Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Daddy in South America

A typical page from Daddy's South American snapshot album.
As you can see, he wasn't particular about the order in
which he arranged the pictures

My favorite book when I was a small child was a snapshot album of my father’s adventures in South America. At the age of 24, my father, Allen Sterling, was sent by the Carnegie Institution at Washington to South America to measure terrestrial magnetism. During the course of several different trips between 1916 and 1919, he covered much of the continent and was the first white man into various regions of the Amazon basin and tributaries of the Amazon. He traveled by raft for much of his work along the Amazon, by conventional transportation when it was available, by donkey-back over the Andes, and set up surveying sites from the inhospitable desert of northern Chile to the mysterious land of Tierra del Fuego.

This is Daddy in bleak northern Chile

Even more fun for a small child were the stories he told of his adventures. His only companion on his rafting expeditions was an indigenous man, and their only common language was Spanish, which neither of them spoke well. Daddy considered him one of his dearest friends. Daddy never met a fellow human that he did not approach in friendship and expect to receive the same in return.

One story that I liked, however, was of an evening by the river when Daddy felt apprehensive about the activities of a tribe near his tent. When he and his companion went to the small village to meet their neighbors-for-a-night, they found them in a frenzy of shouting and waving of weapons as they also drank great quantities of the local brew. It looked as though this might be the prelude to going on the warpath. So what did Daddy do? He bought up every spear, every gun, anything that could serve as a weapon. The not-very-sober celebrants were delighted. They had made a fortune. They continued their noisy celebration far into the night while Daddy and friend slept on top of their new purchases. By the sober light of morning the tribal members realized, as daddy had anticipated, that their weapons were needed to garner food. They were happy to buy them back.

Daddy’s mother had made him several flannel night shirts for the trips. In one small settlement along the river. the local inhabitants had obviously had some contact with civilization. Several of them had items of manufactured clothing. They did not, however, have actual money and had apparently acquired them through barter. One woman was wearing only a skirt made from pounded bark. For that skirt Daddy traded one of his nightshirts, which she immediately proudly donned. The bark skirt is still in my cedar chest, but archeologist Myrtle thinks she has found a museum setting for it.

The woman with the small child in her arms
is wearing the pounded bark skirt.

I will write about Daddy’s adventures from time to time. Stay tuned!


Bethany said...

I'm always amazed by your stories of your family (past, present, and still growing). It must be so fulfilling to be part of generations of incredible, talented, visionary people. You could write some amazing memoirs!

nonizamboni said...

Phyllis--What an exciting post--a real honest to goodness Amazon traveler! Reading your writing about your past is like following a rich novel. And, might I say, I think your dad imparted that very important trait of approaching everyone in friendship and expecting the same in return in his daughter. I already cherish your friendship.
Thank you for sharing a bit of your genepool and the photo of the album is wonderful too.

sarala said...

These are such great stories. Kudos to you for sharing them.

anno said...

What an amazing story -- it's clear how you developed your own sense of adventure & optimism! I hope to hear more stories from this marvellous scrapbook.

JonsterMom said...

Wow Grandma! That is such an amzing story! I have been learning more & more titbits about you through these stories. You know I have always enjoyed hearing about my great-grandpa!

Ali la Loca said...

Wow, this is incredible. Reminds me of the book "One River" by Wade Davis that tells the story of his travels and those of his mentor, an enthnobotanist, through the Amazon. Some is set in this decade, most is in the 1940's.

I think you'd really enjoy it!