Ever since Carlos could remember, he had wished that he could fly in an airplane. And ever since he could remember, everyone had laughed that he, a barefoot boy of the Colombian campo (countryside), would even have such a wish.
He knew it was impossible. His family didn’t have money for shoes, let alone airplane rides. But he still liked to dream. And every day he ran home from the little schoolhouse, hurried through his chores, then ran to the sugarcane mill to watch the afternoon plane fly overhead.
Carlos’s brothers always teased him:
“Mira (look)! Carlitos (little Carlos) is flying again.”
“Look at him zoom to the woodpile. Careful you don’t crash, Alitas (Little Wings). Now swoop down to the stream for a pail of water.”
Mother seemed to understand, though. She just smiled at her young son as she shaped the arepas (round white corn cakes) for their supper. “You can go now, Carlitos, as long as you feed the cow and the mule when you get back.” She swung her long black braid over her shoulder and went on shaping the arepas.
Carlos scampered up the hill. The well-worn path felt smooth under his bare feet, and a warm, moist breeze ruffled his hair. Soon he came to the sugarcane mill. During the harvest season he and his brothers and father ground up the cane there to make hard brown sugar cakes called panelas. Now, though, the old round millstones looked lonely nestled among the cane.
Carlos sat down on the hilltop and listened for the sound of the plane. He felt the warmth of the sun on his skin. Looking below him, he saw the rows of sugarcane, the banana plants waving gently beside his little house, the stretch of thick jungle underbrush, and the meandering river far below. I am truly lucky to live in such a beautiful place, he thought. But it would be wonderful to see it from the sky!
Carlos’s teacher, Señor Vargas, had explained that the small airplane came from the seacoast town of Turbo. It delivered mail to the small towns and plantations along the flat, hot coast before flying over the mountains to Medellín. There it refueled, picked up mail, and flew back.
“But, Carlos,” his teacher had tried to point out kindly, “in this village we are all poor, and poor people don’t ride in planes.”
Carlos had nodded solemnly, but he never stopped wishing that he would someday fly in a plane.
Now, as he sat on the hilltop near the mill, he heard the familiar thrumming of the mail plane, and soon it appeared overhead. Sometimes when it flew close enough to the ground, Carlos waved and the pilot waved back.
Suddenly Carlos realized that the familiar sound of the airplane engine had been replaced by a putt-putt-putt sound. Something was wrong! He watched with horror as the plane plummeted toward the ground and disappeared behind the hill.
Carlos scrambled toward the stricken airplane. It was rough going through the cane, but the soles of his feet were as tough as leather. When at last he saw the plane on the ground, one wheel strut was crumpled and the left wing looked like an accordion. He could see the pilot’s helmeted head resting against the side window. Is he alive? Carlos wondered. Carlos was scared and curious and anxious to help, all at the same time.
He called out to the pilot. His voice sounded lonely in the stillness. No answer. The helmet didn’t move. Then he saw that the engine had caught fire!
Carlos sprinted to the airplane, grasped the door handle with both hands, and pulled as hard as he could. Nothing happened.
Glancing at the underside of the plane, Carlos saw that the flames were licking toward the cockpit. Desperate, he pounded on the door. Suddenly the door opened, and the pilot toppled out—right on top of Carlos!
The boy staggered to his feet and tried to drag the man away from the plane. Although he was small, Carlos’s fear gave him enough strength to drag the man some distance from the plane. When the boy stopped at last to catch his breath, the pilot groaned, and Carlos noticed a nasty cut on the man’s head. Also, his leg appeared to be broken. The man opened his eyes just as flames completely engulfed the plane.
“Oh!” they both gasped. Carlos felt sick. The beautiful plane that he loved so much was burning up right in front of him. Tears filled his eyes.
The man gripped Carlos’s hand. “Don’t cry, boy. You saved my life!”
But Carlos saw that tears were streaming down the pilot’s face too. They hugged each other and tried to smile to cheer each other up. Soon Carlos was scrambling down the mountain again to bring help to his new friend, José.
Carlos’s father brought a neighbor who had had some medical training to set José’s broken leg and bandage his head. Since their valley could only be reached by horseback, José could not leave until his leg was healed.
Carlos was a hero! No one remembered that they had teased him about always running up to the mill to see the airplane. “How lucky that Carlos was in the cane field!” they said, and “How good that Carlos loves airplanes.”
Carlos just smiled.
José shook his head. “It was God’s will, Carlos. He knew I would need you to be there. You were there, and you saved my life. When I get better, I am going to take you for an airplane ride, if your father says it’s all right.”
Carlos couldn’t believe his ears! He turned to his father, who smiled and said, “OK, Alitas.”
Some weeks later José and Carlos set off for MedellÍn. And the next day Carlos was in the cockpit of a small mail plane, flying over his beautiful valley!
As José dipped the airplane’s wings, Carlos’s family and friends and Señor Vargas were all waving from the hilltop. And as Carlos waved, he was sure he was the happiest boy in the world.