In the autumn of 1972 I was ten years old and my parents were heading back to Brazil.
My father was a printer by trade and after having spent nearly a decade with a mission agency in Manaus, followed by a three-year transition in Florida, he was now opening a new publishing and print operation in Brasilia.
We spent the summer in Seattle, from where the family originally hailed, staying in an empty University of Washington sorority house. At the end of August there was a car, a big Chevy, that needed to make a one-way trip to an address in Los Angeles; my two brothers and I spent the journey arguing about whose turn it was to sit in the middle.
Somewhere in southern Oregon or northern California we stayed the night with acquaintances of my parents. In the morning, making our departure, I got a quick kick in the backside for making a comment I had heard somewhere and that my 10-year-old brain thought fitting to the moment of taking leave: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you!”
Los Angeles was a blur; I don’t remember it. The next thing I remember was a choppy descent into the sketchy airport at Guatemala City where we would spend a few weeks so my father could consult with a printer there. All the other kids were in school already so we felt special being able to run around and play all day.
Then a skip of a flight to Panama City where we made a late night transfer to a plane bound for Bogota, passing the hours in-between watching the insects find an explosive end in the industrial-sized bug zappers of the airport lounge.
I’m not sure why we spent a few days in Bogota, Colombia, probably something more to do with printing. But when we were ready to go again we caught a SAM Colombia flight headed for Manaus, in Brazil. The airplane was a Lockheed L-188 Electra.
SAM Colombia Lockheed Electra
At the rear the windows were placed increasingly close together, taking advantage of the curvature of the aircraft to create an almost panoramic view. There was a lounge there which, as soon as take-off was complete, my brothers and I immediately laid claim to. There were few other passengers anyway.
A Lockheed Electra lounge; this one from Eastern Airlines.
Bogota to Manaus is roughly a thousand kilometres, almost entirely over the Amazon jungle. We sat there forever, hanging over the dark green carpet below, looking for rivers and lost tribes. It was magical.
Then it all turned a bit scary. One of the four engines on the Electra started smoking, sputtered and died, the propeller coming to a standstill. The captain came on the intercom to tell us that we would have to turn back to Bogota. Suddenly the fun was over and the jungle below seemed more menacing than delightful.
Of course we made it back to Bogota just fine and we eventually transferred to a different plane. We got to Manaus where, even for a 10-year-old, the heat and humidity was truly oppressive. Again, we spent a few days visiting before finally making the last leg of our journey: to Brasilia, the then brand new capital of Brazil and the crowning jewel of the genius of Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer.
I was late to 5th grade. Way late. Homework with fractions gave me evenings of headaches and tears until it finally clicked for me the next year. Mrs. Springer was half-way through A Wrinkle in Time and I never did quite get it.
But it was worth it. The memory of that hop down the West Coast, through Central America and over the Amazon will always stay with me, and especially the view from the back of a Lockheed Electra.