Hard to believe it was one year ago today that we got word of the death of James King, the old-school lumberman and former US Embassy Warden of Iquitos. He was known as the wood king of Iquitos, and in fact he had been in the wood business for decades all over South America by the time he settled here. James was a divisive figure, and was possessed of a strong and complex personality. While there were those who swore by their lives that James was a crook, and was wanted for this and that, he never did me any wrong and certainly the US Embassy would not have assigned him as a Warden of Iquitos had he been a crook. In fact I learned a great deal from him, mainly during the last year of his life when I was spending a fair amount of time with him. I was always a little amused that he inspired in others such a vast catalogue of passionate and contradictory opinions about his past and his various exploits. He seemed amused by it as well.
James ran a successful lumber export mill and fine woodworking shop in Iquitos for some years. He also was involved with local people in distant jungle communities, and over the years had made deals with them to help them secure permanent title to their land. He extracted some timber from these lands in exchange, giving jobs to many of the locals in the process. I was around to see the elders of these communities come to visit James in the city, asking for help with a sick baby or a family who had lost their home, and he never turned anyone away. He was generous with these people, making sure to give them money for food and compensating them for the cost of the gasoline required to travel by boat to and from Iquitos. He never advertised this so I think its something that should be recognized, his compassion for the people in those communities, all of whom clearly had the utmost respect for him.
No, the bad things I heard about James came from other gringos who had business deals with him that had gone sour for one reason or another. One can never fully know both sides of a story, so I can’t say for sure that James was an angel, but I do know that the line between a crafty but legitimate businessman and a con man can be extremely hard to discern. My feeling is that James was the former.
His persona was unsentimental, fearless, a bit of a roughneck, and he never thought twice about crossing anyone, especially when he felt he was in the right. And he delighted in calling out hypocrisy wherever he heard it. Around the massive wooden ‘rum and coke’ table where he held court, he made his feelings about corrupt NGO’s, corrupt government officials, and corrupt church officials well known. Although he found ways to laugh about it, corruption irritated him, because as a businessman working in Iquitos, he was forced to work within the system as it was. Of the many accusations flung about over cocktails, time has proven him largely correct.
James was always in the know. Indigenous tribal leaders, village elders, reporters, local politicians, they all showed up around the rum and coke table to discuss the news of the day. James commanded their respect, and he trafficked in whatever information was most current. He was always the first one to ask if you wanted to know the inside scoop. He seemed to have connections everywhere. And his door was always open. No doubt this was why the US Embassy appointed him Warden of Iquitos, their man on the ground in the jungle. They might have formally made him Consul, but James refused to get up and go down to the Plaza de Armas once a month and put on socks and a tie and salute the flag, as he would have been required to do as Consul.
I can’t really do justice to the full-blown utter epic insanity of the man’s life here, and I’m not going to try. I mean, he’s the only guy I know who was shot by both the CIA and the FARC, and he had the scars to prove it. No, of all the stories one could tell about James King, the one I want to share is the story of his funeral. Because it was such a vivid and accurate reflection of his life in Iquitos.
James is survived by his wife and his son. His wife of forty years, Patricia, a lovely woman who dedicated her time and money to sheltering and re-habbing dozens of stray animals, still lives in Iquitos. About two years ago she was in a horrible accident, hit by a motorcycle while crossing the street outside her house. She died twice on the operating table and twice was brought back to life. She had to re-learn her language faculties and other basic brain skills. James was by her side helping her to recuperate the whole way.
But it also meant that he hardly ever left the house. He was drinking heavily, and towards the end, it became clear that he knew he was going to die. The doctors told him to stop smoking, to slow down on the drinking, but he smoked mapacho cigarettes continually from a big wooden bowl which was the centerpiece of the rum and coke table, and he drank rum heroically by any man’s standards who ever lived. And, like the most serious functional alcoholics you may have known, his tolerance for the stuff was nothing short of astonishing.
Later, when Patricia told me that James knew he was going to die soon, it all made sense. He had been pushing it way too hard, even for a man as tough as he was. And one day it caught up with him. He collapsed in front of the TV and was gone by the time they got him to the hospital. They moved his body to morgue, and funeral arrangements were made at the scenic Garden of Eden cemetary outside of town, where he was to be cremated.
James’ best friend was instrumental in staying on top of the logistics during this process. I can’t remember if he already has a fictional name here on the blog, so we’ll call him Aaron Cobbler. On the day of the funeral, Aaron was really the one keeping everything together. We all drove out to the cemetary about noon, which was the time we had been told to arrive. Nothing happens on time here, of course, but we are talking about gringos, going to a gringo funeral, so some people actually showed up on time.
After about an hour of making small talk and wandering the grounds, which were exquisite, Aaron called to say that there was a problem. The morgue used a stock coffin to transport bodies from the freezer to the incinerator, but the coffin was scaled to the dimensions of a Peruvian physique. James had a huge Irish head and was broad as a rhino in girth. He wasn’t about to fit into the regular coffin. So they had to send somebody to the warehouse to locate the spare coffin, which was larger.
Another hour passed, and the X-Large Coffin was located and brought to the morgue. Then another phone call from Aaron, informing us that James’ body was frozen onto the slab where he had been kept in cold storage. More time would be needed to assemble the tools and manpower to pry him from the slab. That’s not an image you want to spend too much time thinking about. So we waited some more, bought refrescos from the girls in the parking lot, wandered the grounds, and looked at the flowers and the miniature umbrellas sheltering each gravestone from the sun.
Another call. No one had paid for the morgue services. The morgue was not going to release the body without payment. Captain Bill, the assistant warden who had so recently become the new Warden of Iquitos, stepped up and paid the bill. He wouldn’t advertise that either, being the good guy that he is, but he paid the bill knowing he’d probably never get paid back.
Finally, they loaded the body into the back of a minivan. As I recall it was almost four o’clock, and we’d been lingering at the funeral home since noon. The van pulled up and a spry team of Peruvians emerged and carried good old James King into the funeral parlour. A priest said a few generic words. James was not religious and would have hated all the hollow ritual of sermonizing that was happening on his behalf, Aaron leaned over and whispered to me. He was right. James was the kind of guy who always wanted to get right to the point. And yet he had become a master of patience, of waiting to see how things turned out, because he had spent so many years doing business in Peru. So the many absurd delays of his final journey were a true and appropriate reflection of the man’s life, and he would have laughed to see it happen as it did.
After the talking was over, Aaron and I got up and removed the American flag draped over the coffin. In fact it was a beach towel with a print of an American flag, but it was the only thing that could be found on such short notice. We folded it with due ceremony–a small piece of knowledge recovered from my days as a Boy Scout and finally put to use some twenty five years later–and we handed the folded flag to Trisha. The coffin retreated on rollers through a curtained hole in the wall, which led to the incinerator. The mourners recessed to a small assembly hall next door.
Aaron had thought to bring a couple of bottles of rum. We passed around plastic cups and poured shots. But there were no mixers. I walked across the street and bought a 3 liter Coke bottle, and with rum and cokes in hand we laid James King to rest in the way I know he would have wanted.
The chimney above the assembly hall belched smoke. I could hear the generators humming, and the incinerator surge with effort, and I saw the smoke from the chimney change from light to dark. In time the mourners peeled away and drifted back down the road to their homes. That was all there was for a sense of closure.
The new Warden would return the next day to collect the ashes. James’ rhinocerous girth had required many hours in the incinerator, which had been left running all night in order to complete the task. By sunset just a group of old school wood men and jungle rats remained, who had known and liked the man enough to linger until twilight sitting around drinking rum and talking about the events of the day, just as he would have done.