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Mares: The U2 and Me

Recently I went to see the new Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies, about the exchange of Soviet spy Rudolph Abel for Francis Gary Powers, American pilot of a U-2 spy plane shot down over Russia in May, 1960.

I was a college student at the time. Intent upon practicing my two years of Russian language training, I’d be visiting the Soviet Union just six weeks after Powers arrived so unexpectedly.

"Don't do anything stupid!" my professor and family counseled. So, twice I said Nyet to seductive female voices over the hotel phone. I listened without comment to a stranger on a park bench telling me, "We are not free." I declined to exchange dollars for rubles, but I did join the black market by selling a pair of jeans for 5 times their price in the US.

The phrase "based on true events" gave the film makers license to embroider an already dramatic moment in the Cold War, but many details rang true to my own – legal – visit, with the U-2 drama still on the front pages of newspapers Pravda and Izvestia.
I visited an exposition of the plane's wreckage in Gorki Park. There were displays of all that Powers carried, including, I believe, the dollar with the poison suicide pin he didn’t use.

I spent one fascinating day in Red Square near the tomb of Lenin and Stalin. My professor had advised me to take a Polaroid camera, whose instant photos would break the conversational ice. It was a brilliant idea.

I chatted with people and took their pictures. The crowd of never less than 20 wanted to know why I’d come, where I lived, what my father did for work, what college I attended, if my mother worked, and what movies cost back home. Several wanted to talk about Willis Conover, the legendary jazz host of the Voice of America whose program was wildly popular across the Soviet bloc.
A few asked pointedly "Why do you spy on us?" But others hushed them up.

After seven hours, nourished by only two ice cream cones, I was light-headed, and foot-sore when I asked someone to take a picture of me, standing on my head. Much to the amusement of the onlookers, he complied.

As I dusted myself off, someone asked, "Well, how did you get here?"

Without thinking, I flippantly replied, "? ?????? ? U-2" "I came in a U-2."

At first the crowd looked shocked. Then most smiled uncertainly, and finally, a few even laughed.

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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