VISTA — A year ago, 81-year-old Bessie Steward stood before the City Council here and made an emotional appeal for help: Would civic leaders, she asked, support and endorse a citizens' effort to match Vista with a sister city in the Soviet Union?
The answer was nyet .
While Steward viewed the idea as "one small gesture that might save us from death through nuclear devastation," officials and many residents in this politically conservative community regarded the proposal to establish communication with Russians as a threat to national security. Others chided Steward and her sympathizers for suggesting that mere citizens could have an impact in the global political arena.
Undaunted and determined to do something, no matter how small, so that she would not have to "see my six grandchildren vaporized," Steward pressed ahead without an official blessing, contacting a Portland, Ore., group that matches cities in the United States and Canada with Soviet communities of similar size and climate.
Three months later, officials of the nonpartisan Ground Zero Pairing Project had news for Steward: Vista had been matched with Drogobych, a wine-producing city in the Ukraine region of the Soviet Union.
On Sunday, more than 80 people attended a pot-luck dinner marking the first anniversary of Vista's Paired City Program. There was much to celebrate.
While similar groups formed earlier in Escondido and San Diego have failed to trigger a response from their Soviet counterparts, Vistans have received two letters from Drogobych--both sent by a 19-year-old college student who is studying to be an English teacher.
"That may not seem like much, but out of more than 1,000 cities that have tried, only about 44 have received responses, and we're one of them," said Councilman Lloyd von Haden, chairman of the group. "It's a modest achievement, but it's something and it's certainly worth the effort."
Steward agreed: "People may not think we've had any impact in terms of world peace, but at least this gives me some satisfaction that we're reaching out, and not just sitting here waiting for the bomb to explode."
Steward and fellow participants first introduced themselves to their Soviet pen-pals in April. Gathering letters and photographs from dozens of schoolchildren and other residents, the Vistans collected four pounds of materials designed to profile their city to the people of Drogobych. The package was addressed to the mayor and city council.
"We sent them warm greetings and told them about Vista but stayed away from anything political," Steward said. "That's too delicate. And our purpose, after all, is just to share friendship and to communicate."
A few months later, the first response arrived--two pages long and written in simple and carefully lettered English by Irene Daliavskaya. Its author also steered clear of political discourse, describing her family--"very kind people" who "wish you happiness and joy"--and her hobbies--calisthenics and "collecting pictures of towns, landscapes and girls."
She sent some picture postcards of Drogobych, and asked for help with her English. Her message concluded with four Russian words meaning, "I want you to be healthy, happy and live in peace."
"We were so thrilled," Steward said. "It was an exciting day."
Since then, a second round of correspondence--equally innocent--has been exchanged, and Vistans are now hunting for a teen-age pen pal for Irene. In addition, Von Haden said he hopes to find out why the Russian student--rather than a city official --is Drogobych's designated letter-writer.
Meanwhile, the Vista group continues to hold monthly meetings, presenting guest speakers, slide shows and other programs on Russian culture.