A Close Shave

By Fr Charles Duster

The author

Fr Duster [DOOster] is from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA. He was ordained in December 1961. He worked in Japan from 1962 till 1969. He spent some time in the USA as vocation director and was later to spend 23 years working in Fiji. He also studied canon law in Rome.

It was a missionary’s dream vacation. During the summer of 1967, a Columban classmate of mine, Fr Jim Duffy, who was on his first six-year tour of Korea and I on my first term in Japan, decided to fly down to the Philippines to visit our Columban classmates and confreres. Little did we imagine that it would bring us within two minutes of meeting Our Maker! The trip began well with an exciting week in Manila followed by a wild ride on a commercial bus to Olongapo to visit friends in the Province of Zambales near Subic Bay, a huge US Navy port in those days. The bus drivers on the Victory Liner seemed to compete for passengers by racing one another and passing in what I thought were dangerous situations on the narrow two lane highway.

Fr Duster in Japan

During the second week of our vacation, we decided to visit the Columbans on the island of Negros, the sugarcane-producing island of the Philippines. That visit was uneventful in terms of 'heart in the throat' experiences in the beginning, but it didn’t conclude that way. It was on our way to Bacolod Airport in Negros on 6 July that Father Jim and I experienced the closest call in our lives. A Columban friend, Fr Ed Roberts, offered to take us in his jeep to the airport, about a three-hour trip. On the way, we passed through Binalbagan, a large town with a sugarcane processing mill and a regional hospital.

A recent photo of Fr Mickey Martin

We were told that another Columban whom both Jim and I knew from our days as exchange students in our seminary in Ireland, Fr Mickey Martin, was in the hospital recovering from hepatitis. Naturally we felt duty bound to visit him. That was the key to the rest of the story. Father Mickey, as any Columban could tell you, is 'a talker'. He has perfected the Irish penchant for telling a story in colorful but in somewhat extended fashion. Consequently we stayed at the hospital far longer than expected.

A piano lesson in Japan

Nobuyuki Tsujii, blind from birth, plays his own composition, Elegy for the Victims of the Tsunami of 11 March 2011 in Japan

When we got back on the road and were approaching Bacolod it started to rain and there was more traffic. We pulled up at the tiny airport at 5:32pm to catch a 5:45pm scheduled flight for the 25-minute trip to Cebu. The plane was on the runway, just twenty or so meters from the gate, the door still open. We had our tickets in hand, but the young man at the gate refused to let us board saying the pilot wanted to leave early because of the weather. Argue as we might, he would not let us through. Somewhat disgruntled, we headed back to town and slept in a hotel.

The next morning at breakfast, the manager came over to our table and said, ‘Weren’t you two priests supposed to be on the last flight to Cebu yesterday evening?’ ‘Yes, we were,’ we replied. ‘We missed it by two minutes.’

‘Well thank God you did, it was a good thing you missed it because it crashed into the mountain and all aboard were killed.’ At first, it was unbelievable that we were that close to being on board that flight that killed 17 passengers and four crew members. Father Jim and I looked at one another and he said, ‘Thank the Lord Mickey Martin was a talker, or we would be having breakfast with St Peter this morning.’

A Fokker F27 Friendship like the one that crashed [Wikipedia]

Later that morning, on the short flight to Cebu, the plane hit a number of air pockets and you would have been amazed to see how many rosaries came out of purses and pockets with everyone making the sign of the cross. We later learned that in addition to the two 'No Shows' on that fatal flight, Father Jim and I, there was also one last minute cancellation. It seems that a female passenger had seen the passenger list and saw that there were two foreign priests with the names Duster and Duffy scheduled to be on the plane. Since we didn’t appear, she got off and cancelled her trip. Apparently, she thought it was a bad omen that the two priests scheduled to be on the flight didn’t appear. Call it faith or superstition, but it saved her life.

This close call never would have happened in today’s world with such tight airline security and careful screening before boarding, but things were much looser and relaxed in those days.

How close we came to death didn’t really strike Father Jim and me until later that afternoon when we were reading the accounts and pictures of the crash site in the newspapers. In a sense, it was the most effective spiritual retreat the two of us had ever made.

What did I learn from this 'near encounter' with the Lord? I think at least three things. God must have wanted us to be around for a while longer, so ‘use the time well’ was one lesson. Another was if things don’t go as I had planned or expected, maybe God has a reason. And finally, don’t run for a plane or a train or a bus. If you miss it, maybe you were not supposed to be on it and I haven’t done so since.

Quiet time with the Lord

Editor’s Note: Philippine Airlines flight PR 385 crashed into a mountain on 6 July 1967, due to poor weather conditions. All passengers and crew members aboard the flight perished. Fr Duster still remembers them in his prayers.