December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
During the fall of 1973, when my wife, Jane, and I were undergraduates at the University of Texas at El Paso, we had dinner with what we will always consider the oddest couple ever to dine at one table: Angela Davis and Francis Gary Powers. This occurred at a symposium sponsored by New Mexico State University and held at the Inn of the Mountain Gods in Mescalero.
Jane and I drove two and a half hours from the searing desert of El Paso to the cool pines of the Lincoln National Forest, and were seated just in time to hear Angela Davis speak about her Communist leanings and her political troubles in California. She was followed by Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot who had been shot down over the Soviet Union, imprisoned for a few years, and later traded for a Russian spy on a bridge in Berlin. At the time of the symposium, Powers was working as a helicopter pilot for the Los Angeles Police Department.
When the speeches were over, the two sat together on a sofa to answer questions, Davis with her long black hair and colorful dress and Powers in a suit, white shirt, and tie.
After the question-and-answer period we all were invited to dinner. We walked into a restaurant and lined up in front of the buffet. Davis and Powers were right behind Jane and me, and after getting their trays of food, they asked if they could join us.
During dinner Davis was quiet, hardly saying anything other than “Please pass the butter.” Powers, on the other hand, was very talkative. He told about when the U-2 airplane jerked violently and began to fall. He thought the problem was caused by a mechanical malfunction; he did not believe the Russians had the technology to shoot him down at that altitude. He blew the canopy off the aircraft, but he worried that because of modifications to the plane, he could not eject without his legs being chopped off at the knees. So in a panic he climbed out of the cockpit.
“Unfortunately I forgot to unfasten my umbilical cord,” he said between bites of prime rib, “and for a long three to five seconds I was hanging by this cord while the plane nose-dived toward earth.
“Then suddenly my cord snapped, and I fell clear of the airplane. I passed out, and my parachute automatically opened at a preset altitude. I came to while floating to earth, and I immediately began tearing up all the documents, maps, and other paperwork I had in my pocket. I found my ‘silver dollar,’ within which was a small pin containing poison. I knew the Russians would want that dollar, so I removed the poison pin, threw the dollar away, and hid the pin in my clothing. It went through three searches by Russian authorities before it was found and confiscated.”
Jane, Davis, and I ate silently while we listened to his account of his discovery by two farmers, who took him in their pickup truck to the local authorities. As he rode between them, one of them wrote “USA” with his finger in the dust on the dashboard.
“I just sat there and didn’t say a word. I was scared to death,” Powers said. “But there was never any torture the entire time I was in Russia.”
My wife asked him if he had made any friends while in prison.
“Two,” he said, “both Russians, and to this day I correspond with both of them. They’re still in prison in Moscow.”
Jane and I drove our Volkswagen bus back to El Paso, and for the next two weeks we told our story to anyone who would listen.
I have since lost a photo of Jane in a knee-length silk dress, the clean-cut Powers, and me with shoulder-length hair. Someday I hope to find that photograph.