I derived this blog post from long-forgotten family letters, chiefly from my explorer father (who died quite young at age 56) to my sister, nearly ten years older than I and very much alive! In common with all my posts, this one is based on original photographs, in this case, though, not taken by me. My visual role is limited to photocopying a few letters written by my father, nearly eighty years ago, to my sister (and in one case to me). This was my opportunity to sift through some very old, dusty, nearly-abandoned material and to flesh out a life only vaguely remembered by my six- or seven-year old self.
A Little Background
My family emigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1945, once the American Forces under Douglas MacArthur liberated the Islands from Japanese control. Because my sister, Ingrid, was born in New York (in 1931) and possessed an American passport, she left Manila aboard the first departing troupe transport–the military having categorized her as a repatriated American. I (born in Manila in 1940) came later with my Yugoslavian Mother, Carla, and my Swedish father, Folke.
My father was a geologist and mining engineer. He had been supervising work for the Atlantic Gulf and Pacific Company in the Philippine Islands. Soon after arriving in the United States, he was hired by the United States Steel Corporation to lead its exploration for mineral resources in Central and South America, work which would soon find its focus in Venezuela. My father’s letters, featured in this blog post, date from the earliest years of his work for U S Steel.
Because my sister was nearly ten years older than I, she spent her school months in the USA. The main letter featured here, which was written on the backs of 21 aerial photographic prints, is one that Folke sent to her in December of 1947. Ingrid was then in her senior year of High School. I also photocopied fragments of three other letters to her (and one to me), two from the previous year, before my mother and I joined Folke to live in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela. I selected these letters primarily because they contain small drawings by my father, but also because they offer insights into his personality and describe a physical environment that has changed considerably over the ensuing decades.
This formal photograph shows us in a house we rented in the town of Ciudad Bolivar, where I and my parents first lived. Once the US Steel subsidiary, Oliver Iron Mining Company (later renamed Orinoco Mining Company), built a compound to house its employees, vehicles and equipment on the outskirts of the city, we moved there.
This is my father seated on an outcrop at the top of the mountain known as La Parida. After he discovered that this mountain held an enormous repository of hematite (a particularly high grade of iron ore), it was renamed Cerro Bolivar in 1948, in honor of Simon Bolivar. I will illustrate this most important discovery in a future blog post.
Somewhere in Honduras: February 5, 1946
This letter begins thus: Somewhere in Honduras, Febr. 5, 1946:
On Saturday, Febr. 2, I looked over the glorious capital of Tegucigalpa. A very picturesque little town with white adobe houses and quite clean, which is because this is the dry season.
Folke then mentions meeting with several Honduran cabinet members, minus the president, Tiburcio Carías Andino, who was not home. He made a revolution about 12 years ago and is getting out now, so perhaps there will be another one soon. People say that walls have ears and only whisper about it.
He then describes, with some humor, dining with Don Julian Wagner from Steyermarke in Austria. I suspect that this person shared my father’s interest in Honduras, possibly because the Austrian state of Steiermark’s “economic development has always been determined by its mineral resources,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Folke then writes:
On Sunday morning, we started out early. Chartered a plane, loaded it full of Klim, oatmeal, canned food, etc., etc. and off we went. About 30 minutes, all mountains and volcanoes (several active) and we flew over the wind. We landed in a cow pasture, the airport of Nakaome, where some indians were loafing around and carried our baggage to a little mud hut where they had—telephone. So 10 minutes later a truck came out and brought us to the town. We had a couple of drinks with the governor in sombrero and 6-shooter and a bodyguard with rifle—Central America.
Next morning we got a bunch of nice horses with fancy saddles and bodyguard and rode all day. These horses don’t run fast, they are small, and they are called—mules! Can you imagine your Daddy riding on a mule?
Riding a mule, of course, is what he sketches in the above-pictured letter fragment.
Folke continues: We stayed overnight in a wee “town” with the big shot, General Pinedo’s nephew. His sons are governors and commandants and everything down here.
Next day (yesterday) I walked to the mine 8 km to get a good map and picture of the country. Hot! Terrible. This is the hot & dry season here. Just like April in Manila.
The mine is quite picturesque. The most awe-inspiring peaks and steep canyons, all dry and burned just now like Nevada. Adobe huts and tile roofs.
Here Folke provides another sketch of a range of mountains, on which he also notes the location of three mine-heads and a house. He identifies four of the peaks as Monte Pelon, Cerro Grande, Los Chavez, and Cuyon. I have no idea what my father was exploring here, but this area of Honduras historically has been mined for copper, gold and silver. Also, from a fragmentary on-line reference I unearthed, a mining journal from ca. 1914 referred to a discovery by an English minerologist of ore samples from Cerro Pelón that were rich in radium.
Folke’s written text below the mountains reads: I peel skin all over. My back is ready to break, my legs are stiff and everytime I look out at the panorama above I get corns on my toes. But it really is beautiful and weird, and I enjoy it. I am sure that I came back a bit smaller than I started.
Here is the end of the letter:
Everybody pans gold here and makes 50¢ per day. Once in a while somebody from Tegucigalpa comes here and buys the gold. They raise chickens, a couple of cows, some corn and pan gold. That is all. The kids all go naked and everybody has mostly indian blood, a primitive community.
Well, if you were here, what would you think of it? I bet you would get up on a mule and ride clear up on top of Cerro Grande with a gallon of water and a good lunch and get a view over all southern Honduras, San Salvador and Nicaragua!
Now Igge, write me how you are making out in school and ask Tyko how much he weighs. Are you both behaving nicely, so mammy can be proud of you? And here is big hug and kiss to Mammy, yourself and Tyko.
San Felix Mine: February 11, 1946
Now I will tell you all about this place. Early in the morning I wake up in my hammock. The sun is just rising. The cook is making breakfast. His name is Solomon.
Then comes a boy we call “Happy” and he saddles my mule. So when I have had breakfast, I climb up in the saddle and off we go. There are no roads, only steep rocky trails.
Soon I come to the old San Felix Mine. But it is too bad, because the door to the mine has caved in, and I must go in there and see what is inside.
Finally I find a little hole and we dig it deeper and bigger until it is like a new door. Then I send a boy, whose name is Pastor, to go down and see that it is not dangerous. He comes up soon and tells me that it is all right to go down.
Inside the mine it is quite dark but I have light with me and the tunnel has much water in it. So we take off our clothes and wade in. Inside live many bats. Thousands of bats. They get scared when I come and they fly all over so it is like a storm. One of them sat down on my undershirt just like a medal but when I saw that he had many fleas I chased him away.
Finally, I come to the end of the mine and there is some ore there. I take some ore with me and then I go back the long way out to the door of the mine. All the bats fly out and show me the way because it is very dark and I only have a flashlight.
Finally, I see a little daylight far ahead and soon I begin climbing out of the mine. What do you think I see there? Right in front of my face where I climb up.
A big frog. The biggest frog I have ever seen. He was as big as both my hands together. He looks at me and then he jumps up to the ground outside the mine and I go after. So there we come. First hundreds of bats, then the big frog, and then me.
I was almost as dirty as you used to be, Tyko, and so I went down to the creek and took a bath. The mule waited for me on the trail and soon I was back in the camp where I had dinner, which Solomon had ready.
Then I had a pipeful of smoke and went to sleep again in the hammock dreaming about bats and frogs and the mine.
Now Tyko tell Mammy and Ingrid and Lucien and Fraser and Dodo that I am starting back about February 17 and will be back in Scarsdale about February 23 or so.
And here is a big hug from your own Daddy.
A Christmas Letter (from Venezuela to Scarsdale)
My guess is that this letter was written at the end of 1947 from Venezuela. What Folke draws above is a remembered fragment showing the Bronx River Parkway passing under the Old Tuckahoe Road with Bronxville to the left and Scarsdale to the right. He refers to travelling to Dobbs Terrace at 50 m.p.h. AND give my best to Nell and Jim, they are people to my taste.
Nell and Jim Brewster was a family who owned a large house on Dobbs Terrace in Scarsdale. When we first moved to Scarsdale, New York, we rented the attic of their house.
On the bottom half of this letter, he writes GOD JUL!, or Merry Christmas in Swedish, and pictures a Santa Claus sweating in 90-degree, topical weather. Below this he writes, in Swedish, that he wants to give Ingrid $15.00 to purchase a Christmas present that she had told him about.
On this reverse page, Folke appears to be asking (still in Swedish) for certain items that he forgot: a Spanish lesson book, a box of paints and canvas, Kodachrome film for an 8 mm movie camera, and a few other items which I can’t quite make out.
Folke then draws himself posing in riding habit with one boot off exposing a wounded left leg. This refers to his description of being thrown off a horse which had been spooked by a snake on the trail. He captions this drawing: $1 for the best title to this picture!
Towards the End of May
This letter to Ingrid has no date, but I am guessing that it was written in May of 1948. In it, Folke describes a week accompanied by US Steel bigwigs, among them, Vice president Tom Reed. I won’t burden you with any of this. But he sketches a rough map of Venezuela: Caracas on the left; Puerto La Cruz to its right (or east); the Orinoco River and Cerro Bolivar to the south. He tops this map with an arrow pointing north to the words “To Wellesley.”
This is my clue to the date of this as May 1948. That was the year Ingrid graduated from Scarsdale High School, and from there she would go on to Wellesley College. Folke has turned his map into a reference about Ingrid’s future.
This letter begins on a previous page thus:
Hello Ingrid Sweetheart:
Le solieille (what does that mean now) is setting over the fading blue depths of the mountains across the Caracas Valley, marking the end of a week full of education, a give-and-take both ways between Mr. Tom Reed, V. press. of the Steel corporation and myself.
It is here that he enumerates a hectic week of escorting Reed and other American visitors around Ciudad Bolivar, Cerro Bolivar, Palua, Barrancas, the Boca de Macareo, Carenero Bay, Caripito, Puerto la Cruz, and Caracas.
Following this annotated visitor itinerary is another clue to the year being 1948–I suspect that Ingrid’s High School graduation must have been on June 8: I am doing all I can to get to N.Y. before June 8th. Hope it works. If not you come here on your own Ingrid, and God bless you you might get a reception from us all… In our family you are graduating into a big shot, and keep it up…
Letter to Ingrid, December, 1947: A Flight to Auyán-tepui and Angel Falls
The following 21 aerial photographs were taken by my father in December of 1947. Clearly Folke had chartered a Douglas DC-3 airplane to make a round trip flight from Ciudad Bolivar to Angel Falls. He begins the letter by identifying the airplane as a DC-3, the workhorse of world aeronautics back then, and we can verify this in the first photo, which shows the propeller hub of the right engine; in two later photographs, where we can see part of the far edge of the right wing; and in photograph 18, where we can see the shadow of a DC-3 on the flat surface of a tepui. I imagine that my father was the sole passenger and was seated to the right of the pilot, in what would normally be the co-pilot’s seat. It is from this seat that he took these photographs.
On the reverse of each of these photographic prints (each approximately 4 1/2″ x 6 1/2″), my father wrote a narrative of this trip for Ingrid, who was living with two elderly women in Scarsdale, the Crane Sisters, while attending High School. I recall Ingrid’s description of the Crane mansion as “dark and baronial;” the sisters as “thin and papery, with high lace collars,” who, “in their genteel poverty,” rented out bedrooms to lodgers.
In the images below, I show both sides of each photograph and transcribe the text [in italics] of my father’s letter for each one.
One morning in December we started out from Ciudad Bolivar in a DC-3. Scattered clouds seemed to promise a fine day. I went up in the co-pilot’s seat and watched the plane eat miles. There loomed first that big granite rock, La Ceiba, steep and slick and impossible to climb. Behind it rose La Parida like a horizon by itself. And stretched like an endless rug in yellow green and blue was the savanna with dark patterns like it was alive with the lines of arteries and veins that feeds her scantily with water.
We stopped at Guasipati and picked up a load of casaba, papelon, dried meat and other foodstuffs. Ahead was a solid mass of clouds.
We climbed and climbed. 4,000 feet – 5,000 – 6,000 – 7,000 nothing to be seen but a white space, Nothing. nothing.
8,000 feet. The mountainous white began to change in spots and suddenly there was a hole in the white. A black hole. Deep down, perhaps 6,000 feet down, lays that tropical jungle carpet. Not on a smooth floor but on a rugged, wild scenery of astonishing magnificence.
We were down in the wild dreamland of southern Bolivar.
The clouds opened up over enormous mountains and plateaus still lying in the dark shadows of the intensely white cotton in the sky. Some clouds looked as solid as rock, but———-
———-but when one approached them they were as light and sheer as a spirit.
And beyond, yes look at those rugged lines, flat on the top like gigantic aircraft carriers.
How the clouds only hang around the highest cliffs, flowing down like tulle through the bottomless canyons on each side.
Let’s take a look at one of those monuments. There is one right ahead of us, a small one which has not yet shaken the veil off completely.
How high are we? About 6,000 feet! That makes this one almost 8,000’ high. And the savanna is only 1,000’ high.
But it fools me. It is not so small. Look ————
Look how big it is from the other side! Like a gigantic battleship! How would you like to make a forced landing on top and then try to climb down?
And look at this one! Isn’t she cute. Just a little slab.
Suddenly the jungle is gone. An intense green carpet spreads before our feet. Gran Sabana! Studded with ghost-like broken, vertical cliffs as if an atomic bomb had exploded in a city of giants.
And those solid clouds, intense blue, dreamlike.
A few scattered, very small indian villages. The indians have set fire to the savanna and the huge smoke pillars scatter in a dismal fashion among the still more enormous table cliffs, which they call TEPUY.
Open this link, in case you want more on the Gran Sabana.
And there are many of them, these TEPUYS.
Open this link, in case you wish to know more about Tepuis.
Suddenly the ground changes. No more great sweeping, river studded, green savanas. No more awe inspiring plateaus dizzily spread out as if in another world.
The jungle takes over. The mountains look like little jagged ridges compared to the TEPUYS. This is the diamond country near the Brazilian border.
And ahead of us is an airport and a little village. ICABARÚ. The latest find of diamonds and gold in a little creek and in the soil and gravel on the slopes around it. And beyond is Brazil.
No liquor, no weapons allowed. We stop for only a few minutes and it is getting late. A fellow hands out a little bag and shows us some real diamonds, one must be 4-5 carats. And big nuggets of gold, worn round by the rushing gravels of the creek.
How would you like to dig a bit? You will just get a bad backache. It is not just a matter of stooping down and pick. One must be lucky, enormously lucky. most of those who try their luck, earlier or later have to borrow money and fly back to civilization, torn clothes, shoeless. He has taken a beating. And who found this god forlorn field, month’s hiking from nowhere? Quién sabe!?
We rise again. Now we go in a different direction, straight for Ciudad Bolivar, 2 1/2 hours away by plane, 400 miles, perhaps.
Yes, then we start off over the jungle with the ridges.
More ridges, and then a savanna, and then, blueing away ahead of us the most enormous wall I ever saw.
This is a real TEPUY.Where H. G. Wells in his youthful imagination climbed up and found a whole prehistoric fauna of dinosaurs and other gigantic lizards and serpents.
My father mistakenly refers to H. G. Wells. Who he meant was Arthur Conan Doyle, whose 1912 novel, The Lost World, conjures up a South American plateau on which prehistoric animals still survived.
We come nearer. Just ahead of us is the last jungle ridge. We are climbing, higher and higher. We are now soon 8,000’ up. And how far to the wall? Still many many miles to that blue, flat shapeless monster.
We are at least higher than the nearest cliff, which gradually has lost its blue colour and now is white, yellow, brown, black.
Can you see that thing at the horizon below the clouds and to the right of the middle? Watch it after a while.
We approach the edge. Swooosh! A moment ago we were 7,000 feet above ground. The next split second we are only a couple of hundred feet high. And what a rugged plain!
This time she fooled us. It was indeed a wall. Long, high, narrow, like a monster of a Chinese wall.
We are over it in a couple of minutes, pass (?) the other edge and face some lonely TEPUY babies out on the savannas.
Do you see the faint horizon below the cloud to the left, this time? Watch it.
I did not. I looked at that wonderful green carpet below, full of soil, water, lush flowers—and not a soul living there. Why not place all the haunted people in the world here among these peaceful giants and let them live until they too find peace. There is room enough.
Yes it is AYANTEPUY (AUYÁN-TEPUI). The biggest of them all. It seemed like an eternity until we had crossed the carpet.
And we climbed. We were soon at 9,000’ and were just on level with the top of Ayantepuy (Auyán-tepui).
Look at that serrated cliff wall!
Open this link, for more about Ayantepuy.
Ayantepuy, or Ayuantepuy, is the essence of stark adventure and romance. There she lies, enormous, inaccessible, awe inspiring, unknown. With her head in the clouds she ______ water, feeds rivers, which tumble down off its enormous cliffs down on the savanna. One of them is the world’s highest waterfall, Angels Falls. It has nothing to do with angels. No ma’am. It is named after Jimmy Angel, a fearless bush pilot adventurer, not one of God’s best children. He saw the waterfall [the] first of all white people. He took his little plane up and made a landing. But the ground was not an airport. He broke his landing gear—and there he was. It took him 9 days to get down, alive.
There is the plane, sure enough. I saw it, but the camera was not fast enough.
A little creek, two creeks joining, one more, and then a little pond. It is bigger now. It disappears in a fissure. We approach the edge of Auyantepui. Yes that is his creek, gone into the rock. Ahead is the edge, lying in the shade of the shade of the cliff in the afternoon sun.
Realize this is 1947. The only cameras then were film cameras, and the fastest film would have been Kodak Tri X, which is only 400 ASA. A darkened subject taken from a moving plane is likely to show very little, which is what my father meant when writing “the camera was not fast enough.”
It is dark down there in the narrow canyon, just wide enough to operate a DC-3 comfortably in. And there comes Jimmy Angel’s creek dashing out of a hole. Drops 4,000 feet vertical until it is nothing but spray left.
(This picture is badly underexposed, but the fall begins in the middle of the picture, 1” below the horizon, and soon is only a veil).
As my father writes, the photo is underexposed, but one can see the thin, lighter vertical line of Angel Falls in the center. For more on the Falls, open this link.
The other side of the canyon lies in the afternoon sun, and it, too, has waterfalls, jumping from cliff to cliff. Nice? Sure! But not that thing over in the shadow on the last picture. It takes the breath away.
And as the canyon widens, the walls become lower, the waterfalls still persist. Good enough for first class tourist attractions in most countries in the world, but not here.
That thing in the shadow up in that awful dark canyon. Was it true?
A great big hug from Daddy.
Jimmy Angel first discovered the waterfall, which I picture below from a contemporary photograph, during a solo flight on November 18, 1933. Nobody would believe him, until he piloted two men (Durand Hall and L. R. Dennison) around Auyántepui on the 24 of March, 1935. The expedition in which he landed his plane on top of the tepui took place on October 9, 1937. Here is Karen Angel’s 2001 article, “The Truth about Jimmie Angel and Angel Falls.”