In spite of her toughness, her matchless beauty was highlighted by shoulder length red hair emphasized by the rising sun. She cut an imposing figure with hands on hips, but the intimidation softened as she walked toward him.
“John, meet Daryl Stromburgh. Daryl, this is John Braddham,” Ted introduced.
“From the surprised look on your face, I can see you weren’t expecting a woman pilot. If it’s all the same to you, I can out-fly anyone anywhere in this hemisphere or even the world for that matter,” she said with fingers pointed, stressing each syllable, her whole arm taking on the appearance of a pecking chicken. “So don’t try any remarks about women drivers, especially around me. Just a warning before you say anything.”
“I guess I did look incredulous,” John said. He didn’t like lectures, especially when not deserved. “You are correct. I was expecting a man...”
“Typical,” Daryl responded.
“Not so.” John held up his hand, wanting to finish. “I was fooled by your name, and Ted didn’t bother to correct my thinking.”
They both shot a glance in the direction of the grinning director.
“You gotta watch his mischievous side; other than that, he’s not so bad,” Daryl slowly let her guard down.
“Well, as I was saying, the name fooled me. Now, since you prejudged me, allow me to enlighten you about where I’m coming from. I served a few years as a military pilot and most of them in Vietnam. I am proud to have flown with some of the best aviators in our nation, and yes, some were women.” John was still a little steamed under the collar. “So don’t start expecting special treatment, especially from me. Just a warning before you say anything.”
He understands. Not too many left like him. Daryl thought. “Touché, John, and I’m sorry for attacking you like that. It wasn’t fair to punish you for the faults of others, but you seemed to take it well.”
“Now that you two are civil, I think it is safe enough for you to travel together. I wouldn’t let you fly over rivers and through valleys with chips on your shoulders.” Matt spoke with relief.
“The plane is now loaded and fueled, Ms. Stromburgh,” said the young man who had awakened John.
“Good luck, John, and make sure you take care of this guy, Daryl. I don’t want him scared off.”
“As John and Daryl left, John saw the community around the airstrip alive with activity. He watched teachers and children walk to a simple school house. The children wore combinations of traditional and western clothing of handed down or donated t-shirts adorned with pictures and logos. He could tell by their content faces that they had no idea of how utterly strange the mixture of cultures looked.
“May I carry your bags, sir?” the ghost from earlier asked.
“I can handle them,” John replied.
“Go ahead, let him. That’s what he’s paid to do,” Daryl said.
John shot her a glance. “All right, take ‘em already.”
The young man bolted ahead and loaded the baggage.
“You’ve got to be friendlier, that’s what these people know, and that’s what they expect from missionaries.” Daryl was appalled.
“Whatever,” John huffed. “How long is the flight to Tiom?”
“Roughly five hours not including refueling stops. It goes pretty fast though.” Daryl tried to sound optimistic.
“After a quick pre-flight inspection, they were airborne and flying northwesterly. Daryl took advantage of the long flight to fill John in on the operation in the area where he would work.
Daryl and John discovered they had a lot in common. The twenty-eight-year-old pilot was also raised in John’s home state of Texas, but she came from the eastern part of the state bordering Louisiana. And like John, she was very enthusiastic about aviation. What they had in common ended there. She loved the missionary work with its bush flying. For John, missionary aviation was only a stepping stone to bigger opportunities.
“It’s nothing to go from swampy, to mountainous to flat terrain in one flight. You’ll do flying like most people never experience. Hopefully you don’t get airsick too easily, but be merciful if your passengers do. It’s nothing to have to clean up a few sickness-related accidents every flight or so. We are the lifeline, the only access to the outside world the missionaries will have. I usually try to bring magazines or simple games, anything that I can to remind these dedicated people that they aren’t forgotten.”
“Does anyone ever just ‘hang it up’ and go back home?” John asked.
“Surprisingly, many pilots have returned home early. We’ve had a huge turnover because of the war. Some who have lost brothers, fathers, or other families had to help with hardships at home. The rest are another story. Perhaps it is because they came out here expecting something else, or they weren’t committed to the Lord’s work or the hardships involved. It’s not the kind of place you want to be if you’re not dedicated and prepared for what’s ahead,” Daryl warned.
John didn’t say anything, pondering her words carefully. “I don’t know,” he wondered out loud. “What brought you here?”
“Tough question. I guess I felt I was meant to do this. It just feels right, you know?”
As they flew, the terrain began to rise and Daryl flew through well-rehearsed mountain passages. She explained the importance of knowing where they were and stressed that the passages were the only way to access some of the remote mountain villages. Finally, Daryl pointed to a spot on the horizon where two rivers nearly came together.
“Heading west is the Baliem, and southerly is the Tariku. Both are major rivers into the area. It’s not unusual for a lot of missionaries to travel by river to places where we pilots can’t land. The town in the middle…” she pointed, “…is home–Tiom.”
Jeffrey W. Bennett, is the author of Commitment-A Novel and other non-fiction books, novels and periodicals.