In Search of Indiana Ryan

Barry Ryan (aka Indiana Ryan) in the Andes Mountains, Peru, 1940-1941. Railway station (l.); Chulec Hospital (r.)

My father Barry Ryan was not a talkative man. He was born in 1909 and married my mother Laura in 1948 when he was 39 and she was 28. Both the age difference and the late age of marriage for both of them is noteworthy for the post-World War II years when soldiers were flooding home from Europe and the Pacific and sweeping up brides. My father never served in the war, however, and my mother was in danger of becoming what was unflatteringly termed an old maid. Not that I, as a child, knew or cared about any of that. What I did know was that my father had a secret history, an exotic past.

I knew this because of the magical objects in our house. These included a wood bench and wastebasket covered in carved leather depicting mountains and strange animals called llamas; a silver medallion and napkin rings, again with llama motifs; a small bow and a set of arrows with barbed wooden tips; and a bright gold man’s ring with an intricate bas relief of what might have been an Inca temple. They had come from Peru, where my father worked at a hospital in the Andes Mountains, and no one else in our neighborhood had anything like them. A bow and arrows! Llamas! All in a little brick house in 1950s Detroit. Plus, my father could speak Spanish, a real foreign language—at least, he taught me how to count from one to ten. I felt positively bilingual!

The best part was my father’s photograph album, a large rectangular object with embossed maroon leather covers and black paper pages. The small black-and-white snapshots were displayed in corner mounts carefully glued into place, and I pored over the images of the hospital building and my father’s coworkers, the natives, the mountain peaks and countryside, a fishing village, a religious procession, trips to Lima and neighboring towns. One showed my father in front of a glacier with a penciled, prophetic note: “It used to be much larger, so the natives say.” Another that fascinated me showed a straw-hatted and shawled native woman seated in a market stall, surrounded by round loaves of bread for sale. Her back is to the camera and the caption read: “She wouldn’t look.”

We don’t know how my dad got the job in Peru. Born in Vancouver to Irish immigrants, he came to Detroit with his parents at about five years old. According to my mom, he started college at the University of Detroit but had to drop out during the Depression. The family lost their home, and my father and his brother Ken worked various jobs to help out. One stint for my father was at an A&P grocery store, another may have been as a messenger for a bank.

Then in 1939, there he is in the photo album, traveling by steamer through the Panama Canal en route to Peru to work for an American mining company called Cerro de Pasco Corporation. The mines and the hospital—Chulec Hospital—were located in Oroya, at an altitude of 14,000’ and the facility provided medical care for the employees and possibly for the native people as well.

Almost eighty years later, here I am in the Dominican Republic, and the Spanish heritage and language has me unexpectedly channeling my father. Was this how it felt for him to step ashore in Peru for the first time, each sight a revelation, an unknown culture playing out before his eyes, a strange language mobbing his ears? Did he stare around him, drinking in impressions, colors, sounds? When he rode on a bus or a train was he glued to the window every mile of the way? Did he drink café negro at a sidewalk café, listening to guitar music and watching the families stroll in the plaza in the evening? Did he think how pretty the senoritas were and try to flirt a bit? I didn’t plan for this to happen, but the flashbacks—“intuitions”?—began with our first bus ride into the city of Puerto Plata and kept overtaking me. Riding over the mountains to Santo Domingo, listening to a violinist in the plaza from our hotel balcony, trying to make myself understood in Spanish to taxi drivers and restaurant waitstaff. So many things Eric and I saw or experienced in the Dominican Republic, or something like them, could have happened to my father.

Leaving me with more questions. What exactly did he do at the hospital? How does it feel to live at 14,000’ in the sky? Did he ever learn more than a few basic Spanish words and phrases, and if so, why didn’t he teach me? Did he ever fall in love with a pretty senorita there?

My father died in 1993, and my mother passed his photograph album on to me. In 2009, the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, I scanned the photos, recorded the captions, and queried my mother and two brothers for any other information or memories. They couldn’t add much. Where most men would have bragged to their family about such an adventure, my father said almost nothing at all. He returned to the States when we entered World War II. His brother Ken had been drafted, and my father expected to be called up as well. Instead, he was exempted due to a heart murmur, considered a serious condition in those days. But with Ken in service in the South Pacific, my father had to stay in the U.S. and support their widowed mother.

My mother thought Dad always regretted having to leave Peru. So do I. He was living a great adventure, and it was cut short by circumstances beyond his control. Maybe that’s why he kept the stories to himself. When you have llamas and a bow and arrows in your house in Detroit it’s hard to explain the magic to someone who hasn’t been there.

Yet as a child, I got a glimpse of it, and here in the Dominican Republic I understand it even more. Is it possible to inherit wanderlust? And make no mistake, it is a lust, a deep need that begs to be fulfilled. I haven’t been to Peru yet, but in the not-too-distant future, aboard Corroboree, I will.

My favorite photograph in my father’s album is the black-and-white above. I believe it was taken in his personal quarters at the hospital. I wish I knew what book he was reading. I wish I could look through the window behind him and see the spectacular view. But all I really need is the caption he wrote on the back:

“My Castle.”