LOS ANGELES — PAT HERSON became a celebrity as she trudged along the country roads of the Soviet Union. During the summers of 1987 and 1988, the retired Los Angeles homemaker and her husband were among 440 people from both countries participating in the Soviet-American Peace Walks. The walks, designed to build bridges of friendship, are endorsed by both governments. They take participants through large sections of each nation, and have led to hundreds of personal contacts between professionals, students, veterans, and others.
Pat's fame came courtesy of Soviet television. It showed her in a T-shirt emblazoned ``Babushka Pat'' (in Cyrillic), which meant she was a grandmother. The message apparently struck a chord with her Russian counterparts, who began seeking her out as the march passed through their towns.
``The babushkas came and hugged her,'' recalls Pat's husband Ron, ``and they were crying and they said: `for our children, please no more war.''' The Hersons say that more than anything else, they were impressed by the passionate belief in peace of those they met - a legacy of 20 million Soviet dead in World War II and another 20 million to 30 million killed by Stalin.
``We never met a Soviet family who hadn't lost immediate family members,'' Ron says.
The Hersons' involvement began when Ron saw a brochure promoting the walks. He was eager to go because, even in his wide travels, he'd never been to the USSR. (The walks are not inexpensive: Cost to marchers for a trek through the Ukraine next month is $3,200 per person.)
They arrived in Leningrad in June 1987 for the 450-mile journey to Moscow and soon found themselves a part of history in the making. ``Everywhere we went, people said `I've never seen an American before, but you're just like us,''' says Ron.
The most surprising aspect of the walk in the United States, they say, was the way their countrymen greeted the Soviets.
``We met the most loving, giving, interesting, interested people,'' Ron says. ``Not only the walkers, but those who housed and fed us. It was like seeing our country through fresh eyes.''
Townspeople gave the group cold drinks, and some in the Midwest even offered Soviet walkers their car keys, urging them to ``go anywhere you want.'' In Columbia, Md., an indoor water slide was opened especially for them:
``It was fantastic to see this member of the Supreme Soviet come blasting by ... yelling and screaming,'' Pat recalls.
CAMARADERIE notwithstanding, walkers had their disagreements. Soviets faced questions about their country's role in Afghanistan, as did Americans about Nicaragua. Soviets also criticized social policies, wondering why millions of Americans do not have medical insurance, and how a country so wealthy has a swelling homeless population.
When asked what they liked best about the US, many Soviets marveled at the professionalism and courtesy of the police. Soviet law enforcement had another image entirely, as illustrated by a humorous but telling incident Pat recalls. At a campground in the Ukraine, walk members tossed a Frisbee into nearby woods by mistake, and it came flying back. ``The KGB were all around the perimeter,'' she says.
By the second walk in the USSR, however, changes were evident. People approached them much more freely, even inviting them to dinner.``It wasn't staged,'' says Pat.
In the US walks, many Soviets were stunned at the extent to which they had been misled by their government. ``They lied to us about how the average American lives,'' a political science professor said, dramatic testimony from a Russian who had written books about America. Also the author of books about blacks in the US, the professor was amazed to see many well-dressed black students on the campus of Georgetown University.
American supermarkets, with their bounty of fresh foods, were originally suspect: Many walkers were convinced they were not typical stores, but had been laid on to impress them.
Ron learned that many Soviets have a single good friend from childhood, but feel unable to trust anyone else. He finds it remarkable that after spending time with American walkers, ``they trust us.''
The language barrier was overcome through translators and considerable use of sign language. Several Russo-American romances blossomed; some culminated in marriage.
For the Hersons, the peace walks have lent a whole new meaning to ``the golden years,'' and given them a sense of empowerment they never expected. They have spoken before dozens of groups about their experiences. And they intend to keep right on walking.
International Peace Walks, P.O. Box 2958, San Rafael, CA 94912