When Dennis became a board member with MAF, he was required to come to a field where we work to see what it is really like and he naturally came to Zimbabwe to visit us.
It was a truly memorable time for both of us. He went on many flights with me, including a trip to Mozambique. We were just coming in to land in Nampula when Dave LePoidevin, our Mozambique program manager, got on the HF radio. At one point there was estimated to be 1.5 land mines per every man, woman and child in the country and now a man with Halo Trust, a demining organization, had just been blown up while trying to clear a minefield and we had been asked to take an emergency flight to pick him up and bring him to the hospital in Nampula.
We were very happy to be able to jump in and help. As we loaded the patient into the plane, we put our hands on him and prayed for him and I remember great peace coming over his face. It was a beautiful flight back through some spectacular granite mountains that would be a rock climbers dream. It really made an impression on Dennis.
At the end of his stay, I arranged a visit to my great friend, Dudley Roger’s, hunting area in Gokwe, where Dennis was able to take a kudu and impala for the meat supply in the hunting camp and our trip down the valley.
Then we drove on to our other close friends, Bill and Meryl Taylor, in Chalala in the Bumi Hills area on Lake Kariba. They spend their days doing an elephant study on the lake shore and we have had some remarkable experiences with them there. Some weeks before, they were sitting in their vehicle watching a group of elephants walk down to the lake when a young baby elephant broke away from the group, came right up to the truck on Meryl’s side and lifted its’ little leg to reveal a snare cutting deep into its’ flesh. It was as though he knew Bill would help and expected him to pull out his wire cutters on the spot and take it off right there. As one does. But Bill didn’t have wire cutters with him in the truck. That kind of thing doesn’t happen twice, so Bill got on the horn and tried for all he was worth to get a vet up to do a snare removal exercise. He knew of at least 4 eles carrying snares in the area alone.
We showed up just in time for the operation and it just so happened they needed someone to be safety backup for the Vet with the dart gun. This can be dangerous, as the elephant may very well take offense at being darted in the bum and just come and stomp you! So, someone with guides license and a rifle needs to be there to control the situation if necessary. I had my trusty .416 with me and got the privilege of being that guy. Dennis and Cher were able to come along and we first went for the little ele that had held his foot up to Meryl. The plan was to dart the mother and, because the baby will stay beside the downed mom, someone would then run up and pole-syringe the baby. It was a odd situation and something I will never forget. The group was split in two with the mother and baby by themselves; a perfect setup. The rest of the group were down the shoreline about 100 meters to the right, eating peacefully. Bill Taylor was in his vehicle by them with all our people and I was with Roger Perry, with the dart gun, and a few others. As we came up to the mother she trumpeted, knowing something was up. But there was no reaction at all from the other elephants! Then, as the vet fired, she did the elephant rumble thing, which is undoubtedly coupled with infrasound communication not audible to human ears, and the whole right side group turned and ran, and I mean ran, to her aid. The mom was down and the baby stood beside her. Men approached looking very menacing, but before we could do anything the matriarch of the group charged in, wrapped her trunk around the little one’s neck and literally swept the baby elephant away between her legs and right into the middle of the rest of the group. In spite of our attempts to drive her back by firing a Tru-Flare Bear Banger over her head, which is usually very effective, she never hesitated. I was very impressed with this matriarch’s bravery and her knowledge of what to do to foil our plans. We just had to wait for another day. Bill helped the downed mother by talking softly to her and covering her eye with her ear to protect it from sun damage. She was given the antidote and within seconds she popped back up onto her feet and slowly joined the rest of the group.Then we went for one of the big bulls that had a snare buried deeply in its’ ankle. It was out on the grassy shoreline but as we approached it “casually” strolled toward the mopane scrub for more cover. It was not the best situation as our view was now restricted and the bull could come at us without our seeing him till he was right on us.
As Roger and I started to enter the mopane, one of the cow elephants at the edge of the lake started sneaking up toward us. Cher signaled from the vehicle that a cow elephant was coming in from behind. I turned and saw her but I was worried about tipping off the bull to our position if I tried to yell her off, so as she came around the corner I stuck up my hand like a metro cop stopping traffic and the cow hit her brakes, turned and ran off. Cher was impressed, and I was just a little surprised at how nicely it worked, but I was too busy to stop and think about it then.
We got right in close to the bull but he turned quickly and stared straight at us, giving no shot for the dart gun. Finally I decided to yell and he pivoted around, giving Roger the chance to put a perfect shot into his bum. He ran out to the edge of the mopane by the grass before going down and we were able to assist him with the snare and recovery.
It was wonderful to get to share all this with Dennis. It’s the kind of thing that not everyone gets to take part in and he loved it.Each time I came to visit in the states Dennis would just fire up a helicopter, which I thought was very cool, and let me fly it. We would go up into the mountains and see elk or go have lunch at “Flying M” ranch or something else fun and special. We talked deeply and encouraged each other.
I heard last month that Dennis had been diagnosed with virile liver cancer and today, only a month later, I have heard that he passed away yesterday. I want to say that he could fly a helicopter like nobody I have ever seen, he could shoot straight and he told the truth. But there are deeper things than that. He was a good man and a good friend. Not because he was so “good”. He never would have said that about himself. But he was covered with grace. In a way that leaves you with the feeling that he really was very good indeed. Grace is amazing that way.
He wrote to me on my blog when I was feeling a lull in hearing God talk to me. He said some great things, probably the most important being to keep showing up to talk and listen. I really like that. The other thing that he said was that the silences are not for nothing. They serve a purpose. We don’t always know why, but I have been thinking hard on that. I was thinking about how I go into the bush with friends who have taught me much, like Piet Clemence or Bill Taylor or Dudley Rogers. If I am always with them I am in a learning mode and not really thinking for myself. I experience things, but the ‘answer man’ is always there with the best idea. But when I go alone, something changes. I make decisions the best I can. I make choices that need to be made because I have to and that makes me grow in my ability to choose well. Sometimes my choices are right and sometimes they aren’t but I grow because I have to do it myself. It is easier when Piet or Bill or Dudley is there, but easy is not always best for me. Maybe that is what Dennis was getting at. Thanks for that my friend. I will always remember you.