Gabe told me the Far East Bank of Russia was a place that had haunted him since childhood.
Now at the hotel in Magadan, Russia, the weight of the story he told on the airplane was still stuck in my chest.
It lodged there somewhere over the Pacific as we perched on ice bins in the dim galley behind the curtain, when the collective pain in the world struck me as far greater, deeper and heavier than an American citizen fresh from college could ever conceive.
Gabe looked up from his cupped hands where the memories were falling and caught my eye.
“He was wearing his flight suit the day he left. He picked me up with both hands and raised me over his head, then zoomed me through the air around the living room…”
“Like an airplane?”
“Like an airplane. My eighth birthday was the following week and he promised he’d be back by then. Promised me and promised her. He set me down, picked Mom up, twirled her around…”
I knew what he was going to say. I didn’t want to hear it, didn’t want to feel it top the well inside me and slip out.
“Some 30 American spy airplanes were shot down near the Soviet border during the Cold War, and his was one of them. Only half the pilots were ever accounted for.”
“Gabe… I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how awful that must have been for you both.”
“No… don’t apologize. You asked, but I didn’t have to make it personal.” He offered a hint of a smile.
It helped, a little, but it didn’t come soon enough to stop my professional mask from cracking.
“Here,” he offered the cuff of his flannel as a tissue.
I shook my head, wiping my face with the tattered coffee napkin. “I don’t know where that’s been…”
My hand instinctively flew to my mouth.
“Ohmagod, I can’t believe I just said that. I’m probably the dirtiest thing on this airplane… Holy hell! Did I say that out loud, too?”
Gabe was laughing. “Yes, you did.”
“Are you still looking for your father?”
“I’m here to help coordinate recent salvage efforts between Russia and the U.S. off the coast of Vladivostok where two planes were reportedly shot down.”
“Wait… if you’re an American how can you be a British spy?
“My mother is a British citizen. Originally she followed Dad to the States but after that happened, she moved us back to be close to family.
“So technically you could’ve been a spy for either country? Maybe some of those classified documents would be accessible to you if you’d chosen Team USA instead of British laundry detail.”
“There is that. But the British have the coolness factor of 007 so… Not exactly a tough choice.”
“You also have Mr. Bean…”
The way he had looked at me in that moment made my heart flutter.
I couldn’t help but think of his face so filled with expression while I stood at the hotel window looking out over a city devoid of it. It was like watching a grainy black and white film from the back of the theater, slightly removed from it all.
If Purgatory exists on Earth, this is it.
Touchdown: Magadan, Russia
We deplaned on the tarmac using the aft fold-out stairs on the MD-80.
I stepped onto the tarmac with my fellow crew members. We are some of the first Americans to set foot here, in the Far East of Russia. It’s like stepping onto the gritty grayness of the moon.
The only touch of color for miles was the blood red detailing on the Russian soldiers’ army green uniforms. They stood at the ready, machine guns waiting.
Not a flicker of expression crossed their faces as they herded us all across the tarmac and into the cement bloc where customs would commence.
As we marched closer, it was difficult not to feel like just one of the countless prisoners who had made this journey through Magadan, Russia. How many were Americans?
I looked back at the familiar white jet parked next to a couple of Russian Aeroflot II-76 cargo planes and wondered whether I would see it again.
A ROOM WITH A VIEW
Staring out the hotel window, some of that fear has dissolved but the weight remains. We are staying at the chosen hotel for foreign diplomats, which we seem to be, according to the Captain.
The momentary sense of relief this gave me was instantly axed by Betty Lou. “It’s the former headquarters of the Russian KGB; and when I say former, that’s a misnomer.
You’ll see soon enough.”
Like everything else in Magadan, the hotel is a gray cement bloc surrounded by more cement. As we unload in front of the hotel, Betty Lou points to a cement wall pitted with numerous chips with drainage slats at the base of it. “Execution site.”
She gives me a pointed “No shit” look and enters the hotel.
My hotel window overlooks that wall. I can’t look away from all the lives ended there, can’t help but wonder if the father of a boy I met on the plane was one of them.