41 Chairs

i can see your house from here!


The island was directly in the Japanese shipping lanes but almost unnoticed by all except the local natives and expatriates that frequented this small quiet chain in the general area of the Celebes Sea. The island chain was dense with vegetation and the beaches were long and shallow; completed unsuited for military units of any kind. The Japanese knew there were coast watchers within the chain somewhere but with over two hundred islands to search, they decided the best course of action was to move quickly and attempt to sneak by the surveillance, wherever it was hiding. The chain was pleasant and of almost no military value so the island remained sparsely populated and relatively unchanged because visitors were usually on the way to somewhere else and the warriors had better things to do.

On one of the islands, a couple was stationed with the express purpose of quietly watching the world go by their front door. The man and woman had moved to the island chain ten years before, primarily to write and to basically get away from it all which came to be an attractive attribute as time went on. Since they were on the island well before the war started and were basically part of the local culture due to their accepting demeanor and extremely low profile, they drew no attention by friend or foe. They were enlisted in the surveillance service via the urgent and direct personal request of senior allied officials immediately following the Japanese initiation of deliberate and cruel expansion of their empire with the invasions of China and the Philippines. The island chain was located equidistant between the northeastern tip of Australia and the southwestern tip of Japan in an array of islands similar to a mixed up bowl of alphabet soup.

Their island was small and unassuming but had wonderful sight lines and high enough peaks to facilitate clean radio communication. If anyone was on the ball and did some legitimate analysis about what made would make a nice little observation nest, they would have razed the island and significantly reduced their liability. Luckily for the couple, no one was on the ball. They formally moved onto this particular island almost one year before the war found their chain. They had time to build a series of observation nests, supply caches and other ingenious conveniences that would allow them to aid the war effort by being both unseen and very curious. The lagoon on the far side of the island allowed for consistent fishing and the fruits and native vegetables supplemented the standard issue foodstuffs and allowed them better than average cuisine. An open fire was an invitation to hostile shore parties so special consideration was made to find the natural volcanic activity and utilize it when needed without discovery. They had the perfect hideout but stayed extremely wary not to let their guard down. 

Luckily for the couple, their island was replicated over a hundred times within the same sea grid; there was never a specific reason to send a scouting party onto this island and they made sure they never let their guard down enough to invite one. They had plenty of time to place contingencies throughout the island: they rarely left footprints and rarely disturbed the local vegetation. They kept a nice cache of ancient and abandoned items, such as pieces of dugout canoes, bits of broken pottery and dried animal carcasses to strategically convince any visitors that an area was long since abandoned. They traveled on flat rock when possible and fashioned blind trails that they could quickly and stealthily navigate in case of visitors. The chances of unwanted or unknown guests were rare due to the single legitimate entrance of the island. The bay was the only sensible way onto the island with the rest of the island surrounded by a challenging rock face. It was long and shallow and only a light patrol boat with extremely light cargo could make the trip. Once in the bay, the trip would continue for another half-hour due to the shallow grade. Any aggressive entrée onto the island would likely result in beached boats, lost equipment and costly delays and repair. The enemy maps showed the same things as everyone else's maps showed: it was too difficult to randomly visit one of these islands so, no one generally did. 

"An interesting convoy is heading through," said the woman as she peered through her large binoculars. 

She was shaded completely by the trees with no danger of sending a glass glint from her lenses. Her khaki shirt and shorts were damp with perspiration, even after years of being acclimatized to the stifling heat. The humidity alone was so powerful that fabrics began to deteriorate within two weeks of new issue. Luckily for the couple, they had dozens of apparel changes, primarily camouflage and tan with complete freedom to customize their apparel as they were not expecting any guest, unwelcome or otherwise. Their supplies were estimated for a platoon, the smallest group fighting unit, so there was a lot of extra rations, ammunition, tents, rain gear, radio parts and tools. The man dutifully copied down the information and reached over and motioned for the woman to slowly disappear deeper into the shadows.

The information they were reporting was very accurate and the Japanese Navy employed powerful viewing and listening devices on both sides of each ship to identify anything unusual. The observers on the ship were trained to key in on a sudden movement from shore, a flurry of radio reports or any noticeable change in the island. She stayed low and moved back to dark inner pathways of the observation post and disappeared from all view. The couple kept walking until they were almost a kilometer from the site and it was then the formal conversation begun.

"I found another wonderful hideaway," said the woman.

"Where?" He looked in the direction that the woman was facing but could not see anything. He thought he knew this part of the island well as several caves and hidden crevasses were nearby but the woman had stopped by a stone volcanic wall that he had walked by hundreds of time before. He continued to stare at the wall and looked around for a handhold or a slight breeze that would indicate a cave opening but he was stumped. Being stumped was good in their business because if they couldn’t easily find something, it usually meant that the bad guys would struggle as well. She grabbed a hidden vine and pulled it across some hanging vegetation to reveal an elevated cave that was clean, wide and impossible to see without literally falling into it. 

It overlooked a crag on the south side of the island; historically a low traffic side but still would come in handy as a contingency hideout or supply area. It was the eighth perfect spot with a stealthy entrance and a hidden exit in the rear. They discussed how and why they would use it and committed the location to memory. In the next few days, they would move backup supplies into the cave and further reduce their risk of both reliance on certain areas and escape routes. Moving supplies was always a task, whether it was distributing new shipments or efficiently redistributing they inventory so as not to overload any particular hideout. They spent the next few hours making the new place ready for sleeping supplies and decided they would inaugurate the new homestead with an overnight stay with full intention of making it another cozy residence when the time permitted. They knew they would be on the island until the war was over and made a point of keeping their relationship interesting by trying to create new surroundings within their island, paradise notwithstanding.

The only shipments they received on a regular basis were emergency medical supplies, luckily not needed yet, updated codebooks and odd treasures including wine in durable wooden casks. That last item was negotiated as part of their acceptance as coast watchers. Their main relay point was directly opposite the enemy to significantly reduce the chance of intercepting their reports but they took no chances and did not treat their job lightly. They also randomly broadcast their brief messages so as not to coincide with any particular ship activity to also eliminate an unconscious pattern in behavior.

They made a conscious effort to avoid patterns and predictability especially in their partnership. They were a team and were united in a common cause in their love, safety and overall mission to save each other's lives and make the world better. They knew they would be on the island until the war was over and made numerous attempts to drink the beauty of the mission for later years. A main focus of their efforts was their island tree house that was completely invisible from the air and the water. Its porch looked out over the back bay and provided them smooth cooler ocean breezes and a pristine panorama of breathtaking beauty. The other side of the ledge was the key observation point where most of the mundane work was completed. 

Sometimes, when they were busy, the man would rub the woman's feet to stave off the cramps and sometimes when they were busy; she would rub his neck to reduce the fatigue and boredom. They became as brown as nuts and lean from the frantic activity, their muscles were taut and well developed and overall, when they slept, they slept deep and as one. Completeness had always arrived just at the right moment. The next morning, they awoke to the unfamiliar sound of an airplane engine. Just like their transmissions, they received supplies as an afterthought from the allies and made a point to not establish a pattern in either sending messages or receiving supplies. If a convoy passed over for other reasons, they would usually get an airdrop and if not, they went without re-supply indefinitely. The consequence of not receiving standard issue supplies was almost a non-issue because as a team of two, they would receive supplies for the smallest military squad, a platoon, which numbers nine large and hungry men.

So, when they got their supplies, they received almost five times as much food and equipment as was necessary. The unique items, such as the wine, spare parts, feminine products and desalination equipment were dropped in conjunction with the standard supplies so even those items were in abundance. The couple determined to make each main location independent of the others; each hideaway would be equipped with comparable supplies, so as to allow them flexibility as they were planning on staying at least a few steps ahead of the eventual bad guys. If all the supplies were in one or two locations, they would put themselves in grave danger by relying on a certain cave or hideout more than another one. If the Japanese found a cave, they would assume that was the only one if it had a good representation of basic necessities.

If a cave were used exclusively for food or spare parts, the discoverers would then begin a detailed and deliberate search of the island. Even though the event of discovery was unlikely, contingencies on top of other contingencies were their best course of action. They were also limited in their knowledge of other coast watchers, whether nearby or distant, and had no interest in learning about any of their partners. Another coast watcher could have been one island away or they could be the only ones in the chain; they had no awareness or interest in that information. They knew their cautious and compartmentalized knowledge of their predicament was for their own safety. They never asked about others and they safely assumed that no one knew about them. Each day was an odd mix of looming tension and relaxation as they usually had nothing to do or any obligations in front of them when they awoke. They would throw two stones on elaborate but homemade square grids to determine when they would send their daily message, whether they had anything to say or not. As a result, they would broadcast a brief coded message towards Australia daily.

This flash broadcast, lasting no more than fifteen seconds, did not require a confirmation response from their contact nor did they remain on the air long enough to receive one if it did come. They knew their survival was solely affected by their ability to get on the air and off the air quickly; any variation or delay in their plan would likely result in an attempt at triangulating their signal and the party would be quickly over. By their account, they had identified over fifteen legitimate convoys as well as dozens of offensive surface ships. Each ship was categorized and tracked for speed, direction and cargo and both the man and woman took a pride in the accuracy of their information. 

"Now, there is a heavy cruiser," said the man from a shaded overhang. 

"Which one? The Fuso? The Yamato?"

"No, this one is a big son of a bitch, and it is screaming through about twenty-five knots. Headed southwest and likely heading for the Solomons."

"What do you think it is doing out there?"

"I don't know, your guess is as good as mine. I bet it is joining up with a battle group."

"It works for me. It looks full and brand new. I can't make out the markings but it is ready to cause some trouble."

"Is it as standard battle wagon class?"

"No, it is much, much larger. Like Akagi with bigger muscles."

The couple was safely in the shade as they both used their binoculars to pick out some other clues but there was nothing else to say.

 The woman dutifully wrote in her log, 7/28/41 : Heavy battleship, unknown name, headed southwest at approximately 25 knots. Estimate destination either battle group or Solomon. Estimated tonnage exceeds Akagi.

"This one is one of the biggest we have seen."

"The Yamato is about three-quarters the size of this beast."

"No kidding."

"When are we broadcasting?"

"Six hours."

"We should do it sooner. I would like to now but let's wait at least two hours before we send it. It can't get anywhere that fast."

The couple relaxed and had lunch. They had caught a tuna in the morning and laid the entire fish on the volcanic rocks, wrapped in wet palm fronds. They cracked open a little barrel of wine and toasted each other out of metal cups. They had a nice lunch of roasted bananas, fresh tuna, rice and wine. Even though it was a beautiful day, all they could talk about was the ship. Exactly two hours later, they sent a flash broadcast to their contact detailing the sighting. The ever-changing codes always made translation difficult, as did inventing words that weren't in the codebook. The current book listed all the key words including direction, speed and ship type but since this ship was something new, they had to make up a word to add some emphasis. They needed to be brief with their messages so creativity became an issue. She completed her message and seemed puzzled. 

"Let me read this to you. Today date: extremely heavy battleship heading southwest at top speed. Destination unknown, perhaps Solomon."

"What is that in today's code?"

"Hmmm," said the woman, "Big carrot seen going to school. Perhaps mother's house."

"I assumed you made up the word 'Big.'"

"Got a better idea?"

"It should be like 'Big' but that word has been used before. We need something that stands out."

"How about 'Monster carrot going to school. Perhaps mother's house'"?

"We're getting there but maybe we need something other than 'Monster.'"

"Got a better idea?"

"I am working on it. Muscular?"

"Too vague and cute."

"How about 'extra-large?'"

"Getting there. How about 'Jumbo?'"

"Perfect! I would like to see everyone's face on that one; both the Japanese and the Australians. Even the code talkers don't have a word for 'Jumbo.'"

At two hours and ten minutes after the sighting, the team sent the following message: "Jumbo carrot going to school. Perhaps mother's house."

"That should get someone's attention."

The message did in fact get people's attention. They were not the only coast watchers that made the same type of observation and the collective rush of message caused several search planes to expedite the search of this new battleship. Submarines were scrambled as well to engage this ship before a convoy could safely surround it. Within two weeks of the original sighting, this new super battleship was sunk with extreme prejudice by the combined air and sea forces of the Australian and United States Naval forces. The couple was credited with the first official kill and although they could not travel to Pearl Harbor to receive their commendation, they were both awarded the Navy Cross for heroism above and beyond the call of duty.

They would end their coast-watching career with over ten medals and countless commendations. In addition to providing critical intelligence, they also assisted several downed pilots and coordinated the rescue of many other soldiers and sailors that found themselves deep behind enemy lines. Three times during their stay, bad guys visited the island. Luckily all their plans and contingencies worked as designed to allow them to avoid detection. The first visit seemed to almost be a coincidence when a medium-sized landing party arrived in their lagoon right after breakfast. For the first time in a year, they remained silent and in two separate locations observing the troops. All their hideouts were camouflaged and easily withstood the cursory investigation by the Japanese.

They had taken great pains to show a deserted and somewhat desolate island, complete with old and unused fire pits, and their decaying animal carcasses props convinced the group that the locals had split a long time ago. The hidden trails allowed the main paths to be overgrown and difficult to navigate so the troops assigned with reconnaissance duty made quick work of their assigned duties. As the bad guys wandered around and completed their searching, they were unaware of the two sets of eyes that were constantly staring at them. The couple had positioned numerous subtle surprises for the curious; sharp rocks secretly saturated in urine or strategically placed drop-offs would cause troops injuries with no one to blame but themselves.

After the troops left, the couple spent significant time studying the traffic patterns to determine the best place to drop off other surprises before the next visit. The Japanese were always creatures of habit so the couple wanted to further strengthen their island with new obstacles.

"That was interesting," said the woman as she sat on the edge of the smooth ledge.

She had her binoculars in one hand and a tin cup full of wine in the other.

"I agree," said the man. "I really don't want them back for awhile. I was too scared to do anything including blinking my bugged-out eyes. I thought there would be more yelling but it was quiet. Other than a few orders, the jungle seemed to be crawling with them and no one was saying anything. I was afraid that one would jump out of nowhere and scare the hell out of me. I didn't go to the can, I didn't eat and I didn't move."

"Me neither. We have to be able to move around a bit more. We need some secret exits. And we need to know where they are…at all times."

They relaxed that evening with some fresh fish and talked in generalities about improvements to their island. The couple realized that they were not ever in real danger but the adrenaline combined with the need of a creative project gave them something new to do. The next morning they decided to look at their island with fresh eyes and tried to think like a marauding soldier. They decided to discreetly widen several of the main paths to invite the soldiers down remote areas that were away from their hideaways while at the same time, giving each key path and location a street or location nickname.

As soldiers hit the beach, it would be important to give them the subtle impression that they were doing their job by heading down obvious paths that would do nothing but exhaust them and give them the false impression that they had turned the island upside down. In addition to the new traffic plan, the couple made sure that nothing looked like it had been disturbed for a long time. The last thing needed was to have a stray clue or other sign of recent inhabitation attract the Japanese's interest. 

Eventually, something would turn up and they would be on the run for a long time. They went over every part of the island; making sure no footprints or broken vegetation followed them. They prioritized their tasks and determined which items had to be addressed first. The widening of the paths became critical because that would allow them to easily direct traffic and invite the curious to stay on the beaten track versus wandering around outside of their control.

As they determined their new layout, the woman started to smile.

"What is so funny?"

"They will need places to sit."

"What?"

"Think about it. You are a young soldier, scared out of your mind and a few thousand miles from home. You were likely conscripted into the service and you are not thinking. You are just following orders that were likely screamed at you by someone who is following another set of orders."

"Continue."

"Well, if I spent an hour rowing to this island in the hot sun, I would expend the least amount of effort I could get away with under the officer's eyes. And I think we should make it easy for them to relax somewhere without causing attention or getting caught."

"What are you saying? Give them a place to rest?"

"Exactly."

"How do you pull off making rest stops in the middle of nowhere on an island that is supposedly deserted?"

"We make it their idea."

They continued to walk on a blind path as the woman demonstrated the strategy. 

"Remember, I am young, hungry and scared. I am carrying a 40 pound pack of equipment and I want to rest."

"I remember."

"Now, the platoon lands on the beach and begins to wander up Main Street. Main Street breaks out into several forks and the platoon begins to divide and separate down each of the main avenues."

"So far, I follow you."

"Wonderful."

"Now, we place a nice smooth tree trunk around a corner that allows the foot soldier to take off his pack, drop his weapon and get a nice ten-minute rest. He will come walking down the path, after having a nice sit down, and declare his area of search deserted."

The woman cleared the tree trunk and smoothed off the rough spots with a machete. She then took a coconut and pounded the surface into a recessed area, just perfect for an exhausted rear end. Her manicuring of the trunk would be hidden within a day and the constant vegetation re-growth would hide any of her croppings.

She stood back and said, "That would be a great place to sit. I have great sight lines to see anyone coming, especially my captain."

The man sat down on the trunk and agreed that it looked inviting. He was comfortable but did not feel that he had compromised his safety. He was sitting on the edge of a jungle, alert and resting, but with no desire to push further into the unknown.

"This was a fine place to sit. I think your idea is great, but a lot of things have to go right to pull it off. Anything we do, we must make sure that it doesn't hurt our chances to stay hidden but we don't have a choice."

"Have a seat."

He turned around and saw a smooth piece of stone, with a nice recess on which to place his back end. He settled himself into the spot and looked around. He got up and moved some leafy branches over the top to give himself some shade. Next to the stone, there was a partial divot in the rock and he took a large stone and chipped a bigger opening in the rock: a perfect place to rest a rifle.

"I made chair number two."

"Okay, we're even."

They began looking at all the places to fashion resting spots and began work on natural-looking and natural-feeling areas. The places had to only catch the attention of an exhausted soldier; anything too obvious would cause suspicion. The chairs were located in remote areas, around blind corners, on plateaus, in shady areas and places that would allow someone who had not enjoyed a moment's peace to enjoy one. The versions of the chairs also had to be random, each one providing a feeling of discovery, a feeling that they had stumbled upon one of nature's presents and that is was all theirs to enjoy. The final requirement for each chair was to point the chair's inhabitant away from any established hideout. Most the chairs overlooked the ocean and made the whole idea of looking anywhere but the ocean, ridiculous.

The goals were to allow some poor, scared grunt ten minutes of peace and quiet while at the same time, deflate any interest in tramping through the dangerous jungle looking for people or things.

The next month, another two dozen chairs were made out of both elegant and inelegant freaks of nature, coming out of tree trunks, rock outcroppings or large clumps of vegetation laid on top of sand ledges or shore boulders. The couple was pleased with their new project and made a point of trying to be as resourceful as possible with the apparently natural discoveries of respite. Each chair had to be critiqued by the other and many of them were rejected for being too contrived or being too obvious. Ideas from rejected chairs were recycled and brought into other designs as their inventory grew throughout the island. During a walk through of some of their finished chairs, a patrol boat appeared at the mouth of the lagoon. The couple saw the boat coming and they blended into the jungle and scooted back to their prearranged locations. For the next hour, approximately ten Japanese soldiers searched the island with their typical rote method and much to the delight of the couple, their instinct proved accurate. Each member of the landing party used at least one chair with several of the point scouts using numerous ones, even ones that weren't made by the couple.

Once the patrol boat had vacated the island, they sat on their front porch and got roaring drunk. No follow-up patrol would be coming and the success of their chair placement was complete. Each soldier proved their mortality by resting almost as soon as they left the commander's sight. Several soldiers rested in pairs as one stood guard while the other lay down or found someplace to relax. They appeared to be an advance group, looking for forward bases for their division but the slow and frustrating ride into the lagoon alone had to convince them that the island was a nice place to visit but you couldn't really live here with large military and ordinance.

It also proved that their enemy was mortal and human; a path of least resistance and a comfy chair can do wonders for someone's mood. The next morning, they discussed yesterday's events and determined they were almost complete with their plans and concentrated on a few areas that were a bit light on chairs. For the rest of the week, they worked together to construct the last remaining chairs so they had all major avenues strategically salted with chairs. All of them were ready to go to take on visitors, no matter when they would come. They sat back, after their latest project and laughed when they started taking inventory of all their creations.

"How do we describe them?"

"I think we should just use the numbers."

"Really? I don't think that would capture the essence of the chairs."

"Well, if we name them, we will be easily defined as crazy."

"True. How many did we end up with, at last count?"

"Forty-one."

About six months later, the next and final scouting party arrived. This time, the soldiers were more serious about their job because of the successes of the coast watchers. Dozens of irreplaceable Japanese warships were lost to accurate intelligence and this island chain was a prime suspect. The search party numbered four platoons with supporting officers and this group stayed for two days. They began on one side of the island and walked methodically to the other. The groups splintered into the main paths and the caves that were slightly hard to find and abandoned. The platoons posted sentries at night and continued the search the next morning, literally where they had left off the night before. They poked and prodded bushes, shot up into trees, scaled the top of the mountain and kept looking for clues or indications of human habitation.

Luckily, when one group was walking, three groups were sitting in the chairs. Each group, coordinated only with brief orders from their officers, walked over the same area four times and searched in exactly the same manner. No one decided to forego convention and leave the main path because that was not how the group was trained. The soldiers did the same things and as a result, found nothing. The couple reunited for the first time in two days, stood in their main cave and watched the patrol disappear into the horizon. That night was the culmination of their work with another  loud, raucous drunken celebration for two people under a dazzling dark pacific sky.

They knew  those people were never coming back and as the war wound down, they got back into a nice rhythm and took time to enjoy themselves. They each wrote a books and when they started to spot American ships, they were taken off the island and began to accumulate the nation's thanks. The war eventually ended and the couple left the seclusion and exotic climes to raise a family and to join society again.

A few more books were written about their adventure and they made several trips back to the island before their age and circumstances made the trips too challenging. They taught, wrote and eventually retired to a bed and breakfast on the northern shore of a Great Lake. 

Forty-one chairs are distributed throughout the first two rooms of their house and their back porch juts out over the water just like their main cave. In the front, the face of the house is hidden into the trees with a balcony that allows the couple to watch the world go by with pleasant indifference to the little bed and breakfast off the road.

The man especially enjoyed walking the wooded paths while the woman enjoyed the ability to stay out of sight and observe people that were focused on their own pursuits and interests. The people, while significantly less curious, still remained fascinated with the human condition as the lessons learned with the island redecoration project of almost sixty years prior; people are creatures of habit. They finally learned to seek out comfort by taking the path of least resistance; especially when they can convince someone else that it was their idea.

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