You Never Know Who You’ll Meet at SFO

Credit: Wellesley College

“Is this the line for TSA-pre?” I asked the woman at the end of the line. I wasn’t really awake yet. I had limited myself to one cup of coffee, planning to sleep on my cross country flight. It took a minute for the woman’s face to register. “Are you who I think you are?” I said to the woman in front of me.

“That depends who you think I am,” she said with a slight smile.

“You’re Madeleine Albright.”

She nodded.

“Thank you for your work,” I said. “We need you.” My face wore all the sadness of last week in Charlottesville.

Yes, these are bad times. It’s like the thirties.”

I didn’t tell her that my mother was a teenager in Frankfurt in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. The Nazis introduced their laws slowly at first, so that most Germans did not realize the extent of the Nazi party’s anti-Semitism. Their first decrees eliminated police and court protection for German Jews. That meant you could spit, punch, kick a Jew in the streets, and nothing would happen. By 1934, Jews were excluded from military service. Does this smell at all like the wind as it blows today? Take out “Jew” and add African American, Native American, Muslim, LGBTQ, undocumented immigrant. I could go on.

Albright and I stood to the side of the conveyor belt as our carry-ons were scanned.

“I feel like all the good people are preaching to the choir. We’re talking to each other,” I said.

I don’t want to quote Albright, because I didn’t take notes or record our conversation. Here’s the gist of her wisdom.

MA: We need to talk to people who don’t think like we do.

Me: That’s hard.

MA: But we must.

Me: In Germany, they have a law to teach children tolerance.

MA: And we’re afraid to talk about it.

She looked at me with the intensity you would expect from Madeleine Albright. She might as well have said, “Don’t be a wuss. Speak out. Take action.”

I lifted my bag off the belt and ran to my gate. Once in my seat, I looked out the window and wondered what it is I am afraid of. And what am I doing about our current nightmare?

Madeleine Albright’s tweet from Aug. 13: There are not many sides. We must always fight facism and racism, oppose evil, and defend liberty and justice for all. #Charlottesville

  • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

    Amazing story, Harriet! It’s hard to have those kinds of conversations, but it’s something we have to do. Maybe it’s being afraid of the unknown result? I don’t know. I recall seeing a video recently of four guys from opposing sides who sat down at a fast food place and talked about their differences. It seemed that while they didn’t come to any agreement, the more conservative gun-toting side decided they would stop harassing Muslims outside the mosque in their city. I feel like this was somewhere in Kansas. Sorry to be so vague, but I was very impressed that they could have this conversation at all AND that there was a positive result.

  • Wonderful little scenario! Comforting to know people like MA in the world, and you! Thx for your sensitivity!

  • Sue says:

    Wow–what a meeting! Her tweet said it all. She’s right–we’re afraid to talk about tolerance. Maybe it’s because it’s an abstract topic, maybe because talking about tolerance can be uncomfortable, maybe because the discussion might force us to look deep within our collective souls and not like what we see. Or maybe because acknowledging that intolerance exists in the U.S. might impugn our “land of opportunity” image. It’s easy to say that our strength lies in our diversity (and it does) but it’s a lot harder to be able to put into practice and to find common ground with people who don’t think like we do. As a child of a child Holocaust survivor it was stunning for me to watch TV and see people marching against me and my family in Charlottesville. It felt surreal. As to the chants “you will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us,” I thought to myself that I’d be delighted to choose replacements for them. A South African friend of mine said to me, “You Americans have too much free speech.” I don’t think she’s right, but I see her point. If we believe in free speech and the importance of diverse opinions, we have to let Neo Nazis, the KKK, white supremacists, and others whom we despise spew forth their hatred in public, as long as they do it peacefully (which they didn’t in Charlottesville). And that’s a very hard thing to do.

    • You’re right. The 1st Amendment applies to all. If we want to protect our democracy, we must speak louder, longer, stronger. I just heard Carol Christ (new chancellor of Univ. of CA) speak on the NPR. She mentioned how Smith College students greeted Ann Coulter(who Tina Fey called a yard sale Barbie). Students filled the auditorium (about 2,000 seats) where Coulter spoke, and then every 5 minutes a group of students stood up and walked out. By the end of her speech, there were only a few people left and the auditorium was virtually empty.

  • Riki Zide says:

    2 inspiring women at a chance meeting. How exciting!

  • Lynn Bjorkquist says:

    Fabulous writing and thoughts!

  • Sharon Savatski says:

    Such a true leader she is. Thanks for this Harriet; it made me think of what I should be doing, even in every day conversations.

  • Peggy S. Mendelson says:

    So impressive. I’ve heard her speak twice and both times was amazed at her power and her memory.

  • Ken Cellini says:

    You met a true VIP! Love your new heading (“Tell me This”..Harriet Heydemann * Writer)

  • Cynthia says:

    Great post and inspiring — thanks Harriet!

  • Carol Scott says:

    You met Madeleine Albright! Cami had a class from her at Georgetown. Such an impressive woman.

  • Nina Fendel says:

    How memorable!

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