Precious Cargo

It is devastating to see so much destruction over the past few months due to a rolling wave of natural disasters. The un-relentless forest fires in Canada, the onslaught of hurricanes in the US, the massive earthquake offshore Mexico have caused much pain and sorrow in their wakes. Seeing looting occurring in small Caribbean islands is heart-breaking. Reading stories of muck-out teams in Houston is heart-warming. The intersection of natural forces with human forces, some for good and others for bad, causes a natural barrage of questions to a power above : why this God?

I now have roots in three countries affected by recent events. I was born outside of Miami, spent my early career years in Houston, and lived our first years of marriage and child raising in Calgary.

A storm chaser I am not, though I profess the geophysicist in me is bizarrely fascinated by these natural occurrences that appear to be examples of the earth trying to blow off some stress and strain.

How fragile we are.  The one and only human race, no match to the massive forces of this planet we call home.  What irony that we are living in a place so hostile and yet so hospitable at the same time.

Is there not something special about this planet? Do you see the aspects of its design, its forces, its strength, its grandeur and its danger to our own human kind?

These recent events cause me to think that this world is in fact just a temporary abode, a pressure cooker of natural forces in close proximity to humanity, God’s precious cargo in its temporary hold, on a life journey of great importance.

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Hazards of the Trade

“Have thy tools ready. God will find thee work.” Charles Kingsley

As I sat down at my desk last weekend ready to tackle the task of entering a summer’s worth of receipts and expenses into a spreadsheet, I enlisted the able-bodied Jacqueline to aide me in the important job of glue-sticking. Glue-sticking (unlike the penalty of high-sticking) is only permissible in the Engineer’s Process Flowchart if the glue is well applied and the receipt corners are neatly mashed down such that they do not jam the Engineer’s Scanning Apparatus and therefore cause much Engineering Consternation and Frustration.  To be transparent, I have been warned in the past about said glue-sticking practices and reprimanded (sent home without pay in fact), and gently suggested that perhaps next time scotch tape might be a better tool of choice.

But no, this woman says, I carry on with the stick. The elegance of its form, the fluidity in which it flows in +30 degrees Celsius, I tell you, it is a beautiful thing to watch a tool such as this perform in this climate like a figure skater on a slate of clean ice. Like butter on warm toast.

Normally, the gluing of receipts on pieces of recycled paper is one of my favorite parts of the eighteen hour process of expense submittal, but this time I made a judgement call to outsource this particular procedure to a very handy and well-equipped seven year old.

She came to the task with great joy and anticipation for the temporary employment. She was thrilled with the price I was willing to pay, one peso per receipt. An heiress in the making she was.  She promptly went to work, seated in the department cubicle for glue-people.

I didn’t look up when she told me that her stick had run dry, and instead carried on with my data-entry task, responding, ‘Well, just go get another one.’

Perhaps that was a mistake.

Several accounting runs later I looked over and noticed that the receipts that were glued since the tool-change looked a bit different.

Then I picked up a sheet. To my dismay the five little pink bus ticket receipts in illegible two-point font slid off the page and on the floor. Then the Westjet bag receipt did the same. Something had gone very wrong either in the Glue or in the QA/QC department.  Then to my horror, I noticed that all of the fallen receipts had turned transparent. The printed numbers were completely erased. Vanished. Like disappearing ink but more mysterious, and more disappearing. Almost …. oily.

Desperate for answers I turned to my glue technician. She shrugged and said, “You told me to glue them down lady.”

With glue that makes the thing disappear and become even less legible? I said to myself.

And then it dawned on me. There might have been a problem with the tool selection. With trepidation I asked to see what was in the technician’s hand.

And there lay the culprit. Banana Boat Sport SPF 50, albeit a decent counterfeit, makes a pretty nasty glue. Don’t try this one at home.

 

Miracle of Mole

I have several friends with a knack for cooking who have taken their skill to a semi-professional level. These ladies experiment with recipes from habanero salsas to French quiches to gourmet Mexican specialities like Chiles en Nogada, one of my favorites.  One of my friends has been running a small catering business out of her home kitchen and recently announced that she will be opening a store at the small plaza at the entrance to our neighborhood.  I congratulated her and upon listening to her desire to connect with and sell locally-made, home-cooked gourmet items, I thought of my other friend and her mole.

I casually stopped by her house to drop the idea of my friend’s business plan and see if it would stick.  I thought of it as a rather simple effort : simply introduce friend A to friend B, explain business model of friend A, compliment friend B on her mole (she makes great mole) and hope for the best for the two.

Something different happened.  The tears that rolled down her face said it all. In a blurred mix of Spanish and English she poured out her gratitude for the idea, for the prospective avenue for her mole, and for what she said was a clear answer to prayer.  Without divulging the private details of her story, I will share that the news came as more than an ordinary intersection of A meets B.

My view is that every day miracles are happening all around us. I attribute miracles to the hand of God in our lives. Of course you are entitled to your own view on that. Might we stop, taste the mole and consider from whence these things cometh?

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To Be the Only One

Rachel is learning how to create info graphs. Today she came home with a dataset that consisted of the number of electronic devices in the possession of each student in her fifth grade classroom.

I was shocked to see that out of twenty-two classmates, the average number of devices per student was 4.68.  Even more shocking was that the maximum was nine. The minimum was zero.

Rachel was the only zero.

We have talked about this around the dinner table a few times. We have explained our reasons for why we have not yet permitted her to own a phone or iPad. We have shared our logic against X-Boxes and video games. We have talked about safe use of computers and games on our iPads. Although the kids are able to earn time on ours, they are currently i-less … perhaps the last ones standing at their school.

At dinner last month Rachel shared some insightful words. “I don’t want to spend all of my time on a phone. I like to be outside better. If I was playing on my phone I wouldn’t get to do a bunch of other cool things.”

Her next comment did not surprise me. “Mommy, I’m the only one who doesn’t have a phone or anything. Sometimes I feel left out.”

Alright, that’s the hard part. When is it time to break down and let your kids be in the club? When is it time to say, she’s old enough?

I know she’s old enough now. But the irony is, I think she is growing up and learning something by being the only one.

Today while assembling the dataset, the students went around the room to ask each other for their stat.  Rachel spoke up. “I have zero.”

The shock registered on the faces of several. “You don’t have ANYTHING? Why NOT?”

Rachel replied, “My parents don’t want me to yet. And, anyways, I like to play outside better.”

It’s not an easy situation, and of course this is only a temporary state of being. But for today, she seems to be ok being different. Maybe this is an example of a momentary light affliction that opens up a teachable moment in life.

It’s a joy to watch her play.

This story is to be continued…

 

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Our Daily Bread

I knew that they didn’t have much to eat. Last I spoke to Noe about the normal diet of the grandparents at Casa de los Abuelos he explained to me that the recent Christmas dinner donated through the generosity of a Canadian donor, was a luxurious treat. The meal had consisted of turkey, potatoes, salad and tortillas, plus of course the mandatory side of espagueti. We helped to serve the dinner in both Merida and Ixil, to 40 very grateful men and women who call this their retirement home, their final resting place on earth.

You could be deceived into thinking by the words ‘retirement home’ that this could be a cushy place with a fountain out front, pots of geraniums in every window and the sound of Frank Sinatra singing in the shower.

Far from it. This is a home that is built on nothing more than a concrete floor and (in the original Merida location), an aluminum roof that leaks like a sieve when the rains come. The stench of urine is hard to avoid given that the amount of helpers in the home at any time is roughly one or two to every twenty people. One person is dedicated to the kitchen, another person to the grinding chore of cleaning soiled sheets and bedding, changing adult diapers, cleaning floors, giving medications, dressing sores and general nursing care for the elderly. Although the new location in Ixil is a great step up, with the lack of staff to help the grandparents, the home still lacks in operational essentials that you might think would be considered ‘basic and standard’ in your home country.

Thankfully, there is Estela, and prominent feature of previous posts for those interested in a story of every day heroism. Estela’s morning checklist includes seeing if everyone made it through the night.

Yesterday we went to the Merida location to serve a simple breakfast of ham sandwiches, bananas, coffee and, of course espagueti. When we arrived Lety was working in the kitchen and gave us a warm greeting. At first I was pleasantly surprised to see bags and bags of donated bread from the local Sam’s Club. My first thought was, what a generous donation. My second thought was, how will they eat all of this bread before it goes bad? And my third thought, a sinking one, was the sad realization that much of the bread had in fact already gone moldy.

Lety was busily working with her hands, breaking and tearing each piece of bread very carefully. In one large pot she placed the pieces of bread that were still edible. In another pot she placed the moldy bits. Rachel asked her about the green stuff and she smiled and replied, ‘that’s vitamin C my love’.

Curious, I asked her what she was making, as she poured water over the pot of ‘good bread’, and began to mix it with both hands, breaking and mashing the bread until it became a sort of bread soup. Proudly she explained to me that she was making a postre … a dessert, like a flan, she said. She added a bit of milk, butter, sugar and raisins, and would later place this pot within a larger pot of boiling water to cook the bread soup.

I suppose this could be a delicious dessert that you and I would enjoy. But something inside makes me think that calling it a dessert is just a way to cover up the reality that this is simply all that there would be tonight for dinner. Perhaps for breakfast tomorrow.  It was not apparent to me that there was anything else planned on the menu. No turkey today.

Man shall not live on bread alone.

Perhaps we can learn something from this bread soup. The working of hands, the reflecting of the bread broken, the separating of the good parts from the bad, the nourishing of a soup that may lack in nutrients but is rich in some form of spiritual vitamin, served by hands who place loving others above loving self.

A bread soup might just be enough to get us through the night after all.

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Hearing from Private Ryan

The year is almost over and it strikes me that our time here in Mexico is passing quickly. Ryan was sucking on a mango pit this morning and we were enjoying a uncommonly quiet moment before the onslaught of feet and famine that emerges around 6:30 each morning.

Being a pensive little guy, Ryan struck up a conversation out of the blue, with yellow juice dribbling down his chin.

“It seems like this is our third year in Mexico, not counting the first year, neither the second year, but only the time in our third year, and it seems like we have lived here a very short time, but we haven’t.”

“That’s so true Ryan. What’s it been like living in Mexico for all this time?” I asked. I asked him to sit with me in front of my computer so that I could capture his thoughts, interview -style. He agreed. What follows are his words, unedited.

“Well, it is changing weather a lot where we live, very fast, we live in Yucatan Merida and I like living here and my favorite part about here is that soccer is very common. And I love to play soccer.”

“What else do you like to do?” I asked.

“Well, I like to spend some time with my family going to interesting places like the museum, sometimes an old movie theater, actually we haven’t been to an old movie theater yet, um, Paseo Montejo which is in Centro, and it’s very interesting,  there’s lots of natural trees here but they still build lots of houses and buildings. There’s also a very interesting type of Mexican music called la jarana. Speaking of music, I like the guitar. And I take lessons. With my dad. Here where I live it’s not 100% easy but it’s just easy to get new friends.”

“Why is it easy to get new friends?”

“Because they live close to you.”

“What what is it like to learn to Spanish?”
“Hard at the beginning but then I started understanding it. Well I’m still having some mistakes right now, but in the past I was a lot worse. So I got a lot better. By going to school and Spanish tutoring.”

“What were your favorite serving projects this year?”

“That we work in sort of like a group called C-Quest and it’s a Christian group and we go and make songs and we sometimes give out food.”

“Where are your favorite places in Mexico?”

“I think here where I live (Yucatan), Chiapas, Mexico City, Palenque, and I really liked Holbox.”

“What would you like to do next year?”

“Well I don’t see to the future but I would like to do lots of things. For example, get better with my Spanish, try new museums, if they’re open, um, try Mexican restaurants, try new sports, etc.”

“Anything else you want to say? What would you like to remember about your third year in Mexico?”

“Well we haven’t finished the third year yet but we have still been here about 4 or 5 months in this house. So that’s a long time. I want to remember my soccer team. My guitar.”

“What do you think God has taught you this year?”

“To serve others before you serve yourself.”

****

Bravo Ryan, carry on my son.

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Ryan – 8 years old

 

 

 

Big Bang Theory

After a positive response from my last blog about big blue tangled messes, I thought I’d keep on with the theme.  I’ve witnessed more than my fair share of snares this year, and what I find nothing short of miraculous is that the worse the situation, the better the outcome appears to be, albeit after much consternation and despair.

It was a summer afternoon in August when Rachel came to me with her hand on her head, fear written across her face. As she came closer I began to see the source of the trouble. If you remember Peebles Flintstone’s hairdo, that is essentially the style that resulted from an argument between Rachel and a long, fine-toothed hair comb. She thought it would be a good idea to wrap the ends of a large chunk of hair around and around the comb, turning it until it was ratcheted tightly to the bitter end, or in this case, her scalp. Perhaps she was trying to achieve the frizzy perm look that was such a stylish fashion statement of the 80’s. Sadly, when she let go of the comb to enjoy the new do, it was so set in its twisted position that it remained horizontal, levitating just a millimeter above her head in bizarre Flintstone-esque form.

I tried to cough down my laugh when she approached me with the look of please-fix-this terror.  The comb was not budging.

I tried my best to set it free of its predicament, but it was stuck like glue to the many wraps of fine ten year old hair. The more I tried to wiggle it loose, the tighter the strands felt around the teeth of the comb. Like a Chinese finger trap, the more you struggle, the tighter it gets.

Rachel could see the concern in my eyes, and it dawned on her that this was not going to result in a mom-does-miracles maneuver. I broke the news to her gently. “Rachel, I don’t think I can undo this.”

For a girl who has grown her hair long for as many moons as there are torta stands in Centro, the prospect of losing a big chunk of hair did not go down well.

“I’m sorry but I think the only option is to cut it. I promise I’ll give you the best haircut I can.”

After a couple of tears shed I went for the scissors and got rid of the problem, leaving behind some short stubby bangs.

“Rachel, hey, check out those beautiful bangs!”

She took a few looks in the mirror, shrugged, and said, “okay.”

Three months later, her bangs have filled in and sit nicely around her face.  I asked her the other day what she will remember most about this year.

I was yearning for an inspired response such as learning the Mayan calendar, evaluating the tidal effects of the super moon, building a model airplane with liquid nitrogen power packs or studying the book of Mark.

She answered, “My bangs. I like my bangs. They turned out okay.”

Once again, I am reminded that no matter how things look when you face yourself in the mirror with a foreign object precipitously pegged to your noggin, that these life tangles have their way of sorting themselves out. It just takes scissors, time and perspective.

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Tangled Up and Blue

I am not much of a fisherman.  I tend to screw things up on fishing duty more so than contribute to the pursuit. Why I continue to be invited to participate is beyond me. My latest disaster entails  a momentary lapse of concentration, taking photos of a beautiful place called Point of Hope (ironically) while leaving Jacqueline at the helm. Water depth was to be maintained at a steady 90 feet to keep a high-tech engineered fish catching contraption off the bottom. As I left the helm in the capable hands of a six year old with years of navigational experience, I had a brief sojourn on the stern of the Mollie-O, to take a photo of Kary with a picturesque lighthouse off his starboard shoulder. It was a darling moment.

Suddenly, all you-know-what broke loose. Then something else broke loose that ought not.  It seems as though our skipper (under my un-watchful eye) had veered off to a more shallow course and we were dragging our tackle through gunk and rocks. Worse, we suddenly became snagged on the port side and the downrigger went crazy, taking the full brunt of the force. It gets better. The boat was now drifting towards the steep rocky cliff just 30 feet away. Toward the picturesque lighthouse.

Mayhem ensued. Kary grabbed a knife, started yelling for a hard turn to starboard and then went around cutting things that are supposed to come back with you to the marina.  Things lightened up quickly and literally once he had junked the fishing equipment in lieu of an on-the-rocks scene requiring Coast Guard assistance.

After the code red phase was over and all tackle was essentially lost-at-sea, Kary quietly went to the cooler, took out a cold item in a can and went up to the bow to sulk. For a couple of hours. Later that evening while we quietly prepared dinner for the kids, he looked at me with a small grimace, then a tiny smile, and said ‘Okay, I forgive you.’

Our second fishing trip of the summer began with my demotion from first mate to ordinary seaman.  Rachel gladly accepted my position from the captain.  I raise this so as to point out that what came to pass was under her firstly-mate leadership, not mine this time.  A 300- foot length of polypropylene line had been prepared to be fed over the stern along with two tandem prawn traps. Those of you who subject yourself to frequent crab or prawn fishing will be familiar with a moment called “NOW” which requires approximately 2 hours and 115 depth sonde readings to establish, while driving in circles and going blind staring at a Garmin.  We were hovering over the “NOW” spot where all of the prawns were scheduled to commune at that very moment, and overboard the trap went, with gobs of blue line following fast.

My father always taught me to be careful with the coiling and releasing of lines, usually anchor lines and bow lines.  The main point was to get the line free and clear before feeding it out. Also to be sure not to look at the Garmin for at least 3 minutes prior to allow circulation to return to the eyeballs.

This time, I think that step might have been cut a teensy bit short. But being in the ordinary seaman role on the org chart I didn’t want to point that out. I just focused on the water depth.

The miraculous thing about the massive glob of blue tangled line that went overboard is that it managed to save our trap.

It’s a bit complicated to explain but the quick story is that the line went wonky and wild as it rapidly tried to keep up with itself and the submerging trap. On its way down, it tangled badly, leaving a ‘hanging loop’ on the edge of a big blue mess.

Then, to add insult to injury, our prop unknowingly went through it (notice the use of passive voice), cutting the line.

We didn’t know this at first. We figured it out when we saw shreds of blue stuff tangled around the prop. That’s another type of marine emergency with which we are quite familiar. With ease Kary saved the day on that one. He is an experienced El Captain and knows what to do with blue stuff wrapped around your prop.

Next, we nervously returned to look at the float, to see if it was pulling a Wilson or if it was holding fast.  Seeing that it was doing its bobbing and floating job in good cadence, we decided to leave the scene. I’m not sure how that sounds to you but sometimes this happens in fishing. You just leave and hope for the best.

Two hours later, we returned for the second and most important moment in fishing also called “NOW” and held our breath as we pulled the float into the boat and began to recover the line. Would our trap be gone? The bounty escaped? One hundred prawns doing a happy dance in a new house?

Miraculously, all was safely secured, by virtue of one big … blue … polypropylene … mess.

The line was cut. But the tangle held.

How often in life we struggle through something that feels like one big blue tangled mess. I sometimes find myself focusing on the mess at hand, the tangle, the disaster. The would’ve could’ve should’ve done. The demotion. The lack of concentration. The loss of material items. The embarrassing mistake. What strikes me as ironic about this little fishing story is that in the end,  the big ugly tangle not only held the pieces in place, it actually saved the bounty. That’s something to chew on.

The 26 prawns we consumed that night tasted sweeter than ever.

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Looking for Darren

We arrived safe and sound on Vancouver Island a few days ago, ready for something we notionally call vacation.  Having spent our first week in Calgary visiting friends, co-workers and family, we came out to the Comox Valley ready to see a bit of Creation’s best.

A walk to Elk Falls yesterday did not disappoint. With over 25 meters of drop from top to bottom, the Campbell River dramatically gushed over the spill point to a clear pool below. We hovered overhead by a recently constructed suspension bridge crossing the deep river valley.  Lego construction in mind, I talked to Ryan about beams, cables, anchors and brackets in a clumsy <I’m not an engineer> sort of way. He seemed to enjoy thinking about the feat of stringing together pieces of steel, pounding beams into concrete and then asking people to walk across.  We slowly walked to the middle, looking down through the barely-there steel mesh floor to the river below.  Ryan laughed and joked about what I would do if he dropped his retainer over the edge. I just kept thinking about the iron ring story that Canadian engineers like Kary tell and wondering who certified this project.

Trust the bridge I said to myself. Trust the engineers. Have no fear. Don’t think about the wobbly feeling.

***

Across from the Avalanche Pub in downtown Courtenay, stood a young man with red hair, freckles, a sunburned nose and a tattered shirt.  In his hand was a cardboard sign saying, “No job, please help.”

I was on my bike, headed to the hardware store. I needed to buy a tube of super duper miracle glue for a repair job that Kary had thankfully agreed to take on. Although not one requiring the iron ring per se, it was going to require some form of suspension. (Don’t laugh but I ripped off the handle on the microwave.)

Darren caught my attention with his sign and I decided to stay and talk for a minute while the light was red.

We made some small talk. He told me a little bit about his life. The light turned green and red and green and red and we kept talking.  I ran out of things to say and finally got up the courage to ask him if he knew of a good church in the area. I told him about Pastor Johnnie at the church we attend in Comox. Maybe you could come?

As I rode off I thought about him again. By the time I left the hardware store I was sure I needed to go buy him a sandwich. Maybe chicken.

When I got back to the street where we had met, Darren was gone.

I wanted to tell him about the bridge. Somehow it just made sense to me.

Elk Falls bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flying Ambitions

I took a test when I was in high school which promised, if I answered the questions truthfully, to tell me what I would be good at in life.  A sophisticated algorithm collected data by asking for answers to an exhaustive list of Freudian questions such as : “While looking at yourself in the mirror, do you part your hair on the left or the right?” and “Do you consciously put the cap on your toothpaste or do you unconsciously leave it uncapped, therefore consciously rebelling against your inner child?” and “Which form of capital punishment would you choose if your future child were to draw blood in battle with another sibling over an egg sandwich?”

I don’t recall much about trigonometry, thermodynamics or marshmallow explosion theory.

I forget how the results were rolled out for this exam, but included may have been musical vingetes, uniforms, badges, certificates, tattoos, textbooks and other miscellaneous items required for said indoctrination. A memorable day it was.

I thought to myself, this career-generating robotic algorithm must have merit. There must be hundreds of PhD’s behind a curtain in a lab holding long pointy needles who have tested enough rats to know which answers fit for each career recommendation, a.k.a. identity profile. What followed my first thought was a highly mature and introspective thought process about destiny, end game, God, free pizza, and careers that boys would think were cool.

I decided to read what the results said, pray a little prayer, give it a sniff test, see if it sounded plausible, then decide if I liked what with the test said. If yes, then I would believe and sign up.

Ready for this?

The test said I would be an excellent Air Traffic Controller.

(Silence)

Right. I know, daughter of electrical engineer, oceanographer, ham radio operator and radial ham sandwich enthusiast. Daughter of bilingual, high-functioning culturally culinary worldly parenting guru. Grand-daughter of famous D-Day commander. Older sister and shepherd to younger inexperienced and dislikable sister (ewe). This all made too much sense. The vectors were all pointing one direction. The test results must be true.

During the sniff test I reflected that in addition to coming from the perfect gene pool for this perfect new identity, I also knew how to fold a 420 sail small enough to shove it into a bag, and I had learned how to expand marshmallows in the microwave to the point of explosion. I was ready.

Fast forward my life by about (cough) 30 years and there could be nothing more ludicrous than to think I could have been good at moving airplanes around airports with living objects imbedded within.

Me thinks the Freudian method of identity search flawed.

In addition to the obvious skill deficits concerning punctuality, attention to detail, and artisanal napkin folding abilities, I could add at least 12 other civil and criminal violations that would have disqualified me from this position, primarily but not exclusively the abuse suffered by my younger sister while on trans-continental flights.

So where was my source of identity at this point in life? In a Scantron Number Two Pencil Special administered and authorized by a Trustworthy Educational Institution.

Snort.

Here I stand (sit) at my little air traffic control tower (paltry desk slash junk pile) in my (non-ergonomic non-aerodynamic) chair thinking to myself, I have to get that small white airplane out of the hanger in less than 2 minutes or I’m going to be late picking up the kids.

Our second year in Mexico has, well, flown by (pun intended).

There have been many airplanes involved. Many flights, bags, lost bags, destinations, passengers, co-pilots, and squished elbows sharing arm rests with strangers. Figuratively speaking, claro que si.

Some of the flights have been exhilarating, breath-taking and jaw-dropping. The jungles of Chiapas, the waterfalls of Palenque, the ruins of Machu Picchu, the vistas overlooking Cusco and Quito.  Yucatan adventures to cenotes, ancient Maya civilizations, Spanish churches and pueblo centros. Discoveries of local fiestas and traditions.

But upon further reflection, and considering my failings in the air traffic control department, by far the best flights we took this year had nothing to do with airplanes, control towers, vistas or destinations.

The best part of flying has been meeting the people on the flight.

It has been a good year in aviation as well as in the mission field. On we go.

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