Underdeveloped country, he called it. The engine droned on, and then suddenly sputtered. Huey's heart paused until the engine resumed a steady drone. He checked the gas gauge. Nearly full. A little more checking and he was beginning to feel more comfortable. Without a sputter, the engine suddenly stopped. Huey jerked the throttle out and plunged it back in, and then hit the starter. It turned over repeatedly, but didn’t even cough.
As the plane glided through the air, steadily losing altitude, Huey searched for a place to set down. There! An open place in the trees ahead. He made a slow circle and prepared for a rough landing. He calmly radioed his mayday, and then concentrated on the landing. He came in low over the treetops and felt relieved when the meadow proved to be flat and free of brush. When the wheels touched the ground, it felt mushy - reducing his speed quickly.
A long sigh escaped his lips as the plane came to an uneventful halt. Again he radioed for help. Nothing but static. He tossed the microphone into the other seat. Did anything work in this god-forsaken place? His first concern was that he would be late for the meeting. He had never been late for a meeting in his life. Well, he was on course. When he didn't show up, they'd be looking for him. So while he waited, he might as well take a look at that engine. Maybe something had clogged the fuel line. It wasn't until he deplaned that he realized the seriousness of his situation. His feet sank into nearly a foot of water underneath the hip-high grass. Even if he repaired the engine, it was unlikely that he could get up enough speed to clear the trees bordering the marsh.
Not one to be caught loafing, he busied himself examining the fuel line. Sure enough. A piece of rust had shut it completely off. He flushed the line and reattached it. Climbing into the plane, he tried the engine, grimacing at the sudden roar. Much good it would do him. And yet . . . maybe it wasn't all water. Maybe this was a low spot.
He climbed from the plane again and began a wide circle around it. In some places the water was deeper, and in some it was more shallow. He continued his search, making wider and wider circles, until he came within a few yards of the trees. There the marsh stopped, and mud began. He groaned. Well, he’d just have to wait for the search party.
Climbing back into the plane, he began the long wait.
At intervals, he radioed for help, but the only return was static. The day wore on, and his meeting time came and went. They would be looking for him now. If only he had brought something to do. A hectic pace he could handle, but this waiting was nerve-racking. He dozed and woke, keeping vigilance over a building cloud bank. By late afternoon, the clouds had spread out at the top into an anvil shape. Below, the clouds were an ominous black with a greenish tinge. At best, the storm would delay the search. At worst, . . . well, that was something he didn’t want to think about.
The storm closed in suddenly, ripping at the plane with icy fingers of wind. The tiny plane rocked and groaned in its ferocious grip. The grass lay flat and white caps leaped from the waters below. And then the rain came - pounding down everything in its path. The storm pushed the daylight before it, using blinding bolts of light to mark its path. The temperature dropped and the water rose. Before long it was lapping at the door of the plane, seeking entry in every crevice.
Huey huddled in the seat, wishing he had waited that extra half-hour. He hugged his knees for warmth and wondered if he would ever see his wife and two girls again. As the water began to flood the floorboard, he finally broke down and resorted to prayer.
The storm raged on, until finally he was forced to escape the water by climbing on top of the plane. There the wind tore at him, and the lightning danced around him, as if teasing him with its power. For once in his life, he had no control over the situation. He was forced to bow to the will of nature.
And then, as suddenly as it began, the storm broke. A cold drizzle hung around for a while, and then followed the storm. As if apologizing, the storm merged at last with the setting sun in a spectacular display.
Huey stared at the water surrounding him as he shivered on top of the cold metal of the plane. Would he die of hypothermia? Again he prayed, but he had been silent so many years that he wondered if God recognized his voice.
He pulled off his coat and wrung as much water from it as possible. Then he did the same with all his clothes and emptied the water from his shoes. As he crawled back into his wet clothes, he wondered if it was warmer without them. He eyed the tree line. He could swim that far - if he didn’t get entangled in the grass below. The watertight tin of matches Teresa had given him for Christmas was in his pocket. Maybe he could find shelter and build a fire. It was better than freezing on top of the plane. Of course, the water was cold, and . . . No, he wouldn’t think about that. He could make it - now, while he was still strong.
He pulled off his coat and put his shoes in the pockets. Throwing the coat across his back, and tying the sleeves around his neck, he carefully slid into the cold water. Actually, it felt warmer than the wet clothes. With strong strokes, he started for the shore.
After nearly twenty minutes of swimming, he finally reached the edge, and sloshed through the mud to the tree line. There he searched around and found some pine needles and dry leaves. He found a few twigs and some dry limbs under a fallen tree, and using the matches, he built a fire. Again he wrung out his clothes, this time huddling close to the fire to warm them dry. Crawling under the fallen tree, he fell asleep.
Sun filtering through the trees woke him, and he crawled from his shelter. Hunger gnawed at his stomach, but he had nothing to eat. There would be a plane soon. They would be out looking for sure now.
Hours passed, and his only sightings were two elk and a deer. A black bird with a white belly eyed him suspiciously as it darted from limb to limb, chattering constantly. As if not to be outdone, a small red squirrel scolded him from a branch.
The day drug into evening, with no help in sight. He kept the gnawing hunger at bay with frequent trips to the lake for water. The yellow plane was almost in the center of the little lake. It couldn’t be missed. And yet, there were no search planes. He kept himself busy gathering wood and laying it in the sun to dry. Someone would come soon, and he would need a signal fire.
That night he slept beside the fire, waking many times with hunger pangs. By morning he knew he had to find food. No telling how long he would be out here. He searched for berries, but it obviously wasn’t the right time of the year. Some of the plants might be edible, but he had no idea which ones. Toward evening he watched a woodpecker extract a grub worm from a tree, and thought of a movie he’d watched. The thought was revolting, but he was hungry enough to consider it.
It didn’t take more than a few minutes of scratching around in the loose soil under the fallen log before he found six grub worms. He shuddered. It was food. Using a piece of bark, he placed the grubs next to the fire. He might be forced to eat insects, but he didn’t have to eat them raw.
Thirty minutes later the grubs had somehow managed to remain in his stomach. He tossed more wood on the fire and retreated to his shelter under the log. There he slept until dawn. Again he walked out to the lake. The water had retreated to the bottom of the doors on the plane. How much damage had been done to the engine? If he could stay alive long enough, would the water dry up so that he could fly the plane out?
He turned back toward the fire. More grubs? His stomach rumbled, long and loud. Only it wasn’t his stomach! He turned and raced back to the edge of the lake. A small plane with pontoons circled over head. Huey waved his hands, and the plane circled again and came in for a landing on the lake.
Later, as the plane carried him home, he gazed silently down at the forest. Gone was the feeling of loneliness. From above, the forest looked empty. Yet it was full of life. It was a place that brought things into perspective. Down there while he had nothing else to do, he had learned that there were some things he couldn’t control. And he had learned one other thing. Nothing was more important than his family. He had been given a second chance, and he intended to make the most of it. Yes, the wilderness had a way of getting your attention. It was wild and powerful, but it was also wise and beautiful. It was a place he felt compelled to visit again - this time with his entire family. Camping. That was something new and challenging - and he had never failed to meet a challenge head-on.
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