Thanks to all who shared their memoirs’ opening sentences with us on April 12’s blog post, Share your memoir’s first seven sentences with us:
Each crafted a compelling opening, one that pulls us in and makes us want to keep reading. Thanks, ladies, for mentoring the rest of us. (Click on their names to learn more about them.)
Today I’ll share another opening with you, this one from my adventuresome friend Jon Arensen’s memoir, Drinking the Wind: Memoirs of an African Odyssey.
But first, some background. When my husband and I first moved to Kenya, Jon served on the staff of the three-month orientation course that all newcomers took—in the bush. With a Ph.D. in Anthropology, Jon had lots to teach us, and that’s when we learned what a great storyteller he is.
Jon grew up in Africa and spent most of his adult life there, too—and has lived countless high adventures. As a linguist based in Sudan, he also spent considerable time in Kenya as an anthropology coordinator. In today’s story, Jon was vacationing in Tanzania, two countries south of Sudan. It shows how well-known he was throughout East Africa, and it also shows that sometimes Jon took risks most of us would pass on!
So, take a couple of minutes to read this excerpt from his memoir’s prologue. You’ll enjoy it, I promise. But there’s one thing you need to know: Elephants kill hundreds of people every year.
The herd of elephants walked out of the acacia forest like gray ghosts. In spite of their great size they made no noise. The old matriarch of the herd led the way, closely followed by her babies. She stopped at the top of the riverbank and lifted her trunk to smell the wind. Sensing no danger, she cautiously slid down the steep bank and approached the small stream flowing through the golden sand.
Her grown daughters and their babies followed in her footsteps and soon the entire matriarchal herd stood in a line with their trunks sucking up the cool clear water. They raised the tips of their water-filled trunks to their mouths and lifted their entire trunks, letting the water run into their throats.
Our camp stood on a bank of the Mwagusi sand river opposite the drinking elephants. I had come to the Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania with my sons Jeff and Mike. We explored and took photographs in this largely unvisited wilderness—a location teeming with wildlife amidst a unique backdrop of granite boulders, palm trees, sand rivers and gigantic baobab trees.
After the elephants slaked their thirst, the adult females sucked up water in their trunks and blew the water on their backs and sides. The baby elephants lay down in the shallow water and rolled. Then they played king of the hill, climbing on top of each other under the watchful eyes of their mothers.
I had a sudden inspiration. Jeff was a senior at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya and he needed a photograph of himself for the annual yearbook. I suggested he walk out on the sand river and pose in front of the elephants. Jeff didn’t like the idea. I assured him elephants had bad eyesight and we were downwind from the elephants, so they were not aware of our presence. I convinced Jeff to stoop over and walk like a baboon, so the elephants would not notice him.
Jeff finally agreed and hunched himself down and walked out on the open sand, carefully watching the elephants. The elephants paid no attention. When Jeff got within forty yards of the elephant herd, he slowly straightened up and faced the camera with a forced smile. I quickly took several photographs of him with the elephants in the background before Jeff dashed back to camp. He now had a great photograph for the yearbook.
Well, Jeff took a big risk, and it didn’t go badly—but that wasn’t the end of Jon’s story. He lost that roll of film.
Months later two photographers visited that same national park, Ruaha, and, driving down a track, they watched as a lioness killed a hyena. A couple days later, they drove down the same track and spotted the hyena’s rotting carcass—and in its stomach, something bright yellow—a dented roll of Kodak film.
The photographers gave the film to Geoff Fox, owner of one of the park’s lodges, who took it to Dar es Salaam and got it developed. Looking at the photos of a blond boy standing in front of elephants, Geoff also noted a Toyota and its license plate.
Returning to Ruaha, he looked through the logbook at the entry gate, matched the license number to Jon’s name, and gave the photos to his son Chris, who just happened to be a friend of Jon’s!
Jon has told countless such stories over the years, earning him a reputation as a legendary storyteller. Besides Drinking the Wind: Memoirs of an African Odyssey, he also authored several other books including another memoir, Where Antelope Roam and Other Stories Out of Africa. Check out his Jon Arensen, Author, Page on Facebook.
Now it’s your turn.
If your memoir includes adventure, we want to hear from you.
Don't be shy!
Post a few key paragraphs below in the comments,
or as a comment on SM 101’s Facebook Page,
or in a private message.
Be sure to give us a link to your website or Facebook Page.
We look forward to reading about your adventures!