While we were located at the Watut, the time for Kathy to give birth was drawing near. It was decided that we should go to the city of Lae for the delivery. We had the opportunity to stay in a ‘leave house.’ When people lived in houses or apartments issued to them by the government or a company, or that they rented personally had to go away, they would often put out the word that they had a house available for people to use. These were called ‘leave houses.’ We were able to stay in many of them through the years; mainly on holidays with our kids.
It just so happened that John, a single government worker, was going to be away on business so we were able to stay in his house. We didn’t give much thought to who would look after our two older children, Lydia and Tom when it was time for me to take Kathy to the hospital for the delivery of number three. But as always, God had it all worked out.
There was a dear elderly woman from Australia visiting her daughter at the Watut mission station. We quickly fell in love with her. Everyone called her Nana, and she was such a joyful, friendly woman. She told us we were always welcome to join her for afternoon tea. It was hot that time of day, but as the sweat was rolling down her face, she would wipe her neck, forehead, and face often saying, “There’s nothing like a good cup of tea to cool one down.” One night, she had tried to sit on a potty pail (there were no indoor toilets in those days), and she fell and dislocated her shoulder. She was in severe pain, but no chiropractor was around to relieve her pain.
It was the time of year when all the missionaries who were scattered around the country to meet for their annual conference. Not having seen each other for a whole year, you can imagine the excitement as they traveled to the field headquarters. There were times of sharing God’s Word, singing together, eating together, giving reports, and listening to mission leaders talk about developments through the past year.
Unfortunately, we had to stay in Lae for the birth of our baby so missed that first conference. It was decided that Nana would stay with us, and she could hopefully find relief for her dislocated shoulder, and look after our children while Kathy was in the hospital. Nana was able to see a surgeon, and he popped her shoulder back into place; which relieved her of most of her pain. She had thick, long, dark hair which was hard for her to wash, dry, and braid. Kathy did the washing and drying, but she didn’t know how to braid so I got to do the final touches. Those were such happy days.
After eating a beautiful meal of baked chicken that Nana had prepared, Kathy said, “Jim, take me to the hospital. The baby is coming.” The hospital was close by, and we got there as her contractions increased. The female Australian doctor who was supposed to deliver the baby took a look at Kathy and went to have a cup of afternoon tea. In her absence, the baby’s head was crowning, and a few minutes later, Margie Louise Tanner was born. All went well, but the doctor seemed to rush things and was pulling hard on the placenta which caused major hemorrhaging. The surgeon who helped Nana with her shoulder was called in, and he had to pack Kathy internally to stop the bleeding. She woke up with an IV in each arm. They didn’t give her anything to eat for supper that night. By morning she was looking forward to eating an egg, toast, or oatmeal for breakfast, but to her surprise, they served her baked beans on toast. It was another shock, but we learned it was a common Australian breakfast. Later, we learned to eat it for breakfast too, and any other leftovers from the night before. It was so hot and humid on the coast that even with two fans turned on Kathy, she sweat profusely and her hair stayed wet day and night.
Another time we washed clothes and even though we hung them outdoors and it was sunny and hot, they wouldn’t dry and they got sour and had to be washed again.
Kathy was released from the hospital, and our two kids loved their little sister. Kathy was my barber, and I was her hairdresser; for better or for worse right? One day while we were still living in the leave house, she was cutting my hair when the baby started crying. Her two siblings were concerned and ran out to tell us. We knew we’d be done in a short time, so we let her cry. Next thing we knew, she had stopped crying, and here came two-year-old Tom, carrying Margie out to us, suspending her with his arms under her armpits. We still aren’t sure how he managed to lift her out of her bassinet, but he brought her out for Kathy’s attention.
Two weeks after the birth, we returned to the Watut, to stay until Kathy and Margie’s six-week checkups. But shortly after we arrived, Kathy got a terrible fever and some other symptoms of malaria. She would be so sick, but the baby still needed to be fed so I would pick Margie up, give her to Kathy, and when she was done, I’d change her diaper and put her back in her bassinet. Clearing their checkups, we headed from there to the new field headquarters being constructed near the town of Goroka. Kathy and the children stayed there while I went to check on a people group that needed missionaries in Chimbu Province, (later called Simbu). The people there were known for their boldness, tribal warfare, and immorality.
There was a huge contrast between the people in the Watut to those in Chimbu. Watut people would hardly ever touch you unless they knew you well. A senior missionary took me and a couple of other ‘newbies’ there early the next morning in an old Land Rover. We were winding our way up a steep mountain and after we got over the top, we stopped the truck to have our lunch. As we were eating, total strangers would come up to us, start talking to us, and vigorously rub the calves of our legs, while remarking about how the hair on my legs reminded them of possum fur. It was their way of welcoming new people. It’s a good thing we were sitting down because they also liked to rub other parts of your body as welcoming gestures. Even the girls came up to us speaking excitingly and telling everybody else to come see the white men. I was thinking to myself, “If I ever got back to the Watut I’ll never leave again.” Little did I know that we would be staying among the Chimbu people for the next twenty-five years.
After lunch, we continued to travel up to the provincial town of Kundiawa. We left there and headed toward the highest peak in Papua New Guinea, Mount Wilhelm, rising into the clouds at over 15,000 feet above sea level. It was a narrow one-lane road and you could often see the river flowing in the valley hundreds of feet below us. When another truck approached, one of us had to find a place to pull over and let the other pass. We were in the Kuman-speaking language family. They were the most densely populated people in Papua New Guinea. From that day on, we started praying about working with the Kuman people group.
They were super friendly people and they were so glad to hear that they may be getting some missionaries to live among them. In anticipation of that, they offered to give us pots of land in the village on which we could build our houses to live among them. The trip was filled with adventure. Many of the people still dressed in their local attire of bright feathers and armbands. They were more muscular than the coastal people, and you could see how others could be intimidated by them. The clans would work together to clear the land to plant new gardens; mostly to feed their families and pigs, but they sold some food which provided them with a bit of money to buy other necessities. The people planted gardens right up the steep slopes. It made you wonder how many sweet potatoes they dug out with their little garden sticks ended up rolling down to the valleys below.
After the trip to the Kuman tribe, we made our way back to the Watut, packed up and shortly after, we flew up to the town of Goroka. From there, we went up to stay in a house in the Sinasina people group, neighbors to the Kuman people. There were some senior missionaries at Sinasina, and it became our home for about a year. The house was small, with an outdoor toilet and fifty-five-gallon drums which caught the rainwater off the iron roof. It wasn’t running water-it was more like walking water, carried by one bucket at a time. Our time there allowed us to meet many of the local people and learn a bit of their language. It was grammatically related to the Kuman language so we thought that it would be good for us to learn it.
Later, we arranged to go back to the Kuman and allow Kathy to meet some of the people and see the road up to the place. We loved the people and we loved the mountains, and they definitely needed a gospel witness. The missionary who drove us in his Land Rover that day was running low on gas so at one steep bridge he actually had to reverse up it. We drove around most of the day meeting many new people and seeing many villages. In the afternoon, we headed back to Sinasina and we got the kids off to bed and were heading there ourselves, when I said to Kathy, “You won’t believe this, but everything I felt for the Kuman people is gone.” She answered in a serious tone that she understood because it was gone from her heart too. Why did God give us that burden and then take it away? He got us that far, to show us where we should go and work in the Elimbari people group. But that had not been revealed to us at that time yet.
There were two other new families living temporarily at the Sinasina station. They were both looking for a place to do their missionary work. So, we told them about our situation and asked them to pray for God’s direction for us, too. One of the couples was Ron and Sandy Beam who were going to join two single women to form a team in the Elimbari tribe. Ron needed to go over to clear the land and build a fence around the land that the local people had given to them to build their houses. Sadly, the two single women had to leave, which left Beams needing someone to fill the team. We told them that we would continue to help them with clearing the land and building a fence as well as helping them to cut timber for their house building. If God gave them and us peace of heart about working together, we would join them, which we did in 1971.
I will never forget eating my first breakfast at the host village of Danei. I didn’t realize until later, that the couple had made a special meal for me. They had purchased rice and cooked it over an open fire inside their hut, and when it was done, they opened a small can of very oily mackerel fish and put it on top of the rice. The smell of the oily fish for breakfast turned me off. Praying the standby missionary prayer again, saying, “Lord, please help me get this down and keep it down.” To add to the drama of the situation, there was not a spoon to give me to eat my food. They searched and searched for one, and finally seeing one stuck in the wall, the owner of the house pulled it out and was ready to hand it to me when he noticed it was dirty. Being embarrassed, he took the spoon, spat on it, cleaned it off on his dirty shirt, and then handed it to me. If I had not been in a panic, I could probably say something like, “It is a custom of white people to hold their spoons over the fire before eating. But, being a slow thinker, I ate with it and everything was just fine. So many times, through the years God protected me from becoming ill from eating things that were new and sometimes disgusting to me.
Our team had decided it was better to eat any food the people offered to us until we could learn their language and culture. We didn’t want to be offensive to them. After a while, we learned some remarks that spared us from gross food. Remarks like, “My mom never cooked that for me, or I’m so full that my stomach will split from top to bottom if I eat another bite, or if I eat that, I will have terrible diarrhea.” All good practical phrases for beginning missionaries working cross-culturally.