Monday, 24 March 2014

camp stories

It's been a while - we're still recovering from St. Patrick's weekend! Baby Thea was sick at camp so there was a lot of lying awake with her in my arms, staring at the ceiling, remembering camp stories from days gone by.

Like the time I went to a farm camp in the middle of summer and our leaders marched us through a field of nettles. There wasn't much sleep that night either!

Or the school camp where we learned to abseil off the side of a cliff and my classmates all marched back to camp while I - fatally - noticed the blackberries on the side of the road. Since I had nothing to carry them in, I rolled up the hem of my extra-long t-shirt and arrived back at camp an hour later with a shirt full of blackberries, stained purple of course - and everyone laughed at me. I dropped the berries and crawled into my tent feeling sooooo humiliated!

But the most vivid camp story involves a plane crash in the jungles of Papua New Guinea (PNG) - a story that's very much on my mind this week as crews search for Malaysian flight MH370, missing since March 8.

My parents worked with a mission group that had volunteers scattered through the remote valleys and mountains of PNG, and while we had radio communication every day just so everyone stayed safe, we only saw each other once a year - at our conference in the central highlands.

We all had to fly there, in a fleet of tiny passenger planes operated by mission pilots that dipped and zoomed over the jungle. Mostly you'd have suitcases jammed under your feet as you traveled, and maybe 3 months' worth of groceries and a goat or two in the space cleared for 'bulky luggage' at the back of the plane.

a typical 'donga' - family accommodation during conference!

At conference each family had a small hut or 'donga' made of woven sheets of coconut matting. The huts had no electricity, running water or indoor loos - no mod cons at all! In bed at night you could look through a million and one pinholes in the walls and see starlight outside. The holes also let in the creepy-crawlies but that wasn't too bad - we were used to that!

Family photo, 1979 - I'm the girl with the pigtails on the far right

Most of the actual conferences are a blur for me, but the highlight was always talent night on the final night, where each family had to go up on stage in the big meeting hall and present an item. In 1979, when I was 8 years old, the Wilkinson family - including my friend Marcia - got up to sing a hymn. They'd just had a baby boy, and I'll never forget how Marcia's mum Lois cradled him in her arms and sang 'Because He Lives' with her face shining, in absolute, heartfelt conviction: 

How sweet to hold a newborn baby 
And feel the pride and joy he gives
But greater still the calm assurance
This child can face uncertain days

Because He lives!

Because He lives I can face tomorrow
Because He lives all fear is gone
Because I know He holds the future
And life is worth the living
Just because He lives!

The next day, Monday, planes began rolling down the airstrip, taking each family home - but the plane carrying the Wilkinsons never made it. When the pilot failed to contact base, all other flights home were canceled and the adults signed up for search parties that worked from sunlight to sundown, fighting bad weather, dense jungle and a 48-hour time limit on the radar beacon of the small plane.

My mum and dad both took turns in the air, or in the kitchen back at base preparing food for the search parties. The week dragged on until finally, on Saturday, my dad's team spotted the crash site; the plane had hit the top of a ridge and bounced down the side of the mountain with tail and wings exploding away from the main body of the aircraft.

And then one day I'll cross the river
I'll fight life's final war with pain
And then as death gives way to victory
I'll see the lights of glory and I'll know He lives!

As we mourned, the words of that hymn and Lois' conviction as she sang it echoed over and over again in my head. I knew it could just as easily have been my family that went down. That week I understood with brutal clarity that we never know when our turn is coming - and we have to be ready to cross that river - just like they were ready.

It's a lesson I'll never forget.

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