blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1



     To keep on being an explorer, one must retain a modicum of one’s early illusions.
     —Dr. Herbert Spencer Dickey,
New York Times Magazine, 15 November 1931.

Probably the right place to begin this story would be with Evans sharpening his beautiful, bone-handled carving knife, the flashing of the steel, the fine blade capturing the glitter and shiver of the candle flames, of candle light reflected on polished silverware and the wine glasses of the grownups. It is appropriate since our story has to do with steel knives (among other things). It would have been at a Thanksgiving dinner, a composite occasion, one among many enjoyed at Evans’s old colonial farm house west of Philadelphia and well beyond the Main Line, near the crossroads hamlet of Glenmore; an elegant farm house tucked into an easy sloping hillside, surrounded by fenced pastures, some acres of woodlands, fields of corn and hay, a creek and a fish pond and a large barn for Evans’s horses. An altogether proper home for a gentleman farmer.

We are inside the house, the grownups—Phil, an elderly bachelor uncle of Evans; a young couple who have only recently moved to the Glenmore area; my wife, Susan, and her mother, Alice, who have prepared and cooked this meal; all of us enjoying the good wine and good company. Not to forget the children, our three, ravenously hungry and impatient and at one and the same time suffering from a restless and overwhelming ennui. We are gathered together around the large oak dining table, close by an enormous fireplace that once served as the kitchen. Above that fireplace, where the logs are slowly dwindling to bubbling red coals, Evans has placed a couple of Indian paddles from the Orinoco expedition and a set of 18th century dueling pistols for atmosphere. Uncle Phil, cheered up by Scotch whiskey before dinner and a light, dry wine at table, is (as usual) telling his funny story about driving across the country—Philadelphia to San Francisco—early in the 20th century when automobiles (still called “horseless carriages” in those days) were new and strange enough to cause excitement and consternation, runaway horses and spooked livestock and crowds of curious yokels.

In a moment, after politely allowing Uncle Phil to finish his story, Alice will enter from the modern kitchen adjoining this room, bearing the turkey, richly steaming and held high for our inspection and approval, And Evans will begin, gracefully and efficiently, carving the turkey, deftly separating the dark and white meat from the bone to be served with a hearty helping of oyster stuffing and proper thin slices of country ham. We will be having cranberry sauce and wild rice, squash and creamed onions, hot rolls and a crisp green salad, aiming to finish with ice cream and two kinds of pie. Champagne—a swallow for the children if they ask—with dessert and a toast or two for the occasion. Later the men will indulge in brandy and cigars. That will be the right time for me to tell Evans some news he may not want to hear.

Meantime I can admire and envy his dexterity, his mastery of the craft of carving. But first of all we shall bow our heads at the feast-laden table, a happy display of abundance, and Evans will pause and say a prayer of grace and humble Thanksgiving.

More than a touch of Norman Rockwell in this opening scene. Wouldn’t you say?


(New York Times 29 March 1931)

Evans Dunn, may he rest in peace, was the youngest (not yet twenty-one) member of the 1931 expedition, sponsored by a number of museums and foundations and by the New York Times, that set out to locate and map the source, the headwaters of the great Orinoco River. Led by physician and explorer Herbert Spencer Dickey, the expedition consisted of five American men, Mrs. Dickey, herself an explorer of note and renown, and fourteen Indians who had previously worked for Dickey on half a dozen past adventures.

Please note that all of these people, including Evans and Alice and some of the others at the dining room table, are dead and gone now. They live on, if at all, only in the memory of others like myself. I, who was not yet 30 then, am now 78. My young and restless children are already in their sobering fifties. Even though it may sometimes be strictly and factually correct, memory is the source of much fiction. Although much of what follows (and, indeed, much of what has already been said) is as accurate and authentic as I can make it, it is all gleaned from memory, of my own and of others.

I have never met with and talked to any members of the expedition team except for Evans. It’s a fact that, over the years, I heard Evans tell tales of the expedition many times over and in a variety of versions. Often I encouraged him. Sometimes, and especially when I was courting his daughter and then when I was newly wed and eager for his approval if I could earn it, I made a point of listening very carefully. Other times, I may as well admit, his accounts went in one ear and out the other, even as I smiled and nodded and urged him please to continue. It is also a matter of fact that in those days Evans was an alcoholic. As I recall it now, we would sit by this fireplace, firelight dancing, dogs curled up and snoring deeply at our feet, passing a bottle back and forth and telling stories real and imaginary, true and false. To be sure there were always changes, revisions, additions and omissions, different degrees of emphasis.

From the beginning until the here and now, I have always wondered why the stories of the Orinoco adventure seemed to haunt him so much. True, it might have been the principal epiphanic event of his life or in the lives of most of us. And it might well have been the death of him. But it wasn’t. He survived and went on to live a full, active, and very interesting life, any number of parts of which should have satisfied the hunger for adventure of any young American of his generation and background. A superb horseman—fox hunter, jumper, polo player, he served for a time in the old horse cavalry, then, with the coming of war (1941), he transferred (as did many in the cavalry) to the Army Air Corps and served with the 324th Fighter Group in Egypt, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, France, and Germany. He was an elegant fly-fisherman, a dashing downhill skier, and still at it when he was as old as I am now. He was not an intellectual, and not in the least what he called “arty-farty.” One year, with Christmas coming on soon, he asked Alice’s suggestions for something he could give me for a Christmas present.

“Why not give him a book?” She said.

Evans pondered this idea for a long, frowning moment, then replied—“But he has already got a book.”

In some ways, however, even though he wasn’t the least bit literary himself, he can be best understood in terms of a literary character, someone cut from the whole cloth of the fiction of John O’Hara, for example. Of course, he would never have read a word by O’Hara (except maybe Butterfield 8). Here he was, an archetypal lace curtain Irishman, but one who did, in fact, go to Yale, as O’Hara had always wanted to do. Evans flunked out after one year (maybe only one semester). So what? Evans was a member of his Yale class ever after, an alumnus, without all the expense of time and energy required to earn a degree he would never really need anyway. And when he married Alice, who was old Philadelphia, he found himself listed in The Social Register. He was a member of several clubs including the Racquet Club, the Philadelphia City Troop (originally George Washington’s mounted body guard). Alice was on the board of the Symphony and belonged to the Acorn Club and the Art Alliance.

Not bad for an ambitious mick kid making his way in 20th century Philadelphia.

Have I mentioned yet that Evans was an extraordinarily handsome man? In fiction he might have been a figure of fun were it not for his good looks. It is difficult not to take good-looking people seriously, at face value. They demand that much from the rest of us, just by being there among us.

Evans and I did not, then, have all that much in common. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, I went to graduate school and became an academic. “I envy academic people,” Alice once said to me. “You go through life so gently.” I wish that were true. I was also a Southerner to the core and a bitter child of the Great Depression. Both of us “marginal,” as they say. Both of us married wisely and well; and, first to last, neither of us ever fully trusted the other.

Oddly one thing that we did have in common was the Army. Like Quentin Compson and his South, we loved and hated it at one and the same time. We did not doubt or question the military ideals—duty, honor, country, courage, and a hearty contempt for all of those who, for whatever reasons, good or bad, had escaped the military experience in our bloody and remorseless age.


Young and strong, Evans performed many chores on the Dickey expedition. He was officially listed as the photographer and map maker.

We know a good deal about the expedition, in large part because of the sponsorship of the New York Times which covered the story from its planning stages to its conclusion in August of 1931. Coming and going Dickey had at his service a portable wireless radio which somehow or other remained intact and operable for the entire journey. Other machines and instruments—the outboard motors, the surveying instruments, the chronometers, Evans’s cameras—one by one broke down or were damaged and ruined. But the wireless radio allowed them to send copy directly to the Times from some of the most remote and impenetrable places in the Western Hemisphere. They were sometimes lost, but they never really lost touch.

From those regular pieces in the Times together with a 1932 book by Dickey, My Jungle Book, which deals with this expedition among other things, we know more about the Dickey story, more than various other explorations worldwide taking place at roughly the same time. We know that the Americans sailed from New York to Port of Spain, Trinidad on the liner Contoy on 1 April ’31, arriving there 13 April.

That they left Trinidad for Venezuela and the Orinoco on 18 April aboard the river steamboat Delta, formerly a paddle-wheel cotton boat on the Mississippi River and now a cattle boat plying between Trinidad and Ciudad Bolivar close to 300 miles above the Orinoco’s vast and intricate delta. We know that the cost of the trip from Trinidad to Ciudad Bolivar was more than a transatlantic crossing would be.

We know that they carried with them four tons of baggage and supplies, including various and sundry odd items—colored beads and costume jewelry, harmonicas and tin horns, whistles and rattles—as gifts for any Indian tribes they might happen to encounter.

That, joined now by their own hired Indian crew, they carefully loaded four boats, three of them large dugouts and one canoe, each equipped with an outboard motor.

That, well-prepared now to survive on their own for a full year if need be, on or about 30 April they set out upriver aiming to explore more than 1500 miles of the river, as far as the Sierra Parima, the lost, little known mountains along the border of Venezuela and Brazil.

We know that they had to overcome more than a hundred unnavigable places of rock-strewn rapids and waterfalls, places which required that they offload, unpack, portage, and then repack, sometimes portages of many miles.

Later on Dr. Dickey made light of the dangers and troubles they faced and overcame:

The sidewalks of New York provide more opportunities for the adventurous than do all the jungles of South America unless the seeker after thrills risks his life deliberately and with intent. By insulting a few Indians or bathing in a stream infested with crocodiles, stingrays and cannibal fish, the explorer may, if he does not lose his life in the process, provide himself with sufficient material to become the life of the party wherever adventurers congregate.
—Herbert Spencer Dickey, quoted in the New York Times 15 November 1931.

But headlines in the Times for 29 July, datelined Tama Tama, Brazil, announcing the latitude and longitude of the source of the Orinoco (Latitude 2:25:30 North, Longitude 63:45:31 West) painted a more serious picture:

Fierce Heat, Bitter Cold, Hunger and Insect Attacks Test Fortitude
On Long Trek

Their principal job done, they then faced the daunting perils of the long and difficult journey back downriver. They were almost out of food and supplies. They were suffering the chills and fevers (and hallucinations) of malaria and some other tropical ailments that Dr. Dickey could name if not always cure. Most troublesome of all was the frightening fact that they had run so low on food. They were prepared, more or less, “to live off the land,” but, for mysterious reasons, the game, even the usually plentiful fish, on the Upper Orinoco, had disappeared.

Here is what Dickey wrote on a July 29th wireless dispatch to the New York Times:

Game up to the time we missed our black flies was abundant, as were fish in the stream. Then when the flies disappeared so did the edible animals, fish and birds, and just when we needed fresh food most we found ourselves in a region bereft of everything but trees, rocks, and, of course, the giant mosquitos already mentioned.

To reach the lower river, where there were monkeys and small deer and wild turkey and, eventually, some little settlements and trading posts with cassava bread and fresh fish, they would have to overcome all the obstacles (rapids, clogged waterways, cascades) and make the same portages as before in reverse. Their strength dwindling on small rations, their bodies tormented by heat and diseases and swarms of insects, they crammed themselves into one remaining dugout and tried to paddle and pole it downstream, hoping always to encounter someone, anyone—a band of Indians, maybe even some explorers like themselves. Trouble was, though, there were no known Indian tribes in this whole area and no inhabited settlements on the maps or on the ground, as far as they knew, not for several hundred miles.

From the outset of the return trip, they were starving. If the malaria didn’t kill them one and all, starvation surely would do the job.


And here is the place where Evans would begin to tell us his favorite story about the expedition:

“So there we were, having done exactly what we set out to do—to locate and to chart the source of the Orinoco. Which we found was roughly a hundred miles beyond its present estimated location . . . ”

Here Evans would inevitably digress and remind his listener(s) that there were two other expeditions, one by airplane in 1943, of the U.S. Army Air Corps, flying out of a field in what was then British Guiana, which slightly modified the Dickey findings. Credit where credit is due.

“Thanks to Dr. Dickey’s experience and leadership and the good teamwork of the rest of us, we had accomplished our primary objective without the death or the serious injury of any of our group.

“For those who may be wondering, we had safely left behind Mrs. Dickey at a small and hospitable riverside settlement near San Fernando, together with two of our Indians and the small canoe.

“That left the five of us and eleven Indians and, at that point, only one large dugout and no functioning outboard motor. Everybody was sick, everybody was hungry, everybody was weak. We would have to paddle and pole (and portage) our way back to Esmerelda, if we could. Carlton Francis and I were the youngest and, weak as we were, the strongest. We did a lot of the poling and paddling, sweating and shivering at the same time, standing fore and aft, while the others, including Dickey, huddled, half-conscious in the bottom of the boat. We were alert, but cautious because, more and more, we were ‘seeing things,’ half-dreaming. There were moments when we imagined we were already dead, lost in some kind of jungle of the afterlife. And so we were unprepared, couldn’t believe ourselves when we smelled wood burning, woodsmoke, and then saw the thin pale smoke rising above the high green canopy of the jungle.

“My first thought was that the fire had been started naturally, probably by lightning. There had been a squall with real or imaginary thunder and lightning the night before. But whatever (or whoever) started the fire, we had no choice but to see for ourselves.

“We roused the others and managed, barely, to pull the dugout ashore. Then, leaving the others with the boat, Carlton and I set out in the general direction of the smoke, cutting our way with machetes. I had one of the double barreled shotguns, loaded only with birdshot, just in case we needed it for any reason. I know that Dr. Dickey would have disapproved of this, but he was too weak to be aware of what we were doing. We hacked our way for a while, taking our time and making some noise—talking to each other, in case there were people (most likely Indians) at the fire.

“Soon we found a little path and followed it. Came out of the jungle and onto a wide field where, to our astonishment, there were several huts with palm and banana-leaf thatch, open sided and set on stilts. Cassava bread was drying on the roofs and there was a fire and, on top of the fire, a large clay pot bubbling with some kind of broth or stew. Not a soul in sight, though a wooden spoon, obviously dropped to the ground a moment or two ago, proved that they couldn’t be far away. Must be hiding in the jungle.”

They then rigged up a way, with a tree branch and a piece of rope, to carry the clay pot and some of the cassava bread back to the boat by the way they had come. When they were ready to go, Evans fired the shotgun in the air—a loud blast followed by a frenzy of bird cries.

“That was a judgment call. Mr. Dickey would never have allowed it. He always said that Indians would do us no harm just so long as we didn’t threaten them. He may have been right about that, but he wasn’t there with us. And I didn’t want to take the chance that he might be wrong. Anyway, it worked.”

The two young men made it safely back to the riverbank and the rest of the crew without seeing or hearing anyone else. The restorative powers of the stolen broth proved to be almost instantaneous. They drank it all to the last drop. Once again in character as the forceful leader, Dr. Dickey spoke to them briefly about the Indian customs of hospitality in this part of the world.

“We don’t know who these people are, or what their customs may be. But we have taken their food to save our lives. Now we must do something for them in return.”

“So we left them the last of our trading trinkets, together with a crate of brand new machetes, a dozen of them, unopened until that moment. We opened up the crate and left it next to the empty pot, certain they would find it shortly after we shoved off again.

“Pretty soon, feeling a whole lot better, we were paddling along, going with the flow of the river, aiming to get as far as we could from there before dark.

“We couldn’t have known that next day we would reach a small settlement where there was food and drink and shelter. For all practical purposes our expedition would be over and done with.”

Evans usually elected to end the story there, coming to closure with the unanswered and probably unanswerable question: What on earth did these people, whoever they might be, in a lost and gone little jungle camp or village, believe had happened to them? Best guess was that they were Stone Age people. Suddenly strangers, alien to them in every imaginable way, arrived, took their food and left behind, like a gift of the gods, a dozen steel machetes. How that strange gift must have changed their lives (for the better?) ever after. It gave Evans a sense of satisfaction. He always saw it as a happy ending.

At the dining room table on that Thanksgiving Day the children have been dismissed from table and are even now running free in the upper pasture. We can hear their shrill voices, though we can’t see them from here. The women are also more or less out of sight in the adjoining modern kitchen. They are laughing about something. Here at the table, Uncle Phil, nursing his brandy and puffing a cigar, is repeating an anecdote from his cross country adventure. He will be finished soon enough, and my time to show and tell will be at hand. I take my cue from the shimmy of smoke from Uncle Phil’s cigar. In a wink and a wave as if with a magic wand, I summon up the moment when Evans and the others, far from any aid and comfort, first see the pale smoke rising above the trees of the jungle.

He takes it from there.

When he finishes, stubbing out his cigar in an ash tray, I feel like rising and applauding. Instead I speak.

“I was reading National Geographic a few days ago and ran across an article that ought to interest you, Evans,” I began. “It was a piece about some of the little known tribes of Indians in the upper Orinoco. Seems that there are a half dozen, sort of nomadic tribes in the area. Must be pretty much in the same place as you all encountered when you saw the smoke that saved your lives.”

Paused to be sure I had his full attention now. I passed and poured some brandy all around. While we sipped and savored briefly, permit me to digress. What I had in mind for this moment had been a kind of knock-off of the famous scene in the movie of Four Feathers, the 1939 version, wherein the hero, Harry Faversham, having established his courage beyond doubt or question, is not now afraid to correct old General Burroughs (played by that incomparable Brigadier and/or Butler, C. Aubrey Smith) with factual details that contradict the old blowhard’s account of a battle in the Crimean War. A very satisfying moment for Harry. That was certainly on my mind.

“Did they mention anything at all about the Dickey expedition?”

“No, sir, they did not, although they noted that various expeditions had passed through that part of the country at one time and another.”

I go on, telling him as casually as I possibly can, how the article indicated that these mysterious tribes were a Stone Age people, nomadic hunters and gatherers, and that they had evidently maintained a kind of balance of power among themselves, a precarious peace, sometimes broken by occasional raids and small-scale warfare with their primitive weapons—bows and arrows, spears, and clubs. And then something happened that changed everything once and for all. Somehow one tribe (now called the people of the long knives) came into possession of some steel machetes. And ever since then that tribe has dominated all the others with brutal authority. They have enslaved the other tribes. No one knows how or exactly when the Long Knives acquired their machetes, but . . .

“But we know, don’t we Evans? You guys inadvertently created the Nazis of the Upper Orinoco. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say.”

Everybody laughed, even Evans, though he looked rather forlorn, lost in the as yet unexplored implications of this new ending.


Maybe I should write my own ending. I owe him that much.

Invisible, I join them, the five survivors, five ghosts now, and Mrs. Dickey, standing at the handrail of that ghosted and ghostly Mississippi paddle wheel steamer, the Delta, headed home from Ciudad Bolivar to Port of Spain chugging along in the delta of the great Orinoco, quietly waiting and watching for the brown, mud-clouded river to give way to the deep blue swells of the ocean.

Would they see, as if in a farewell aquatic show, the tiny black dolphins for which the delta and the river were still noted as they had been since Christopher Columbus first saw them in 1598? Why not? And why not also the wide-winged signature of, say, a great blue heron squawking and rising from one mangrove hammock and flying to another?

The men and Mrs. Dickey stand at the rail watching the continent disintegrate into the delta. They are patiently watching and, by now, beyond speaking. They have a bottle of the local rum, astringent to taste and the muddy color of the river. Soon enough, in Trinidad, they will be able to enjoy more refined and elegant Caribbean rums—or gin or whiskey or any of the other alcoholic pleasures denied them still by Prohibition in the United States of America. Meantime they pass the bottle, and its dwindling contents, back and forth until there is not more than a big swallow left and the bottle is in the hands of Evans Dunn. Who shakes it and tips it up and drinks it empty, then tosses it high, wide and handsome, all aglitter in the late afternoon sunlight, to splash in the water and vanish for as long as forever may be.  

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