Boerne's 'International Bridge' brought Russia and Ukraine together on Earth Day 1990
On Boerne’s east side, beyond the city pool, tennis courts and soccer fields, lies 160 acres of parkland. If visitors park in the lot, pass the pavilion, and walk about 75 yards west, they come upon a wooden bridge.
It's the International Bridge at the Cibolo Nature Center,.
Brent Evans has a relationship with the bridge that dates back to 1990. He and his wife founded the Center 34 years ago.
He doesn't think the bridge looks different from any of the other bridges at the Nature Center. “It's basically a footbridge made of pine and two by eights and four by fours,” he said. “And it stretches across a distance of about 30 feet, and about eight feet wide.”
But it's what the bridge signifies that gives it its unique standing at the park.
“This is 1990," Evans explains. "And there were some Russian and Ukrainian businessmen who came to the Guadalupe River Ranch for a couple of weeks of learning how to be entrepreneurs, because these are the days of perestroika.”
The Guadalupe River Ranch was a guest ranch a few miles northeast of Boerne. At the time, the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev was opening up the Soviet world to the West, exchanging ideas and ,at times, people like these businessmen looking for new markets.
Evans was part of that process. “I was invited to teach a class to them on the American environmental movement,” he said. The businessmen from the Eastern Bloc found the concept fascinating.
“So I did the presentation, and then afterwards a fellow named Sergei Dolgovan approached me. He said that he was an engineer that worked on the containment wall at Chernobyl and had lost a number of good friends to radiation sickness,” Evans explained.
The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster killed dozens from radiation poisoning and is considered one of the worst nuclear plant accidents in history. Dolgovan was from Kyiv, about 50 miles away. He had been tested for radiation there but did not believe the test results.
“He didn't trust his government in terms of the numbers that he was given regarding his own body’s radiation counts,” Evans said. “And he was asking me if I could help him get tested while he was in America.”
Of all the things to be asked by a visiting Eastern Bloc guest, Evans thought this was one of the last he expected to hear. But he was determined to help.
“I am a social worker, and I do know how to use a telephone," he said. "And so I got on the line and started hunting around and found out there was a facility that nobody gets to visit. That was at Lackland Air Force Base. So I called up Lackland, and I came to a person who said, 'Well, I'll get back to you.'”
But then, Evans recalled, the call back didn't come from Lackland. “Next thing I know, there is an agent from the FBI calling me saying, 'Mr. Evans, what is going on?'”
The Cold War had begun to thaw, but it was still pretty cold.
“He said, ‘We don't want any baloney going on here. Evans. We don't want any bad press,'” Evans explained. “'So you go ahead, and we'll clear him to get tested, but don't mess up!’”
Carolyn Chipman Evans added that her husband's appearance in those days didn't make things easier. “At the time, Brent had a long black beard, long hair ... and we would drive up in the van with these guys and they're like, 'who are you?' " she said.
Brent Evans said the first meeting was a tense one. “We're met at the gate with armed guards and jeeps with fatigues and everything, and they had wide eyes as they checked out the Soviet citizens' IDs,” he said.
The FBI had tipped off the base that foreign dignitaries were coming. Base commanders were there to formally greet them.
“The FBI did its job," Evans explained. "One guy walks up to me and mistakes me for a Russian and says, ‘How do you do? Welcome to America.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, thanks a lot. Where's the bathroom?”
Dolgovan was tested, and the results brightened the mood. There were no elevated amounts of radiation.
Chipman Evans said the Ukrainian was almost overwhelmed. “He thought he was a dead man walking. And it showed that he doesn't didn't have huge levels of radiation,” she recalled. “And he just broke down in tears of joy and ... felt like he'd been given the gift of life. It was profound.”
Everyone felt that sense of joy and brotherhood, and Evans said a commitment was made.
“And they promised to go ahead and set up a week-long environmental camp for their children to come to the Guadalupe River Ranch,” he said.
This was to be glasnost on a completely local level playing out, in of all places, the Hill Country of Texas. Chipman Evans said their name for the event reflected the optimism they felt at the time.
“We called it YES Camp. Young Earth Savers. We had 14 or 15 kids come. We picked them up at the San Antonio airport and took them out to the Guadalupe Ranch and had an extraordinary camp,” she said. “We got about 15 American kids and combined the two.”
Putting on a summer camp for about 30 teenagers, half of them foreign, had its challenges.
Chipman Evans said they managed to make themselves understood to one another. “Remarkably, most of them spoke some English,” she said.
Brent Evans said YES Camp had its unexpected moments of emotion, like when they took a field trip to see author and composting innovator Malcolm Beck.
“It was heartbreaking sometimes, like when we took them to see Malcolm Beck's compost operation, a giant compost operation where they were building soil, and the Ukrainian kids were crying. Hugging each other,” he said.
Having been evacuated from Kyiv for their protection after Chernobyl, the kids were overwhelmed that they could create their own pristine soil.
“And the idea to them that there is actually a way to build soil from the poop, from zoos and farms and so on and create new healthy soil was phenomenal,” Evans said.
Once the camp was done and they went back, the parents of these kids were delighted with their children’s experiences.
“They were all very grateful to us. And so they invited us to come to the Soviet Union and to visit Ukraine,” he said. “This was all part of a nonprofit called the International Bridge, and that's why these Russians and Ukrainians were here visiting the Guadalupe Ranch.”
Carolyn and Brent Evans flew to Helsinki, then got on the train for Moscow. But then they soon faced a minor crisis. “This Soviet soldier came along. ‘Passporta! Passporta!’ And we were kind of worried because we were told never to give up your passport. But he took them and walked off, and we're going, ‘Oh, my God, now what?’ " Evans said.
“Well, he comes back in five minutes very sternly [and] gives them back. So then we crossed over the border and got into Russia. About a half an hour later the same guy comes through in civilian clothes. ‘Pepsi!. Anybody want a Pepsi?’ And so we realized, ‘Oh, all is not what it seems.’ There's different levels of the economy. There's the tourist economy. There's a localist economy. And then there's the black market,” he said.
The city of Moscow was largely disappointing, with endless high rise public housing, but Evans said the people were impressive.
“The most wonderful, friendly, educated people living in public housing, basically with stinking hallways,” he said. “And then you go inside their apartments, and they're full of classic books and good art on the walls. And the elevators didn't work, and the phones are messed up, and you couldn't find a copy machine. And it was just Third World.”
Kyiv, on the other hand, was incredible.
“Kyiv was the most beautiful city I've ever been in. It’s lined with trees. They have a cultural legacy of always planting trees, every generation plants, trees in the city. And it was gorgeous, and the people were so friendly,” Evans said.
“I remember my father, who was a World War II veteran, having the comment about what wonderfully nice people these were and how, you know, all his life he'd seen them as the enemy,” Chipman Evans said. “He ended up sponsoring two young Ukrainian students through college in San Antonio because he just loved them.
But over the decades, the couple lost touch with most everyone they met in Russia and Ukraine.
But the warm memories of the friendships made and the beautiful places they visited still glow brightly, decades later. The bridge embodies that enduring optimism and hope for happiness and peace.
In 1990, Evans and the Cibolo team decided to mark Earth Day by planting two six-foot tall Red Oaks.
“So we had a tree planting," he explained. "And I was just marveling at the size of these trees now because they were just a shoots when we were planning them. My son was just a little boy.”
Evans added: "It was kind of an emotional thing because there's the American tree on one side, the Russian/Ukrainian tree on the other side. And when the trees were planted, we put ribbons on them and cheered and hugged each other and looked forward to peace.”
Those two Red Oaks have thrived, surviving drought and flood, and are about 60 feet tall. As Russia and Ukraine fight a brutal war in 2022, Evans said he wondered whatever happened tothose teens who came to YES Camp.
“That's the sorrow. I'm hopeful that these trees will have the same kind of longevity that many of the trees have around here, where they can be witnesses to watching cultures change and conflicts come and go and people have wars and then make peace,” he explained.
“And meanwhile the trees just sit there and take it all in. But it's beautiful that it started out with such friendship among the Russians and the Ukrainians and the Americans. And so hopefully the day will happen when we can meet again under different circumstances.”