In 1951, a film entitled “Duck and Cover” was released and shown to school children all over the United States. Because the Soviet Union detonated their first nuclear device the year before, the U.S. government wanted to prepare the population for a nuclear attack. Thus, the duck and cover campaign was born. Shelters were built, drills were held in towns and schools, and the film was shown to all schoolchildren.
And as a young child, I found all of this disconcerting. Who were these people that wanted to hurt us? And there was talk about Soviet spies in America. As an impressionable child, all of the Soviet Union was evil and all they wanted to do was hurt us.
Fast forward to 1993. David Tyler Scoates, a renowned minister and close friend called to invite me to travel with he, his wife Vonda and a small group of people on a goodwill trip to Russia. This was just a little over a year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and this trip was focused on advising and supporting farmers there, helping them to get better production from their crops as well as to extend a hand of friendship.
And of course, I wanted to go! To travel to the former Soviet Union and see my country’s former “enemy” was an experience I did not want to miss. I also thought it would be great trip for my daughter Ashley and I to experience together. Not only would going to Russia be exciting and educational for her, it would give me a chance to have a special ‘father/daughter’ trip for the first time, with just Ashley, who was now 21 years old.
One of the things we wanted to do was to take gifts to the children and to the adults as well. Luggage space was limited, yet I wanted to give something meaningful to the adults. I had been told that they really like blue jeans, so off to the store I went, buying various sizes, mostly large or extra large as that was the size I thought all Russians were!
After being in Moscow a couple of days, our group loaded on the bus and headed to the farm we were sponsoring to meet with the farmers, the clergy and governmental officials. There, we would do a ceremonial planting of potatoes and then enjoy lunch with all of them. Prior to boarding the bus, I brought along a number of pairs of jeans to give out to the farmers and promptly put them in the rack above my seat to have them handy to get to once we reached the farm. As it turned out, the ride to the farm took a few hours, and, with all the excitement and the ceremony looming, I forgot to get the jeans down off the rack as I departed the bus.
Once the pleasantries were made, we each then participated in the ceremonial planting of potatoes. Afterwards, we made our way to the feast they had prepared for us set on tables under large trees next to a beautiful lake. There were no chairs, so we stood on one side of these long tables and conversed with the locals who were standing on the opposite side. Narrow in width, it made for great conversation, albeit, they were the ones speaking our language, not us speaking theirs! Across from Ashley and myself were a couple of farmers and clergy. At first, they were referring to Ashley as my wife - this happened several times while we were there as older men marrying younger women is common there. Explaining that she was my daughter, they immediately said they want to marry her; quite funny, love at first sight! We all had a good laugh.
One of the things that was so familiar to me was being on a farm. A farm is a farm regardless of where you are in the world. There are chores that have to be done, schedules to follow, and hard work to be done. And these were good, hard working people.
Once lunch was over we began saying our goodbyes and boarded the bus. Once aboard, I looked out of the window and saw a couple of the farmers standing there to see us off. It reminded me that I hadn’t given the jeans away. So, I immediately grabbed them, hopped off the bus and reached out the jeans to hand to the farmers. They both shook their heads ‘NO’. I kept reaching the jeans out and they continued to shake their heads ‘NO’. I couldn’t understand so, I asked our Russian guide to find out why they wouldn’t accept my gift. She inquired, and told me they could not accept as they had no gift to give me in return. I told her to please tell them that their gift to me would be to accept my gift to them. She did so and they accepted the jeans. Then, one of the farmers took his note pad and wrote and handed me a note. I had our guide read it to me; “In appreciation of your generous gift to us, my family and I would like to host you and your wife to dinner at our home tonight.” WOW!! That was touching and something that I would have really liked to have done. But, it wasn’t possible, so I thanked him for his kind gesture and we headed back to Moscow.
On the drive back, I couldn’t stop thinking that these two farmers were about my age. If we’d have gone to war with Russia, they could have been the “enemy” that I was trained to kill when I was in the Marines some 25 years earlier. My childhood perception of the Soviet enemy that I had to “duck and cover” from was challenged. These were wonderful, hard working people. From their own volition, they wanted to be my friend, not my enemy.
While in Moscow, Ashley and I visited their one and only flea market. After several attempts to find a vendor who spoke English, we succeeded in finding a young man and his wife who were in their early 20s. While I was interacting with this young man, Ashley and a friend decided to walk around the market. He was quite pleasant and we had a very enjoyable conversation. Soon, he invited me to come around to the other side of his table where he asked his wife to hand him something: a bottle of Vodka! He unscrewed the cap and handed it to me and said, “We drink to brotherly love!” We each took a swig and then commenced to drink to world peace. The irony of drinking to world peace with my “enemy” was not lost on me. We continued to drink to happiness, life, joy and a number of things as we conversed. We talked about his concerns for the future and his desire for his country to stay in peace.
Once Ashley returned, my new friend said something to his wife and then said to me, “My wife and I would like to have you and your wife to come stay with us for a few days as our guests.” I thought, how kind and generous of an invitation, but due to our schedule, we had to respectfully decline.
As the plane lifted off the Moscow runway a few days later, I couldn’t help but think about these wonderful people. They were just like me. And like my family and friends; they want to live their life in freedom and joy. They didn’t want to harm me, they wanted to be my friend. And I had the same feelings for them.
I am glad that I was able to have this experience. And it was life altering. It taught me that in a world filled with conflict, there are people living in war zones who are just like you and me who want to live peacefully, who want to have families, who want to and live in love and light. But instead of living a life in peace, they have to duck and cover. And I pray for them and I pray for peace for all.