A boomer shaped by a one-way ticket

Did you ever just strike out into the unknown? Even when you were young?? Communications specialist Larry Checco of Silver Spring, Maryland, once did. And he’ll never forget what he found.

In 1972, I was 24, and sold all my worldly possessions (totaling $1,400) and quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Perth, Australia.

Two-and-a-half years later, after working my way around the world, with major stops in Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific Islands, I found myself on the docks of Tahiti. There I heard stories about an old American recluse who lived on Tubuai, one of a remote group of islands called the Australs, 400 miles south of Tahiti.

Larry using a sextant to figure out his location in 1972.

The only way to get to Tubuai was by an old rust-bucket of a packet boat — one of those small boats designed in the 18th and 19th centuries for domestic transportation — that every couple of weeks made the rounds to the Australs delivering supplies, mail, and passengers (mainly islanders). I paid $20 for the privilege of sleeping on the ship’s hard metal aft deck, along with several extended Polynesian families, for two weeks.

Here’s what I heard with my first step on the dock: ”Welcome and take a good look. This is what someone who’s been living in Paradise for 39 years looks like.”

The speaker was skinny, almost to the point of being emaciated, a bit hunched, clad in a torn, faded red T-shirt and blue shorts, with twine strung around his head to keep the sweat, and his full head of shoulder-length hair, out of his baby-blue eyes. He was Toni Klein, age 73, and he came strolling from his taro patch to greet me.

Toni Klein

Toni may have been a recluse, but he sure did want to talk. And so we chatted in his bamboo-thatched hut, sheltered from the searing tropical heat.

“Left San Francisco and came to Tubuai in 1936 to avoid the blue serge suit,” he said. “Been here ever since.” In nearly 40 years Toni had left Tubuai only a couple of times and never farther than Tahiti, where he went only once for medical care.

The conversation turned to whether or not he was eligible for Social Security (money was practically non-existent on the island in 1936, but things had changed over the decades), then to politics (Toni frequently listened to news on a short-wave radio someone had given him, his only real contact with the outside world). When I asked how he came by the land he was living on, he grinned and said “by sleeping with the right women,” by whom he had five children.

Unfortunately my time was running short. I had to make my way back to the ship to return to Tahiti. Toni escorted me down the long, windy, tropical path that led to the dirt road that would take me to the boat.

Along the way he pointed out his primitive dirt-floor cook hut, the snare traps he set for catching chickens, and the taro patch he cultivated. We walked by sacred marea stones, supposedly placed there ages ago by an unknown people for an unknown purpose — some say they were sacrifices to a Polynesian god. Toni put his ear to the stones and said he felt peaceful here.

We came to a point where we looked out over a stunningly azure and endless Pacific Ocean under a crystal clear sky. “Paradise, paradise,” Toni said.

Here Toni told me the story of Fletcher Christian and his mutinous Bounty crew. After setting Captain Bligh adrift, the mutineers stumbled on Tubuai. But the native population proved to be hostile. The crew eventually came upon uninhabited Pitcairn Island and settled there.

“And please,” Toni said, “don’t go telling just anyone about me. I don’t want to become a museum piece.”

As I near the age Toni was when I met him, I think of him often and the radically different paths people’s lives take. Life’s a journey and we’re all trying to make it the best we can. Toni certainly didn’t express any regrets about his. I’ve been working on trying to do the same.

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