Jeff in Huntington Hospital, five days after brain surgery (August 1986)Image copyright
Jeff Henigson

When Californian teen Jeff Henigson used to be diagnosed with mind most cancers and given two years to reside, a kid’s charity granted him the wish of a lifetime. However Jeff did now not steal to move to Disneyland or meet his favorite footballer – Jeff unbiased wanted world peace.

Within the summer season of 1986, 15-yr-light Jeff Henigson used to be utilizing his bike to the native electronics store to build up the closing portion for a „spacious laser“ he’d been constructing, when he used to be hit by a van.

„It is coming within the incorrect manner and she does now not see me and unbiased smashes unbiased into me,“ Jeff says. „And I am launched, like a rocket, 10 feet backwards. I land on the lend a hand of my head.“

Jeff wasn’t carrying a helmet, and used to be knocked unconscious. About a hours later, he wakened in sanatorium. He looked as if it would be OK, though, so he used to be discharged the identical day.

However internal a pair of weeks Jeff started having seizures and he returned to the sanatorium, this time to indulge in a CT scan of his mind.

If it had proven injuries from the cycling accident, Jeff haven’t got been vastly stunned. However the news used to be worse than that – the scan published a tumour.

„Two things went thru my tips,“ Jeff says. „One used to be a thought to lose my virginity that summer season. And let’s unbiased dispute that did now not figure out. The second used to be to total my laser project.“

Jeff used to be an ambitious teen, whose dream used to be to work for Nasa. He believed that the suitable manner to label them used to be to procedure „the most fabulous laser“ which may well leap a beam off of a reflector that had been left on the moon by Apollo 11.

However the laser used to be also one draw for him to bond with his father, a a long way away figure, who had served with the US Navy in World War Two.

„I did now not know on the time if that used to be thanks to the warfare or something else. However my father used to be separate, emotionally, from the relaxation of us. And I presumed, ‚Here is this thing we now indulge in in fashionable. This fascination with science. This fascination with position.‘ And that’s the explanation why I pursued it.“

Though Jeff’s father never mentioned his experiences within the Pacific when the nuclear bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he would focus on, at length, about nuclear weapons, the nuclear probability and the US’s relationship with the united states. And this appears to be like to indulge in had an impact on Jeff.

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Jeff Henigson

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Jeff’s father, Bob Henigson

„There used to be a fictional movie within the early 1980s called The Day After. It used to be about the Soviet Union shedding nuclear bombs on the US. I used to be potentially 11 years light, and I used to be scared out of my tips. I would most continuously move to sleep at evening and move straight exact into a nightmare about nuclear warfare,“ Jeff remembers.

Jeff hoped no longer finest that he would procure that dream job with Nasa, but that the organisation would start to work with the united states in position of competing with it.

„Even when I used to be somewhat young, I may well see the aptitude for collaboration between the US and Soviet Union,“ he says. „It unbiased never made sense to me that we had been pointing nuclear weapons at every diverse, after we is also collaborating to pause unheard of things in position.“

Because it came about, Jeff did now not finest fail to lose his virginity, he did now not indulge in time to attain his laser both. He fundamental surgery – rapid. After spending nearly six hours on the table, medical doctors had been ready to eradicate the tumour in its entirety. He then confronted a seven-day wait to fetch out whether or no longer it used to be cancerous.

„The doctor walks in, and I may well unbiased dispute from the sight on her face she used to be no longer going to ship honest news. She informed me, ‚I am very sorry to claim that you simply can moreover indulge in mind most cancers and it be a really aggressive, rapid-increasing fabricate of most cancers,'“ Jeff says.

He requested how long he needed to reside.

„Perchance two years,“ used to be the doctor’s acknowledge.

Jeff started radiation and chemotherapy therapies and tried his finest to employ up with his faculty work. He also received eager with a enhance crew for youths with most cancers.

„They’d dispute me all about the things they’d finished – going to Disneyland or assembly a famed athlete. And I may well dispute, ‚Oh, I presumed that wish thing used to be for runt teenagers,‘ and so that they said, ‚We’re teenagers.‘ I unbiased did now not see myself that manner.“

Serving to the kids to pause this stuff used to be an organisation called the Starlight Youngsters’s Basis. Jeff’s mum made contact with them on his behalf, and 2 volunteers, Matt and Teri, came around to his dwelling in South Pasadena to chat about his wants.

„I said, ‚I unbiased must quiz, can you guys possibly procure me on the next position shuttle mission?‘ They unbiased regarded at me like ‚Oh, you are so ridiculous,‘ and said, ‚Entirely no longer.'“

Matt and Teri requested Jeff if he had a second wish, and yes, he did.

He’d no longer too long ago re-watched The Day After – the movie that had given him dreadful nightmares about nuclear warfare a pair of years earlier – and had visited the library to pause more learn.

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Getty Photos

„I used to be really feeling offended that we had been investing so noteworthy in nuclear weapons. I presumed perhaps it may well be a honest thought to put money into most cancers learn instead,“ he says.

So he informed Matt and Teri: „I want to creep to the Soviet Union and meet with Mikhail Gorbachev, so we can focus on a pair of thought to ship an discontinuance to nuclear weapons and the Cold War.“

There used to be a cease.

Matt and Teri then requested Jeff if he had a third wish, potentially hoping it may well be something simpler to meet. However he did now not wish the relaxation.

„I said, ‚I totally understand if that it’s possible you’ll be ready to’t indulge in this occur, but it completely’s my finest wish.'“

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Mikhail Gorbachev grew to develop into fashionable secretary of the Communist Celebration of the united states in 1985

Amazingly, the Starlight Basis started trying to indulge in it a reality. They arranged for Jeff to be a part of a outing to the Soviet Union with an organisation called Youth Ambassadors of The US. Then they started contacting other folks they notion can indulge in connections to Gorbachev.

They informed him that they’d strive their finest, but couldn’t promise that it may well occur.

Jeff had a checklist in his head of what the Soviet Union may well be like – thanks in portion to movies like Red Damage of day, released in 1984, in which the US is invaded by the Soviet Union and her allies.

„These movies portrayed the Soviets as hardcore militants who had been definite to raze the US. I must dispute, I went to sight a militant nation with a militant other folks,“ Jeff admits. „And I used to be somewhat vastly stunned by the parents I really met.“

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Jeff Henigson

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Jeff in Moscow with Youth Ambassadors of The US, in April 1988

The Youth Ambassadors had been definite to sight if they may well possibly place apart any spies – keeping an seek for out for furtive glances and trench coats as they toured the nation.

They had been disillusioned to no longer fetch any in Leningrad, but when they had been strolling thru Moscow, a member of the crew noticed that they had been being followed.

„We had been like, ‚No manner! Are you severe?‘ And he used to be like, ‚I am totally decided! At any time when I turn round, he turns and appears to be like to be like at no matter’s next to him.‘ It used to be unbiased out of a movie. And he used to be carrying a trenchcoat. It used to be massive.“

One of many kids came up with the premise of counting down from three and spinning round on the identical time to claim hi there in Russian to the man they believed used to be following them. Jeff used to be hesitant, he did now not want to probability shedding his assembly with Gorbachev.

„However within the slay I give in. So we pause the countdown, and all gallop round and exclaim privyet, and the fellow turns round and appears to be like to be like at a wall – there used to be nothing to sight at. It used to be classic.“

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Jeff Henigson

In their resort rooms, they noticed that there were sections of every wall the place apart the wallpaper did now not somewhat match. One of many Youth Ambassadors decided to slither a gap and learned a microphone internal. They had been being listened to.

„I wager the suitable thing that freaked me out used to be when one of the girls went lend a hand to her room and learned two guys going thru all of her stuff,“ Jeff says.

„That used to be moderately of irritating. I used to be wondering if they would battle thru my things. I had some degree to for Mr Gorbachev and I did now not wish them to employ that. It used to be my excessive faculty yearbook, which everyone in my faculty had signed. It used to be a silly runt reward, but I most favorite it and I hoped he would too.“

Jeff saved being informed that of us had been working on getting him a gathering with Gorbachev. Then one day he used to be informed to place apart on the move well with that he’d brought for the event, and be within the lobby at 8am tomorrow.

„I desired to grab what his hopes had been for bringing an discontinuance to nuclear weapons,“ Jeff says. „However I also desired to dispute him about American teenagers, what we wanted in this world, and the draw in which it wasn’t that diverse from what Soviet teenagers wanted. We desired to learn things, creep the area, search the advice of with every diverse’s nations. None of this stuff had been facilitated thru this militant stance that our nations took in the direction of one one other, so I desired to chat over with him about that and see what he needed to claim.“

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Jeff Henigson

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Soviet participants within the Moscow formative years conference

On the opposite hand on the very second his hopes appeared about to be realised, they had been dashed.

As he waited anxiously within the lobby, a man from Gorbachev’s place of job came to ship the news that he used to be unavailable to meet Jeff. When Jeff spoke back that he’d be free tomorrow, he used to be informed that Gorbachev would never be readily available to meet him.

„Who knows what brought an discontinuance to that assembly with Gorbachev,“ Jeff says. „Perchance it used to be never deliberate within the first position. I used to be beautiful devastated.“

However the man went on to claim that they’d arranged an introduction for him to 1 other crucial figure. Jeff used to be informed to pack an overnight gain, and used to be driven by limousine to the nation-dispute. He wasn’t informed the relaxation about the man he used to be going to meet.

„There used to be this magnificent couple there, and so that they welcomed me to their home. We ended up having a terribly magnificent skills, and astonishing conversations over a comely dinner. They had been talking about every form of philosophical notions for a greater Earth, for how our nations may well co-exist,“ Jeff fondly remembers.

I wasn’t except he returned to Moscow and informed one of his co-ordinators the name of the household he had had this form of ultimate time with that he realised who he’d had dinner with.

„She said, ‚You met with Evgeny Velikhov? Enact you realise who he’s?'“

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Mikhail Gorbachev’s nuclear adviser and Jeff’s host, Evgeny Velikhov

Velikhov used to be one of the nation’s high nuclear physicists, she explained, and Gorbachev’s unbiased hand man when it came to nuclear weapons.

He hadn’t met Gorbachev, but he had spent the evening talking to a man who performed a key aim in hands negotiations. With the Youth Ambassadors conference over, and his signed yearbook safely delivered to Gorbachev’s assistant, Jeff flew lend a hand home to California.

His of us met him on the airport, but it completely wasn’t really the welcome reception he’d been looking forward to. Mighty to his dismay, neither his mother nor his father requested a single question about his outing. When he raised the area, it used to be his father who spoke.

„My dad said, ‚I really indulge in a matter – did you meet with Mikhail Gorbachev?‘ I said, ‚No.‘ And that used to be the discontinuance of the dialogue. It made me feel like a failure.“

Jeff had performed his therapy earlier than the outing, so he now went lend a hand to normal life and college.

Then one day, a month and a half of later, he got a phone call from Moscow.

„I ran to capture it up and it be Jack Matlock Jr, the US ambassador to the Soviet Union. And he says, ‚Son, we now indulge in thousands and thousands of letters right here that are all addressed to you.'“

Jeff had spoken to a considerable journalist in Leningrad, who had printed a memoir about Jeff’s closing like to search the advice of with the Soviet Union. At the discontinuance of the portion, he had invited other folks to put in writing letters to Jeff. And thousands of alternative folks from throughout the Soviet Union had finished so.

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Jeff Henigson

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Jeff being interviewed by journalist Nikolai Sivach

„Mr Matlock said to me, ‚Hear, we’re no longer the US Postal Carrier, we can no longer send you all of these, but we are going to send you a sampling. And son, honest luck.'“

Jeff finest got a pair of letters in English, however the college’s Russian instructor translated the headline of the news chronicle for him – „In leaving, I will defend“. A reference to his most cancers.

„It made me feel like loss of life used to be shut but again and I no longer desired to be the child with most cancers. So I stopped up taking these letters, striking them in a field, and writing ’nostalgia‘ in block letters on the cease.“

However despite the grim warning given by the sanatorium doctor, Jeff’s loss of life used to be no longer really shut.

He hid the field away, and saved living his life. Time ticked by, and his tumour did now not return. He moved to London to move trying to fetch on the London College of Economics and then lend a hand to the US to abet Columbia College. He started working for the United Nations. Nonetheless no tumour.

Then one day within the summertime of 2008, when he used to be 37, Jeff returned to his childhood bed room with his then-wife.

He used to be throwing away what he no longer fundamental or wanted, organising the things he did, and boxing up the laser project that had been interrupted all these years ago. And as he went thru everything, he learned the field with ’nostalgia‘ written on the cease.

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Jeff Henigson

He used to be at a low point in his life, Jeff says. He had been compelled to leave his job on the UN thanks to seizures attributable to scar tissue in his mind. His marriage also used to be coming to an discontinuance. This time, the field held a fascination for him.

„The letters, a runt bit overwhelming 20 years earlier than as I desired to disassociate myself from most cancers, had been welcome the second time round,“ he says.

He learned a letter within the stack that used to be written in honest English – and there used to be a phone number. He checked what time it used to be in St Petersburg and decided to call. The phone rang three times, and a woman answered in Russian.

Jeff requested if, by any probability, her name used to be Svetlana. And it used to be. Twenty-three years earlier she had written him a letter in step with the article. She used to be vexed that he used to be silent alive, and offered to aid him translate the final letters, and monitor down others who had taken the time to put in writing too.

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Jeff Henigson

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Envelope of letter to Jeff from reader of the article in Smena, June 1988

„A selection of volunteers translated the letters for me – one in particular, Eugenia Zhurbinskaya. I knew early on that I desired to connect with these other folks. I used to be in documentary movie-making, and 2 movie-makers I mentioned my chronicle with encouraged me to assemble a movie crew, return to Russia, and interview the of us that had written to me.“

Within the Summer of 2011, Jeff received on a plane with a movie crew and flew to St Petersburg for 10 days to meet plenty of of the fresh letter-writers that his contacts had located. He later returned twice more, but no movie used to be ever made.

„One of the most tales had been completely comely,“ Jeff remembers. „There used to be this girl, Nina Ivanovna Dmitrieva, she used to be in her 80s then, who had been strolling down the avenue in Leningrad as a child within the 1940s when she hears this rumbling within the sky and a bomb detonates over the constructing next to her, which collapsed on high of her and crushed her skull. They took her to the sanatorium, and she goes thru three mind surgeries all the draw in which thru the siege of Leningrad, and silent managed to outlive. The dwelling she had the surgery used to be exactly the identical dwelling the place apart I had my tumour. That used to be tips-blowing. She felt like I used to be her child.“

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Jeff Henigson

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Nina Ivanovna Dmitrieva, who survived the siege of Leningrad

Jeff fondly remembers a woman called Nelly Slepkova, then in her 80s, who had been a geologist. „She informed me that they sought for uranium. After I requested what for, she regarded at me like, ‚You idiot!‘ And she or he said, ‚To procedure nuclear weapons, obviously.'“

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Jeff Henigson

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Nelly Slepkova, geologist

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Jeff Henigson

Jeff also had the alternative to meet the journalist who had written the chronicle about him all these years ago.

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Jeff Henigson

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Journalist Nikolai Sivach in 2011

„We had a beautiful intense interplay. He saved trying to talk his success, but now not like every diverse Russian I may well met on that outing, the general letter writers, he did now not focus on about his household. I within the slay requested him about it and he slows down and appears to be like to be like at me and says, ‚I had a really noteworthy relationship with my father.‘ And there used to be something I understood there because I hadn’t resolved my relationship with my father.“

This took a protracted time. Within the Christmas holidays of 2013 Jeff went to search the advice of with his of us, and confronted his dad about how emotionally a long way away he had been. He informed him how noteworthy he had learned it being his son.

„After I performed, he notion for a second and said, ‚It is difficult to indulge in lain in opposition to me, accusations…‘ And I unbiased felt this exasperate constructing up in me, but he persevered, ‚an unbiased like these I laid in opposition to my fetch father.'“

For the first time, Jeff’s father opened up to his son about his childhood.

His father had been a Hollywood producer, he said, and a playing addict.

„He’d ship a limited fortune home from a well-performing movie to his ever-neurotic wife, and then he’d lose it in a slow-evening card sport.“

He in most cases had the relaxation to claim to his teenagers, though they had been witnesses to his exasperate, and he showed runt hobby in their lives.

„My father repeated the gap, but no longer the dearth of care. He offered for us. He took us on commute. He came home every evening for dinner, even supposing it used to be an hour or three later than my chums‘ suppers with their families. He unbiased couldn’t indulge in the emotional connection. He couldn’t particular emotions,“ Jeff says.

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Jeff Henigson

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Jeff with his of us, Robert and Phyllis Henigson

„No longer long after that, he gathered the household for the first and finest time, and informed us all that he most favorite us. He died a month later. So I am completely grateful that we learned our peace.“

Jeff is now 49 and dealing as a creator. His first book, Warhead, is about his fetch experiences, and he’s following it up with a young grownup fresh.

A fresh MRI scan of his mind has given him a neat invoice of health, though he expects to reside with epilepsy for the relaxation of his life.

He is silent in most cases eager with a pair of of the Russian letter-writers, or their English-talking grandchildren. Nelly, the geologist, is well. Sadly, he hasn’t heard for some time from Nina, the survivor of the siege of Leningrad.

Jeff regrets that a trusting relationship between the US and Russia appears to be like very a long way-off, and remains anxious about their massive nuclear stockpiles, and the probability of additional nuclear proliferation which he believes „presents a really exact and ever-increasing probability to human existence“.

„Iran appears to be like definite to indulge in nukes, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia is never any longer going to sit down down idly by if Iran succeeds. The US has withdrawn from one key nuclear disarmament treaty, the INF treaty, and has signalled that one other, Contemporary START, may well moreover no longer be prolonged,“ he says.

„Russia is investing in fresh nuclear weapons systems and China is on tempo to double its nuclear stockpile within the next decade. While I no longer wake up in a cold sweat, I contemplate nuclear warfare is popping into more and more seemingly. There may well be noteworthy to dismay about.“

All photos copyright Jeff Henigson except otherwise stated

Hear to Jeff talking on Outlook, on the BBC World Carrier (producer Thomas Harding Assinder)

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