Red Dixon is a missionary kid. MK in those
"Have you seen Mosquito Coast?" everybody
asks Red's dad. He hates that. Why compare this Godquest to that
Red wouldn't see that film for 13 years, but
then it's so clear why the movie moved his dad like that. The
missionaries are nuts and daddy Harrison Ford follows them to
the funny farm then the grave. No, in 1988, Red's dad is into
Emerald Forest and Red watches it over and over with his
The Dixons are selling all they own, packing a
little into varied houses of friends, giving the car – the old
$1 station wagon – to the recyclery, moving from the house with
its fields of long grass, and selling the goats. Plane tickets
for a family of six, plane tickets and visas and passports cost
so much money, money and time so dad quits his job at juvenile
hall – he hated that job – he quits his job and they get on
Greyhound and head to their first stop. Eugene, Oregon.
Summers, Eugene's got the linguistics school for
Bible-believers of all stripes. Eugene's also got lice, like
you'd expect when hundreds return from third-worlds to mingle
with the would-bes to learn Serenghetti clicks and Korea's
multi-layered noun system. But MK Red hates lice and that summer
after two delousings they cut his hair to stubble.
From Eugene, it's Kona, Hawaii for more
training. MK Red loves Hawaii.
The first stop out of Kona's lava moonscape is
four hours in Guam. Red looks out of the terminal windows,
struggles to see jungle.
The first plane into New Guinea cannot land in
Lae – engine trouble they later learn. In Papua New Guinea, fog,
sheep, or cattle can keep the runways shut for hours. Tribal
farmers don't care for planes that bother their herds. They
carry steel machetes and airframes aluminum is thin.
The Dixon five, father, mother, and three
brothers, land in Rabaul, an island ruled today by volcanic ash.
United Airlines feeds them, but the hotel swimming pool is just
getting refilled so they sleep early and fly on come morning.
Red's "hang loose" hand sign means nothing here.
Within a month, Red is running half naked
through the jungle, he's running barefoot along city borders
where the defoliant meets crawling vines and bromeliads are
climbing from every tree, sucking sap and life in the steamy dry
season when rains come only three times a week. The missionaries
have a compound here and Mr. Dixon is the head gardener. When
the old caretaker comes back to pick up his stuff, he's bitten
by a huge black Labrador. A dog trained to bite.
The missionary boss, Red calls him "Sir," he
gives the old guy two kina – that's more than two dollars – and
watches to make sure he leaves. There's a clinic down the road
and they wouldn't want to have to buy new first-aid supplies.
"Two-kina merrie," that's Papua pidgin for whore.
Mr. Dixon is chopping back the jungle downhill
of the compound.
Red thinks when Sir's kids come back from their
winter vacation in Australia things will get better. His
10-year-old libido is up for the young daughter.
They've got a private tutor and a cook. One from
'Straya and the other a New Zealander.
That cook can't cook.
She makes pizza. Tomatoes smashed on flatbread
covered with corn. No cheese. The dog eats better. One day
there's a bolt in the dog's soup meat and the Super King market
gives them a real cut of meat in exchange. Cook Joyce makes a
real meal, a Beef Wellington.
Cooking up one decent memory.
Missionaries are like freelance writers and
grassroots politicians. Stop producing, stop writing and calling
the home church with more updates, and the checks stop coming.
The checks are never big and New Guinea hot dogs are covered
with a thick red skin, taste like plastic, and stain the boiling
water a weak purple. Tomato jam is widely available, as is
canned mackerel. The shreds of red skin on toast and the
pressure-cooked bones take adjustment. Boxed foods are stale off
Mr. Dixon's tan is getting deeper out there
cutting weeds with a machete. He walks alone at dusk and plays
his electric guitar into the night.
The Dixons live away from the compound, coming
back to care for the lawn and take dinner.
Sir's younger kid is a bit violent, the violent
adopted son. He's bigger than the Dixon boys and likes to play
rough games and his parents think they are saints because they
chose him, a boy darker than they are.
Red runs home from Sunday school barefoot while
the smaller kids hang their feet from a covered truck. He's
running as fast as he can to keep the truck in sight and doesn't
even see the dog. The scar on his arm is from an American house
pet, because the dogs out here are better trained and this one
has little owners, a brother and sister who call off the mangy
yellow blur inches from Red's soft white ass.
He keeps a bat for a week while the owners are
off in the bush. It's an orphan bat, mother hit by a Jeep. The
bat eats from a bottle and it sucks chunks of fresh papaya,
dripping orange papaya, from Red's fingers. Bats hang from the
trees throughout the city, big bats the size of owls all black
skin and orange fur. This one makes little mewlings like a
kitten and sleeps upside down on a clothes tree in the hall. The
bat freaks convert Robbie out, because back in the bush these
things are bad luck, deathly bad luck. He holds it to prove his
faith and the baby latches onto his shorts with stubby, clawed
wings and he has to drop the shorts in the laundry. Those safari
shorts stay with the bat.
The bat is walking the walls and it settles next
to Red's littlest brother. He's got a nosebleed that night and
mom wakes up to check the little one choking on blood and this
fist-sized fruit bat is nuzzled up next to him on the pillow.
Some of the beaches are filled with sand fleas
and the waters are hot and cloudy. Some are sparkling and boys
are coming out of the surf with devil rays affixed to the ends
of their spears made of clothes hanger wire and fired with
bicycle inner tube. And sometimes the jungle is sunny and the
boys are running and jumping across the drainage ditches along
every road. Other times the jungle is dark as bat's blood and
ex-pat kids are raping young neighbors, vacating big houses for
fumigation, and lighting ants nests and cane toads on fire.
Lighting fires in warm rain.
Red and his brothers are playing with Legos when
Sir's boy comes in. They're all in the open garage under the
compound waiting for Cook to finish the curry and rice. He's a
violent child and he hits Red's littlest brother a sharp knuckle
rap to the head.
And there's Mr. Dixon, shaking the boy until he
cries in fear and runs to his dad, the missionary boss. Mr.
Dixon drives Sir's wife around town because God is going to heal
her eyes and she will never wear her glasses. He cuts the lawn
faster than the jungle takes it back.
The boy's screams are enough to send the Dixon
five back on the plane to America, where everyone thinks they
know what happened and no one can see the bitten caretaker and
the boys with their homemade spears and all the pain is so much
more familiar, so much more domestic, and so much easier to
Two images are trapped in Red Dixon's brain, one
the shaking and another Sir's son slapping into a support post.
Those tears might have been fear and they might have been pain.
Red wants those images to live on and he wants
them to die. He doesn't want to talk to his father. He wants to
relive those days without outside comment but he somehow knows
that there is too much in there and not knowing grows like the
jungle so he picks up the phone and he asks.
© Red Dixon