Through the oval window beside me in a single file of seats lining one side of the plane, it seemed that the dense Brazilian jungle far below rushed up to meet our old Dakota, the familiar name for the DC-3, as we twisted downward from the sky.
The woman sitting across from me one seat ahead shouted her prayers, her rosary flying through her fingers as fast as our descent. Terror made her shrill. Her arms lifted the rosary high in supplication.
"God save us! Save us!" she cried in Portuguese.
I made no such plea. Gratitude filled my heart.
Thank you, Father, I thought, for making it easy for me to go, but please spare the others, Lord. You're going to get me anyway.
How long it would take to hurtle to the ground, I had no idea. I had heard of time compression in such moments, as when a drowning man sees his entire life flash before his eyes. It seemed an eternity to me.
Since we had taken off a few hours ago, the flight from Sa§ Paulo had been uneventful and turbulence-free. An ambulance had delivered me to the airport from the Institute of Tropical Diseases outside town.
Carried aboard because I could not walk, the medics strapped me into a seat standing alone at the rear, an area believed safest in a crash.
I could not help but smile inwardly at their concern for my comfort and safety. I did enjoy the comfort of being able to stretch out my bandage-wrapped, suppurating limbs because of the extra space around the seat. But the presumed safety of its location was for me a moot point in the scheme of things.
Still in my twenties, I was already condemned to death by an unknown fungus eating away my legs. I had acquired it as a chigger-like itch during an expedition to the gold fields in the jungles of French Guiana, where I had foolishly worn low-quarter shoes instead of boots. Stymied for treatment, the Institute for Tropical Diseases had released me in despair over my chances for survival.
Less than twenty-four hours before, the doctors had gathered around me to say that the sulfa drugs, wonders of the 1950s, had been tried to no avail.
"We are sorry, young man, but there's nothing further we can do because we cannot halt the spread of the fungus. I predict that within three months it will have spread to the internal organs and will kill you.The only solution is to amputate."
To live life without lower limbs, as were so many of my fellow Korean veterans, was no answer for me.
Better death, I had thought, than to cripple my life and my body. Estranged from all family in the States, I decided at that moment to fly to Argentina, a country with which I was familiar, and find a place to die alone.
Now I faced the liberator of the terminally ill in much less time than anticipated by the doctors or myself. The tragedy, for me, was that there were six other passengers on the plane, and a crew of three. Who among them deserved to die or to face it so soon, so irrevocably, like me?
Certainly not the woman across the aisle--she was no more than thirty, I should guess. When she came aboard after me, she had a baby in her arms, and a man apparently her husband at her side. She cuddled the child and kissed its cheeks. The dear thing gurgled, and she cried, passing it to her husband with a heart-rending sigh.
A Spanish-speaker, but not so good at Portuguese, I understood him to tell her not to worry. "Your mother will be all right. She's strong as a horse, no matter how sick she claims to be."
The woman pouted. "Don't you talk about my mother like that! She's dying! I know it."
Then she burst into tears.
"Take care of my darling," she said, and touched the baby's tiny feet. Amid more tears and a farewell kiss, the husband stepped outside with the baby.
It had been a hurtful scene for me, bereaved as I was by the death of my own wife and child a few years before. I had never ceased to dream of reunion with them.
Nor did the young Brazilian steward deserve to die. During the flight he came to me. No older than I, he wanted to talk to another young person.
He was on the verge of getting married to a beautiful girl who lived in Rio Grande do Sul, a cowboy state in Southern Brazil.
"Her family is very rich in land," he told me. "Many cattle. I met her on this very plane. She was on her way to visit Iguass˙ Falls, where we are headed now. Three countries converge there--Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay."
"Yes," I had replied, "in the United States we speak of them as 'the Niagara Falls of South America,' although they are wider and higher, with more cataracts."
In the midst of our chat, I heard the pilot broadcast to the cabin for the steward to come at once to the cockpit. He excused himself and trotted forward. The door to the cockpit swung open and stayed that way. I watched the captain gesticulating frantically to the co-pilot who seemed to be yanking at every switch on the console. He appeared to be barking orders over his shoulder at the steward who swayed and looked back along the aisle directly at me. There was distinct panic in his eyes.
Emerging from the cockpit, he picked up a microphone. The loudspeaker system crackled with static.
"There is a break in the fuel line and an error in the gauge," he told the seven passengers. "We have used up all our fuel. The pilots did not know..."
The plane pitched forward. He grabbed the overhead rack and screamed in the microphone, "Remove sharp objects from your pockets." He dropped it and hurried along the aisle of sixteen seats on either side, plus mine at the rear. Snatching pillows from overhead, he flung them at us as he passed. "Place your head on these in your lap. Seat belts fastened. Seats upright. Oh, my God, we're going down!"
He was near me when the aircraft banked sharply left. He tripped over my projecting legs. I could not help crying out.
"Forgive me, my friend," he said, attempting to rise and give me a hand, but the turn became a spiral and then a spin, then as quickly leveled off again. Human screams hammered in my ears above the screeching whine of an airplane falling through space.
No matter how much I welcomed the end of my life, intense fear seized my mind. I perceived dimly that the steward was plastered against the door, his arms outflung, his face horror-stricken at contemplation of almost certain death.
The young mother across the aisle suddenly attracted my attention. She must have torn her seat belt loose and fallen on her knees in frantic prayer. She tried desperately to get up and toppled into the aisle. She crawled toward me, holding out her hand.
She was just beyond the range of my outstretched fingers when the terror contorting the features of her pretty face suddenly disappeared.
She's seen God! I thought in a panic. We haven't got a chance!
The steward remained immobilized by aerodynamic forces pressing him against the door of the DC-3. No spiritual vision had stricken the terror from his eyes.
I heard him shout: "I love you, Carmela! Good-bye!"
The girl he would have married would never know he had cried out to her in the final fragment of his earthly life. Would she always wonder what last crossed his mind? Would she grieve not only for him, but also for the children they would never have?
Two mothers were about to die--the one lying prostrate in the aisle, who had touched her baby's tiny toes in farewell when it was carried from the plane at Sa§ Paulo, and the other, who would carry the steward's unborn children only in her mind.
A great noise struck my brain. A mighty vibration shook my body. I was lifted, but the seat stayed with me, strapped to my waist, torn violently from its mooring in the aircraft floor. As if in slow motion, the section of the plane in front of me disintegrated and left a gaping hole. I shot through it like a rocket and heard myself screaming.
In that instant, as I fell into streams of color spraying freshets of moist light, I saw the dear faces of my late wife and child.
Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly. Why then, oh, why can't I?
Had the dream that I dared to dream at last come true? Was I to be reunited with my dead family?
I tried to open my eyes, but a vivid light blinded me. I closed them again. A rush of noise filled my ears.
"Why torture me like this, God?" I cried out."Am I dead or alive?"
The Father and I were not on close terms.
"Don't let my Mary die!" I had begged Him when blood gurgled from my wife's lips five days after our daughter was born, indelibly staining my life.
He had ignored me. Three weeks later, when He also let our tiny Christine die as, I utterly turned against Him.
Not only my wife and child had He already snatched away, but this time six other passengers on the plane and a crew of three!
Just how many lives am I worth to You, Lord? The Brazilian doctors have given me only three months to live because of the fungus eating my body away. Couldn't You have waited until then and taken me alone?
Had the crash killed them all? When the aging Dakota, the once proud DC-3, plummeted from the sky near Iguass˙ Falls, we could have died either in Brazil, Argentina or Paraguay, the three countries that converged in its mighty cataracts. Did such distinctions make any difference in the land of the dead?
I'm an American, Lord. She's a Brazilian, and so is he.
My thoughts were suddenly filled with the memory of the young mother thrown into the aisle beyond my reach and of the steward, who clung in terror to the aircraft's door--their positions just before the crash.
Again I tried to open my eyes. The light seemed less penetrating this time. I found that I lay on my back, still strapped to the airliner seat, suspended from the branch of a tall tree.
From this position, I could only see upward. I cringed in horror at the sight. An enormous hulk hung just above me--the tail section of the DC-3.
If it shifts, the whole thing will fall on me!
Unspeakable terror turned my mind inward again. I retreated into darkness until a shimmering iridescence loomed ahead.
"Mary!" I cried aloud, perceiving vaguely at its center the figure of my late wife with our child in her arms.
"It's not your time," she said. "There's something you must do."
Frustrated, unhappy, I drew back from the hope of a kiss, the hope of holding my baby.
"You have to save them," she said. "Their lives depend on you."
I lifted my hands, perplexed. "Whose lives, Mary? Why can't I come to you? Mary, Mary....."
She was gone. In a rush of wakefulness, I opened my eyes.
I saw them then--the young mother and the steward--still inside the tail section. The woman lay caught behind a seat, unconscious. The steward stared past me in unspoken terror of something below I could not see. He still clung to the door, bracing his feet against the fuselage.
Now I understood. I had been spared to save these two. Was this God's`price for letting me go to Mary and Christine? How was I to do it? Even if I managed to clamber down the tree and go for help, I couldn't walk! I'd been carried aboard the plane by medics. No matter. I had to try.
I twisted in the seat and pumped my legs as if I were riding a playground swing. It responded to the movement by swaying closer to the trunk of the tree, which was embraced by a climbing vine. I clutched at the liana, grabbing it with one hand. From this new vantage point, I could look downward for the first time.
My heart took a leap.We were suspended above a roaring cataract of the mighty Falls of Iguass˙, the Niagara of South America! That accounted for the deafening noise and the continuous spray from waters roiling over the cliff in a drop of at least two hundred feet.
My mind lucid as the brain responded to my awareness of fresh danger, I calculated that when the aircraft recovered from the initial spin and leveled off, it had decreased airspeed dramatically just before it struck the trees. Although slowed down even more by skimming across the forest ceiling, the first impact must have torn the cockpit to shreds, killing the pilot and co-pilot instantly. The four passengers other than the young mother, the steward and myself--the three of us having been alone in the tail section of the plane--would have been killed as the wings of the DC-3 sliced through dense growth and broke away. I had witnessed the entire cabin ahead of me disintegrate and disappear.
In my mental eye, I saw myself thrown again through the gaping maw, twisting and turning, glimpsing the steward and the young mother on my way out. That may have triggered my hallucination of Mary telling me to save their lives. The tail section had stopped just short of plunging over the Falls, lodging in the tops of the closely-packed trees.
I gulped. Doubtlessly, the remains of the pilots and the passengers sitting toward the front had been catapulted hundreds of feet into the boiling cauldron far below. Yet I, the one dying man aboard the ill-fated plane, was alive. My Mary was right. If I had been spared, it was to enable me to make sure that the other two survivors also got out of this alive. God had decreed that the woman's baby would have its mother home again; the steward's fiancee was divinely destined to bear that nice young man's kids.
Save the mothers, Mary's voice within me cried, both she who is, and she who will be.
If I could somehow clamber up the liana I held in my hand, the steward, who did not appear to be injured, could help me lower the unconscious woman to the ground, and then we could climb down ourselves. My show of courage might rouse him from his fear-induced torpor. It seemed worth a try.
Loosening the seat belt with my free hand, I had no sooner maneuvered my body out of the chair and shifted my weight to the vine than the liana suddenly broke and dropped away from the tree. I hung on like Tarzan.
Every pretense of courage evaporated as I fell. So much for bravado!
With a bone-wrenching jerk, my body came to a halt just short of the top of the cataract, where I swung back and forth like a puppet on a string.
That strange light was even more intense in this location. Blinded, I flailed my legs, seeking a foothold in thin air.
How long I dangled there, I could not be sure, but in one magic moment, I heard a din of voices shouting above the thunder of the Falls. Perhaps the difference in the quality of sound enabled me to hear them. Even so, I could not make out what was being said.
I tried to open my eyes, but the bright light seemed trained like a spotlight on my face. Soon, however, something struck my writhing legs and encircled them. I was pulled into a pair of strong arms that looped around my waist. Again, I tried to open my eyes. Here, there was heavy shade. I could see. I found myself in the tight embrace of a husky Brazilian man until he let me go, and I collapsed, unable to stand on my ulcerated legs.
I babbled in a mixture of English, Spanish and Portuguese that the steward and the woman were up there in the tail section stuck in the trees.
I've done my bit, I whispered in my heart to my dead wife and child. Now may I come to you?
Consciousness ebbed away.
When I woke the next morning, there were faces around my bed, none of which I knew, save one--my rescuer, the husky Brazilian man.
"They call me the cowboy," he grinned, speaking slowly in Portuguese. "I snared you with my lariat and pulled you back from the Falls."
I grabbed his hand and shook it. "Muito obrigado," I said, "many thanks, my friend. But I have a question. There was a strong, blinding light..."
Until then unseen, the steward, looking fit except for the torn airline uniform he still wore, stepped from behind.
"That's how they found us," he explained. "They thought everyone had been killed in the crash until they saw you up there, swinging on that vine. Your bright red hair--it caught the light of the rainbow they tell me always arcs over the Falls."
His fingers gave my head a hearty rub. "Thank you, friend. Your carrot top saved our lives. If my fiancee were here, she'd kiss you!"
"No, that privilege is mine," said a woman's voice.
The crowd parted. The young mother sat in a wheelchair in the doorway, one arm and a leg in casts. An attendant pushed her to my side. She leaned forward to kiss me on the cheek.
"For the man in the rainbow," she smiled, "from a mother's heart."
All murmured approval.
"You know, I had a vision as the plane went down," she continued. "I reached out for the comfort of your hand, but then I saw a blonde young woman behind you, with a baby in her arms. She told me not to worry. We were going to survive."
I closed my eyes, silently expressing gratitude to God for this blessing from my late wife and child. I forgave Him for taking them from me. You've bestowed upon me survival, Father. Am I forgiven for turning on You? Are You telling me not to give up?
They carried me aboard another Dakota that afternoon, another DC-3..
The destinies of the steward and the young mother had swung from death to life, while I, still facing doom from the fungus eating away my legs, flew away to Argentina to work out a destiny of my own.