Thursday, September 04, 2014

"... Why Americans Love Russians."

A Lesson in Persistence
By Christopher Nyerges

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City,” and 10 other books. He has led wilderness classes since 1974. For information on his books and classes, contact him at or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]

            Our small group had just finished a wild food class at a picnic area in the Angeles National Forest.  We’d collected wild morels, miner’s lettuce, chickweed, and other greens, and we cooked up a superb four course meal.  We made our fire the old-fashioned way, using a hand drill.

            We discussed various survival skills, including how we might survive after a major tsunami.  Finally, we hiked out to the parking area, only to discover that one of our group had forgotten her keys inside her locked car.

            Thus began another “survival exercise.”

            We found a weak clothes hanger in the parking lot, and tried to open the door.  But we couldn’t get a grip on the flat door lock knob.  The knob didn’t have the little bump on the top that makes it easy to grab with a clothes hanger. 

            A passerby decided to try, and he worked the driver’s side window. Another passerby found a heavier coat hanger in his car trunk and began to try again on the passenger side.  It was easy enough to get the wire into the car, but it was hard to manipulate it onto the little protruding flat button. 

            Three Russian men, who had been picnicking down by the river with their families, saw the action and came over to the locked car.  They brought a flat aluminum tent stake with them, and then proceeded to use it like a slim jim.  I spoke with the one Russian who had some mastery of English.  He was the shortest of the group, with a large grin, and nearly bald.  He smiled as he told me that they could do it.

            The three of them spoke loudly and animatedly about what they were about to do, and then one slipped the aluminum bar into the door siding, hoping to engage the linkage from the latch to the knob, and open the door.  They tried this on the outside, and then into the inside of the door, and they were unable to capture the linkage.  The short Russian explained that the linkage was probably in some sort of internal cover.  They then moved over the drivers side, trying once again to grab the linkage.  This went on for about 20 minutes without success.

            A Japanese passerby watched for awhile, and then politely explained that it might be possible to open a Toyota door if someone had another Toyota key.  He explained how he has many times opened Toyota doors, by taking any Toyota key and jiggling it a certain way in the keyhole. Someone else produced a Toyota key, and 10 minutes of jiggling did not open the door.

            All this time the two coat hangers had been passed to at least five different individuals who each tried to open the door.  The doors remained locked.

            The three Russians persisted with one method after another to enter the car.  It was obviously a challenge to them, and they showed no signs of frustration or desire to quit.  It was a puzzle to be solved, an obstacle to be overcome.  Failure was not an option.
            They attempted to grab the linkage, but it didn’t work.  They managed to push a button inside the car which should have opened the door. It didn’t  They actually grabbed the inside latch, and managed to pull it outward, but could not leverage enough to open the door.  They attempted to go into the outside door handle, and through the trunk key hole.  No success.

            These three casually-dressed men constantly spoke in Russian amongst themselves as they moved around the car trying each method.  We could not tell if they were arguing or problem-solving.  But clearly, at this moment, all that mattered was getting into the car.

            A teenager walked up with backwards hat and pants falling down.   He walked with an arrogance towards the car.  One observer yelled out, “I’ve got my money on the kid!”   The teenager took the clothes hanger and worked on the driver’s side for all of five minutes before quitting in defeat.  The Russians persisted.

            I had someone drive the car’s owner up out of the canyon so she could get coverage on her cell phone and call emergency road service for a locksmith.  I waited, as the Russians continued, and one after another man would step up to the car and try his hand and opening the door.  They each looked like the types of guys you’d see in a police line-up, so you’d think they could open the door. But none of them succeeded.

            All along, the Russians continued, discussing each aspect of their task amongst themselves, as they tried tactic after tactic.

            By now, about 55 minutes had elapsed and perhaps 20 individuals had tried to open to locked door.  A tall fourth Russian, who’d been down by the river with his family, came over and joined the other three. The tall Russian didn’t say very much, but he carefully examined the situation.  He took the stiff wire clothes hanger, and began making a series of very careful bends and angles as the other three Russians animatedly spoke among themselves about what the forth man was doing.

            The tall Russian quietly and carefully slipped the wire into the car, and managed to slip the end of it between the knob and the glass, and then exerting just the right amount of tension in the right direction, he freed the knob and the door was open.  The small crowd cheered in that parking lot in the Angeles National Forest, and everyone was shaking hands with the Russians.

            With the broadest possible grin, the short Russians said to me, “This is why Americans love Russians.”  Then they disappeared back down to their families and I drove the car out of the canyon to where the owner was waiting, with no emergency road service in sight.

            Before we departed, three of us discussed what had just happened, and the value of “urban” survival skills –such as locksmithing.  We also discussed those Russians, and their unique character of not quitting easily, when all the “average Americans” gave up easily.  And though they all wore obviously American clothes with obvious makers’ mark such as Nike and Tomy Hilfinger, they had a certain nitty-gritty quality about themselves that told me they’d be far more likely to survive in an emergency – be it urban or in the wilderness –than any of the polite, proper, and nice people. 

            It’s hard to say with precision what the short Russian meant by his statement “that’s why Americans love  Russians,” but we certainly admired their persistence and willingness to help someone else with no promise of any “reward” but a handshake.  Those are good character traits that we could use more of.

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