CHICAGO -- Walter Polovchak picked a prototypical American restaurant for lunch and stumbled into the chain's latest promotion, a campaign that held special horror for him.
The "Hi-I'm-Cindy" servers were gone, replaced by "Comrade Rick." Menacing signs hung from the reproduction tin ceiling, alongside suspended sports paraphernalia. "Win trips to Russia!" they threatened.
"With my luck I'd win, and it would be a one-way ticket," Polovchak said.
The littlest defector is 22 now. He lives on Chicago's Northwest Side and rides the train to his job in a steel and glass tower. He drinks beer with buddies after work, lives for the weekends and figures someday he'll get married and buy a house.
Polovchak aspires to be an average guy, and in many ways he is. But he misses the celebrity that surrounded his youth, when he was elevated to a national symbol in a single afternoon. And occasionally, such as when the prospect of going to the Soviet Union looms before him in shrieking yellow letters, he is yanked back.
Polovchak was only 12 in the summer of 1980 when he ran away from home rather than return with his Ukrainian family to the Soviet Union. The U.S. government stepped in to bar his parents from taking him out of the country, and guards watched over him as he played Frisbee outside a cousin's house.
While court battles over his future dragged on, young Walter pleaded his case on television talk shows, in newspapers, magazines and supermarket tabloids. Everyone cheered the freckled, round-faced Soviet boy who stood before federal judges in a T-shirt that proclaimed "I'm happy to be in America."
Things have changed. Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" is moving toward democracy, the Ukraine has declared its sovereignity, and you can buy a Big Mac in Moscow.
What is there to be a symbol of today?
"We had a TV movie deal going for a while," Polovchak said. "Glasnost sort of killed it."
Polovchak has spent nearly half his life in the United States. He has driven to California twice and tried surfing. He took a few college courses and wrote an autobiographical book.
Now he works as a shipping clerk, not a glamorous job. But his relative affluence -- he has an apartment, a CD player and a motoroat -- would seem incredible to his Soviet family and friends.
"Once in a while, on down-and-out days, I sit back and think about what I would be doing in the Soviet Union," Polovchak said. "I would do my two years in the army, and then, chances are, I would be working in a factory, married, probably some kids. I would be stuck."
He says he has no regrets about marching out of the West Fullerton Avenue apartment where his parents, an older sister and a younger brother lived. Polovchak's sister Natalie, then 17, also remained and is now married and expecting a child.
"I would do it again," Polovchak said in between bites of a Reuben sandwich. "It was the greatest decision I ever made. I didn't want to stay here for Jell-O and bicycles and bananas. I stayed for freedom."
Nevertheless, he recognizes that his life apart from family has been unnatural, and he said he often thinks of his brother, Mikhail, now 16, and a 7-year-old sister born after his parents' return to the Soviet Union. Back in the Ukraine, his father works as a bus driver. Even when there is money to spend, there is little for the family to buy.
And though he once vowed to kill himself before he would return to his homeland, he now believes he will make the trip eventually.
"It would be interesting to see where I was born, where I went to school, my old friends. I'd especially like to see my little sister -- I have never seen her -- and my little brother. But the fear they might not let me leave hasn't completely left my mind."