Where and how the supplies, building materials and fuel drums were loaded onto the boats has been laid out in previous posts. What happened when the boats arrived at their destination is ‘the rest of the story’.
It’s helpful to remember that the freight and the passengers on these ‘supply runs’ shared what might be described as an open cargo hold. There was a ‘rest room’ at the very back of the main boat which every one on board, crew and passengers alike, visited faithfully. It was strictly no frills but functional. The people were scattered from bow to stern on the two or three boats fastened together by long poles stretched across the rig and securely lashed with strong ropes. A visit to the rest room was an ordeal of clambering over boxes of supplies, building supplies and fuel drums as the folks made their to the back of the big boat. To make matters more interesting those hardy souls riding on the outer boats had to crawl, swing or jump over several feet of swirling water in order to board the maim boat.
Well, at destination the cargo obviously had to be unloaded. Oh and by the way it’s destination may not have been the first time and place that the cargo had been unloaded! There were a number of reasons a supply run may not have been happening when the depth of the water was not optimal. If for example the water was unseasonably low the cargo may have been unloaded and loaded several times as the rig labored up the river. If at a particularly wide place there was no channel deep enough for the boats to pass through, the cargo would be unloaded and ferried further upstream to where the river ran deeper. This was done with the smaller runabout we always had along. It goes without saying that to unload all those supplies, especially the fuel drums off the boats, unload them again from the runabout onto a sand bar or rock, maneuver the now much shallower rig to deeper water and reload all that stuff again was a real CHORE! As told in an earlier post the horse flies and the hot sun were always present to add spice to life.
It was always preferable to arrive at destination early enough in the day to be able to unload before nightfall. There were several reasons for this. One, the missionaries needed those medical supplies, food and all the rest ASAP. And two, no crew member wanted to spend another night on board , bailing the boats, guarding the cargo plus fighting bats and mosquitos.
As soon as the rig arrived Indians, missionaries, horseflies and clouds of bloodsucking gnats were all on hand to either help or maybe not so much help with the unloading. All the boxes had to be hand carried to the individual pole and dirt frame houses with their plan roofs and tamped earth floors. The heat and humidity made sure that after a few minutes everyone was soaking wet with sweat.
Usually the boats were secured to the shore for the unloading in a backwash rather than in the direct current zipping by. The stern had to be tied off as well as the bow, other wise the boats would swing back and forth in the backwash. Everything came ashore via a 12 inch wide plank stretching from the boats to the bank and the more stable everything was the better. More than one missionary has gone into the drink carrying a heavy box as they ‘walked the plank’. Depending on the height of the river the top of the river bank could be ten or fifteen feet almost straight up from the water’s edge. Steps would have been cut into the clay bank but often had been washed away and in any case it was always very slippery.
Adding to the mix was the fact that as the backwash pushed against the downriver side of the boat, (remember the backwash was flowing up river) the debris caught in the backwash lodged against the boat. These leaves. sticks, jungle fruit and who knows what else, eventually became a carpet stretching out several feet into the river along side of the boat. At a casual glance one could easily mistake this for dry land. I’ve observed several people attempt to walk on this carpet of debris with the predictable result. One gentleman was about to go completely under when someone reached out with a rescuing hand. Other than a little wounded pride no one ever got hurt.
After the boxes were safely ashore the building supplies were usually next on the list to unload. In the very beginning days almost everything the missionaries built their houses with came from the jungle or the ground underneath. As time went on folks would opt for a cement floor (usually a cement, river sand mix), the floor being maybe one half to three quarters of an inch thick. Getting the cement powder from town to the missionary’s house in a dry state was was a challenging undertaking. The bags had to be handled many times on their way. Sometimes the bags would break and even if a bag didn’t split open, the sweaty handling plus the humidity being thick enough to cut with a knife all conspired to make delivery of a dry sack of cement a difficult task.
Las of all would come the unloading of the drums full of gasoline, kerosene and sometimes diesel fuel. Handling the drums full of fuel was the most dangerous past of the unloading as had been their loading at the port outside of town days or sometimes weeks before. A fifty five gallon drum full of gasoline or kerosene will weigh upwards of four hundred pounds depending on the weight of the drum itself. The drums had to be manhandled up from the bottom of the boat to one of the sides and very carefully maneuvered to the plank and down to the shore. Twelve inches really isn’t wide enough to comfortably roll a four hundred pound drum down and more than one has ended up doing a tremendous splash in the river. Once on shore each drum had to be hand rolled over mostly uneven ground to to its final resting place outside the missionaries home. Once, rather than wrestling a four hundred pound drum inch by inch up a hill a couple of us decided to lash it to a stout pole and carry it on our shoulders. It didn’t work!
So now the missionaries had medical supplies, food and fuel to hopefully last for the next three or four months when everyone would again be eagerly listening for the sound of the engines bringing the essentials for life in the jungle.
We all like to revisit comfortable, familiar scenes and places in our minds. Jungle rivers will always be such places for me. In the early days all the missionaries and their families lived in jungle houses perched on a river bank sandwiched between the green jungle and the river itself whose color depended on the drainage basin of said river. The color could be from very dark, almost black, to a very muddy, light chocolate shade. The missionaries lived on riverbanks because that’s where the tribal folks lived. It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the river to those who lived on it’s banks. While the jungle out your back door did provide most of the building materials for your house and some food, the waters of the river made travel so much faster and easier. In those days the alternative would have meant hiking and slogging through the rain forrest for days, weeks or months. The river was the only practical way of traveling any distance in those days and travel wouldn’t improve much till the arrival of small planes to the jungle years later.
Every river has a distinct personality. And a river’s mood depends on a multitude of factors, but all facets of river travel hinge on full or how empty it is. In rainy season the river would be full, very full. The water was swift and full of floating debris. In rainy season navigating downstream was simple because for the most part you steered your craft straight down the pike. The current was your friend and even though you had to keep a close watch for dead trees turning round and round as they were pushed along and you had to stop your engine and clear the leaves off the water intake, travel wasn’t so bad. Going upstream in the rainy season is an entirely different story. Your engine labors against the current. The underlying power of the river seems more in your face than if you are going with the current. The water boiling (it literally seems to boil) up out of the deep tosses your boat around with ever so much ease. Going upstream you steer your rig along the inside of each bend because you encounter less current there. Eventually your inside bend runs out and you have to cross the river to the inside of the next bend. To get to the other side however you have to navigate out into the raging current sweeping full force off the outside curve of that next bend. The danger lies in that as you approach the terminus of your inside bend there is a strong backwash pushing your rig forward. The backwash interfaces with the swirling current sweeping off the outside bend. In order to safely get into that current you have to nose out into it at just the right angle. The problem is that if heavily loaded and you get broadside to the whole mess you can easily sink. The backwash will be pushing you full tilt upriver and the downstream current will be smashing you full tilt downriver. If you get broadside you’ll find yourself in a violent swirling mass of water as your prow gets whipped downstream as your stern is still being pushed upstream by the backwash. Approaching this dangerous situation at just the right angle is the only way to safely navigate crossing the river at these points.
Stopping for the night when the rivers are running full and there is no dry land to be found on either bank can be challenging. Unless you find a lagoon to nose into or the mouth of a secondary slow moving stream you’ll be hearing and feeling the hard driving current all night long A relatively quite backwash or the downriver end of an island are about the best you can do otherwise. Even in a moderate backwash the current will swing your rig back and forth all night long. And you’ll hear the current splashing up against the side of the boat and swirling through the branches of the treetops whose trunks are under water. Although hard wind driven storms are less likely to come out of nowhere and pummel your rig in the rainy season as opposed to some in between season months, the likely hood of an all night rain is an ever present reality. If one of your boats happens to be a large dugout with no roof, count on bailing all night long.
The dry season river is palpably different than the rainy season river. It’s face is less angry, more friendly. It seems more docile, more contained. It’s the same river, same recirculated water, same rocks, same sand bars, same bends but oh how opposite in many ways. And though the river has lost a lot of volume and it doesn’t appear to be as overwhelming as it was in rainy season the experienced navigator knows it contains a lot of potentially dangerous surprises. Most of the rocks covered in rainy season are exposed or lurking just under the surface waiting to reach out and give a lot of grief to an unwary boat pilot. The sand bars that were covered to a safe depth are now huge islands of dry hot sand or parked just under the water’s surface. No longer can the river boats cruise the straightest or most time saving path up or down the rivers. No, now the boats must take the path of the deepest channel however many tortured twists and turns that might mean. And in some stretches of river there really is no well defined channel. In dry season the main thing isn’t how to make the best time, the main thing is how to get where you are going without ruining you propellor on some hidden rock or getting stranded on a submerged sandbar for a couple of days.
Shallow water, usually meaning rocks or sand bars, is what tends to drive the boat pilot’s nightmares in dry season. From one rainy season, dry season cycle the rocks obviously don’t move. For the most part even though the billions of grains of sand are being moved along all through the year the sand bars for the most part stay in the same place. The sand is pushed along down stream but others take their place. That’s not to say that there are not subtle changes from year to year. Say for instance there is a haphazard pile of jagged rocks right in the middle of a quit narrow channel between sand bars. Last year the only way through was to the left of the rock pile as you come up river and this year the sand might have shifted just enough so that the only way through was to the right of the rocks. Usually places where these shifts happen are well known to the river pilots and they steer the correct course. Sometimes, howeverrrrrrr…… Another danger common to big rivers and sand bars is when your rig is crossing from one deeper area to another and you pass through shallow water. As you move along through the shallows a wave begins building behind you. At first it’s a ways back but then it gets close and closer. Now, if you aren’t too heavily loaded, that is if you have lots of free board, you are good but if you are heavily loaded and especially if your backboard is low in the water, that wave, when it chases you down can swamp you from behind.
Stopping for the night is way different in dry season than in rainy season. Now you have no trouble finding some place you can tie your boat when you stop at night that’s actually dry land. It may be a nice big flat rock along the bank or it may be a sand bar butted up against the shore line or one somewhere out in the middle of the river. The more you travel the river the more you tend to stop at the same rock or sand bar as you navigate up or down river trip after trip and year after year. Certain places are just the right distance apart for a full day’s travel. Other spots may be good alternates if for any number of reasons the day’s going was especially slow. The culprits making extra slow going usually were uncommonly low water or engine trouble. At any rate these rocks or sand bars not only were good, safe places to spend the night, but the jungle and waters around them many times held the menu items for the next day’s meals. There were fish of various species to catch or spear and paca to hunt at night. If you could bag a turkey or two early the next morning life was good. The reality however of keeping everything working smoothly as you headed upstream took up most of the crew’s time, including servicing the engines etc. till way after dark. Sometimes after the last outboard foot had been greased and last spark plug had been cleaned and the last fuel tanks had been filled for the next day’s running and the last adjustment on the ropes holding the boats together was made and well, you get the idea, everybody was too tired to hunt or fish. When that was the case the menu was what it had been for a good deal of the trip, sardines and rice. Hopefully the next night’s work wouldn’t be so late and we’d have fish or paca or turkey with that rice for noon and evening. Breakfast was oatmeal, coffee and hopefully there were still some town bought sweetbread buns for the coffee to wash down.
I could go on forever but I must quit and like the very tired boat crew I will go to bed tonight knowing that tomorrow neither jungle fish, nor jungle paca nor jungle turkey will be on the menu and that makes me sad.
Here in central Florida if you go anywhere the road will take you by or over ponds, lakes, canals, rivers, anything that holds water. And seeing water almost always takes my mind on an inside the head journey back to the jungle where the river itself is the road. Here the roads look pretty much the same whether it’s January or July. There in the jungle the river is one thing in January and a very different thing in July.
In July on the bigger rivers you can pretty much drive your boat wherever you want, left side, right side, the middle, it really doesn’t much matter. Of course reason dictates you’ll drive where it’ll do you the most good- such as keeping in the current going downstream and out of the main current as much as possible going upstream. The point is in July the river is full and deep and you can go more or less where you choose.
January is however a very different story. Now you are forced to look for and follow the channel where the water is deepest. You’ll find yourself crossing and recrossing the now very much reduced river. You will find yourself inching your way up through a minefield of rocks only to sharply turn and go back downstream a few feet from where you you just came up only to take another 180% turn and proceed gingerly back upstream.
The boat driver is always thinking about what is up ahead. The driver has to know if there will be enough water to keep the rig moving safely whether he’s headed upriver or downriver. Navigating downstream is most critically difficult because in a river that has any current at all you really can’t stop. The bigger your boat the more you ‘really can’t stop’! Whether it’s around the next bend, the next island, the next sand bar or the next pile of rocks you’d better know what’s there waiting for you. If you should choose the wrong side of an island to go down your error won’t be apparent till till you run up on a sand bar just under the surface, that is if some rocks haven’t snagged you first. Now you are in trouble and the bigger your boat the bigger your trouble.
Somehow you’ve got to get your boat unstuck and turned around. If your boat is big and heavily loaded it might take you several days of hard work to get the thing free of the sand bar. You may nave ended up transporting your entire cargo little by little to the nearest shore in your dugout or runabout. Once all the cargo is out it should be a simple matter to get the big boat back upstream into deeper water. But alas, ‘not so fast’. You see, the current wants to keep your boat right where it is, pushed right up on that sand bar. Eventually you’ll win the battle with the current and walk your boat back up to deeper water where you’ll load your cargo and go down the other side of the Island. We shouldn’t be too hard on the boat pilot because anyone who has piloted boats on the jungle rivers has made a mistake like this. Mostly it’s a case of the pilot knowing which side of the island the channel is on but he miscalculated just how low the river really was.
Navigating upstream is more forgiving because if the surface of the water is telling you it’s shallow ahead you can actually stop before you run aground. Sometimes if the river is really low and there is no channel the only option you have is to transport your cargo to shore and load it back on again after your walk the boat over the shallow place. Notable bonuses for the harried boatmen in these scenarios are (a) beastly hot sun to keep frying you (it’s dry season) (b) plenty of gnats and no-see-ums to make sure your blood gets properly drained (c) sting rays to keep you on your toes as you wade through the water (d) and sometimes the best of all are the horse flies. Anywhere water is splashing these guys are right there and will faithfully nail you time after time.
Let’s suppose it’s early January and circumstances have mandated a supply run when a supply run should not be happening. You’ve got two boats tied together with poles as described in earlier posts with a runabout dugout tied along side. You’ve been slowly making your way upriver for days. Now you’ve come to a wide stretch of river where there is no channel deep enough to get the rig through. You are camped at the lower end (deep end) of a sand bar that’s several feet out of the water up river from where you had to unload your boats. You’ve transported your cargo and loaded everything back on board and now it’s evening. Now it’s time to take a real bath even though you’ve been in and out of the water all day.
The mariners and their passengers are looking forward to a good night’s rest. If there are places to hang hammocks on board most will sleep there. If not some will sleep on the sand and if there happens to be a big flat rock (relatively speaking flat) on the river bank nearby some will sleep there. It’s amazing how good it can feel to stretch out on a hard rock. The advantage of sleeping on a rock over against sleeping on the sand is twofold. (a) you don’t get full of sand, and (b) toward morning the rock is still giving off heat. I know it sounds crazy but though you may have been roastingly hot when you bedded down, by morning it can feel chilly even though the equator is only a few degrees South. As the night wears on the sand cools off and feels damp while the rock will feel warm and dry in the morning. Those who aren’t too tired might try their hand at spearing fish or fishing for catfish on a hand line before turning in.
Towards morning on shore, before dawn the white and brown turkeys will begin ‘humming’ or ‘singing’, whichever you prefer. The louder the hum the closer to the riverbank the turkey will be. A couple of the crew will sip off in the runabout and paddle in the direction of the closest sounding turkey. If all goes well the hunters will ever so quietly tie their canoe at the river’s edge and even more quietly make their way (in the dark) to the tree the turkey is roosting in. Oh yes, and often as not the bank right where you want to go ashore is 8 or 10 feet straight up and the hunter has to climb vines (in the dark) hoping he’s not grabbing a snake’s tail or stirring up a nest of 24 hour ants. A flashlight or headlamp helps but too bright a light might spook your turkey above or attract a swarm of night wasps from below as you clamber up the bank. Now the hunter must wait for enough daylight to spot his turkey in the branches above before the turkey spots the hunter on the ground below. It’s always a little nerve wracking for the hunter because turkeys tend to be suspicious creatures and at the slightest movement will sense something is wrong and be off. Assuming events are going the hunters way, there will be turkey and rice and maybe even fried fish for dinner today. Everybody prefers fresh fish or turkey to canned sardines or canned corn beef.
Soon the runabout with the hunters and turkey will rendezvous with the big boats and the rig will continue making it’s way slowly up river. The crew will be wondering what they’ll find at the devil’s pass and the shallows at humming bird island.
We’re all familiar with understanding that Biblical history is really His Story. Recently an event happened in the jungles of these posts that reminded me of HIS on-going story there in the rain forrest.
The story began in a small village nestled on the bank where three rivers converge when Don Jose heard the good news of Jesus Christ and as far as we know became the first believer in that vast expanse of jungle. It was the late 1940s and though from time to to time for many years adventurers, explorers, scientists and slave traders had made sporadic contact with a few of the jungle peoples, the gospel had never been known up to that time.
The amazing story of how the Gospel became known along the rivers and inland reaches of the vast canopy of green is truly His Story as played out in the lives of the missionaries and the jungle people waiting to hear God’s Good News. The place was so isolated few people in the cities knew much about the folks living there. One famous explorer-scientist of around 1800 wrote of cannibalism still being practiced. A few years prier to the missionaries arrival the area had been ruled by a rubber baron whose reign has been described as “the longest and bloodiest dictatorship known in Amazonas”.
So when the missionaries began living among the tribal villagers, treating the people with love and kindness, word spread like wildfire on the jungle grapevine that something very good had come to the jungle. Instead of taking advantage of them the missionaries taught the people literacy and math, brought much needed medical help and made their lives better in countless ways. Eventually many of the tribes people came to Christ and dozens of churches were planted on the banks of the rivers and inland areas.
From the very beginning it was evident the tribal churches would need to connect with those national churches which could help them as they would inevitably move toward more direct involvement with their national culture and society. As the tribal young people would go to town for further education or work they would face a minefield of danger where they could be figuratively chewed up and spit out by the world before they knew what had hit them.
The importance of the involvement of the national churches became even more urgently evident when the missionaries were told to leave the jungle around seven years ago. Not even national pastors or missionaries were permitted to visit most of the area.
So when in answer to much prayer just a couple of weeks ago a small group of people including two national pastors was able to visit two ethnic groups there was cause for great rejoicing! One of the visitors had grown up among these very jungle folks and they were overjoyed to see him. They were much encouraged they had not been forgotten. Life had become increasingly more difficult for these believers and the thought that the national pastors had them in mind and were actively seeking to be there for them meant much to them.
Praise God that HIS amazing story beginning with Don Jose continues to this day in the jungles of these posts.
And just one more thing. There are still several tribal groups out there living without the Light of the gospel. The difficulty in reaching them is compounded by their ethnic hostilities, the remoteness and uncertainty of their location but most of all because the authorities have denied access to their area of the jungle. Recent events in the country seem to indicate the restrictions aren’t likely to be lifted anytime soon. But God is a God of miracles. Would you pray that these jungle peoples still living in darkness would soon see the Light of God’s Son.
It was a milestone in the missionary endeavor among the rain forrest peoples when one member of the jungle team began hauling the supplies for all of the missionaries out in the villages. It was much more efficient for one man to be responsible for getting the supplies out to the upper reaches of the rivers. Of equal blessing was having a permanent supply buyer living out in town. Even at that, both the supply boat man and the supply buyer always wore multiple hats and were chronically overworked. I’ve touched on the work of the “supply boat man” in earlier posts and now want to speak of the “supply buyer”.
Nothing I will note here can express the degree to which the work seemed overwhelming most of the time. The year or so Diana and I worked in this capacity gave us a great appreciation for the buyers and their families. As the work among the tribes gained momentum and more tribal works were opened it literally became impossible for one family to cover all the bases. But for many years one family (not the same family all the time) handled the following.
One of the tasks of the supply buyer would obviously be that of purchasing and packing supplies for shipment to the up river villages. The missionaries along the rivers and later those who lived in villages way up in the headwaters accessible only by plane, would send their individual family orders out to the buyer in town. Before beginning to purchase any individual item the buyer would compile a master order. If for instance the sum total of rice all the missionaries ordered came to 500 lbs, that would go on the master order. The same for soap toothpaste and on and on and on! It usually took several days to compile the master order. Then it all was purchased and transported to a warehouse where the individual orders would be packed. This part of the process took days as well. It was a huge undertaking! There would be food items for several months for each family, any kind of hardware such as nails for use on your jungle home, medical supplies of all kinds, way way beyond what we think of needing here because remember the missionary was the doctor, nurse, and pharmacist. And then there were the trade good items , machetes, axes, cooking pots, bolts of red cloth for making loin cloths, rolls of fish line, fish hooks by the hundreds and that’s just getting started.
Now the individual family or single missionary orders would be filled. This sounds simple and straight forward. Not so much so! The missionary out in the village didn’t see an updated account of his finances very often. His funds would come to the mission office where the supply buyer took care of the necessary book work for all the missionaries. Because of the remoteness of the villages and the difficulties in communication it could be months before a missionary got an updated account of his finances. All that to say that it was not uncommon for someone out in the tribe to miscalculate the amount available for purchasing the order. So it fell to the supply buyer to pare the order back to fit the budget. This was not a happy part of the job. No supply man wanted to eliminate any part of a missionary’s order and would only do so as a last resort. Knowing the next supply run would be months down the road or rather down the river, the most non essential items would get scratched first. I should add that food items and urgent medical supplies were always sent no matter what.
Most medical problems were treated out in the jungle by the missionaries but at any given time there was a missionary or tribal person out in town being treated at the hospital. Usually, because he lived in town and knew what to do, the supply man would accompany the patient to the hospital. Coming to town for medical treatment usually meant urgency and and so the buyer would have left what he was doing to get the patient to the doctor asap. It seemed that these medical emergencies inevitably would show up just when the buyer was the busiest and working under some kind of deadline. So now, in order to get the supplies packed and ready for shipment up river, the buyer had to work half or all night to make up for the hours or days he’d spent at the hospital.
More often than not there would be a missionary family in town updating their national ID cards or some other paper work. And again, because the buyer knew what to do, he’d accompany the folks to the office. Just like the hospital visit could not be hurried, the staff at the ID office had their own rhythm and pace. It was not fast!
Keeping the financial books up to date for all the missionaries sometimes was done by the buyer’s wife and sometimes by the buyer himself. All the banking was done by the buyer and there was always another ream of paper work involved there too. The buyer would take the mission check (everybody’s funds would be sent in one check) to the bank (only bank in town) cash it and walk the entire amount back to the office in a brief case.
Another important work that fell on the buyer’s shoulders was dealing with the never ending stream of individuals and organizations that challenged the legality of the missionaries presence in the jungle areas. Many, many official commissions came out to inspect the missionary work in the villages and most of the time they’d stop by the mission office in town either coming or going to the jungle. We were there legally but it seemed the personnel in every official office of the capital city had to make sure for themselves. This work was emotionally draining for the buyer and required investing a lot of time. The positive social contacts with merchants and many of the townspeople were very good but still required much time.
I remember with chagrin one incident when Diana and I were doing the buying that year. Air service had already come to the jungle in the form of the dedicated pilot of a sister mission along with his little 185 Cessna airplane. There were a dozen and one things happening and when the flight to a remote village was dispatched that particular morning I had forgotten to include the mail bag. Flights were few and far between in those days and forgetting the mail bag was not something any buyer wanted to do. In fact unless it would have been some medical supply item the mail bag was the most important thing on the flight. Well the missionaries were very gracious and resigned themselves to getting their mail on the next flight which was to happen in several weeks time. Would you believe I forgot the mail bag for the next flight too! Talk about feeling like crawling into a hole.
The good thing is that in the end those missionaries did get their mail and over the years most of the supplies did get sent out to the missionaries, the paper work got done, most people did get help at the hospital, the books did get balanced and most of all the work of the Gospel among the jungle peoples went forward!
Most people probably understand the importance of teamwork from the perspective of their job or possibly a family project. Missionaries however live everyday with the upfront reality that teamwork is not only crucial to the success of their work output but they realize they couldn’t even be out there in those isolated villages without the help of the entire missionary team.
The reference here is to missionaries who live in the far reaches of the jungle accessible only by hiking weeks or months over difficult and dangerous trails, days or weeks of river travel in class ‘F’ accommodations or in later years minutes or hours in an airplane. In the early days of travel in the rain forrest most of the missionaries in the country of these posts had only one option for travel to the general area of their work and that was by river. Once in the general area of a tribal group travel to the inland villages was over in many cases very difficult trails. It wasn’t till after several decades had come and gone that air travel became available. Note- the Stinson airplane my Father flew in the jungle in 1950 was flyable for only a short time.
So how did teamwork figure into the equation, well even the single missionaries living the most simple lifestyle and who were transported from village to village in dugout canoes by jungle paddlers needed a place to go for the most basic supplies, literacy materials and what have you. They needed someone with the capability to make copies of the scripture portions they were translating and they needed a secure place their mail could be sent that was close enough they could pick it up every couple of months and not have to spend three weeks coming and going. And yes they needed somewhere they could get a break from living 100% jungle style.
In the very beginning days infrastructure such a guest home in town, supply buyers, river boat operators for transporting people and supplies, mk schools, and a mission office was not in place. These essential services were added as personnel became available. Later came the air service and later still came the important contribution of consultants to help the new missionaries with their language and culture learning along with church planting and Bible translation. Once this infrastructure and these helps were in place missionaries could dedicate more time to their work and spend less time on just survival. Don’t misunderstand, life and work in the jungle villages was still very much a challenge but the challenge was whittled a little more down to size.
When we final got consistent air support in about 1965 things changed dramatically for the missionaries and the tribal folks especially in the most remote locations. It may have taken a year or two but eventually all the villages where the missionaries were semi permanently located came to have airstrips and plane service. Some village leaders even in places where there was no missionary presence got their people together and cleared airstrips to be used especially in medical emergencies.
It now became more realistic to place missionary families in tribal locations far from navigable rivers. Now, in the case of a medical emergency a plane could get a sick missionary family member or tribal person out to town in half a day over against days or even weeks when air service wasn’t in place. With the airplane you could get mail at least once a month and often more frequently. You could get supplies of all kinds and medications before you actually ran out. And blessings of all blessings the supply buyers out in town could send you vegetables, cheese and other fresh foods (when they were available in town) to you about once a month. Travel for the missionary became so much more doable, less traumatic and less exhausting.
In an earlier post I wrote of “The Crew” telling about the men and boys that worked so hard and diligently in the transporting of people and cargo by river boat. The same can be said for the men who flew and maintained those little airplanes as they served us so faithfully out there in the jungle. To hear the stories told about jungle pilots you might be tempted to attach a good portion of glamour to their work. From having worked closely with many of these men I know their work is much of the time physically exhausting and dangerous. That reminds me I should do a post sometime on the life of a pilot as I saw it. To all of us out in the jungle these men and the wives of those who were married became essential members of our team. These people were and are around the world, servants in the truest sense of the word.
We are now back to where we began these posts, “The Beginning”. The more challenging, the more difficult, the harder life was, the greater the feeling and sense of community. Whether it was the tribal guy helping us build a jungle house or us helping his little child through some serious medical issue we became a community of people that depended on one another. Missionary kids in our generation grew up with that reality being reenforced day after day all through our childhood and growing up years. For some missionary kids the transition to further schooling and even missionary training in the U. S. became a painful experience. There were trainers and leaders who though with good intentions in their interactions with their missionary kid students, did not understand the extent of how the thinking and personalities of these kids had been shaped and formed within an isolated community of missionaries and their tribal friends and neighbors. Not being able to understand these missionary kids led to some very poor judgement calls as to who these kids really were on the part of some leaders.
Well, it’s about time to end but I wanted to throw this out there before I leave. I know that only a very few folk read these posts but I’m wondering if any of you few have something in mind you’d me to do a post on? If so let me know and I’ll try.
About the middle of August those winds from the East begin to blow. The river is still very deep and full. Much of the jungle covered river flood plain is still under water, flora and fauna still march to the beat of the rainy season but change is in the air. The first thing you notice is that refreshing breeze. You notice it because all through most of rainy season it’s not often you feel a breeze of any kind.
So when around the middle of August the wind kicks in every morning and blows for several hours a day you know the transition from rainy season to dry season has begun. Months will go by before the look and feel of dry season takes over the jungle but the rain forrest which doesn’t need a calendar knows change is coming.
The fish that have been feasting back in the flooded jungle know it’s time to be getting out to the river before they get stranded as the waters recede back into their channels. Every year some fish try to make a good thing last too long and end up as buzzard bait when the ponds they are crowded into dry up completely.
Already by the end of August the larger river boats follow the basic dry season channel as they make their way up stream. Smaller craft still follow the high water channel. From now on until December when the river level is totally settled into the dry season mode the river boat captains and pilots will be asking themselves; should I or shouldn’t I? This is because along some stretches of any given river by, following the high water channel instead of the low water channel you can save you hours of travel time. If however you commit your boat to the deep water channel and you have miscalculated the water’s depth you may have to backtrack and lose many hours of travel time or worse yet get stuck or possible hit a rock and loose you entire rig. Captains and pilots have to be thinking ahead every minute as they steer their cargos up the river but the really tricky part comes as they navigate with the current heading downstream. One slight miscalculation and your boat will smash into the river bank or crash onto a rock with devastating results. As he heads downstream with the current into rapids or sharp turns the pilot must know where each rock is located and which way he’s going to steer his rig long before he gets there and sometimes before he can actually see the rocks or the bend up ahead
For example let’s say you are piloting your rig moving with the current downstream and you know you are coming up on a dangerous stretch of river with rocks some of which are visible, others are just under the surface, and plenty of others which may or may not be deep enough for you to pass safely over. To follow the deep water channel through this maze of rock and small islands will save you a lot of travel time but you have to be absolutely sure the channel is deep enough because you won’t have the opportunity to turn around before the current smashes your rig onto the rocks. If you’ve been running the river for any length of time you’ll make the decision to be safe and follow the dry season channel. The risk of losing the boats, the cargo and even possibly the lives of your passengers isn’t worth the time you may save.
Last year we were in Memphis at the time Dale was getting his donor liver
We had opportunity to visit Mud Island River Park and from there watch the ( compared to our rigs on the jungle rivers) gargantuan barges traveling up and down the Mississippi. It was fun to be an “armchair pilot” and guess about where the real onboard pilot would start his turn to steer his rig safely under the bridges and around the bends. On a related note I noticed on my news source that just a little over a year later the Mississippi is extremely low which is very detrimental to shipping. I can easily believe it having experienced the same river conditions albeit it with boats much smaller out there in the jungle.
We’ve come full circle in our consideration of the months of the year. It’s been fascinating to revisit in my mind the happenings, the experiences, the jungle, the river, the weather, the people and the feelings that made life in the rain forrest what it was over the course of an entire year. I’ve also come to realize in a deeper way how that life in the jungle so far away will always be the defining ingredient in the the lives of all those of us who grew up in and lived most of our lives in that very special and unique blend of diverse cultures that on the one hand are so different and yet at the same time so alike in their expression of basic humanity and human need.
The jungle rivers crest in June and maintain their high water levels through July but will begin to diminish in August. August will follow July which begins the several months transition to dry season, just as March followed February which began the several months transition to where we are now, that is, rainy season.
After an all night rain, a July jungle morning can be breathtakingly clear with the intense colors, of sky blue, jungle green and river brown, combining to make a sight you can never get enough of. Get a good look because late morning will bring the clouds and more rain and it could be days before you’ll see another spectacular morning like this one. If you, like most river people have a dugout with an outboard motor attached to the backboard, in your port, you will have left the comfort of your favorite hammock several times during the night to bail the dugout. Or maybe you had removed the outboard and just let the dugout fill with rainwater.
The lagoons are all full of water with no land visible anywhere. Actually the lagoons are islands of water with face open to the sky in the midst of an ocean of flooded jungle hidden under the treetops. If you took time to slowly paddle a small dugout among the treetops skirting the edges of any lagoon your eye will be drawn to the beautiful flowers on the branches of these treetops. For some reason God made those flowers with the sweetest and most pleasant smell I’ve come across anywhere. When I began thinking about writing a post for July, that incredibly sweet aroma is one of the very first things my mind went to. It’s an experience unique to the rainy season. At no other time of the year do you come across those particular smells.
In July, if you happen to be traveling downstream you can take the shortest route which is down the middle of the river and from corner to corner. There are no sand bars to dodge. If you are traveling upstream you will hug the bank on the inside of the river bends. The current is usually less swift there which with a heavily loaded boat is to your advantage.
In July the combination of the permanently soaked soil and the swift current undercutting the trees perched on the river’s banks conspire to topple many jungle giants into the water. On one occasion there were seven of us traveling down stream in a very small boat. The straightest route in this particular stretch of river took us very close to the right hand bank. Suddenly without warning and directly in our path a monster of a tree fell into the river with a tremendous splash. If that tree had waited a few seconds more to go over we would have been directly underneath, our boat would have been smashed and we all would likely have drowned. As it was we were almost capsized by the waves generated when the giant hit the water.
One unpleasant reality of rainy season are the clouds of bloodsucking gnats that hound you wherever you go outside your home. The dry season’s worst plague tends to be the clouds of no- see- ums, where as the rainy season tends to throw clouds of the regular gnats at any warm body. Both drain your blood and both will about drive you crazy. Here’s how bad these little pests can be. Decades ago, everyone living along the rivers used porcelain covered plates and cups for eating and drinking. Mostly the plates were of a light color. I’ve seen folks apply a lather of the famous “blue soap” to both sides of one of these white plates and wave it back and forth around themselves and within seconds the plates will be black with the gnats trapped in the soap. Yes clouds of gnats means, clouds of gnats. Back to the blue soap for a moment, it’s the same blue soap that you can use to stop leaks on a fuel drum. And speaking of fuel, many times, officials would leave drums of fuel in our care as they traveled up or down the river so they’d have a supply for the next trip. Sometimes the next group coming through would be totally unprepared for the onslaught of the little bloodsuckers. As these guys transferred fuel from the drums to their outboard tanks I’ve seen them literally immerse their arms and hands in gasoline trying to get a little relief. Yes it’s that bad. I’m guessing that it was largely because of these obnoxious little insects so few “outsiders” had settled along the river banks before the missionaries came. In 1799 the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt travelled through this same area in the rainy season. His comments on the insects, the flooded river banks, the Jaguars eating the expedition’s dog are very interesting.
As you may have noted in the posts on the months of the year, the change of seasons follow a general pattern true to each month. From year to year the changes that occur within any given month, relative to the month before and after it, can slide to either side. Only once in a great while will you have the seasons totally backwards. And even then the case will be more of an entire year without a dry season to speak of or an entire year without a wet season to speak of.
So, to end; this is July and if the year is a normal one, from now on out the rains will begin to back off and the rivers will slowly begin dropping till the end of January when the dry season peaks out and the jungle starts gearing up for July once more. Personally I prefer the dry season for many reasons but the rainy season is necessary for the cycle of life for as long as the rain forrest shall endure and I’m thankful for it.
When the weather cycle is within normal limits June is always 100% a rainy season month. The reality being however that there are exceptions to many rules it must be noted that occasionally there will be a year when even the wet season months tend to act like dry season and vice versa. Since we’re assuming the full calendar of months in these posts falls within the normal cycle, June is 100% a rainy season month.
Generally speaking the further downstream you are, the later in the season the rivers will crest. Our school was located toward the upper reaches of the navigable section of the river so the river crested in June. Downstream, toward the river’s mouth, the river crested in July or August. June is usually when the last of the several species of fish make their run up the river. The fishermen are out paddling their little dugouts around in the backwashes where the migrating fish congregate before they hit the main current again on their way upstream to branch off in the smaller tributaries. These fishermen are angling for bocon, which eaten fresh cooked or slow smoked is right up there with the best tasting fish the river has to offer. Their gear consists of a strong yet bendable sapling with a stout line and medium hook baited with a big grasshopper. 18 inches would be an average size fish. Sometimes the fishermen will follow the migrating bocon all the way up the smaller streams where the fish congregate in the deeper pools where they catch them by the dozens if not hundreds. When that happens the fishermen will build a small shelter and smoke rack right there on site and smoke their catch. They have no other way to preserve the fish. Getting the catch back to the hungry folks in the village can be tricky however. More than one canoe load has been lost because either the boat was overloaded or the paddlers failed to negotiate the rapids properly on the way downstream. They would sink or capsize and lose the the entire catch.
June is also the month when those who live on the banks of the larger rivers set out balsa wood floats fitted with short, very strong lines and big hooks to catch catfish some of which can grow to a pretty significant size. The biggest I ever caught weighed (we estimated) over one hundred pounds. These catfish of which there are a couple of different species are about the best tasting fish in the river even better than bocon. Of course that’s a matter of opinion. To get your floats in place you steer your boat in as straight a line as possible for the opposite shore and toss the floats with their baited hooks at spaced intervals across the entire river. Now you motor or paddle to a spot above the floats and let the current sweep the floats and your boat (with you in it presumably) along downstream. When a float suddenly disappears you know you’ve got got what you came after and the longer it stays under before surfacing the bigger it is! If on the other hand you see a float bobbing around on the surface you know a piranha is stripping the bait off the hook which is what you didn’t want to see happening.
The sand bars and many of the rocks are under water and the river bed can no longer contain the surging volume of water. As the river banks disappear the flood spills over into the jungle. During most rainy seasons there remain small islands of land scattered throughout the flooded jungle where the land animals take refuge and manage to survive till the flood waters again drain out of the jungle and the dry season comes back.
For the next couple of months the rivers will be at their deepest and those who transport big heavy loads on these waterways will take advantage of running their boats while there is plenty of water between their keels along with their propellors and the bottom whether it may be sand bars or rocks. During the years when the missionaries operated their own supply boats, June, July and August were by far the preferred months to haul supplies. In August, toward the upper reaches of the rivers you may have to follow the dry season channel but there usually was enough water to get you through without connecting with the bottom.
The active, useful lifespan of the little Stinson airplane my father flew out there in the jungle was not very long. The fabric skin it was covered with, succumbed to the brutal heat and humidity typical to the rain forrest. God, however, used the little plane to do some important work before the elements took it out. One such occasion was the part the duo of plane and pilot played in locating the wreckage of a DC3 near the coast of the country of these posts.
Some background would be useful to the reader at this point. It was June 9, 1950 between 7:00 and 7:30 pm. The DC3 with a number of missionaries on board was due to land at a large city in the Northwest part of the country within the half hour. It was dark and the terrain was mountainous. For, to this day, unexplained reasons, the radio communication from their last point of departure had shut down. Also for unexplained reasons, the airport radio and landing lights at their destination airport had shut down. Apparently the airport from which they had last departed figured the plane was as good as already on the ground so shut down without bothering to confirm whether or not radio contact had been established at the destination airport. The flight was on time as per the unclosed fight plan later discovered by those officials investigating the tragedy.
It seems likely the strong wind, as experienced and noted by others in the area at that time, had blown the plane off course and as the pilots began their descent they hit some tall trees on the highest mountain in the area, the wings were ripped off, the plane hit the mountain, the missionaries were ushered into the presence of the Lord, and the plane burned.
By the time my father and his little Stinson arrived from the South of the country dozens of aircraft had been searching for almost a whole month for the mission DC3. Several missionaries from another organization in that area helped my father and his missionary companion (this missionary’s wife and children were on board the missing plane) get to some of the villages along the DC3′s route to determine if anyone had seen or heard anything the night of June 9th. In each village the information was the same; between 7:00 and 7:30 pm a plane with lights on had passed over, there was a loud crash after which there was nothing but silence.
So it was that on the morning of July 6, 1950 the little Stinson lifted off the runway and headed to the mountains to begin the lonely search for any sign of the missing DC3. My father was flying while his missionary companion diligently looked for any evidence of a downed airplane. The weather was very bad and clouds covered the mountains but just as they were about to turn back and wait for another day with better weather they spotted something through a little hole in the clouds. Sure enough it was the missing DC3 and though there is a lot more to the story of the search by air I want to move on to the effort to reach the crash scene on foot.
Several attempts had been made but in the end my father and a few officials were the only ones who reached the crash site on foot. The climbing conditions were so bad that most men in the search party were forced to turn back. The climbers hands and feet were skinned and swollen. In some cases the only way for the men to climb was by clinging to vines and pulling themselves up hand over hand, over and around and between huge boulders. The supplies had to be passed up person to person by ropes. At night they were cold and often as not soaking wet. When they reached the crash site they found the plane and everything in it had been almost totally consumed by fire. They were able to confirm the wreckage was indeed the missing DC3 by some of the tail section and pieces that had broken off as it had smashed down the mountain side.
In describing the scene my father wrote, “it was like a holy place clean and far above the filth of the world- a garden of beautiful green foliage, chosen by God Himself as a place where He wanted to meet those in the plane face to face”. Exhausted physically and coming down with typhoid fever he said it would have been the most natural thing to bow his head and meet his Saviour right there as well but there was still much work to do.
These were the early days of missionary work in the jungles of the country of these posts. The missionaries on board the DC3 were to have joined the effort in the Southern part of the country. It was bitter sweet news to the little band of missionaries waiting for much needed reinforcements out there in the jungle to hear that their potential coworkers had been called home to heaven. The reality seemed to be that often the first efforts made in the taking of the Gospel into the unreached people groups were met with fierce resistance by Satan himself. And yes those first years were very difficult. But by God’s grace those early pioneers persevered and today there are dozens of churches and hundreds if not thousands of jungle peoples who have been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of His beloved Son. Amen!