“Don’t Go, It’s Dangerous!”
“I’d like to thank the people who made it possible for us to go.
The Luden’s Candy Company footed the bill for this fantastic trip
and provided me and the two other men with an adventure
which I would like to tell you about. An adventure which I’m sure
not many men have ever had.”—Jean Shepherd
Live life to the fullest. Pick it up and lay it down. Move forward. A nine-foot behemoth striding in fantastic steps across the tundra of existence.
Hey, should I really go? To Peru? This is no funsville. Everybody thinks I’m going to take one of these little Pan American flights where they give you martinis, give you some cashew nuts, and you whoopee and holler and get down there and they start playing “Begin the Beguine.” I’m talking about the Peruvian jungle, of which there are few more jungle-like, and the waters are full of crocodiles and electric eels. People down there have strange appetites. They tell me the one thing they really dig are guys with beards. You know, they can’t grow beards themselves.
Believe me, John Wayne, when he’s about to storm the pillbox, does not look back at the battalion and yell, “Shall I go or not, fellas?” To a man they’d holler, “Go! Go on!” Everybody’s for me going to see the headhunters. They all want to hear about it. Typical twentieth-century man—he wants to hear about stuff.
Shall I go or not?
[A pleading, nearly sobbing female voice, undoubtedly that of Shepherd’s producer, gofer, editor, agent, confidant, lover, Leigh Brown, cries out from the control room: “No, don’t go! No!”]
Leigh Brown: “No, don’t go! No”
What was that?
[“No, don’t go!”]
[“Don’t go!” says the plaintive voice.]
[“’Cause,” she says more quietly, but still afraid. “Don’t go. It’s dangerous.”]
Oh, ha, ha, ha, what is danger to a happy-go-lucky rake like me? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Well, I’ve been debating about this. In case you haven’t heard, I have been more or less euchred. It’s like a crummy avalanche, I tell you. At first I thought it was kids laughing about it, and the next thing I know, guys are calling me up and offering me curare cures. They’re calling me up and saying, “Of course I’ve got the stuff if you get a piranha bite.” Gee whiz, I guess you don’t get one piranha bite, do you? Piranha bites come in bunches, like bananas.
My Playboy editor called and says, “Are you really going to go on with this nutty thing? Shave off your beard.”
I say, “Why?”
He says, “They like beards.” He says, “It doesn’t make any difference how Christian they are, you know. If they’re ex-headhunters, you can’t tempt them that much. You’re liable to be the greatest head that’s shown up there. And one guy’s gonna be skulking in the back of the tribe who says, ‘Well, all right, so I did swear off headhunting. But just this once! A guy can fall off the wagon once.” And the editor says, “You can always grow another beard, but it’s a little hard with a head.”
Gee, wow, I just don’t know what to do.
[“Don’t go! No! Don’t go.”]
The voice of a listener is heard throughout the land. Oh yes, real-life adventure always leaves real-life listeners very cold. Yes indeed. We’re aware of that, friends.
We’re not going to talk about headhunters, but I’ll state my case for what it’s worth. That there are very few areas of existence today that allow for actual, true adventure. Now, getting fired from BBD & O is not adventure. Trying to get a job at Y & R is not adventure. Being rejected by a chick on McDougal Street is really not the same as Captain Ahab gettin’ belted in the chops by a white whale. Although many a pimply-faced youth thinks it’s the same problem.
So I feel, as our life gets more and more under control, as we get our world more civilized, more paved—oh, by the way, speaking of the natives down there of this particular tribe, the Shapras, they have a real hang-up on T-shirts, so we’re going to take some white T-shirts to give them. And some red beads. I’m seriously thinking of buying a bunch of those little phony shrunken heads—you can get them in novelty stores on Sixth Avenue. Bring a whole bunch of them down there and say, “Look, fellows, if you really want some heads—.“ Just sort of unload them on ‘em….
When you think of guys on a fantastic dig somewhere, near the mountains of the moon, somewhere in central Africa, you’re always imagining them uncovering this rare jawbone of Australopithica camperus, some really rare creature—great moment. “Aha! Will you please come here! Oh, please, oh!” And when the natives are coming over the tundra with their flags flying and they’re attacking the camp, you don’t see the scenes before and after, and you don’t even see the scene of preparation, really. And I wonder about that moment when you step out of the plane. We get to our location by helicopter—there’s no other way to get in. There’s no Peruvian Jungle Hilton and it’s doubtful whether they honor Diners Club Cards. The Shapras live at the headwaters of the Amazon, and they live in the jungle that is filled with jaguars.
“Jaguars and pirhanas, oh my!”
The rivers are jammed gill to gill with piranhas all looking with little red-rimmed eyes, waiting for somebody to slip on the bank. In between the piranhas are crocodiles, who live on the piranhas. Next to the crocodiles, lying down there at the rocky bottom of the river, are electric eels who generate power roughly the equivalent of Trenton with all of its lights on at once. They tell me that every electric eel down there is roughly about two-hundred-thousand Watts, and when he lays it on, he can light up light bulbs all the way down in Argentina, twelve-thousand miles away, just by sticking his eyes out of the water and squeezing hard. Under practically every rock and tree is a boa constrictor.
What has this done to the natives? Well, let me tell you. You have no idea. But I understand that for the natives, life is one long worry. Apparently the stone-age life is not exactly what most of the people who believe in the “noble savage”—like Rousseau—thought it was. Life is one long nip-and-tuck. According to the fellow who was in touch with me, these people don’t grow to be forty, you see, the attrition rate head-wise being what it is in the neighborhood. And they’re all roughly five-foot-six and extremely muscular—and touchy.
So, I don’t know. The thing that makes me wonder is getting out of the helicopter and the jungle is all around you and you can hear the piranhas feeding off in the river there.
The chief comes forward: “Ungwawa.” And he raises his skull and rattles and all the others peer out of the undergrowth. After you have made contact, then what?
You sit: “Nice day, chief.”
“Aya mula dagwaya.”
“Nice little place you got here, heh, heh.”
“Uya agarrwa. Ga waya.”
“What did he say?”
You look over to your interpreter and his face is dead white. “Oh, sorry, chief. Sorry.”
You wait for the helicopter to come back ten years from now.
An old friend of mine who does travel pieces for Playboy—Shel Silverstein—really travels around—and I mean there’s a difference between traveling and tourist things. Usually a traveler is a lonesome, solitary figure….
(Self portrait of Shep’s
best friend, Shel.)
Whereas the tourist remains part of the thing that he was that he’d left at home. He really remains a Texan or a guy from White Plains. Because he usually travels with a lot of other guys from White Plains and Texas. They travel like a little knot of migratory birds moving across the landscape. You hear people who don’t travel a lot, but once every five years they make their two-week trip to Paris, and they talk about how they’ve really been there and really know about it….I’ve often read in the angry-type magazines about the American who goes to other countries and he refuses to be anything but an American and they somehow put that down. Well, I can only submit that the saddest American of all is the American who goes to Karachi and buys himself a robe and squats down beside a sacred cow and pretends that he’s a guru. [Probably referring to Allen Ginsberg here.] And this attempt to be something you aren’t is, to me, the most profound kind of dishonesty. So it’s a profound kind of comment on a sort of cosmic rootlessness.
Shepherd often drifts into a related subject and gives his philosophical opinion. As we note, he does not like the tourist who gets off a plane and into a limo to be escorted through some exotic place, and neither does he like the American who goes to some exotic place and tries to be one of those exotic creatures. In the 1960s, many young people did don the native robe and attempt to take on a life other than the American one they probably could never escape.
Shepherd is neither one kind nor the other. He is always an American and proud of it, but he is an American who loves to experience other places and understand them in his own way—and interpret those other places for those who care to attend to him. To some extent he seems to take pleasure in frightening friends (and maybe a lover) in regard to the dangers he is about to face—and he is known for his occasional forays into hyperbole.
Stay tuned for further parts
of Shepherd’s Amazon