The fateful day that changed my life. Almost 30 years ago I sat on my bunk inside our tent in the jungles of Peru. It was 10 o’clock in the morning and as the sweat rolled down my face, I looked at the thermometer and the temperature read 104 degrees. As I buttoned my shirt, I realized that this was the first time I had worn my civilian clothes in three weeks. I looked down at my laundry bag and rucksack which were both full. I was excited because today I was going to Lima for a much-needed three-day R & R (rest and relaxation). I picked up my bags and headed out of the tent into the intense heat of the Upper Huallaga Valley. As I passed the sandbag wall that protected our tent, I turned left and walked down the dirt road that circled inside our encampment. I could smell the food cooking in the mess hall and was thankful I would be eating in a restaurant that evening. I spoke with some of the Peruvian National Police officers while walking past their barracks. I realized and was thankful that the bags I was carrying were much lighter than all the ammunition and explosives I normally carried on an operation. Walking past the helicopters, I waved goodbye to the mechanics and pilots who were performing maintenance. I then turned and walked past the mortar positions and out the gate, which was covered in concertina wire, onto the airstrip. There I met up with my two buddies who were making the trip with me. We were all excited about eating good food, sleeping in a comfortable bed, and meeting beautiful Peruvian ladies. I didn’t know at the time but this trip would change my life forever.
I saw the aircraft approaching the runway and was thankful that it was a beautiful day, which meant the flight wouldn’t be canceled because of bad weather. The plane was a gray C-123 cargo plane. It had two propeller engines and was short and fat. We had nicknamed the plane “El Burro” because it kind of resembled a small donkey. I could smell the aviation fuel as the plane taxied to the end of the runway and turned around to prepare for takeoff. We helped unload supplies for the camp and load things that needed to be transported to Lima. By the time we were finished, our clothes were wet, and we were covered in sweat. It was something you just got used to, living in the jungle. I walked up the ramp at the tail of the plane and found a seat at the front of the cargo section. The seats were made out of cargo netting but were still comfortable. I found my oxygen mask which I would be needing later. The aircraft was not pressurized so once we climbed above 10,000 feet we would need to put on our masks and breathe oxygen, if not we would pass out. We called the trip from the jungle to Lima, “Over the Hump,” because we had to fly over the Andes Mountains. We were told that the pilots had to take the aircraft up as high as it could go to get over the mountains. I took a paperback out of my bag and turned to the dog-eared page where I’d left off. I read a lot in the jungle because when we weren’t on operations or preparing for the next operation, there was nothing else to do. I heard the propellers begin to crank up and the noise then turned into a deafening roar as they got up to full speed. El Burro launched forward and gained momentum as it traveled down the airstrip. We were all bouncing around the back of the aircraft, then everything got smooth as we lifted off. In a little over an hour, we would be in Lima and amongst their 5.8 million inhabitants.
Later that evening, after a shower and change of clothes, my friends and I decided to go to a British Pub for a good meal and some beers. As I walked in the front door I saw her standing at the end of the bar. She might not have been the most beautiful girl in the room or the tallest, but she was the only person in the room that I saw. I’ll never forget it, she was wearing a white top, a short blue jean skirt, and blue pumps. She was leaning against the wall with her right leg bent and her foot against the wall. She was standing there talking to some other people, but I couldn’t even tell you who she was talking to because the only person I saw was her. There was an instant attraction. I was told that she was friends with the owner of the pub and that she was dating a German who worked for the airlines. I didn’t even talk to her that evening.
I went back to the jungle, finished my tour, and returned to the states. About a year later, I was on another tour and once again went to the pub. I was sitting at a table, eating, and drinking with my friends. The pub was packed that night and filled with laughter and rock music. I felt someone tap me on the shoulder and say excuse me, when I turned around it was her. She said she needed to go to the restroom and asked if I could lean up so she could squeeze between my chair and the pole behind me. About a minute later, she came back and I leaned up to let her through. She came up to me, asking to get by, two more times within a half-hour. After the third time, I was thinking that this girl must have a tiny bladder. I remember her saying, in the sweetest voice, “you must hate me.” I just smiled and said it wasn’t a problem. I still thought she was in a relationship so I didn’t bother trying to talk to her, even though I was still very attracted to her. After a few beers, I saw a very pretty girl standing near the bathrooms and decided to take a shot. I went up to her and asked, “Do you speak English?” She replied, “No, but my friend does.” She then pointed to her friend; the girl I had been attracted to. That was all it took and I went up and introduced myself. She said her name was Sofia and we talked and had a wonderful night. I then went back to the jungle and back to the states without seeing her again.
Several months later, I was back in Lima and ran into Sofia. She gave me her phone number and I was off once again to the jungle. A few weeks later I made another trip, “Over the Hump,” to Lima. The Burro had been delayed because of the weather and we arrived close to 6 o’clock. I had debated on the flight whether to call Sofia or not. As we landed I rushed to our office at the airport and decided if it was still open that was a sign I should call Sofia. I found the office open even though everyone would’ve normally left around five. I gave her a call and asked her out on a date. She accepted and even though I didn’t know it at the time, that phone call was going to change my life forever.
This week we will celebrate our 27th wedding anniversary. It has been 27 wonderful years and has produced two beautiful successful daughters. I want to wish Sofia a Happy Mother’s Day. She has been the best example to our two daughters, is the glue that holds our family together, and always keeps us laughing.
I also want to wish a Happy Mother’s Day to my mother, in heaven. She always told me, “You can do anything you put your mind to. You can be anything you want to be.”