The Wisdom Of The People


Galina translated and Alexander’s eyes lit up. “Can we go there?” he asked.

I explained the obvious—that the United States, though not as big as the Soviet Union, was big enough, and not quickly traversed. “But, ” 1 said, looking over at my horses, “you can ride if you want to.”

Galina translated and Alexander eyed my horses. They were still at the pasture gate, snorting and pawing the ground nervously. He shook his head and spoke Russian to Galina. “No, he will not ride. But he will shoot and drink in a saloon.”

I went into the house and brought out a revolver, a sack of ammunition. The revolver was an old Colt that dated from the Indian Wars, but it was clean and tight and spent its days in my dresser drawer underneath my socks. I found an old cedar shake the last thunderstorm had blown off the barn, drew a small circle on it with a carpenter’s pencil, nailed it to a fence post and stepped off twenty-five paces. Then I opened the loading gate and slipped in six fat yellow cartridges. I held it out to him butt first. “You do much shooting?” I asked.

Galina translated.

Alexander dropped into a crouch and did an imitation of a man firing a submachine gun from the hip.

“In the army,” Galina said.

Alexander smiled and took the revolver. But for the grace of God, I might have once faced him in the Fulda Gap, that mined and barricaded corridor in Germany the experts had picked out for the beginning of the Third World War. Alexander caressed the Colt and squinted at the target. His first shot went wild, but he put the next five into the shingle. We took turns until we shot up all my ammunition. I picked up half a dozen empties and gave them to him for a souvenir. He rolled them around in his palm for a moment. “Vinchester,” he said reverently.

I looked at the cases. Each had the Winchester logo stamped upon it. Galina walked over to have a look. Then, in a true socialist gesture, Alexander gave half of them to her.

“You can have more,” I said.

Galina shook her head. “These are enough. All firearms and ammunition are tightly controlled in my country. Even empty cases will give cause for suspicion.”

Alexander spoke and Galina translated. “Only the police may have pistols in the Soviet Union. In your country, can any cowboy own one?”

I gave him my standard Second Amendment speech. “In the United States, the Constitution guarantees that every sane, sober, and law-abiding citizen of legal age may own and use firearms.”

Alexander seemed astonished. “That sounds like anarchy,” he said via Galina.

“Maybe,” 1 replied, “but anarchy is better than dictatorship. Besides, the writers of the Constitution had great faith in the wisdom of the people.”

We began walking back up to the house. “Great faith in wisdom of peoples,” Alexander kept repeating under his breath.

We sat in my living room. 1 passed out a round of very cold beer. The Russians sucked theirs down in short order and looked for others. They were provided. Alexander went over, turned on the TV, switched channels until he found a rerun of Gunsmoke , then sat staring at it. I turned my attention to Galina and learned about her life in Soviet Siberia.

She taught college students in the western Siberian city of Tyumen. The government wanted her to liven up her British English with Americanisms and approved her exit visa. But since they wanted to be sure she came back, they refused to let her husband and son come along. She lived in a tiny apartment on the fourth floor of a concrete high-rise that was identical to ones on both sides of it. Her husband taught history and was an amateur archeologist, spending his summer at neolithic campsites that dotted the area. The lush but fleeting Siberian summers were bountiful but winters found her spending long hours in lines to get her daily allotment of bread, butter, cheese, and, occasionally, sausages. She showed me a photo of her young son, Mikal. 1 was astounded. He looked just like my own son who was playing patiently on the floor between us. 1 scooped him up, sat him on my knee, and held Mikal’s picture next to his face.

Galina smiled. “You and I were once enemies,” she said. “Now we are friends.”

“Yes,” I replied. “Look at our children. They are so much alike. But what are we going to do about those nuclear bombs hanging over these children’s heads?”

The question took her by surprise. She had no answer, and neither did I. Each of our governments, in our names, was holding the other’s child hostage. Finally Galina said, “We are comrades. Let that be enough for now.”

We enjoyed an excellent meal, then took coffee out onto the porch in the long northern twilight. I drove them back to their host’s house, and we said our good-byes.

I was halfway down the driveway when I heard Alexander call after me, “Great faith in visdom of peoples!” I honked my horn twice in response.

A month later I sent two small packages to the Soviet Union. Each contained a pair of mittens and wool socks for the coming winter, a pound of coffee, a pound of tea, a handful of chocolate bars. Into Alexander’s I slipped a copy of the new Winchester catalogue. At Christmas I received a handwritten letter of thanks from Galina, but I never heard from Alexander again.