Speaking into the crackling microphone on the small plane’s radio, the Russian heavyweight wrestler spoke guttural Russian as we flew low and over the stacks of Three Mile Island.
“That ought to get somebody’s attention,” I said.
The wrestler’s laugh sounded coarse as Cossacks dancing on broken vodka bottles.
Ivan and his comrades had rolled into town for an exhibition just a few years after the 1978 TMI nuclear accident. Those men in the small aircraft had recently returned from combat tours in Afghanistan where “mujahideen” freedom fighters eventually handed them and their country a huge loss. The wrestlers came to the U.S. looking for a win, at least on the mats.
I was working for a small weekly newspaper in Harrisburg, Pa., and wound up onboard as part of a makeshift local tour that somehow sent us flying over the damaged nukes. The pilot and his 16-year-old son, two more Russians, Ivan and I packed the six-seater and took off.
I wondered if we overloaded the craft but nobody seemed to care. A few years later the same pilot and his son crashed into electric wires and died flying from the same airport where we took off.
But that day the friendship force flew high, the sky beaming bright blue among scattered clouds. That night, though, even under bright banquet hall lights, the atmosphere grew dark and stormy.
“Daddy hates Russians,” said the woman sitting beside me at a long table.
Shippensburg University hosted the dinner where the wrestlers prepared for an exhibition the next day. None of the Russians except their chaperone spoke English so the well-trained bruisers smiled and dug into their bloody prime rib.
Daddy just grimaced, hating Russians to his core but disciplined enough to control his ire. Don’t ask me why Daddy even showed up at the event but he did, clutching his greasy fork like a sharpened battle ax.
Depending where you lived in those days you quickly got the impression everybody hated Russians. Pennsylvania Dutch rural Central Pennsylvania overwhelmingly hated the anti-God Commies long before the breakup of the Soviet Union. At almost 71, I’m old enough to remember Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev threatening the West with the loosely translated words, “We will bury you.”
I also remember hiding beneath my grade school desk to prepare for nuclear attack. The teacher assigned me the responsibility of lowering the shades. Armed with comic books and chocolate Tastykakes, I also built a personal bomb shelter under the forsythia bush in my backyard.
Nobody in my neighborhood had yet heard the word “détente.”
But Daddy didn’t pose the worst threat to the Russians that night. The rock band hired for the occasion did. Redneck country rockers who normally play biker bars with bourbon on their breath can do a lot of damage to the goal of uniting nations.
Neither American stars and stripes nor the Soviet hammer and sickle hung on the wall behind the musicians that night. A huge Confederate stars and bars battle flag rippled from ceiling to floor as the band kicked into a Credence Clearwater Revival tune, maybe “Born on the Bayou” or “Run Through the Jungle.”
But when our long-haired, scraggly bearded lead singer in a cut-off denim vest finished the song, he pointed the microphone like a cocked Colt pistol, put on a kiss my grits smirk and addressed the Russians.
“We might one day all be killing each other,” he said.
Daddy’s ears perked up.
Ivan and the other Russians smiled.
I pushed back my chair, ready to spring into action at the first sign of a thrown beer pitcher.
The crowd got quiet as a den full of sleeping Siberian tigers.
“Yeah, we might one day all be killing each other,” he repeated.
Increasing tension pounded in a long few seconds.
“But not tonight,” he said.
I drained my beer and headed to the bar for more, relieved that war might come another day, but not that night a long time ago.
Russians recently started a new war in Ukraine.
If Ivan and his comrades are still alive, I wonder what they think. Maybe their children and/or grandchildren are leading the Russian charge, firing missiles, dropping bombs on civilians. Maybe some of their descendants married Ukrainians and live beneath bombs that drop from the sky. Maybe Ukrainian grandchildren make Molotov cocktails to throw and incinerate Russian soldiers.
The madness continues.
Thankfully, TMI failed to melt down.
Ivan and his comrades rode out Afghanistan.
Let’s now hope the world makes it through the threat of nuclear Armageddon. Or maybe “we might one day all be killing each other.”
Stop the war.