The sea of puzzled faces surrounding me silently begged an explanation.
I was pointing to a lone insulator clinging to a spindly telephone pole a few feet from Aunt Katherine's house. The locale was a small village 300 miles north of Warsaw, Poland.
"I'd like one like that," I said, struggling to be understood. In childhood I had learned to speak Ukrainian, the language spoken by my European relatives. In 1947 they had been ousted by the Communist government from their village in the Ukraine and resettled in this remote farm community in Poland.
"I'd like one like that," I repeated. "It's an insulator," I said in English. "It's for Isabel."
They nodded. They knew Isabel was my sister. The quizzical looks remained on their faces.
It's not my hobby collecting insulators, but because I travel a good deal I'm on a constant prowl trying to add to Isabel's colorful and varied collection. When I return from my travels I proudly thrust my finds into her eager hands. Her comments are all a mystery to me.
"It's a 19 cobalt . . . it's made by Hemingray . . . it has a double petticoat . . . it has a saddle groove."
And now this one, a mere 12 feet above me, taunting me. I dismissed it from my thoughts.
I was the village's first visitor from America, and Aunt Katherine's tiny two-room house was constantly filled with relatives paying their respects. The morning I was to leave, I suddenly became aware of a line forming at the table where I sat. To my astonishment, they all came bearing gifts.
'To Say Thanks'
"It's to say thanks for all the years your mother sent packages of clothing, food and medical supplies in the bad times. It allowed us all to survive," Aunt Katherine explained.
There was a beautiful hand-carved jewelry box, a pair of hose, a chocolate candy bar, a decorated Easter egg, a pair of embroidered pillow covers. Just as the line was dwindling I heard the screeching of brakes. I looked up to see Slavko, the 12-year-old son of Marina, my cousin, dismount from his bicycle, and, clutching something in his hands, took his position at the end of the line.
When it was his turn, grinning widely, he handed me a white porcelain insulator, much different from any I had seen. From the moment I had put in my strange request, he had combed the countryside until he found one.
Isabel would be elated. I wrapped it carefully and put it in my suitcase. I bid my last tearful farewells and got into the waiting car to take me to the airport in Warsaw.
It was a long five-hour drive and I barely made it. The plane was scheduled to leave at 5:30 and it was already 5:15 when I got to the end of the line. It was long and moved slowly. I began to be apprehensive, looking at my watch, all the while eyeing the plane being warmed up. If it took off without me, I'd have to wait a full week for the next flight leaving for Stockholm.
I strained to see why the line was moving so slowly. To my dismay, I saw that each suitcase was being opened and inspected thoroughly. Oh, my God! I hadn't given it a thought until that moment, but technically, the insulator was Polish government property.
I knew that customs in the United States would accept my explanation and find it possibly amusing. But how would a Communist government view it? Would I be able to explain that collecting insulators is a popular hobby in the United States?
I stood there paralyzed. It gave me little comfort to recall at that moment the story of the two young American students who were detained for several months in Moscow, after they had taken, quite innocently, as souvenirs, two door knobs from their hotel.
Beads of perspiration formed on my forehead. My hands began to tremble. It was already 5:45.
The motors on the plane continued to whir. Still about 20 people ahead of me. The customs authorities would not be rushed. Methodically, meticulously, the contents of each bag was examined. Down to four people. It was 6:10.
Then only one person before me. My stomach felt queasy. Suddenly, just as they were closing the suitcase of the person ahead of me, a uniformed man came rushing up to the counter. Frantically waving his arms, he shouted to the customs men. Not understanding Polish, I assumed that this was the moment of truth.
To my amazement and relief, the officials hastily shoved my suitcase to the end of the counter, unopened. I was motioned onto the plane. I grabbed my suitcase and ran.
The plane took off quickly. Mine was surely the most audible sigh of relief as the wheels left the runway.
"Are you all right?" asked the stewardess. "You look pale."
"I've never felt better," I replied as I patted my suitcase gently.