History & Culture / Travel

Luckier Than We Know

luckierHave you ever had a day go well and wonder why? Ever gotten a call from a friend, just when needed? Ever watched clouds diverge, the shaft of light illuminating land too far to explore? Or drifted back in time to a kind turn done and been grateful? Hints that we are luckier than we know.  

Almost 40 years ago, a moment of wonder – and reaffirmation of faith – bowled me over. It swept me again this week, for reasons not clear. Maybe my faith needs restoring, maybe Lent is calling, maybe an old friend from that time reached out, for which I was grateful. Who knows? Upshot is the story.

For a kid from rural America, clouds parted, putting me on track for a good education, and in time, like Charlie Bucket of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” my fate included a golden ticket, a couple of them. One was an unlikely scholarship to Oxford University, which put me in a position to explore Soviet-dominated Poland, which opened my eyes wide.

In 1982, I visited friends, stayed in Torun, spent time in Gdansk, Warsaw, Krakow, and Poznan. I was so inspired by the Polish people – their “never say die” attitude, love of freedom, inner fight, faith in the future that I had to return.

Between my first visit, summer of 1982, and second in 1983, the Soviets moved on Poland’s freedom movement, led by Lech Walesa and Solidarity. Martial law was declared. Communist secret police, paramilitary ZOMO, and uniformed Soviets swept in. Thousands were jailed, hundreds killed.

Naively, my curiosity carried me back to my friends. The trip was worth every effort. Their faith – an undying hope in freedom – was unbowed. Soviets were on every street corner, life turned upside down, but they kept fighting. They believed.  

On leaving the country a final time, a miscalculation threatened to beach me. A day before my visa expired, I boarded a train for Poznan, planning to catch another through East Germany, “Check Point Charlie,” and out into the free West. At midnight, I needed to swap trains in a little town called “Inowroclaw” (pronounced “Ee-ner-vratz-waf”) before on to Poznan. Things did not go well.

Kids in their 20s often go astray, and I did. With poor German, worse Polish, I got off the train at what I imagined was “Inowroclaw,” but turned out to be a wooden platform – 50 miles from nowhere. “Okay,” I thought, “we can make this work.” Between panic and believing the impossible, most 20-year-old minds go for the impossible, sure they can make it. I found myself on a logging road, walking. No lights on any horizon, I walked in moonlight toward a distant road with an occasional car.

Germany’s Bismarck once said, “Providence protects idiots.” Unbeknownst to me, my mission was to prove him right. Miles on, mulling my need to escape by morning, a sound grew behind me. It was a logging truck – at midnight. Go figure.

A few words revealed the first miracle. He was headed south. In retrospect, he must have wondered what an illiterate American was doing on his logging road. He did not ask. I could not have answered. Two hours later, he turned left. I got out where roads crossed.

No houses, one light, surrounded by dense forest, the roads disappeared into blackness. I thanked him with “Dziękuję,” a quarter of my vocabulary. Now what? To my shock, two Soviet soldiers stepped from the woods, AK-47s in hand, and approached me. This was also not in my plan. They widened my vocabulary. “Documenta!” No smiles; they wanted my passport. I handed it over.

I decided confidence was a good approach. In the middle of nowhere, nothing but endless forest, these two and me, I drew on my remaining vocabulary. The word “taxi” is the same in English and Polish, so I gambled. “Americanski waiting for taxi.” This was like saying, “Forgive me, my flying saucer is late.” They were not humored. Mind sped, prayers said, I asserted the nonsense again. “Americanski … taxi.”  

What was I doing? Poland was under martial law, Soviets everywhere, Americans not favored, Reagan President. Worse, I had been visiting with members of the Underground.

This is where wonder and faith meet with mercy and grace, that special love God reserves for idiots like me. Mark my words, in that empty chunk of Poland, nothing stirred – until, out of nowhere, a taxi appeared. I looked up in shock, regained myself, addressed the soldiers. “That is my taxi,” I said. They were pie-eyed. I asked for my passport, waved down the taxi, climbed in – and we were off.

We hit several roadblocks as they were looking for someone. Each time, he told me – stay quiet. I did. At roughly 0550, we hit Poznan. My train out was at 0600. I dashed into the station ticket line, calculated I would make it. Wrong again, I caught taillights. Here was another moment of wonder. As I considered my situation, a voice whispered, “Are you American?” A Polish professor had seen my distress, wondering if I needed his help. In a word, yes.  

Mercy again, as he put me up, fed me, vouched for me with Communist officials, turned me into a long-lost friend. He got me a one-day visa extension on the next train, and we stayed close for years. I was searched 16 times between Poznan and “Checkpoint Charlie,” finally breathing free air in the West.

What is the point? Faith, wonder, and their intersection. The point is we owe more than we can repay, wonder is worth incalculable risk, freedom is worth unending fight, and in darkness, there lurks light. Right is right. Oh yes, and the hints – are everywhere – of God’s mercy.

Reagan spoke of Poland from the Oval Office, 1981. He began by quoting G. K. Chesterton: “The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.” We cannot lose the better, deeper, stronger, higher side of our lives– always sustained by wonder and faith.

In hard times, we are pressed to recall miracles. Remembering helps you fall asleep, grateful. Fear not, say poets. One of my favorites, Robert Frost, wrote after a singular train ride: “Heaven gives a glimpse, to those not in a position to look too close.” We are luckier than we know. Keep your eyes wide.

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Smike
1 month ago

Stupid is as stupid does, sometimes it happens and it goes bad, sometimes good. Most of us with successful lives can look at the moment and realize it could have gone either way at the flick of an eye. Many of us stared death, face to face. That’s life, it’s like this vaccine, 95 will do OK but 5 will die and we don’t know who the 5 are. But I think it was best said by Teddy Roosevelt in a speech in 1899 “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
The Strenuous Life,” Teddy Roosevelt 1899

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