On a Whim

The Abraham Family had left India and immigrated to the United States. There, they embraced the new nation and its culture, history, and heroes. One day, the husband and wife, with the wife’s mother and infant daughter in tow, decided to do one of the most American things you can do–take a road trip.

This was November 1969, and the nation was in the middle of social unrest and upheaval. The 1960s had been a kidney stone of a decade. The decade had seen assassinations and wars. It amplified much of what had separated the disparate parts of America, putting us against each other in tribes of youth verses establishment, black against white, immigrant against native-born, and pro-war against anti-war. Yet, that is part of what made the Abrahams want to see America’s heartland, to seek out what made their newly adopted nation tick. So, they went to Ohio.

Wapakoneta, Ohio, probably doesn’t rank high on most people’s travel destination lists, but the Abrahams thought it was the perfect American place to see. So, they stopped in the town that today boasts less than 10,000 souls and rests between Toledo and Dayton. Anisha, the infant child, doesn’t remember the trip, but she talks about that visit to Wapakoneta to this day. You see, the reason she talks about that trip is that her family–both adult women wearing saris–decided to knock on the door of one of the houses in the small Ohio burg.

The older couple who lived there were named Stephen and Viola. Now, most people wouldn’t open the door to strangers in a small town, especially obviously foreign strangers. But Stephen and Viola did. Not only did they open the door, they welcomed the newly minted American multi-generational family into their home, the family who knocked on their door on a whim.

There’s a photograph that Anisha Abraham cherishes of that day. Standing on the front porch of Stephen and Viola’s house in that small Ohio town, we can see the three Abrahams, we see Anisha’s grandmother, and we see the welcoming Ohio couple who chose to open their house and hearts to this family. Viola, wearing a coat against the November chill, holds little Anisha. The men wear ties against white shirts. In many ways, it’s an odd composition, but it represents much of what is wonderful and good about the American Experiment: A spirit of camaraderie, a unity that brings disparate backgrounds and races and beliefs together and somehow makes them all, well, American.

Oh, and the photo was taken by Stephen and Viola’s 39 year old son, who just happened to be home visiting his parents that day. On one hand, it would have been great to have had a photo with him in it, but, in a way, it’s ok that it didn’t.

Still, not every immigrant family to America has proof that they knocked on the door of Neil Armstrong’s house on a whim.

On a Wheelman

Mike sat in the vehicle alone. His two compadres were doing the job while he manned the “getaway car.” As his chums busied themselves, hurriedly gathering their loot and carrying out their tasks, Mike circled,  running all the worst case scenarios through his head. What if there was trouble? What if they got stuck? What if they couldn’t get out? He tried not to think about it. His buddies were counting on him to be there when they were done. But waiting by himself in the getaway vehicle made him feel, as he said later, more alone than anyone has been since Adam.

The three had practiced and practiced and practiced for every possible scenario. They had spent years working through the job. The idea was that more preparation meant a better chance of success. The trio had not simply gone through practice runs until they got it right; they had practiced until they could not get it wrong. Like Danny Ocean in the movies, they even worked on mockups of the scene. Each man knew his role. They had experience. No, this wasn’t their first time doing this.

And, so, Mike brought the vehicle right around one more time and waited. “What will I tell their families if they don’t make it out?“ He thought. “I don’t want to be the guy, the only guy who lives through this.“ Again, he circled.  No sign of them.  It shouldn’t be taking this long. They should be back by now. He even contemplated going to get them directly, but that wasn’t part of the plan.  Stick to the plan, Mike told himself. Stick to the plan.

Thirty times Mike circled.

You might think that, by this time, the average wheelman would begin to give up and try to make good his own escape. But not Mike. No, in fact, he felt a heightened, “awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation.”  Suddenly, on the final pass, he saw them. Mike’s two pals we’re coming towards him as quickly as they could.  Just as they had planned it, Mike did not even have to stop to let his buddies enter the vehicle.

Mike tried to hide his relief and excitement once his buddies were inside. As he steered away, he asked calmly, “How did it go?“ His buddy Neil gave him a thumbs up while other member of the trio, Buzz, grinned broadly.

That’s when Commander Michael Collins radioed Houston that Apollo 11 was returning to earth.