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Papua: 1942–43a novel
By Charles Parker
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Charles Parker
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Chapter OneJOE'S RECORD
This much I know: I fell out of the sky in a parachute. I was unconscious and I awoke from the boom of thunder followed by a refreshing downpour of rain. I was not on the ground. In fact, I was a very long way from the ground, perhaps a hundred feet up. My chute was hung up in an immense tree. The view down was sickening, and the view up was impossible because of the way I was dangling supported at my back. I knew I was in a parachute from the harness I was wearing, and I was sure that if the chute were to now break loose, it would be the end of me. I tried not to move more than to check myself for broken bones; there were none. My head, however, throbbed unmercifully!
By now the rain had stopped. I was in a stand of tall trees on a steep hillside, a jungle actually, and I soon became aware of monkeys chattering above me. I could see and hear a river roaring in the ravine off to my right. Where was I? Why was I here? As I pondered these questions it began to dawn on me that I no longer knew myself. This was almost more frightening than the fear of falling to my death. I looked at my hands. There was a gold band on my left ring finger – so I must be married. How could I forget my wife? Do I have children? There was a watch on my wrist, smashed beyond recognition. My name, surely that would come to me. This had to be a momentary lapse. So I thought, at the time, but I was wrong. After these eleven days it still escapes me. I searched my pockets, which was not easy with the harness binding me. I found a handkerchief and checked my head for bleeding; there was a little. I found a candy bar and quickly devoured half of it; what bliss. I found a fountain pen, the one I am using now. My wallet, however, was missing; I must have had one. Had someone robbed me? Perhaps! These were the bewildering thoughts that swirled through my pounding head, until I mercifully fell into sleep, or perhaps I went into a coma.
Whatever it was, I awoke from it to the sound of human voices, and there far below me stood a group of men staring up at me. Hanging there asleep, I realized they must have thought I was dead. They were small of stature, dark skinned and wore little clothing. Each carried a long bow and had a quiver of arrows slung across his back, and yet they did not appear to be dangerous. I called down to them, "Can you help me?" and they responded enthusiastically in a language I could not comprehend. It was clear that they were pleased to find me alive and they appeared to be discussing how they might save me, but it was hard for me to imagine how they would do it. They walked about the surrounding trees looking up and doing a lot of pointing, until finally they sent a boy off on an errand while the rest squatted down to wait.
We tried talking to each other, all of us jabbering away, pretending to understand each other. We laughed and made signs and on a primitive level I know we were communicating friendship. Deeper understanding would come later. Finally we stopped chattering and just smiled at each other, and waited, and waited, and waited.
Waiting, however, was really getting difficult for me. I had to go! And I couldn't wait! I decided that since we were all men there, and before any women might possibly show up, I had to take action. I opened my fly and shouted a warning to the men below to move away from the target range. To my surprise, they all jumped up and cheered me as I relieved my bladder. These men felt my pain and felt my relief. Friends in need are friends indeed! It was then that I became certain that my life was in good hands and I would be rescued.
With little left to do physically, I settled down to serious efforts to regain my memory. I repeated every male first name I could think of, but none seemed to fit me. It seemed amazing that I could recall a list of names, but not my own. Giving up on that line of thinking for the moment, I tried the airplane I must have been in, or was it a balloon? Again: nothing. How could my brain selectively forget something so primary? I began to feel a kind of numbness pervade my entire being.
I am sure it was five or six hours before there was a shout through the forest, and suddenly the boy returned, bringing another man who carried a large coil of rope over his shoulder. This man was considerably taller and had the muscular appearance of an athlete. To my surprise, the first thing he did was to lie down full-length on his back and begin to stare up at me and at the surrounding trees. It is clear to me now that he was both resting and planning how to rescue me, but at the moment I felt as if I was being abandoned, and felt prompted to shout, "Please help me!" His response was to raise one finger in my direction and give me a big smile. This man was calling the shots.
Finally he stretched and sat up, which appeared to be the signal for the others to gather about him. There was much pointing and talking as my savior explained his plan to the others. There was a tree about fifty feet from the tree I was in that had more branches on the trunk than other trees which were closer by. The coil of rope was placed carefully at the base of this tree, each loop of the coil offset so that it would not snarl as it was extended. Now, walking to the tree and picking up the end of the rope, my savior made a small knot on the end and tossed it over the crotch of the first branch above him, a distance of maybe fifteen feet. Now, with his fist holding two thicknesses of rope, he hoisted himself up, handover-hand, inverted his body and slung his leg over the branch and with remarkable ease was soon sitting in the crotch. Again, he looked up at me, and with a grin simply raised one finger. This was a man of few words. I grinned back.
After a brief rest my hero repeated the procedure to reach the next crotch, and the next, and the next, until he was so far above me that I could no longer follow his progress. Now I realized that my friends on the ground were trying to tell me something, but before I understood, a loop of rope was crashing down on my head. I reached for it, but it slipped from my grasp and swung back to the other tree. On the second try, I caught it and found it to be made of carefully woven vines and the end was tied in a bowline knot making a loop for me to sit in. This man thought of everything.
As soon as I got the loop around my butt, my friend began to pull me up so that my weight gradually transferred to the rope and away from the parachute and I gradually approached the tree. I had not gone far, however, when suddenly the chute came loose and I was flying pell-mell toward that tree. Fortunately, I was traveling feet-first so that when I crashed into the trunk, I was able to spin myself off to one side and finally come to rest with my parachute dangling below me. The rest was simple: My friend would lower me to a crotch; he would reposition himself, and then lower me again until we reached the ground. Solid ground! Oh how good that felt. And, oh my, what a warm welcome I was given by my new friends.
Now that I was firmly on the ground, an old man took charge of my care. He ordered the others to stand back while he inspected me all over. I gathered that he was a medicine man and he gave me the full treatment. He checked me for broken bones, rubbed a green colored salve on my scrapes, and provided me water to drink from his leather flask. Finally, finding me fit to travel, he let the others approach me. Next I was fed a concoction that tasted like fermented spinach. It was horrible! I smiled and implied that I had only recently dined. I'm sure they saw right through me, but they took my rejection graciously. I was dying to eat the other half of my candy bar, but I felt very self- conscious about letting them see me doing it. I guess my mother must have trained me to be polite. I decided to wait until I could sneak a bite without being seen.
With all the formalities and expressions of friendship out of the way, it was time to head "home," wherever that was. My tree-climbing hero led the way, swinging a machete. I followed behind, the boy carried the parachute on his head behind me, and the rest followed after, single file. There were eight of us. I had no idea how far we had to walk. I was bone-tired, hungry, and ready to pack it in, but my new friends acted as if the day had only just begun. Actually night was fast approaching and I was beginning to have some desperate thoughts about getting them to stop, when suddenly we entered a small clearing that was apparently their campsite. I realized that these people knew their way around without any advice from me. They had saved my life so I had an obligation to be a patient guest.
The site had a low shelter about twenty feet long by ten feet deep with a thick thatched roof sloping to the rear. There were no sidewalls. Under the shelter each man had his space, with a woven mat for each to sleep upon. It was very neat and orderly, much like an army barracks. My parachute was placed at the end, after much shifting of the mats to make room, and much arguing among the men. I tried to indicate that I might sleep out in the open, but they would not hear of it. I was now one of them.
When it was all settled, the boy came to me and with a big grin, pointed to himself and said, "Kan." It was time to get acquainted and I had to provide some kind of name for myself. I simply could not admit I had forgotten my own name, so I gave it my best and blurted out, "Joe," even though I was sure that was not it. So Joe I became, and all the others in turn came to me and spoke a name. The handsomely built athlete who saved my life was something like "Guguloguda," but of the others, as I write this record several days later, I can only remember my young friend and helper, Kan. Kan has become my constant companion and soon I had a vocabulary of words which he taught me. In fact, even as I write this record of events, Kan is looking over my shoulder, embarrassingly close, fascinated by what I am doing.
Kan was about twelve or so, and he was clearly planning to be my companion and instructor. He was a handsome boy with an infectious smile and boundless energy. He would come running up to me, and standing very close, speak a word he wanted me to learn and with much pointing, show me what it means. It is working. I am learning enough words to get by. This has impressed the older men into thinking I am intelligent, whereupon they flood me with conversation that goes way over my head, proving to their satisfaction that I am not very smart after all. With Kan I have no such trouble.
But I have digressed from my account. The camp, which turned out to be one of a number of hunting camps used by these people, was soon alive with activity. Everyone seemed to have a specific job to perform. Before long there was a fire blazing in a fire pit (a safe distance from the thatched roof), water had been hauled, perhaps from the river, and a small wild boar was roasting, skin and all, on a spit over the fire. The acrid smell of burning hair was gradually giving way to the aroma of roasting pork. I sat upon my folded parachute watching the activities, head propped on my knees, trying desperately to stay awake. I had a strange sense of having been reborn, a full grown man-child, into a community of people who would be my "family" from now on, my previous life having disappeared, maybe forever. I had a lot to learn, but Kan was there to teach me.
It was dark now and the smell of the roasting boar was almost more than I could bear. Finally Guguloguda, whom I shall refer to as "G" from now on, went to the fire pit and without removing the boar, sliced off the blackened hide and cut off chunks of meat. Kan then pierced each with a pointed stick, and carried them to the men. It was like a weenie roast. I expected to be served first, as a guest of honor, but I was not. I came last along with Kan, who sat down beside me. I felt pleased that I should be treated as one of the family and that Kan was at my side.
This time I had no desire for that other half of my candy bar. The pork was delicious, well cooked, and almost more than I could eat. Kan gave me water to drink from his water bag, the skin of some animal, so, feeling quite content, I stretched out on my parachute and fell into a deep sleep. That is all I recall of that night, so I must have slept well.
When I awoke the next morning the sun was high enough for it to be late morning. I found Kan sitting upright beside me, waiting for me. Seeing I was awake he gave a shout and soon the others appeared. It was pretty clear that they had changed their plans in order to let me sleep. Such considerate men! "G" came to check me out, lightly touched the bump on my head that still throbbed. I tried to indicate that I was fine and raring to go. Smiling now, "G" gave me his raised finger salute and shouted something to the others.
Things moved quickly after that. I was fed another chunk of pork, cold this time. It appeared that the others had already eaten every last bit of the boar, saving this nice portion for me. Now they were anxious to hit the trail, so when the last bite entered my mouth, they all rose to their feet and shouldered their gear. One of them carried a strange looking animal, already gutted, and dangling on a string: this morning's catch, this evening's supper. This time Kan and I took our place at the rear of the column, a sign, I reasoned, that I was considered able to keep pace.
The trail we walked now was smooth and well worn. Every so often I got a glimpse of the river in the ravine to our left. Mile after mile it was still there. At one point the path led right down to the shore where I was delighted to find another camp similar to the one where we had spent the night. By now I was getting the picture: they had these campsites all over so there was always a place for them to spend the night.
The sun indicated that it was mid-afternoon. I was delighted to see everyone settle down for a rest and a drink of fresh water. The water in the river was fast moving and looked sparkling clean, so I drank deeply. My legs were very tired by now, but my head felt much better. It was snack time and out came the green fermented spinach. The others all seemed to love it, but I demurred, pulling out my crumpled half candy bar and eating it in front of them. They acted as if they felt sorry for me. This time I spread my parachute a little wider so Kan could lie on it too. That pleased him and soon we were both spread out, side-by-side, on our backs.
"G" took only a short rest, flat on his back, before leaping to his feet and shouting for us all to do the same. Not wanting to be a pariah, I staggered to my feet too, only to find the medicine man by my side, checking me out to see if I was fit to travel. He felt my legs and peered into my eyes. He gently touched my head and then shook his head – travel was off for rest of the day. "G" acted put off by this news, but acquiesced. "G" was clearly not the man in charge.
Well, "G" was the only unhappy one. In no time at all, several men were standing in the river using their bows and arrows to spear fish (with incredible success), Kan was swimming and skipping stones, and someone else was getting a fire started. I waded in the shallow water for a while then decided to do it right – tore off all my clothes and joined Kan in the deeper water. It was glorious to feel cool and clean again. I was so pale compared to Kan and the others as I dried off with the sun feeling nice for a change. Poor "G," he just sat alone on a boulder and sulked.
That evening we dined well on fish and that strange animal they had caught that morning. That night we had a bright moon and the musical sound of the river to put us to sleep. It seemed so peaceful here, but there were dangers about that Kan described to me with hand gestures. Each night two of the men took turns doing guard duty, and keeping a fire going to frighten off night-hunting animals. In addition, all of the men kept their bows by their side at the ready in case the alarm was given. For me, very tired from walking, I slept really well.
Excerpted from Papua: 1942–43 by Charles Parker Copyright © 2011 by Charles Parker. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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