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Thoughts on life by Teri McCarthy

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Part IV – Moscow: April 27, 1986

Posted by admin in June 23rd, 2009
Published in faith, missions

Saturday night, my last night in Helsinki, I was packing and repacking and trying to sort through all my junk when Marianne brought me one ton of Finnish chocolate bars. Yes. Exactly one ton. Please note here that Finnish chocolate is ooohhh so delicious and I truly love it! But where was I going to put it all? Apparently she didn’t want me to starve on my flight to Moscow. That is, if I made it. Aimo kept reminding me again and again of Aeroflot’s horrific safety record, however the last few times he did add, “But of course, God is in control.” My fear now was that the plane would go down due to the excessive weight of my chocolate-laden luggage.

My plan was simple: I would fly to Moscow, spend a day there, and then continue on to Beijing. From Beijing I would head up to Changchun, the city where I had taught for two years, teach for a while, save some money and then take the Trans-Siberian Rail from Beijing to Helsinki. My hope was to pray over the nation from east to west and to observe something of life there firsthand. This had been a dream of mine for several years. God had given me such a burden for all of the USSR, but for Russia in particular. In less than 24 hours I’d be standing on Russian soil! Unbelievable.

I slept well my last night in Pia’s bunk bed. I prayed a blessing over her as she slept. I asked the Lord to keep her in the palm of His hand and that He would guard her heart and affections. In a short time I had grown much attached to my little pixie-faced friend.

The next morning, my big day of departure, Marianne and Aimo had arranged for a taxi to pick me up. I insisted on going to the airport alone so as not to take them away from church and all the family activities that Sundays bring. I got showered, all packed and was pretty much ready to go when I went into the kitchen to get one last cup of Marianne’s out-of-this-world coffee.

As I entered the kitchen, both Marianne and Aimo were glued to the small white TV sitting on the edge of the kitchen counter. There was some sort of news bulletin they were watching very intensely. Aimo motioned for me to sit down. The news was saying that nuclear radiation levels in the atmosphere around Finland, Sweden and Norway were extremely high and bordering on dangerous. Scientists and environmentalists were saying they couldn’t find the source, but it looked like air currents were bringing the toxic radiation from somewhere in the east. The government was issuing a warning to everyone and advised folks not to be outside unnecessarily.

“I bet it’s those Soviets!” Marianne whispered. Aimo shushed us and we focused back on the broadcast. Finally, realizing the time, Aimo turned off the set and exhaled. “Do you need to cancel? You can stay with us as long as you need. Really. I mean it. Don’t do anything foolish,” His concern was kinda freaking me out. Was it that serious?

“I’ll be fine,” I said with my stomach churning and fear gripping me like crazy.

Sad goodbyes. Inadequate words of appreciation. Promises to stay in touch. Promises to pray for one another. Pia hugged me big around the waist. I fought really hard to keep back the tears. I was safe in Marianne’s and Aimo’s home. I liked being with them. But I didn’t want them to think I was some sort of a chicken and I worked hard to put on a brave face. Aimo helped me with my bag down to the taxi. On the elevator Aimo reassured me, “If you change your mind come on back. We’ll be here.” He was taking the radiation warning seriously, as he should. “I think we might stay home today and have our own little church service here. Especially with the baby.”

He loaded my bag into the waiting taxi. He shook my hand and then his Finnish reserve evaporated and he grabbed me and gave me a big bear hug. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to say, “I’m scared Aimo. I wanted this so badly, but now I am afraid. Please tell me I can’t go and make me go back up to the safe apartment and sleep in Pia’s bunk bed for a little while longer.”

But of course I didn’t. I have no idea if Aimo knew what I was thinking. He said to me, “It’s been interesting. And it’s been a lot of fun. Marianne wants me to give you this note and trust me! There’s not $250 in it! It’s just a note.” He smiled. His little joke made the parting a little bit easier.

Aimo gave the driver clear instructions and off I went—an odd mixture of excitement, fear, sadness, anxiety and surprisingly, a little bit joy. I opened the note card from Marianne and it read, “Corrie ten Boom said she did not have great faith, but she had faith in a great God. I think you are a little more like Corrie than I realized. I’ll be praying for you. Please keep in touch. And stay with us on your way back through. Love Your Sister in Christ, Marianne.”

She didn’t have to say that. But Marianne’s heart was big and her love for God was big and her kindness to a stranger was overwhelming. Her words carried a lot of weight with me. I was grateful for the note.

The Helsinki airport was so clean and modern. I hadn’t seen it before and it was really quite nice. Aeroflot was using the national airport because they weren’t a part of Finland’s civil servants’ strike. There weren’t a lot of travelers and the airport was freakishly empty.

My flight was finally called and passengers walked out on the tarmac to load. Little did I know that Aimo wasn’t exaggerating. Aeroflot really is the worst airlines on the planet. My flight literally was the flight from hell. In a communist nation there’s no need to appeal to the consumer. Consumerism and customer satisfaction are concepts that only work in a free market economy. In a communist country people don’t matter. My wants, needs, and comfort were totally irrelevant to Aeroflot. Example: there was no carpeting on the plane. No carpeting. There was a rubber mat runner down the center aisle, but no carpet. When one is 30,000 feet above the ground, it gets a little, well, shall we say…chilly? The entire flight my feet were on metal, with no insulation. I had to keep moving my feet and wiggling my toes to prevent them from freezing and falling off. And the flight attendants were more like Guantanamo prison guards with orders to torment all passengers. It was scary. They were scary. (Anyone remember the old Wendy’s commercial featuring the Soviet fashion show? The flight attendants were like that. Seriously).

I couldn’t understand seat assignments. I had a ticket, but I didn’t see a seat number on it and the plane didn’t have seat numbers either. I asked one of the guards…uh…I mean flight attendants and she shoved me into the nearest seat. Yes, shoved me. I didn’t speak Russian, but she said something under her breath that sounded to me like “idiot.” Apparently they don’t give seat assignments and it’s first come, first serve. And I thought flying Southwest Airlines was bad.

My seatmate, a rather large middle-aged man with very oily, greasy skin said something to me in Russian and then laughed really loudly. He was carrying a huge opened bottle of Finnish vodka in his bag. How did I know? Because the bottle was so huge he couldn’t close his bag and the bottle’s neck was poking out the top. My seatback was broken and kept falling into the lap of the guy behind me. He wasn’t even fazed. He propped it up and then secured it in place with his knees. Yeah, like that is going to work the entire flight.

We were finally airborne and to be honest I got kinda excited thinking about setting foot on Russian soil for the very first time. It was that or I was getting a buzz from the vodka fumes of the guy sitting next to me. Either way, my fear and nausea were subsiding.

After a bit, our meals came. It was a cardboard box with a grease stain on the bottom. I was eager to see what we’d have. I was hungry. I opened the box and in it was a piece of blue/gray chicken with some of its chicken hair still attached to the skin. It was boiled (I think). Keeping it company was a piece of stale brown bread and a boiled potato. I shut the lid quickly. It had an odor. The guy next to me asked if he could have it and I passed it over to him. Thank God Marianne had given me that one ton of chocolate bars.

At last we arrived in Moscow! I was happy to be there. I was even happier to be alive. It had been a tough old flight. It was a clear and sunny day and not too cold. I decided I would do a cheesy sightseeing tour of the city first thing. The three Finnish travel agent girls had told me how to buy a city ticket and assured me it wasn’t very expensive.

Inside Sheremetyevo, the Moscow International Airport, I was surprised to see it was so dark. There weren’t a lot of windows in the building and very few lights. Everything was dreary. The floors were black tile, the walls were gray, the lights in the ceiling were dim and very few of them were actually working.

Our flight was met at the gate by armed soldiers. I just assumed, “Welcome to the USSR!” For me, it was probably just regular treatment, but a German guy behind me who traveled here often, whispered to me “This isn’t typical. Something’s wrong.”

All of us on that Aeroflot flight, even the Russians, were escorted into a large waiting hall. IDs were checked and Soviets were led out and all foreigners were told to wait there. There was a German tour group on my flight. Their tour guide didn’t speak Russian, but she spoke English and the Intourist (Russia’s governmental tourist agency) rep was there to meet them. The Intourist gal explained that there would be a delay. I asked the German tour guide what was happening. “I’m not sure,” she said. She looked a little worried.

One-by-one, each of the foreign passengers, myself included, was called into a small office for questioning. “Where have you been? Where are you going? Why are you going there? What is your business here? What have you seen on TV? What have you heard on the radio?” I was scared to death! I tried to answer their questions, but the guy that was questioning me had terrible English. I kept asking him to repeat the question and he got super fed up with me.

Our little group from Helsinki was huddled together speaking in whispers. I was dying to go to the bathroom. I asked one of the soldiers if I could use the toilet and he shouted at me, “Nyet.”

After a couple of hours, a Russian official came and met with our group. He made his announcements in Russian and a woman translated. The basic info was none of us were allowed to leave the airport and none of us were allowed to stay in Moscow. We could either fly back to Helsinki, fly to our country of origin or, if we were holding tickets as transits, we could continue on our journey, but under no circumstances were we allowed to leave the airport. That was it. No Q and A time. No explanation. No further comments.

I asked the translator where to go if I was flying on to Beijing. She was quite helpful and took me to a counter to have my ticket changed to the first available flight. She didn’t explain to me what was going on, but she was kind and very gracious. She told me where to get a bite to eat and then she had my ticket stamped, my passport stamped and showed me to my departure gate. I looked at my watch and it was a little before 2 o’clock in the afternoon. My flight was scheduled for a 6 o’clock departure. I was hungry. I had to use the bathroom. I was sad because I didn’t get to see Moscow.

I went to my gate to wait for my flight. The lunch counter didn’t take anything but rubles. And of course all the currency exchange windows were closed. Again, thank the Lord for Marianne’s chocolate.

At five o’clock there was no airplane. At six o’clock there was no plane. Seven, eight, nine, ten, and finally at 11 o’clock there was still no plane. At midnight, with no announcement, no explanation, no apology, no direction, I and a handful of other passengers were escorted to the tarmac and boarded the flight to Beijing. It would be a twelve hour flight. There aren’t enough words for bad to describe it. But the most important things were we didn’t crash and we arrived in Beijing.

At the airport, I saw China’s only English-language newspaper. The headlines read, “Chernobyl: Soviets Admit Nuclear Accident.”

Apparently the huge amounts of radiation Finland had reported on the day I left Helsinki was coming from a Ukrainian nuclear power plant in a city called Chernobyl. The magnitude of the radiation was that of a nuclear bomb. The world had never experienced an accident of this magnitude and no one knew for sure what the fallout would eventually look like. People would die; children would be born with birth defects; there would be a higher rate of cancer. In the USSR animals were being destroyed, crops plowed under, people relocated as the world watched the fallout of humankind’s worst nuclear accident. The results were the same as if it there had been an act of war—people died horrendous deaths and the effects of that tragedy are still being felt even today, more than twenty years later.

This was why the Soviets wouldn’t let any foreigners leave the airport. And simplistic as it may sound, I feel that a sovereign and wise God actually used the Finnish civil servants’ strike to prevent me from taking a train across the USSR that April. The way I see it, if there hadn’t been the strike in Helsinki, I would have taken the train at a time when massive quantities of radiation permeated the air over the continent. More than likely, knowing the Soviets’ control over the media and their insane obsession with secrecy, I probably wouldn’t have ever known about the nuclear accident. (The Soviets only released the news about Chernobyl after strong pressure from Sweden and Denmark to disclose the accident. These nations, through technology, had pinpointed where the radiation was coming from).

There are times in our lives where we might question why things are not going as we planned. I know I am the first to become frustrated when I can’t force things to work as I think they should. Why Lord? Why is this happening? Why am I not allowed to do what I want? Why is the door closed? And all along my heavenly Father was actually protecting me and keeping me safe from harm. God sees around corners–plain and simple. Peace.

Tomorrow Part V – The Trans-Siberian Railroad.

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141. big sister said,
June 24th, 2009 at 1:28 pm

We serve an awesome God, don’t we? He loves us so much – He knew us when we were being knit in our mother’s womb – He knows all the hairs on our head and the plan for our lives – even that we love chocolate! He is great with the details! Love, me

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