By: Russell T. Hitt
Review by Kentucky Advocate, Travis K. Kircher
“Missionaries constantly face expendability. And people who do not know the Lord ask why in the world we waste our lives as missionaries. They forget that they, too, are expending their lives. They forget that when their lives are spent and the bubble is burst, they will have nothing of eternal significance to show for the years they have wasted.” – Nate Saint
I call it “The List.”
I imagine most Christians have one. It may not be written down on paper, but if you’re an orthodox Christian who believes in a literal Heaven, more likely than not, you have a list filed away, even if it’s only in the recesses of your mind.
The List consists of all the people you hope to meet someday, when the Body of Christ is finally reunited forever on the other side of the sky.
I have a list. Of course it goes without saying that it is populated with family members and friends who have died before me. But there are also people on the list I’ve never met before: people whose writings or life stories have made an impact on my life in some way or another. And my goal, someday, is to stand side-by-side with them in Heaven, and shake their hands.
Authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are on the list. Rachel Scott, who was gunned down at Columbine High School professing her faith in Jesus Christ, is on the list. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who faced down the Nazis, all the while decrying the fallacies of “cheap grace,” is on the list. Astronaut Rick Husband, whose faith and witness were suddenly cut short when he died during the space shuttle Columbia disaster, is on the list. Chuck Colson, the scoundrel of the Nixon administration who later repented and spent the rest of his life serving prison inmates, is on the list.
And I can honestly say that after reading “Jungle Pilot” by Russell T. Hitt, I have added one more person to the list: Nate Saint.
The book, originally published in 1959 by Harper Publishers, with an updated edition republished in 1997 by Discovery House Publishers, tells the harrowing life story of Saint, who spent the good part of seven years as a missionary pilot for Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) in the jungles and mountains of Ecuador, before being savagely murdered by Auca Indians in 1956.
At 320 pages, it’s an easy read. In fact, it’s a page-turner. It doesn’t hurt that the first chapter flows like the opening sequence of an Indiana Jones movie, complete with the threat of snakes, diseases, plane crashes, abandoned buildings, scorpions and angry Indians. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m an aviation buff, and a good portion of the book spotlights the dangers of flying over the Andes Mountains, where a single sputtering engine is the only thing that stands between you and The Almighty.
But what really makes the book a gripping biography are the writings of Saint himself.
Author Russell T. Hitt – who is now himself deceased – was a true servant: throughout this book, he makes no effort whatsoever to develop his own voice. Instead, he steps aside, in a literary sense, serving more as an editor than an author, and allowing the writings of Saint himself to take center stage.
And what a treasure trove: A lover of both journalism and photography, Saint left a priceless amount of prose in his wake. Hitt – with the approval of Saint’s family, and in particular, his widow, Marjorie Saint – managed to cobble together lengthy letters written by Saint to his wife, his parents, his MAF bosses in California, and various friends, with magazine articles authored by Saint, and even portions of Saint’s own private journal.
The end result is a biography that is almost an autobiography, with Saint’s writings rambling on for several pages at a time, making up about 60 percent of the book.
And the effect this approach has on the reader is palpable: by the time I finished the book I felt as though I knew Saint. A self-described “grease monkey for the Lord,” he was the type of wiry, unassuming guy you could easily imagine in the corner of some small airport, sitting in mechanics overalls, eating stale biscuits and sipping black coffee. Judging from the black-and-white photos, he was a Danny Kaye look-a-like: a guy who, with a goofy grin, would crack up at his own jokes, while he entertained you with stories about runways that were too short, mountains that were too high, and airplanes that were one bolt short of disintegration.
But he was also the kind of guy who, when he was done, would look you straight in the eye and ask you if you had repented of your sins and put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. And he’d expect an answer.
The book covers Saint’s life from its quiet beginning to its tragic end – and beyond. Saint grew up in Huntington Valley, just north of Philadelphia. His father was a designer of stained glass windows, and his mother, a poet. He had seven siblings. We learn of his childhood, when he grew up with a homebuilt roller coaster and a 50-foot swing in the backyard. By their own request, he and his siblings slept in bunk beds on the roof of their home. Family devotions and special observance of the Sabbath Day, were mandatory.
“Outside the special Sunday rules, the children were permitted to do almost anything they pleased,” Hitt writes. “No one panicked when an eight-year-old boy shinnied up to the peak of the barn roof, or was found studying the gears at the top of the windmill. On warm summer evenings, the dinner bill often called the boys and Rachel
Ever the mechanic, young Nate would build a six-foot glider (one he flew like a kite) from a drawing in a magazine, as well as his own working sailboat, named Sinbad, that would, “lift out of the water and skim along on the Deleware River, often leaving the sailors of more conventional craft talking to themselves in the Sinbad’s wake.” He would even craft a papier-mâché head of Mussolini in caricature – because you have to do something to entertain yourself when you’re suffering from a bout of osteomyelitis.
We walk with him through other milestones as well: his first flight in an airplane, his career in the U.S. Army, a near-fatal hike to the top of Glacier Point in Yosemite, his courtship of and eventual marriage to Marjorie Farris, his call to be a missionary pilot, and his ability to raise a family and fly a plane in the jungles of Ecuador.
Quite the philosopher, we get Nate’s take on various topics along the journey:
On the tendency to “water down” the gospel: “When I take an unsaved fellow to hear a man preach and the message is diluted with secondary things, I always feel like telling the preacher he’s an unfaithful steward and a traitor.”
On his love of mechanics: “I want to be useful in some way. It will feel good to get greasy, get a few calluses, skin my knuckles on a gadget, hurry to get ‘er ready to go on time, and go to bed really tired again.”
On the atomic bomb: “How about this new atomic bomb deal? Makes me feel the coming of the King is closer than some of us conservative folks dared to suspect…”
On fighting in the war: “We’re here to give our lives that folks at home might live physically as Jesus gave His life that we might live spiritually. Though few soldiers see it this way, here is the Christian soldier’s outlook: He’s not going over to kill, but to safeguard life at home; to give his life if necessary…but remember, nobody’s going anywhere to kill.”
On witnessing in the Army: “The Lord has been blessing in a way that challenges my faith; another of my buddies has been redeemed and is a child of the King now!”
On first meeting Marjorie Farris: “I was immediately captivated, but tried to hold the fort because I had no idea who she was. After she left us I asked Jo about her – and walked all the way up to the center of town kicking myself every step, the way you would if you had just thrown away a winning ticket, then found it was the winning number.”
On encountering a giant bat: “The ‘swooping eagle’ turned out to be a 12-inch bat…later I downed a couple of these creatures with a broomstick. They were full of lice and smelled terrible. Needlelike teeth grinned through hideous faces.”
On tortillas: “A tortilla looks like it should line a saddle. It would make an excellent potholder, or you might use it as a doily. You might saw holes in them and pitch quoits. Oh well, the dogs under the table like them. With rugged determination, I downed three-quarters of one. It tasted like a generous helping of bad cardboard, treated and coated with terra firma…”
On the scenery in Ecuador: “This corner of Ecuador is a fascinating piece of God’s creative handiwork. Mornings after we’ve ‘washed’ in the basin in front of the tent, the sun climbs high enough to show us the snow-coated peak of Sangay, an active volcano 40 miles away. It blows up smoke and ash, and at night, you can see it shoot red lava fireworks into the air. When the sun chases the clouds farther up the pass that comes down into Mera, we’re able to see the huge, snow-covered crater of El Altar. The climate is wonderful.”
On hardship in Mexico: “When coping with bugs, no toilet facilities, linguistic prison, malarial climate, tropic heat, bad food, and so forth, forgive me Charlie. I’m sure you get the point…Today is my first up-and-around since the all-night-long attack of diarrhea that left me so weak by 5 a.m. that I could only roll on the floor calling for help. ‘Malo! Senor es malo!’…When lying in your own dung, only semi-conscious, linguistically dumb, please excuse me for not being more explicit on the finances.”
On aviation: “When I take pictures, they are of the work the Lord has laid close to my heart – Indians and airplanes. When I lie awake at night (I seldom do) my mind is on safety devices and methods for the airplane to help reach the Indians. When it’s a letter home, it’s airplane – Indian – Christ. You can see, can’t you, that when I try to write a story, I like to write about airplanes and Indians. The Indian is the motive. But all I know about him is that he’s lost unless I keep the airplane going and get the news to him. The airplane is my job.”
On race: “Kathy [Nate’s daughter] has already made fast friends with her playmates, who are children of the Institute’s staff workers. It’s a lesson and a challenge to watch them play with some of the Indian children, mixing up baby talk in three languages. They aren’t the least worried about the war. Why then should we be, children of the coming Prince of Peace?”
On Indians: “Really, it would break your heart to see the empty, sad faces of some of these people. Life means little to them. Death means demons and torment.”
On Sex: “It should be said that sex has a God-ordained place in love, clearly. But sex is the flower, not the root. Love is the root that sustains and supports the stem and the leaf, and blossoms out to the flower. The divine order is love first, then sex. The human order is sex first (even in the limited plane of natural attractiveness, without any abuse of propriety), and then true love. And for the Christian, if it doesn’t turn into true love, woe, woe to that condemned soul.”
On the continuous battle with ants: “Our ants work at night. They can strip a small tree of everything green in one night. They can’t get into the house because we have oil canals around all the support bases. Out at Dos Rios station not long ago, the ants carried out 100 pounds of shelled corn in one night, one kernel at a time…”
On the Incas: “…an entire empire that slipped into the pages of archaeological history without one entry on the pages of the Lamb’s Book of Life, as far as we know…”
On landing on short, makeshift jungle airstrips: “It was like parking your car in the garage at 70 miles per hour…”
On meeting new converts: “We were greeted by scores of Indians that ran up from all directions. They extended their hands in welcome and poured out smiling paragraphs of greeting and inquiry in their own language. They only word we caught was ‘brother.’ They wanted to know right off the bat if we were brothers in Christ.”
On an airplane engine failure: “We were headed into the roughest stretch of the trip, when the engine cut out. Henry jumped six inches off his seat like a human cannonball. I don’t know how far he might have gone if his safety belt had not been fastened.”
On babies crying: “It’s a good thing it grates on us as it does. If it didn’t, I guess the poor little yardbirds would die of hunger.”
On gravy: “Give me some more of those potatoes, will you? Potatoes, after all, are just a vehicle for good gravy!”
On getting results: “We all want results…we want missionary materials moved safely, economically, and on-schedule. May the Lord give us results by any channel possible, whether it be by logarithms, drawing boards, catalogues, and midnight oil, or by local experience, hunch, and seat-of-the-pants…”
It’s a testament to Saint’s writing style that there were several more passages I had to eliminate from the list for brevity’s sake.
As noted above, the events leading up to the savage murders that would ultimately end the lives of Saint, along with fellow missionaries Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming and Jim Elliot, are also described in the book, as is “Operation Auca” – an audacious attempt by Saint and his friends to make first contact with an isolated tribe of Indians known as the “Aucas.”
“Operation Auca” was a tightly held secret – kept so out of a desire by Saint and the other missionaries to establish contact with the Indians and share the Gospel before ethnologists, anthropologists and the media swooped in and turned the meeting into a circus. What we do know about the operation comes from 39 pages of closely typed notes Nate left behind in a secret diary – as well as a roll of film recovered after Nate’s camera was found at the bottom of a river.
The remains of Nate’s plane would not be discovered until 1994.
I won’t recount those murders here.
What I will tell you is that, when reading this book, one gets the chilling sense that the ghost of Nate Saint is sitting next to you, telling you, point-by-point in the first-person, the events leading up to his own death. By the time you reach the final chapters, you’ve come to think of Saint as a close brother in Christ – a writer with all the humor of Bill Bryson, but without the cynicism. When Russell T. Hitt informs you that you are reading the last letter Saint ever wrote, the realization hits you like a brutal kick in the gut.
Why did he do it? Why did any of them do it? Why would a man in the prime of his life – at the time of this writing, he would have been seven years my junior – with a loving wife and three beautiful children, risk his own life to meet a tribe of savage Indians with a 60 percent homicide rate?
The answer came chapters earlier, when Saint recounted an incident in which a Jivaro Indian – an Indian from a different tribe – was mangled after a tree fell on him. As Saint powered up the plane to prepare for a dangerous rescue mission into the jungle, missionary Roger Youderian (who would also later die as part of Operation Auca) ran an 18 mile trail in six hours (a daring story in itself) in order to send Saint smoke signals from the scene. The Indian was rescued – and Nate recounts the trip back:
“Lying beside me on the floor of the plane was a stinking, repulsive, mangled Jivaro Indian. The sight of the rotten wounds on the disfigured face turned my stomach. Yet I tried to look reassuringly into that one black pupil surrounded by hemorrhaged eyeball. Here was an immortal soul hanging over the brink of hell by a tattered thread. Here was one of the hopelessly lost ones that the Lord Jesus had come to seek and to save…a poor one-eyed killer who rarely had seen or shown any expression of pity. He probably trusted me only because his own people had given him up. Death, to him, was the horror of uncertainty; the anguish of a starless night forever. He knew nothing of God and less of Calvary. If I could only make it to Shell Mera, maybe Doc Fuller could pull him through the night. The Lord willing, he still might be snatched from the brink.”
I mentioned a “Heaven List” at the beginning of this review. Saint probably had one, but he also had something more sobering. He had a “Hell List.” He knew that those who die without repenting of their sins and putting their faith and trust in Christ would be lost forever – and he was desperate to see to it that those on one list would be moved to the other. That included the Aucas. Don’t expect to read Saint’s writings without being convicted about your own desire to see the lost saved.
The story doesn’t end there. This 1997 edition contains a timeline of later events, as well as a final chapter written by Stephen F. Saint – Nate’s son, who was a mere child at the time of the murders – that brings you up to date on what has happened to the Aucus (now the “Waodani”) since. I won’t spoil it for you, but it is jaw-dropping.
All that to say this: I highly recommend “Jungle Pilot.” The Christian community needs it. The aviation community needs it. And while I’m at it, I would like to make a special plea to the Saint family: From what I gather, there is a wealth of written material left behind by Nate Saint that was never published. Please consider releasing this material – all that would be appropriate – in some form of “Complete Works” volume, or perhaps a new expanded biography. I would make a similar plea to HCJB radio to ransack their archives to see if they have audio of Saint’s 1949 radio address on expendability. I and many others would love to hear it, if it exists.
For now, I’ll leave you with this final quote from Saint – one in which he comes to terms with the thought of his own death:
“I am deeply convinced that we live moment by moment by His tender mercies because He has a job for us to do ere we see Him face to face. I see no reason to expect that our homegoing should be dramatic, since it is not determined by dangerous nor dramatic circumstances, but by the will of God.”
“When God calls us home, certainly we shall have no regrets.”