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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

John Frum

He came only once. This messenger was a courier of wonders. Food in metal skins, great iron birds that soared high in the air, iron carriages that a man could ride, such were this new manna from heaven, this wondrous ‘cargo’. The messenger wore a metal hat, and bore mighty weapons, yet with his left hand offered candy, and with his right, gum. Then, for no reason at all, he left. And so the people were aggrieved, and reasoned that this heavenly messenger took affront with them. Good things are rarely free, and miraculous things, well, their price is worship, a heavenly price to be paid for supernatural favor. A liturgy and sacrifice were called for. And so, graven images were made to entice and implore a return of this heavenly host, this emissary from heaven: John Crum. And what were these images: fatted calves, one-eyed idols, multi-armed goddesses? Well, not quite.

Modern times call for modern idols, and when the believer is unsophisticated, modern is but a byword for magic. And so these magical talismans were jeeps laced with thatch, landing craft woven from palm fronds, and C-47’s made of bamboo. Such became the new totems of the natives of Melanesia and New Guinea, lands that were torn by war in World War II, or depending upon your point of view, were blessed by messengers from heaven.

The various ‘cargo cults’ of the south pacific formed one of the strangest legacies of World War II. As the American army fought the Japanese for control of these jungled territories, the natives looked on in amazement and wonder. The massive paraphernalia of war as well as the simplest conveniences and tools were disgorged magically from the bellies of ships and planes, and many of these little tools were freely given by these strange men dressed in green and with pots for hats: the American soldier, or as the natives called him: John Frum. Little mirrors, scissors, and Hershey bars are not particularly awesome stuff to us, but we know better. To an illiterate tribesman, these were acts of God. Primitives don’t know better. So we find the little temples raised up to the wonderful soldier to be comical, plaintive, and a little sad, and all because we know better.

A jeep pops out of the sky, borne by a parachute. Not quite magical really, for with this special sort of sleight of hand, we know the rules. We are indeed the magicians. But sleight of hand is played by nature as well as ourselves. Volcanoes erupt, comets pass, and men live, and are fated to die. It is not a jeep that is plopped in front of us, but an entire world, and its wonders are compounded by the fact that we see amazing things. And so we build spacious temples to a new John Frum, and under these vaulted beams and rose windows, we raise up chants that are plaintive and a little sad. For you see, we don’t know any better.

(written by me: 1988)

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