If I Ask Your Opinion

By Andy Betz

“If I ask your opinion, would you give me an honest answer?” Rarely do I hear such an unusual question, let alone be awoken by one. But the look in this young man’s eyes displayed a level of desperation and my close seat proximity made me the obvious choice for his inquiry. He needed a shave (we all did by this time) and some quality time with a toothbrush and a breath mint, but he persisted in penetrating my weak defenses and I acquiesced to his request.

“My name is William Richardson. How may I be of assistance?” Maybe my English (Leeds) accent made him rethink his question, but only for a second. He really had no choice. I might have answered in Mandarin and he would have continued with his next sentence, such was his predicament. 

So he eagerly replied, “Let me introduce myself. I am James Rice, Jim for short. I work for a consulting firm and I need a few opinions before we land to finish a presentation for my boss. It is just a few simple questions concerning the politics of the upcoming summit in Geneva and any assistance you could offer would be most helpful.”

That this Mr. Rice did not have to identify his nationality as American was moot. His clothing, his accent, and his inability to identify my accent screamed American. If I was a betting man, I would wager this was his first international flight, with his first passport, at his first job that did not involve mowing grass or serving hamburgers. He did not warrant the value of my attention, but I did see a small spark in his mannerisms that led me to believe the two remaining in-flight hours could be well spent. 

“You have my attention, Mr. Rice. I am desirous of your queries.”

So began a rapid exchange of ideas from an experienced world excursionist accustomed to the serendipitous range of political vantage points to the neophyte, yet ever the inquisitive, face of the future. Here, in the back of the plane, row 38, seats E and F, sat two men whose initial meeting ought to have taken place in an undergraduate poli-sci class. Mr. Rice did not seem in over his head. He was in over his head. And I was the tutor to guide him to success.

“As a European”, I stopped him right there. I must have seemed a bit blunt. “Not everyone in Great Britain fashions themselves as European. Geographically, we may be. In all other respects, we are not.”

Flushed with embarrassment, I did not take offense with Mr. Rice’s naivety, only the question.

With a sip of coffee the flight attendant offered each of us, Mr. Rice continued. “Because of your geographic proximity to the continent, could you offer your opinion on the missile reduction portion of the summit?”

“Mr. Rice, Jim, because of my travels, I have the opportunity to read publications originating in a variety of cities expressing a variety of editorial sentiment concerning both the Russian and American Presidents’ proposals concerning reductions in both the size of the nuclear stockpiles and the extent of the existing delivery systems. My opinion is that it is finally time to begin to, how do you say in America, fish or bait?”

Mr. Rice, hanging on my every word, immediately assisted with “fish or cut bait.” I thanked him and proceeded. “Either both Presidents should learn from history’s mistakes, ala George Santayana, and take measures to prevent those well documented previous failures or forgo the entire charade of diplomacy and decide once and for all the viability, or better yet, survivability, of the each well-publicized economic and political systems once-and-for-all.”

My words assaulted Mr. Rice’s synapses disallowing the prerequisite motor skills of note taking or speech. During our brief respite, I verified the ingredient list of the prepared airline breakfast so common to the chattel that populates this hinterland frequently referred to as coach. The microwave heated eggs Benedict was an abomination unfitting my palate. The coffee, however, would tide me over until I discovered suitable fare. 

When Jim (for I shall now refer to him as Jim) finally recovered, he did ask the inevitable. So predictable this American.

“No, Jim, I do not actually prefer both sides to engage in the crime of global thermonuclear destruction for the sole purpose of bragging rights. I however use this analogy to point out the folly at which these debates, conferences, meetings, treaties, and summits have resulted. The capital wasted pandering to every new generation of diplomats and their associated entourages have amounted to a negative return on investment. A few editorialists may hint at my conclusion, but only a few. Jim, I have experienced and have been subjected to decade after decade of sanguine expectations only to realize decade after decade of pensive mistrust. As a result, I am now numb to the process, but never the result.”

These were not the words young Jim expected to hear, but as the automaton he was trained to be, he wrote each one dutifully upon his legal pad.

During this time, I wanted to finish my coffee, but even my words bankrupted its taste. 

Jim sat in his seat for more than the moment I expected of him. Perhaps he was deep in thought about what he heard. Certainly, this could not be his first encounter with someone with a different point of view than his own. If that was true, of Jim in particular, or of Americans in general, then the future must hold more surprises than anyone thought possible. If it was not true, then I found myself eliciting anticipatory glee in the sage words of wisdom Jim must be soon to utter.

“Then what do you think should happen at the summit?”

Upon hearing his question, I exhaled a bit louder than I usually do. Perhaps exhale is the incorrect term for my involuntary muscle reflex. Substituting deflated for exhaled synchronized my respiration with my disappointment with Jim’s words.

“Jim, if I may be informal, why even ask me? Certainly, the advance teams teeming with career bureaucrats have already negotiated the structure and the details of any agreement prior to the arrival of dignitaries. What could I add or modify that could come to fruition?” Now the young lad had to earn his keep. I was generous with my time, but I was not here to complete his homework for him. Let him stew for a few moments while the other passengers began to disengage from their 49 cm seat width slumber.

And while I did surprise Mr. Rice with my candor, he did not remain that way for long. “Alright, Mr. Richardson, for the sake of argument (students of body language would note that Jim returned his pen to his shirt pocket and secured his notepad to his attaché in a nonchalant, almost mercurial manner signaling that the remainder of our conversation became officially off-the-record), if you could move Heaven and Earth here in Geneva, what would you do?”

Now was the time to dispense with additional formalities for the time at hand was dear. Only decorum prevented a verbal tirade. I took a breath, held it for the briefest of moments, and continued with the diction and Englishman would find becoming.

“Jim, if I could move Heaven and Earth, here in Geneva, I would do just that. Barring an explanation of my violations of the laws of physics, I would actually move the antagonistic nuclear combatants further apart. If I could not make each and every representative of each and every nation understand the importance of cooperation, then I would make every effort to guarantee the aforementioned populations found other profitable enterprises that did not involve the wholesale slaughter of the entire human race. If this meant the elimination of all nuclear weaponry, and the technology, and the reason for its existence, then I would not permit one distraction or pretense to hinder my success.”

I began to sense a small but interested audience developing. Even the flight attendant began loitering in my area with increasing frequency. So, to avoid becoming more of a story than the flight itself, I edited my remaining remarks so Jim, Mr. Rice, would find no difficulty in understanding.

“Furthermore Mr. Rice, what I am about to say, I say not as a passenger on a random flight, but as a proud grandfather of two healthy, happy grandchildren. I would endure any trial or tribulation to secure their future. They have nothing but tomorrows and I have only a multitude of yesterdays. They can learn whatever the future has to offer. I learned only what the past has taught . . .” 

Here I found myself repeating myself, opening myself to unwanted scrutiny, and suddenly feeling remorseful about ever accepting Mr. Rice’s initial offer. The polite members of my new retinue found accessible avenues returning their attention to their own duties. The rest eventually bowed to the pressure that politeness exacts.

I could see what I said had an impact upon Mr. Rice. How much, I shall never know; but an impact none-the-less. We saw the fasten seat belt light brief seconds prior to the Captain’s announcements concerning our impending landing. It was all I required to regain my lost composure and prepare for departure. Mr. Rice understood the nature of his inquiries was at an end and likewise returned to his likewise duties.

After touchdown and taxi to our prescribed terminal, I did bid Mr. Rice farewell and good luck with his assignment. He returned the generosity with a similar gesture of good will. When we exited the terminal gate, we parted ways never to see each other again.

“So this is your story Yuri?” I had to interrupt my contact conducting the debriefing never to reveal my real name, even in secure areas, especially with such poor hindsight. He continued in his broken English so common to men of the Urals who do not acknowledge the nuances of perfect native speech. “What do you think this Mr. Rice will suggest to his superior who will suggest to the American President? Did you plant the idea of hostility toward nuclear weapons good enough for him to offer concessions to further that agenda? In short, William Richardson, will Russia have an advantage at the negotiation table with the Americans?” 

My contact here in Geneva becomes more and more difficult to report to with each day I spend exterior to Leningrad. He is the constant that is Russia. I am the agent that must sacrifice his heritage to secure its future. I heard him say “good” when I would have said “well”. My final word to him was “Yes”.

“So this is your story Arthur?” I had to interrupt my contact conducting the debriefing never to reveal my real name, even in secure areas, especially with such poor hindsight. He continued in his Mississippi accent which made him a security risk in most parts of the world. If he did not possess great skills in counter-intelligence, I would have his position and someone else would have my job of tailing Russian spies posing as British grandparents. “What do you think this Mr. Richardson will suggest to his superior who will suggest to the Russian President? Did you accept the idea of hostility toward nuclear weapons as enough from him to listen to additional concessions to further that agenda? In short, James Rice, will America have an advantage at the negotiation table with the Russians?” 

I am now 32, but look 22. I pull these duty stations because I can sell the story. I always have. I always will. My final word to him was “Yes”.

Bio: Andy Betz has tutored and taught in excess of 40 years. He lives in 1974, and has been married for 29 years. His works are found everywhere a search engine operates. Andy has written many great things that have been posted to The Yard: Crime Blog. He has written “Oleander“, “Senny” in collaboration with Dounia Saunders, “Et tu”, “The Less You Have, The More It Hurts To Lose It“, “How My New Life Began“, “I Knew Her as Tigist“, and  “Water“, which was written by Jaysa Brown, in collaboration with Andy. “In Loving Memory of Sherry Lewis” is a collaboration in which Andy Betz edited and Dennette Bender (Russell) wrote

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Publishing Editor for The Yard: Crime Blog.

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