Like many of us, I wake up in the morning to Imus. Lately he has been talking about Netjets and flying around America. He swears by Netjets. And if I had his money, I would swear by them, and let them fly me around America. And back in the mid-sixties in the highlands of Ethiopia I did a lot of flying on Ethiopia’s small fleet of single engine prop planes, piloted by young French guys on contracts with the airlines.
It was difficult even in the best of weather to fly over the high plateaus of the Empire, with its sudden drafts of air, high altitudes, and only a few tarmac runways. But it was fun and also breathtaking to sail over the landscape, to see clusters of tukul compounds spotting high, dry ridges, like birthmarks on the African horizon.
I was the APCD in Ethiopia back then and had as my responsibility a hundred Volunteers spread over a thousand miles on the main arteries of the Empire, the Dessie and Gondar Roads, named after the two major towns on those roads.
Off the roads, which were passable twelve months a year, were towns and villages that could only be reached by plane in the rainy season. One of those towns was Debre Tabor, and I had three great Volunteers there who I had personally selected for this remote, isolated location.
The year before the PCVs assigned to Debre Tabor were discovered to be growing grass in their yard and in these days, at the height of Jack Hood Vaughn administration, that was really a no-no, so we sent up the only ‘hip” guy we had on the administration to make sure it was “grass” and then to burn it, which he did, and as he said, “he turned on the whole town.”
The three Vols I had assigned to Debre Tabor were a Mormon, a Catholic, and a guy who wrestled in college. They were sinless.
I visited them once a month, as I did all the Vols on these two roads, and usually I could take a commercial flight into the town, but sometimes I had my charter plane fly me north to Debre Tabor. It would take us–my French pilot and myself–well over an hour to reach the town.
I should mention that the young French pilots were cowboys. They imagined themselves to be young John Waynes, hopping over the hump as Flying Tigers. I got the same kid most of the time. His name was, as I recall, Jean Demettre. He spoke very little English. I spoke very little French, but we got on famously. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five and he wasn’t crazy as much as he was fearless.
He was slight and small and good looking and he would stand around with a cigarette dripping from his lips as if he was pretending he was in a French movie with Jean Cocteau.
Flying, we couldn’t talk much. These small engine planes were too noisy for conversation, but we worked out hand signals and when we were approaching Debre Tabor, he’d poke me and point, and there would be this patch of buildings, tukel houses, even a Seventh-Day Adventist Mission, the tin roofs flashing in the sun.
I’d lean forward and watch Debre Tabor come into view as if I were adjusting a pair of binoculars. The only landing strip was a stretch of mowed grass with a small shed at one end. It was a long runway, full of grazing cattle.
First the pilot would buzz the elementary school and after one pass, I’d see students tumbling out of glass less windows. A plane buzzing their school was about the most exciting thing ever to happen in Debre Tabor. And it was also the only way of letting the PCVs know Coyne was in town.
Then we’d circle out for a few miles and try to land the plane. Naturally the cows would be on the landing strip and my cowboy pilot would swoop down and chase the grazing cattle, swearing in French at the reluctant herd. Once we had a cleaning, he’d bank and dive down, then cut the engine and bounce across the field and we’d roll to a stop within striking distance of the EAL shed, locked up and abandoned as no scheduled flight was scheduled for that day.
The airlines had packed up lunches and the pilot and I would sit under the shade of the wing and eat a sandwich while I waited for one or the other of the Volunteers to ride out with horses to pick me up and take me back to town. The PCV on horseback would be surrounded by kids, free of school, and coming to carry whatever little luggage I might have.
I’d shake hands and say goodbye to the French pilot and we’d all stand back with the horses and watch him fly away. The land strip required that he take off over a cliff and he’d race across the field, build up speed, and sail off the edge and disappear from sight, then rise again as the currents from the deep gorge lifted him easily into the air and send him on his way.
It was very romantic and wild, and just a touch dangerous, but we were all young and having a helluva great time in Africa.
A few month after I finished up in Ethiopia and left the Peace Corps, I was living on the island of Menorca in the Mediterranean and one fall morning I was having café con leche and a sugar-dusted pastry, an ensaimadapastry, at the American Bar in the Place Reial in the center of Mahon and opened the International Herarld Tribune and spotted a small item that the Greek Ambassador to Ethiopia had been killed in a plane crash on a trip north to Dessie. The French pilot, the account read, had failed to reach altitude and crashed into the hillside. Both the Ambassador and pilot had been killed. The pilot’s name was Jean Demettre. He was twenty-six.