearing age.

Almost a third of the adults are over 70, almost ninety per cent over 40.

There are nine children. But children of Pitcairn now make a habit of leaving as soon as they can. Most go to New Zealand.

The result is a population rapidly aging, with little fresh blood. Before World War II, there were enough people that natives could find a wife or husband on Pitcairn. But now, anyone seeking a spouse has to go abroad, usually for good. Only five family names are left on the island.

“There’s going to be a lot of old buggers around here soon,” Jay Warren, the island magistrate, said. “I don’t know what the answer is.”

Jay, 43, remembers Pitcairn when he was a teenager. “There were three houses up the road here, and a house around the corner, and another there,” he said, gesturing. All those houses, and the people who lived in them, are gone now. Stand outside Jay’s front door today and you won’t see a single other home.

“We don’t have the younger generation to keep things going,” Jay said. “It might get to the point where the island doesn’t work anymore.”

Eventually, after John Adams died in 1829 and passing ship captains started teaching a bit more about Christianity to the Pitcairners, islanders became more curious about religion. In 1886, a Seventh-day Adventist missionary named John Tay arrived on the island. Within six weeks, he had converted everyone.

Ministering to Pitcairners’ spiritual needs

Ever since then, the SDA church has sent pastors for two-year stints to minister to the Pitcairners’ spiritual needs. They also handle their physical needs: the pastor’s wife is required to have training as a nurse and becomes island medical officer on arrival.

The day after I arrived was a Saturday, the Sabbath to SDAs, so I headed with Brenda, Mike, and Dobrey to the public square to go to church.

The square is where almost all the public buildings on the island sit, including the courthouse, the library, and the post office. The church looks almost exactly like the other buildings: a plain, white, wood-frame structure with a fresh paint job.

Inside are about a dozen rows of pews. Above the altar is a painting of the island, with the legend “The Lord is my rock and fortress.” An old-looking speaker system hooks into the small organ Betty Christian plays during services.

The church’s major attraction sits to the right of the altar, in a locked glass case: the original Bible from the Bounty, the one John Adams used to teach his flock about Christianity.

Designed for the more than 200 people who used to live on Pitcairn, the church would look empty even if the entire island was there. But on this day, only 12 Pitcairners were present.

Religion, once the bulwark of the island, has faded. Only a decade ago, nearly everyone on the island went to church every Saturday.

SDA doctrine forbids the drinking of alcohol and the eating of pork and shellfish. But now about half of the island drinks: the younger crowd, which on Pitcairn means anyone under 50. Quite a few chow down on pork chops once in a while. And the enormous crawfish that live just off the island coast, once only used as bait, are now people food too.

These differences are a source of tension. Some of the younger folks call the older Pitcairners “the Hallelujah crowd.”

Indeed, the dozen islanders at church looked like the churchgoing crowd at many small-town churches: almost entirely seniors, with a sprinkling of middle-aged. Churchgoing, which used to be one of the few communal experiences on Pitcairn, is now for only a small segment of the population.

The pastor is named Neville Tosens, but everyone just calls him Pastor, just as they’ve called all the previous men in the job.

He starts out the service with a hymn. The Pitcairners were once famous for their church singing; the multiple harmonies of their Polynesian heritage, mixed with the rhythms of a good hymn, were said to be magical. Now, with only a dozen voices, each one seems to be slightly off-track.

Then Pastor begins his sermon, which is a bit of a blisterer. He asks the remnants of his flock why they even bother coming to church: “Is it just a habit? Is it just to show off your nice clothes? Why do you bother?”

He begins to quote from Isaiah chapter 1, in which God lectures the Israelites about their sinful habits. But it sounds like the older, religious islanders talking about younger ones who have either stopped coming to church or moved off the island:

“Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.

“Ah, sinful nation! A people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who deal corruptly!

“Why will you still be smitten, that you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.”

Pastor is usually a quiet man, but his voice is filling with passion now. He tries bringing the Bible’s language home to the Pitcairners. “There’s never been a saint in this church, and there never will,” he says. “People are estranged from God. How people limp along without God!”

He concludes by saying that God doesn’t want the worship of those islanders present, unless they first learn to get along with one another.

On Pitcairn, feuds are long-lasting

After the service, I go to Pastor’s house to talk about his job, which he had held for about six months. He admitted that religion no longer played a large role in the life of the island.

“I don’t have very big goals for my time here. If I can get one or two of the nominal Adventists to become practicing Adventists, that would be good. And there’s some work that needs to be done on the church and the mission house . . . but otherwise, I don’t have any other real plans.”

When asked about it, he admitted that the day’s sermon was specifically intended for two of the islanders who were feuding. If one showed up for church, the other would refuse to go, refuse to be in the same room.

On Pitcairn, feuds are long-lasting. There’s no way to get away for a few days to allow tempers to cool. With only 40 people, all interrelated, tensions and feuds are constant. Siblings have not spoken for years, and arguments have lasted generations.

Back at the church, a few of the islanders were discussing their Bible study session for the week. Usually, only four or five turn out for the sessions. This month, they were discussing the book of Daniel.

Daniel is a book of apocalypse, a story that predicts how the world will end. Daniel says mankind will be tempted by a false idol. When that happens, it says, the end is near.

The 20th century arrived at Pitcairn in the mid-1950s, when the first electrical generators were installed. A tanker from British Petroleum called at the island and unloaded the first drums of diesel fuel.

The island magistrate, John Christian, paid for it with a literal sack of money, filled with dollars, guilders, pounds, lira, and whatever else had been left over the years by visitors. Before that transaction, money was almost a novelty; for the most part, the islanders lived off the land, eating what they grew and blissfully ignorant of the gadgets of the outside world.

But with electricity arrived all the things that use it, and all of those totems of outside materialism cost money. The islanders have traded in their once communal ways of living for a near-constant quest for money.

It is the source of much conflict between islanders. During my week on the island, I heard almost 20 islanders complain about the money habits of one of their neighbors: how someone was keeping property meant for the entire island, or intentionally forgetting to pay out money owed, or lifting a few dollars from the general store’s till.

The Pitcairners make most of their money off the island’s history. They sell stamps, curios, and trinkets they make, which gain their value mostly from the words “Pitcairn Island” on them. They sell wood carvings of sharks, birds, and the Bounty. They sell painted leaves from local plants and baskets woven from the long, sturdy leaves of the pandanus palm tree. Their buyers are passengers and crew on passing ships, the occasional visitor, and Americans via mail order.

But since all the islanders sell the same things – all the men carve, all the women weave – the urge to find something new to sell is very strong. And when someone does, everyone else jumps on the bandwagon.

A few years ago, one of the women ordered a dehydrator and began using it to dry some of the island’s wonderful fruit, with an eye toward selling it to New Zealand. She became the envy of the island, and within a few supply ships, nearly every house had an expensive dehydrator, and now more than a dozen sell dried bananas and pineapples, without much profit.

Two years ago, a visiting scientist did some tests on Pitcairn’s bee population and found that they were entirely disease free. And because they have a variety of the world’s best fruit to pollinate, their honey is sweet, complex, and delicious.

Since then, about a dozen of the islanders decided they would invest in hives and try to sell Pitcairn honey. And because the island’s administration back in New Zealand wants the colony to succeed, they made the islanders an impressive offer: if they would form a cooperative and sell honey together, the administration would take care of bottling, marketing, and distribution. It was a gift worth thousands of dollars.

Forming a cooperative makes sense, because one or two islanders simply could not produce enough honey to make it efficient to sell halfway around the world. And it certainly wouldn’t make sense to have 15 brands of Pitcairn honey competing on New Zealand shelves.

But that’s exactly what the islanders wanted. “No one wanted to go with a co-op,” Jay, the magistrate, said. “Everyone wanted to go private.”

As Dave Brown, who has more beehives than any other islander, said, “Why should my work help someone else? If I can do better than them, I should get more.”

It’s a capitalist concept that might serve these people well in America. But on a tiny place like Pitcairn, there isn’t much room for competition.

The islanders held a meeting that Sheils Carnihan, as government adviser, ran. “Everything is up to you,” she said. “No one is trying to force anything on you.” She proposed a compromise, saying that people could contribute honey to the cooperative and still sell private-label honey on the side.

The meeting ended without agreement. Dave was already preparing to sell his own brand of honey, “Tautama Gold,” over the Internet.

Afterwards, Dave returned to a back room of the public hall, where the islanders keep their ancient 16mm film projector. They don’t use it much anymore, with VCRs all over the island, but as Dave said, “It’s good to check and see if it still works every once in a while.”

After a few minutes, Dave puts on one of the first documentaries ever done on the island: Miracle On Pitcairn. The Seventh-day Adventist church made it in 1963 to show the world how holy the Pitcairners were.

“Money is of little use on Pitcairn,” the narrator says, “for there is no corner store where you may spend a dime or two. . . . Their fingers are always busy, for a few baskets sold can mean a new dress, maybe . . . their children have to be clothed.”

The latest idea for how to make money on Pitcairn comes from an outsider named Vaine Pau. Vaine (pronounced “Wayne”) is from the Cook Islands but lives with Charlene Warren, the island’s only woman of childbearing age. Their two children, 2-year-old Ralph and infant Jayden, are the youngest people on the island.

Not long after he arrived on Pitcairn a few years ago, Vaine noticed coffee beans grew wild all across the island. One day, he decided to make coffee from them. It was delicious. (The other islanders, used to weak imported instant coffee, think it is too strong.)

Now, Vaine is trying to find a way to produce enough to sell some in New Zealand. But he wants to figure out a way to help everyone on the island.

“There’s a lot of greed here,” Vaine said. “I want to do something that will let everybody get something from this. There needs to be some more cooperation.”

Later in the day, Mike told Dave Brown he thought Vaine had a very marketable product with his coffee.

“Well, then let’s get in on that,” Dave said. “Let’s make some coffee.”

The Pitcairners were once renowned for their cooperation and communal living. Take, for example, the old Pitcairn ritual of the “share out.” In nearly every film, article, or book about the Pitcairners, the author or narrator speaks approvingly of it, saying it shows what a true community the island was.

Whenever a passing ship visited, all the islanders would pool together all of the fruit their trees had produced, huge mounds of bananas, passion fruit, oranges, grapefruit, along with some of the vegetables they grow.

The communal pile of fruit would be brought aboard the ship, Brenda told me, and would be offered to the captain, who would give in return whatever food or supplies he had to offer.

Then, all that the island received for the fruit would be divided equally among all the families of the island.

“We don’t do that anymore,” Brenda said. Now, when a ship comes, it’s every islander for him or herself. Each person climbs on board a ship, armed with a basket of fruit.” Whoever gets there first gets to trade first; move too slow, and you might get nothing.

Pitcairn still holds a share out on the rare occasions when a captain makes a blanket gift to all islanders, but the tradition is otherwise dead.

Jay, the magistrate, estimates that an average family on the island makes about $6,000 a year, including more than $2,000 from the many government jobs every islander has. Jay, for instance, is the island’s magistrate, assistant engineer, and conservation officer, three jobs that earn him more than $5,000 a year.

The government admits that many of these jobs require little work and are often unnecessary. As the administration states in its official “Guide to Pitcairn” : “Public appointments and benefits from them are more widely distributed than is warranted by the work to be done.”

During my stay, Brenda and Mike were disappointed to learn they had not been selected to fill the vacant spot of rubbish collector. “Back in the U.K., I dealt with million-pound budgets, and now I can’t get chosen as a rubbish collector,” Mike joked.

Pitcairn isn’t unique in the way it pursues western goods, or in the ways they affect their lives. It has happened to almost every native culture to come in contact with the technologically superior West: The natives start to trade for goods, and their self-sufficient, communal way of life is replaced with a constant fight for gadgets, status, and money.

It’s happened to Eskimos in Canada, Aborigines in Australia, and tribes in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s happened on islands across the South Pacific.

After the mutiny on the Bounty, Captain Bligh made another trip to Tahiti, this time on the Providence. He arrived in 1792, only 15 years after his first visit, with Captain Cook. Upon his arrival, Bligh was shocked at how the island culture had degenerated.

Many of the Tahitians had become alcoholics and wore dirty clothes given them by passing sailors rather than their native garb. Their language had become a patois with a large amount of English mixed in. They were almost entirely dependent on European iron tools, having forgotten how to fashion their own from stone.

Perhaps Bligh, when looking at what his culture had wrought in Tahiti, thought of the words of his mentor, Captain Cook, during his last visit to the island in 1777:

“It would have been far better for these poor people never to have known us.”

Educating new teachers every 24 months

“What makes a person a loser?”

Sheils Carnihan, the island schoolteacher, asked her class. Sheils’s charges are the seven children of elementary school or junior high age. Only five are Pitcairners; two are Sheils’s own daughters.

On Pitcairn, a new schoolteacher arrives every two years, arranged through the New Zealand government. The teacher, his or her spouse, and their kids spend the next 24 months living the life of a Pitcairner. The teacher brings in new knowledge of the outside world; the children provide new friends for the island kids.

The students toss out a few answers to Sheils’s question: “stealing friends,” “being a spoilsport,” “pushes you around.” The children range from 8 to 13, but they all learn together.

At first glance, it seems that might be a challenge, but Sheils doesn’t think so: “I’ve been in a class of 30 kids where some were severely retarded, some could barely read, and some were writing at an adult level. This is nothing compared to that.”

Pitcairn children are taught by the schoolteacher until they reach the equivalent of ninth grade. Then, for two years, they take correspondence courses from New Zealand. Three older kids, aged 14 and 15, are taking the correspondence courses.

After those two years, around age 15, they have a choice: they can remain on Pitcairn and take two more years of correspondence courses, or they can move to New Zealand and finish their education there.

Nearly everyone chooses to move to New Zealand; almost no one ever moves back to Pitcairn. That, in a nutshell, is the source of the island’s population problem: Its young people, realizing that even a high school diploma is next to useless on Pitcairn, decide for the outside world.

On the wall of the Pitcairn schoolhouse, incongruously, is a poster sporting a quote from Donald Trump: “I like thinking big. I always have. To me, it’s very simple: If you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.”

“I probably won’t be coming back,” said Candace Warren, who got her Pitcairn driver’s license when she turned 15 this year. “I like New Zealand.”

Candace wants to become a professional singer. That’s not an easy career path on Pitcairn, where the fullest house possible is 40 people.

The future will likely not be kind to Pitcairn’s little school. Seven children are enrolled, plus the three doing a correspondence course. In three years, if everyone stays, there will be only three students, plus one doing correspondence.

“The kids will get a lot of attention, but how are they going to learn interaction?” Sheils asks. “How to you play a game with three people?”

Growing up on Pitcairn is a mixed bag. On one hand, you live in an enormous playground; for an outdoors-loving kid, it’s heaven to be able to roam around the cliff sides, swim in St. Paul’s Pool, or pick oranges from the tops of trees.

And, if it takes a village to raise a child, the entire adult population of Pitcairn plays its part, watching out for each other’s kids whenever they can.

The downside of communal parenting is that parents, on the whole, give their kids less attention than western parents. Kids have to fend for themselves, which builds self-reliance but also makes it easier for them to imagine living on their own off-island.

A boy ostracized by two or three kids can’t just find new friends on Pitcairn. It can become very lonely very quick, for the adults as much as for the children, if disputes get in the way of friendship.

And let’s say you want to learn to play the trumpet, or design Web pages, or join a sports team. On Pitcairn, you’re out of luck.

Once a week, Pastor takes aside the three oldest kids who are about to go to New Zealand to tell them what the outside world is like. Yet these kids have all been to New Zealand and know the basics about cars, TV, and other objects of the modern age.

“It’s frustrating sometimes,” Pastor said. “There are some things you just cannot get them interested in. I talked about AIDS one day, and they could not have been less interested. ‘That’s not something we need to worry about,’ they think.”

While I was there, Pastor’s weekly lesson was about culture shock. He and the students enumerated some of its forms: climate, language, food, dress, religion, standards of cleanliness. A South African who has done missionary work throughout the Pacific, he had plenty of examples.

Comparing New Zealand life

Tony Warren, 14, was raised on New Zealand and came to Pitcairn recently to live with his grandmother, who thought it would be a nice change of pace for him. He’s the expert on New Zealand life.

“It’s really different from here,” he said. “They’ll see cars and get used to closing doors.”

“I hate cars!” said Adelia Brown, also about to head to New Zealand and the child most likely to move back to Pitcairn when her schooling is over.

Pastor concludes his lesson by offering ways to deal with culture shock: “Take it as it comes, one step at a time” ; “Figure out what it is I don’t like, and think: I have to adapt to it.”

After class, I talked to Adelia, who will be heading to Auckland at the end of the year for her last two years of high school. “It’ll be a change,” she said. “I wanted to see what it’s like.”

She’s visited New Zealand before, and “it was OK. There were different things you could do. You could go to the park and play if you wanted to.”

She listens to New Zealand rock music and wants to become a kindergarten teacher. “It’s always been a dream of mine,” she said.

But she says she plans to “hopefully” return to Pitcairn in two years: “I’ll miss the island too much.”

The “hopefully” is important. The decision to live on Pitcairn or New Zealand is entirely hers, and if she wants to move back, no one will stop her. But over the years, lots of people have said they’ll come back, only to change their minds once they’ve lived outside. The “hopefully” means she knows the outside might be too attractive a few years down the line.

What will she do if she does come back? “I’ll start all my old chores again. I’ll probably start weaving the baskets,” she said without enthusiasm.

Then she switched to what she considered the best thing about New Zealand: “There’ll be new people to talk to.”

The Pitcairners never asked to be made into symbols of good, of course. That’s just the way it turned out: a few dozen normal human beings, made into symbols of perfection.

As a result, many of the islanders have nothing but anger for the writers who, over the years, have created that impression. The story of the Bounty and Pitcairn have been the subject of almost 3,000 articles, hundreds of books, dozens of documentaries, and five feature films.

“It’s difficult to have people writing about you and all your family, just because of where you live,” Brenda said. “It makes some people mad, that writers are making money off of writing about us.”

Brenda points to one example in her life, in the early 1970s, when a man named Ian Ball came to the island to write a book, Pitcairn: Children of Mutiny. He singled out four Pitcairners to profile; the 18-year-old Brenda was one.

“Brenda Christian is Fletcher’s loveliest descendant,” he gushed. “She has impressive cleavage and no wish to conceal it from the dour little commune. . . . She is a pocket Venus.”

One day, I asked Dobrey who was the last person to write something about Pitcairn that the islanders liked. “Rosalind Young,” she answered.

Rosalind Young was an island native who wrote a book about Pitcairn in 1894.

It’s an odd relationship, Pitcairn and its chroniclers. On one hand, Pitcairners have had more ink spilled on their behalf, per capita, than any other people in the world. Tom Christian, for instance, has probably been mentioned in more magazines and newspapers than many congressmen. And because most of the writing about Pitcairn comes from people who have either never been there, or have been there for only a brief time, they are easily stereotyped.

On the other hand, the Pitcairners owe their lifestyle – and probably the island’s continued existence as a populated place – to the legends.

An average island family makes most of its money selling tourist trinkets, to passing ships or via mail order. If Pitcairn didn’t have the image of romance and paradise, a lot of those ships wouldn’t bother to stop.

Next year, the island is expecting three large cruise ships, each carrying hundreds of passengers. Those people probably will buy tens of thousands of dollars worth of trinkets, and none would care if the Bounty and Pitcairn didn’t have such a hold on the imagination.

The South Pacific is dotted with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of beautiful islands with fewer than a hundred people on them, but their residents don’t have VCRs and stereos and microwaves and nice homes, like the Pitcairners.

The latest writer to receive the islanders’ ire is Dea Birkett, a British travel writer who visited the island for four months in 1991. In 1997, she wrote a book titled Serpent in Paradise, in which she portrays the islanders as having many of the standard flaws of small-town life: gossip, occasionally flaring tempers, and a love of material goods bordering on fetish.

Serpent in Paradise does include a few low blows. She writes about the one-night stand she had with one of the married island men. (He has since moved to New Zealand.) And Ms. Birkett seems to have a paranoid streak; at one point, she thinks the islanders are plotting to kill her. But for the most part, it is an honest, if subjective, account of life on Pitcairn.

Immediately after it was published, the island’s many fans around the world were enraged: The island they had been dreaming of had been uncovered as a place with normal human failings. At a book reading in London, Brenda Christian decided to confront Ms. Birkett about her book.

Brenda found Ms. Birkett’s responses unsatisfactory. Brenda told a British newspaper: “I’d like to see her hanged.” (She told me, “when a Pitcairner says someone should be hanged, it doesn’t mean she should hang, literally.”)

Even though no actual copies of the book appeared on the island for almost a year, the response on Pitcairn was anger and a feeling of betrayal. Since Serpent, the islanders had not let any writers on Pitcairn; because of the difficulty reaching the island, Pitcairners can effectively decide who visits and who does not.

No writers, that is until me, and my application was the object of considerable debate, Dave Brown told me on the day I arrived.

“We weren’t sure if we wanted to be written about again, but we thought you might be able to undo some of the lies in Birkett,” said Dave, who sits on the island council.

And if the islanders didn’t like my story? Then you might be the last writer we let on,” Dave warned.

Sheils and her husband, Daniel, hadn’t read Ms. Birkett’s book when they arrived on the island a year and a half ago. But they have since.

“We read it and kept saying, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly right,’ ” Sheils said.

Daniel is more direct: “Every single word of that book is true.”

The Carnihan family is easy to pick out of any photo of the islanders: their red hair and pale skin clearly don’t betray any Polynesian ancestry.

But they’ve lived on Pitcairn for a year and a half and are in a unique position to talk about the island.

An island of individuals?

“When people come to visit Pitcairn for one day or a few days, the islanders do a terrific job,” Sheils said. “They smile, and they tell their stories, and they’re very generous. Pitcairn is a dream for so many people, and why just kill the dream?”

She paused: “It only takes three or four months here to have the dream taken away.”

“There’s a lot of selfishness,” she said. “It’s an island of individuals. There’s no community at all, unless there’s someone to oppose, and then they unite. I hate to say it, but it’s true.”

Daniel, who makes no bones about his dislike of Pitcairn, is blunt, and perhaps a bit extreme: “There’s not an honest person here.”

As schoolteacher, Sheils holds the position of government adviser, meaning she conveys information from the New Zealand administration and helps to run meetings and present the government’s opinion.

The insurmountable challenge is that “the islanders hate outsiders. There’s an island way of doing things, and if you try to tell them there’s a better way of doing them, you get the stare and get blackballed. Anything negative that’s said is taken so personally.”

“We thought it would be an adventure,” Sheils said. “But the best thing to come out of this is that our marriage has gotten a lot stronger. There’s no one else I can talk to.”

Brenda and Mike say some of the same things as Sheils and Daniel. They are trying their best to fit into the island culture, but Mike in particular shows signs of being exasperated.

Because of his experience managing shops in England, Mike was named chairman of the island general store not long after his arrival. He set about redoing the books and found that some island families who had bought items five years ago had never paid for them and never been asked to pay for them. The books had never been balanced.

He went so far as to burn all the store’s books from before 1996 in the stove at Big Fence, because he didn’t want to ever be asked about them.

He’s even started referring to the store as “PIGS.” The letters stand for Pitcairn Island General Store, but he admits it is calculated to see whether he can get a rise out of the non-pork-eating islanders.

I ask Mike whether he worries that, as an outsider, one bad move could turn the islanders against him.

“I worked in shops for more than 20 years,” he says. “I had to learn how to deal with angry customers, suppliers, bosses and satisfy them all. This sort of thing is my skill.”

The islanders know that the trends are all in the wrong direction and that if they don’t act quickly, Pitcairn could someday be an empty rock again.

Tom Christian thinks he has the answer. He wants to end Pitcairn’s isolation, build an airstrip, and bring in tourists by the dozen.

“The young people move away because there’s no way to make money on Pitcairn,” he says. “If we could provide them with a steady source of income, a good job, then I think they would come back.”

Tom’s plan: Have a weekly flight service from Mangareva, so 15 to 20 tourists could be on the island at all times. Those tourists would be buying carvings, baskets, coffee, and honey, not to mention paying a premium to stay in island homes. Throw in some profit from the flight service – Tom already has the name Air Pitcairn picked out – and you’ve got tons of money coming in, he thinks.

Presumably, the New Zealand Pitcairners will leap at the chance to come back if they can get a job cleaning up after the tourists.

The idea of an airstrip has been debated for generations, particularly since 1945. “The shipping industry is declining, and we’re getting fewer and fewer ships stopping every year,” says Jay, the island magistrate. “It used to be that everyone was against an airstrip, and some of the older folks still don’t want it, but we need some sort of contact.”

In the last two or three years, local public opinion has finally, grudgingly decided that ending Pitcairn’s isolation through an airstrip wouldn’t be a bad idea. And Tom has talked with Australian electronics billionaire Dick Smith, who has agreed to lead a fundraiser to pay for construction if that’s what the islanders want.

But there are problems with their airstrip dream. The biggest one is that it may be physically impossible.

Surveyors have determined that a site on the island’s southeast side would be suitable for a grass airstrip 1,800 feet in length. That’s perilously short. The main runway at Toledo Express Airport, in contrast, is 10,600 feet, or six times as long.

On one end of the proposed Pitcairn runway is a large hill. On the other is a cliff, and the Pacific Ocean. And the winds change direction so quickly and so powerfully on Pitcairn that it is likely that many pilots would face a disastrous crosswind or tailwind.

Even if it did work logistically, there’s no denying the impact that sort of change would have on the islanders.

“I think it would be hard on the islanders to have that many people to deal with,” Jay says.

“It’s going to change the entire way of life,” Jay’s wife, Carol, says. “The Pitcairners are famous for our hospitality to visitors, and that’s going to wear thin after a while. Constant pressure to smile for camera-toting tourists could be too much.

But Carol is hopeful that an airstrip might bring young people back. “They don’t stay because there’s nothing for them here. Maybe with an airstrip, they’ll see something for them.”

Despite the optimism of people like Carol and Tom, Sheils isn’t convinced that bringing in hundreds of tourists can do much good: “They think that money will solve the problem. It won’t. It’s a community in crisis. It’s decaying from the inside.”

Everyone, it seems, has ideas on how to “save” Pitcairn. Some say turn it into an offshore banking haven. Some say make it a huge coffee plantation or honey farm.

A decade ago, a satellite discovered what could be millions of tons of minerals encrusted on an undersea mountain, 50 miles southeast of Pitcairn. If underwater mining technologies improve, it may be reachable in a decade, and some of the islanders are happy waiting until then for a potential windfall.

Pitcairners have no shortage of dreams. But none of their previous ideas convinced young people to stay.

Tom is one of the island’s most religious residents, and before I ask him about the airstrip, he reads a verse from 1 Timothy, Chapter 4:

“Let no one despise your youth, but set believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

As he was reading that, the Sabbath began; it starts at sundown Friday for Seventh-day Adventists. Across the island, the younger half of the island was preparing to crack open a few beers and have their usual Friday night drinking party. Their parties are nothing outrageous by western standards – a few beers, some darts, country music – but to much of Tom’s generation, it qualifies as an affront.

Meeting the oldest couple

I walked up the hill to Pulau, near the school, to meet the oldest couple on the island.

Millie Christian is 91; her husband, Warren, is 84. Neither one gets around the island much, but both are, by western standards, in fine shape for their ages.

(Pitcairners have long been noted for their long lives and the strength they maintain late into them. The islanders like to tell of the late Andrew Young, the last fifth-generation descendant of the mutineers. When he was 83, a neighbor teased that he was getting old. Angered, he went down to Bounty Bay, climbed into his one-man boat, and proceeded to paddle all the way around the island in a hour.)

I spotted Mr. Christian struggling around in his walker outside Tom’s house. I introduced myself, and he happily invited me in. We sat and chatted for a while, and he told stories of the old days on Pitcairn, like the time the men had to go to neighboring Henderson Island during World War II to clear an airstrip if Allied planes ever needed one. He seemed to be the best of old Pitcairn: friendly, open, generous.

Millie suffers from a variety of ailments and is in pain much of the time. In New Zealand or the United States, she’d be making regular trips to doctors; here, she has to settle for regular visits from the pastor’s wife and hope that medications don’t run out before the next supply ship.

But she too can tell stories. She talked about how different hymns used to sound: “There used to be all these beautiful voices, tenors and altos and basses and everyone singing harmonies. Now, it’s not so good.”

Mr. Christian was born in 1914, so he had seen the island’s population soar past 200 and drop to its current level. I asked him what he thought about the ideas other people had on how to draw young people back, about the airstrip and tourists and money. I asked him whether he thought the grand plans would work.

“Oh, no, I don’t think so,” he said matter-of-factly. “Once you see New Zealand and the world, you want to stay there. You don’t want to be here.”

My final day on Pitcairn was the island Sabbath, so we went to another church service. It was time for one of the biggest events on the SDA calendar: the foot-washing ceremony.

Every three months, the religious of Pitcairn separate into men and women, go into rooms, and wash each other’s feet. “It’s a very important symbol,” Pastor said. “It shows that we are a community and that we are willing to help each other, to wash each other’s feet.”

I followed the men. Only four island men were willing to perform the traditional brotherhood ceremony: Jacob Warren, Michael Warren, Tom, and Mike. (Mike, a lapsed Roman Catholic, freely admits he’s not a Seventh-day Adventist but wanted to participate anyway.) Pastor participated, too, but had to recruit one of the other visitors to make the numbers even.

After the ceremony, the pastor gave a sermon on the importance of a spiritual education. The dozen parishioners enjoyed it.

It was time to leave. I gathered my things and headed down the Hill of Difficulty to the landing at Bounty Bay. Most of the island had gathered to send us off; some would be manning the longboat to take us back to the Dione, which would be taking us back to Mangareva, Tahiti, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Toledo.

There were hugs and good-byes. A few of the islanders appeared at the landing to complete business deals, selling jars of jam or bags of dried fruit before their customers left.

Then Tom quieted the Pitcairners and started them in “The Good-bye Song.” Written by an island woman in the 1800s, it’s the song they sing every time someone leaves Pitcairn.

With few exceptions, people visit the island only once; there’s little reason to return, once the stamp is in your passport and you have a few stories to tell the folks back home.

But if life on the island continues as it is – divided among young and old, drinkers and teetotalers, religious and secular – and the number of Pitcairners keeps dropping, it might not be long before they sing their song to the island itself.

Now one last song we’ll sing – good-bye, good-bye,
Time moves on rapid wings – good-bye,
And this short year will soon be past,
Will soon be numbered with the last.
But as we part to all we’ll say –
Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.
But as we part to all we’ll say –
Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.

Early morning skies are thick with pheasants, shotgun fire; Foreigners flock to Pelee Island for a little bit of hunter heaven

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 18

PELEE ISLAND, Ont. – When a few hundred Americans with rifles invaded Pelee Island in 1838, they weren’t welcome.

An American mob, 300 strong, wanted Ontario to declare its independence from British rule. To support the cause, they gathered up some guns and walked across frozen Lake Erie to the island, ready to fight.

The Canadian militia didn’t have much trouble fending them off. It was the last time Americans invaded their northern neighbor intending to shoot Canadians.

Now, they want to shoot pheasants.

Last week was the second of three pheasant hunts the Pelee Island government holds every year. Almost 700 hunters, most American, invade Pelee for each two-day hunt, partly to see the island’s beauty, partly because it’s one of the easiest hunts in North America. Think of it – 7,000 pheasants released during the week before they arrive, on an island not four miles wide.

The birds are released each Monday through Wednesday for the Thursday and Friday hunts.

For these three weeks, it’s difficult to find anyone on the island whose life isn’t wrapped up in the hunt, tending pheasants, ducking from shotgun fire, or accommodating a few hunters in the room above the attic.

Pelee Island does just about everything it can to make the hunt as easy as possible for its visitors.

The pheasant release points are all carefully plotted on a map distributed to every hunter. Eleven birds are released for each hunter before the hunt, and the pheasants are thick on the ground, in some places, when the hunt starts. For a decent hunter, it’s not hard to bag 10 birds in a short time here.

Hunters come from across the globe for the easy pickings. Last year, a man from Australia flew in just for the hunt, and European visitors aren’t uncommon. About 80 per cent are from the states, though, and most of those are from Michigan.

“If you’ve got a dog and you’re a decent shot, you shouldn’t have any problem reaching your limit,” said Shane Stankov, a local resident who tends the pheasants through the year and releases them before the hunt.

“A lot of guys get their limit on the first morning,” said Bill Krestel, reeve (mayor) of the island. “Then they help out the other guys.”

To make it even easier, the island opens up almost all of its land to hunters. There are no restrictions against hunting on people’s front yards, next to the runway at the airport, or right outside city hall, making the island a sea of men in bright orange vests, forever pointing guns in the air. The island’s wildlife preserve is off-limits.

Islanders don’t seem to mind that their birds don’t stand much of a chance against the foreigners’ firepower. Events like this are a buyer’s market, and if hunters want to slap down a couple hundred bucks for target practice, that’s fine with the locals.

As long as they keep coming back.

Sales of hunting licenses this year haven’t been as brisk as locals would like, and they need to snag every last armed man, woman, and child they can get.

Pelee natives can count the island’s good-paying, full-time jobs on their hands and toes, so most people have to work several seasonal or part-time jobs to make ends meet. Mr. Stankov’s a perfect example – he’s spending his days tending the pheasants and working at the trap shooting range, and by night he tends bar at one of the island’s restaurants. (The island has seven liquor licenses. However, there’s no place to buy milk or eggs.)

On a chilly Wednesday morning, Mr. Stankov is releasing pheasants all across the island, in batches of one hundred. The birds are kept in an enormous complex of wire and netting on Pelee’s south end. There are about 21,000 birds here before the hunts start, each purchased by the island for $1.10 as a 1-day-old chick. They’re raised for about 20 weeks, eating up 10 tons of pheasant feed a week at their peak.

To release the birds, Mr. Stankov has to run them through a maze of pens, pushing them from a space half an acre in size to a two-foot-high crate in the back of his pickup. As soon as one hundred birds are loaded into the crate, Mr. Stankov drives off, as the pheasants strut and fret in the back, trying every few seconds to launch themselves through the crate wire covering.

When the truck arrives at the release spot, Mr. Stankov opens the small wooden gate on the crate’s end, but even though this is where they came in, the pheasants don’t seem to realize it’s their chance for escape. A few of the brighter birds edge out and take off, but most stick around until he swings open the two large plywood doors on top.

Driving back to the farm, Mr. Stankov checks his rear-view mirror a few times. “On some releases, you’ll look back and there’ll be the hunters, following you around, looking to see where you released the birds.”

Lawrence Beckett is cooking up caribou sausage. It’s his prize from his last hunt, above the Arctic Circle. It’s 5 a.m. on the first morning of the hunt.

He and four friends are getting ready for the hunt, and they’re much more worried about outsmarting other hunters than outsmarting the birds. Pelee isn’t a big place, and there are only so many places hunters can station themselves. The competition can be fierce.

By 6 a.m., Mr. Beckett is on the road, heading toward a hedgerow on Homeward Road that he heard had 100 pheasants in it last night. The hunt doesn’t officially start until 8 a.m., but by the time he arrives, there are five other trucks and vans parked along the road.

It’s a beautiful morning, the sun breaking through white wispy lines of clouds as it rises. There’s a chill in the air. The men chat, tell jokes, and wait for the OK to begin firing. Hershey, a 4-year-old brown lab dog, rumbles around the back of the van, ready to hunt.

The only hunting talk is about positioning around the other hunters. By 7:30 a.m., there are 20 hunters within sight, all fighting for the same spots.

As happens every year, a few risktakers take an early shot or two, the first around 7:35. But then all is quiet until 7:50, when the number of shots ringing through the air reaches a critical mass and everyone lets loose.

“It sounds like Vietnam over here,” Mr. Beckett says.

Everywhere, there are dogs – labs, pointers, spaniels, and others – rooting around in bushes and undergrowth, trying to rouse a pheasant into the air. And they are successful – shot after shot, hunters hit their targets, and birds fall to the ground.

After an hour, Mr. Beckett’s team is a bit disappointed with their haul. They have 14 birds, each thrown bloody into the back of their van.

These three hunts – the final one will be Thursday and Friday – fatten Pelee’s economy.

In six days, about 2,000 hunters will bring about $1 million Canadian into the economy.

“This hunt is tremendously important,” said Mr. Krestel, the mayor.

It’s important to him because it puts about $140,000 Canadian into the island’s general fund in a good year. The money comes from the $175 licenses that hunters must buy and the $50 fee all foreigners must pay on top of that.

This won’t qualify as a good year, though, because of that most-hated of poachers, the raccoon. Coons broke into the pheasant farm, carting off or killing 2,000 birds.

“Evidently, they climbed up the wire sides and ripped open the netting on top, then down they went,” Mr. Krestel said, shaking his head. The pilfered fowl cost $4 each to replace.

That extra investment was a blow, because not much else seems to be going well for the island these days.

There’s been talk back and forth with the provincial government about cutting the subsidies that support the Jiimaan, the ferry that takes islanders to the mainland for groceries, health care, and the occasional Big Mac. A cut could mean the fare each way would double, which would cost a family of four shipping off to the mainland every weekend about $150 a month.

Next year, the boards of education in Essex County and the city of Windsor will merge. Pelee’s tiny three-room schoolhouse is run by Essex County admininistrators on the mainland, and locals fear the 35 students and three teachers on the island will become an even more distant concern to a consolidated district.

And a new Canadian firearms law set to take affect next year will require Americans bringing a gun across the border to pay $50 to register it each year. That can only discourage American hunters.

But the news isn’t all negative. The government is removing a 20 per cent tax on Americans buying Canadian land to encourage Pelee as a location for summer cottages, and developers are planning a condo community on the island’s southern tip.

And Pelee is still a popular destination for summer vacationers trying to get away from big-city bustle. The population soars to about 1,000 in the summer.

“I think the island will survive, no matter what,” Mr. Krestel says. “We’ve always been a survivor.”

Pelee Island school stands in silence during strike

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 6

PELEE ISLAND, ONT. — Across Ontario, 126,000 striking teachers are picketing in public squares and chanting slogans about government unfairness.

But here on Pelee Island – the tiny Lake Erie isle that houses 250 people, a few thousand pheasants, and one lonely school – silence is golden.

“It’s best we be left alone,” said Ron Tiessen, curator of the Heritage Centre Museum here. “I want you to understand, we’re not unfriendly people. Any other subject, we’d say come over and have a beer.”

Mr. Tiessen is married to one of the island’s three teachers, none of whom are willing to talk to the press about the provincewide strike that has shut down the Pelee Island Public School, a three-room schoolhouse on the island’s north edge.

Normally, 35 are students here, from kindergarten through eighth grade. Older children make the 1.5-hour trip to the mainland every week to attend Kingsville High School. But none have gone to school since Friday, the last session before Ontario’s teachers went on strike Monday, shutting down school for 2.1 million children.

On the island, teachers sent extra work home with students on Friday, in the hopes that students might keep up with their studies throughout the strike. As a result, fifth-grader Nathan Stankov, 10, spent his Tuesday working on multiplying three and four-digit numbers. But when he was done, Nathan helped his parents with their daily work. His mother, Vicki, delivers the mail – it takes a little over an hour – and his dad, Shane, is releasing pheasants for the gaggle of hunters who will invade the island this week for the annual hunt.

As might be expected, Nathan doesn’t seem to be missing school much.

But while children find ways to spend their free time, other residents worry about how the strike will affect the island’s educational system. And most don’t want to talk about it.

Labor conflicts can ruffle feathers in any community, but on the island, where the biggest tourist attractions are a boulder, some grooves in the ground, and the ruins of the second oldest Canadian lighthouse in Lake Erie, many are afraid that any comment could anger a significant part of the island’s population.

The strike is a response to proposed government changes that would centralize the structure of Ontario’s educational system. But some parents here feel that the island is treated poorly by the provincial government.

The Pelee school, which used to have its own school district, is run by the mainland-based Essex County Board of Education. Government officials are trying to unite the districts of Essex and neighboring Windsor County, which some say might make the island’s needs seem even less important to government.

“They don’t give diddly squat about little towns like us,” said Tammy Williams, whose son Nathaniel is in kindergarten at the school. “They don’t hear us now. We’re the forgotten school.”

If, as the government proposes, Ontario’s educational system becomes more centralized, Ms. Williams fears places like Pelee Island will become even more ignored.

“If this was Windsor or Kingsville or Leamington, that probably would have been taken care of immediately.”

Ms. Williams recently moved back to Pelee, where she grew up, in part because of the small size of the school. In Windsor, where Na thaniel used to live, “he’d be in a class with 35 kids. Here, he’s getting one-on-one attention every day. It’s the best place there is for kids like him.”

Ms. Williams, who predicts the strike will last until Christmas, said the island’s small size shouldn’t stop people from speaking their minds on the strike. “I can’t believe they won’t talk,” she said. “This is our kid’s future that they’re talking about. The government is messing with the future, with tomorrow’s prime minister.”