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Earthbound

A chance meeting can change your whole perspective.

By Mark GagnonPublished about a month ago 5 min read
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In late Spring of 1997, I was assigned a 3-day local tour of the Washington metro area. This job was perfect because first, I was very familiar with the locale, and second; I could go home each night instead of staying in a hotel. The only downside was the location of the pickup hotel, Georgetown. If any of you have ever visited this part of Washington, you’ll understand why no driver enjoys navigating a 45-foot bus through its narrow streets and gnarled traffic. Sometimes one has to take the bad with the good.

I arrived about fifteen minutes before the scheduled pickup time so I could meet with Alex, the tour leader, and get a feel for the type of group I was to spend the next three days with. He informed me they were Russian businessmen who were here to experience our nation’s capital—buildings, monuments, museums, the works. He said they spoke almost no English and that all communication would need to go through him. I was handed a sketchy itinerary. Everyone climbed on board, and we began the tour.

For the first two days, we visited all the usual tourist stops: Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington Memorials, Arlington Cemetery, and other points of interest. The language difference was more of an inconvenience than a barrier. I have worked with multiple foreign groups and find that people always communicate, be it through the tour guide, or on their own. By the end of the second day, we were very comfortable with each other.

Day 3 began with Alex telling me they would fly to their next destination via BWI airport but first wanted to do some shopping at the Pentagon City Mall, which is on the wrong side of the Potomac River in relation to the airport. This would be a logistics nightmare based on their departure time. I explained the problem to the group through Alex and offered a Plan B—Annapolis, Maryland. Fortunately, they liked the suggestion, especially when it included touring the Naval Academy. I also liked the suggestion because I was out of DC traffic and I lived in Annapolis, which meant it might be possible for me to go home for lunch and a nap.

I parked the coach at the edge of a downtown slip known as Ego Alley; aptly named because it is where wealthy people moor their luxury yachts to be admired. I pointed out the Naval Academy and other historic sites, then stood at the bottom of the stairs, allowing the passengers to disembark. When it appeared that everyone was off the coach, I re-entered to find one man, slight of build, looking to be in his early sixties, sitting about a third of the way back. A word to the wise to anyone taking a coach trip. If you don’t want to piss off the driver, get off the bus with your group! My fantasy of lunch and a nap evaporated.

Faced with two choices, sit in my area and ignore him, or walk back and try to have a conversation, I chose option two, one of the best moves I’ve ever made. My knowledge of Russian amounts to da and nyet. If we were going to talk, I would have to rely on his language skills. I walked back to his seat and offered my hand. Although Alex had introduced me to the group on day one, I said, “Hi, my name is Mark.”

We shook hands, and he replied, “Valery Bykovsky.”

Fortunately, his mastery of English, although very broken, far surpassed my Russian, so we started a conversation. I asked him what type of business he was in, a natural question since I was told they were all businessmen. He looked bewildered by the question, reached into his pocket, produced his wallet, and withdrew a business card.

Valery F. Bykovsky

Pilot-cosmonaut of the USSR

Twice Hero of the Soviet Union

He signed the card and handed it to me. I’ve been a huge fan of the space program ever since I watched the launch of Explorer 1 in 1958, so to be having a conversation with someone who had actually been to space was mind-blowing. My questions machine-gunned out faster than his language skills could cope with, but I discovered that he hadn’t been in space once but three times. He set the record for a solo space flight of five days, which still stands today. The craft he commanded docked with the ship piloted by the first woman in space. He was even in training for a moon mission that was canceled when the U.S. got there first.

I slowly got over being star-struck and asked about his life now. He talked about owning a 1988 Volvo and doing different things like this trip. It was during this part of our conversation that an accurate picture of this man coalesced. He had reached his zenith early in his life and had nothing to look forward to. He didn’t go exploring with the others because none of this held any genuine interest for him. The man was simply marking time. He had a happy family life, but nothing else satisfied him like the experience of space travel.

In the short time I spent with Valery, I learned a very important lesson; always be looking toward the horizon. Life isn’t about achieving a singular goal, but a continuous search for the next challenge.

Major General Valery F. Bykovsky

August 1934–March 2019

Heroes
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About the Creator

Mark Gagnon

I have spent most of my life traveling around the US and the globe. Now it's time to draw on these experiences and create what I hope are interesting fictional stories. Only you, the reader, can tell me if I've achieved my goal.

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  • Tina D'Angeloabout a month ago

    That is tremendous. What an experience! You have my sympathies if you've had to drive in DC with anything bigger than a VW.

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