Memory is a tricky thing. Obviously someone must have told us what we'd be doing that Yuletide season, plans must have been made and dates set, but whenever I think back to my Christmas adventure of 1975 (or possibly 1976, my memory getting trickier every year) I enter the tale in media res: my eight or nine year old self is rummaging through my cardboard toy box, picking out things I'm fairly certain I won't play with again and thinking to myself that soon I will be standing with the rest of my Cub Scout troop in the middle of a village of headhunters.
We'd been stationed in the Philippines long enough to have learned of the Negritos. An ancient tribal people whose true name I later learned is the Agta, they are small and dark (hence the name) and live on the fringes of island society. Whether deserved or not they have always had a reputation among their neighbors for fierceness, and the Spanish colonials reported that whenever a Negrito killed a Spaniard he would hold a feast where the guests would drink from the victim's skull.
This year my troop was to collect as many second-hand toys that were in good condition as we could. Then we would drive into the jungle and present them as gifts to the Negrito children of a nearby village. Shortly before December 25th our convoy rumbled out of Clark Air Force Base, vans packed with toys and as quiet a group of kids as one can imagine. All of us were lost in our imaginations, picturing what might be awaiting us when we arrived. We'd been assured that if the Negritos had ever sought the heads of their enemies, they definitely didn't do that sort of thing now. But no one had ever told us just how long ago it was that they were doing that sort of thing; and perhaps no one is quite as aware of how hit-and-miss the process of civilizing someone is, and how easy it is to revert to savagery, as is a young boy. It was a struggle we ourselves undertook on a daily basis. If our parents and pastors couldn't keep us from lunging out of our pews during church and assaulting a kid who we felt needed to be taken down a peg, how could they be so sure that they'd really tamed the Negritos?
The village was a collection of wood and straw huts and rickety two-story homes, with a dusty crossroads in the middle. We clambered out of the vans there and began unloading the toys as a crowd of children gathered around us. They grinned and shouted, and though we didn't know the language they seemed happy to see us. "Malagayang Pasko", I said to everyone I met there. Our Scoutmaster opened the bags of toys and began handing them out. One boy held up the toy gun I'd donated and yelled excitedly. Back then toy guns were almost indistinguishable from the real thing, and I felt a strange uneasy feeling in my stomach as I got my first look at the figure whose shadow fell over so much of the late Twentieth century: the lean and ragged Third World boy carrying an American rifle.
Our Scoutmaster disappeared into one of the longer huts, and when he emerged he stood on the wooden porch and called us to attention. We were to be granted an audience with the leader of the tribe, Queen Mary, who had just turned one hundred. Our eyes turned to the darkness beyond the doorway. After a moment a young woman walked out with the oldest, wispiest woman I had ever seen clinging to her arm. Queen Mary was small, and her iron-gray hair flew out from her head like the flame of a torch. As she stood by the railing and gazed out at us I thought that if, if these people had ever truly taken heads, Queen Mary was surely old enough to have seen it. Maybe as their ruler she had even ordered it, and long ago the skulls of the tribe's enemies had been piled up before her hut in a hill as tall as a man, right on the spot where we now stood. At a cue from our Scoutmaster we launched into a rendition of "Jingle Bells". Then we sang another carol. Queen Mary smiled at us and nodded.
Then our Scoutmaster approached and respectfully offered our troop's gift to her: two cartons of cigarettes. Queen Mary stretched out her thin brown arms and took them, and her toothless grin seemed to light up her face with joy.