Monday, March 3, 2014

Putting Ideas into the Heads of Others

Finishing Elizabeth Wein's Rose Under Fire this morning brought a line from a fictional Soviet pilot and prisoner that resurrected a memory:
"When a person spends four months being interrogated by the enemy and is still alive at the end, the Soviet Union calls her a traitor, not a hero. No, thank you. I would rather hang myself than go home" (223).
I'd heard this before.

Two years ago I rode on a coach bus in the seat directly behind the driver. Driving overnight across most of the width of Pennsylvania, we made a few stops and I found opportunities to have a fragments of conversations with him--Ivan. When we shook hands, they were thick and rough like slate. 

At first, we talked about the weather and the Pennsylvania farmland. When we stopped for coffee and bathroom breaks, I dug for topics to talk about while Ivan smoked outside the idling bus. It was raw and damp for late September. The cigarettes looked tiny between his fingers.

The susurration of a plane, a glint of silver six miles above us, grabbed his attention while we small-talked about the upcoming game in California, Pennsylvania. His mustache was black. His eyes were black. The sockets around his eyes, also black. Through a thick, Russian accent, he asked questions about our sport, football, which he didn't understand, and he didn't take his eyes from the plane. 

I asked him how long he had driven coaches.

"Since Red Cross rescue me."

Ivan flew Crocodiles, the Mi-24 attack helicopter, during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. He was shot down by anticommunist guerrillas and rescued by the Red Cross. 

"Everyone go different direction. I go a few days. Mountain. Desert. Red Cross come this way. I go." He pointed ahead of himself as if remembering seeing the Red Cross trucks on the desert horizon. 

On the bus, I looked up everything he told me on my iPhone because he didn't use the words Crocodiles or Mi-24. He just said, "I fly helicopter. Like Apache." He laughed at the term "Crocodile" and wondered how I knew it. When I flashed the iPhone, he understood and settled in. He relaxed in the driver's seat and tilted his head back waiting for the next questions to come.

I quizzed him for hours during our ride. It was hard for him to speak back over his shoulder to me--sometimes because he had to focus on the road, other times he must have been focusing on the words and the images.

"In some way, I very lucky. In other way, no so much," he said.

Once he recovered, the Red Cross took Ivan to Canada because he could not be returned to Soviet hands; he admitted that he would have been executed since he was shot down in enemy territory. Leftover sentiment from World War II, no one was trusted. The Soviets feared any contact their soldiers might have with the enemy, so to avoid any chance of one of its sons turning against them, they were eliminated.  Surviving a crash or being taken prisoner was a certain death sentence Soviet soldiers knew upfront.

His family believed he was dead for a very long time. Years later, after the old ways were torn down, he was able to write home, but to that day we spoke on the bus he had not seen any of the family he left behind. His parents died having believed their son perished in Afghanistan.

Learning English by watching American cartoons, Ivan found work driving coach buses in North America with the help of the Red Cross. He's done it for the past thirty years.

He said, "I loved Tom & Jerry, but it took me three year to figure out no one speaking. I learn nothing, not anything, from Tom & Jerry, but I love them! Rocky Bullwinkle crazy too."

Because we had a lot of hours on the bus and he continued to engage my questions, I went deeper. I asked him if he missed home and if he was bitter. I asked what he wrote in that first letter home, and how he learned about his parents. I asked what he thought of the world today. He answered everything and never wavered, never rolled his eyes at me, never said a bad thing about anyone or anything that happened to him.

But he did say he didn't watch or read the news much anymore.

"Everyone lie," he said.

When Wein spoke last week about taking responsibility for your own actions it came with an additional note. Take responsibility for yourself "because we are all responsible for putting ideas into the heads of others. Especially writers."

But what truly blows me away is Wein's ability to find experiences, to dig for little truths, and to unearth stories needing to be told. I used to think that that was spectacularly hard. 

It isn't hard. The only difference between you and me and Wein, or Twain, or hell, even Mozart is that those people took the time to run their hands up and down the strings, or to listen, or to talk to people they've never met before. 

Whether we write or note, we all have stories alive in our life experience that should be told in some way. Maybe Ivan writes, maybe he doesn't. But he told me his story, and I shared a piece of it here.

Think of the countless fragments of stories shared with you. The stories "written" by others simply because they were alive and loving and struggling and everything that happens to human beings. How many of those little embers of stories inside of you, right now, right this second, are just begging for you to take the time to share it so that it might find a home--a bookshelf, a set of eyes, a young mind?

Whether we write or not, we are all responsible for putting ideas into the heads of others. What ideas will you put out there--to your kids, your family, your friends--the stranger who drives the bus or who sits next to you on the train? What ideas will you put into the minds of others in your next meeting or in line at the market?

Think about that.

Especially if you are a writer.


  1. A great piece of history. Your expression for telling our stories and the stories of other people creates a longing to do just that. I have stories to tell and can make it happen. Thank you for the impetus.

  2. Every life is a story worth writing. Thank you for writing. Thank you for sharing Ivan's story. I found myself curious about the slate-colored hands... but loved the dark bus and the questions back and forth as you researched.

  3. There are so many stories waiting to be told. Thank you for sharing this one.