THE STONE AGE was still alive in New Guinea in 1971.
Keith, an ex Australian Government Patrol Officer no longer employed to stop cannibalism and head hunting, was to guide me to a village twenty miles deep into the mountainous jungle. I wanted to hear their myths of origin and creation. He knew the chieftains, their language and all their customs.
We drove down a jungle trail in an open jeep.
At the outskirts of the village Keith shouted, “We are driving through!”
The natives had covered their skin with yellow clay. Some females had chopped off the ends of their fifth finger.
“They are very dangerous. Someone important has died. There is no belief in natural death. All deaths are murders or witchcraft. Discovery and justice must take place. Justice can vary from the killer giving a pig to the deceased family to killing someone in another village.”
We drove through the village and had several interesting experiences that day.
The jungle trail home went right through the village. Anxious, we did not want to stop. But the chief wasPME on the road and waved us down. It would have been an insult not to stop.
The chief came close to me as I cautiously left the jeep. He looked up at me and announced, “You John Wayne.”
Puzzled, I looked to Keith. Keith nodded his head slowly, meaning “Yes, you’re John Wayne.”
A cry went up, “John Wayne!” Villagers crowded around me, touching John Wayne.
At first only the important people were allowed to get close. When introduced, I arrogantly pushed out my chest, shook hands and shouted, “Apinoon Pilgrim!” or “Apinoon Pardner!” (Apinoon means afternoon.) What excitement.
Keith asked my wife to take Polaroids of me with the important people (good PR). As she did, they asked, “Mary belong you?” (“Is that your woman?”) Everyone wanted to touch my wife. She freaked while snapping the pictures.
I had three distinct reactions:
- I had never been famous. It felt glorious to be so valued and admired.
- I am not John Wayne, I am a phoney.
- They will find out I am not John Wayne, and they will kill me.
After thirty-five to fifty minutes of jungle surrealism, Keith indicated we should leave.
“Keith, I was terrified that they would discover I was not John Wayne and would kill me.”
“Not to worry. If John Wayne comes and claims to be John Wayne they will kill him.”
They knew about John Wayne because the government introduced the West by bringing in cowboy and Indian movies to the villages. Shooting, chasing, bows and arrows they understood.
They were encouraged to grow a little coffee for money. An enterprising Chinese man built a Quonset hut movie theatre in Mount Hagen and exclusively showed Westerns. They would walk forty miles to see their favourite, John Wayne.
I was Big John to everyone from then on.
I began to wonder why I had so carefully avoided becoming famous. Fame is a tool to make your dreams happen, just like political power or money. I love to be successful in making my dreams happen! So what was wrong?