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YOU MAKE MISTAKE, MAYBE WE DIE

by Jack Ewing

These days everybody knows that Costa Rica is a Central American country located between Panama and Nicaragua, but there was a time when it was fairly common for people to confuse it with Puerto Rico. I once made that mistake myself. Little did I know that I would end up living here for most my life.

As director of Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge, I meet lots of people and am often asked the question: “How long have you been here?”

“Forty years”

“Wow, what did you do, come down here on vacation and never leave?”

“Well no, it wasn’t quite like that.”

Hacienda Baru

My introduction to Costa Rica was in 1970, and my reasons for coming here had nothing to do with a vacation, rainforest conservation or ecological tourism. At the time I was in the cattle business. Fresh out of Colorado State University with a degree in animal husbandry, I went to work for my father but found, as have many other young men, that working with Dad is sometimes difficult or impossible. I ended up managing a cattle farm in Ontario, Canada. As it turned out, I couldn’t get along any better with my new employer than I did with my dad. At the time it didn’t occur to me that my own immaturity might be a big part of the problem, but that’s a different story. Regardless of who was right and who was wrong, I decided it was time to look for another job.

The fateful phone call came one night during dinner. “I’m exporting about 150 head of cattle to Costa Rica,” said the voice on the other end of the line, a man named Ken Allen. “We’ll truck them to Miami and fly them on down from there.”

“Costa Rica?” I replied; “that’s an island in the Caribbean isn’t it?”

“No,” he laughed, “Costa Rica is in Central America just north of Panama. Anyway, I need someone with your ability to help me get the cattle down there, take care of them, and keep them healthy until I get them sold. I figure it will take about four months. I can offer you a job for that long, but I can’t promise anything after that.”

My wife, Diane, and I talked it over and decided to accept the offer. We weren’t happy where we were, and Costa Rica sounded like an interesting experience. I called Ken back the next day and told him that we would accept his offer on the condition that Diane and our daughter, Natalie, could go too. He agreed.

We moved into a house on Ken’s farm and began vaccinating, worming and preparing the cattle for shipment. In early December, the first 37 head were loaded on a large truck which set off for Miami. A day later, with three feet of snow on the ground, Ken, Diane, Natalie and I drove to the airport in Toronto and boarded a flight to meet them.

When we arrived in Miami the cattle were already in the international quarantine station where they would remain for testing over the next three days. If everything went well they would then be certified free of any contagious diseases and cleared for international shipment. We checked into a hotel near the airport. The next day Ken left for Costa Rica on a commercial flight. We were to wait until the cattle were released from quarantine and fly down in the same plane with them. It sounded like fun.

The following day, December 12, 1970, was Natalie’s birthday. We celebrated it at the hotel. The dining room staff brought a chocolate cake with four candles, and we all sang Happy Birthday. Afterwards, it was off to bed. Tomorrow was the big day.

The air cargo company owned only one airplane, a DC 6. The owners and crew were exiled Cubans. The pilot and his wife, both of whom spoke broken English, picked us up at the hotel at 4:00 AM. On the way to the airport  they stopped at an all night diner for sweet rolls and coffee. The cattle were on the plane when we arrived.

The DC 6 was originally designed as a bomber for use in World War II but wasn’t quite ready for service when the war ended. It is a four-engine propeller plane with a cruising speed of about 500 kph (300 mph) and a maximum altitude of 7,600 feet. It could carry a payload of about 18,000 kilos (40,000 lb.)

“How do we get on the plane?” asked Diane. “I don’t see a ramp.”

I looked the plane over. “I guess we climb that ladder going up to the cockpit door.”

The pilot’s wife offered us some of the fare she had bought at the diner. After we ate she took us to the plane. She held the ladder while Diane climbed up. The copilot carried Natalie up the ladder, delivered her into Diane’s arms and then came back down. I went last.

The cattle, 37 head in all, were divided into four pens. The weight distribution was important, and they had put the heaviest ones up front. There were sturdy nets over the pens. This, I was told, was to keep the animals from smashing into the ceiling or flying around the interior of the fuselage if the plane were to hit a sudden down-draft. There was one bench seat for passengers immediately behind the cockpit, which we assumed was for us. Diane and Natalie sat down. I walked over to the door and looked down.

The crew and other company representatives were standing beside the plane, talking animatedly in Spanish and gesticulating excitedly. I wondered what they were discussing. My Spanish was rudimentary at that time. The pilot walked over to the foot of the boarding ladder and called up to me. “How much these cows weigh?”

“32,674 pounds” I answered.

“That is official weight, no? From three days ago, no? They eat and get fat, no?”

“No,” I said, not quite as sure as I sounded, “that’s not right. These cattle came from Canada and subzero temperatures. They have heavy coats of hair. They’ve been cooped up in the quarantine station for three days, sweating in this tropical weather. They probably weigh less now than they did when they arrived.”

He gave me a skeptical glance, walked back to the crew and resumed the animated discussion. Eventually one of the men got a portable scale out of the back of a pickup truck, placed it in front of one of the wheels and towed the plane a few inches until the wheel rolled up on the scale. One man read the scale and did some quick calculations with a pencil on a clip board — handheld calculators hadn’t been invented yet — and they all went back to the discussion. Finally everyone seemed to agree. They said their good-byes and the crew climbed the ladder.

The pilot looked at me with a grave expression. “I hope you be right about the weight,” he said seriously. “You make mistake, maybe we die.”

A thousand thoughts went through my mind: Maybe the cattle do weigh more than I thought. They had a long truck ride. Maybe they were empty when they weighed-in and are full now. But no, they have really been suffering in this heat; they have to weigh less. What if they do weigh more? Will the plane really crash?

We arrived at our runway and, after a short wait, the pilot proceeded to rev up the engines. All four propellers roared. The pilot released the brakes. The plane shuddered and started forward, the vibration increasing in intensity as we rumbled down the runway. We rolled and rolled, and then we rolled some more. My imagination was working overtime. – What’s happening? Are we going to make it? Are we going to crash at the end of the runway? No they wouldn’t risk it. Would they? – The caution lights at the end of the runway flashed past the window. The vibration changed pitch. The fuselage trembled. We were airborne. We dropped back to the runway and bounced. — Wait a minute. We’re not supposed to bounce on takeoff. — We were airborne again, and this time we stayed up. The plane ascended slowly, but we were flying.

Diane remembers a magical pink hue to the east where the sun was thinking about peaking over the horizon and the pitch black night dotted with twinkling stars to the west. We banked, came around and straightened out over the ocean, now clear of brightly lit Miami. The navigator stood up and gave Diane his chair, which was more comfortable than hers. He stretched, laid down on the floor and went to sleep.

After about 30 minutes we saw more lights below. “We no talk on the radio here,” said the pilot. He rolled his eyes and pointed down, “Cuba! They know we here, they shoot.” He cackled with laughter. We were beginning to get the idea that the pilot liked to pull our leg.

I went back and checked the cattle. They were calm, but hot. The temperature was around 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius,) and the relative humidity near 100%. Diane had undressed Natalie down to her underwear. I stuck my head in between the pilot and copilot.  “Could you turn the air conditioning up a little? The cattle are really uncomfortable.”

“No air conditioning,” smiled the pilot. “Weigh too much. We take it out so we carry more cows.”

We willed away the hours talking, dozing, staring out the window, and wishing for the time to pass more rapidly. After five hours of not moving a muscle, the navigator suddenly opened his eyes, stood up, stretched and indicated that he needed his seat back.  We were over Costa Rica.

If you’ve only flown in commercial planes and think landings are a piece of cake, you should try it while sitting practically in the cockpit of a DC 6 full of cattle. As we descended, the humidity condensed and started dripping from the ceiling. The pilot and copilot had to wipe the fog from the windshield with toilet paper. We joked about it raining inside the plane.

Once they got the windshield cleared the pilots began making preparations for landing. I recognized the procedure, but couldn’t see where they intended to set the plane down. After a few minutes I noticed a short, narrow black ribbon in the distance. – They can’t possibly hit that tiny thing, can they? – As we continued our approach, the black ribbon grew and eventually started looking a little more like a runway. With every gust of wind the plane turned slightly to one side or the other, and my heart jumped clear up into my throat. Just as I was becoming convinced that we might actually be able to land, the cattle got restless and started moving around. The plane rocked a little from side to side. My heart sunk from my throat down to the pit of my stomach.

Through all of my anxiety, the crew appeared to be utterly unconcerned. Somehow they held the plane straight and level, countered every gust of wind and movement of the cattle, and got the airplane right down to the ground just where it was supposed to be. We hit the runway and bounced. The cattle shifted. We bounced again. The third time we stayed down, rolled to a stop and taxied over to the cargo area where two cattle trucks were waiting. The navigator opened the doors. We had arrived safely at El Coco International Airport (now called Juan Santa Maria International Airport.)

A fork-lift carrying a wooden chute drove up to the DC 6 and maneuvered until one end of it rested on the floor inside the back door of the plane. A truck backed up to the other end of the chute and the fork-lift lowered it until that end rested on the bed of the truck. We started unloading cattle. Ken was there as were his Costa Rican partners. Once two pens of cattle were loaded on the first truck, the process was repeated with the other truck. Finally we climbed down from the plane and took our bags to customs inspection, which consisted of two tables and two inspectors. We opened our suitcases, got the nod and walked out. In all of the confusion, nobody took us through immigration, and we drove out the cargo gate without having been officially checked into Costa Rica. As you might imagine, this caused us considerable delay and confusion the first time we wanted to leave the country.

It was about 3:00 in the afternoon, and all we wanted to do was sleep, but that was not to be. The cattle were taken to a farm where they would stay for the next couple weeks. It took several more hours to get them unloaded, fed and settled down. Then we went out to eat with Ken’s partners, and finally, around 10:00 o’clock we got some sleep.

As cattle were sold, new ones arrived, five more plane loads altogether. Before the four month contract with Ken was finished, I was offered a job with a meat packing company that owned several large ranches and about 10,000 head of cattle. I worked on a big ranch on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica in the early 1970s.  Diane and Natalie lived in San Jose, and I traveled back and forth every week. Our son Chris was born in 1972. That was the same year I first visited Hacienda Barú, which the meat packing company had leased for fattening cattle. In 1976 I left the packing company and became a partner with the owners of Hacienda Barú, which, over the next 30 years, was destined to evolve from a cattle ranch into Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge.

Whenever I am asked if I came down here on vacation and never left, I always think fondly about that first flight to Costa Rica in a DC 6 full of cattle.


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