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Thoughts on life by Teri McCarthy

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Part 6 of the TSR Saga: The Brit, the General and Me

Posted by admin in July 1st, 2009
Published in faith

The Trans-Siberian Railroad offers adventuresome travelers two types of trains: a Chinese train and a Russian train. Word on the street was that the Chinese train was cleaner than the Russian. Really? ‘Cause the Chinese trains were pretty bad back-in-the-day. I couldn’t even imagine what the Soviet trains would be like if they were worse than the Chinese. But I trusted my informants and opted for the Chinese train.

The Trans-Siberian Railroad starts in Beijing, travels north toward the Russian border then veers westward and passes through Siberia, the Ural Mountains, enters Europe and finally stops in Moscow. The trip takes about nine to ten days. For reasons I’ll never understand, this trip lasted nearly two weeks.

I bought a third class ticket in late July. This class is comparable to coach on airlines. The compartment I was in could sleep four, but there were only three of us—an Australian married couple and me. Both communist governments, the Soviets and the Chinese, preferred to keep the foreigners in a car to themselves. We, the foreigners, could go from car to car, though it was usually frowned upon. But often, the conductor or steward would not allow Soviets or Chinese to come to our car. Perhaps they thought it was dangerous to fraternize with capitalist, imperialist pigs from the West.

Early on in the trip my fellow passengers discovered I could speak Chinese. This was a great help to them since the workers on the train—the conductors, the stewards, the dining car personnel—only spoke Russian and/or Chinese (the workers were a mix from both nations). This made communication very difficult, if not impossible. When my fellow foreign passengers would return from the dining car they brought hilarious stories of how they tried to explain what they wanted to eat and what they ended up with. Usually not the same. Note here: Animal noises are not a universal language.

In our car of foreigners, I was the only American. In an era of anti-American sentiments, I was often the focal point of all that was wrong with the world. The consensus among the group was that Americans were responsible for poverty, pollution, war, and world hunger. It was difficult not to react each and every time America bashing went on. But I constantly had to remind myself that I was an ambassador for Jesus Christ and that to win an argument over politics could mean the loss of a soul for eternity. Besides, most of what happened was just friendly fire.

But as the trip progressed my fellow foreign passengers began to not only depend on me for communication, but I think, in spite of themselves, they began to like me. My berth was always crowded with visitors. We sang songs, told stories, shared food, relived old movies and told corny and inappropriate jokes. It was so much fun. The sun doesn’t really set in the Siberian summer. We had at least 20 hours of daylight each day. Very few of us slept eight hours a night on the train. We couldn’t.

One night, just as we all had agreed to try and get some sleep and the last of the “guests” had been pushed out of my berth, there was a knock on the compartment door.

I was on the lower bunk, so I leaned up on one elbow and opened the door thinking someone had left something or just wanted to tell one more story. But I was surprised. I opened the door a crack and saw the very distinguished looking Chinese conductor in full uniform, our little chubby Russian steward and a six-foot-four-inch tall full-uniformed Soviet army officer. I jumped up and slid the door all the way open. I stepped out into the small train corridor. All three men looked very serious (even the Russian steward who reminded me of a Hobbit and who was usually all smiles and pranks). They were standing at attention. That made me stand up straight. The Army officer guy looked like a general or something, but I’m not familiar with the Soviet Military and didn’t know what all the stripes, medals or stars on his uniform actually meant. But he was very impressive looking. He was 100 percent soldier.

The Army officer spoke to the Chinese conductor in Russian. The Chinese conductor spoke to me in Chinese and even though I could understand what they were saying, I couldn’t quite get my mind wrapped around it.

Apparently, one of the British passengers, Philip, was causing quite a raucous in another car—the car exclusively carrying a company of Soviet soldiers. Philip was in his middle thirties, a photographer by trade and a dope head. The USSR was under strict prohibition due to Gorbachev’s hard-handed attempt to rid the country of its plague of alcoholism and drug addiction. Philip brought mai tai with him from China—a super strong distilled liquor much like vodka. He also had picked up hashish in Tibet and daily he became stoned. When he got too strung out he usually fell asleep and one of us in the foreign traveling community would put him to bed and let him sleep it off. Well, on this particular night, for whatever reason, he didn’t fall asleep. Instead, he found his way through the train to the car filled with Soviet soldiers. He was out of his head!

The officer and the conductor needed my help. They were required my Soviet law to warn Philip in a language he could understand that he would be thrown from the train if he didn’t return to his berth.

“Thrown from the train?” I asked them to repeat it. Surely I was missing something.

“Yes! Thrown from the moving train,” the Chinese conductor looked as scared as me.

My train of thoughts (sorry) went like this: If they can’t throw Philip from the train without a translation, then it would be better for me not to tell him what they are saying. If he doesn’t hear the warning in a language he understands then they can’t execute their judgment on him.

Right? I mean, doesn’t that make sense? It made perfect sense to me. So I decided not to help.

“I am sorry sir General guy and Mr. Conductor man,” I said in my best and most polite Chinese, “But I’m really uncomfortable with this whole situation and I’d rather not get involved. Besides, he’s not from my country and I really don’t know him that well. I’d prefer to avoid any conflict.”

The Chinese conductor whispered to me, “Please miss, the General would very much like your help in this matter. The situation is worse that you can imagine. I recommend you help this officer.”

Very seldom in those days did I ever get frightened. Not because I’m super heroic, but because I’m not the brightest pumpkin in the patch! But I knew in that moment the Soviet officer could make things hard on me. The Chinese conductor was doing everything he could to let me know that. I had to help translate to Philip. I really didn’t have much choice. I asked for a moment to put on shoes and get a sweater. I slipped back into the compartment and told the Australians what was going on. My heart was racing. They said they’d gather everyone and meet me back in our compartment for a full report. My knees were starting to shake.

I reluctantly joined the little entourage outside my door. Three armed soldiers had joined us. The General was first, a soldier behind him, the Chinese Conductor came next, then me, then the Russian steward followed by the other two soldiers. We were quite a little group. Of course the car holding Philip and the Soviet soldiers was nine cars away from mine. Have you ever walked on a moving train? Not the easiest thing in the world. We marched through car after car after car. People peeped out of berth doors to see what was going on. I was very afraid.

We marched through the dining car, the hard-seats car, one first class car, several cars just like ours and finally, we ended up in the soldiers’ car. The Soviet Soldiers’ car was a lot like a transport car I had seen in WWII movies. Cigarette smoke had formed a foggy cloud over us. There were smells of smoke, body odor, stale food and urine. I felt nauseous. It was dark in the car except for the two small bare light bulbs hanging by wires from the ceiling. Unlike our car, there were no walls, just bunks stacked three high, one row after another.

I heard him before I ever saw him. Philip was a small guy. He was only about 5’5” and weighed about 120 pounds. He had a head full of curly, unruly hair and a nose like a hawk. Every soldier in that car was crowded around to see the show and Philip was putting on quite a scene. He was hanging like a monkey from one of the bunk bed bars and swinging around in a semi circle.

In his thick Monty Python accent he kept saying, “You’re all a bunch of robots. You just do whatever the bloody government tells you to do. You don’t think. You don’t question. You just do…Well I am a subject of the Queen. I am a British citizen and we have human rights—basic God-given, human rights. Do you even know what those are?”

His speech was slurred and his voice hoarse from the screeching. He could barely stand up. He was steadying himself with that bunk pole.

All eyes left Philip when the General’s entourage showed up. Philip turned around to see what everyone was staring at. He completely missed the General, but was able to zero in on me.

“Teri! I am bloody glad you’re here. Come here love and tell these poor bastards just what I am telling them. We’ve got to make them understand.”

Philip was so stoned out of his mind. He obviously forgot that I spoke Chinese, not Russian. He put his arm around me and was now using me to prop himself up rather than the pole.

“Tell ‘em love, tell ‘em what they are missing by not living like free men.”

“Philip,” I began, “You have to listen to me. See that man there?” and I pointed to the General. “He’s going to throw you from this moving train out into the middle of nowhere if you don’t go back to your berth and call it a night. You’re in big trouble Philip. Come on; let’s go back to our car.”

“Hell no!” Philip was adamant and just wasn’t able to listen to reason.

“I am a subject of the Queen. They can’t throw me from the train! I’ll say what I want when I want and they can’t do a bloody thing about it.”

His language was filled with full blown explications. He was on a rampage. He was out of his mind.

“They cannot touch me!” He shouted.

I tried once more to reason with him, “Philip, we are in the USSR, they can do whatever they want to do and no one will be able to help you. Please, please, come back with me to our car.” I was pleading with him.

He still refused. He was like a spoiled, unreasonable child.

The Chinese conductor asked me what he was saying; the General apparently wanted a translation. “Oh, he’s just rambling nonsense. He doesn’t make any sense at all,” I lied.

Fear gripped my heart. Fear for Philip. Fear for me. Fear for the situation getting out of control. Ann Lamott says there are only two real prayers in this world, “Help me! Help me! Help me!” and “Thank You! Thank You! Thank You!” I prayed, “Jesus, please help me here.”

And then suddenly I was filled with righteous indignation. I became authoritative and bold and I looked at Philip and said, “Philip! In the name of Jesus you are coming with me. Do you hear me? In the mighty name of Jesus, Philip, you’re coming with me!”

In a millisecond, in a blink of an eye, without any explanation, Philip looked at me, rubbed his blood-shot eyes a couple of times and in a very calm voice, said, “I think I’ll go back to my compartment now. Will you join me?” And he took my arm and we walked out of the crowd together.

The General and his entourage fell into form and we all marched back through the nine cars to the foreigners’ compartments. We arrived at Philip’s berth and I opened the door, laid him on his bed, covered him with a blanket and laid my hands on his head, “Father, I pray in Jesus’ name that Philip will not drink or do drugs the rest of this trip. Save him Lord Jesus. Save him from himself.”

I stepped back into the corridor and there they all were waiting for me. Their eyes fixed on me as if I was some sort of magic fairy.

The Chinese conductor was literally in shock. His mouth was open but he didn’t speak. The General asked Chinese conductor guy a question. Chinese conductor guy asked me, “The General wants to know what you said to this man to make him follow you and to calm his manner.”

My choices were simple. Tell him the truth or just make an obscure statement. As a born-again, evangelical, evangelistic missionary, I of course wanted to tell them there was POWER in JESUS’ name. Fortunately, I said a quick prayer, felt a BIG check in my spirit and opted for the latter. “Well, aren’t we all just glad it worked out?”

The General came up close to me. He was beautiful in his uniform and his lovely strong face had a glimmer of kindness in it. He took my hand, kissed it and held it in his two enormous hands. He looked me squarely in the eyes and beckoned for the Chinese conductor to stand next us, without ever taking his eyes off me, he spoke.

I looked at the Chinese conductor guy for a translation.

“He wants to thank you for your help tonight. That because of your gentleness you were able to defuse a very volatile situation. He has told the steward that whatever you want, whatever you need, it is yours! Compliments of him. You are to receive special treatment for your service and help. He is grateful.”

I smiled. Awkward. He was still staring at me and holding my hand. Please let go of it General guy. Please let go of my hand. I thought to myelf. He did. Finally.

We all said our good nights. I went to my compartment and fell onto the bed. All my traveling buddies were gathered in my compartment but I just couldn’t muster up the strength. The story would have to wait until tomorrow. I was exhausted.

The next morning, a delicious cup of hot coffee with milk and sugar was delivered to my compartment on a silver tray, in a silver cup, with a silver spoon. (Coffee was hard to come by back then in the USSR, but a cup of coffee was delivered to me each morning for the rest of the trip). I was presented with Siberian wildflowers every day having a cola bottle as a vase. I received clean linens every other day and was treated like royalty the rest of the trip. Compliments of the General.

I never told the community of foreigners what exactly happened that night with Philip. Everyone was just glad that he was removed from the situation. And Philip? He woke up the next day, came over to by berth, sat on my bunk next to me and planted a brotherly kiss on my cheek. He patted my knee and said, “You saved me last night. I don’t know how you did it, or what you did, but you saved me. Thank you love.”

Philip never drank or smoked dope the rest of the trip to Moscow. He was a bear to be around though, but a sober one.

God shows us in His word that He is able to use the jawbone of an ass to warn a prophet. He also can used a big ol’ dumb donkey girl from Kansas. He’s like that. Peace.

3 users Responded In This Post

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148. artandsoul said,
July 2nd, 2009 at 9:33 am

What an amazing story…I kept thinking, “okay, Lana get back to work. You can read this later”, but I just couldn’t stop. Isn’t God amazing in the ways He chooses to speak to us and through us. I love it.

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149. Laura Savage-Rains said,
July 2nd, 2009 at 10:12 am

Teri, how I LOVE your stories and so sorry I won’t be hearing any in person in a couple of weeks at the IICS Conference. It’s so hard to miss those these days. Maybe next year!

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458. Schedule said,
October 29th, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Maybe you could change the post name Part 6 of the TSR Saga: The Brit, the General and Me | terimccarthyblahblahblog to more generic for your blog post you write. I liked the blog post nevertheless.

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