Few people these days trust a used-car salesman.
But Igor Alexandrovich Ponomarenko did.
He trusted one completely. And because he did, he got himself a good deal. A bargain, to say the least. He got the thing he had always dreamed of -- freedom.
Ponomarenko is a Russian. He is among the latest in the recent wave of well-publicized defections by Soviet citizens asking to stay in the United States. Igor is only 19, a naval engineering student who was assigned to a ship that was heading for the U.S.
A few weeks ago in the pink-tinged darkness before, Ponomarenko slipped off the Soviet phosphate freighter Krasnoya Znya which was moored at Tampa.
While everyone else was sleeping, he headed inland, walking for miles, hitchhiking for miles. Making his way to freedom. He wore a dull khaki uniform as he headed into florida, wondering whom he would meet who would offer him refuge.
It was then, after many hours of walking, that he met the used-car salesman.
"It was in the middle of the afternoon," says the salesman, Byron Smiddy of Brooksville, Fla. "I had just finished with one customer, and I think I was fixing a battery on a used car when I looked up and spotted him coming on down Highway 41. I thought, 'Here comes a prospective customer if ever I saw one -- someone who needs a car,' and I dropped what I was doing and I walked out to the highway to meet him.
"He looked a little tired and I threw my hand out to his and I said, 'Son, you don't have to be walking all this way anymore. Come on in and you can drive away in your car.'
"Well, he looked straight at me and said, 'I don't speak English.' 'You don't?' I said. 'Well, where are you from, son?' And he said 'Russia.'
"Well, I was surprised at the answer and I said, 'How did you get here?' And he said, 'Ship.'
"He talked to me in words, not sentences. But as he talked, it seemed to me that he was telling me he had defected.
"I tried to give him some change from my pocket and all he said was 'No.' So I said, 'You must be hungry; you'll need more than that,' and I tried to shove a $5 bill into his hand.
"But he wouldn't take that either. And that's when I knew he was for real, when he wouldn't take any money.
"We're poor people, my wife and me. My wife teaches school and I sell used cars. We aren't rich. But I've brought others home with me before -- others who came along the road who are down and out.
"So I told this young man, 'You. You come home with me.' He understood the word 'come' and the word 'home.' And he smiled at me and said yes.
"I took him home with me and when my wife walked in the door, I said, 'Martha, we have an overnight guest.' She said, 'Fine.'
"I said, 'But he's from Russia,' and she said, 'You're kidding.'
The Smiddys made a phone call to someone they knew who could interpret Russian for them. The interpreter talked to Igor on the phone and then explained to them in English that they did, indeed, have a young Russian defector in their living room.
The Smiddys then called the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and agents soon visited them in their home. The agents said that while they were investigating the defection, Igor should stay with them, under cover, until the matter was resolved.
"So we didn't tell anyone except our best friends," says Mrs. Smiddy. "It was our secret. We were quite concerned that the KGB (Russian secret police) would come and try to take him away, and Igor was afraid of that, too. pSo we hid him in our home, and we all grew to love the boy."
"The first night after I brought him home and let him bathe . . . and get into some of my clothes, I had him write to his parents in Russia and tell them what he had done," says Smiddy.
"The FBI came the next day, and he signed a paper right in my house that said he did not agree with the Soviet way of life. He became part of our family. He was with us for six days. My children loved him.
"We took him out for pizza with us and to the high school football game. He liked that a lot. And one night, after supper, I took him with me to the shopping center to buy ice cream. When we got out of the car and we were walking toward the big supermarket and he saw all that was inside it, he threw out his arms and yelled, 'Freedom.'
"I said, 'Yes, this is freedom.'
"They've accepted him now and he's been granted asylum, I can't tell you where he is. That's still a secret. But three days after he left us, I tried to get hold of him on the phone and when I finally did, he told me he was lonesome for all of us. We're lonesome for him, too.
"We want him to come back to Florida. To go to college, if we can raise the money, and to see us again. We'll never forget him.
"I can still remember that last night. The two of us were walking home from the car lot. I put my arm around him and I said, 'My son, Igor Alexandrovich Smiddy.'
"And he looked at me and smiled. You know, I think he liked that name."