Text written and shared by Joe Midzalkowski, RPCV and PC staff member
David McCarthy was an ag volunteer in the first group to train in district. He was quartered with a Marshallese family in Laura Village, Majuro, where his training was to take place. My wife and I had just extended our tour and were assigned to be staff there training new volunteers in the use of the syllabus the district had adopted for teaching English as a second language. We barely knew David while in camp as we had little contact with the aggies.
Arno Atoll is unique among the world's atolls. Rather than just one lagoon surrounded by low lying reef islands, it has one main lagoon and two smaller ones — one to the north and one to the east. I had been living on Kilange, an island of about a quarter square mile in area that had a shore on the main lagoon but primarily faced the small lagoon to the east. About two miles across that lagoon was the island to which David had been assigned — Longar (pronounced lunger).
David took a great deal of ribbing when his assignment was revealed. Longar was famous all over the central Pacific. It supposedly had the last bastion of an old Marshallese custom — formalized classes where young girls were schooled in the art of lovemaking. It was known far and wide as "The University of Longar."
David being fair skinned, blonde and blue eyed, he spent much of his time before heading out to Longar blushing profusely. He was somewhat shy.
David was quartered with the family of a man named Bailor (long I in the first syllable). The family had a very humble home but treated David both as a famous son and a priceless artifact. They were supremely honored by being chosen to house the ri-belle (the Marshallese word for Caucasians).
It was about a ninety minute walk for David to come visit, especially since he would have to stop and visit at each household along the way. As is custom, each householder would ask him to stop, visit, eat and drink tea. I taught him a phrase I had learned from an anthropologist that roughly translated to "There's fire ahead." This is sort of a wise-ass Marshallese expression opting out of the offered hospitality without being rude about it.
David would join my then wife and I for dinner, mostly to have the chance to converse in English. We learned that he had graduated from Columbia University with a degree in English — a true BA Generalist in Peace Corps lingo. He had been looking forward to graduation when the anti-war protests shut down the school. David was not political and just wanted to graduate. We also learned that David had lived in Cairo and Moscow among other places. His father helped set up national libraries in those places. His mother had written children's books. There was mention of a sister who married, I believe, a famous symphony conductor.
Discussion of his sister came about one evening while sitting on the floor having just eaten dinner (we had no furniture). David took out a cigarette and his Zippo. When he flicked the wheel on the lighter it flew out of his hands and bounced off the ceiling! We looked at him in amazement. He gave us a kind of "Aw shucks" look and decided he'd better tell us of his legendary clumsiness. The best story was when he was a groomsman in his sister's wedding (by all descriptions it was huge). People were handing plates of wedding cake down the tables, he thought the one he was about to pass on was slipping, he overreacted and batted it over his shoulder. It became lodged in the fancy hairdo of one of the bridesmaids who was at the next table sitting back to back with David. He described it as his curse.
I was in Longar working with the teachers there when I noticed an infection on one of David's great toes. He said he had been trimming the nail with a knife and had nicked himself. I reminded him of his clumsiness curse and told him to be more careful. I also assured him that most volunteers had problems at first with small infections until their bodies became accustomed to fighting off the Marshallese bugs.
He lost that nail and began suffering from flu-like symptoms. The Marshalls have regular flu epidemics but no one else around there was sick. I advised him that one of the trading ships was due to be there in about ten days and that he should pack a bag and sail to the district center to be attended by the Peace Corps doctor. He agreed.
The next day I made the all day trek to Ine Village to work with the teachers there. The next day we got the word that David had taken a violent turn for the worse and had been taken to my house. My wife was dealing with his extremes of chills and fever. An outboard was found to get him to Ine while I notified Peace Corps to charter a ship for an emergency evacuation. When he arrived, David was between the chills and fever and seemed fine. Then the cycle started again. A ship arrived fairly soon and he was taken to Majuro.
A few days later, my wife got a ride to Ine and the two of us hitched a ride in a small boat to Majuro. The two atolls are only about eight miles apart at their nearest points. Upon arrival we inquired about David and were told that his blood counts were far from normal and he had been flown to Tripler Army Hospital in Honolulu on a regularly scheduled Air Micronesia flight. His parents were called. They immediately flew to Honolulu to be with him. Nothing the doctors did seemed to help. Before they could find out what was wrong, he died. It was later determined that David had suffered from some sort of rare cancer that had ravaged his lymphatic system and he had no defense against infection or disease.
My wife and I corresponded with David's family sending his things home and taking pictures of his Longar home and family. His father wrote us and, knowing the end of our Marshallese service was about to be, asked us to route ourselves home via Washington, DC so we could visit them. We did so and found them to be a wonderfully warm, educated couple who had not yet recovered from the loss of their youngest child. We learned that David's father was a close first cousin to Senator Eugene McCarthy. After a few exchanges of letters, we lost track of them.