July 31, 2002 - Narragansett Times: Micronesia RPCV Norman McComb has spent 35 years on Yap working in education

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Micronesia: Peace Corps Micronesia : The Peace Corps in Micronesia: July 31, 2002 - Narragansett Times: Micronesia RPCV Norman McComb has spent 35 years on Yap working in education

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Micronesia RPCV Norman McComb has spent 35 years on Yap working in education





Read and comment on this story from the Narragansett Times on Micronesia RPCV Norman McComb who arrived in Yap in 1966 and has spent the last 35 years working in Yap in education at:

From Micronesia. he travels 10,000 miles to summer in Snug Harbor*

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From Micronesia. he travels 10,000 miles to summer in Snug Harbor

By: Kate Williamson July 31, 2002

SNUG HARBOR -- Norman McComb comes a little farther than most, traveling half-way around the world from the Federated States of Micronesia to spend his summer days in Snug Harbor.

By KATE WILLIAMSON

SNUG HARBOR - South Kingstown has its fair share of summer residents who come from Providence or Boston or New York. But Snug Harbor seasonal resident Norman McComb comes a little farther to enjoy cool breezes and nautical charm: he spends most of the year in the Federated States of Micronesia, a South Pacific island nation half a world away.

McComb has lived there for 35 years, as an educator and a businessman. Lean, tan, with a quick eye and a way of jumping from topic to topic, the Cranston native shrugged when asked what brings him back again and again to a land so far away.

"I just enjoyed what I was doing," he said. "It gets into the blood. There was always something to keep me going."

McComb has lived in Micronesia since his graduation from Washington, D.C.'s Catholic University in 1966, when the allure of living in the South Pacific with a special Peace Corps program brought him to teach on the island of Chuuk. The State of Chuuk, which encompasses both that island and many others, has a population of around 54,000. Micronesia is flung across an area of ocean larger than the continental United States, but has less landmass than half of Rhode Island.

McComb was looking for adventure at the time.

"At the same time as I had applied to the Peace Corps, I applied for VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), and I had requested Alaska," he said.

He got into both programs, but went to Micronesia, where he taught elementary-school English and math and trained teachers in order to improve their skills. He was one of 1,000 volunteers sent to the islands between 1966 and 1968. Both Peace Corps teaching and other education efforts, he said, were and are largely successful.

"You don't hear 'pidgin' English there. Most of the English that's spoken and understood is quite correct," said McComb.

Beyond the English language, though, Micronesia has shown its commitment to education through the use of the funds it receives from the U.S. government, which administered it as a trust from the close of World War II to 1986, when the country became independent of U.S. administration. The U.S. has since paid the country up to $100 million a year, in return for exclusive military access to the islands.

"In Yap, in the education department where I worked, they had a fabulous computer system," said McComb. "At the main education office downtown - if you can call it that - people are online all the time, with videoconferencing. Now they're putting computers on a few of the outer islands. I've always said that we have in our high school a better computer system than many community colleges."

McComb today works in the State of Yap as a consultant to Micronesia's educational system. His journey among the islands of the archipelago is largely a story of service. Although he's managed a general store and still makes a little side money from wholesaling t-shirts and other goods, he has spent most of his years on the islands teaching.

He taught from 1970 through '73 at an elementary school, and from 1977 through '84 at Xavier High School, a Jesuit boarding school in Chuuk.

"We eventually became a mix of lay people, clergy, single, married, Micronesian, American, Indonesian," he said of his time at the school. "It was a mixture of all the different cultures."

The children, the smartest students in that part of the Pacific, were a challenge to teach, he added.

"Many of them are now the leaders of Micronesia."

In addition to teaching, McComb ran the kitchens at the school, and eventually took on the job of fundraising from the school alumni. To do that, he occasionally rode out on the "field trip ships," boats the size of the Block Island Ferry that over the course of several weeks do circuits of the outer islands.

"By the seventh day, you swear you've spent your life on that ship and you've never known anything else," said McComb.

It was his fundraising efforts that first brought him to Yap, where he eventually built a home away from other Americans in the heart of the village.

The house is near a "stone money bank," a row of ten-foot-high wheel-shaped stones, each of which stands on its edge. The stones were brought to the islands from Palau in ancient times by canoe; transporting the money often cost men their lives when the weight of the stones would capsize the small vessels.

When McComb settled into the home he built, the nearby standing stone money bank was falling over. Tree roots and falling branches endangered the historical artifacts. Working with two teenage volunteers, McComb cleared and drained the path alongside the stones and set them upright.

The banks, in addition to being long rows of mammoth money, serve as celebration space. The Yappese used to dance along the path in front of the coins, said McComb. The Yappese still perform many traditional dances, as well as some newer ones created after contact with Westerners.

"On Easter and Christmas, they dance the Gospels," McComb said. "There are parts where everyone screams."

Another change in island culture is the caste system, which McComb said has been eroding with Westernization.

"When I got there, you'd never eat the same food that the low caste would eat," he said. "Most of them intermesh now."

Talking about his time in Micronesia, McComb slides backward and forward through the years, touching on a hundred topics. He has wonderful neighbors on Yap, who take care of his house and his dog while he's in Snug Harbor. He was adopted into a family on Chuuk. The fiber-optic phone system costs $2 a minute to use.

Taro root is a staple food, but greasy, flavorful, cheap turkey tails are a popular dish. The diving at Chuuk, where World War shipwrecks and coral reefs abound, is considered the best in the world.

Women on the traditional outer islands wear only the lavalava, a type of sarong skirt made from dried hibiscus bark and stained with dyes ranging from natural pigments to soaked carbon paper. When the first Continental airline flight came to the island, it landed on a coral runway after performing a fly-by to scare off the pigs.

His train of thought, from one topic and one time to another, reflects the way time is perceived on the islands.

"Seasons don't change, basically, so time becomes a vacation," said McComb. "You'll ask somebody how old something is, and they'll say, 'Oh, eight years,' and you'll find that it's 20 years old."

While time may be a vacation in Micronesia, McComb spends his own vacations in Rhode Island, enjoying the beaches and buying a few things on sale for his wholesaling company. He comes back to be close to his mother, who lives in Warwick's West Bay Manor, as well as his brother and cousins, who also live in-state. The latter, he said, helped him choose Snug Harbor as his Rhode Island home.

"I spent a lot of my summers with my cousins at Bonnet Shores, so I knew the area. We had a lot of fun looking around for houses for a few years. And then one year it just sort of happened," McComb said.

He purchased the house in Snug Harbor in 1998. Its décor marries his two worlds: visitors are greeted by a wooden folk sculpture of a New England fisherman, wearing a lei around his neck.




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