Jean Shepherd is back from the Amazon
Indicative of the profound experience Jean Shepherd has had in the Amazon, his preconceptions and change of mind—and admitting to them on the air—are nearly unprecedented. His ways of thinking about the delights and dangers of the Amazon; the particular nature of primitive peoples and how they live; and even the work and nature of at least some missionaries, will never be the same.
“I guess I came back changed.”
When I left to go visit these people, I had the usual hip, urban attitude towards the “native,” and particularly what we call the “unspoiled” savage. That anyone who went and tried to bring any kind of help to them was, quote, destroying them. You know the feeling. And I’d like to say that, after having been out there and having been around these natives and listened to them talk and watch what was happening, and heard things about the other tribes in the area, I came away with a totally different concept.
Primarily because it is an inevitable problem that civilization will creep in and is creeping in on these Indians because there are great oil deposits in the jungle. Great mineral deposits—gold is found there and there is gold mined and gold is panned in the rivers. Prospectors are there and if these people have no language, have no written way to understand the complexities of the world that’s coming in on them—know how to read and write—they will be totally destroyed, just like we destroyed many, many tribes as we moved West.
And these missionaries are trying to prevent that by giving them a language that can be preserved, so that a thousand years from now somebody will be writing in Shapra, and their literature can be preserved and they will have a way of dealing with civilization when it comes in on them. Of course, not only that, they take to the Indians something which is of inestimable value and that’s medical aid.
I guess I came back changed, no question about it. We walk around town, we walk around our world, and it’s unbelievable how much we take for total granted. One thing I learned out of this experience—which was a tremendously moving one to me—was how resilient and how tough and how un-killable, in a genuine sense, mankind is, and even you and I. I wasn’t in this camp twenty-four hours and found myself drinking the river water without question about it, eating the roots and the vines and one thing and another they dug up and gave us for food, and I realized very quickly that if need be, we can survive. We really can. And not only that, it’s a pleasant survival. It’s hard but it can be done and it is done.
Maybe you heard Tariri—he was interviewed on various shows here a couple of years ago. Yes, they flew him here to New York. He had no concept of what the city was like. He said, “They have all these places, all these stores, and they have all the beads (beads meaning wealth), all the wonderful things, but you know what they don’t have?”
“They don’t have monkey meat!”
That was his idea of saying that these people think they have everything but the poor fools haven’t even made it, because to him, the prime, greatest delicacy, was monkey meat. He loved monkey meat and he couldn’t see why they didn’t have monkey meat at the D’Agostino.
This has been a great experience for me and again I would like to thank all the people who made it possible. The Luden’s Company. They sent us there—to give five-hundred pounds of candy to the natives, who went out of their skull—you should have seen them. There were guys running around throwing “5th Avenue” candy bars in the air yelling and hollering. A mother came up to the interpreter, really worried. She had a little kid by the hand and she asked the interpreter, “He ate the whole box! Will he die?!” He’d eaten a whole box of Luden’s Cough Drops. Just popped them down one after the other.
But they loved it and we had a great time. It was not done as a promotion or gimmick for Luden’s. It really wasn’t. It was one of those strange, believe-it-or-not stories. Luden’s had no idea there were even such people called the Shapras, so they weren’t down there promoting Luden’s Cough Drops with the headhunters—who don’t have much need.
Shepherd with the Sharpas.
[Until the image of Shep playing his instruments with them surfaced, the torn, ragged photo above, which I’d neatly cropped for my EYF! had been the only one to survive some New York photo-file disaster (originally 8″ high by 10″ wide–at least half the image–to the left–is lost). So, beyond the Shepherd broadcast audios, little seems to have survived for the historical record. I’d hoped to find preserved info and more photos in some carefully cataloged files–I contacted the Luden’s company and they had no file for the Peru trip–or anything else, and the company they had been sold to claimed not to have any Luden’s files either. As for the 20th century’s historical record-keeping, kinda makes ya wonder.]
Cough Drops for the Headhunters.
You should have seen the moment when they put on their T-shirts with the big block L on them. Oh, what a time! I’ll never forget it. I’ll continue the story tomorrow.