A Whiter Shade of Pale
A Whiter Shade of Pale
An Oral History
Time and Place
A little after Mercury, I found myself in East Africa installing a remote down link site to fill in a hole in our capsule radio coverage. It was simply not acceptable to launch a manned spacecraft only to have it go through a dead radio zone a few minutes later.
The station equipment room was a masonry building with a flat roof. In the side yard was one dish and the roof was covered with antennas of various sorts. In the back was a shed with a diesel generator and a battery bank for uninterrupted power.
The country around was dry with scrub and grass. It reminded me of parts of Texas where I grew up and the locals worked it as cattle country. Their corals were thorn bushes instead of wooden rails. Their worst enemy was lions instead of wolves. Other than that, it was Texas.
In the direction of the local village we had had a good well drilled so that we would have reliable water. It did not have a windmill because the spinning metal vanes might modulate the incoming radio signal. It was just a concrete slab with a hand pump in the middle.
The local villagers had a right to draw water under our agreement, but only for human consumption. Having a live stock watering facility there might draw lions at night.
Our contact with the villagers was a middle aged man with an extremely dark complexion who spoke reasonable pigeon English. My spelling of his name here is almost certainly wrong and I doubt that I ever pronounced it correctly.
The villagers in general kept their distance, I believe they were afraid that they would be blamed if anything was broken or went missing. I am certain they did not understand what we were doing.
Mr. Mandulo was really our only contact person. He negotiated the water deal and occasionally would come by to have a talk. After some polite conversation he would ask a question or offer to sell us some local produce.
Mr. Mandulo's illness
Mr. Mandulo had not been by for a couple days, when I saw him walking by outside the fence. He was walking slowly and his skin had an ashen hue. He continued on to the village without stopping and I got back to work.
Mr. Mandulo returns
A couple days later, Mr. Mandulo came by to talk. We looked much better and his skin had returned to its rich dark color.
I remarked that I was glad to see he was feeling better and that I hoped on one else in his family was sick.
He thanked me for my concern and asked how I hand come to know he was sick. I think he was afraid he had lost his communication monopoly. Had I been talking to someone else in the village?
I assured him that I had not and that I had based by diagnoses on his appearance as he passed the few days before.
He agreed that his people often did have lighter skin tones when they were ill. Then a thought occurred to him.
He asked, "What do white people look like when they were ill?"
I assured him that we too often go pale and lose color.
The idea clearly astounded him but he was too polite to make much of a show or ask more questions.
The village drops by
For the next two days everybody in the village walked by our front gate. They looked in on us at work through the open windows, but did not speak. The women would be carrying water, but they were clearly walking out of their way. The men would be carrying firewood or be about some other task that was just an excuse to come by our front gate.
We thought that certainly the villagers had taken interest in our work at last. So we asked Mr. Mandulo what was going on when he came by around dusk on the second day.
"No, no," he assured us. The villager simply wanted to see the white man who could get even whiter. If a human being got even whiter than a white man, then he would certainly turn into smoke or perhaps a cloud. A living person being that white was simply not possible.
We were very disappointed that our work was still not appreciated.
Haunted by a song
I am sure that I was back from Africa when I first heard the song with the strange lines:
- And so it was that later
- as the miller told his tale
- that her face, at first just ghostly,
- turned a whiter shade of pale
The song was "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum. I cannot now hear it now without thinking what a strange race we must have appeared to Mr. Mandulo's village and how contact with our world must certainly have changed them all.
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