• On A Wing And A Swear

It was a dark and stormy night. A shot did ring out. But, frankly, I wasn't thinking about clichés when the .45 slug ricocheted past the wing of the Cessna 185 I was about to lift off a muddy dirt road in the mountains of northern Mexico back in the early ‘60s.

It all started when a Texas oilman called me in Mexico City to see if I could help him rescue his daughter. "Not exactly the Lord's work," I observed, trying to preserve my cover as a missionary. The company I worked for in Langley, Virginia didn't take kindly to it's employees freelancing, but then maybe this was their idea.

"Not exactly, “ the Texan drawled. "But you have a plane, you speak Spanish, and you know your way around the mountains of Mexico. The bastard that married my daughter is actually holding her prisoner, and he beats her." "Besides I have the means to make a nice contribution to a charity of your choice, say a local church,” he said with more than a hint of sarcasm. So much for my cover.

Seems the Texan desperately wanted an heir, which his daughter and only child had provided with the help of the rich Mexicano she'd met a few years earlier. But it also seemed said Mexicano was not exactly the kind of husband Daddy had in mind for his little girl. For that matter, said Mexicano was not exactly the kind of husband Daddy's little girl wanted either.

The Señora's maid confirmed her mistress screamed in pain when EI Jefe came home boracho, which was often. And, yes, she'd do anything she could to help Doña Juanita escape. She loved little Esteban as if he was her own; and the Señora, well, the Señora was always very kind.

They lived in a large house with large walls, the latter but not the former, common in Mexico--about 3 feet thick and twelve feet high with broken glass embedded in mortar along the top. There was no airport nearby, but the house sat on the outskirts of a village alongside an east-west secondary highway, which meant that although the road was dirt it was in relatively good repair, and not heavily traveled.

Wouldn’t be the first or last time I'd landed on a road. The only real obstacles would be a single set of power or phone lines strung across the road into the house, a line of trees and power lines on the south side, and parallel fences along both sides. And the narrow concrete bridge 1200’ down the road. Afternoon thunderstorms that carry into the evening could be an issue, and density altitude would definitely be a factor.

So the plan was to fly in posing as a friend, offer to take mom and kid for a pretty sunset sightseeing flight, and then beat feet for the the border. The only tricky part was that since El Jefe refused to let his wife return to the States, he presumably wouldn't take kindly to her being whisked away even briefly. Certainly his behavior while "under the influence" suggested caution, but the flight didn't look like anything dangerous. Lord knows I'd landed on roads all over Mexico and Guatemala the last few years, and the flight back to the states was something I'd done many times.

The weather on the trip up was typical: scattered to broken Cu at 9000 with build-ups over the mountains. On the windward side of the mountain ranges there was good ridge lift so the ride was bumpy but faster than usual. At one point I even had to pull the throttle all the way off. We were going up 1800 FPM and pushing red line while I pondered how to slow down to maneuvering speed and not go up 2500 FPM into the clouds.

A thunderhead looked like it was headed for town, and it was starting to get gloomy when I arrived overhead. I made a low pass over the house—no advantage in sneaking up, the plane would attract lots of attention—and checked to make sure the road was as advertised. It was. The landing was uneventful, and I taxied into an empty lot across the highway from the house. As I pulled the mixture to idle-cutoff things started to get interesting.

Doña Juanita exploded out of the front gate running with her little one cradled in one arm. She looked for all the world like Tony Dorsett on an end run, except for the long skirt. Mixture rich, prop up, throttle cracked. Hit the ignition switch. Come on baby, this isn’t the time to give me trouble with a hot start.

The maid came charging through the gate running barefoot every bit as fast as La Señora. They were headed for the plane and, I suddenly realized, straight for the nearly invisible prop.

Throttle to the firewall, yoke forward, stomp on a brake. As the plane lurched forward onto the road and then spun around sideways, in a strobe flash of lightning, I caught a still-frame of a man bounding from the house shoving a clip in the butt of an automatic.

Mom lateraled the baby to me through the door, and got one knee on the floor in the front seat. The maid dove in the back seat head first, and was struggling to her knees when the proverbial but very real shot rang out. And it started to pour.

The engine backfired, then roared, as I firewall the throttle. Doña Juanita, falling over and out the door, grabs the yoke. Swerve. Grab her by the hair and yank her in, screaming. Accelerating. Slowly. The baby screams. Lean the mixture for density altitude—must be over 8000. Tail's up but we're sure not goin' faster than a speeding bullet. More rain, can't see much through the windshield. Add a notch of flaps. Stagger into the air. Stall warning chirps. Barely climbing. Drop a wing and ease around the bridge. Fly down the riverbed. Door latched. Rain stops. Lightning behind illuminates the hills. A sliver of moon between the clouds. Count heads. Hell of a ride.

Long range tanks, a few gentle words, a dark night, a little nap-of-the-earth (only they didn't call it that back then), and hi y’all, we’re over Texas. The hard working drug busters with their E-2s and UAVs and infrared eyes wouldn't come along for another thirty years. We didn't complicate things by stopping to chat with the immigration boys at the border, in any event.

The trip south was the same low level boot scootin’ boogey except for the truck going the opposite direction that crested a hill the same time we did just south of the border. The way the driver's mouth was working it looked like he was yelling something about "Chicago Putin Monday" as we flashed overhead. I knew what he meant, but then missionaries aren’t supposed to be able to swear in Spanish.


Navy folks often end stories with, “This is a true story. No shit." In this case, the names and a few details have been changed to protect the guilty. Other than that, this is a true story. No shit.


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