My phone read "South Dakota.''
Robocall was my first thought, but I picked up.
"It's Robert Lack,'' said the voice on the other end.
"We're home,'' the Colona native and father of four added.
"Home'' meant one thing in my relationship with Robert Lack. He was with his children — all of them, in one spot — the United States of America.
Somehow — and you can call how it happened what you want — Lack got his two youngest children, Sophia and Samuel, out of Russia and united them with their brother, Ian, and sister, Mary.
In South Dakota.
The move, having failed once, was done with the help of others — paid — who took the children out of Moscow, to Belarus and put them on a flight to Istanbul, Turkey.
The ins and outs of the mission are known only to Lack and those who carried it out.
In Istanbul, Lack, who had been living in Russia the past five years trying desperately to bring his children home, met them and boarded an 11-hour flight to Chicago. In Chicago, Robert, Sophia and Samuel were met by Robert's brother, Jerry of Colona, who drove them to the Quad-Cities.
"We are adjusting and getting settled,'' Robert said of life in South Dakota. "Everyone is happy and excited about where we are and what the future has in store.''
A United Township, Black Hawk and Augustana College graduate, Lack's local roots are deep. His family is a Colona fixture.
He is a retired United States Marine, a decorated naval aviator and served as an anti-terrorism officer for the Presidential Helicopter Squadron and the National Capital Region Command at Quantico, Va.
Twenty years he served his country.
In 1994, Lack met Julia Kolkova in Moscow. They married and had four children.
While living in Dell Rapids, S.D., the two divorced. He was awarded custody of the children and she was accorded rights of visitation. She moved to Fairfax, Va., while he remained in South Dakota with the children.
In February of 2016, with Samuel and Sophia visiting, Lack's ex-wife took the two children to Moscow without his permission.
"She was able to obtain Russian citizenship and passports for the kids without me knowing it,'' Lack recalled.
He says his ex-wife lied and broke Russian law by claiming she was living in Russia in the fall of 2014 with Samuel and Sophia. He also said he had to grant permission for her to gain Russian citizenship and get passports to leave the U.S., but did nothing of the sort.
What it meant was Lack's two youngest children had been taken to a foreign land, without his permission.
Vowing to fight, the retired Marine moved to Moscow and began working through the Russian legal system. He spent the first year living in a hotel, going through his savings for lawyers and exhausting pro-American channels for help.
Adding insult to injury, a Russian judge granted his ex-wife custody of Samuel and Sophia and forced Lack to pay a third of his monthly military pension as support.
"Nothing worked, but by paying support and playing her game, I was able to see my kids,'' he said. "Our visits, though, were supervised. She had to be there.''
Along the way, Lack taught school. First it was as a substitute teacher and then as an English teacher to children of diplomats.
When that job ended, Lack — his savings exhausted — found a Russian school and a kind principal. For three years, he taught kindergarten. The job gave him a small sense of financial security and an opportunity to see his children.
"That job saved me,'' he said. "It gave me another purpose.''
In 2019, Lack — with the help of people he had come to know — attempted to take Samuel and Sophia out of Russia.
The children were held for several hours before Lack could see them.
"I didn't know what to expect,'' he said, noting the children were stopped because a passport situation.
Eventually they were allowed to return to Moscow.
In August, after a year of planning and financial considerations to those who would get the children proper passports and permission to travel, Lack's hired crew tried again.
They would travel to Belarus and and then fly — hopefully — to Turkey, where Robert would meet Sophia and Samuel.
"They were stopped in Minsk,'' Lack said. "But were allowed to go through.''
After passing several other checkpoints, Sophia, 14, and Samuel, 17, were on a flight to Istanbul. It was there they met their father and boarded a plane to Chicago.
''I didn't feel at ease when they closed the cabin door,'' Lack said of the flight from Turkey to Chicago. "I didn't feel anything in the way of secure until we were in the air. And I kept looking over my shoulder in Chicago. Then I saw my brother and felt better. The only time I felt real relief was when we got in the car to come to the Quad-Cities.''
This past Friday, Mary, Ian, Samuel and Sophia Lack shared a night with their father. It was at Samuel's high school football game in South Dakota.
"Great to be together,'' Lack said. "Quite a journey.''
Boy, was it.
Columnist John Marx can be reached at 309-757-8388 or email@example.com.
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