The PYOA Contest 4th Place Story
By Tucker Axum
“You just won the lottery,” my boss said inside our subterranean bunker. “A free trip to Kenya courtesy of Uncle Sam.”
By free trip, he meant a dangerous counter-terrorism assignment with limited resources and backup. Regardless, my mind swirled with visions of exotic safaris and fascinating tribes. I lived for adventure, and I imagined Africa wouldn’t disappoint.
Three commercial jets and 30 sleepless-hours later, I finally arrived in Mombasa. The hot and humid air engulfed me as I shuffled across the scorching tarmac. I was glad I had applied that extra stroke of deodorant.
“Jambo Mr. Tucker,” the 28-year-old Kenyan wearing khaki pants and a matching uniform polo said as he approached with an easy-going smile. “I’m Duncan, your driver.”
“How’d you recognize me?”
“You look like CIA.” His smile broke into laughter.
We shook hands and his affable nature instantly put me at ease.
“Are you hungry?” he asked as we climbed into a white Toyota 4Runner with limo tint.
“I’m fine, thanks. Had lasagna on the plane—at least that’s what the flight attendant claimed.”
He chuckled at my dry sense of humor. “I’ve never been inside an airplane.” He motioned his hand like a rocket blasting into the heavens. “Is it scary during takeoff?”
“Nah, that’s the fun part. Especially if you’re at the controls.”
He tilted his head with confusion.
“How do you know someone’s a pilot?” I asked. “They’ll tell you.”
We laughed and used the drive to talk about my flying adventures throughout Texas and Louisiana.
“I love your stories,” he said as we pulled up to the hotel. “I would like very much if you took me flying one day.”
“It’s a deal,” I promised naively not realizing how difficult it would be. I not only had the near-impossible task of locating terrorists, but now finding an airworthy plane capable of fulfilling Duncan’s wish. After an exhaustive search, I found a thirty-six-year-old Piper Seneca owned by Brigitta, a Swiss bush pilot who had called Kenya her home for the past 27 years.
Duncan burst with excitement at the thought of soaring with the birds. He normally drove like a grandma, yet that day his boot pressed heavier on the pedal as we sped to the airport. Sweat dripped off our brows as we inspected the faded orange-and-white twin-engine Piper under the sun’s brutal rays.
“What do you think, Duncan? Should we see if she flies?”
I didn’t have to ask twice. He climbed into the cabin while Brigitta and I squeezed into the cockpit. The interior awed us with its red, purple, and blue cloth upholstery that symbolized the Maasai Tribe—a reminder this was an extraordinary experience.
The engines rumbled to life and I radioed the tower for clearance. Brigitta encouraged me to talk slower since the controllers weren’t used to a Southern accent. Ha! The irony of asking a Texan to speak slower.
As if this endeavor weren’t already thrilling enough, dozens of armed soldiers lined the taxiway and glared at me. Behind these hardened commandos was the presidential Fokker 70 jet with its colorful flag bearing the distinctive Maasai shield and spears.
“Look, Duncan! The president came to watch your maiden voyage, and he brought the entire army with him,” I half-joked.
“Hakuna matata, Mr. Tucker. No worries. The president and I are both from the Kikuyu Tribe.” He beamed with pride.
Before takeoff, I gave Duncan a thumbs-up to verify he was ready. His grin revealed a mixture of nervousness and excitement, like a child on his first roller coaster. I gripped the dual throttles and eased them forward. The combined 440 horsepower of two engines laboring in unison roared like a lion. We barreled down the cracked asphalt and soon cruised over the coastal city devoid of any skyscrapers.
“I see my neighborhood!” Duncan shouted over the buzz of the propellers.
We circled over his home and the ancient Portuguese fort that once guarded the seaport. We dipped our wings to salute the American battleship docked below before navigating the sandy beaches. The clear ocean water revealed turquoise coral blooming under the surface.
Duncan craned his neck as he scanned this new bird’s-eye view. Wide-eyed and
exhilarated, he paused to give me a double thumbs-up and returned to soaking in the sights.
“Tembo! Tembo! Tembo!” He pointed to a herd of elephants trampling through lush vegetation. These magnificent mammals kicked up dust with each massive step. One even raised its grey trunk as if to greet us.
We had darted across Southeastern Kenya and edged the Indian Ocean before returning to the airfield. The growl of the propellers faded as I reduced airspeed, dropped the landing gear, and floated over the runway. The Piper touched down like a butterfly with sore feet.
Duncan thrusted a triumphant fist into the air. “Thank you, rafiki! I am very happy. My favorite part was seeing my homeland from above. I will never forget you!”
“Hakuna matata, rafiki.”
Duncan’s “official” role might have been driver, but we bonded over my two years in Kenya. He taught me Swahili and helped me understand the culture. His partnership proved invaluable to my mission. He telephoned recently to boast he had moved to Florida. “You’re the first person I called,” he said. “I have never forgotten you or our aerial safari ten years ago. You inspired my journey, and I have flown so many times now.”
Like those who had come before him, Duncan now understood the famous quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you will always long to return.”
That’s the magic of sharing a winged adventure with friends, and I dream those wings of friendship never lose a feather.