By Ken Bradbury
Maybe it’s happened to you. You meet this person, you chat for only a short time, but for reasons you can’t explain your mind keeps going back to the time you had together. There’s something about them that has stamped that moment firmly into your memory.
I was about to board a plane to London and looked out the window of New York’s JFK airport to see a limousine pull up. A dapper little man got out and walked straight into the Executive Lounge. I can remember wondering who the little dignitary was, and also remember my surprise when we sat down beside me for our 7-hour trip across the Atlantic. I was an innocent young teacher from the Midwest so I introduced myself, and then asked him what he did for a living. He said, “I’m in the theatre.” What a stroke of providence! I told him that I too dabbled in theatre. “Where?” he asked. I told him, “Illinois.” He simply looked at me and said, “Oh.” Actually, I don’t think he even looked at me. Undaunted, I charged onward. “What do you do in theatre?” He said, “I design all the fabulous marques on the Broadway theatre.” I asked him which ones. He raised his nose a bit further into the air and said, “All of them. And they’re all fabulous.” I looked to see if he was joking. He wasn’t. He told me he flew to London every week or so to make sure that his marques were more fabulous than the British marques. He then opened his newspaper and went to sleep for the remainder of the trip. I’d heard about such people, but I’d never actually met such a snob up close and personal. Why do I so often think of that egotistical little twit? I have no idea.
And then there’s the other side of the spectrum as I recall an assistant anesthetist who came to visit me before surgery in Springfield. I mentioned her in an earlier story. In a word, she was gorgeous…inside and out. I was hoping that the official anesthetist would go to sleep leaving this beautiful girl as the last thing I saw before drifting into la-la land. By the time she stopped by for her insurance-mandated visit I was sick to death of hospitals, but if this lady wanted to stay and chat I’d have rented a room for the night. I keep reliving our time together in hopes that she’ll start coming more readily to mind than the idiot on the airplane.
Her name was Alina and she’d been assigned to lead our bus tour of the Moscow countryside for the day. Perhaps 20 years old, smallish, and polite to the nth degree, Alina had that certain mixture of facial features that I’ve always pitied. . . a broad, professional smile yet with fearful eyes. We were to make a quick trip around the city then head to a resort in the countryside. In those days you didn’t tell the Russians where you wanted to go, they told you. But in order to transverse the 30 miles between city and resort we had to drive through endless miles of gray, depressing government housing. I’m serious when I say that this part of the trip gave a whole new meaning to the word disheartening. Being not-terribly-worldly folks from a place called Jacksonville, Illinois, we were full of questions and our main curiosity on that day concerned the miles of grayness. Alina would not answer. It was standard procedure back in the pre-Glasnost days to have KGB agents travel with your tour group everywhere you went, and all that day the back seat of our bus was occupied by two of the secret police. Alina had obviously been given instructions to never answer questions about the Soviet Union’s dark underbelly, and there were two guys in the back of the bus who were riding along to make sure she didn’t. After the fifth or sixth unanswered question we got the silent message. Aliana would stare forward through the bus’s windshield. It really broke my heart and although it’s been a couple of decades since we met, I keep thinking of her. What’s she doing? What’s happened to her?
Closer to home, there was the Steak and Shake lady. Back in the days when our local black and white eatery was located on the south side of Morton, the restaurant had an old gal who obviously had about 30 years on any other waitress in the restaurant. In fact, she had 30 years on most of her customers. But that gal could hustle her toasted buns around that place like an Olympic sprinter, carrying a load of plates cascaded up one arm and down the other, never getting and order wrong, never missing a beat in the grace department, and apparently never wanting to retire. Nowadays when I’m faced with a teenage waiter who isn’t sure about the day’s special, puts your meal down in front of your friend, stands at the end of a table and expects you to shout your order, I remember the Steak and Shake lady.
All of which begs the question. . . What will people remember about me? I think I’ll ask a different question.