|WITH THE HELP OF GOD
By Ron Fox
Steve David was one of the nicest people you could ever meet. His concern for other people, especially the disadvantaged, was exceeded only by his faith in God. God played an important role in Steve's life, always the overriding influence in the things he did. For the time he spent flying across the border to deliver electronics, Steve had been able to reconcile his activities with his faith by rationalizing his lack of harm to others. After all, he wasn't smuggling drugs, he was smuggling TV's. With a developing middle class in Mexico and the outrageous import duties imposed upon incoming goods, he was only providing harmless consumer goods to markets unfairly denied.
It was understood by everyone in this business that the only logical reason for such exorbitant customs duties was to feed the enormous appetites of the long list of government officials who had their hands out, profiting handsomely from the game. When pilots were caught and behaved, they were treated well. Those in positions of power in the system profited through their release, (for large sums of money). The goods obtained at the point of capture were sold to the original receiver, (or others), at a handsome price. If an aircraft was captured undamaged, it was usually sold at a discount of its market value. State police were paid by operators and receivers for protection, as well as the Mexican customs officials. When airports were involved, the local commandantes and other airport officials were paid for their acquiescence and assistance.
This activity was not a localized activity involving only minor players. Involvement was wide-spread throughout the government hierarchy, all the way to El Presidente himself who would send his Lockheed Electra to Brownsville occasionally for it to be loaded with electronics. It would be flown to Mexico City and pulled into Hanger One and unloaded by the Mexican army. At least this was the scuttlebutt on the grapevine. I do know his Electra was loaded with goods because I witnessed it myself.
Shopping centers and office buildings in San Antonio are not cheap. During the time Steve was on the border, this was still a gentleman's game. People rarely got hurt, except by accident, and there were no victims. This set well with Steve, as long as it lasted. One dark night his perceptions changed dramatically.
Steve had been into the Hererra strip many times before. It was almost three thousand feet long with an elevated bank along its west side and flat land with heavy brush on its east side. Its surface was dirt and fairly even and rarely presented a problem for the many pilots who used it.
I once had a problem with it. A slight crosswind one night required the use of pretty heavy rudder inputs to keep my DC-3 on the strip. With my back in a back brace and my right leg still in a cast, just four weeks after my plane crash at the Hacienda strip, I wasn't able to push the rudder pedals far enough and I got into a serious drift off the strip into the brush to the east side. The pain in my right ankle and back became secondary to my position off the strip and I was able to correct back onto the flat surface and get the airplane stopped in time. The next afternoon in Brownsville, during a preflight inspection of the airplane, I found numerous holes and rips on the bottom of the fabric elevators with several sticks and branches still sticking through it's surface. My first thought was of sabotage and then I remembered my excursion of the night before. I was lucky more serious damage had not occurred.
The night Steve went in there was a nice one. The winds were light and right down the strip and a sliver moon presided over the area. He had been flying an Excalibur Beech Queenaire for another operator and this airplane was well suited for Hererra's strip. His touchdown was normal and he was able to stop the airplane in plenty of time. His receiver was the unsurpassed Mr. C. and his ground crew leader was Julian with whom he had become good friends over the last few months. Speaking fluent Spanish, Steve was able to converse well with those in the ground crew and his easy- going manner
and concern for others impressed Julian.
After a normal shutdown of his left engine which would facilitate his plane's unloading, he left the aircraft to greet Julian, leaving his right engine running. They were standing at the east side of the strip talking about nothing in particular when Steve, for some reason, glanced beyond the airplane up on the hill on the west side. With several headlights shining on the area from the side of the strip and around the plane, it was difficult for Steve to make out very well what he saw. He saw what appeared to be an old man walking along the top of the bank which was only about five feet taller than the airplane. He appeared to be dressed in traditional peasant garb, wearing a large sombrero. Not particularly alarmed due to the non- threatening movement of this old man, he was curious as to what he was doing there. It was then that he saw the silhouette of several men in the darkness, creeping over the hill towards the plane.
Now alarmed, Steve yelled out that there were intruders on the field and his alarm was joined by Julian's as they both took off running , screaming, "Policia!" Guns started going off from the top of the hill and Julian and Steve didn't look back. They ran into the brush, disappearing into the darkness.
They ran and ran, circling back to the west where they knew a village was located. They could still hear the reports of firearms and screaming when they crossed the dirt road going into the strip some half- mile away. For over two hours they made their way to the village, cautious to avoid any of the dirt roads which criss-crossed the area. More than once Steve had prayed to God that they would be spared capture. Upon arriving at the village, Julian knocked on the door of a long-time friend and they were admitted quickly. You see, his father, Mr. C, owned most of the land surrounding this village and also owned most of the businesses which employed most of its population. Julian had grown up knowing all of these people and, whether it was respect or friendship which promoted their willingness to assist, Steve didn't know, but they were eager to help. The man Julian was talking to was very excited, speaking a mile a minute. His hands were waving around and he seemed to point in several directions at once as he explained that there were police all over the area. Police cars and trucks had been speeding throughout the village and the surrounding roads, stopping everyone they saw asking about two men who had escaped arrest. The policia were telling people that these two desperadoes were armed and dangerous. Earlier, a pickup truck had come through the village with a seriously injured and bloody man. That's all anyone knew at the time. Julian was very upset thinking it was one of his people that had been shot. It wasn't until they would get to Vera Cruz and searched two hospitals that they discovered the injured man was a "hired gun" that the judiciales had brought along for extra muscle. He died within a couple of days. It was suggested that the judiciales "helped" him die as this was the most economical means of compensating him for his lost arm.
The old man told them they would not be safe here, as he expected a house to house search to begin at any time. They must get away before it was too late. Perhaps they could make it to another village just twelve miles away where they would be safer. Without warning there came a knock on the door. The three of them were frozen in fear at the sound. Steve and Julian immediately moved through the small living room towards the back of the house while the old man opened the door just a bit to look through the crack. It was a friend. It was decided that this friend would get in his pickup truck and try to drive down the road towards a neighboring village to see if the coast was clear.
Maybe he could take them out of the area to safety. After the friend left in his truck to try the roads, the old man made them some coffee ands prepared a meager meal for them to take with them. It wasn't long before the friend returned to tell them that the road towards the other village was blocked by police. They would have to travel through the woods and brush, avoiding the roads at all cost. Julian and Steve went to the back door of this old man's modest shack and cracked open the door. More and more houses were displaying lights as the village population woke up from all the noise of passing vehicles and excited chatter. Looking out the crack in the door, Julian saw a Chevy Suburban approaching the block at high speed from the edge of the village. It turned onto the street one block up and sped down it to the end. It was at this time that Julian motioned to Steve to follow him and they ran through the door and jumped off the back porch falling on the ground in a prone position. They crawled to the edge of the house, still on their stomachs, and looked down the street through the neighbor's back yards for the Suburban. They could hear the truck continue down the street at high speed, now out of sight.
Just as they were about to jump up and run for the woods near the north edge of the village, not a hundred feet ahead, they heard the truck screeching around the corner at the end of the block and begin to speed towards them. Staying on their stomachs at the edge of the back of the house, they were dismayed to see the Suburban stop right in front of the house. Two of it's occupants jumped out of the truck and made their way to the front door of the house they were hiding behind. A police car came speeding up from a cross street along the side of the house and stopped on the corner, its occupants getting out to talk to the police still in the Suburban. Fortunately for Steve and Julian, they were hidden in the shadow of the house, staring in disbelief of so many police just a few yards away. Hardly breathing, Julian looked at Steve and just rolled is eyes. A policeman from the car had passed not twenty feet from them as he walked across the yard to the front of the house, not seeing them.
The two policemen who had come out of the Suburban to talk to the old man in the house came out the front door, still talking excitedly to him. He was instructed to let them know if anyone had seen these two desperadoes. They were considered dangerous as one of the policemen had been injured at the strip. At that time the policia did not reveal that it was one of their own who had been injured, just that someone had been. Hearing this, Steve and Julian were horrified that they would be hunted relentlessly until caught.
More and more lights in houses were coming on now and the word was spreading fast that there was a commotion at the strip. People were gathering in small groups around the neighborhood, talking excitedly among themselves. Some of the people in these groups were others from the ground party who had escaped the attack. They were invisible to the police as they were dressed like everyone else. The police were looking for two
well-dressed men, one Mexican and a gringo.
The policemen in the Suburban sped off down the street and the policeman who had passed just a few yards from them, passed once again right by them on the way back to his car. Fear gripped the two lying at the edge of the house, as one swing of the cop's flashlight could have exposed them. He got into his car and also sped off into the night.
When the coast was clear, Julian and Steve jumped up and ran for the woods across the road from the house. Several groups of people down the street saw them running, but did not acknowledge their presence. Julian and Steve melted into the woods with only the sound of breaking twigs from their boots to mark their disappearance.
The second village turned out to be about twelve miles away along several trails and brush which allowed them to make good time. For awhile they trekked along a large river which they could hear and sometimes see, and eventually swam across. Unbeknownst to Steve at the time, his friend Steve Stephens was on his way to Hererra's in a Beech 18 with goods for Mr. C. He arrived about a half hour after the police attacked the strip and, not following normal procedure, landed even though he had not been able to raise anyone on the FM radio. Immediately surrounded, he gave up without any attempt at escape.
The police had severely beaten a member of the ground crew because they suspected he knew how to shut off the Queenaire's right engine and was just refusing. When his unconsciousness convinced them that he really didn't know how, they just waited for Steve Stephens to land and made him do it. They were pretty rough on Steve Stephens after his capture, but his cooperation saved him from serious harm.
Meanwhile Steve David and Julian were rapidly making their way towards the neighboring town which was larger and more developed than the village they had just left. Hour after hour they paralleled the road, occasionally hearing or seeing a passing vehicle that, at this time of the morning, could only have been the police.
Arriving in town near daybreak, they made there way to a safehouse Julian knew about and, after greeting his friends he called his father. Within another two hours, Mr. C's second son arrived at this safehouse to join them for breakfast and over a sumptuous meal the excitement of the previous night was discussed. The attack on the strip was the top news of the day, and everyone knew about it. It was agreed that Steve would stay here until arrangements could be made for his escape back to Brownsville. Steve wanted them to give him a fresh shirt and a briefcase or some small piece of luggage and take him to Villa Hermosa where he knew he could hitch a ride back home with a friend who was flying a mission into there. But Mr. C had insisted that he could arrange for him to fly his Queenaire home, perhaps the next day so Steve agreed to wait. The people who had agreed to put him up were very pleasant and made him feel at home, but as a wanted fugitive he was very uncomfortable. He spent an uncomfortable night reflecting on the business he was in and began to have doubts about the goodness of this business he was in.
The next morning Steve was surprised as his host responded to a knock at the door and opened it for two Federales in full uniform. A stab of fear and panic jolted him as his host invited them in. Upon seeing Steve they extended their hands to him in greeting him by name and chuckled at the incredulous look on his face. They reassured him that everything was all right and that they would accompany him back to his airplane and that he was free to go home. Without mentioning any names, they told him that everything had been arranged.
Steve was still fearful that they could just as easily take him to jail, but his options at this point were nil so, after thanking his host for his gracious hospitality, he left with them in their government car. Much was said between them as they drove back to the strip. The Federales were not aware Steve could speak Spanish fluently so they were speaking freely with each other. They were very nervous and uncertain about the whole thing.
As Steve sat there between them he felt like the meat in a sandwich.
When they arrived at the strip, they were greeted by about twenty state police who seemed very guarded and suspicious at the Federale's accompaniment of such a wanted fugitive. An argument between the two Federales and the police ensued which was becoming more heated by the minute. This was making Steve very nervous because the police were armed to the teeth and they were not carrying their weapons in a nonchalant manner.
After several minutes of arguing, the two Federales turned to motion Steve into his airplane asking him to please leave. Steve was not convinced that they had won the argument because there were several policemen still arguing. As Steve stepped into the cabin and started to make his way towards the cockpit, he heard the argument escalating again and some of the police began shouting for him to get out of the plane. He did so immediately. It seemed the argument had turned the other way. It was decided that, since the Federales had possession of the criminal, they should keep him and they beat a hasty retreat for the government car they had come in. Steve was relieved when they proceeded away from the strip.
Those police were sure angry about something and it didn't look like it would take much to set them to a shootin'. They went back to Mr. C's house where Steve was adamant about getting a clean shirt and a briefcase or piece of luggage which would make him look more like a tourist. He was sure he could hitch a ride out of Villa Hermosa with a friend and he was getting nervous about staying any longer in that safehouse. He was experienced enough to know that anything could happen to him now.
Mr. C again called and implored Steve to give him just one more day to clear everything up. He was sure that Steve could fly the airplane out the next day. Steve reluctantly agreed.
The next morning the same two uniformed Federales showed up at the safehouse and assured Steve that everything was all right. He should have no trouble this time flying his airplane out of the strip. On the way to the strip they stopped by a local hotel and found Steve Stephens enjoying breakfast in the hotel restaurant. He had been released from jail, put up in the hotel and assured that he too would have no trouble flying his airplane out that day. They all went to the strip together.
It was on the way to the strip that Steve Stephens told Steve David that a policeman had died from the loss of his arm. It seems that this policeman, running down the hill next to the airplane had rounded the wing, pointing his shotgun at the fleeing Steve and Julian and had run into the whirling prop of the right engine which was still running. He died two days later in the hospital. Steve David was shocked and noticeably shaken. No one had ever gotten hurt on one of his missions before. This was just not supposed
When they arrived the police had left the strip deserted, much to the two Steve's relief. They both realized that, with the death of a policeman, they would have been ruthlessly hunted down and shot without Mr. C's intervention. Either Mr. C's contacts had been able to have them recalled or they had given up that any more activity would occur at the strip.
Steve Stephen's Beech 18 had batteries so weak they would not turn over the engines so Steve David had to hand prop the left engine to get it started. The batteries would not take a charge so Steve David also had to hand prop the right engine to get that one going. Steve Stephens grinned at Steve David's grunting, but he was relieved to see his engines come to life. Steve David went to his Queenaire and started his engines and they took
off. Steve Stephens' radios were not working so he had to follow Steve David all the way home so Steve David could request both their flight plans to be opened and to ask for their usual customs inspections in Brownsville.
Steve David was a religious man, taking pleasure in carrying on his parent's missionary work to the disadvantaged deep in the bush of Mexico. It was this smuggling which provided him the income to allow him to do a lot of good in Mexico for those who could not help themselves. But something had gone wrong. No one was supposed to get hurt. The corruption of government officials was fed to bring consumer goods to the middle class of Mexico, thus allowing him to continue his work bringing medicine, technology and hope to the lower classes who could not help themselves.
Steve began going over the last few days activities again and again, trying to understand what had happened and why. It was this reflection which brought great revelations to his distressed mind. Had some higher authority brought him through this crisis to teach him a lesson? Had God seen his way to save him for a higher purpose? Did he really see an old man stumbling along the top of that hill when he noticed the police crawling over the hill? Did the bullets flying through the night miss him on purpose? Was his narrow escape meant to make him think twice about this game? Was he spared in order to wake up and be able to continue his work with the peasants of Mexico? He thought so.
This was to be Steve's last mission. He could not continue an activity which could result in people getting hurt. He knew it couldn't be the same anymore. His experience reinforced his belief that God had brought him through this so he could continue his work. He is now, ten years later, a captain with an established airline. He now has the income and flexible schedules which allow him to continue his missionary work. And, to this day, that is exactly what he has been doing.
Copyright 1998, BUSHPILOT, all rights reserved.
Watch for more Ron Fox Smuggler's Tales in the weeks ahead - Editor
Reprinted with the permission of the author
For this and other stories online, visit Ron Fox BushPilot Web site.