Saturday, October 16, 2010

singing their comrades dead

Dr. Haddon Alderton was 74, if I recall correctly, when I met him aboard the Prince Yuri Dolgoruki in 1968, the 50th anniversary of the "glorious Russian Revolution." Although he never said so, I imagined he was an old-line socialist who had come to the U.S.S.R. to see for himself what he had only supported in his New Zealand homeland. We would meet from time to time -- usually at the dinner table -- during the three-week tour both of us had joined. Part of that trip included a 2-or-3-day ride down the Volga river on the Yuri Dolgoruki, whose namesake had founded Moscow.

Haddon Alderton was spry and tough and told me a number of tales that I had no way of verifying as we sailed down the river, but I later was able to broadly confirm them when I returned home. One such tale was the following:

As a young man in his 20's, his girlfriend had dumped him. "And what does a man do when his girlfriend leaves him," he asked rhetorically? "He gets drunk." So Haddon Alderton got drunk for three weeks. And when that didn't do the trick, he took a boat to Australia and rode into the outback on a horse ... by himself.

Eventually, he hooked up with a native tribe called the Arunta. He stayed with them for some time, learning their ways and lending his medical skills when called upon. He also learned some of their customs, among which was the habit of leaping into the small dust tornadoes -- small, swirling winds they called willy-willies -- that occasionally kicked up. These were evil spirits and the tribe's members would leap into them and bang pots and pans to dispel the impending bad luck.

But the most interesting tale Alderton told was of the tribal habit of "singing their friends dead." The whole tribe would gather around when a member was dying and sing as their friend passed from this life. Alderton thought this a wonderful ritual, with one exception: If someone was sick and if Alderton knew a way to cure what was not a fatal disease, still, no matter what he said ... if the tribe gathered around the ailing man or woman and if they sang, then that person, no matter how intrinsically healthy, would die.

I sometimes wondered in retrospect why a man with so many delicious adventures under his belt should bother with a trip to the socialist homeland. Alderton never commented on the wonders or failures of socialism as he saw them on his trip, so the whole socialist thing may simply have been my own over-active imagination at work.

Whatever the reason for his trip, he was a wonderful diversion at the dinner table where, invariably, we were served what seemed like a hell of a lot of cabbage. Cabbage is OK, but too much of something that is OK gets tiring after a while ... not to mention the after-meal flatulence that resulted. But Alderton made it all bearable with his tales. It beat TV by a mile.

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