Paul calls us on our shortwave radio in Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela. “Uncle Ed just died here in Caracas, and Aunt Irma tells us that he wanted to be buried in TT. Can you come pick him up?”
I hesitate. Venezuelan law says Ed must be buried within 24 hours, so it has to be done today. It will take over four hours to drive to the airport here in Puerto Ayacucho, preflight the airplane, fly to Caracas and load the casket, then fly three-and-a-half hours back to Tama Tama, the New Tribes Mission base. Tama Tama (the people call it “TT”) lies deep in Amazonas territory on the Orinoco River. With no navigational aids and no lighted airstrips, it’s illegal to fly after sunset, and impossible to fly after dark. We would have to depart Caracas by three to reach TT by sunset, 6:35 p.m. Even at that, we would have no extra daylight left for bad weather or contrary winds.
I radio back. “Can you have Ed’s body at the La Carlota airport no later than 2:30 p.m.?”
“Yeah, I think so; Clayton’s working on the government permissions now.
“Okay; I’m on my way.”
I drive our Chevy truck to the airport and top off the Cessna 185’s fuel, inhaling the sweet fumes from the green 100-octane that drains through the chamois filter into the wing tanks.
I’m now in the air pointed toward Caracas. I feel the throttle under my palm, as familiar as my own skin. I wonder, “Can Clayton get the permissions in time?” Clayton has been an insurance broker for years and is a longtime friend of the New Tribes Mission (NTM). A short, squat Jamaican who proudly carries a British passport, he has worked all morning to obtain a death certificate.
Finally, the C-185 sinks into the Caracas Valley and we circle over the small La Carlota airport. But after I land and pull onto to the tarmac, I search in vain for the paramedic truck carrying Ed’s body. Nothing. I taxi over to gas up and then can only wait. It’s 1:00 p.m.
I’m relieved when I see Paul and Fred arrive at the airport with the casket in the back of a truck. Paul’s a second-generation NTMer—Bolivian Indians killed his missionary father in 1943. Fred’s father, along with one of my fellow pilots, died in a recent accident when their 185 caught fire in the air.
But Fred shocks me: “The casket’s empty, but we wanted to see if it would fit in the plane.”
“Okay; I’ll take the door off and take out the front passenger seat.”
Paul says, “Turn the casket on its side.” It teeters up and down. Finally, we get the front in.
But Fred says, “The rear end’s catching on the doorframe.”
It almost fits. But after pulling and pushing for 15 minutes, we give up. I tell them, “If we were in the jungle, we’d probably ‘cheat’ and just lay the body in without the casket, but here in the capital we’ll need formal permission to do that.”
Fred telephones Clayton, who says, “I’ve already opened the top level of my sister’s grave here in Caracas for Uncle Ed to use.”
But Fred and Paul are adamant. “Please try to get permission.”
“Okay, I’ll contact the fire department,” Clayton says. “They’re the only ones who can give it.”
We wait. Paul says, “Maybe we’ll have to accept Clayton’s offer.”
Finally, Clayton calls. “They gave permission and now they’re wrapping the body. We’ll be on our way soon.”
But as the paramedic truck carrying the body pulls up beside the airplane, the airport supervisor runs onto the tarmac waving his arms. “You can’t load any bodies here—you’ll have to do it on the military side of the airport.”
So the paramedic truck speeds across to the other side while I taxi across in the plane.
I see Aunt Irma getting out of the truck—tremulous, mute, with circles under her eyes, her gray hair drawn back from her thin face. (Out of affection, the New Tribes Mission people call Ed and Irma “Uncle” and “Aunt.”) Fred and Paul pull Ed’s shrouded body from the truck. It’s tightly wrapped mummy-like with multiple winds of cotton cloth.
I say, “I’ll take the door off and we’ll flex the body a bit to get it in.”
We lay the body supine on the floor and belt it down. I help Aunt Irma in and fasten her seatbelt.
We’ll have three and a half hours of flying ahead of us. We take off and rise out of the Caracas Valley, skimming over the mountaintops. I roll out the HF radio’s trailing antenna. The missionaries are reporting marginal weather in TT. And what if we hit headwinds? Soon we’re looking down on the vast plain that stretches south to the Orinoco River. I mark the times we pass checkpoints. After flying two hours, we cross the mighty Orinoco and begin traversing the jungle, an unbroken, broccoli-like carpet far below us—a pilot, a body and a widow, encapsulated in a fragile red and white aluminum carapace.
We come abeam Puerto Ayacucho 50 miles to our west, but we’re still an hour from TT, and the sun is sinking. Aunt Irma sits motionless, occasionally glancing down at the body of her husband.
We pass Santa Barbara de Ventuari, our last alternate airstrip, still 40 minutes from TT. If TT isn’t in the clear, we won’t have enough daylight to return to Santa Barbara. I watch the relentless clock.
Up ahead, tentacular lightning flashes between the high clouds piled up against Duida Mountain, and TT reports gathering dark clouds. I strain to read the storm. The winding Orinoco comes into view again. As we descend in the gathering dusk, raindrops rake the windshield.
Suddenly, the darkening clouds seem to part like the billows of the biblical Red Sea, leaving a clear path between. I descend over the river until I see the bend in the river near TT, and a few slanting sunrays reflecting off the water. The airstrip flashes into view. I turn slightly, make a short approach and touch down. How good to feel the swish of the wet airstrip grass!
When we roll to a stop and get out, the jungle humidity engulfs me, and I swat at the biting gnats that leave small red spots on my arms. The rain has stopped. Dozens of missionaries and Piaroa Indians swarm around Aunt Irma and the white-wrapped body.
A hastily made coffin lies next to the plane. I smell the fresh algarrobo wood that was cut in TT’s own sawmill and hurriedly nailed together an hour ago. Six men lay Ed’s body in the coffin and carry it to the graveyard. I walk behind with Danny, an NTM friend. He points at a nearby grave and whispers, “That’s where my dad’s buried—he died of hepatitis on the mission riverboat. Over there’s where my brother Joey is. When he was six, he dove off a rock into the Orinoco and never resurfaced. They found his body downriver, half-eaten by piranhas.”
In the fading light, we slog through the rain-saturated muck and gather around a grave that smells of jungle clay. I hear prayers in English, Spanish, Yekuana and Piaroa. Like several others, Uncle Ed not only lived and worked in this Amazonas jungle—he now lies here. As willing hands shovel dirt into Ed’s grave, my eyes tear up in gratitude and respect.
We walk from the graveyard over to some tin-roofed houses. It has been 11 hours since Paul’s radio call from Caracas.
That night, I fall exhausted into the comforting cords of my hammock and breathe my own prayer—“Loving Father, thank you that you allowed Clayton to get the permissions, the heavens to be opened, and Uncle Ed to find rest here among his own people.”
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