HomeBiographyWritingsPhotosContact Letter to Denny by Pason Sheets - 1993

(Editor's Note:  This chapter is written in the form of a letter to Denny.  It is intended to be a personal statement by the author of his experiences with, and feelings for Denny.)

Dr. Dennis E. Puleston
6 August 1993

Dear Denny,

By means of this letter I wish to express some of my feelings, observations, and recollections of our interactions many years ago.  I have been wanting to express these for some time, and I appreciate having this opportunity to do so.

You were more essential than you may have thought to my early acculturation to West Philadelphia and to the Anthropology Department at Penn, from my very first days there way back in 1969.  I will never forget your sage advice toward the end of my first week in Philadelphia, when we happened to run into each other at the museum coffee shop.  I was pretty upset, and you took the time to help me out.  As I had complained to you, I had only been living in West Philadelphia for four days, and my car had been broken into two times.  You said "oh no, you didn't lock it, did you?"  I said yes, of course I locked it, as it is a rough area.  With your characteristic benign smile and twinkle in your eye, you said "sit down, we need to talk a bit about this."  You explained why you never lock your car in that section of West Philly, unless you wish to get your windows broken.  Cars are communal property in that area, and I should take everything moveable out of the car, leave all doors unlocked, and leave the glove compartment door open.  All the browsers need to see in and determine that there are no valuable items inside.  The most common use of cars in the area is for people to sleep out of the elements.  It dawned on me that this is an informal public assistance program for people at least temporarily without their own shelter.  As you explained, when I find someone sleeping in my car, I should gently awake them and ask if they could move into the next car.  That helped me a lot, to get over the inappropriate conception that it was my car, and mine alone.  I guess the good news was that my car was too small for comfortable sleeping, so people generally preferred others nearby.  I found people sleeping in my car, on the average, only 2 or 3 times a week.  Hey, it could be worse.

And, I really appreciate your advice in how to deal with Bill Coe, your and my advisor.  You certainly were correct in stating that Bill is not your standard, dull, understated academic.  You suggested, right away, to devise and always employ a cognitive rheostat in dealing with him.  The mental rheostat tones down his statements by a few orders of magnitude.  Thus, when he exclaims with intense affect and thunderous volume echoing down the hallowed hallways of the University Museum "Sheets, god damn it, that is the stupidest idea I have ever heard," I need to immediately adjust that to something like "Payson, I have some misgivings about your idea."  Without that rheostat, which I used almost daily, I would have suffered.  Thank you very much for that.  That rheostat certainly was an ego saver, and it probably ranks as more of a life saver or career saver.

I did follow your suggestions regarding the "rites of passage" in order to be fully inducted into the august group of real Tikal researchers, or I should say that I did follow most of your suggestions.  Stan Loten and I spent the summer of 1969 at Tikal, recording architectural details of scattered buildings in the "boondocks" of the site.   Stan served as your representative in 1969, for initiation purposes, capably leading me down those paths, and he did a pretty thorough job.  
The initiation phase that I enjoyed the most was the first one, going skinny dipping in the "airport" aguada at midnight, and feeling the myriad fresh water shrimp nibbling all over.  At least they were said to be fresh water shrimp, and I have no reason to doubt that.  I never saw one, but I sure felt them.  It was gorgeous out there, with no moon, but such intensity of star light that one could see quite clearly.  It is a pity that so many gringos are stuck in cities and do not experience the breathtaking magnificence of the night sky from the Central American rainforest, with no light or air pollution to obscure our vision.  No wonder the night sky figured so heavily in their cosmology and their origin myths, with what we call Orion's belt really being part of the birthplace of the corn god and the primordial three-stone hearth.  Wonderful.  I have always been impressed with your abilities to combine matters artifactual and ecological with Maya mythology and world view.  Although I will never be able to do this kind of synthesis like you, I do make an attempt upon occasions.  This is a part of you that I carry with me always.

The second right of passage was a bit more difficult.  I have a bit more trouble thanking you for this one, and so I think I will pass.  Pass, hell, I would have punted on that one if I knew what that experience was going to be like.  Via Stan, you had me walk barefoot at night from the project camp all the way to the Great Plaza, and back.  I remember well that, at least for the first few steps, I kept my lucidity and ability to distinguish when my foot fell on soil versus vegetation versus some unknown juicy creature that squished and oozed up between my toes.  That lucidity went fast, and soon I was convinced that every footstep had something squishy under it.  And, that conviction has not waned; I know that I was stepping on snakes, frogs, cucarachas, arachnids, and god only knows what other denizens of the rainforest floor.  What an experience!!!  What a terrific thing to never do again.

I must admit that I did not complete the third.  Hell, I did not even start it.  Nor will I ever.  Really, Denny, a handstand on the unconsolidated roofcomb of Temple 1!!!!   No thanks.  It is entirely appropriate that you are the one to have done that, and no one else.  The only place where I do handstands are inadvertently at the bottom of swimming pools after diving too deep.

I do recall another incident that you sensitized me to, before it happened.  Before I went to Tikal, you said to get to know the cook at the Jungle Inn, as one could learn about Maya culture from him.  Stan and I did have a fair amount of interaction with him, particularly in the evening when he prepared dinner and cleaned up afterward.  Although his Spanish was quite good, it was clear that he was not a Ladino, and he strongly maintained much of his Maya culture.  That was brought home to us clearly one evening,  when we noted that he was much more nervous than usual.  Finally, after he fretted about, procrastinated leaving, and asked us repeatedly to accompany him to his home a couple kilometers away, we asked him why.  He said that he had seen Xtabai looking at him from behind a tree, waiting for him to leave and walk the rainforest trail home.  We knew that he did have a reputation for verbally being occasionally rough on his wife, so it was not surprising that he would worry about Xtabai, the powerful protectress of women.  Stan and I did not have time for this, so we said to go ahead, he would be just fine.  We were wrong.  He finally, at full tilt, blasted out the back door in an attempt to get past Xtabai before she got him.  He failed.  We heard a couple yells and quite a tussle out there, then a moment of silence, and then he reappeared at the back door with a torn shirt, missing one shoe, and an expression indicating that he had seen more than a ghost!  Our "empirical" explanation, that we kept to ourselves, was that his guilt led him to imagining that he saw Xtabai, and he ran out so fast that he fell and slid into one of the spine-covered vines.  That is the Western, gringo approach.  No amount of discussion or argument could have persuaded him of this explanation, nor would it have been appropriate for us to try to convince him.  As I understand the Maya way better, much in thanks to you, I must say that this empirical approach certainly lacks much, and the Maya way of viewing things not only has a great richness, but it also has the salutary effect of respecting the rights of women.  His behavior toward his wife changed fundamentally after his encounter with Xtabai, according to others living near him.

So, Denny, your legacy continues, as I and others talk a lot about you during every Mesoamerican Archaeology class that I teach, and in every Introduction to Archaeology class as well.  Your legend lives on, and I believe that each of us that knew you carry some of you with us.  You have enriched our lives, and in that ramifying process as we talk with others, you indirectly have touched thousands of students.  That will continue.

Thanking you for the chance to know you, and learn from you, and sample a little of the essence of Denny Puleston, I remain,


                  Respectfully yours,


                  Payson Sheets
Professor, University of Colorado

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