It’s a late, cloudy afternoon in 1968, and I’m circling over Corralito now, checking for animals on the strip, and wondering if the injured Tzeltal man is still alive. A tiny radio transmitter provided the means to call out for the airplane. The tiny strip lies tucked in below a terraced cornfield, so the approach follows the contour of the low hill. At the last minute the airstrip appears in the windshield, and soon the cut grass feels good under the wheels. I taxi the Cessna 180 over to where an injured young man lies inert on a stretcher, his tumid stomach bulging below his shirt.
A Tzeltal man talks to me in broken Spanish—-“Capitán, Mario was feeding stalks into the trapiche (sugar cane press) when the horse bar caught him and squeezed him against the press.” As we lay the injured man in the airplane, I notice that he’s a young man, and so probably has a good chance of pulling through. Antonio, his brother, stands by, mute.
We depart Corralito for San Cristóbal, the capital of Chiapas State, Mexico, our home base. But last night a squally Norther has blown across the region and draped its soggy rainclouds across the mountains. I probe the entrails of the storm, testing one cloud-clogged pass after another. Finally, I see a bit of light where the Comitán highway snakes between two high peaks. I high-jump the mountain pass and drop quickly into the San Cristóbal bowl. We’re in the clear now, but I look up to see a solid wall of clouds plugging the path ahead! I bank steeply in the cramped head of the valley, pulling on flaps to decrease turning radius and reverse course. The cliffs are so close it feels like the wing is buried halfway into the mountainside. We level out, but at best angle of climb the 180 just barely clears the pass. I’m thinking we’ll need to divert to Tuxtla, about one-half hour away, but at the last minute we find a small hole in the clouds, slide over the lip of the San Cristóbal bowl, and drop down toward the landing strip.
We land in the late afternoon light. Chuck, the chief pilot, helps me load Mario into our old Chevy van to drive him to the small hospital for X-rays. The doctor tells us, “His interior organs are damaged and his only hope is to go to Tuxtla.”
We can’t fly at night; we must drive him down. So again we load him into the van, and soon we’re on our way up out of the bowl and down the winding mountain road. Antonio must feel helpless in the hands of strangers struggling to save his brother’s life. I sit in the back next to the patient feeling his heaving chest, listening to his labored breathing.
The brother asks me, “Will we get there in time?”
“We’ll try our best,” I tell him.
Then Mario’s breathing gets shallower, interrupted. He starts foaming at the mouth—his lungs must be filling with fluid! I tell Chuck to drive faster. His breath is getting fainter and fainter. Then his breathing stops. “Chuck; he’s not breathing!” I yell.
Chuck stops the car and comes around to examine the man. I suggest we give him artificial respiration. But Chuck says, “He’s gone, Jim.”
Antonio begs us to continue on to Tuxtla, but Chuck tells him, “There’s nothing we can do; it’s too late. We’ll have to go back to San Cristóbal. If there’s still a little bit of life in him when we arrive, we’ll see the doctor again.” I watch Antonio and wonder if he’s understanding anything, since he speaks little Spanish.
We head back, drive into town, and rouse the doctor in the middle of the night to ask for a death certificate. But we can’t quickly get a permit to fly the body, so we’ll have to do it secretly. We drive into our darkened hangar and carefully lay the man in the plane. Before rigor mortis sets in, his forlorn brother works to arrange the limp limbs in Tzeltal fashion.
It’s the first time I’ve seen someone die. That night I vomit, and lie sleepless all night.
The next morning at first light, Chuck takes off to fly the body back to Corralito. My eye follows him as he climbs out over the valley—a tiny dot silhouetted against the dark mountains. I know something of grace in my life; I now pray grace for the dear, waiting family who will never again speak with their beloved Mario.
I trust that we can continue our work here in Chiapas State, and that our flight service can help lighten the load for many of these Chiapanecos.