When a monkey sits on your head, that should be a good day.
It happened to Arlen Tanner of Lee’s Summit. He and his family had traveled to the island of Roatán near Honduras as part of a dental clinic mission. When the week ended, the Tanners took in local fun — zip-lining through the jungle, snorkeling … and, yes, a monkey sat on Arlen Tanner’s head.
But late that same night he clung to a kayak. Alone on a dark sea, miles from land. No life jacket. He looked up at high waves that pounded and tossed his little boat. Below him, troughs churned.
Tanner, 56, father of five, grandfather of nine, hung on for life.
“Then I flipped over,” said Tanner, a lawyer. “I managed to right the kayak, but it happened again.”
He got back on, lay flat on his belly and watched the faint glow of a lighthouse far in the distance. Too far. He thought about the new grandchild he hadn’t yet seen and another one due in December.
“That’s what I was thinking — that I would never see them, never see any of my family again or get to hug them,” he said Friday in a conference room at the law firm of Shook Hardy & Bacon.
But he knew if could hang on until sunup, he would be rescued.
It wasn’t even midnight.
Miles away on a beach on Roatán, Tanner’s wife, son, 23, and daughter, 16, stood and looked out to those same waters, as if waiting for some word, some sign, to roll in with the tide.
“That was the longest night of my life,” said Patty Tanner, his wife.
The couple’s three other children were notified that their father was missing.
The dental clinic bunch of 40 or so from the United States had arrived June 11 to serve the poor people of the island. It was the second such mission for the Tanner family. It was their task to conduct dental hygiene clinics.
The work lasted four days. Before flying back on June 18, everybody got a day off. Late on the afternoon of June 17, after the zip line and the monkey, the Tanners went snorkeling.
Arlen and Patty went out in the kayak. Patty climbed out to snorkel and knew immediately by the water’s depth they had gone out too far. She began swimming back to the island. Arlen knew too, but it was his job to bring back the boat. He began paddling.
“I thought I was coming in, but I wasn’t,” he said.
What they hadn’t known was that a storm on the mainland had created strong currents. No matter what Arlen tried, no matter how he tried to maneuver the kayak, he was being taken out to sea.
Patty lost track of him. She hurried in to tell her son and daughter. They alerted the resort, and soon a rescue effort began.
“The seas went crazy,” Arlen said.
He tried to hang on to the kayak. It was just a little 9-footer or so, and turquoise, but as Arlen said, it was a fantastic flotation device.
At one point in the darkness, three flying fish — “with effervescent lights” — jumped into his boat. He thought he could eat them if he had to, but then the boat flipped a second time and he lost them.
Finally the seas calmed. Arlen sang hymns and prayed for morning to come. At first light he heard a helicopter. Then he saw it bank and head his way. That’s when Arlen Tanner met his newest, bestest friend.
Giaco Palavicini jumped 30 feet from the chopper into the water.
“Hi, how you doing?” he asked as he arrived at the kayak and handed Tanner water.
“Good,” Tanner said. “I’ve been out here all night.”
“Yes, I know,” the diver said. “We’ve been looking for you.”
Tanner asked about his family. Palavicini said the chopper had called them immediately after spotting him.
As they waited for a fishing boat to pick them up, Palavicini told Tanner how his younger brother drowned when he was a boy because nobody could rescue him. That’s what he had dedicated his life to doing.
Back at the beach, a employee of the resort ran to tell the Tanner family that Arlen had been found. The helicopter even sent a photo.
Patty hugged her children.
“That was the moment that I cried the most,” she said.
When they arrived back at shore, family and some of the mission group greeted Tanner with tears and hugs. Children sang a church song, “I’m So Glad When Daddy Comes Home.”
“That’s when I broke down and cried,” Arlen said.
A nurse checked him out. He was fine.
His ordeal had taken him 30 miles out to sea and lasted 16 hours.
“I know that rough times make the best stories,” he said Friday. “I’m just so glad I’m here to tell this one.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182