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Summer 2007, Volume 3

Risk - Chapter 4
by Lynne Wainfan

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Mischa stumbled over a hill in the dark field. He fell to one knee, sinking into the soft soil but still holding onto the airplane he was pulling. No damage done, but he must slow down. The night would be black as dirt for several more hours and stealth was more important than haste.

He pushed himself up again, dismayed at the clump of dirt that clung to the knee of his brown corduroy pants. Mischa had starved himself for months and these extra few milligrams of dirt weighed the same as last week's forsaken piece of his mother's babovka. The smell of it cooling on the kitchen counter had tested his commitment, driving him wild with the desire for a taste of it,—likely his last taste of it, he realized at the time.

He had chosen this night long ago, after consulting a calendar at school that predicted there would be no moon on April 13, 1973. The darkness would help him later, but now it made it very hard to get where he was going. Despite his months of planning every detail, Mischa had not foreseen that the field would be freshly tilled. It rose and fell in shallow rows, ready for seed potatoes.

Mischa's head jerked towards distant headlights turning onto the road that led to the field. He ducked down, wondering if his mother had discovered his note and found a way to come after him. He had written several drafts of that note before carefully penning the final version this morning.

Dear Mama:

By the time you read this I will be gone. I beg you not to worry. I'm not in trouble or anything like that. It is hard to explain, but I only know that I must leave. I'm sorry I won't be there to help, but I will find a way to send money very soon. Tell Tomas that the truck will be in the south end of Vlad's field. I will let you know when I am settled.



The headlights were coming closer now. Mischa held his hand in front of his eyes and squinted to get a better look. Good, only one person inside and his mother could not drive. He crouched lower, wishing his skin wasn't so light. Then he laughed. He might be able to hide himself, but the truck driver was bound to notice the airplane he'd been pulling. Its metal fuselage glowed in the headlights, nine silver tubes screwed together to hold him and the landing gear to the wing. It would be a breezy flight, since the structure was not covered and there was no windshield. The top of the plane's wing was covered with blue plastic tarps that Mischa had stolen from the neighborhood. The bottom of the eight-meter wing was bare, saving the weight of the covering at the expense of drag. He hoped that his stitches would hold--he'd only been able to find sewing thread. Another worry was the propeller that would push on the back of the plane. If that wasn't right, he wouldn't go fast enough to worry about the stitches. Like the rest of the plane, the propeller was his own handiwork. It had started its life as a loose fence post from this very field.

The truck turned away from the field and Mischa sighed. He could smell the moist, loamy soil. If he could pull the plane three more meters, it would be hidden from the road by a row of trees.

He pushed himself to his feet for the final haul. Although his eyes were adjusting again to the darkness, starting to make out faint shapes in the starlight, the ground was still a sea of blackness. Moving the plane over each furrow was a challenge: First Mischa had to find the hill with his feet by tapping the ground. Then he had to step into the gully beyond it, and then drag the plane backwards by its propeller over the hill. After four rows, he arrived, breathing hard. He licked his index finger, spit out the dirt, and held his finger up to find the wind direction. The air was still. His first lucky break. Mischa swung the back of the airplane around, lining its nose up with furrows and started his pre-flight inspection.

Mischa tried to remember the first item on his mental checklist. Ah yes, the propeller. If it was damaged, its imbalance would shake the engine from its mounts. He ran his index finger down the leading edge of the propeller, and then swept his hand along its surface, relieved to find the wood smooth.

He took a small flashlight from his pocket, shielded it with his hands to hide any stray light, and turned it on for an instant. In the flash, he could see that the ignition wires were still connected to the spark plugs. The engine had come from a small car that had been left for a week near the school.

Now Mischa's eyes had to re-adjust to the darkness. Like a blind man, he ran his fingers along the back of the left wing, then around the leading edge before walking around the point of the right wing. He felt the right tire, which had accumulated at least a centimeter of caked mud. He picked it off with his fingernails and then realized it would just stick to the wheel again as he started to roll. The other wheels were caked but inflated. Mischa stood up and pushed the horizontal bar in front of him all the way forward and aft. The wing pitched up and down without any obstruction.

Climbing into the plane, Mischa buckled his father's best belt around the back of the seat and himself. He lifted his feet onto the front tube, only to find his feet heavy with dirt caked onto the soles of his gym shoes. It was as if the ground itself wanted to keep him there, but he scraped it off with his fingers. Was there anything he could remove to make up for all this extra weight? He'd drilled hundreds of holes in unnecessary structure, cut away unneeded map sections, and cut his hair down to blonde stubble. He reached down and removed his shoelaces.

He sat back and looked around for what he hoped would be his last view of communist Czechoslovakia. His uncle's truck sat nearby with a note stuck through the b broken gearshift. “Thanks for the loan. I'll be OK.” A hundred meters ahead lay the wall, a three-meter barrier that separated him from Austria and freedom. Even in the dark, the wall was distantly visible, backlit by some mysterious glow from the Austrian side. Mischa had scouted for months before finding this field. It was halfway between two guard stations four kilometers apart. Guards typically walked past each section of the border wall every half hour, but this piece of the border was different; the guards only came every two hours—there were pubs between here and the guard station. Even in the dark, the guards would hear the engine coming but—he hoped—would not be able to see him well enough to shoot him. Shuddering, Mischa pulled his green flannel jacket closed.

Building the airplane had been quite an adventure. While his high school classmates experimented with homemade cigarettes behind the town silo, he had tested model airplanes. The model magazines had made it look easy, but the little planes had been more complicated than he'd imagined. Too little angle between the thrust line and the wing and his models pitched up before crashing. Too much angle and they became either didn't climb, or had to be going very fast before they climbed. Get the angle right and then too much weight in the back could cause the plane to pitch up before crashing.

He'd finally figured out how to make a small wooden glider sail across the basement, but adding a propeller and rubber band made it crash again. Eventually he'd figured out to make the models bigger to carry the weight of the rubber band. Once he got that working, he decided he'd just make a model airplane ten times bigger to fly him to freedom. The problem was the propeller. He couldn't just make it ten times bigger, it would hit the ground. So he studied propeller shapes as best he could, copying designs from model airplane magazines, windmills, the fan in his living room. The fence post he'd used for the propeller had a knot in it that made Mischa worry about imbalance. If the two blades of the propeller weren't identical, the vibration could shake the engine from its mounts. There had been no way to test the propeller, but he hoped it would be close enough.

There were so many little worries about the plane: the propeller shape, strength of the tubes, the engine's power. Each been a small concern, easy to classify as minor. Now, when he saw all of them all together, adding up in a way such that any one failure could kill him, he saw things differently. The realization that he might die on this field floated for a while before settling down onto him. He took a pen from his shirt pocket and wrote on his forearm:

Please contact my mother, Magdelena Bizjack in Hevlin, Czechoslovakia.

What in the hell was he doing out here? Even if a miracle occurred and the plane flew over the wall, even if another miracle left him alive after the landing, how would a 17-year old boy survive in a foreign country? How exactly could he earn enough to buy food, much less go to school? He didn't speak the language, didn't even know if they'd convert his pocketful of money into currency he could use, didn't even know where he'd sleep next.

It wasn't too late to turn back now. He could load the plane back onto the truck, drive home, climb under his quilt and sleep several hours before the smell of fried potatoes woke him tomorrow. He could hug his mother one more time, and then sneak into science class to retrieve the note he'd left for Mr. Soldan before it could be discovered.

His teacher had no inkling what Mischa was doing, but Mr. Soldan had been the cause of all this, that winter afternoon years ago. Mr. Soldan had been returning tests when he whispered into Mischa's ear from behind. “Stay after class.” I have something to show you. His teacher's hot conspiratorial breath in his ear had excited Mischa and he could hardly wait until everyone else had shuffled out of class to find out the secret. Mr. Soldan pulled down the shade on the door covering its window, and pulled a chair for Mischa next to his desk. Opening the bottom drawer of his wooden desk, he dug under some papers, and pulled out a magazine with foreign writing. He opened the magazine to the middle page. Staring at Mischa over the top of his black-rimmed glasses, the teacher turned the magazine towards Mischa and watched his expression.

“They did it; they made it to the moon.”

Mischa leaned forward on his arms and stared at the picture. A silver rocket stood near a scaffold, against a bright blue sky. Clouds billowed not in the sky, but up from below. Flames poured from the rocket.

Mischa closed his mouth and swallowed. “To the moon?”

The teacher smiled and turned the page carefully. The black and white picture showed a man in a large white suit walking on sand. “Here he is. That's the moon.”

“Why wasn't this in the newspapers? Why the secret?”

“They're Americans.”

“Not Soviet?”

“No. It's a big embarrassment. I'll get in trouble if anyone finds out I told you about it.”

“You can't be serious. A man walks on the moon and we're not supposed to know? How can they think they can keep that a secret?”

The teacher sat back, the springs on his chair groaning. “The police just make an example of one person and everyone else keeps quiet.”

“But I don't understand. In this very classroom, you teach us that the scientific method only works when scientists build on the work of those who came before. If we can't read about this, can't talk about this, how can there be progress?”

“Maybe that's why the Americans beat the Soviets. I've heard that you can't get those guys to shut up.”

Mischa stared at the pictures as his teacher grew serious again. The moon looked so different than he'd imagined, lying in his back yard staring up at it on humid summer nights. These pictures showed a vast field of sand, with no trees, no water, no hills that he could see. It looked so empty and bleak, a curious combination of being disappointingly nothing…yet something. It now had footprints on it.

The teacher spoke softly now. “Mischa, I've seen thousands of students come through here.” He pushed took his glasses off. Never have I seen a more exceptional student.”

“Tell that to Mrs. Tretya.”

“All right, then, an exceptional science student. Your test scores are not the highest I've ever seen, but I'd trade ten of those kids who could memorize everything for one mind like yours.”

Mischa felt an unfamiliar mixture of embarrassment and pride.

“Mischa, there's analysis and then there's creation. When I open a car hood and look at the engine, I see an engine. I know I could break it down into its little parts and tell you what each part does. When you look at an engine, you go the other way. Instead of breaking it down in your mind—analyzing—you see all that you could do with it. You create new ways to make it work better, to make it do things it wasn't designed to do.”

Mischa didn't know what to say. The big clock on the wall ticked away the seconds. Mr. Soldan shoved the magazine closer to Mischa, thumping the rocket picture with his index finger.

“You have the capacity to design things like this. I don't. I'd give anything to know the joy of innovation, of saying, we will go to the moon in a craft I have created.” He gazed out the window. That would be something.

“The great joy of my job is coming across the occasional student who has that spark of creativity. The great frustration of my job is that I can't do more to help them succeed.”

“But Mr. Soldan, you have taught me so much—”

The teacher waved his hand, dismissing the comment.

“This is not an environment that builds creators. We are not allowed to talk about the work done outside the Soviet Union. When our own research doesn't fit the communist philosophy, the research is cancelled. Or worse.” The teacher looked over Mischa's shoulder towards the door. “If you could just see what it's like elsewhere, you would know.”

Mischa stared at the picture. Of the moon. Unbelievable. “Can you tell me what the magazine says? How did they get him back to earth?”

“I don't read English, but we can look at the pictures together.”

They sat in the classroom marveling. The pictures slowly took on an antique hue as the sun slipped yellow behind the cherry tree in the schoolyard.

Mischa wondered now if Mr. Soldan would approve of his actions since that day. He'd be proud of the airplane Mischa had created. How Mischa had wished he could show him the airplane, but he couldn't. For one thing, he knew that his teacher would get fired if he crashed the plane, or if word got out that he'd built it. Another consideration was that Mr. Soldan might try to talk him out of flying it. “Let's be rational,” the teacher used to tell his class. Mischa had trouble coming up with a rational explanation for why he had to fly this plane over the wall. On the one hand, if the plane flew, he would have a shot at getting to America. On the other hand, if the plane didn't fly, he'd either be shot or killed by the crash. Since he'd had no way to test fly the airplane, the odds were pretty good it wouldn't fly. On the third hand, he could just go home right now and forget the whole thing.

It didn't make a lot of sense, and he couldn't explain it, but this was just something he had to do.

The final item on his list was to start the engine. No turning back after that.

Mischa grabbed onto the pull string with both hands, said a silent prayer, and yanked. The propeller turned two rotations but the engine didn't start. He listened for signs from the guard tower that they'd heard him, but realized that his best bet was to get out of there as quickly as possible. He pushed the choke knob in a little more, and gave the string another pull. Two more rotations and then silence.

Shit shit shit! He pushed the choke in all the way in, pulled the throttle all the way out and pulled the string with everything he had in him. It worked! The little engine came to life, amazingly loud in the darkness. The wind from the propeller took his breath away. There were no brakes on the plane, so it immediately accelerated. Mischa stomped on the right rudder pedal to stay lined up with the furrow he was in, and the plane immediately obeyed him. As the plane accelerated he tried to see the instruction he'd written on the horizontal control bar between his hands. Push forward to go up. He pushed it to see if the plane was ready to lift off. It wasn't. He'd have to wait for more speed, but the tires were digging into the soft soil and the plane wasn't going fast enough. He nudged the bar forward very lightly and the nose wheel rose an inch off the ground, caked with dirt. He pushed forward a little more to take more weight off the main gear, and suddenly he was in the air! He felt the plane lurch forward, freed from the drag of the ground. A searchlight was now turning towards him and he realized he'd been sighted.

The searchlight started shaking—no, it was the plane; the imbalanced propeller turned everything into a loud, jumbled blur. The plane did not climb, it just skimmed inches above the field as the wall grew bigger and bigger. Every instinct told him to push more on the control bar, to lift the plane's nose. But Mischa held the bar steady, forcing the airplane to gain airspeed. If he pushed too much on the bar before he had enough airspeed, he'd pitch up for a brief moment, stall, and drop into the ground. But if he waited too long, he'd crash into the wall. He'd hold the bar back as long as he could.

The wall was close now, its coiled razor wire glinting in the searchlight. Hold it back, hold it back—NOW!

Mischa pushed the bar forward and the plane jumped into the air, his wheels just barely clearing the wire. The maneuver didn't last, though; the plane sank towards the ground on the other side alarmingly fast. If I crash here, will they send my body home across the border to be buried?

Fighting his instincts again, he pulled the bar back, forcing the nose down faster towards the ground. The little plane picked up more speed and Mischa pulled back just above the ground. It worked! He wasn't climbing very fast, but he wasn't crashing either. His left leg ached from holding the rudder down to fly straight, but he was over the wall! He'd done it!

He'd done it.

He was in Austria, and the air somehow smelled sweeter. He saw headlights form a sparse but luminescent string of pearls on a road going south, probably towards Vienna. He guessed it would take him 45 minutes to cover the 40 kilometers, perhaps longer with the imbalanced propeller. Should he go all that way or try to land here? Better to land with people nearby. If he crashed, he'd want people around. Mischa rolled up his left sleeve jacket, and settled in for the long windy ride. He turned around and saw the searchlights turn off, giving up on him. For the first time, he realized that he was completely alone, not only here above the road, but alone in the free world.

BIO: Lynne Wainfan is a rocket scientist, but that's just her day job. On the side, she and her husband build experimental airplanes with their kids, and she's writing a PhD dissertation on risky decision-making. Author of the nonfiction think-tank book, Challenges in Virtual Collaboration, Lynne says she is trying her hand at novel writing “to wake up the right half of my brain.”

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