We were sitting around the table, after a long day of idea-bashing about restoring warbirds, when my new friend from Romania asked a logical question. He asked, "Why do Americans want to buy old airplanes? I do not understand."
I thought for a few minutes and spit out a bunch of trite phrases about the aircraft representing America during it's finest hour, the purity of form, the evolution of the propeller driven breed and a bunch of other stuff I'm not sure translated well. However, as I was desperately seeking logical explanations for a thoroughly illogical, and there fore, thoroughly American, trait, a corner of my brain was remembering Sasha and the insight he gave me into my own country.
The year was 1989 and Sasha was a 16 year old Russian exchange student who came to live in our home for a few months. My son Scott had been part of the first US/USSR student exchange and Sasha came as part of the package.
First, you have to picture the times; Glasnost was still a word no one knew how to accurately translate and The Wall was very much in place without so much as a hair line crack visible. The times may not have been deep cold war, but it was still pretty chilly between the two countries and for a young Moscovite like Sasha, coming to America was of the same magnitude as a trip to the moon. He had to be terrified, being thrust into the land of the capitalist warmongers.
Sasha was an incredibly bright kid who spoke excellent English with a slight British accent (English trained teachers). He was also prone to spit out wonderfully innocent observations with little or no warning, most of which were unintentionally profound and revealing.
For instance, we were sitting at a Burger King (not his favorite food, by the way), and he asked about the MIA flag flying under the US flag at the little fire department across the street. I explained it and he then looked up and down the street, evidently noting the number of American flags flying in front yards and on businesses. "Are American's required to fly your flag?" he asked. I answered in the negative and I asked if they didn't fly Russian flags at home. He was surprised at the question, answering that no, Soviet flags only flew on government buildings. Then he stared at the flags across the street for a few seconds and said, "I am thinking that Americans are very patriotic people." Out of the mouth of babes!
At one point I decided to show him part of my world, so we went out to our local airport. As soon as he saw all the airplanes he started looking around and I asked him what he was looking for. He answered, "The guards." It took a lot of explaining for him to understand that none of the little airplanes belonged to the government and even ordinary people could own one if they worked hard enough. I borrowed a 172 to take him flying and you would have thought I had the Space Shuttle on loan, he got so excited. As I strapped him in, however, he became quieter and quieter. There was no nervousness showing. No fear, just the thoughtful contemplation I had learned meant he was soaking everything in.
As I rolled out on the center line and fed the power in, my attention shifted from my young Soviet guest to the job at hand. In fact I had completely forgotten he was there until at about 700 feet, his quiet, almost reverent voice came through the intercom and in slow, incredulous tones whispered, "Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!"
I glanced over and the look on his face brought tears to my eyes. For him, it was obviously a moment of pure discovery. It was as clean and as wondrous as birth itself and he was too innocent to worry about being cool and trying to hide his feelings. As he had so often given me a peek at America through new eyes, at that moment he reintroduced me to flight.
Sasha could be a stitch sometimes without meaning too. At about two AM, the night before he was supposed to go home, I heard the TV down stairs and went down to find him sprawled before the big screen. I asked him what he was doing and he said, "It occurred to me that before I go home I should watch at least one American horror movie all the way through."
One of his better observations came while we were talking about what were obvious lacks in the American educational system. He went silent again, then said, "Americans always seem to be laughing and having a good time. They are never serious and don't seem to work very hard, yet, they get so very, very much accomplished. Why is that?" Why, indeed, Sasha?
In the last hours before he left, I asked him what he had found the most surprising during his visit, knowing that he had been well briefed by their State Department before coming over. Without hesitation, he said, "We were all very, very surprised at the warmth and friendliness of the American people and the way they opened their arms to take us in. We really did not expect that."
I learned a lot about being American from a Russian. Now that his own world has been turned upside down, I can't help but wonder where Sasha is today. I hope you've found your niche young man. You certainly helped me understand mine. BD