An Outpost of Progress – The Narrative – And so, farewell to Venezuela

Tom Jenkins with shrunken, mummified head. Head shrunken down by head hunters of interior of Venezuela 1937.

Tom Jenkins with shrunken, mummified head. Head shrunken down by head hunters of interior of Venezuela 1937.

When I was a boy and you went to the movies there were trailers for upcoming films, short subjects and cartoons that preceded the feature film and getting there in time to see all of them was part of getting your money’s worth – even if it was much less than a dollar for admission in those days. A common short feature was a travelogue for some far away place with a strange-sounding name and the narrator often signed off with, And so, farewell to…, before the raucous cacophony of a cartoon that promised more violence than any feature film dared. I can not begin to tell you how many such adventures I shared with Bill Leach when I was a boy and in tribute to those happy days I will close out this true life adventure of his using those words as the preamble.

Bill served several years in Venezuela but the diary that I found among his papers covered mainly 1937 – although the accompanying photographs cover 1938 as well. In 1937 he was a graduate engineer with a work history and more than a few other adventures behind him but he was still foot loose and fancy free not yet having met Laureene with whom he would spend the next fifty plus years. It may have been her influence that kept the manuscript closed up in a drawer for the best part of sixty years and even though I knew bits and pieces of the story I left it there for another fifteen until the confluence of the blogosphere and the desire to tell a story to my children and grandchildren caused me to transcribe it and scan the pictures in and publish for friends and family.

Most of what I have published dealt with his association with Standard Oil in the early days of developing the eastern Venezuelan oil fields. There are tales of the oil patch in the jungle and of the camradie of the cabin and the canteen as well as adventures on the high seas and in the low dives of Caracas and Ciudad Bolivar. What is absent in the narrative but was ever-present in the stories he used to share with me are the tales of the native peoples – the indigenous Indians – who still constitute such a large part of the Venezuelan population. The stories I heard were not of head hunters and poison arrows – although they hung someplace over the horizon in an impenetrable jungle – but rather of kind and generous people living off the land and the river who had no particular need of oil wells but were grateful to have outboard motors for their currials, would gladly use a Ford truck to haul a heavy load and loved the freedom from the night that a generator could provide.

This final entry in this series is largely a photo essay containing pictures taken by Bill that relate part of his story and part of theirs.

Native house in village of Mata Negra near Temblador.

Native house in village of Mata Negra near Temblador.

Rio Tenoro - one of the many highways for the native peoples

Rio Tenoro – one of the many highways for the native peoples

Looking toward Caroni Falls - Chris Mireau, Don Bancroft, Buck Ackerman, native pilot - in a currial on the Caroni River

Looking toward Caroni Falls – Chris Mireau, Don Bancroft, Buck Ackerman, native pilot – in a currial on the Caroni River

Native house on the banks of Orinoco River near San Felice

Native house on the banks of Orinoco River near San Felice

Street in Caripito Village looking from Caripito Camp.

Street in Caripito Village looking from Caripito Camp.

Street scene in Caripito Village near Rio Caripe

Street scene in Caripito Village near Rio Caripe

Calabash Fruit, Cumarebo, State of Falcon, Venezuela 1937

Calabash Fruit, Cumarebo, State of Falcon, Venezuela 1937

Method of pressing poisonous juice out of Cassava Pulp. Caripito, Venezuela 1937

Method of pressing poisonous juice out of Cassava Pulp. Caripito, Venezuela 1937

Making Cassava Bread

Making Cassava Bread

Scene in Mata Verada Village.

Scene in Mata Verada Village.

Native huts in village west of Caripito Camp - on road to water pump station.

Native huts in village west of Caripito Camp – on road to water pump station.

Village street in Caripito

Village street in Caripito

Native hut.

Native hut.

Native huts in Mata Negra.

Native huts in Mata Negra.

Thatched huts in Caripito Village [note intrusion of sheet metal in lower left]

Thatched huts in Caripito Village [note intrusion of sheet metal in lower left]

The end!

The end!

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An Outpost of Progress – The Narrative – Finding Gold in Small Veins

PROLOGUE: When you are working with original source material the veins of gold may be hard to see from time to time. This week’s entry is about the relatively pedestrian pursuits of an American worker in a foreign land on a brief leave from the oil fields. Judging from the last entry he may have had all of the excitement he could enjoy and may have needed a few days off. Our only illustration this week is a picture of a piece quartz with a little gold running through it which reinforces our original point. Bill sent the sample to the School of Mines just as he left his diary for me. I think I came out ahead and hope you enjoy my sharing his story with you.

The are various types of tales of travel. There is the travel of the immigrant who reaches a destination and builds a new life there. The stories of Maurice Coffey and John Young in post Civil War America that are related here may exemplify this type of journey. There are commercial expeditions that have an element of adventure to them as the traveller finds himself in unfamiliar and uncertain territory. The trip to China by Johnny Young in the early days of the twentieth century yet to be related here – is a tale of this sort. There is travel that was meant to complete a liberal education – more tour than adventure although in a time where travel was not accomplished by suspended animation, as it is today – there was certainly something of substance in the coming and going. The Grand Tour of Margaret Edythe Young that is the connecting thread of this blog gives us a glimpse of this.

Finally, we have the story of Bill Leach who travels to Venezuela and all of the strangeness of a foreign culture still half-submerged in a jungle but who did so for the purpose of work. He comes into contact with the native people, with the Hispanic elements that had superimposed themselves on the people and the environment for some four hundred years, with the environment itself that is still untamed after those four centuries but while he is in Venezuela he is not of Venezuela. He is surrounded by his fellow expatriates and the Standard Oil Villages that he lives in are as American – if probably a little tidier – than the towns he has lived in back home.

While there are stories of rebellion, oil well blowouts and men driven to self-destruction by the terror of having been very nearly crushed by a boa constrictor there are also stories of the gang going on holiday to the cities and doing the same things they would have done in Schenectady or Socorro. We sincerely doubt that a life where each page turned reveals some new hazard or accomplishment exists outside of fiction or political biography and while this entry proves our point it is none the less worthwhile  as a picture of the pedestrian events that make up the course of everyday life. Enjoy the rest, take comfort in the fact that your grandfather and great-grandfather was not Frank Buck and that you have no obligation – and should feel no compulsion – to be like him either.

The specimen is identified as coming from the Tumeremo Mine, Bolivar area, Venezuela. The specimen measures: 3.5 x 3 x 1.5 cm. Many thanks to Virgil W. Lueth, Ph.D., New Mexico Tech for the picture

The specimen is identified as coming from the Tumeremo Mine, Bolivar area, Venezuela. The specimen measures: 3.5 x 3 x 1.5 cm. Many thanks to Virgil W. Lueth, Ph.D., New Mexico Tech for the picture

Here it is the 2nd of July and nothing has happened to comment on. Today Harry Himlic, myself and a number of the follows are going to spend the holidays in Caripito.  We are planning to take the Caripiteno from the Boca then stop at Pedernales where we expect to pick some more who are planning to spend the holidays at Caripito. Left the camp at 9 o’clock by auto and then proceeded to the Port of Tabasca where we will take a company launch and proceed to the Boca.
Here we will get aboard the Caripiteno and will head for Pedernales via the Rio Manamo.  Left the Boca at 2 p.m. and got a rather early start.  Rode all day and arrived in Pedernales about 10 p.m. where everyone proceeded to have a good time.  Finally left Pedernales about midnight and arrived at the wharf at Caripito about 8:30 a.m. tired but still looking forward to a good time.
To make a long story short had a pretty good time in Caripito in the way of a dance, show, and a friendly meeting.  Started back for the camp on the 5th, went back to Pedernales and thence back to Temblador.  Had a good trip but must admit that I came back one tired hombre.  Who wouldn’t with such little rest as I had.  Sleeping accommodations were very limited and I had to sleep on a bench. Am now rested and will plan on looking forward to a return trip around the Xmas holidays – and then home,

Rains are coming down oftener and heavier.  The water at the Port of Tabasca is getting higher and higher each day, in fact practically all of our material is under water at that place.  We cannot get, by auto, within 5 miles of where we ordinarily go – and water is still coming up. The Orinoco River is coming up more and more each day and at present is about 37 to 40 feet above the level when I was there in June; it is still rising and can be expected to flood out Ciudad Bolivar.

August 16 and 17, at night, delivered us plenty of rain and everything is a mess in all directions.  Some parts of the road are under water; the savannahs are water-logged, and one is only safe from being stuck only by sticking to the established roads. Tonight the 17th lightning hit a power line and cut off all of the electricity at the new camp.