In 1971, when I was fifteen, I went on a People to People High School Student Ambassador trip through Europe. At the time, I lived in Eastern Washington State, and knew nothing about the history of People to People.
Since then, however, I have learned that People to People was founded by Dwight Eisenhower, in 1956, the year I was born. It began as a part of the U.S. Information Agency, but in 1961, it was incorporated in Missouri and moved to Kansas City, where I now live.
People to People moved to Kansas City, because J.C. Hall insisted on it. J.C. Hall, founder of Hallmark Cards, where I worked for many years, was instrumental in setting up People to People as a private organization, and Mr. Hall served as an officer of the organization in its early years.
My daughter went on a People to People trip to Australia in the late 1990s.
So I have had many connections through the years to People to People, and I have always thought it was a wonderful organization with an important mission. Its mission is currently described as promoting international understanding and friendship through educational, cultural and humanitarian activities.
My People to People trip in 1971 was a fantastic experience—my first visit anywhere beyond North America. We had twenty-seven students and three teachers in our group, from various towns in Eastern Washington, and we went to eleven countries in six weeks, starting in England and ending in Austria. On four of our stops we stayed with local families, where we really experienced local food, housing, and culture.
It was a great opportunity for a shy and studious high-school junior to get away from home, be forced to live with strangers, and develop confidence and cultural awareness.
One of the countries we visited was Romania. As I recall, we flew from Istanbul to Bucharest. . . . At least that was the plan.
Our flight took off after dark. As we flew through the night, we encountered a serious thunderstorm—worse than any I had previously seen in Washington State. By Midwestern standards it was probably pretty typical, but we didn’t have these nasty storms in Eastern Washington, where it seldom rains for more than a few minutes at a time.
The wind buffeted the plane from left to right and back again. We rose and fell more than on any rollercoaster I’ve ever been on (which isn’t many; I hate rollercoasters). Lightning flashed outside the windows multiple times every second—huge bolts darted from cloud to cloud and from air to ground.
I sat in a window seat, gripping my arm rests as tightly as I could, as if that would keep me safe if we crashed.
A Romanian woman and her small child sat beside me. Both were crying, and the mother prayed, crossing herself and hugging her child. So much for atheism behind the Iron Curtain in 1971. It is said there are no atheists in foxholes; I learned that night there are no atheists in thunderstorms either.
After what seemed like interminable hours during which the aircraft crew wrestled the air currents, the pilot came on the intercom and said something. But he didn’t speak in English, so I had no idea what was happening.
Shortly after the pilot’s speech, the airplane landed. But it turned out we didn’t land in Bucharest. We were in some other city in Romania—where, I have no idea.
All the passengers were all ushered off the plane, made to show our passports, and held in the airport. The teachers gathered our group together and tried to figure out where we were and where we were going.
I wondered if my parents would ever learn of my whereabouts if I disappeared into a Communist prison cell.
After an hour or two, we were ushered back on the plane, flown to Bucharest, and continued our trip unscathed.
But that remains the scariest flight I have ever been on.
What’s the worst flight you have ever taken?