This is a story in five parts.
Today: Part Four
My grandparents are wonderful, generous people. They also love to travel, and for two Midwestern, Depression-era kids they have had amazing opportunities to travel this little planet. When my mother was a child they considered moving to Egypt where my grandfather had a job offer. When I was eight or nine they brought me amazing souvenirs from their trip to China: satin, embroidered pajamas and a gorgeous doll. But the best souvenirs from any trip, in my opinion, were the postcards. I know now that Grandma was being frugal, but she always brought me packages of blank postcards with beautiful photographs on the front: the Great Wall, German castles, charming Swiss villages… I had a box (from China) where I kept all of my beautiful postcards and the money they gave me, too (how I loved the Japanese coins with a hole in the middle). Combing through my box of treasures was an adventure itself. It’s no wonder I grew up longing to travel!
As we boarded the plane in Leningrad (as it was still called), I felt that my great adventure was ending. Not that we were headed home. My grandparents had planned three days at the end of our journey for relaxation in London, and I was thrilled. But leaving the USSR for the UK seemed safe and secure.
I was wrong.
We flew from Leningrad to Helsinki where we had several hours to wait for our plane to London. As we sat I was mesmerized by the Muslim man sitting in the waiting area. We had studied Islam in school. I knew about Mecca and prayer rugs and the strict rules of Islam for men and for women. The man was dressed in long flowing robes and exotic baggy pants and looked like someone out of Lawrence of Arabia. Then he took out a prayer rug, placed it carefully on the ground, and began chanting and praying. I was transfixed. So was the entire waiting room. I stared as this man said his prayers, rolled up his rug, and went back to reading his book without looking the least bit embarrassed. I was shocked. Simply walking across the waiting room made me feel self-conscious. To display my faith and to create such a stir – well, I would have rather died (or so I thought).
We boarded the plane, and it turned out that the prayerful man was seated next to me. My grandparents were several rows behind us. As we took off, I watched Helsinki shrink below us and mentally bade farewell to the adventurous part of my trip. But my Muslim friend had other ideas. He smelled vaguely of alcohol when he sat down on the aisle, and I thought that was a little odd since my Social Studies teacher had said that Islam forbade drinking. But I didn’t think much of it until the beverage cart came around. He ordered several bottles of alcohol at a time. And the flight attendant didn’t bat an eye. She came around again. Again he ordered several bottles of alcohol – the hard stuff. Then he called her back and even more shots were delivered. I had never drunk alcohol before, but I knew this was not normal behavior outside of Animal House.
As the man became more and more drunk, his behavior also became erratic. He was trying to read, but it was clear he couldn’t concentrate. He had a black bag at his feet with which he kept fussing. And then he asked me to hold his hand. Actually, it was a command.
“Hold my hand or I will die,” he said.
I wasn’t sure I had heard him. “What?” I asked.
“Hold my hand or I will die,” he said again. Yep. I had heard him. And the fear coursed through my body. After all, just six months earlier a huge plane had blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland. And I watched the news. They thought it had been Islamic terrorists.
I have a good imagination, and suddenly it was clear: this man with his black bag and his massive drinking was going to blow up my plane. I started to sweat. I just stared at him.
To be continued...