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FIRST PERSON: Ilan Ramon, in chance encounter: humility amid greatness & charisma

JERUSALEM (BP)–Two years ago, my daughter, Kaitlyn, and I were on a return flight to Israel from the United States. A layover in Amsterdam turned into a seven-hour delay due to mechanical problems with the plane. Vouchers for the various airport restaurants were distributed to calm the weary and irritable passengers, but by that time, the only thing open was the “snack bar.” Kaitlyn and I found ourselves sharing our tiny table with a rather inebriated, but congenial gentleman from Alaska.

Before long, a slightly built Israeli pulled up a chair beside us. We quickly learned that the Israeli had been carefully looking after our Scotch Whiskey-loving friend throughout the previous flight, making sure he was hearing and understanding the announcements, was remaining in the right terminal, etc. For this, the Alaskan was most grateful, and we also couldn’t help but be impressed by the presence of this kind man with the fair complexion and sandy blonde hair who was going out of his way to help a stranger.

Forget every gross generalization you have ever heard about Israelis — rude, pushy, demanding and so on. This one broke the mold. We immediately sensed that we were conversing with someone special, for even though he was soft-spoken, gentle and non-assuming, he also carried with him an air of intelligence, dignity and charisma.

He was at once personable, and following the line of usual questions (“What are you doing in Israel?” “How long have you lived in Jerusalem?” “Do you have other children?”), we found ourselves comparing notes on raising children and coming to the conclusion that in spite of everything wonderful that America has to offer, Israel was clearly the better place to be. I learned that he had been living in Houston with his wife and young children for a little over a year, and that they had been very much enjoying the hospitality and wide-open spaces of Texas. But when I asked what he was doing in Houston, the Alaskan chimed in with slurred speech saying, “Oh, he’s really tight-lipped about that. I’ve been trying to get him to tell me that for hours, but he won’t budge.”

I have visited the Israeli Consul General’s office in Houston, and so I immediately assumed that he must be connected with Israeli intelligence or security and felt it best not to follow that line of conversation any further. It was well enough to be sharing our little table and lively conversation with this gentleman, who understood, appreciated and shared our deep love and respect for his country.

The time passed quickly, and as the airline finally called for our boarding, we agreed to keep a mutual eye on our dazed Alaskan friend who was also Tel Aviv-bound. Relieved to be in our seats and on our way home, the conversation between Kaitlyn and I turned to the Israeli, speculating on his actual occupation, and both agreeing that we hoped to see him again one day. It’s not so unlikely in a tiny country like Israel.

And to our surprise, there he was again, standing sheepishly in the aisle beside our seats, with last-minute words of goodbye before the plane departed. He held something behind his back, and it was immediately obvious as he leaned toward us, speaking in whispered tones, that he did not wish to draw attention to himself in any way. Then he pulled his hand from behind his back, and shyly presented us with a gift — the photo that you are all seeing on the news networks, now hanging near me on the office wall — Ilan Ramon in his NASA uniform, posed proudly in front of the Israeli and American flags, with this personal inscription in his English handwriting: “To All the King Family, May God help us all. Ilan Ramon 5/11/01.”

Genuinely great people never need to boast of their own greatness. I knew that day that I had met a truly great person, and I sensed that someday, our paths would cross again.

How much I appreciated the words I heard from President Bush as he quoted the prophet Isaiah, and expressing faith that each crew member of the lost Space Shuttle Columbia had been brought “safely home.”

I grieve with Americans for their loss, and I grieve with Israel, once again, this time for their fallen hero.

I pray that Ilan Ramon finds himself safely in Abraham’s bosom, and I believe that one day, I will see him again.
King is a music staff member with International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: ILAN RAMON.

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  • Chuck King