Search for Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea Part 4

About the search for Michael Rockefeller, son of New York mayor Nelson Rockefeller, history of his mysterious disappearance.


Sergeant Gerig spoke a few words of their language and used gestures to explain the purpose of our visit. We were looking for a bearded young man wearing glasses. His hands indicated hair on his face and rings around his eyes. He pointed to his own fair skin--a white man. Had they seen such a man?

The Asmat warriors exchanged a few rapid grunts. Then one of them--usually a headman with a boar's tusk stuck through his nose--replied. Yes, they had heard of such a man, but they hadn't seen him. He was agai, agai--farther away--which might mean anything from 1 to 100 mi.

The Asmats were quite friendly, particularly after we'd distributed the tobacco. But you couldn't help noticing the skulls. Some yellow with age, others gleaming white and fresh. Most of them displayed on poles outside the huts, but a few lying around casually, like household utensils. I also noticed that Gerig kept his leather gun holster in a handy position.

Later I asked him about those skulls. "I thought you'd outlawed headhunting around here?"

"Oh, certainly. Only the nearest police post is 140 mi. away. So we cannot control very well. Also, mijnheer," he added, "we have no way of telling which skull belonged to a slain enemy or somebody's grandfather who died of old age. They often keep a relative's skull. Like--how do you say?--for memento."

We whirred from one swampy clearing to another, handing out tobacco, always asking the same questions, always getting the same maddening agai, agai for an answer. The white man had been seen ... found ... farther inland ... farther down the coast ... anywhere except the place we were at.

The other search teams were getting the same elusive reply. We saw the crocodiles basking on the mud banks, the skulls grinning at us from the village poles, the incredible clouds of sparrows rising like locusts from the trees, and felt our hopes fading.

They revived briefly when a patrol craft fished an empty gasoline can from the sea 120 mi. down the coast. But they found no sign of Michael, and it still isn't certain that the can was his.

Gov. Nelson Rockefeller held a press conference in Merauke. He looked as if he hadn't slept for days and seemed totally exhausted. But his quiet courtesy never cracked. He was one of the bravest men I'd ever seen. He thanked the Dutch and Australian governments--and all of us--for our help. Then he patiently answered a barrage of questions. Then he flew back to New York.

After 10 days the Dutch authorities called off the search. They were satisfied, they declared, that Michael had either drowned or been taken by a shark or crocodile. Most of the press corps pulled out. Only a few of us stayed on, held by a lingering doubt about the correctness of the official verdict. It was mostly instinctive--we had no real clues to go by--but we had the distinct feeling that this case wasn't as closed as some people wanted us to believe.

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