Late. Way late. When the telephone rings after 10:30 at night nothing good is apt to follow…especially on a Friday and especially if you are attached to an American Embassy overseas.
The voice on the other end was familiar. It belonged to the American Ambassador to Venezuela, my boss. His distress was genuine. His wife was ill…very intestinal…maybe the flu or some bad food. He had an appointment in town the next morning he had to keep. Would Calista and I please take their place and accompany John and Martha on their trip to the interior?
Calista whooped when I broke the news. It promised to be a memorable day.
Boy, was it.
Back Story: The year was 1981. In those Cold War days one activity of the U.S. Diplomatic Service involved sending distinguished American artists abroad to participate in programs organized by our embassies. This exercise in soft diplomacy was to show the world that the United States was not the greed-driven cultural wasteland depicted by our foes (not to mention some of our allies).
In Caracas we had so far hosted a world-class American string quartet, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and two prize-winning American writers, playwright Arthur Miller and the novelist William Styron. The embassy’s role was to arrange exposure of these American artists to the appropriate Venezuelan audiences. This typically involved arranging performances or lectures for students at Venezuela’s Central University, informal talks to small groups of Caracas’s literati, and, always, a large reception to show off our luminaries to the country’s wider artistic community, to its politicians, and, above all, to the news and television media.
The morning in question marked the last day in Venezuela of our latest and most famous cultural envoy. This Pulitzer Prize winning author’s series of novels about a New England car dealer seemed to have staked out a permanent home atop U.S. best-seller lists for a decade or more. These books, plus a prodigious output of poetry, short stories, criticism, and essays had earned the writer recognition as America’s premier literary craftsman. After several days in Caracas gamely meeting with students, giving interviews, and other sundry public appearances, John Updike and wife Martha were to return the next day, Sunday, to Massachusetts.
But first the Venezuelans had planned for that Saturday a day of appreciation organized by EDELCA (Electrification del Caroni, CA). A state-owned corporation, EDELCA had been created to oversee the completion of the Guri Dam on the Caroni River in the far southeast of Venezuela near the Guyana and Brazilian borders. This immense hydroelectric project, whose second stage was then still under construction, today supplies 80 percent of the country’s energy needs, freeing for export some 300,000 barrels per day of Venezuela’s most prized resource, petroleum.
Honored guests, embassy escorts, and EDELCA’s CEO Efrain and his wife Elena, fluent English speakers, were to meet the next morning at nine at La Carlota, a small military-run airport. Once located on the outskirts of the city, it had since become almost hidden by noisy avenues and tall buildings as Caracas metastasized to surround it. A six-passenger Cessna and its pilot, Fidel, would fly us to the airstrip at Canaima, a village situated where the dark waters of the Carrao River tumble over a massive waterfall to form the Canaima Lagoon. At Canaima we were to be joined by site personnel from the dam project. Our little band, eleven in all, would board a helicopter for the vertical leg of our journey to the top of Auyantepui, the largest of Eastern Venezuela’s mysterious tepuis, for a picnic. Thence we were to proceed to the construction site on the Caroni for a tour of the Guri project and then, by waiting Cessna, back to Caracas. (Had I known that Auyantepui means “Devil’s Mountain” in the language of eastern Venezuela’s indigenous Pemón people it might have moderated my enthusiasm for the itinerary.)
Boarding the Cessna I worried about how I would interact with the famous figure I had been asked to watch over. Should I confess that I had once started, but never finished, one of his novels? As an ice breaker that held little promise. What common interests would we find to talk about? Once airborne and settled, however, I discovered how comfortable a companion this man of sly wit, generous spirit, and open countenance could be. What most occupied his thoughts that morning was the state of the Boston Red Sox. It seems also that we had both suffered a teen-aged crush on Doris Day.
His new wife Martha, recently acquired, was bright with unaffected charm. A pleasing degree or two beyond svelte, she was good to look at and shared with her husband a lively curiosity. By the time we landed in Canaima their questions had elicited the Moon family story, i.e., where Calista and I had met, where we married, posts where we had served, and the names and interests of our children and the schools they were attending.
Once on the ground we were to await the arrival of the Guri project’s large passenger helicopter. To fill our time Efrain arranged a treat: an outing on the lagoon in a curiara, a long outboard powered, canoe-like dugout. With the tropical sun warming our backs, we clambered aboard, cameras at the ready, and with our Pemón guide at the tiller glided over the iodine-tinted water until we were at the foot of the falls that fed the lagoon. Falling from a 40-foot precipice tons of water from the fast flowing Carrao pounded into the waters below, deafening us and causing our slim craft to wobble and bob, much to the apparent satisfaction of our boatman. When he had determined that we were sufficiently awed by the sight and dampened by spray, he returned us to the shore.
The Guri helicopter was waiting at the airstrip, sporting its EDELCA logo writ large. After introductions to the personnel who had come from the dam bearing our picnic lunch all save the pilot spoke English we set out for Auyantepui, several dozen miles distant. Below us the jungle’s canopy was a carpet of green hiding coral snakes, jaguars, giant insects, exotic frogs, anacondas, and who knows what else. It was after a visit to this region that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his fantasy novel, The Lost World. Before long the world’s highest waterfall was in sight, and the pilot began the steep ascent to the top of the mountain.
The origins of the tepuis are lost in the mists of Precambrian time. Theory has it that when Africa and South America were one, tectonic convulsions followed by receding seas left behind these massive cloud-draped sandstone structures that jut, dark and forbidding, out of the jungles of Eastern Venezuela. Table-topped, the tepuis are vaguely similar in shape to the mesas of the Southwestern United States, but dwarf them in size. Rising more than 1,000 meters from the jungle floor Auyantepui is the largest (700 square kilometers in area) and most famous of the tepuis. From a fissure near its top flows Angel Falls, dropping for more than a half-mile down the sheer mountainside. The falls were named for Jimmie Angel, an American barnstormer searching for gold, who in 1937 crashed his plane atop the mountain, yet survived.
Soon we were looking down on the top of Auyantepui and its dramatic terrain. The commonly used “table top” descriptor was misleading. Though generally flat, the surface featured multiple huge outcroppings of rock and great, seemingly bottomless crevices. Even a skilled pilot like Angel would have found landing a conventional airplane here impossible. Also, I had expected a barren landscape, like the surface of some alien planet, not the vegetation, though sparse, that had found a home among the rocks. This tepui was an attraction the Venezuelans were fond of showing to visiting VIPs. Accordingly they had identified a small flat plot and had painted a helicopter-landing target on the bare rock.
The pilot spotted it. The helicopter slowed and like a sea bird after a fish began a gentle curve down toward the large whitewashed X. Suddenly something was wrong. We were dropping too fast. The craft shuddered and yawed violently, the back end swung about, and we tilted to one side. For several sickening seconds it seemed that we were sliding sideways rather than descending. In the rural Missouri of my youth there was a popular Protestant hymn that began “When I die/ Hallelujah bye and bye/ I’ll fly away….” Was I the only one on board who wondered if his Hallelujah moment had arrived? Someone gasped as a rotor blade struck rock, crumpling under the impact. There was the screech of protesting metal; then with a bone-rattling thump we were on the ground. The machine teetered for a moment, trying to tip over and then settled on its side.
As helicopter crashes go it was a gentle one. No one was hurt. For a moment all was silence as we tried to process what had happened. Then I could hear someone yelling. It was our pilot screaming at the famous author who was seated next to the starboard cabin door. “La puerta! La puerta! Abre la!” He feared fire and wanted us all out of there. The message got through. John unlatched the door and swung it open. The way that the helicopter was canted there was a drop of several feet to the ground below.
John jumped, and I followed. Martha had been seated on my left, and I turned, thinking I might somehow help her down. To my awkward surprise, she was already airborne and suddenly in my arms. The impact flattened both of us. As we rolled about trying to disengage ourselves, Elena followed. Our only casualty, she landed badly, scraping a leg. One by one the rest of the party made it safely to the ground. Calista, who had been stoically waiting in the seat next to the jammed portside door, was the last to emerge.
The pilot herded his numbed passengers to a safe distance from the wreck. We turned and watched, expecting the craft to erupt in a cinematic ball of fire. Nothing happened. It just sat there, broken and forlorn. (And it sat there for more than a month until EDELCA was able to fly in the parts, tools, and mechanics to make it airworthy again.) When he finally judged it safe our pilot trudged back to the crash site to inspect the damage.
As we waited thoughts turned to survival. Here we were at the top of nowhere. At Guri they knew our destination, but when would someone realize that our picnic had gone on far too long? How much time would it take to organize a search party? Jimmie Angel had somehow climbed down from this mountain, but could we? Fat chance. I could picture us waiting at least a day for help to come. The wind was gusting – the probable cause of our smashup. This was Venezuela’s cool season, and when low flying clouds blotted out the sun, it was already uncomfortably chilly. At night the temperature at this altitude would drop dramatically, and the wind would howl across the rocks.
Before I could communicate this cheery scenario to my fellow survivors, the pilot had started back, carrying the craft’s first aid kit to address Elena’s leg. He was smiling broadly. The helicopter’s radio had not been damaged, he had talked to Guri, and the cavalry was on the move. Two smaller helicopters were available at the dam site. They would come and lift us to safety. It might take a few hours; the machines had to be fueled and their pilots rounded up.
So we wrapped Elena’s leg and then turned pale when we measured how close we had come to real calamity. There was a deep chasm about three meters from where our craft had come to rest. Had the helicopter slid into that…! We took dozens of heroic-survivor photos, peered nervously over the edges of this new world, and then helped Efrain and his colleagues from the dam unload a folding table and baskets of food from the helicopter.
Meanwhile, John, the essence of cool, was busy indulging a surprising passion for botany. Like several other totally isolated places on earth, the surface of Auyantepui is host to plant life nowhere else to be found. Our new friend ranged far and wide photographing every unique flower, succulent, and shrub he could find. At the same time Martha and Calista had wandered off on an exploratory walk of their own. This was worrisome because the mist that would engulf us from time to time was so dense that one could hardly see one step ahead. Because we were situated close to the rim of our island in the sky, one misstep and our party of eleven would be ten.
I was relieved when the sun again broke through and someone shouted “Esta lista la comida.” And what a meal it was. There was shrimp, roast beef and roast pork, baked chicken, potato salad, fresh tropical fruit, Italian salami, and wine…lots of wine… a case of red and a case of white…far too much wine. It went down like water. Brave adventurers we were, but there was a lot of inner twitching still going on. The wine helped subdue it.
Serving in a profession that demands discretion yet gives high value to conviviality, I had early learned to treat alcohol as an enemy. I was aware also that I was perhaps more than usually susceptible to its effects. As a young officer, studying my betters at diplomatic functions, I had mastered the art of making one barely sipped glass last the evening. But the adrenalin, the altitude, and the camaraderie of that afternoon eroded self-discipline. I did my part as we emptied bottle after bottle.
Sooner than expected, the first rescue helicopter was there: a bubble on skis with big whirling blades holding it up. Since but three of us at a time could leave on these small craft, a complicated escape plan had been devised. The several long trips back and forth to Canaima would take too long to get us off before darkness settled in. On the other side of Auyantepui was a Pemón village with a Catholic mission. The mission had a pasture that in the dry season was used as a bumpy airstrip to fly in supplies. It was much closer than Canaima. The rescue helicopters would fly those of us from Caracas to the mission. The Cessna would come there, pick us up, and zip us back to the city. The helicopters would then deal with those remaining on the mountain. All interest in the rest of the day’s original itinerary had gone up in fumes.
Someone broke out brandy to fortify us for the trip down. Martha, Elena, and Calista went first. John, Efrain, and I followed in the second helicopter about thirty minutes later. It was tourist class all the way. These machines were used mainly to haul equipment, and there were no seats in back. John and I sat on the floorboards; Efrain took the seat next to the pilot who wasted no time in getting us down.
The entire sullen village must have turned out to watch the air show. There were lots of brown faces and not a smile to be seen. We weren’t smiling either when we saw the Cessna. It had arrived before us and in landing had gotten too close to the first helicopter. Its downdraft had tipped the Cessna. Result: one frayed and strangely bent wingtip. My heart sank, but Fidel was all bland assurances. The wing itself was intact. No controls had been damaged. We would have to go slowly, but the plane was perfectly safe. I didn’t buy it for a minute, but the others seemed satisfied. In my foggy condition I was determined not to be out-machoed.
The ladies had repaired to the mission to wait for us. We piled into a pick-up truck chauffeured by a Capuchin brother to fetch them. We found them uneasily having coffee with the padre, a white-bearded Spaniard with a face Velasquez would have loved. He seemed less than charmed that we had dropped from the sky. I couldn’t blame him. We reeked of brandy, talked too loud, and laughed too much. God knows what pagan rites he thought we had been up to on his mountain. The only time he smiled – I thought I caught a glimmer – was when we boarded the wounded Cessna to leave.
The rest was anti-climax. Fidel was right about the Cessna. Nonetheless, I watched the damaged wing like a hawk the entire trip to ensure that it didn’t fall off. Efrain produced a second bottle of brandy as soon as we were in the air. At one point John wrote something in the small notebook he carried in his pocket. He tore out the page and gave it to Calista. She showed it to me the next day. It was a signed one-liner addressed to our daughter who was in college in Massachusetts: “Dear Claudia, Your parents are very brave.”
Once back in Caracas, high drama gave way to low farce. I had consumed more liquor that afternoon than I had over the past year or longer. I was functioning adequately until I stepped off the plane into the gathering twilight and saw the embassy car (Fidel had radioed ahead to have it waiting for us). I realized suddenly that the only place safe for me to be was at home in my own bed. Someone shouted, “Come to my house for a drink!” I wanted to cry out in protest, but my tongue didn’t seem to work.
The next thing I knew we were at Efrain’s. The rest of our little band recounting with whoops of laughter the events of the day. I could only grin affably, focusing all my energy on remaining upright. The last thing I remembered that evening was standing planted and staring doggedly at a single spot on the wall, my brandied brain aware with frightening clarity that if I were to move my gaze so much as an inch, I or the house would collapse. The gang at last must have noticed my pitiable state. Calista bundled me into the car and took me home to Quinta Ojalá, the residence of the embassy’s number two.
It was a bleak Sunday when I finally rose the next day. The dominant mood: embarrassment and self-reproach. I called John and Martha around noon to wish them a safe flight home. My real purpose was to apologize for having crashed twice the day before. They were jolly and kind and said all the right things, but I was sure my blotted copybook had dashed any hope that we would make their Christmas card list. I was wrong. In fact, John and Martha sent not only cards, but also a number of letters over the ensuing years. In one of them John told us that the experience we had shared on the Devil’s Mountain was “easily my happiest time in Venezuela.”
Photo credits: Fig. 1 Charles Brewer-Carías; Fig. 2-3 the author