‘And the smell. I merely walk in his wake, with a fair few between us I should hasten to add, and still it is as if a rotting water buffalo were in my nostrils.’, said Gustavo.
‘I’m afraid that is not him. He is clearly a Walrus on land. No water buffalo would whinge as much. At least none that I’ve met.’, replied Lucas.
Both chuckled quickly and regained their composure as fast. They both looked sheepishly up from the fire to gauge the Colonels reaction. His smirk was not supportive but neither was it an indictment. It was knowing.
‘He is at heart a good man. Surely. He didn’t know what he was in for and is on occassion losing himself. Surely he will be better in the morning.’, said General Rondon.
But he was not. He was not more patient for having rested. Nor more judicious in his expression of disagreement. He was as he’d been for some weeks as disagreeable a companion as a man in the unmapped Amazon could be deemed to be. He did not, however, allow that to effect his confidence, which was forever foisting it’s assuredness on the Col.
‘It’s okay. I don’t mind the teasing. We are all away from home, struggling against the river and I understand the inclination. But once you have relieved the pressure please return the cap and secure it tightly. He is a proud man who thinks he is failing. We can’t confirm his fears.’, said the Col. upon rising from the small circle of the fire.
At night the men were equal. Not in rank or in accomodations, but for the time around the fire they were of one comportment and able to let their shoulders down. Truth was that the great man had made no bones about his primacy and did so in such a manner as to leave anyone unaware thinking that there was no gradation between the dual ranks of the team assembled to escort him in his exploration.He was long past his days of service, though he couldn’t know that heading into the forest, but his respect for the uniform, any military uniform it turns out, was enough for him to differentiate Col. Candido Rondon from the remaining crew whom he saw as servants and porters and minimally skilled sherpas of the Amazon at the journeys inception.
‘Col. Surely even you must be considering a different way.’, suggested Felix.
‘My friend. I assure you, I consider all the ways I can see. Have you a solution I’ve yet to consider.’, asked Rondon.
‘No, Sir. But he is not relenting.’
‘Indeed. I suspect you are right. It is possible I haven’t given that enough consideration.’
Gustavo and Lucas were prideful men, but the forest was unyielding. They were surprised to see Rondon considering what they’d all been regretfully feeling. In fact, had the President had any tact instead of a constant questioning and pleading and pouting he might have found allies in the Col.’s camp. Instead he had forged an even stronger allegiance in Rondon’s men. But Felix was not a hired man. He was a considered and considerate gentleman of letters and a man who’d strategically or not, managed to develop a comraderie with some of the President’s men. Him making the case was something they could get behind.
‘Sir, there is not one amongst us who doesn’t see the wisdom of your dedication to the mission. To a man, we agree. What good have we done, what at all have we done if we do not survey this tributary. It is our stated purpose, our only purpose. But he is a foreign dignitary and I feel comfortable saying, he isn’t fairing well. For all his American bluster and bravado, his type of strength is less than advantageous on such a treacherous track.’, suggested Felix. ‘His is not the constitution you possess, sir. Nor is his sense of duty your equal.’
They were establishing camp with the fading sun. The day had been yet another in a long line of treachery. The weather was unrelenting. Still, Rondon was fond of reminding his men that the rain was a blessing all the way up until it was a curse, and for now it alleviated the rancid odor of man by granting every one the ability to clean up.
Rondon took Felix’s words to heart and was quiet while he worked.
‘Felix, I’ve seen you walking with his son. How is he faring. How does Kermit say he is doing.’, asked Rondon.
‘He is deferential, but he will suggest whenever we speak that we might consider traveling rather for time now that we have discovered the river. He will not betray his father’s bullish confidence, but he is worried I can tell. Not to mention exhausted.’ replied Felix.
‘Yes. But he is in good enough spirits, no? Seems a good man if not an altogether able explorer.’
‘Perhaps.’, said Felix, ‘But You must keep in mind, their exploration has been of the American west. Open spaces and horseback, from what Kermit tells me. Accompanied most recently by great naturalists bending nature to meet him with their own agendas. I don’t think this was what they ever could have imagined.’
The days were brutal. This had not been lost on Col. Rondon. The President’s much ballyhooed vim and righteous vigor were not exactly the match of his worldwide legend. Once, on a detail with a 200 man crew hired in port Col. Rondon ventured hundreds of miles across the great forest clearing land that seemed to bend and bow to avoid and even challenge his men’s dominion. If this was testing his meddle there was little to no chance that Mr. Roosevelt could have survived those nights, let alone the days.
Still and all, Col. Rondon very much respected the President. He was a proven leader and his presence may have been lifting the veil from some of the greater exaggerations that surrounded the man, but his presence and persistence in the face of what he clearly hadn’t expected, and not as a particularly young man, spoke to how he came to possess such a peculiar and masculine reputation.
Once the camps were set Col. Rondon cleaned as best he could and took his seat at the fire. It was the end of another long day. There were eight men in all, and each had shown signs of breaking throughout the journey downriver. While the communal nature of the endeavour was real and the comraderie, though slow to ignite and challenged in times of stress, had survived. They were growing into a family of sorts. One with dubious prospects for long term success, but not devoid of warmth and understanding.
‘About the unfortunate incident upstream, Col.’, said the President.
He trailed off and didn’t quite look at the Col.
‘Yes, sir.’ Said Rondon.
‘Well, do you think it was necesarry. Did we have to leave him like that.’, said Roosevelt.
‘Why do you ask?’
It was a fair question. Roosevelt considered it staring into the fire. He could feel the Col looking sidelong at him as he gazed at the cracking flame.
‘I don’t suppose I know for sure. I can’t speak to his character, but it occurs to me that we are not wanting for work and a set of hands, however compromised is still a set of hands.’, said Roosevelt.
Rondon was not to be fooled.
‘Sir, what good are those hands once they have killed. He might as well be a useless beast of our burden.’ Rondon straightened up in his seat a fraction and crossed his thin legs and returned his gaze to the fire. ‘It is like I said at the outset, Mr. President. Die if you must, but never kill.’ Every person who’d ever worked for or with Col. Rondon was familiar with this tenet. There are few things that can’t be changed, adjusted, reconsidered and blithely ignored when you are encroaching on nature and her inhabitants, but this was one area where he would not budge.
‘He has surely, long since perished one way or another.’
It was a harsher statement than he’d intended and he knew it by Roosevelts instant reaction.
If the circle around the fire had been the family table, the tents had become the parlors. Each culture went to it’s own tent to unwind at the end of the day. It was where they could rest, certainly. It was also where they could, and did, talk about this journey and it’s meaning. Not to mention gripe about it’s seeming relentlessness and the decisions that were quibbled over every day.
‘I have to hand it to him. He’s staying the course and there’s a lot to be said for that.’, said the wearied Mr. Roosevelt.
‘There’s no doubting that.’, Mr. Cherrie agreed. ‘I don’t actually know how he does it, though I should suspect it must have at least something to do with his incredible smallness. Were he a figure brought to the curators at the museum they’d send him back and curse the fabricators for trying to safe a few pennies in material.’
Roosevelt granted a small chortle and smiled.
‘I suspect you are right, Mr. Cherrie. He indeed may need less than the rest of us to sustain such a small frame, but my god, his fortitude is downright Herculean. He handles malaria in much the way many a man in the city would handle an annoying but innocuous cough.’, said Roosevelt.
‘I for one think him rather foolhardy. What difference does it make if he maps and charts a remote river when balanced against the lives of his men.’, said Kermit.
Roosevelt loved his boy, but he couldn’t stand his bearing at times. It wasn’t just Kermit. He often lamented the ease and comfort they were so often afforded, but these were concerns long settled and he knew there was a point. Moreso he knew that some of this, if not all came from a concern for himself.
‘We elected to come on this mission and like you I can become, from time to time, somewhat frustrated by the Colonel’s singleminded focus. But we must hold. If we fracture fully we will all fail. Besides, I’m not as old and infirm as you might think.’, said Roosevelt.
Through the night discussion grew of the concerns and tensions of the traveling party. Separate conversations weighing similar concerns against opposing consideration. The Roosevelt party wishing to prioritize survival and the Rondon men knowing that there was only one way out and wondering how to placate the needs of the great man.
‘What does he become so agitated about, sir. If you don’t mind me asking.’, said Gustavo.
‘I don’t mind. I suspect his concerns are concerns we’ve all had in due course.’
Gustavo lay in the dark always aware that there were native people hiding in the forest prepared to descend on the unprepared party. Talking into the night gave him comfort in the small ball of light amidst the crushing dark.
‘He is pleading the priority of the mission. He is of the mind that we should abandon our stated goals and merely seek the most expeditious route to civilization. Today he went so far as to suggest that we abandon the river and stop wasting days crafting new canoes. He says he is worried for his party.’
Gustavo considered the sentiment and found a good deal to agree with. But he was a Rondon man and knew to tread lightly in areas suggesting retreat.
‘What was your reply, sir.’
‘I understood his concerns. He is with men who would not be here at all of their own volition. I respect his generosity of spirit and sense of responsibility. At this point however I sincerely believe we are making the best time that is safe and responsible and that we should continue to explore and document new flora and creatures and we might as well map judiciously as we are taking the journey.’
Gustavo had seen this before, men who were frightened by the mission who wished to influence Col. Rondon. But this case was indeed special. America was a new player on the world scene and no one more typified the American spirit than this man. Whether it came from within or was an accident of birth, he was the face of a new world and it was hard to properly calibrate his true weight in the scope of history.
What was indisputable was that Col. Rondon must return this man safely from the journey which was in fact amongst the most hastily planned and frankly most harrowing of his already long track record of nearly impossible missions completed. They were at a breaking point. There was only so long that he could wield control before the great man recognized and splintered off with his men. It was simple discipline and training that had gotten them this far.
Rondon laid in the dark considering the wisdom he would never consider in the presence of his men. The great man was simply not as young as he once was and there were bound to be treacherous days ahead. On the one hand he could not turn back as death surely lied that way. On the other hand, he needed to gain the confidence of the fellow who’d so brazenly and boldly led the march into the woods with twice as many men just a month earlier. He weighed and pondered over the relatively few options that lie before him and remained befuddled.
Before long his rotation as watchman had arrived and he had barely slept a wink.
‘Sir. Sir. Good evening sir. I’ll be heading off to rest now sir. Please be careful out there.’, this exact phrase had become a much honored secular prayer between the men. Rondon knew his men were stressed but handling the conditions far better than the American party.
‘Thank you, Felix. Please rest well.’, said Rondon.
Rondon gathered his things and made his way out into the night. Aware that they were still a day at least away from breaking camp, Colonel Rondon considerably reduced the fire and returned what wood was salvageable to the pile of dry and flammable wood that was maintained throughout. He considered the cast off detritus of the lumber used for the canoe and after a moment made his decision.
The morning fire was stoked and the modest breakfast of foraged berries and plants was meekly awaiting to further drive down an already low morale. The men ate quietly while Rondon sat serene sipping boiled water from his tin. Beyond standard pleasantries the men ate in silence. Once they were done, Rondon stood.
‘Gentlemen, if you will follow me to the river.’, he said.
He turned and began to walk.
‘Colonel I’d just as soon get started on the work of the day.’, said Roosevelt.
‘I appreciate that Mr. President. I assure you, this will not take more than a couple of minutes.’, said Rondon. ‘Mr. Cherrie, do you have your camera equipment handy?’
‘George, please, if you don’t make it snappy, will you. Much to do today.’, said Roosevelt.
In a moment they were approaching a post, clearly fashioned from wood that Roosevelt knew could be used for greater purposes than whatever this was. ‘Col. Rondon. I hope you know that I don’t stand on ceremony. Please, whatever this is make it quick.’
As the party rounded the post and followed Rondon in turning their backs to the river, the sign that hung from the post came into view.
Carved painstakingly perfectly.
‘In thanks to you and your men, in honor of the relationship strengthened by this mission, on behalf of the Brazilian people and with the authority vested in me I declare this river, Rio Roosevelt. Congratulations sir.’
Had he been asked there’d be no way the great man would have known that he’d respond so emotionally. Without thinking he’d taken off his hat and held it to his chest.
‘Thank you, Colonel. Thank you.’, he said.
The entire party took turns commenting on the design of the signage. Commending the Colonel on his decision and admiring the skill so obvious in the work.
Having regained a modicum of composure, the President called out, ‘Okay, George. Set up. We need a picture of this. . Colonel, please do me the honor and stand on the other side for the camera.’
After the picture was made the party returned to camp and got vigorously to work. The air seemed less full with humidity that morning.
The Colonel got back to work on the fashioning of the canoes while Roosevelt, full of energy and purpose was commanding his men in all manner of works. Collecting and recording local flora, mapping and drawing the detailed course of the river. Preparing and collecting the bounty of the forest for the days to come. Standing there amidst the hum of activity Roosevelt recognized a renewed committment in his men. In himself.
For just a moment he got lost in thought. He looked over to the men working the canoes and sought out Rondon’s eyes. Looking up, Rondon simply nodded at his counterpart and returned his attention to the task at hand. Roosevelt smiled broadly for a brief moment and returned to his work.
This story was inspired by ‘Into the Amazon’, American Experience on PBS. I encourage you to find out more about this fascinating piece of history. The piece I’ve written is historical fiction.