Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Juan Proteus


A twitter friend, William Chamberlain, commented to me today, "I really need to learn more about that period [the 1960s] since it is really affecting our culture today." Later in the day, P.F. Anderson used the phrase "Singing rocks of Greece." These two seemingly unrelated tweets resurrected a long-forgotten family story.

On July 19, 1968, Life Magazine published a feature about "Young American Nomads Abroad." Reporter Thomas Thompson visited the Greek Island of Crete, where he found "40 or 50 caves filled with young people," one of whom called himself "Juan Proteus."

There are levels of isolation here. At the outer edge is Juan Proteus, an American, 24, thin, blond, who has lived for a year on Crete. Hardly anyone knows him because his cave is across the bay from the colony, halfway up a cliff, reachable only by a good climb that you feel quickly in the backs of your legs. You can see Juan, though, because he sits outside his cave much of the day, and if you walk on the sea rocks below him, you can hear his exquisite guitar music.

I caught up with Juan as he carried water back from the village. I introduced myself and wondered if he would talk to me. “I wouldn’t have anything to say,” he said. He sat down and started playing the guitar. It sounded like Scarlatti, but he had written it himself. He. told me he had gone to Annapolis, then to Hunter. He pointed to Mount Ida, which you could see in the distance across the sea, and told me it was where Zeus had been born. His cave was neatly swept; he had built a bed. There were no books, no radio. There were the beginnings of a wall of stone he was putting up outside his cave. He spoke in the manner of a man who had not talked in a long while; the words were dry and few.

“Why have you stayed so long?”

“I don’t think they’re gonna drop the bomb on Crete,” he said. “It’s not of strategic importance.”

“Are you going back to America, ever?”

“It would be a cultural shock to go back...What’s gonna happen is gonna happen. All the rest is irrelevant.”

Was his last name really Proteus? “Yes.”

Many days later, when I could find a book on Greek mythology, I looked up “Proteus.” It said: “The prophetic old man of the sea; he knew all things, past, present, future, but disliked telling what he knew. Those who wished to consult him had first to surprise and bind him during his noonday slumber in a cave beside the sea...”


My father showed me this article, and kept a copy of the magazine tucked away on a shelf in his bedroom closet. The enigmatic Juan Proteus was, in fact, my mother's nephew, my first cousin. He was an intelligent young man from a loving family. After asthma ended his sojourn at Annapolis, he began what must have been a personal quest for meaning. His journey finally ended in Hawaii: when a hiking companion was injured on Molokai, Juan went for help, and was never seen again. It is presumed that he fell from a cliff and his body was washed out to sea.

Although I know his birth name, I won't reveal it here. Juan Proteus is the identity he chose, and I will honor it.

So, @wmchamberlain, if you want to learn more about the 1960s, you could do worse than to read this issue of Life. Among other things, there is an editorial about whether the voting age should be lowered to 18; a review of the movie, The Green Berets, starring John Wayne; an ad for Vista volunteers; a photo spread about Julie Nixon (daughter of Richard Nixon) and her future husband, David Eisenhower (grandson of Dwight D. Eisenhower)...

...and there is a brief conversation with Juan Proteus.




Related post:
Age of Aquarius

1 comment:

Wm Chamberlain said...

What an interesting and compelling story. My life has never been as complicated as Juan's (even when he was living in a cave). I never felt the need to search for anything much, having done much exploring, some satisfying and some not, through literature. Unlike Jabiz it has never been my nature to look too closely inside myself.

On a completely different note, I am really tired of picking friends that are so much better writers than myself. I think I shall start looking for some friends that write on my level :)