Month: January 2017
So, the unimaginable happened.
A Russian military transport plane landed on the runway at Ramstein Air Base, headquarters for the U. S. Air Force in Europe and a key element of NATO’s defense system.
The crew of that plane was flabbergasted as they were greeted by American school children offering them flowers. Almost immediately our Air Force people, using mechanized equipment, began loading the cargo while the Russian crew was whisked off to their visitors’ quarters.
That night at a banquet hosted by both Americans and Germans, Jim Murphy offered a toast, saying in part, “When you work together, you become friends and when you become friends, there is peace.” The spokesperson for the Russian crew, most of whom did not speak English, in his toast offered sincere gratitude and then brought the house down by adding, “In our military academy we learned over and over how to bomb Ramstein. Today, we were greeted with flowers.”
Although many, many people had worked very hard at making JET-HI happen, and many would have dearly loved to be on that plane as it returned to Russia with EIGHTY TONS (!) of donated goods, only six were allowed to do so. I was lucky enough to be one of the six, for I needed to finalize plans for my students to go to Ivanovo in April. It was cold and snowy as the plane landed at an air base near Ivanovo, but never in your life could you imagine the warm hospitality with which we were welcomed. While the Russian ground crew unloaded the plane using strictly manual labor, we six were ushered off immediately for a “little snack”—tables laden with food and drink and, of course, many toasts! And it was that way everywhere we went. In the next few days we visited in Russian homes, schools, an orphanage, and a military hospital (where many veterans of their war in Afghanistan were still being treated). We saw very clearly just how great the need was.
In April when I returned with my students for the other half of the student exchange, Marina gave me a folder with several sheets of single-spaced lists of names and signatures of people who had received any portion of that cargo. (I should have looked for my jacket, eh?)
Never underestimate the power of the Boltushski!
As I said earlier, our experience with that one community of people in a former enemy nation not only spread good will for America, but for me it was a clear demonstration of the generosity, compassion, and optimism of the American people.
[Thanks for sticking with me—if you did.]
As it turned out, during that fall, 1991, visit of Russian teens and adults to Ramstein American High School in Ramstein, Germany, the Champagnes and I were not the only ones becoming increasingly aware of the dire straits faced by many of the citizens of Ivanovo. Interest in helping just snowballed! The effort became known as JET-HI, Joint Effort to Help Ivanovo.
Initially, Lynn and I envisioned maybe getting one or two truckloads of humanitarian goods to a Russian airfield in East Germany where a Russian plane would pick up the stuff and fly it to Ivanovo. (The difficulties of getting trucks through the East German countryside, then through Poland and the Ukraine made simply trucking the stuff impractical.)
The German village of Ramstein is part of a far larger geographical area dominated by the city of Kaiserslautern. The Kaiserslautern area provides a temporary home for thousands of Americans. It is, in fact, the largest American community outside the United States. Moreover, there are several other American facilities within, say, a 70-mile radius.
Ultimately, we had trucks set up in all those communities to collect food, clothing, and necessities such as OTC medicines and vitamins. Mind you, it could not have happened without the wholehearted support of the military itself, especially Jim Murphy, whose daughter was my MUN president that year; John Gravlee, and Alex Carothers, whose wives were on the RAHS faculty with me. Plus a host of men and women who worked with them! The base authorities turned over for our use a small, temporarily unused warehouse to store goods as we collected, sorted, labeled, and boxed things up. Dozens of military people as well as their dependents and other civilians were involved in this process. (At one point I laid aside my denim jacket and it somehow got grabbed up!) The whole thing became truly a community project. And the German communities were involved as well; German businesses donated hundreds of pounds of such things as sugar and shoes.
Early on, it was clear that the initial idea of “a couple of trucks” meeting a small Russian plane in Winsdorf was proving to be a gross underestimation. The most practical solution for transporting the goods was to have the Russians pick up these goods in Ramstein. But how?
Remember: this was happening a mere two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and there was still a great deal of antipathy and suspicion directed at Russians in general. (I daresay those feelings were mutual.)
Eventually two U. S. Air Force colonels and a member of the Russian parliament (Boris) managed to cut through the red tape, but it was not easy! They had to deal with the governments of several countries in order to secure permission for a Russian military plane to fly through their air space—not to mention their own military folks (who, understandably, become quite territorial in such matters). They were asking permission for something that had never been done before: landing a Russian plane at the very headquarters of the American Air Force in Europe!
But they did it.
And it happened in February, 1992.
(To be continued . . .)
Last time I told you how my friend and fellow educator, Lynn Champagne, roped me (not unwillingly!) into being the American connection for a student exchange between Ramstein American High School in Ramstein, Germany, and a secondary school in Ivanovo, Russia.
In the fall of 1991, twenty-two Russian teenagers, accompanied by seven adults arrived by train in Cologne and then traveled by bus to Ramstein. They were welcomed heartily by their host families. For a week the Russian students attended classes and extra-curricular activities with our American students. At one point, they, along with their hosts, were treated to a field trip to Trier, Germany’s oldest city, originally founded by the Romans. Besides other informal get-togethers, there was a huge potluck Thanksgiving dinner at which the Russians entertained with music and dance performances. Among their favorite numbers: “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” and “We Shall Overcome.”
However, it was not all fun and games. The underlying reason for the exchange was to break down barriers of prejudice and hostility. It is important to remember that this exchange was occurring a mere two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had come down, but Germany was not yet fully unified, and there was still a huge Russian military presence in East Germany.
The seven adults who came with the student visitors were their principal and five teachers, including Marina Belova, my counterpart who also served as interpreter when the need arose. These educators were keenly interested in our system and had many questions as they observed all aspects of it. The seventh adult was Marina’s boyfriend (later her husband), Boris Bolshakov, Ivanovo’s first democratically elected representative to the Supreme Soviet (parliament).
Not surprisingly, Boris had political motives in accompanying a school group to the West. Not only was he shoring up support for an upcoming election, but he thought he might be able to lay some groundwork for a link with the German government to secure some much-needed medical equipment for Ivanovo. To this end, a meeting was set up with the local representative to the Bundesrat (comparable to our House of Representatives). I was invited to sit in on this meeting. Ultimately, nothing came of it, but I have to tell you, it was pretty impressive! Here was a man who had been a young soldier in the German Army in WWII and a former KGB officer calmly discussing issues of concern to their once-enemy governments.
[Sidebar:] The visit of Russian students and their chaperones had been dutifully cleared with the Ramstein Base authorities; they were given a complete list of names, occupations, and passport numbers. Apparently no one bothered to examine the list. But in any military community nothing goes on for long without someone eventually taking notice. My friend Lynn was called out of her class one day and told to report to the base commander’s office where she faced the general and an aide. “Do you know who this man is?” they demanded, referring to Boris. “Yes, he is a friend of mine,” she said. The aide went on to explain that Mr. Bolshakov should have received VIP treatment including accommodations usually reserved for the highest ranking visitor officers. Lynn assured them that her guests were content with their situation as it was. Later, she said, “I hadn’t the heart to tell them that Boris was quite happy sleeping on the floor in my basement.”
At dinner the evening after the disappointing meeting between Boris and his German counterpart, Boris and Marina opened up about the bleak conditions faced by their town, including an urgent need for medical equipment. “In fact, we desperately need everything,” Marina said. “Our people are really suffering.” (Later I saw it for myself and my earlier comparison to the more depressed areas of Detroit was right on target.) Knowing that members of a religious group in the military community had recently delivered a two truckloads of donated goods to the Ukraine, Lynn and I suggested we might be able to organize such aid for Ivanovo. Marina’s response was that “every little bit would help.”
However, we also knew that those trucks bound for the Ukraine had run into a great deal of red tape and other difficulties in East Germany and Poland. We pressed Boris: if we could get a truck loaded with goods to Winsdorf, an air base Russia still had in East Germany, could he get a plane to meet it? He thought he might be able to do so, but he was very skeptical of the whole idea.
“Boltushski!” was his exact response, said with a smirk and a wink at Ned, Lynn’s husband. Roughly translated, he was dismissing all three women at the table as “chattering females.”
[Next week: JET-HI—Joint Effort To Help Ivanovo.]
Or, Foreign Relations As They Should Be!
During the recent election campaign, we heard a great deal of negative rhetoric about refugees and how we should or should not view people who were not lucky enough to be born Americans. It brought to mind what, for me, was an event showing Americans at our very best—our generosity, our compassion, and our “can-do” optimism.
[Warning! This is a long story, so I am telling it in segments here.]
In June of 1991, with graduation over and students long gone, I was busily sorting, tossing, and storing things until the fall, when this cheerful little sprite of a woman came waltzing into my classroom saying, “Have I got a deal for you!” I knew her, though not well, as a fellow teacher, albeit in the elementary school on Ramstein Air Base. Lynn Champagne was also the mother of two students in my English and U.S. Government classes. On a recent tour to Russia, Lynn had met and become friends with Marina Belova, a teacher of English in a Russian secondary school. Lynn’s “deal” was that I should agree to be the American sponsor of an exchange with high school-aged students from Russia.
Ramstein Air Base was and is a NATO base, headquarters of the U.S. Air Force in Europe, and an important element of the American military presence in Germany. Lynn had already persuaded my principal that the exchange could be a good educational experience for our students, and he later cleared the way for it with the base commander. I bought into it because I sponsored the Model United Nations club, and because I and my students were keenly interested in people-to-people international relations.
My Russian counterpart was to be Marina, whose school was located in Ivanovo, a textile center some 150 kilometers NE of Moscow. This was 1991, only two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ivanovo was hard hit by the economic crises that followed. (Think Detroit in recent decades.)
I mentioned to Lynn that if the Russians were interested in a student exchange, perhaps they would be interested in Model United Nations as well. Oh, my. Were they ever! Me and my big mouth. MUN is a big deal in the international schools in Europe. THIMUN (The Hague International Model United Nations) sponsors a week-long conference every January in the Congressehalle in The Hague, The Netherlands. It involves about 3,000 students. Each school is assigned a country to represent and discuss—from that country’s point of view—whatever issues the U.N. itself deals with that year. The trouble was that country assignments are made in January each year for the next year’s conference. My club already had two full delegations. But “our” Russians were eager to participate; THIMUN directors were enthusiastic about involving the Russians; and I hadn’t the heart to disappoint those kids.
At the time, the Department of Defense operated about fifteen high schools in West Germany, most of which had MUN clubs. I knew that some of them did not have full delegations for the 1992 conference. So, I called other faculty sponsors and asked if they would be willing to add a Russian student to their delegation. Not a single one of them turned me down! What’s more, they were willing to pay the fee ($135) for the Russian student. (I did mention that they were from a severely depressed area in a country hit hard by its political turmoil.) One American school took two Russian students, and another took three!
So the Russian students were spread out that year among several American delegations, but the next year they fielded their own delegation, and the following year they hosted their own mini conference. Today, MUN is an important element of schools in Ivanovo, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.
But I get ahead of myself. We have not yet got to that first exchange and its aftermath.
(To be continued . . .)