Friday, June 29, 2018

Fishing with Cannibals

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Fishing with Cannibals
Fishing with Cannibals

Vic Thornton was my City Editor on the Phoenix Gazette. Away from the office, he liked to go to Prescott Downs or Turf Paradise Race Track and he loved to play poker.

He also had a sense of adventure and enjoyed giving perks to his favorite reporters (Thankfully I was one of them). One morning he stopped by my desk and asked me if I would like to go to Mexico on an assignment.

'Sounds great,' I said. 'When do I leave?'

The occasion was an international air race that would send on the Sea of Cortez. Private pilots from all over the United States and Canada were planning ot fly to the Sea of Cortez and compete for prizes.

'They're going to have a fishing tournament and they'll probably play some poker,' he said. 'I think you'll have fun and it will be a good story.'

The following Friday I boarded a plane at Sky Harbor International Airport and flew to Mexico's Sea of Cortez. My newspaper had reserved a room for me at a resort about two blocks from the white-sand beach. I arrived an hour before a get acquainted dinner and cocktail party.

After checking into my room, I walked down to the bar. It was crowded with about 50 pilots, including two identical twin brothers who were president and vice president of a bank in Utah. They flew single-engine plane that seated six passengers and they had an amusing way of finishing each other's sentences.

Both of them wore red suspenders and Homberg hats. I could imagine what their bank was like.

'You fellows probably use scrolls instead of office machines,' I said.

They laughed and one said, 'How did you know?'

We had drinks and a great dinner. One of the hosts introduced the people who were running the air race and they gave us some background information about the Sea of Cortez.

He said a tribe of Seri Indians were camped about two miles from the resort. The Indians were expert fishermen and were experts at carving ironwood into the shapes of dolphins, whales, sharks and other sea creatures.

'I forgot to mention one thing,' he added lightheartedly. 'They're former cannibals. After killing their enemies, they made a practice of eating their hearts.' We all roared with applause and laughter and one of the identical twins turned to his brother and said, 'That will teach them.'

I decided I wanted to visit and interview the Seri Indians and planned to take a cab there the next morning.

I didn't realize it but Peter Benchley, the author of 'Jaws', was staying at the same resort. He was researching another novel, 'The Girl on the Sea of Cortez' following the production of his script, 'The Deep.'

The following morning I rented a cab to visit the Seri Indians. Benchley beat me to the camp by about 15 minutes. There were about 40 Indians living in tents and ramsackle houses and Benchley was engaged in a conversation with the Seri chief. He had been drinking and was making animated movements with his arms while the chief stared at him solemnly.

One of the Indians came up to me.

'The man is crazy,' he muttered. 'He's offering to pay the chief $500 if he can coax a giant manta ray up out of the ocean so he can ride on it.'

I was astounded.

'You can talk to menta rays?', I said.

The Indian shrugged. 'We can communicate with anything in the ocean,' he said. 'Sharks, manta rays, porpoises, you name it.'

The chief accepted the $500 from Benchley. Then he walked down to the edge of the ocean and began blowing a horn made out of conch shells, while Benchley sipped from a bottle of tequila. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes.

Something broke through the surface of the water. It was a giant manta ray about 20 feet across. Benchley handed the bottle of tequila to one of the indians and splashed into the water. He climbed on the back of the creature, stayed there about five seconds, and then was thrown into the water. He splashed to the surface roaring with laughter while the Indians applauded him.

I did some fishing from the beach, caught several trigger fish and a red snapper, and the Series cut the fish and packaged it for me. They were friendly but their eyes never stopped moving. One of the Indians told me why.

'In the old days we had to do it to keep watch for our enemies,' he said. 'That habit has never left us.'

That night we played poker after dinner at the resort. It was a cash game but the pilots played for fun rather than the money. I won about $200.

On Sunday I boarded a commercial jet to fly back to Phoenix. The flight attendant was a redhead from Chandler. I told her about meeting the Seri Indians and she was fascinated.

'You went fishing with cannibals?,' she said. 'Wow! That must have taken some guts.'

With false modesty I said, 'It goes with the territory.'

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