By BEN R. WILLIAMS
A couple of weeks ago, I made a new Facebook friend. We’ll call him Petr.
Petr posted in one of the many pinball-related Facebook groups I belong to. He shared some photos of his 1988 Swords of Fury pinball machine, a somewhat uncommon game. Petr explained that he was in the process of restoring this Swords of Fury; it wasn’t quite ready for showtime, but it was close, and he wanted to share the photos with the group while he still could.
Petr lives in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.
“Right now,” he wrote, “an air raid alarm is howling and we are waiting with horror for another bombardment. For the fourth night we have had explosions, tanks are firing around 10 kilometers from me … we sleep in clothes and are ready to run away from home at any moment.”
He explained that he didn’t know if he would ever have the chance to finish restoring his Swords of Fury, so he said that he would instead show the group the progress he had made so far, “as if there was no war and it’s just a normal day.”
I sent Petr a friend request and told him I was thinking about him and his family, and we began chatting. He sent me videos of missiles dropping in Ukraine, conventional explosives so powerful that they blasted mushroom clouds into the sky. He sent me videos taken in the streets of Kyiv; it looked almost like high-definition footage of war-torn European cities during World War II.
I asked Petr if he was going to flee Ukraine; he couldn’t, he said. His wife had surgery shortly before Vladimir Putin began his invasion of the country and she was still too weak to travel. It was a moot point anyway; Ukraine is under martial law, and most men aged 18-60 are required to stay in the country to help defend it.
I try not to bug Petr too much — he’s received an outpouring of support from many folks in the pinball community, and I’m sure he’s got more important things to do right now than sit around chatting with all of us. But I do check in from time to time, and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. I feel a certain kinship.
When war or tragedy happens in a place you’ve never visited, it’s sometimes hard to internalize it. When I read that a hurricane has devastated an island nation I’ve never been to, I feel sympathy for the people affected, but it all seems somewhat abstract. I don’t have a friend there to worry about, or a favorite local spot I can visualize.
But it’s different with Petr; not only do we share a common interest, we just so happen to share the exact same game. I also own a Swords of Fury.
It’s possible that at some point on opposite sides of the globe, Petr and I have been playing that pinball machine at the same time, or — more likely — turning a screwdriver on it simultaneously.
Maybe it sounds corny, but that foothold helps bring it home for me. Had things gone differently, Petr might be in Patrick County, Virginia, and I might be in Kyiv. It’s all in the luck of the draw.
I tell you all of this so I can say the following: I also think of Petr when I’m at the gas pump.
Now, I’m not one of those folks who’s going to tell you that if you’re worried about the price of gas, you’re an inhuman monster incapable of empathy. I get it. I have to do a whole lot of driving in a given week, and when gas reaches four bucks per gallon (and probably higher by the time you read this), it makes life difficult. We’re already dealing with horrible inflation and nobody’s paycheck is going as far as it used to.
Furthermore, if you live in southwest Virginia, the odds of you living within walking distance of your place of employment are highly unlikely, and the odds of you having easy access to public transportation are pretty poor as well. We’re told in driver’s ed that driving is a privilege, not a right, but in most of this country, it’s also an expectation. Until electric vehicles become a little more practical and a lot more affordable, we’re all going to have to struggle through with combustion engines.
We import about 20 percent of our refined gasoline from Russia, but Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has triggered Western sanctions that have crippled Russia’s shipping industry and finances. There’s a good chance that very soon, Congress will move to stop importing Russian fuel entirely. Until a workaround is achieved, gas prices will likely remain high or continue to rise.
High gas prices do put the financial hurt on people; there’s no denying it. At the same time, I can’t help but think of Petr when I’m at the gas pump. I may be paying more for gas, but when I get home in the evening, I don’t have to worry about going to sleep in my street clothes so I can spring out of bed if the bombs get too close. I don’t have to worry about scrounging for food because the stores have been reduced to rubble. I don’t have to share photos of my projects in an unfinished state because I don’t know what tomorrow holds.
But if you don’t know a Petr and this whole thing still seems abstract, I have another proposal. When you pay extra at the pump, just remember that you’re helping ensure that Vladimir Putin is having another terrible day of watching his future grow dim and his legacy diminish as he becomes increasingly weak and paranoid, like a frightened animal with a leg caught in a snare trap.
It makes me feel better, anyway.