Chapter 18 Sepik Blu Longpela Muruk

October 5, 2011 at 12:12 am (Angoram, Commentary, David Wall, Fiction, Papua New Guinea, Sepik Blu Longpela Muruk, Sepik River)

18

 Angoram 1968

 Annus mirabilis, Annus horribilis or a bit of both?

 

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.”

They all laughed and James called out to Kami to serve beer: Bia long Masta.

Beer for the Masters. Sam went on: “I’d love to get
my hands on some of those Asmat pieces.

There’s a great demand for them in America, especially since Michael

Rockefeller disappeared in Asmat territory. The ancestor figures, horns, drums,

sago bowls and pounders are really unique. My contacts in the States would pay

a fortune for a collection from there. I don’t believe that Pietro is the man to get

that collection. He’s too confident and does not plan enough. He reminds me of

that song that my son, Davie, is always singing: Jumpin’ Jack Flash, by a group

called, The Rolling Stones. But it’s all right, I’m Jumpin’ Jack Flash, It’s a Gas! Gas!

Gas! That about sums up my opinion of Jack Pietro, but don’t let me influence

you.”

“Boy, oh boy, Sam, I didn’t know you were so with it,” said Jim.

“You can’t avoid it with a teenage son down south, Jim.”

Sam’s spiel gave Jim and Bill a lot to think about, especially as they respected

Sam’s opinion on money matters. Sam was always canny in business and with

his soft Scottish brogue, red face, Ernest Hemingway beard and impassioned

manner, he was most convincing.

Bill Clayton said: “I’m still thinking about it and I know Ron Watson has

promised Pietro a fair amount of money.” “Ah, yes, Bill, but has he
actually given him anything yet?” Sam asked. Jim McLaren commented: “There’s
a hell of a lot of money to be made if it comes off.”

James Ward had his say: “You had better all be aware that Pietro won’t be

able to get any insurance cover for this venture. From the point of view of

international law, the whole thing would be viewed as illegal. So, if the plane

goes down, you’re left with nothing and if word gets out there could be all sorts

of diplomatic problems. There must be better ways of making money.”

Sam said: “Well said, Jamie.” The party then broke up. By
this time they were all pretty well under the weather. Kami had kept the
beer flowing and clear thoughts on the subject under discussion were no
longer possible.

In time, James learned that Bill, Jim and Ron had all come on board in

Pietro’s venture. There was no talk about it in town and this was a credit to the

discretion of those involved. No doubt, John had warned his assistant, Ray

Mason, to say nothing. 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.

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