Memoir excerpt

Excerpt from the memoir-in-progress, AFTER A LITTLE RAIN ON THURSDAY, on our arrival in the Soviet Union in 1988


At last, our motley retinue of 200 Americans descended Aeroflot’s push-up jet stairs and set foot on Soviet soil in Moscow. Among us were peace activists and businessmen, journalists, teachers, students, housewives, ex-military men, a California surfer who brought his skateboard—all adventurers of goodwill. The youngest walker was ten years old, from Iowa, who persuaded her mother to come with her to learn about Russians. The oldest walker was over seventy and set the fastest pace.

We followed our American leaders through an unmarked door into the Moscow terminal, subdued by the prospect of passing through Soviet Customs. The windowless hallway opened into a vast room where people waited in countless lines to talk to uniformed men in glass booths. The glare of the lights high overhead made my eyes water. My pulse beat faster as I chose a line. During our week of preparation in the U.S., we had been warned about the many, many, many things that were not permitted in the Soviet Union, including pornography, drug paraphernalia, and numerous other unspecified items detrimental to the State. We had been strongly advised to be mindful of our conduct and do nothing defiant or disrespectful of Soviet authorities.
As the line inched forward, I remembered the Aeroflot barf bag I’d stolen from my seat pocket on the plane. Would the Customs officer ask me to empty my pockets? Would he accept my defense of innocently wanting a souvenir of the Russian language description of how to use a barf bag? Is a sense of humor allowed?

When it was my turn, I stepped up to the glass booth and faced a young man in a plain brown uniform that needed ironing. He wore no nametag or badges or medals. The stiff collar chaffed one side of his neck. His visored cap was too large for his head. I smiled as I offered him my passport. He studied my photograph, then his dark eyes scrutinized my face. He looked at my bright homemade nametag that read “Jenny” in English and “Dzheni” in Russian. Still holding the passport with my Los Angeles address, he said, “I like see California.” His wistful smile matched the impossibility in his voice.

“Maybe you will one day,” I said, because I had brought my optimism with me from America. I’d often dreamed of seeing the Soviet Union—and at long last, here I was. A moment ago I’d been dreading this confrontation, and instead I’d met a boy who would love Disneyland.

He shrugged and turned away to write on the Customs form. With his head bowed, he looked like a man praying. I could give him my return ticket and find my own way home. The Ukrainians I knew in LA would greet him at LAX if I asked them to, be his hosts, teach him English, introduce him to a nice Ukrainian girl. Maybe he could get a job with U.S. Customs and marry the girl and have a family and take them to the Santa Monica Pier and write happy letters home—

He pushed my passport back to me through the hole in the glass. Pointing to the Peace Walk ID badge around my neck, he gave me a thumbs up. In my simple Russian, I told truth to power: “Let peace begin with us.”

He winked and pointed me toward the exit, then motioned the person behind me to step forward. I was sad to leave him. He was my first real Russian, and we both liked California and peace, a very good omen.

After waiting for hours in the Moscow airport, we flew to Odessa, landing in the middle of the night, or the middle of the night before, I didn’t remember anymore. The only light was from our jet’s floodlights as we descended the stairs to a vast, empty tarmac. The only sound was from skateboard wheels as the lanky blond surfer made slow circles around us, in and out of the light. Where were the Soviet walkers who were supposed to meet us? We were exhausted, hungry, and felt abandoned. Not even our leaders had any idea where to go without our hosts, so we waited in the dark.

Our salvation began with the distant sound of buses, then the bright flash of headlights coming toward us. Bus after bus after bus, twenty in all, pulled to a stop. Doors opened and people sprang down the steps, calling out greetings as they ran toward us. We ran toward them, calling back, happy to be found. Our skateboarder zoomed ahead, the first to cross the diminishing divide between our two converging groups. In the middle of an airfield in the dead of night, somewhere near the city of Odessa and the Black Sea, our apprehensions vanished in the eager welcome of the Soviets who’d been waiting for us for hours. Our laughter didn’t need translation.