June 15, 2013 – 7:31 am
Sitting at a shack of a cafe on the Black Sea, my coach said to me, “If you want me to teach you what I know, the door is open. If you don’t want me to teach you what I know, the door is open. Just don’t block the doorway. Take a step: inside or outside. Distrust your steps, and even in the safest place, your fear will keep you prisoner. Trust your steps, and no matter how dangerous everything may appear, you will remain safe. Either way, you will take a step by choice or by circumstance. Sometimes God closes doors because it’s time to move; because He knows you won’t move unless circumstances force you to. So, will you take a step inside or outside, by choice or by circumstance?”
As if on queue, we heard a large diesel vehicle approaching. When it stopped, our coach - a military general himself - told us to quickly get up, calmly walk out the back door, to not take the road, but run down the beach to our barracks. Hastily, we looked back to see a personnel carrier unloading soldiers into the cafe, as if on an “official visit.” We ran a bit faster once we were clear of the lights.
At our room, we waited until our coach finally knocked and advised us we’d be leaving in two hours, 0400, on our way back to Krasnodar. We packed our duffles, set our watches, and pretended to sleep.
Our driver and a translator were waiting for us - car running - when we got down at 0350. We departed in silence. Winding through the pitch Caucasian mountains, my teammate and I passed out from a combination of lack of calories, over-training, and adrenal fatigue from the suspect departure.
We awoke to the sound of horns blazing. Behind a military carrier, our driver was nailing on the horn at the uphill-creeping truck. Agitated, he pulled into the oncoming lane and began bumping the truck off the road. Uncertain this wasn’t the same carrier as the evening before, my teammate and I were white-knuckled. Finally, sweat beading, we out-paced the truck, and continued for another three, silent hours. Our questions were not met with any response.
Were these inside or outside steps? Had I made this choice or was this circumstance thrust upon me? I certainly didn’t feel like I trusted what was happening so it must be the latter of the above two questions.
Flying from Krasnodar to Moscow, we were met by an associate who had loaned his apartment to “keep” us until our return flight to USA three days later (as we had mysteriously left early from our southern camp.) At last, they revealed the mystery that our passport stamps were no longer valid, and the soldiers had come to look for the Americans. I asked why, since the stamps were supposed to be valid for another two months. We received only, “Politics,” shrugged as an answer.
Puzzle pieces fell into place. This had been the post-Perestroika 90s, and the temporary Prime Minister was up for election as the new President of Russia… competing with several other nominees from parties old and new. The Prime Minister intended to ally himself to the publicly favorable West, by establishing cultural programs to bring Russian culture to the world, and thereby foster international understanding (and with that… would follow support.)
Our coach had been the primary electoral representative in Saint Petersburg for the Prime Minister. The Russian Olympic Committee had selected us as the two Americans to represent our country as ambassadors to the Russian cultural martial traditions when we returned to the States after our internship.
Our presence in Russia, had become an undesirably high-profile program, which if failing, would have reflected poorly on the Prime Minister’s rise to presidency. If we had, through our actions, embarrassed the program, or if we had somehow been disgraced (such as being arrested for traveling illegally throughout Russia), those who did not want the Prime Minister in power would have used it as leverage against him, despite for his intention of Western sympathies.
This certainly felt like circumstances thrust upon us. I felt like I was an trapped outsider; helpless and without resources or options. How could I trust in an invisible game of such a magnitude that I had no business being involved in. I panicked within my own thoughts, and then made an unwise choice…
There was nothing in the apartment but some stale bread, a half jar of jam, and a bottle of vodka. Instead of being smart and following directions, we convinced our translator to take us out to the grocery to get some provisions. But we didn’t make it a block, before a police car screeched to a halt from our very noticeable American clothing. The driver rounded the car demanding our papers. The passenger leveled a Kalashnikov muzzle on me, trigger finger trembling with excitement. He wasn’t much more than a teenager dreaming of the potential promotion for arresting two Americans.
Though our entry stamps had suspiciously expired by sudden policy changes DURING our stay, our translator handed our “special license” from the Olympic committee, as well as a hefty bribe. Smiling at the cash, the two officers took down our apartment address and pocketed our passports. He said that we had to report to the headquarters by midnight to retrieve our documents or we’d be prevented from boarding our plane.
The translator suggested, we should head off straight away to “pay” for new stamps. As the policemen departed, we walked to the headquarters. Once we had arrived, we were escorted into a holding cell and a female lieutenant entered the room. Our translator surprised us both when instead of shaking her hand, they both looked around quickly, leaned in, and kissed.
Trust sparked within me, but did not light.
She told us there wasn’t much time and we had to move fast. Taking us to another desk, she barked orders to a clerk to mark our documents with the updated stamp. He hesitated, and she barked louder. Conceding with a “thunk, thunk,” we retrieved us revised papers and passports and hustled out of the department.
Belief in the process ignited again, and I began to dare hope that we would get our of this safely.
Returning to our apartment after a silently rapid march, we were introduced to the lieutenant: Oxsana, a master of sport in Sambo, a student of my coach, the head instructor for hand to hand combat at the police academy, and a past amoureux of our translator. In the pre-cellphone era, we had no idea how she had been forewarned of our predicament, other than our guess at the level of awareness that our presence had elicited as pawns in this very overwhelming political maneuvering.
The windfall reignited my trust in the steps we had been taking.
Two tense days creeped with no distractions, locked in the apartment. Oxsana and Yuri (our translator) had left on their own, to rekindle their relationships presumably. So, my teammate and I sat there awaiting door to be kicked in by OMON after the inevitable discovery of our spuriously updated stamps. Time clicked by, one painfully imprisoned minute after another.
The door opened two days later, and Yuri and Oxsana drove us to the airport in silence. I don’t think I exhaled. Feeling nerve bare passing border patrol, I tried not to look nervous. Oxsana called over the supervisor and took us through the “green lane.” The supervising captain smiled and whispered, “Alexander Ivanovich is the best. Yes?”
We are protected, I thought. Despite all of the ominous danger of pursuit and arrest, even though we could be potentially used as pawns in a large plot beyond our comprehension, we remain safe. Could I truly believe in this process without any doubts?
Not until the plane was in the air, did I relax. And only when we saw those waving Stars and Stripes, did I fully appreciate the magnitude of the unintended pawns we had become on a grand chessboard; within close proximity to players WAY above our normal field of view. We were nothing; just fighters, mere athletes, and neither bright, nor aware.
But I began to discover that no matter how overwhelming, I could keep faith in the process and trust the steps. I had escaped paralyzing fear jeopardizing our discovery by trusting in the journey.
As we landed in USA, I knelt and kissed JFK ground (much to the disgust of NYC frequenters.) My coach’s words still echoed in my ears: I remained safe, because I trusted in the process, but in the moments I did not, in the time that I collapsed upon myself with fear, even in the safe places, I felt imprisoned.
The truly fearless are not those who don’t feel fear, I realized. The fearless are those who let the natural, real dangers alert them, and heighten their readiness without paralyzing them. Fear is a gift of awareness, but faith is freedom from imprisonment by fear.
Robert F. Kennedy cautioned, ”Fear not the path of Truth for the lack of People walking on it.” If you dare to keep your courage, and by choice, take steps forward, you will be safe. Even if your fear turns into panic, and you forfeit your choice to act, circumstances will be thrust upon you to give greater opportunity to believe in your journey, and restore your faith in the process. As Max Lucado suggested, “Meet your fears with faith.”