Sunday, February 21, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.15: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 15

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance as a Teacher - To Moscow, With Love

In 1973, politics spilled over into teaching, this time for the better. The Nixon administration began a series of discussions with the Soviets. The leaders of both countries made peace offerings to ease the Cold War tensions. The Soviet Union offered to allow tourists. The United States offered to send some.

That, in a compacted telling, is how the US decided to send its first high school trip to Communist Russia. It was a package deal that included four high schools from around the country all traveling together. Students taking Russian language courses qualified. There weren't many of those, of course, but my father taught two levels of Russian at Northwood High plus an option for independent study. He and his students applied and got picked.

The slightly odd part is that my father elected to take his family.

"When will we ever have this chance again?" he asked.

My two-year-old youngest brother wasn't allowed. My mother didn't want to leave him behind and pointed out, "What would I do, really? I don't speak any Russian. I don't know any of your students."

That left my middle brother and I as the ones to pack bags and trundle onto the 747 bound for Helsinki, Finland.

There were no flights between the US the USSR. The Soviets wouldn't allow Americans to fly through their airspace. For the trip, the high schools had to take a FinAir jet from DC to NYC to Helsinki. Then they drove by chartered bus to the Soviet border.

At the border, the Soviet guards gave everyone a hard time. They alternated between stern commands and bureaucratic lectures. Everyone stood in eight lines with two customs agents at the front of each line. After a while, my father got his turn. The Soviets spent a while making sure the passport picture was his. He spoke Russian, so he insisted that it was. They laughed at his young, beardless visage from 1960 and held it up next to him to show the difference between it and his bearded, middle-aged face. After that, they searched his bag and felt satisfied. My father ushered me forward. The guards chuckled. Behind me and to my left stepped my younger brother. They noticed him and, for the first time, they started to laugh.

At this point, the guards made a big show of not inspecting our bags. They opened mine but they waved their arms over the contents as if casting a magic spell. When my younger brother tried to give them his bag, a smaller version of mine, they brushed it off. One of the men returned the bag to my brother and tried to pinch his cheek. He saw it coming. With a shout, he dodged it.

For whatever reason, that made the guards laugh even harder. They waved us through like we were comedian celebrities. In less than a minute, as our group took our positions beyond the border, the two border guards got back to shouting sternly at tourists and demanding to feel their toothpaste tubes.

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