Thursday, May 7, 2015

To Russian, With Love

          I ask “why?”, not to be nosy but because I love to learn.  My DNA is hardwired to seek “the rest of the story”.
          For the most part, my curiosity’s been a good thing, fed by Mom’s urging to “go look it up.”  Today’s kid would either search Google or simply wonder why their parent didn’t give them the answer.  I LIKED consulting that old encyclopedia of my youth, which often led to other books.  Or unexpected moments of hilarity.   Like the time I used it while babysitting my 5 yr. old brother.  There was a photo section on dogs, some of which made him laugh hysterically.  I can still see him rushing toward Mom, trying to balance that book as he yelled proudly, “Look Mom!  A Chinese Skinless!” He was pointing to a photo of a Mexican Hairless.  
I never once thought Mom didn’t know the answer to my questions.  I’d soon realize she was honing my skills for the day I flew the coop.
“Go look it up” also instilled in me there are two sides to every story…although one pundit claims they're 3 sides: Yours, Mine and the Truth somewhere in the middle.   I don’t like 30 second sound bites which theoretically state the truth.   I want to hear what the other guy has to say too.
Only once did my “need to know” mentality bite back.  It wasn’t that the individual felt the need to correct me or just plain shut me up.  It was who wanted to muzzle me: a teacher.
In America, every generation has grown up with an “enemy”.  Just check war movies by generation and it doesn’t take much to figure it out.  Either it’s individuals led by the likes of Hitler, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein or specific countries.  Sometimes the reason for being designated a “villain” is clear: say Hitler and the Holocaust.  But occasionally, an entire nation gets painted with the brush of evil thanks to one nutcase. 
I never expected that painter would be my teacher.  Or that I’d be singled out as a twelve year old traitor to America.  All because I asked “why?”
I don’t remember the teacher’s name, just the public tongue lashing after, of all things, an emergency drill.  Unlike Fire Drills, where you marched, single file, out the building to prove you could keep quiet and remain in a straight line while the building burned, our other emergency drill was…well, silly.  It was mostly for Tornadoes, but was also to include bombings by “our enemy, the Communists”.  There were two versions of this drill.  The first was sitting under our desk with a book held over our head.  The second involved getting on our knees, head against the wall, with a book on our head…which made us look like a row of weird, midget coffee tables.  There was always a boy in class brave enough to wonder out loud how a stupid book would help if a bomb dropped on us. 
Returning to our seats we were about to start the lesson when a kid asked who the enemy was.
“Russia,” the teacher replied, eyes rolling in exasperation.
Another kid wanted to know why them.  No, it wasn’t me.  I was painfully shy.  The smallest kid in every class, I tried to blend into the background, not be singled out. 
Sensing a plot to derail his lesson, the teacher spat out that Russians were evil; they hated us and would drop a bomb on us in a heartbeat.  They were not to be trusted and their goal in life was to kill us.
I was alarmed.  But not by the teacher’s claim we’d be murdered in our sleep by Nikita Khrushchev’s evil henchmen.  To me, a guy named Nikita didn’t sound scary…it sounded like his mama gave him a girl’s name. What alarmed me was that the teacher’s answer just didn’t make sense.
Another kid wanted specifics.  How would they get here to murder us?  What would they use to kill us?  Did they have to be mad at us first?
The teacher insisted we were hated simply for being American.  All. Of. Us.   For no reason.
As a kid brought up on the Golden Rule, that reasoning made no sense.  Suddenly I heard my tiny voice whisper, “But why?  They don’t know me.  I haven’t done anything to them.  How can they hate me?  I can’t believe some little Russian kid wants to die any more than I do.”
If looks could kill, this story would never have been written.
My innocence was the proverbial straw and I caught teacher’s wrath.  I can still see him seething as he told me, “You are stupid if you believe the Russians won’t hurt you.  Their children want to kill you too.”
Turning a flaming shade of red (how ironic), I shut up.  I don’t remember if I told my parents or if I was too embarrassed at having been singled out.  The lesson I took home that day was this: if you aren’t willing to try and understand the other guy, then no wonder he wants to drop a bomb on your head.   I understood Khrushchev wasn’t a nice man.  But I had a hard time believing every little Russian child wanted me dead.
And so I grew up, still asking “why?”…though not generally in a group setting. I’ve never outgrown the need to understand why people behave the way they do.  Now, just because I listen to both sides does not mean I agree with everything said.   It’s simply my way of viewing the whole picture.  Just because Hitler was a failed, tortured artist didn’t give him the right to torture others.  And while I occasionally wonder about Putin’s motives, I don’t believe the majority of Russian kids want to be KGB when they grow up.  I think they simply want to grow up.
Today, I received affirmation that little girl me was right.  Russian kids did not grow up with the goal of sending me to the great beyond ahead of schedule as I slept.  Some of them grew up to appreciate the concept of true freedom.
Nikolay was one of the soldiers our Foundation recently helped.  His last name sounded Russian too, but I didn’t ask.  The photo he sent of himself proudly holding his bow looked like photos of Russian youth I’ve seen in the past.   Stoic, yet proud.  Today I discovered his hometown is Moscow.  And yet he chose to serve in the U.S. military.  According to his Facebook page, “I’m just a regular guy, whose job is to jump out of planes and murder enemies of the United States of America in close combat.”
So Nikolay didn’t grow up to be my enemy…he’s got my back.  And when he was injured taking care of me, the Foundation and I were able to return the favor.  Take that Khrushchev and Teacher Man.  It’s comforting to know Nikolay and I grew up with the common belief that life is all about choice.

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