nostalgia, politics, travel

Repost: Remembering Samantha Smith… pen pal to world leaders

Here’s another repost from June 2018, a post inspired by my childhood in the 1980s. This one is about the late Samantha Smith, who made history by writing to Yuri Andropov and getting invited to visit the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Samantha was nine days younger than me, but sadly, she died in a plane crash in 1985. Little did I know, when Samantha was alive, that I, too, would one day go to what was once the Soviet Union. The 80s were an interesting time to be a kid.

I was born on June 20, 1972.  Nine days later, Samantha Smith was born.  Samantha Smith would change the world during her 13 years of life.  I’m about to turn 46 (and now I’m 49) and I’m still wondering what my purpose is. 

A few weeks ago, I suddenly remembered Samantha Smith, who was ten years old when she wrote a moving letter to former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov.  She was concerned about the threat of nuclear war.  In the early 1980s, everyone was talking about nukes and the so-called “red button”.  Like so many of her peers, Samantha was scared.  But she had guts and initiative.  So, in November 1982, she wrote:

Dear Mr. Andropov,

My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren’t please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.


Samantha Smith  

This was not Samantha’s first letter to a world leader.  In fact, she’d even written to another leader when she was five– Queen Elizabeth II– to express her admiration.  Samantha’s letter was printed in the Soviet paper, Pravda, but she did not receive a reply from Andropov right away.  Undaunted, Samantha wrote another letter, this time to the Soviet Union’s Ambassador to the United States. 

Mr. Andropov was very moved by Samantha’s letter.  He wrote back to her in April 1983, affirmed that the Soviet Union did not want to wage a nuclear war, and invited her to visit the Soviet Union at a time when Americans were not often allowed to go there. 

Dear Samantha,

I received your letter, which is like many others that have reached me recently from your country and from other countries around the world.

It seems to me – I can tell by your letter – that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling Becky, the friend of Tom Sawyer in the famous book of your compatriot Mark Twain. This book is well known and loved in our country by all boys and girls.

You write that you are anxious about whether there will be a nuclear war between our two countries. And you ask are we doing anything so that war will not break out.

Your question is the most important of those that every thinking man can pose. I will reply to you seriously and honestly.

Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are trying to do everything so that there will not be war on Earth. This is what every Soviet man wants. This is what the great founder of our state, Vladimir Lenin, taught us.

Soviet people well know what a terrible thing war is. Forty-two years ago, Nazi Germany, which strove for supremacy over the whole world, attacked our country, burned and destroyed many thousands of our towns and villages, killed millions of Soviet men, women and children.

In that war, which ended with our victory, we were in alliance with the United States: together we fought for the liberation of many people from the Nazi invaders. I hope that you know about this from your history lessons in school. And today we want very much to live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors on this earth — with those far away and those near by. And certainly with such a great country as the United States of America.

In America and in our country there are nuclear weapons — terrible weapons that can kill millions of people in an instant. But we do not want them to be ever used. That’s precisely why the Soviet Union solemnly declared throughout the entire world that never — never — will it use nuclear weapons first against any country. In general we propose to discontinue further production of them and to proceed to the abolition of all the stockpiles on Earth.

It seems to me that this is a sufficient answer to your second question: ‘Why do you want to wage war against the whole world or at least the United States?’ We want nothing of the kind. No one in our country–neither workers, peasants, writers nor doctors, neither grown-ups nor children, nor members of the government–want either a big or ‘little’ war.

We want peace — there is something that we are occupied with: growing wheat, building and inventing, writing books and flying into space. We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha.

I invite you, if your parents will let you, to come to our country, the best time being this summer. You will find out about our country, meet with your contemporaries, visit an international children’s camp – Artek – on the sea. And see for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples.

Thank you for your letter. I wish you all the best in your young life.

Y. Andropov

In the summer of 1983, Samantha visited Russia, where she caused quite a sensation.  She spent two weeks in Moscow as Mr. Andropov’s guest and had the opportunity to visit Artek, which was a big Soviet pioneer camp.  During the Soviet era, young children were involved in the Young Pioneers, which was a massive youth organization.  She also went to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), where she was presented with many gifts.  Smith and her parents were amazed by how friendly the people were.

So many years later, I was watching Samantha Smith on old YouTube videos.  There are many comments from Russians who remembered and admired her.  She truly was a heroine to many Russians and Americans alike, although there were some skeptics out there who felt she was being used as a Soviet propaganda pawn.

When Samantha and her parents came home to Maine, they were treated to a warm welcome involving a red carpet and limousine.  Samantha was interviewed by many famous people, including Ted Koppel and Johnny Carson.  In 1985, she even tried her hand at acting when she was cast as a regular in a TV show called Lime Street

Samantha Smith interviewed by Johnny Carson.
Samantha Smith being interviewed on The Today Show, after she had become a media sensation.

Tragically, on August 25, 1985, Samantha Smith and her father, Arthur, died in a plane crash.  They were returning home on Bar Harbor Airlines Flight 1808 after having filmed a segment for Lime Street.  The pilot was attempting to land the plane when it hit some trees 4007 feet shy of the runway. The airplane crashed, killing the six passengers and two crew members aboard.  Although some in the Soviet Union thought she might have been a victim of foul play, an investigation revealed that the pilots were inexperienced and the rainy weather conditions contributed to the difficulty in landing the plane.

News story about Samantha Smith’s death.

Samantha Smith’s visit inspired goodwill all over the world, especially in the United States and Russia.  In fact, in 1986, a Soviet child named Katya Lycheva even spent time in the United States.  A 1987 storyline on The Golden Girls was even inspired by Samantha’s story, although it was ditzy Rose Nylund who wrote the letter, not a ten year old girl.

Rose’s “Letter to Gorbachev”… 

I wonder what would have become of Samantha Smith had she been able to grow up.  I wonder what she would think of our current political situation.  I think of what it was like for me, 23 years ago, moving to what was once a Soviet country and finding out that the people over there are much like we are.  She could have had a wonderful career, spreading world peace and goodwill.  Some people are never meant to grow old, yet still manage to change the world.  

When I was watching videos on YouTube last night, I also thought of Ryan White, who was another one of my contemporaries.  He contracted AIDS after having been given a tainted blood infusion to treat his hemophilia.  Ryan White was kicked out of school and harassed by his peers for having AIDS.  In those days, a lot of small minded people thought of it as a disease God sent to punish gay people.  It didn’t help that Ryan was from a small town in Indiana, where there were many ignorant people who thought he was gay simply because he had what was then considered a “gay” disease.

White went on to influence the world, even making friends with Elton John and Michael Jackson, both of whom were at his funeral when he died in April 1990.  I vividly remember watching Lukas Haas play White in a TV movie about his life.  White was himself in the film with a minor role.  So was Sarah Jessica Parker.

While we’ve come a long way in the fight against AIDS since Ryan White’s day, we’re still really struggling with world peace.  I just started reading another book about the Holocaust.  It’s a story about a Jewish Dutch woman who watched as her country was overtaken by Nazis.  I have to confess, reading her comments about what happened before Hitler completely took over gave me chills.  So much of it is familiar today.  Maybe it’s not quite as extreme now as it was in the 40s… or maybe it just doesn’t seem as extreme to me as it might to someone with brown skin, living in America’s Heartland.  The one thing that gives me hope is that the world eventually came to its senses somewhat, after World War II.  I hope it doesn’t come to war to make the powers that be in the United States regain their senses…  

Well, those are my deep thoughts for today.  The 1980s were fascinating.  I’m glad I was around to see them. 

complaints, funny stories, humor, Trump

Repost: Rude awakenings…

I’m reposting this article from my old blog. It originally appeared on August 10, 2018. I’ve decided to share it again as/is because it makes me laugh. I think we need a laugh, and I don’t feel like writing about the usual stuff today. I might do that anyway, because something is bound to irritate me… but here’s an alternative post for those who are sick of the usual 2020-21 topics. This was truly a WTF moment for me.

I had a “rude awakening” this morning.  You know that expression, “rude awakening”?  People often say it when someone is about to face reality in an unpleasant and unexpected way.  Well, that’s not the type of rude awakening I had.  I literally had a “rude awakening”… as in, someone rudely accused me of being rude and offensive!

Last night, just before I went to sleep, a Facebook friend who does stand up comedy posted this.

I don’t usually play along with these things, but decided to this time…  perhaps it was my mistake.

So here was my response, which several people “liked”.  

I didn’t think this was offensive.  Given our president’s penchant for affairs and grabbing women by the pussy, I thought it was spot on.

Imagine my surprise this morning when someone called me out for being “rude and offensive”.  Have a look.

Well, it’s not the first time someone has called me rude and offensive, but I was truly puzzled by this…

I gave some thought to going off on this guy, especially since it was about 5:00am and I hadn’t yet had my coffee.  Fortunately for him, I was sitting on the toilet, which gave me a few minutes to compose my thoughts.  Below was my response.

This was actually much nicer than the first response that came to mind.

Then, the guy came back with a response I never in my wildest dreams would have come up with, even on my most random thinking day.  Behold…

Thanks for mansplaining this for me.  I clearly never would have made the connection.

Honestly, I was baffled by this response.  Yes, I am old enough to know who Ryan White was.  He was my age and, when he died at 18 years old, was already 100 times the man Donald Trump is.  Moreover, while he did have a infection that can be transmitted sexually, White did not himself contract AIDS sexually.  He was a hemophiliac who received weekly blood transfusions to treat his condition.  Unfortunately, he received blood that was tainted with the virus that causes AIDS, and that’s why he got sick.

Ryan White made headlines because he wanted to keep attending school. People in his community were ignorant about how AIDS is spread and fought to keep him out.  White very bravely kept fighting and educating, and he eventually died a hero among my peers.  I have tremendous respect for Ryan White.  I have zero respect for Donald Trump.  They are completely different people.  In fact, Trump probably would have been squarely on the side of the people who wanted White banished from school.  To bring Ryan White into a discussion about Donald Trump is, in my mind, the height of bad taste and offensiveness.

I never in a million years would have ever thought of Ryan White as being the reason I shouldn’t crack jokes about STIs.  Even if Ryan White had contracted AIDS sexually, I just plain wouldn’t have made the connection.  To be honest, I was initially very offended that this random stranger would make this kind of comment to me, a person he doesn’t know from Adam.  But, once again, I fought the urge to write a nasty response.  Instead, I posted this.

Civil enough?

And he posted this…

Dude, I could have “thought” all day and never come up with the Ryan White/Donald Trump connection…  That’s just a little “out there”, in my opinion.  But thank you for the suggestion and the chastising.  

I think it’s funny that as this conversation was occurring, I was actively thinking about what I was going to post.  I really wanted to tell him off in an epically snarky way, but held off on doing that because I got the feeling he’s not your usual Internet troll.

And then I decided to add a suggestion of my own.

Wise counsel?  I hope some people have learned from Trump’s White House fiasco.

I must admit that I was curious about this man.  I wanted to know what made him call me out for insinuating that Donald Trump should have a sexually transmitted infection named after him.  I went to his Facebook page and found it wide open, with a hodgepodge of odd public videos, YouTube videos of himself, and posts lamenting about cyberbullies and how miserable his life is.  

It appears that some people have had a go at this dude, sending him mean-spirited private messages.  And even though I did not engage him first, I guess he equated me with the Internet meanies for making a joke about Trump and STIs.  Obviously, I didn’t do enough thinking about how Ryan White and Donald Trump have things in common. 

Of course, I have no way of knowing what will offend people, especially those I don’t know.  He took offense at my generic comment about our current White House occupant, but failed to realize that his very personal comment accusing me of being rude and offensive was much worse.  After all, we don’t even know each other.

I am glad I didn’t give in to my initial impulse to blast him.  Even though I think his comment about Ryan White is completely ridiculous, it appears that he’s troubled.  I don’t know what his issues are, and I wish we hadn’t crossed paths, but I don’t want to cause him pain.  I am a bit surprised that he wasn’t upset about another suggestion that appeared in response to that meme…

I mean, this seems more offensive to me than suggesting an STI named after Trump… but, like I always say, you never know what will shake the nuts from the trees.

This is what inspired the comment about monuments to fucking daughters…

Edited to add:  The above comment was posted by a different person who was responding to the original meme, not to me.  No one is in any danger or being threatened– the “daughter” referred to in the comment is Ivanka Trump and the comment refers to Donald Trump’s statements about how he’d want to date her.  The person who posted that is referring to a hypothetical monument named after Donald Trump.  It’s just tasteless political humor.  I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer about that.  

Anyway… I think he will go on my block list so I don’t offend him again.  Who’s got the time for that shit?

book reviews

A review of Now Everyone Will Know: The Perfect Husband, His Shattering Secret, My Rediscovered Life by Maggie Kneip

After I finished reading and reviewing my last book, which I bought recently and read soon after purchasing, I decided it was time to tackle one of the books that had been sitting on my Kindle app for years. I have a habit of buying books, but then I don’t get around to reading them for a long time. I have quite a few that have been waiting for ages to be read, and while I’m sure the authors are just grateful for another sale, I really do need to read what I’ve got. Today’s review represents a book I bought in late September 2016, but am just now finishing reading in January 2020. I used to be a much faster reader than I am today. My eyes were better and I didn’t fall asleep so easily ten years ago. I guess my buying habits haven’t adapted with the times.

I don’t remember what compelled me to buy Maggie Kneip’s book, Now Everyone Will Know: The Perfect Husband, His Shattering Secret, My Rediscovered Life, which was published in November 2015. Maybe I saw an article in the news about her. It could have just as easily been a suggestive sell from Amazon. I am pretty vulnerable to those. I do love true stories, too, and Maggie’s story is definitely real and relatable, especially if you were around in the 1980s, when everyone was terrified of AIDS. I was a child in the 80s, so I remember that terror well. We talked a lot about AIDS in school, and there were a lot of books, movies, and magazine articles about the deadly disease that struck people in their prime and killed them quickly. Ryan White, the hemophiliac boy who got a tainted blood transfusion that caused his deadly case of AIDS and famously fought for the right to keep going to school, was a year older than I am.

On June 19, 1990, three days after I graduated from high school, Maggie Kneip gave birth to her son, Dan. Dan is her second child. Her first child is Caroline, who was two years old when her brother was born. Maggie’s husband, John Andrew, was a well regarded journalist for The Wall Street Journal. The family lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and it seemed like Dan’s birth would be icing on the cake of what must have seemed to most people like a charmed life. John and Maggie met in 1984, married in 1986, and by 1990, seemed to be living the American Dream.

But John Andrew had kept secrets from his wife, and just a couple of weeks after baby Dan was born, John became extremely ill. His doctors told Maggie that John would probably be dead in two weeks. Maggie, who had been a dancer and a singing waitress who worked with many brilliant people who’d contracted AIDS, seemed to know instinctively what was wrong with her “straight” husband. John had been suffering from nagging illnesses. He’d had rashes, a persistent cough, weight loss, and most humiliatingly, uncontrollable diarrhea. On July 10, 1990, John and Maggie were out to dinner when John couldn’t distinguish the difference between an ashtray and a ketchup bottle. Somehow, Maggie knew that her husband, a man with brilliant red hair and cornflower blue eyes who resembled the actor, David Caruso, had been leading a double life, even though his doctors hadn’t tested him for AIDS because he was presumably “straight”.

Though doctors had believed John would die within weeks of his collapse, his actual death occurred nine months later. In the meantime, Maggie cared for him. She worried about her own health and that of their children’s; fortunately, none of them were infected with the virus that causes AIDS. In a weird way, genital herpes might have even saved Maggie from her husband’s fate. Because John had herpes, the couple frequently used condoms when they had sexual intercourse. By March 1991, John was dead, and Maggie was left to take care of herself and their children. But she was doing so at a time when people were still ignorant and petrified about AIDS. She battled ignorance and even vindictiveness among her peers and her children’s schoolmates.

In the weeks after John’s death, Maggie packed up or threw away his beautiful, “bespoke” suits, expensive shoes, fancy ablutions, and memorabilia. Her children didn’t know their father. They rarely spoke of him and, in fact, Maggie went looking for a “replacement father”, whom she eventually found in a Georgetown graduate named Dave who read children’s books to the kids and used different voices for each character. Maggie went back to work in children’s publishing and raised her children. It wasn’t until twenty-five years after John’s death that she finally felt free to talk about him and tell their story.

My thoughts

I’m of a mixed mind about this book. On one hand, I found it very readable and engaging. I finished it within a couple of days. I probably could have finished it in a sitting, since it’s under 200 pages, but there’s that “falling asleep while reading” problem I mentioned earlier in this post. It doesn’t matter if the subject matter is amazing. I still drop off when I read sometimes, which slows down my progress. Last night, I managed to get through a large portion of the book and I easily finished it this morning.

The first half of Now Everyone Will Know was fast paced and gripping. Maggie Kneip has a colorful writing style and uses creative similes and metaphors that, most often, are clever and thought provoking. But then, once John has died, and she’s picking up the pieces of her life, it seems like the book’s pace becomes sped up somehow. She crams a lot of action into too few pages, and it starts to feel a bit rushed and glossed over.

I think Maggie Kneip could have added more detail to her story beyond her husband’s death. She adds a couple of very specific incidents that are jarring: a “friend” calling her children’s pediatrician and CPS on her with “concerns” that the children are being “abused”. Fortunately, the child welfare worker who visited her was smart enough to realize the kids were not being abused. Then there was the incident in which her daughter, Caroline, told her class that her father died of AIDS and the teacher called Maggie to gently suggest that they “find another way” to tell people about John’s death. These were good incidents to illustrate why Kneip felt she couldn’t discuss her husband’s death.

There was another incident in which her infant son, Dan, was burning up with fever and Maggie worried that he might have AIDS. After hours, she convinced an elderly doctor who ran an office out of his garage to take a look at the baby. When the doctor learned that the baby’s father had died of AIDS, he pretty much kicked them out of his office and they wound up at the emergency room, where Dan was diagnosed with an ear infection. This is another story that sheds light on how difficult it was for Maggie and her kids after John died. But there aren’t enough of these anecdotes, and Kneip still had the resources to get good healthcare and access to excellent schools for her kids. A lot of Americans would not have been able to do that, due to finances and the ignorance of locals (as in Ryan White’s case).

Kneip doesn’t delve much into how she felt about learning John’s secret. She expresses a few brief comments of outrage at the betrayal of being lied to and exposed to a deadly illness. But then, nothing… most of the rest of her book is about what a great guy John was, even though he was having unprotected sex with men while having sex with her. Personally, in her position, I would have been outraged. But she doesn’t really write too much about it, so I didn’t get much of a sense of how upset she was. I got the impression she was initially shocked, then briefly angry, then set in motion to pick up the pieces. Only toward the end of the book, when she describes learning sad songs for a cabaret act (as a form of therapy) did I get an inkling of what she might have been feeling over the plus two decades beyond her husband’s death.

Then, Kneip sort of brushes over her troubles finding someone to date, with only one or two examples of men who were put off by the fact that her husband had died of AIDS. I can only think of one very brief note she makes about a boorish man she met on a blind date who quipped, “Just my luck. I go out on a blind date with someone whose husband died of AIDS.” Were there no others? Because if that was the only embarrassing moment she had in her dating life, it seems pretty tame. I’ve probably had more embarrassing dating moments than she has, and I never even dated very much.

Then, she finds Dave, the “replacement dad”, whose only faults were his love of drinking (which she writes that he stopped “cold”) and his cat, whom she says was pawned off on someone else. She writes of drinking two glasses of wine while pregnant (not that I think it’s a big deal, but some readers will), and riding in the car with her son in her arms because screw the carseat (again, not personally a big deal to me, but might make some readers think she’s terribly negligent and self-centered). According to her book, Kneip broke up with Dave for awhile, but then got back together with him. They aren’t married, which is certainly their choice, but it does seem like she doesn’t realize that she’s actually had it pretty good. Dave willingly helped her raise her children, to the point of attending PTA meetings, and he helped her care for her aging parents. Maggie is somewhat bitter, because she’s the breadwinner who’s tired and unable to do things she enjoys. But Dave is taking care of her children by another man and isn’t even legally a part of their family. They’d temporarily split up, mainly because Dave wanted to stay in Connecticut and Maggie wanted to move back to New York City. Because they weren’t married, this was easy enough for them to do… and then later, they reconnected when Maggie apparently decided Connecticut wasn’t so bad, after all.

Prior to meeting Dave, Maggie Kneip still dated, was able to find work that paid the bills– enough so that she could move to Westport, Connecticut, and sent her children to excellent colleges. She took tap dancing lessons, joined book clubs, and started running in marathons. She describes looking like Farrah Fawcett at one point just after her husband’s death, showing up to clean out his office wearing a mini skirt and admitting to want to attract attention from men.

I think of friends of mine– middle aged women who find themselves alone, out of work, dealing with their own health problems and their aging parents, struggling to pay their most basic bills, and with little hope of finding relief from the stresses of daily life. I have a friend who recently divorced her husband because he has a traumatic brain injury and she was trying to raise their child alone while also caring for him. She does have friends and family, but her situation compared to Maggie’s seems a lot more difficult. My friend has been looking for full time work and has few resources. She could probably write a book herself, and it would probably be a more compelling story about driving on through a crisis.

By contrast, when John died, Maggie was left with life insurance, stocks, and property John had inherited in New Hampshire. Yes, she had to go back to work, but she apparently had family and friends who were willing and able to help her. And though she writes of feeling alienated due to her husband’s AIDS related demise, I just don’t get the sense that it was all that bad. Based on her own descriptions, it sounds like Maggie Kneip was still attractive enough to find other partners. Indeed, she found one who was apparently a very good match– even according to her friends, who congratulated her on landing her “catch”. Yes, I agree that she went through a terrible ordeal, but it seems that she was able to pick herself up with admirable ease. Maybe it wasn’t like that in reality, but that’s how her story comes across to me, even as she laments about the “stay-at-home” moms she encountered in Connecticut who didn’t have to work or worked part-time from home. I mean, at least she found a job that paid well enough for her to get back on her feet and even have a choice to move to areas where the schools are excellent. Many people are not so fortunate and have to make do with much less.

While it’s worth mentioning that back in the 90s, people were terribly stigmatized by AIDS, things have changed a lot since then. AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence. Younger readers who weren’t around back in that time might have trouble understanding… or maybe the book will just serve as sort of an anecdotal history for those who weren’t around when accommodations weren’t made for people with HIV or AIDS.

I do think Maggie Kneip is a good writer, although I did notice that she used the exact same colorfully turned sentence twice. How? Because I read it twice within hours this morning. At one point, Kneip writes about how she took her children to their father’s grave in New Hampshire, describing how the stood at attention in sneakers, “offering up tired daisies for their father’s grave”. Within a couple of chapters, she uses the very same description when she writes of her and the children visiting family in New Hampshire, picking blueberries, hiking, and “offering up tired daisies for their father’s grave”. Had the description not been so descriptive and interesting, I probably wouldn’t have noticed, but I got such an image when I read it the first time that it stuck out like a sore thumb the second time I encountered it.

If I were going to rate this book, I think I’d give it 3.5 stars on a scale of five. Kneip has a gift for creative writing and uses some entertaining and clever descriptions in her book, but to me, it just seems like an effort that was both rushed and incomplete. And, I’ve gotta say, as an average woman of average means, I find her tone a bit clueless and self-pitiful. I’m sure she’s not really like that, though, and had she fleshed out this book a bit more, I would not have come away with that impression. Certainly her discovery of John Andrew’s “secret life” and the betrayal she felt was very dramatic and hurtful to her. If she had spent a bit more time on that story, as well as the one that unfolded immediately after John’s death, I might be more convinced as to why this book needed to be written.

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