We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
Eduard Loshyn and his wife, Romana Yaroshchak, fled war-torn Ukraine to save their lives from the destruction they saw all around them and now live safely in Shawnee.
Bessie “Fay” Bedinger served the cause of liberty as a bombing instructor in World War II.
And every day, Mario Escamilla pursues happiness in his adopted hometown of Platte City, far from his native Mexico and crime and unemployment.
This Fourth of July, the four embody the virtues articulated in the Declaration of Independence all those 239 years ago. The words are familiar, acquired early in American culture. Their force and effect on the course of U.S. history and contemporary civic life is ingrained and clear.
For Loshyn, Yaroshchak, Bedinger and Escamilla, these unalienable rights are personal. Their lives are forever changed by the guiding principles that we are endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The distant thunder of Ukraine’s instability in February 2014 was marked by the removal of the nation’s president and clashes between security forces and protesters gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square.
Eduard Loshyn and his wife, Romana Yaroshchak, were then on the sidelines of what was gearing up to to be a bloody internal struggle. They had been trying to get out of Ukraine since 2008, but the events of February 2014 brought into sharp focus how precarious their safety was. They saw that leaving was a matter of life and death.
The two spoke recently in Loshyn’s uncle’s Shawnee home, but for a moment the pair was back to the horrifying moment last year where the cracks in their native country’s society were spidering into a compound fracture. Yaroshchak gripped Loshyn’s wrist, speaking intermittent bursts of hurried Ukrainian.
In an angular English marked with sharpened consonants and tilted vowels, Loshyn merged the two accounts.
“Our friends called us and said, ‘We need help,’” Loshyn, the stronger English speaker, said.
“No room in church,” Yaroshchak added.
A local church was being used as a makeshift hospital and sanctuary for those injured in the fight against Ukrainian separatists. The building quickly met capacity, and additional housing was required.
Their friends’ calls to others seeking a safe place for the fighters eventually found the couple.
Loshyn and Yaroshchak made their way to the church and found beaten and injured Ukrainian soldiers. Though strangers, the pair took a group of them in.
Their refuge was secured on what would become one of the most deadly months of the separatists’ revolt: At least 82 were reported dead by February’s end.
Loshyn disputes the number. He alleges the conflict claimed more than 100 lives in a single night.
Neither Loshyn nor Yaroshchak was hurt or targeted in the violence, but it reinforced the decision they made years earlier to leave.
Since 2008, they’d applied for passage to the United States through the Diversity Immigrant Visa, what’s better known as the “Green Card Lottery.” The program administers 55,000 permanent resident green cards to countries with low levels of immigration.
An estimated 20 million people submit an application for the visa program annually.
Yet there didn’t seem to be another way to live except for abroad.
Loshyn, Yaroshchak and a half million others descended on Kiev in 2005 to protest what they and a group of election watchdogs had determined were fraudulent election results. The resulting civil unrest was named Orange Revolution for the color of the true winner, and the stability brokered in its wake was expected to lead to a period of peace and prosperity.
Instead, when the dust settled, the corruption that had defined the government’s rule from top to bottom remained firmly entrenched.
On one occasion, local firefighters leaned on Loshyn’s car-washing business, threatening him with penalties if he didn’t offer a bribe.
On another occasion, when he switched careers and began working as a social worker in an attempt to secure a work visa from Canada, Loshyn learned that a colleague was attempting to get him fired for wearing yellow and blue ribbons, an emblem of the national colors.
Loshyn said he knew the consequences, but he also knew he had to remain principled.
He loved his country but he and Yaroshchak were realists. They sent visa applications year after year.
The need for safe passage hastened after the bloody fracas of 2014 and the darkening mood.
“It was scary to go in the street. Someone can take you in the car, and you disappear,” Loshyn said.
In May of that year, they got the message that they’d be selected in an initial round of potential visa applicants.
And then: “November 3, November 3, I’ll always remember that day for the rest of my life,” Loshyn said.
They were two of 6,009 Ukrainian applicants approved for the visa that year, according to State Department data.
They celebrated with drinks.
“It is painful to leave Ukraine. We gave Ukraine many chance,” he said. “We came to the Orange Revolution, came to the capital to change, and we work for the change but nothing change.”
“War is continuous, and we couldn’t wait anymore,” Loshyn said.
In March, they arrived at Kansas City International Airport bearing few possessions, including one of Yaroshchak’s paintings and a cat. They stay with family in Shawnee.
Loshyn now works at the University of Kansas Medical Center as a lab technician for the animal science department.
His favorite part of the job? Everyone follows the rules.
Bessie “Fay” Bedinger enlisted in the Navy in February 1944.
“I just figured I had to do something,” Bedinger of Liberty said, speaking a few weekends ago from a hospital bed.
At 94, Bedinger retains a spark and charming firmness that she likely brought to basic training years ago. The veteran is also sturdy: Bedinger wasn’t in the hospital because of an injury but because of the need to service her pacemaker.
Bedinger is one of about 350,000 women who enlisted, just under 3 percent of all World War II recruits from the U.S.
She had been working in an ammunition plant in Parsons, Kan., when liberty’s call to action moved her to enlistment.
Although a high-school dropout — a move she made to provide for her family during the Depression-stricken lean days — she completed training in the Norden bombsight explosives deployment system, which at that point was considered the most sophisticated and reliable bomb-delivery mechanism.
During World War II, Bedinger pushed for a role that made full use of her expertise. And so for the two years she served in the Navy, she was part of its Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) unit and a bombing instructor.
“I was one of the first women ever to teach bombing there,” Bedinger said proudly.
In 1944, Bedinger and a group of 11 other women who’d undergone similar training at Hunter College in New York were sent to Banana River, Fla., to work as bombing instructors at a naval air base there.
Who knows where Bedinger’s seriousness and grit came from. But there are stories in the family that her mom survived the 1900 Galveston, Texas, hurricane, which brought 15 feet of water and killed as many as 12,000. Bedinger’s mom went on to be a resident of New Mexico before its 1912 statehood and is reported to have been able to work at the speed of two men in shingling the family house.
There are also stories of her grandfather’s aunt fending off Union soldiers armed with nothing but an ax.
These were no damsels in distress. Likewise, Bedinger was no lady in wait.
Which is why she was initially very cagey with a tall, serious-minded but pleasant soldier who introduced himself at the Florida naval base a few months after she arrived there.
“He said, ‘How about going on a date?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t think so,’” Bessie Bedinger said.
“I told the girls, ‘I hope this isn’t some guy that wants to fall in love and get married real quick. I’m sick of that,’” she said.
Ensign George Bedinger was charming and persisted past the tepid reception he got.
Finally, she relented. They would meet in a public place, on a beach and just hang out.
What she told her girlfriends when she got back: “Well, he wouldn’t be a bad guy to marry.”
The two visited one another and maintained a stream of daily correspondence even after George Bedinger was ordered to Trinidad for bombing missions. Even if he wasn’t hit by enemy fire, it wasn’t unusual for the equipment to fail, so the immediate threat of peril was a constant for the pilot.
They married in Kansas City, Kan., while on leave in March 1945. After the war they started a furniture business on the Liberty downtown Liberty square and raised two children. He died in 2000.
Quietly central to their lives was their time in the service and the shared experience of defending liberty’s house and the right of all to live within it.
As if recognizing that both their commitments — that of preserving liberty for the generations to follow and the covenant that bound both of them together — the colonel proposed to Fay Bedinger not with a ring but a pair of aviator wings, a naval badge that would carry the weight of both of his pledges.
Pursuit of happiness
By 6 a.m., Mario Escamilla has arrived to work at VBR Tortillas, a restaurant food supplier.
By 9 a.m., he’s on the road.
Escamilla will make sure the clients getting the food are current on their accounts. He will design a route for next week’s shipments, which he will drive and unload personally. He will clean the toilets after he unloads the shipment and closes down for the night.
All the positions at VBR Tortillas except owner, from accounts receivable to janitor, are occupied and executed by Escamilla, its sole employee.
His schedule is nonexistent. Escamilla works as needed, which is always.
“I’m the guy who drives, the guy who unloads, the guy who charges,” Escamilla said. “I’m it.”
He agreed to an interview between tasks on a Friday afternoon for a shipment that would arrive later that evening, freight he would unload alone.
“You’ve got to have a positive attitude,” Escamilla said. “Not like, you have to be jumping around or anything, but you should believe that today, this day, is going to be the best day of your life each day.”
There’s no time to daydream. The only fantasies Escamilla entertains are memories.
“I had a house on the beach,” Escamilla said. “Have you ever heard of Puerto Vallarta?”
Until 2011, Escamilla and his family of four lived in the Mexico vacation destination city. Their lifestyle wasn’t posh, but not without its earned rewards. Escamilla shows off photos of their home, a sizable whitened building behind his two children — Emilio, now 12, and Braulio, now 14 — splashing around a pool in their backyard.
Escamilla worked as a sales manager for a Toyota franchise. His clients were vacationers, snowbirds and the business class, a circle into which he inserted himself as a car salesman and friend.
Another picture: He and a group of acquaintances, potential clients, taking out a late model Toyota sport utility vehicle on the Mexican mountains. It’s one car logo and tagline away from being a car advertisement.
The part of the story that Escamilla’s bucolic photos don’t tell are the threats he and his family were regularly subjected to. Escamilla described calls from “delinquents” who threatened his family with violence in an attempt to extort him.
His first reaction was to call their bluff.
“I just laughed,” a posture that became harder to keep after repeated calls. The steady stream of promised violence was building a mounting awareness of how visible he was in Puerto Vallarta.
His name and likeness were on advertisement campaigns. He was a regular fixture at civic events. Being in sales meant Escamilla was a de facto public figure.
As a result, “they knew where I lived, where I worked, where my children went to school,” he said.
In 2011, new management took over his dealership and brought in a new sales team with a new administrator. Escamilla, a redundancy, was terminated.
The job loss coincided with a growing sense of unease in Mexican society.
When friend who was starting a restaurant food supply business in the U.S. offered to arrange for a temporary work visa in exchange for Escamilla’s commitment to work with him, the timing seemed right to leave. He would take a pay cut in moving his family to the U.S. for work he was overqualified to do.
Having come to the U.S. in 2012, Escamilla works odds hours and weekends regularly, but the savings required to produce $4,000 for legal fees associated with renewing his visa haven’t materialized yet.
His visa expires in the fall. Escamilla said worrying about that does nothing. Instead, he plans and hopes for a successful renewal and future where his sons are going on to college educations.
There’s a space in between where he’s working on realizing the vision he has of his life in the U.S., the new site of his pursuit of happiness.
“What should I say? ‘Let me tell you why I’m not happy?’” Escamilla asks rhetorically.
Rather than give in to the worry, Escamilla said his focus goes to his work and raising his children, encouraging them to be forward thinkers, big dreamers, people with good business sense who might someday be fluent in Japanese or Mandarin, “something that’s rooted in that region because that’s going to be bigger than English one day,” he said.
“They should be thinking big and having those dreams of who they want to be now,” Escamilla said.
This is one of the three moments of the conversation in which Escamilla is visibly engaged.
The first is when he’s recalling his path from business administration student to car dealership manager in Puerto Vallarta.
The other is when Escamilla becomes uncharacteristically romantic revisiting his first impression of Kansas City.
He and the owner of VBR Tortillas scouted a number of cities across the Midwest before arriving here. He said the Country Club Plaza and city skyline wooed and inspired him for a renewed pursuit of happiness in a new country.
“I just said, ‘This is it.’ I don’t know what it was, but I knew this is where I wanted my family to be,” Escamilla said.
In a new country, Escamilla’s quest is a thing he now shares in common with his adopted home and the celebrated language of its creation, a “pursuit of happiness,” one with renewed vigor in his second act.