AMAZON AND THE HEADHUNTERS
Jean Shepherd traveled to the Peruvian Amazon in 1965 to deliver five-hundred pounds of Luden’s cough drops and candy to a former headhunting tribe just converted to Christianity by missionaries. The chief of the tribe had been the recent subject of an as-told-to book, Tariri, My Story: From Jungle Killer to Christian Missionary. As Told to Ethel Emily Wallis by Tariri (1965):
http://avalon44.tripod.com/fr/auca.htm: Wycliffe began work in Peru in 1946 and today has workers in 44 tribes. Not one translator has been killed by Indians, although there have been some close calls.
Two single women, Lorrie Anderson and Doris Cox, entered Shapra territory when it was ruled by Chief Tariri, the most feared headhunter in Peru. Tariri later told Cam Townsend, “Had you sent two men, we would have killed them. Had you sent a man and wife, we would have killed the man and kept the woman for a wife. You sent two young women, calling me ‘brother.’ I had to protect them.” Since his dramatic conversion, Tariri has been a sensation in Peru and a celebrity to Christians in Europe and the United States.
The Wycliffe Bible Translators had brought Tariri to the United States and through an interpreter, Barry Farber, Shepherd’s friend and fellow-broadcaster, had interviewed him on his program. Shepherd, in one of his programs about his trip to Peru, tells his singular story of how it all came about and why he went in Farber’s place. Shepherd’s experiences in the Amazon, as he describes them on several programs, and thus, in this blog, were what he feels is his supreme travel adventure.
In his excitement to tell his tales live on the radio immediately after his return—without the usual gestation period of weeks or more that he had for his fictional stories—he frequently doubles back, interrupts himself, and repeats interesting details. Several of his friends have commented that Shepherd would sometimes deliver an extended monolog to them, and they’d subsequently hear a variation of it on the air, as though he’d been trying out the material with them. Maybe in his heated excitement regarding Peru, he’d not realized that what he remembered had been a private warm-up, he had broadcast twice—a repeated on-the-air anecdote.
For example, in one of his studio broadcasts he comments on what it was like to eat cooked monkey, and then, a few days later during his live-at-the-Limelight -broadcast in front of dozens of attendees as well as for his usual radio audience, he again describes his response to eating monkey. In another example, on different broadcasts, he twice tells his story of playing music with the tribe. With only a choice tidbit or two from the other telling, one basic version of each story is transcribed in these blog posts.
Also, for better understanding in reading, some of his descriptions, (interrupted by his instant remembrance of some other bit), have been shifted to a more straightforward chronology, as he surely would have done for print publication.
Jean Shepherd, after his Peru experience, may never before have been in such an extraordinarily excited state on the air. In telling kid stories or army stories, he has as much time as he wants to prepare and organize, but giving listeners his authentic Peru tales within a mere few hours after his return, he is in a heated rush. This is a prime example of his rarely found overwrought presentation. Wordsworth described poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Shepherd’s overflow in extemporaneous prose does not here have the necessary time for recollection in tranquility. We can only cut him some slack for his exuberance in foregoing some poetic elegance. Extemporaneous is what we expect and enjoy in Shepherd’s broadcasts. For this gift from Shepherd we should be thankful for the anomaly and treasure it. Listeners and readers are caught up in the unstoppable flow of spoken words as he describes this unique adventure for us and we exult with him.
“Hey, Shep, how’d you like to go to Peru?”
Shep tells us:
Some people have asked why we went. Why it happened. Well, like so many things in life, it’s curious how these things happen. So many things in life that you do that turn out to be big deals usually start out in the most ridiculous way. I wonder how many people are married to people who they met under totally ridiculous circumstances. In fact, most of the circumstances we live in are ridiculous. How many people go into the gas station and meet somebody by the Coke stand? They could have gone to the Esso station one block down. The next thing you know, it’s Reno, it’s three kids, it’s murder or divorce.
Well, this trip was that sort of thing. I was sitting in my office preparing a show, working away and in came Barry Farber. Barry is an interviewer on WOR who precedes me on the air. He just stuck his head in the door. “Hey, Shep,” he said. “How’d you like to go to Peru?”
I said, “Yeah.”
He said, “Okay,” and he walked away. I didn’t think anything about it. I went back to work yelling and hollering and looking out the window getting ready for the show.
And life went on. The next day I was back at the same old stand and I was on the phone yelling and hollering and Barry looked in the door and said, “Hey, Shep, it’s all set.”
I said, “Okay. What?”
He said, “You’re going to Peru. You all set now, okay?”
I say, “Yeah,” still not thinking it was anything. Well, by George, the next day Barry walked in and said, “I’ve got to talk to you for a minute.”
“What about, Barry?”
“You know, the guy from Luden’s is here and he wants to see you. Did you get your letter about the jungle gear you gotta get?”
“Well, I’ve gotten some nutty letter. “ You get millions of letters in this business and you throw them out. The letter said something about snake bite and to get a big boot, and said the natives are friendly but have no word for “thank you,” so look out. I said, “Well, yeah, I got a letter, Barry.”
“The fellow who wrote it is in the next room. Come on down and meet him. He’s from Luden’s.”
“Wait a minute, Barry. What do you mean, Luden’s?”
“Luden’s Cough Drops, you know.”
I said, “Luden’s? Clue me in, Barry.”
He said, “You’re going down to the jungle with the headhunters.”
I said, “The what-hunters?”
He said, “Headhunters. You remember Tariri—I had him on my show. You’re going down there. It’s all set.”
“I can’t chicken out?”
“Well, they bought you a ticket.”
Oh, I got a ticket to see the headhunters.
He said, “Look, I’ll tell you what it is. I went to a party.” Barry one day got an invitation to a party given by Luden’s. There’s millions of promotional parties in town all day long. He went to the party with about a thousand other people there, and they’re talking about cough drops and stuff. So Barry’s sitting there eating the rubber chicken and he’s listening to the speeches and applauding. A guy stands up on the podium and says, “Attention. We’re going to draw for the grand prize. Five-hundred pounds of candy to be given to your favorite charity. The prize goes to number 722, to Mr. Fraber. Is a Mr. Berley Fraber here?”
Barry says, “My name is Barry Farber and I got number 722.”
Mr. Berley Fraber
“You win. It’s yours.”
Five hundred pounds of cough drops. Barry said in all his life he never won anything and now it’s this! They call him up to the podium and say, “We’re going to give this to your favorite charity.”
Barry couldn’t think of anything. They must have figured he’s going to say something like the Red Cross or the Boy Scouts. He says, “Ah, I got an idea. The other day I had on my show these headhunters and I’d like to do something for those missionaries down there. I’d like to send all my candy down there.”
They say, “What?” They couldn’t chicken out. There’s a thousand dealers all standing there listening. They expected to put the candy in a truck and take it to the Salvation Army, and he says “headhunters.” They say, “Where are they?” He says, “These headhunters are at the headwaters of the Amazon River. If it’s too much trouble, don’t worry about it. Send it wherever you like, but that’s my favorite charity.” He said it into the PA system. And he walked out.
Here they are with egg all over their face. Five hundred pounds of candy, and the headhunters are four-thousand miles away. And they have to send a man with it! They have to get one of the cough-drop-men to watch the cough drops. So twenty minutes later, a man in the cough drop company is sitting there calmly at his desk and his little intercom buzzes.
He says, “Hello, J. B., what is it?”
“Lee, this is J. B. We got this charity presentation. You mind making a charity presentation?”
“Glad to, J. B.”
“It’s in the Amazon jungle. There’s headhunters there. You’re leaving Friday.” Click.
Lee is the public relations man for Luden’s and he is basically chicken. He can’t see himself going down there alone so he gets on the phone with Barry Farber and says, “Farber, I’ve got a great idea!” Barry listens. He’s one of those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, Madison Avenue Liberal types. “Yes, yes, Mr. Chamberlain, I gave that to my favorite charity. Yes, headhunters, yes. Yes indeed, I love ‘em!”
Lee says, “Say, wouldn’t it be wonderful just to see those guys when they get that candy?”
Barry says, “Yeah, sure would be great to take a look at their eyes.”
Lee says, “Be ready to leave Friday.”
Barry immediately starts babbling about having a certain blood-pressure system that won’t let him fly—his blood comes out his ears. He’s got all kinds of cock-and-bull stories. And then he hears me on the phone in the next room. He knows that I’m game for anything. He waits till my phone is ringing and I’m opening a letter. He walks in and says, “How about Peru?”
I say, “Yeah.”
He runs into his office and says into the phone, “Lee, yeah, I’ve got a guy who’ll go.”
“A Guy Who’ll Go.”