Friday, January 25th, 2019 at 6 p.m., Lake Forest Park’s Third Place Book will present Betsy Bell, author of Open Borders: A personal story of love, loss and anti-war activism. On the program with her will be Anne Stadler, author of an essay included in Open Borders. Bell’s is the story of how a middle-aged wife and mother finds herself in a world on the brink of nuclear destruction. Anne’s is the story of creating the first Space Bridge simultaneous television broadcast between the US and the USSR, 1985. A powerful presentation about ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things to prevent nuclear war. An inspiration for our time.
Between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a good time to clean old files and organize the office. Opening a full notebook of writing from 2016, I find an assignment from Scott Driscoll’s UW class in Literary Fiction. Write an “Observer narration”.
Citizen Diplomacy: Observer Narration Week 4, 1/28/2016. If you haven’t picked up a copy of Open Borders yet, this will give you a taste. In Open Borders, a memoir, the reader gets an accurate account of the two events, one in Moscow and one in Tashkent. This sketch is dramatized somewhat for the purpose of the exercise.
He was ahead of us, a group of twenty-nine peace activists traveling from Seattle to the USSR in 1983. We were moving through a gleaming subway station in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Aldon Bell strode, as he always did, with confidence, his attaché case tucked tightly under his left arm, his right gesturing as he talked with Masha. Masha was his personal interpreter, a student from the University of Washington who lived and breathed Russian. Her halo of curls and his baldpate tipped together, bobbing along, side by side just far enough away from the Russian interpreter to avoid being heard.
We were traveling as tourists under the strict and constant surveillance of Soviet authorities.
We had entered the country from Helsinki, landing in Moscow. Don, as we all called him, navigated the immigration seamlessly. Even though each of us carried a manila envelope stuffed with letters to the citizens of our sister city, Tashkent, and signed by over 30,000 well-wishers, he moved us past suspicious guards by carrying a slim volume of Pushkin, visible to anyone whose job was to notice.
I heard the security agent ask Bell, “You like Pushkin? I like Ray Bradbury.”
His open blue eyes and careful goatee, his lean face and broad shoulders (he’d been a rower at Oxford), his average height and slim waist made him a dead ringer for Lenin. You couldn’t help notice it when he stood waiting for his luggage, his face silhouetted against the proverbial portrait of the most favored leader plastered on the airport chamber’s walls. The youthful security forces had to have noticed the likeness, too.
He did well in the formal interrogation with some high official in Moscow, all of us sitting around the outside edge of a horseshoe table with simultaneous translation going on. I had knots in my stomach and thought I might lose my lunch, but he, he remained calm. His face had a shy smile, but could turn into a grimace, lips curling, and the gap in his front teeth adding a fierce quality to his words when called for. The forty-five minute counterpoint between the two men moved from platitudes, to arguments about the Freeze Campaign and Unilateral Disarmament neither of which we favored. With Masha whispering her own interpretations of the Soviet officials challenging remarks, Don held his own. At least from where I sat, he seemed to be doing well. Don tended to be pessimistic before hand, expecting things to go badly if they could. In the moment, his manner and words displayed a kind of Ben Franklin diplomacy, declaring nothing certain, open to whatever might unfold. Never belligerent. And belligerent was certainly the way the Soviet spokesperson sounded. Our guy, I observed, was coming out even, maybe a little ahead.
“We come in peace. Our governments speak angry words. We can speak kind, personal words to each other. We love our country as you love yours. We want to see our children grow up and marry, as do you. As people, we can know each other and wish for each other’s happiness.”
Our reception in Tashkent was more relaxed. We were away from the intensity of the Moscow stage. As we following Don, striding out of the Tashkent subway station—it had been emptied of normal crowds “for our protection”—we burst into the bitter cold of early March. I watched him wondering how he would assess our next venue. His face was passive, slack jawed, relaxed full lips, eyes scanning like an owl, without movement. I alone knew he was carrying messages of encouragement and hope to the Refusenicks rolled tightly into the empty film canisters and tucked into his coat pockets. My teeth chattered as much from fear as from the cold as I wondered how he could maintain such equanimity. Before returning to the US, we would find a way to deliver them to desperate people. If caught, our mission would end in disaster. Did he imagine the consequences and simply override them? From where I stood, it seemed so. He always dissembled well. No one could guess his thoughts.
The square the subway emptied into was full of people, two or three deep on three sides, facing a podium. The crowd parted to let him, Masha and our official interpreter and guide through. I took my place with the others dispersed in the crowd and kept an eye on Don. He seemed nonplused by the numbers of onlookers, some on the surrounding rooftops, the array of stout, heavily over-coated men standing of the platform.
Suddenly Masha pulled his sleeve. He leaned his ear toward her. She must have overheard some news that could impact us. Seconds later I saw the blood run from his face, his jaw clench; his eyes fly open and then narrow to slits of purpose. Something was terribly wrong. A couple of the others in our group noticed the change in Don’s demeanor. I didn’t take my eyes off him as the proceedings opened with a bombastic speech by a highly decorated veteran. While the official translator repeated the soldier’s triumphs in war against the Germans as an ally of the United States, I watched Don fumble with his attaché case. He pretended to listen, but I could see he was working out how to handle some seriously bad news. None of us spoke out of respect for the proceedings. We all knew Reagan was planning a major speech on the state of the Cold War. We hoped against hope that he would wait until our return. The State Dept. had warned us about the folly of such a trip. Don assured them we were tourists under the auspices of Holiday Travel in Seattle and nothing more. They gave us all the necessary visas. Something terrible must have happened.
The old soldier ended with a few clenched fist thrusts and moved to one side as the crowd applauded. Don seemed to hold his breath as a Soviet official took the podium and began speaking in a menacing tone as if to whip up the crowd against the Americans in their midst. His task was to welcome us and introduce our leader whose speech was the main attraction. We were the reason so many students and housewives responded to the unofficial command to assemble. As I watched his face, the twitch in his jaw slowed down. His shoulders began to drop. He took out a handkerchief and blew loudly into it, folded it again into its square with the precision of an altar guild lady. The handkerchief made its way into his rear pant’s pocket. Then he took off his glasses and polished the lenses with the inside of his silk tie, methodically inspecting them before adjusting them on his nose. A familiar ritual of making himself ready. His cheeks inflated slightly and then his breath released, long and far reaching. The speaker paused, gestured with a flat pudgy hand to punctuate his badly pronounced Aldon Bell, Professor. All the while, the Soviet functionary kept eye contact with the expectant crowd. He then turned to Don, shook his hand and guided him to the microphone with a firm hold on his elbow.
I knew he would not fail, that whatever nonplussed him moments ago would become a launching point for his message of cooperation, but my heart was in my mouth. I did not breathe until his first words rang out.
“We come to bring greetings to the people of Tashkent, Seattle’s Sister City. Tashkent and Seattle are far from the seats of government that manage our affairs and speak to world leaders about our differences. We come not to debate these affairs but to share our worry for the future of our remote cities, for the future of our families, for the beauty of the land we each call home.”
His voice was clear and strong. He paused for the translation. Faces, stern and suspicious, began to melt. A cluster of older babushka, grandmothers with fringed scarves around their heads, began to weep. Some of the students turned to look at us standing next to them, and nodded in sympathy. We Americans relaxed our collective brows. His shy smile and the way he dipped his head to divert attention from himself won over the onlookers. He simply ignored whatever had happened on the world stage that inspired the Soviet official’s angry speech.
That night in the privacy of a spacious hotel suite, we discovered the awful cloud that threatened to shroud any hope for mutual understanding. Reagan addressed the National Association of Evangelicals one day earlier on March 8, 1983, declaring the Soviet Union an Empire of Evil that had to be overturned. Those men on the podium expected Don to follow his president in condemning Communism. He did not. We lifted our shots of vodka with relief.
To order Open Borders, go
Thirty excited and curious people turned up last Tuesday, Oct. 23rd, 2018 at the University of Washington bookstore in the U District to hear Betsy Bell talk about her family’s experience during the final decade of the Cold War, 1980-1990 as written in her memoir, Open Borders: a personal story of love, loss and anti-war activism.
If you missed this program, come to St. Mark’s Cathedral Shop, 12:15, Nov. 11th Or Homestreet Bank, SW Alaska branch in West Seattle, 6 – 7:30, Nov. 14th Presentations and book signing.
Professor Eric Johnson began the program with a talk anchoring the historic context of Open Borders within the larger frame: the end of WWII to the arrival of the first nuclear submarine in Puget Sound.
Lack of trust and mutual understanding of how nations should be governed –communism or capitalism — divided the West from the Socialist Soviet Republics within months of the Allied forces defeat of the Axis powers.
Russia detonated an Atomic Bomb and the arms race was on. It was September, 1949.NATO on the west and the Warsaw Pact on the east. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile bases, US Naval fleets, Strategic Air Command and the building of the Berlin wall in 1961 divided the world.
Even those of us who lived through these frightening developments appreciated the historic overview. The younger people in the audience had only learned of these events in their high school world history classes.
Betsy took the mike to describe the response of Seattle citizens, friends and fellow parents, teachers, lawyers, doctors, ordinary people who are the characters in her memoir. (May I speak of myself in the third person for the purposes of this post?)
The reader of Open Borders travels with the band of tourists who venture behind the Iron Curtain to greet hosts in Moscow and Seattle’s Sister City, Tashkent. Our trip in 1983 unleashed a plethora of friendship exchanges between the USSR and Seattle. Dr. Rosh Doan was on hand to speak of his family’s residential stay in Tashkent, Seattle’s Sister City in 1985 as part of the medical exchange.
It was a wonderful evening, rich with discussion about what can be done; indeed, what a new group of people must do now to reverse this new and more threatening Cold War. We must end nuclear weapons as a military option.
Do good work,
Please share this post with your friends around the country. I hope to take this book on the road.
October 23rd, 6 – 8 p.m. University of Washington Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE, Seattle, WA 98105. Meet the author, Betsy Bell, and engage in a conversation about Citizen Diplomacy in the face of nuclear war in the 1980s. Joining her on a panel will be Prof. Eric Johnson of the UW history department and Dr. Roscius Doan, founder of a medical exchange program in Tashkent in the 80s. Please join us.
November 11th, 12:15 – 2 Saint Mark’s Cathedral Shop, 1245 10th Ave. E, Seattle, WA 98102. Meet the author, Betsy Bell, and engage in a conversation about memoire and history with Dick Carter, one of the essayists included in Open Borders and UW Professor Elena Campbell, History Department.
November 14, 6 – 7:30, Homestreet Bank, 4022 SW Alaska Street, Seattle, WA 98116 co-sponsored by the West Seattle Chamber of commerce.
Please pre-order the book at Amazon, Elliott Bay, Third Place Books or the Indiebound store nearest you. If you are interested in reading a proof copy and writing a review on any of these sites, including Goodreads, please notify me for either an electronic version or a hard copy. I’d appreciate your reviews prior to the events. Thank you, thank you.
Exciting news! Open Borders will be available for purchase one month from today: Oct. 16th.
To order Open Borders, go to Amazon, Barnes and Nobel or Indiebound.org and ask for ISBN-10: 1941890210, Price: $16.95