John Pietro: Animal to Humanitarian

January 2, 2008 at 10:29 pm (Fiction) ()

John Pietro, an Australian of Italian descent and a large brute of a man, was there in all his glory. He was a crocodile shooter and trader with a reputation as a formidable womaniser.

 Up to this point John Pietro had been pretty quiet, but then out of the blue he started on a diatribe against the Catholic Mission: “I can put up with Payne, but the trouble with this place is the Catholic Mission. It’s just like parts of Europe. The Popi (Catholics) are a mob of power hungry buggers, going around interfering in people’s private lives. Look at the mess Ireland and Italy are in, all because of the Church. Bloody priests, that mob down at Marienberg are buying shiploads of artifacts, that is the ones they don’t get the kanakas to destroy, and you can’t tell me they are not getting any sex.” 

 Bill Clayton, Sam Bell, John Pietro and others got in on the ground floor in collecting from the Karawari River.  John Pietro, on the strength of his profits, financed ventures in tourism in the area. The explosive interest in Sepik carvings also prompted him to take up carving himself and a growing market for his work among tourists showed the Angoram community that there was more to him than met the eye. He may have been known as “The Animal” to his friends and foes, but as Laura Sheppard said to James Ward: “The Animal certainly has an artistic side to his nature.” 

Wild parties were a feature for some living along Tobacco Road. John Pietro was known to excel himself and he invited selected government officers and some private enterprise people to his place from time to time. He often had visitors from other towns and overseas, both men and women, and he became known for the quality of the food and drink he offered. For those who wanted a little something extra at the end of night, this could be discreetly arranged, as he employed as his house boy the town’s most effective procurer, Patoman. This was a name given to him years ago when he looked after the ducks of an old-time resident, now long since dead, Shanghai Brown. In Pidgin pato man means a drake. The name stuck and Patoman became renowned in Angoram. He came from Kambaramba village and had many connections. He also loved a drink and bottles would come and go at a rapid pace when he was serving guests at Pietro’s parties. It took a while for Pietro to cotton on to the fact that half-full bottles of beer were being taken away by Patoman before guests finished them, and being replaced by full bottles. The half-full bottles were consumed by Patoman in the kitchen and he became increasingly under the weather at parties until Pietro woke up to him and watched him carefully. 

Many thought of John Pietro as the perfect host but there were limits on how accommodating he was towards his guests. A couple of middle-aged American men from New York were staying with him and they indicated to John that they would be interested in same-sex partners. This did not quite fit into John’s view of things and he ordered them out of his house. They managed to get a room at the hotel and did not stay around the town for long. So you could say that John had a gender bias, nothing but females, but within this category pretty much anything seemed to go. He was not known as “The Animal” for nothing. 

John Pietro was happy staying in Papua New Guinea as long as “the kanakas knew their place.” 

 “The talk I’m hearing is that very few locals are presenting themselves as possible candidates, but I hear that John Pietro is going to put himself up, and if we don’t get some likely locals to stand against him, he might even win. This I would consider an absolute disaster. I’ve also heard that Bill Clayton is interested. I could cope with him as he’s not a bad bloke, but what these Europeans have got to realise is that the First House should be to groom future native leaders.”

 Allen Warburton was presiding in a pontifical manner and talking to Jock MacGregor. Karen Barnes was in determined conversation with Ernest Spender. Sam Bell and John Pietro called in briefly.

Since MacGregor had arrived in Angoram, it was noticed that Pietro appeared to be far less aggressive and bellicose in his general manner. It was speculated that Pietro felt that MacGregor had got his measure and was not going to stand for too much “bullshit” and stand-over tactics. On this particular evening he was on his best behaviour. 

 In the coming weeks a number of candidates nominated. The front runners were considered to be John Pietro and John Kabais. 

What was surprising was the composed way John Pietro accepted defeat. The only significant disgruntled comment he made concerned the Catholic Mission: “Those bloody priests had it in for me. If we don’t watch it, this place will be as bad as Ireland and Italy.” 

Pietro’s ego perhaps had been considerably boosted recently with the arrival of a young assistant, Ray Mason. Ray was about nineteen years old and came from Queensland. He was full of praises for Pietro. He called him Jack and his conversation in the club and hotel was cluttered with references to “Jack did this” and “Jack did that”. Sam Bell said: “I think young Ray has got a dose of the jack.”

   Later in the club when James arrived, Laura Sheppard was there talking to John Pietro. Both wished James a welcoming “hello” and John excused himself and left to attend to in his words, “some pressing personal matter.” Laura said to James: “Thank goodness Pietro has left, he gives me the creeps, he has that look in his eyes that he would like to violate you.” 

There was a lot of aerial activity around the airstrip. Apparently, John Pietro had purchased a Piper Cherokee plane and was in the process of learning how to fly. The plane had been supplied with an instructor. This accounted for the landings, takings off and circling around the strip. Pietro and his plane were the talk of the town. Some thought that he would kill himself before he learnt to fly, others speculated on what he intended to do with the plane. Many had John flying down south to Brisbane and to places in South East Asia. One rumour was that he intended to run guns into West Irian and return with artifacts. All this talk added colour and excitement to conversations around the town. It was obvious that Pietro loved the added notoriety and he basked in his new found celebrity.

His cavalier self-assurance was on display in his dealings. Sam Bell, back in town, was heard to say: “John’s up himself.” . John Pietro loved his plane. He did, incidentally, get his pilot’s licence from the civil aviation authorities in Port Moresby and began formulating international trading ventures. 

John Pietro faced bankruptcy. He had overreached himself financially in purchasing the plane. The manager of the Bank of New South Wales in Wewak was concerned with his failure to service his loan. He had neglected his commercial interests since buying the plane and learning how to fly. The word around town was that he was trying to drum up financial backing from anyone who might be interested in becoming part-owner of the aircraft. He had approached Bill Clayton, Sam Bell, Jim McLaren and Ron Watson, with what he described to them as a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”

 Bill, Sam, and Jim brought the subject of Pietro up one afternoon, when visiting James Ward. Sam Bell said: “Pietro’s harebrained scheme to fly to the Asmat in West Irian and buy artifacts is half-witted, in my opinion. He tells me he has a letter from some bishop, telling him that the mission would be happy to assist him in any way possible, if he was to fly in a planeload of medical supplies. The mission would arrange for him to collect the medicine in Port Moresby. Apparently, there’s a landing strip at a place called Ewer, which is about twenty minutes by outboard motor or two hours by paddle canoe from Agats, where the mission is.

 “From what he has been told, the Indonesians are madly burning Asmat festival houses and carvings. The bishop, it appears, wants to discreetly save as many Asmat cultural items as possible before the Indonesians burn them. He has arranged with the people to stockpile the artifacts in a secluded spot ready to be loaded on the plane for the return trip. All the artifacts have been paid for and Pietro will be given these in return for bringing the medical supplies. The chances of pulling this off are very good according to Pietro. It seems that the Catholic Mission authorities could be alerted in Daru and he would be able to fly to Ewer from there, keeping clear of Merauke when he crossed the border. Some mate of his in Moresby told him there is only minimal Indonesian surveillance in the region, so he should be OK.

 “He’s broke, you know, and he’s virtually asking others to finance this venture. You lot can do what you like, but he’s not getting any of my money. To start with, I don’t fancy his ability as a pilot. The only claim to fame he has is his membership of the mile-high club and he’ll need more than that flying around West Irian.” 

Early on a Saturday, John Pietro was seen carefully checking his Piper Cherokee plane. Ray Mason and Bill Clayton were assisting him. He revved the engine several times and Ray handed him a thermos flask of coffee and a plastic container of sandwiches. Before John left, he made radio contact with the Civil Aviation authorities in Port Moresby, stating that he intended to fly to Moresby and pick up medical supplies and transport them onto Daru for unloading. He informed Moresby that he was going to to stay in Daru for some hours and then fly directly back to Angoram. He was given the all clear to proceed. Just before he left, Sam Bell arrived. Ray, Bill and Sam all shook hands with John and he got into the cockpit and taxied to the end of the strip for take off and away he went. Among the three left on the airstrip, there was a feeling of apprehensiveness and excitement. Ray said: “Jack, he’ll be OK. He knows what he’s doing.” No one said anything. If all went well, John Pietro should be back in Angoram by late afternoon. He said that if he was running late, he would stay the night in Daru on his return. He thought it best to maintain radio silence as much as possible. He would inform Civil Aviation in Moresby if he stayed at Daru and make some excuse about engine trouble. He was most emphatic that should he be late, he did not want anyone enquiring about him on air from Angoram.  He said that while he was flying in West Irian air space, he would be in the lap of the gods. The few in the know in Angoram would just have to wait it out and hope for the best. Late afternoon and nightfall came to Angoram and there was no sign of John. Bill Clayton, who had the Post Office agency with the radio facilities, said that they would do nothing that night, but first thing in the morning he would get in touch with Daru Post Office and make discreet enquiries. In the morning, Bill, after a lot of trouble, because Angoram was not on Daru’s radio sked, managed to get through. He asked to speak to someone from the Catholic Mission and eventually he was put into contact with a Brother Michael. 

“Brother Michael, this is Bill Clayton from Angoram. Do you know anything about a Piper Cherokee that arrived yesterday?” “Yes, Bill, John came in yesterday and all I can say is we haven’t seen him since. If I hear anything, I’ll get in touch immediately.” 

“Thanks Brother, I’ll keep the radio on here so you can get straight through. Over and signing off.” Brother Michael answered: “Roger.” In two hours Brother Michael got through to Bill: “Bill, the news is not good. I can’t say much on air but the Crosiers Fathers, from you know where, have contacted our Bishop Henri Sautot on Yule Island and Bishop Alphonse van Baar of the Crosiers will contact Bishop Leo Blum in Wewak. I’m sorry, Bill, but that is about all I can say, over and out.” Bill responded: “OK Brother, I’ll say over and out.” 

Those in the know about John Pietro’s venture met late on Sunday at Jim McLaren’s place on Tobacco Road. The general consensus was that everyone should keep quiet. Bill Clayton said: “At this stage, the kiaps know nothing about it. As far as they know, John has flown to Moresby and will be there for a few days. We know that Bishop Blum in Wewak will be getting a full report from that bishop in West Irian. I would say sit tight and let Bishop Blum handle the situation. The Department of Civil Aviation in Moresby is sure to be looking into it, but if the Indonesians know nothing about it, you can be sure that the government here will want to bury the whole thing.” Ray Mason asked: “Should I write a letter to Jack’s parents in Australia?” Bill answered: “For now do nothing because you don’t know what has happened yet. I’ve got a lot of respect for Leo Blum and I’m sure when he gets a full account, he’ll let us know. So, mum’s the word.” 

Twenty days after their meeting, Bishop Leo Blum flew into Angoram. The Bishop was an excellent pilot and was known in the District as “the flying Bishop”. He parked his plane just off the strip and walked over to Fr Bert Brill’s house. While there, he enquired of Bert if John Pietro’s business was being run by anyone. Bert informed the Bishop that there was a young man called Ray Mason who seemed to be running things. The Bishop said: “I wonder, Father, if you would send word to him that I would like to see him.” Bert answered: “I shall, My Lord.”  After some time, young Ray duly arrived. Bert introduced him to the Bishop. Ray was a bit overawed on meeting the Bishop and he vaguely knew that a bishop should be addressed as my something or other but he was not sure exactly what. So he went for broke and said: “How do you do and I’m pleased to meet you, My God.”

 This did not faze the Bishop and he sat Ray down and said that he would like to talk to him. He first asked Fr Brill to excuse them. The Bishop was a tall, lean American from Iowa, USA, and he had been in the Territory for about twenty-three years. He was a softly spoken man with a captivating personality and charming manners. In speaking to Ray, he treated him with the utmost respect and consideration. “Ray, I’ve got something very important I want to talk to you about, but before I start, I wonder if John Pietro had another close associate in town, who you would like to be present when I do this?” Ray answered that he would like Bill Clayton to be with him. The Bishop said: “Fine Ray, I know Bill. Would you be so kind to ask Bill to come here?” Ray answered that he would go and get him. Shortly after, Ray arrived back with Bill. Bill greeted the Bishop: “G’day, my Lord, it’s good to see you again.” “Likewise, Bill, I’m pleased to see you.” 

They then all sat down and the Bishop proceeded to speak: “I’ll assume that you are both broadly speaking familiar with John Pietro’s plans to fly to West Irian and have some idea what subsequently happened.” Bill and Ray answered: “Yes” to this and the Bishop then went on: “I’m now in a position to tell you exactly what happened. Bishop Alphonse van Baar, of the Crosiers in West Irian, has written me a full account of what occurred. His letter had to be carried by foot across the border to a mission station in PNG and from there it was flown to me in Wewak. That explains why it has taken so long for a full account to arrive. “You no doubt know that John arrived in Moresby. There his plane was loaded with medical supplies that the Catholic Mission had arranged. He flew onto Daru and from there to Ewer in West Irian, where the medical supplies were unloaded. He told a Brother Paul that he had no trouble on the way over. He kept well clear of Merauke. The local people than loaded his plane with artifacts from the Asmat, under the direction of Brother Paul. Brother Paul was a bit concerned that John was taking on a too heavy load, but John assured him that the plane could handle it.

 “After the plane was loaded, John took off without any trouble and headed out to sea. But while the plane was still gaining height prior to turning inland, suddenly the engine stalled and the plane plunged into the sea. There was nothing anyone could do as the plane dropped in a very deep part of the sea and submerged within minutes.” 

The Bishop went on to say: “The mission and the local people were all saddened by this tragedy. They are also extremely grateful to John for bringing the medical supplies. There is an influenza and malaria epidemic in the area and many people are dying. The penicillin and chloroquine and other medicines that John brought are saving many lives. The Bishop informed me that this is the first supply of medicines that they have received for a long time. It is hard to get permission and a clearance for planes to land from the Indonesian authorities. When there is contact with the Indonesians, it is usually with an army group, who have been sent in to subdue the village people and this often means burning their festival houses with cultural and ritual items in them. The Bishop arranged a memorial service for John at the mission. He is very anxious to know John’s parents’ address in Australia so that he can write to them.” 

Ray said: “I can give you that.” “Thanks,” Bishop Leo replied, “I’ll also write to them. Has anyone from Moresby been here enquiring about John?” 

 Bill answered: “Yes, Bishop, a couple of blokes from the Department of Civil Aviation were here last week trying to find out what they could. None of us here told them much.” The Bishop said: “That’s fine Bill. Now, I can say that our government will be very discreet in investigating this matter. Everything I’ve told you has been passed on to the Administrator, David Hay, and as long as the Indonesians know nothing about the incident, the matter will be largely laid to rest. Is there anything that either of you would like to ask?”

 Ray and Bill didn’t think that there was and they thanked the Bishop for all he had done. Ray told the Bishop that he would send John’s parents’ address up with a boy as soon as he got to his house. They said goodbye to the Bishop and they went their respective ways but first Bill said to Ray: “We’re lucky we’ve got a bloke like Leo handling things.” Ray answered: “You can say that again.” 

Sometime later Sam Bell remarked to Bill Clayton: “There’s a touch of irony in the way Pietro in death has been able to get all these Catholic Mission people running after him. If there is anything up there, he must be looking down and having a great laugh. We all know what he thought of Catholicism.”

 Jim McLaren, Bill Clayton and Ron Watson all lost money with the disaster of the West Irian venture, but they all proved philosophical about it. The consensus among them was that you can’t get blood out of a dry stone and John’s estate was relatively worthless. John’s parents had written to Ray Mason to say that he was welcome to keep whatever John had left behind in Angoram and carry on with whatever business was left. 

John’s death did have an unsettling effect in the town, but life waits for no one and the business of living went on as usual. 

Excerpts from Sepik Blu Longpela Muruk


1 Comment

  1. .:Finance News Online:. » Blog Archive » John Pietro: Animal to Humanitarian said,

    […] Matt A. wrote an interesting post today.Have a look for your self, Here’s an excerpt, read the full story at the blog“He’s broke, you know, and he’s virtually asking others to finance this venture. You lot can do what you like, but he’s not getting any of my money. To start with, I don’t fancy his ability as a pilot. The only claim to fame he has is … […]

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