STORIES FROM OLD JOE
Me and my good friends, Natasha and Sasha. Just three pals!
I’ve always liked my birthdays. Who doesn’t? Today is mine and I hit the ¾ century mark. Fun thing is, I get to spend today doing some teaching with 23 remarkable new Young Life staff people from western Washington. This’ll put it right up there with some of my favorite birthdays, of which there have been a bunch.
On my 21st birthday I was a senior at the University of Washington. My girlfriend, Norma, threw me a surprise party at one of Seattle’s great restaurants and a lot of my college friends came. Dear Cherry surprised the heck out of me with surprise parties on my 40th and 50th birthdays where our house was filled to the brim with good friends. On my 60th when we were still living in Monterey, our daughter, Lisa, overwhelmed me by flying in unannounced from Seattle with a three-inch thick scrapbook filled with cards, letters and photos from close to a hundred friends to whom she had written. It’s a real treasure.
But probably my most unique birthday to this point happened exactly ten years ago. It was my social security birthday, the big 65th.
I was about 70 kilometers outside of Moscow, Russia, at a former Soviet youth camp. With two great pals, I was helping teach 20 new Young Life staff folks from 7 or 8 former Soviet Union countries. I knew most of them really well. And, fun-loving guy that I am, that morning at breakfast I let everybody know that it was my special day. (That way people may sing to you, give you extra presents or cards, buy your coffee, etc. You never know what’ll happen!) And it had been a great day. These young folks had sung to me at lunch, I’d gotten some cards, and even a couple of presents.
That evening we gathered together for the last session of the day. When we all were in the room, Gary Parsons, our fearless leader, announced that we were calling it quits early, and that we could spend the evening just relaxing. We’d been going at it fairly hard. I thought, “How cool is this. It’s been a great day, and now we can just chill out for a bit together.”
Right then, through the windows lining the wall to the hallway, two policeman appeared. I asked Gary what they were doing. He said most likely they were local KGB guys who’d heard there were Americans at the camp, and wanted to check visas and passports. I asked him if I should run back to my room, in another building, and retrieve mine. He answered no, and that if they were KGB, they would tell us what to do.
Within minutes, it was discovered I was the only one with no passport and visa on them. So the KGB guys took me to a separate room, along with a translator. (Although I can speak some Russki, I am by no means fluent.)
The questions began. What is your name? Where are you from? What are you doing here? What are you teaching these people? What ELSE are you teaching them? And, by the way, these guys weren’t smiling. They were hefty, square jawed and dour. I kept telling them that my papers were back in my room. Let’s just go get them and you guys can go home. There’s no problem here. They refused. Then they leaned in a little, and the questioner asked, “Tell us, are you with the CIA?” I was starting to get ticked and I almost yelled back at them, “No! I’ve told you 3 or 4 times, let’s go to my room and I’ll show you my papers! Nyet problemo!”
This time they nodded yes, and we went out in the hallway and opened the door to the stairwell. I tried to be polite and hold the door for each of them, but they wouldn’t have anything to do with that and insisted that I walk between them. We went down the stairs and were walking down the hallway leading to the outside. All of a sudden they took me by both elbows and shoved me into a dark room on the right. I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, what is this?”
Then the lights went on, and there were all my friends, yelling “Happy Birthday, Joe!” They had a big cake with candles, music and the whole deal. I looked back at the two “KGB” guys and they were grinning from ear to ear and gesturing sheepish apologies. We shook hands, laughed and gave each other hugs. Turns out they were two local camp cops who’d been reluctantly talked into giving me a little heat, and, I’m sure, bribed by a bottle or two of vodka. That was my most unique birthday. I felt included, loved, and thoroughly hoodwinked. Turned out to be a great party!