alexpgp: (OldGuy)
“Do you think that’s the town, sir?” asked Godfrey, the older of the two horsemen that sat on their mounts inside the forest’s fringe, looking out at clump of low dwellings that lay about a mile distant in the middle of a flat grassland. A third horse, loaded with weapons and provisions, stood tethered to the older man’s horse.

“I pray it is,” answered Arthur. “Our food and silver are depleted, requiring this aspiring knight,” he said, using his thumb to point to himself, “to find employment for himself and his arms-bearer.” He threw a smile at Godfrey, and then kicked his horse into motion, emerging from the woods and heading directly for a path that led to the town. The older man followed.

“Would you take a look at that, sir?” said Godfrey, as they drew near to the settlement. He gestured toward the town’s ramparts, which seemed to be collapsing inward, toward the settlement. “That wall would hardly keep out a disgruntled sheep, much less anything bigger. What were they thinking when they built it?” A lifetime ago, Godfrey had fought in many campaigns, attaining the rank of sergeant before losing an eye in battle. He knew something of fortifications.

“We’ll soon find out,” said Arthur, as the gates opened and a small crowd of prosperously dressed men came out to greet them and escort them into the settlement. It was indeed the right town, Redemar by name, and word of Arthur’s interest in solving the town’s problem had preceded him.

“Sir Knight,” began the mayor once Arthur had been seated with the other town elders and the company served food and drink, “permit me to come to the point by saying that our humble town has for these past twenty years suffered the depredations of a dragon that preys on the flower of the town’s womanhood.” A supportive rumble rose from the assembled elders.

“Every year, this dragon requires us to take two of our fairest maidens to a cave near the sea, located a day’s ride northeast,” continued the mayor, waving an arm as if to indicate the direction, “where we must chain them to the wall and abandon them to await the dragon’s ravenous appetite. Only in this way does this beast consent to leave the town alone to engage in commerce and wrest a living from its fields. Will you help us?” The eyes of the mayor and of the elders were wet with tears. “Will you deliver us from this monster?”

“I will,” said Arthur.

“I must warn you, however,” said the elder sitting next to the mayor, “that many brave knights that have agreed to help us have never returned.” The mayor shot the man a dirty look, saying, “Verily, it is a mission fraught with danger.” Then he turned to Arthur and said, “Which is why we appeal to you, as a stalwart and fearless knight, to render succor to us.”

The next few hours were spent ironing out the terms, conditions, and remuneration for freeing the town of the dragon. Then Arthur joined Godfrey in separate quarters that had been hastily prepared for the two visitors.

“I don’t like it,” said Godfrey, after Arthur explained their mission. “I took my grub in the kitchen, and the servants – women, all of ‘em – were solemn as churchmen. They all of them kept their distance from me and said hardly a word, as if they were afraid of being seen with me or talking to me.”

“Maybe they’re put off by your eye patch,” suggested Arthur. “Or perhaps they’re just afraid of the dragon.”

“Whatever they’re afraid of, it’s no dragon, sir” said Godfrey. “I mean, the mayor says the monster hasn’t harmed anyone or anything in this town for a score of years, right? And it’s certain none of ‘em need fear being chained in the cave, as they have aged far beyond their years.”

Arthur shrugged and sat down to let Godfrey undo his boots and leggings. “It’s a paying job, at any rate,” he said.

“Can’t argue with that,” said the arms-bearer, kneeling to unlace his master’s leathers. “But did you notice how, when they were taking us to the mayor’s house, they took us well around the main square, when it would have made more sense to take us through the square instead?”

“Not really,” said Arthur, and yawned. “You think they were hiding something?”

“I don’t know. I glimpsed some small sacks in the middle of the square, soiled with something and sitting among some cobbling stones,” said Godfrey. “But people kept standing in my way, so I don’t really know what they were.”

“I’d put it out of your mind,” said Arthur. “We have a hard day of travel tomorrow. Get some sleep.”

“I will, sir,” said Godfrey. “Good night to you.”

* * *

Arthur and Godfrey made good time the following day, gaining the cliff above the sea while the sun was still high in the sky. They dismounted and pitched camp several hundred yards from the entrance to the cave, the location of which an elder had insisted on describing to them.

“Don’t you have a map?” Godfrey had asked, interrupting the short, hirsute man who stank of sweat and ale. “No maps!” exclaimed the elder, and his eyes bulged from their sockets. “It is an evil place that cannot be drawn on a map! The very idea is sacrilege!”

Arthur wore his mail shirt and carried his sword and shield into the cave. Godfrey followed, carrying a cocked crossbow loaded with a heavy silver bolt. They found two sets of chains embedded in the cave wall about a dozen yards in from the entrance.

“No sign of mayhem,” said Godfrey. “No bones, no cloth.”

“The beast likely drags his prizes to its lair before devouring them,” replied Arthur. Godfrey grunted noncommittally. After reconnoitering the area inside the cave entrance, the men withdrew to their camp and ate a cold meal, then retired with Godfrey taking the first watch.

Some time long after the sun had set and the Great Bear was standing on its nose above the Pole Star, Godfrey shook his master awake. “Something is climbing the cliff,” he whispered, then turned and brought the crossbow to his shoulder. As Arthur looked toward the cliff and the starry sky beyond, a scrabbling dark mass rose above the line of the cliff and blocked out a portion of the stars. A few moments later, a soft hissing sound could be heard and the odor of sulfur tinged the air.

“Hail, sir knight,” said a rasping voice, “and crossbowman, too. I presume you are the latest party sent to kill me?” Godfrey shot his crossbow at the center of the massive shadow.

“Oh, my!” said the dragon. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ in answer to my question.” There was a short scratching sound and a moment later, the bolt landed at Godfrey’s feet. “I would be grateful if you refrain from shooting at me again, crossbowman. At least, not until after we have spoken. Permit me.” The dragon squirted a small pool of burning naphtha on the ground between them, which provided a brilliant light.

“What do we have to speak about, accursed beast?” said Arthur, shielding his eyes from the sudden brightness of the naphtha’s flame.

“Well, for one thing,” rasped the dragon, “besides you calling me an ‘accursed beast’ and the fact your man just tried to kill me, there is whatever else you might have planned for me, all because those scrofulous misogynes in Redemar cannot stand the thought of letting any woman escape their clutches – even if it is to suffer what they might gleefully imagine to be a slow, horrible death – and so hire men like you to kill me.”

“So you want to say the women die quickly, is that it?” asked Arthur.

“My dear knight,” said the dragon, “they don’t die at all!”

“I don’t believe you,” said Arthur, after a moment’s silence.

“Well, then take a look at me, at my size,” said the dragon. “If I were inclined to eat humans, don’t you think I’d require several more than just two per year? And further, if I were actually interested in eating humans, wouldn’t it make sense for me to require delivery of those with the most meat on their bones instead of those who are the most beautiful?”

“Makes sense to me,” muttered Godfrey, and his stance relaxed.

“You look like a man who has seen military service,” said the dragon to Godfrey. “Did you notice how the walls of the town are better suited to keep people in than keep anything else out?”

“Now that you mention it,” said the arms-bearer, “that’s exactly right. I didn’t make the connection at the time. It wouldn’t have made sense.”

“The walls are there to prevent escape,” said the dragon. “And did you happen to notice the ‘decorations’ in the town square?”

“No,” replied Godfrey. “We were led around the square, but I think I saw some kind of sacks.”

“Sacks, eh? About the right size to hold, say, a small melon? Soiled? With several rocks immediately nearby?” asked the dragon.

“Yes,” replied Arthur, “that’s right. What were they?”

“The town fathers of Redemar have drawn up special laws that apply to women,” said the dragon. “Who they may speak with, who they may associate with, when they may leave their residence and with whom, that sort of thing. Punishments vary. Rape – which occurs quite frequently – is punishable by flogging the woman in public. Adultery – an offense very loosely defined – carries a range of punishments, from forcing the woman to wear a chastity belt of barbaric design to wrapping the woman in a white muslin bag and burying her up to her neck in the center of the public square, so that only her head remains above the ground, whereupon the unfortunate creature is stoned to death.”

“If the townsmen are as evil as that,” asked Arthur, after another silence, “then why not destroy them? And why save only two per year?”

“I am an old,” said the dragon, “and coming to the end of my days. I have seen and known much, and though I have drunk delight of battle… I know enough to realize that cutting down townsmen – as tarnished as their souls might be – is a sure way to bring down the king’s wrath and my premature demise. Still, my gray spirit yearns to do what it can before life's end, some work of noble note, and to die unashamed, having won some victory – however small – for what is right. Is that so bad?”

The two men and the dragon were silent for yet another moment. Then the knight asked, “How do we know you’re telling the truth? And if the women brought here are alive, where are they? What have you done with them?”

“Well, to answer your first question,” said the dragon, and turned to unleash a brilliant stream of burning naphtha that arced a hundred feet out over the sea, “consider the fact that I haven’t incinerated you, despite my every right to do so in answer to your bolt. To answer the rest of your questions, come to the cave tomorrow morning, when the sun is a hand’s breadth above the horizon. Now, I shall take my leave and go eat my fill of my favorite sea plants.” With these words, the dragon’s bulk withdrew back over the cliff and disappeared.

* * *

The next day, knight and arms-bearer entered the cave to find two beautiful young women dressed in traveling clothes. Each stood confidently next to a small, sturdy strongbox. A third strongbox stood near the cave entrance.

“I am Miranda,” said the taller of the two young women. “And I am Evelyn,” said her companion. “We were brought here from Redemar as a sacrificial offering to the dragon. We have spent the last year in the dragon’s palace far below our feet, where we were treated better than we had ever been treated before in our lives and where – among other things – we learned to read words and write our names.” Evelyn thrust a folded paper at Godfrey, who took it. “This is a map showing how to reach the Great Northern City without going past or near Redemar.”

“The dragon says it is time for us to go out and make our way in the world,” said Miranda, “but he wants to make sure that - like our predecessors - we do not travel without a knight to protect us, as he has given us these chests of gold with which to start our lives.” Miranda pointed to the chests at her and Evelyn's feet. “If you will be our champion, the gold in that chest shall be your reward,” she said, indicating the chest near the entrance.

“The townsmen lied to us, sir,” whispered Godfrey, “we owe them no fealty.”

“I agree,” said Arthur, and held out his hands to the two women. “The day grows older as we speak. Let us make ready to depart!”

alexpgp: (Default)
"I am getting a strong association with Scotland," said the woman on the raised platform in the center of the studio. She was dressed casually, unremarkably. She faced a group of about thirty people, seated in a rough semicircle so as to give her maximum visibility of their faces and body language. The microphones in the ceiling were "hot" and the studio's video cameras were rolling. The woman's eyes darted from face to face, alert for any sign of reaction.

She found it in Maximilian Attenmort's face. It was that half-shocked, half-expectant response she had come to expect of someone anxious to hear from the dead. She had seen it a million times before. She cocked an eyebrow. "You, sir?" she asked.

"My…" said Maximilian, and paused. In that split second, he recalled the first part of his and Bonnie's short life together. Falling in love, and then getting married and honeymooning with her near Edinburgh.

"Someone very close to you, sir?" asked the woman. Given Maximilian's body language, this question was a no-brainer. “Your wife?” The way his shoulders relaxed, Maximilian may as well have shouted "Yes!" at her.

"Yes," said Maximilian, recovering his voice. His eyes misted slightly as, in the next instant, he relived the diagnosis and the remaining four brief months of their life together. "She was my wife," he said.

"The two of you shared something of Scotland, is that right?" asked the woman. When she saw Maximilian's head cock and the lips purse slightly, she realized her mistake and changed course, "Or perhaps you spent time there together? A happy time. A honeymoon?" The man's moist eyes made the question plausible.

“Yes,” said Maximilian.

“Your wife says she fondly recalls your time together in Scotland,” said the woman, and by now, she was operating automatically, not communing with the dead – clearly that was not possible – but capably reading the myriad of signals being transmitted by Maximilian’s face and posture in response to her prompts. It was like playing the children’s game of “hot and cold,” but about a million times more complicated, where what one sought shifted a little after every question. This last suggestion, for example, was clearly not what the man was seeking to hear.

“You’re wondering whether she has a message for you,” said the woman. It was not a question. Maximilian nodded. His heart was pounding, because shortly before Bonnie had died, she had read about how, on his deathbed, Harry Houdini had shared a secret message with his wife Bess, which Houdini promised to communicate to Bess from the beyond if there was any way for the dead to speak to the living. Crying and hugging each other, Maximilian and Bonnie had agreed upon a similar code for Bonnie to use to send messages to Maximilian, if it were possible to do so.

The first message was the name “Julia Child,” because Bonnie had loved to cook and was a fan of French cuisine in particular. Receiving this message would signify Bonnie’s confirming the existence of an afterlife to Maximilian. The second part of the code was the name “José Capablanca,” selected because Maximilian could play many of the Cuban chess champion’s games from memory. This would be a sign that love persisted across eternity, and that Maximilian and Bonnie would certainly be reunited in the hereafter.

“We had a code,” said Maximilian. “Like Houdini and his wife.”

On hearing this, the woman paused to explain, more for the benefit of the audience than Maximilian, how the connection she had with the spirit world was tenuous and not conducive to for communicating precise, word-for-word messages. Having thus subtly disclaimed any potential failure on her part, the woman turned her attention back to Maximilian.

“It was sudden, her death, wasn’t it?” the woman asked. Seeing Maximilian’s hesitation, she continued, “In the sense of unexpected, yes?” A saddening about the eyes and a nod confirmed the statement. “An accident?” Nothing there. “Childbirth?” Something there, strong, but still not it. “A disease, yes?” Bull’s-eye, said the muscles in Maximilian’s face. “Yes,” he said a moment later. “It was cancer.”

“But there were children involved,” said the woman, going back to explore that avenue. Quickly realizing it was a dead end, she backtracked and continued with “No, not children, but a child. Am I right?” Maximilian’s eyes brightened considerably, confirming her guess.

“In a way,” said Maximilian. His enigmatic answer, and the tone in which it was delivered told the woman that “child” was not meant literally.

“But not an actual child,” said the woman. What could it be? “A pet, perhaps?” No, said the corners of Maximilian’s mouth, but there was still some strong emotion there, coiled like a spring waiting to be released. “Some object,” continued the woman, “a knick-knack, a book?” She was floundering, but something about Maximilian changed when she mentioned a book. “No,“ continued the woman, now relying on instinct,” it’s a person, isn’t it?”

Maximilian may as well have plastered his answer on a billboard. “Yes,” he said, “that’s right. My wife loved to cook.”

The last sentence was inadvertent, but it gave the woman an opening that she exploited immediately. “Your wife wants to send a message about Julia Child,” she said, without further comment. It was a dramatic moment that, later, the entire audience would swear had come as a bolt from the blue and not as a natural inference from what Maximilian had said. Upon hearing the name, Maximilian’s entire demeanor changed. It was as if he began to have trouble breathing.

Still, the show was going very well, felt the woman. They’re eating out of my hand, she thought.

The woman stepped off the platform, walked up to Maximilian, and gave him a small hug. “Was that the message?” she asked, just loudly enough for the microphones. Maximilian nodded and said yes, but the stiffness in his body told her there was something else to find here. As she went back to the platform, her mind integrated everything she had observed up close about Maximilian, from the suddenly unhealthy pallor of his skin, to the Timex watch on his wrist, to the tack on Maximilian’s tie, shaped like a chess piece.

“I get the impression, though, that ‘Julia Child’ is not the entire message?” asked the woman, turning to face Maximilian after mounting the platform. “It’s an almost overpowering feeling. Is there another part to the message?” The way Maximilian’s arms dropped to his sides told her she was still on a roll.

“Yes,” said Maximilian, and he seemed to be struggling with something. What was it, wondered the woman. As she was about to probe further, a clear feminine voice whispered inside her head.

“José Capablanca?” she parroted, unable to keep the rising inflection out of her voice. She looked away from Maximilian, with a look of surprise on her face. She had never heard the name before in her life. Or any voice in her head, for that matter.

Upon hearing the name of the great Cuban grandmaster, Maximilian Attenmort’s eyes filled with tears one last time, and with a smile of angelic joy on his face, he collapsed on the floor. His last thought, as the darkness coalesced around a distant point of light, was of rejoining Bonnie in the next life.

alexpgp: (Default)
The Thåg were keen judges of character, so when they offered Millard Adler fame and fortune as the putative author of something called The Lay of Rethyfa, they already knew they had their man.

On that fateful evening, two Thåg – short, squat humanoids who dressed like 19th century undertakers and whose facial muscles exhibited all the emotion of petrified wood – walked up to the cabin Adler had rented in the Michigan woods for his self-imposed annual week-long writing retreat, which he normally frittered away either getting ready to write something, drinking cheap beer, or entertaining dreams of having been published. They didn't pause to knock; they simply opened the door, walked in, and stated the purpose of their visit.

"Our civilization will make contact with that of Earth in 233 of your years," said the first Thåg. "Our social scientists have established that historically, the culture shock of first contact with the Thåg can be reduced or eliminated by making Thåg history and civilization known in advance to peoples with whom contact will be made. For this reason, we have prepared a manuscript, titled The Lay of Rethyfa, that we want you to submit to a publisher under your own name. In addition to its value as a source of entertainment, the book provides an all-encompassing summary of the salient aspects of Thåg history, culture, and civilization."

"Our computed projections suggest interest in this book will be strong initially and will increase over the years," continued the second Thåg. "Earth will know much of Thåg when contact is eventually made. If you accept our proposal, you will have a more than comfortable income from royalties, and you will enjoy sustained public popularity. When our civilizations eventually do make contact, you will be hailed as a hero; a man well ahead of his time."

"There are only two conditions that you must agree to observe for us to consummate this transaction, Millard Adler," resumed the first Thåg. "First, you may not change any part of the text. Second, you must take a haakkaa pååle oath to never claim actual authorship of the book. Whenever you are asked about its origin, or how you came to write it, the essence of your answer must be 'I did not write the book. It was a gift from the Thåg.' If you agree, let us shake hands, and a copy of the manuscript will be transferred to your computer. Believe me when I say it will be accepted for publication as it is."

Adler took the proffered hand, not really believing what was happening, and having no idea what a haakkaa pååle oath was. What the Thåg said about the manuscript being accepted came to pass, and the book was published as it had been submitted. When Millard later read a published copy of the book himself and came to understand the technology and practice of haakkaa pååle oaths, he turned pale and swallowed hard.

As the Thåg had predicted, The Lay of Rethyfa was a slow but steady success. Critics compared its popularity to books with cult-like followings, such as Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Adler was a popular item on the talk show circuit, too.

In the early years of the book's popularity, when the book was still a phenomenon, Adler's saying that he hadn't written the book, and that it had been a gift from the Thåg was thought of as a smart marketing gimmick. As the years passed, however, what had been considered a cute gimmick became an albatross around Adler's neck, as hosts and audiences wanted to watch him squirm when asked how he had come to write the book.

"I did not write the book," Millard would say. "It was a gift from the Thåg."

Hearing this answer now caused audiences to titter, whereupon interviewers would rub salt in the wound with some smart remark like "Come off it, Adler! You've been handing us that line for years!" Millard would then blush, and stammer, and the audience would enjoy a real belly laugh.

Returning to his hotel in a network limo after a particularly grueling daytime talk-show appearance, Millard's self-esteem reached the breaking point when a shapely twenty-something female gopher assigned by the network to accompany Millard to and from the studio deftly manipulated Adler's ego and needled him into "admitting" that he had written the book and that the whole 'gift of the Thåg' thing was a hoax. Millard felt bad about breaking his oath, but as he closed the door of the limousine and stepped toward the hotel's front door, he rationalized it as a small, insignificant transgression mentioned privately to one person, which almost certainly would fall well under the haakkaa pååle radar.

He was wrong. The next day, the newspapers all carried the story of how Adler, having taken two steps away from the limousine, had narrowly missed being killed in a freak accident involving a massive delivery of kinetic energy to the limo's passenger compartment by an as-yet unidentified object that had fallen from the roof of the hotel.

From that day on, a shaken Millard Adler never even thought of violating his oath, but the more often Adler gave the answer he swore to give, the more often people wanted to ask the question and make fun of him when he answered. It didn't matter to Adler, though. In his mind, he could still reach out and touch the jagged hole in the limo's roof, and he could see the little drops of fresh blood that had sprayed from the passenger compartment.

Sales of The Lay of Rethyfa continued unabated, and royalties from those sales brought in a steady stream of income. Then he met Rhonda.

Despite his popularity and wealth, a combination of social awkwardness and suspicion had prevented Millard from entering into any relationships over the years, much less get married. Finally, after a lifetime of bachelorhood, Millard met and fell in love with the beautiful and sophisticated Rhonda, and the two of them seemed swept off their feet with joy. He was thoroughly smitten with her, while she didn't seem to mind Millard's awkwardness and appeared indifferent to his wealth. The background check he ordered showed no history of questionable behavior on Rhonda's part; in retrospect, the investigators should have dug deeper.

Millard and Rhonda were married in the spring, and by summer, Rhonda was advancing plans to have Millard declared mentally incompetent, mostly on the basis of his steadfast adherence to claiming he hadn't written his book, and that it had been a gift from some alien culture. "I mean, a guy who believes that little green men made him rich ain't all there, and shouldn't be allowed to run his own finances, right?" asked Rhonda of the high-priced lawyer she had hired with money she had squirreled away in preparation for this coup. Then she laughed. The lawyer just smiled.

So confident was Rhonda of her plan, that she told Millard all about it over dinner in their Manhattan penthouse suite.

"You're such a chump, Millard," she said, draining the last of the champagne from her glass. "I don't know why you stick to that preposterous story about the Throggs, or whoever they are…"

"The Thåg," interrupted Millard, without thinking.

"Whatever…," said Rhonda, as the doorbell rang. "The bottom line is, darling, that you're going to have to either admit you wrote the book – which I don't think you're capable of, frankly – or you're going to have to come up with a hell of a plan 'B' to hang on to any part of your money."

The hotel's butler appeared at the dining room door. "It's Mr. Cheathem, ma'am," he said. "He says he's here to pick you up for your meeting."

"That's my lawyer, darling," said Rhonda to Millard, rising from her chair. "You should know he's also my lover," she whispered, conspiratorially. "We're off to talk strategy, and about our future together. Will you see us out?" Her tipsy laugh tinkled like a handful of change that had dropped onto a tile floor.

Millard thought for a moment, then rose from his chair as well. "Sure," he said. "Let me walk you to the elevator."

Cheathem gave Millard an appraising look as the two men shook hands in the small foyer outside the apartment, the sort of look a lamb gets from a hyena just before the latter's dinnertime. The lawyer then stood aside to let Rhonda enter the elevator and followed her in.

Millard stuck out his hand as the doors started to shut and took a deep breath. "You know, guys," he said, "I suppose it's only fair to say to you that the Thåg have been a figment of my imagination all along, and that of course, nobody but I wrote The Lay of Rethyfa. So now it's you who need a plan 'B', but I don't think you'll have the time to draw one up." Adler then withdrew his hand and the elevator doors closed in front of the utterly surprised faces of his wife and her lawyer.

As he turned to go back to the dining room, he heard a dull mechanical sound – probably the elevator cables breaking, he thought – followed by human screams growing ever fainter as the elevator plunged down the shaft twenty-six stories to the street level.

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Rossolimo glanced in my direction as the door to the street closed behind me. Whatever small sign of recognition he may have shown was blurred by the twisting of his body as he scooted his custom-made, wheeled chair from one side of his chess studio to the other.

Two men sat at nearly opposite ends of the roughly square-shaped arrangement of tables in the room, concentrating intently on the chess positions on the boards in front of them. If one didn't know better, one could erroneously conclude that the dark-suited figure in the chair shuttling back and forth between the two men was a messenger of some kind.

I sat down at a chess board a couple of seats down from the man on my left, whereupon the cadence set by the wheels on Rossolimo's chair changed to accommodate a stop at my board to make a move before pushing off to play moves against his other two customers.

Nikolay Rossolimo had been a chess grandmaster for almost as long as I had been alive, and was known as a player of the old school. Here and there, the walls of his studio were decorated with oversize diagrams showing critical positions from games of his that had won prizes for what chess players call "brilliancy."

He embraced an ethic of beauty in chess play, and elegance, which made him somewhat of an anachronism among the leading lights of the game, who even then harvested wins with all of the soul of a combine moving through a wheat field, and it was that ethic of beauty that drew me to him and his studio during the time that I knew him.

Rossolimo was born in Ukraine in 1910. In 1929, he emigrated to France, where he lived until 1952, when he pulled up stakes again and came to the United States. Given the overall appreciation for chess and the prospects for a grandmaster to make a living at the game in the US, Rossolimo made ends meet by waiting on tables, driving a hack, and playing the accordion. Meanwhile, on the side, he ran a chess studio on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village.

There, he'd play you for a couple of bucks an hour, along with others who wanted to whet their chess skill on the unyielding stone provided by Rossolimo's game, and it always seemed to me he raised no more of a sweat playing against ten people than he did against one. I had been coming to the studio, on and off, for almost three years, whenever I had enough gas money to drive into Manhattan.

That day turned out to be fairly slow. After some time, only Rossolimo and I were left in his studio, reviewing the game I had just lost to him. It seemed the right time to ask a question I had wanted to ask for some time.

"Nikolay Spiridonovich," I began, using Rossolimo's patronymic, "I have given some serious thought to becoming a master. What do you think, do I have what it takes?"

The figure in the chair opposite me arched his eyebrows and smiled easily as he leaned back in his chair and raised his eyes from the board to look at me. "Tell me more," he said. I did, and for a few sentences, I had stars in my eyes, just as I had since becoming obsessed with the idea. But as I spoke, I began to feel tendrils of doubt probing the chinks in the armor of my belief.

"I know I'm not any kind of prodigy," I said, finally running out of steam. "But I love chess, and I do pretty well in my games," I said, quickly adding, "though not against players of your caliber, of course. Not now, not yet." That last sentence came out by itself, and it sounded presumptuous as I said it; I felt like a schoolboy.

Rossolimo's eyes looked steadily into mine, as if my soul was a chessboard and he was calculating variations and evaluating the overall position of the pieces on it. Then he spoke.

"I think a man can have whatever he wants," he said, "if he is willing to pay the price."

"I am," I said, believing it to be so.

"Ah, but do you know what that price is?" he said. Whereupon, he rattled off a number of factors, some of which I had considered, most of which I had not. Was I willing to drop out of school, if that's what it took? Was I willing to abandon my friends, if that's what it took? Was I willing to play tens of thousands of games – in tournaments and in offhand play - and study shelves of books on theory, and do so in my spare time because I'd need a full-time job to put bread and butter on the table? And finally, was I willing to risk never being rewarded in any substantial way for my devotion to the game?

"In the end, if you are willing to pay the price," said Rossolimo, "then what you suggest is almost certainly attainable. But let me add this. It is a happy thing that you love chess. And so, if somewhere along the road you take, you find that your love for chess is dying, and that playing the game involves more toil than satisfaction, more duty than enjoyment, then turn back!" He leaned forward in his chair and grasped my forearm. "The price will have become too high, and is not worth paying."

As things eventually turned out, I was not willing to pay the price. And realizing that somehow made my status as a non-master, and my disappointment, easier to bear.

* * *

I was interviewing for my job in the Soviet Union at about the time Rossolimo began play in the 1975 World Open, which had become (and still is) one of the premier tournaments in the country. Over 800 players entered, and when the dust cleared, 65-year-old Rossolimo walked away with 3rd prize and $1000. Commentators approvingly noted that his play during that tournament displayed the romantic verve and eloquent, clean combinational play that had characterized the games of his early career. Very soon after, Rossolimo was dead, of head injuries suffered after a fall down a flight of stairs in his apartment building on West 10th Street. The news came as a profound shock to me.

It has been nearly 35 years since Rossolimo died, and from time to time, I fondly recall that afternoon in his studio, and how - over a chessboard - I was taught a most valuable lesson in life.

P.S. I still love the game.

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James Laytos glanced at his watch as he made the turn off the highway onto the short road that led to the house. He was within a few minutes of his expected arrival time, which was not at all surprising, because James – he preferred not to be called Jim – was a careful planner.

He had married late, because he wanted to find the ideal partner, and together with his wife Dorothy, they had waited several years before bringing their son William – who preferred to be called Billy – into the world. Even their move from the big city out into the country had been the result of several years of deliberate planning, because James was a deliberate man.

James felt a profound sense of satisfaction as the veranda of the house came in view, and the muscles in his shoulders relaxed when he saw his wife and nine-year old son standing there, waiting for him.

His muscles tightened again when he saw the dog.

James ignored the dog as he stepped onto the veranda to embrace his family. He was happy to have returned from downstate, where he had been attending a week-long seminar on homestead planning. As everyone moved inside, James pointedly shut the door in the face of the dog, which had begun to follow the humans into the house.

"The dog stays outside," said James.

"His name is Sailor," said Billy. "Isn't he a neat dog? Why can't he come in?"

James looked at the dog, which sat on its haunches outside the door, patiently, with its tongue hanging out. "Where did the dog come from?" asked James, looking at Dorothy.

"There was a thunderstorm the other day," said Dorothy, "and at one point, the rain was falling so hard, Billy and I looked out the front window just to see it come down."

"And there was Sailor, sitting on the porch," continued Billy, "and he was all soaking wet and looked miserable."

"So, it's a stray dog?" asked James.

"Well, yes, I guess so," said Dorothy. "I didn't see any harm in letting it in out of the rain."

"Billy," said James, "Would you please go outside? Your mother and I need to discuss something."

"Can we keep Sailor, dad?" asked Billy. "Can we?"

"I asked you to go outside," said James, a little louder than he had to. "Now, go!"

Billy went out the door and jumped the two steps from the verandah to the ground. "C'mon, Sailor! Let's play ball!" The dog stood up and eagerly followed the boy.

James turned to Dorothy with eyebrows raised and his hands held at waist level, palms up. "You took in a stray dog? Hello? We do not take in stray dogs. We call animal control."

"It seemed like a friendly enough dog," said Dorothy. "And it occurred to me that, between Billy being the right age to assume responsibility for a pet and how really lonely it was around here with you gone for your seminar, I thought it might not be all that bad an idea to have a dog around the house."

"But you just can't take in a dog that shows up out of nowhere!" said James. "Stray dogs are dangerous. If you and Billy think we need a dog, we can do some research, find out what breeds are appropriate for our family, scope out some breeders…"

"And what?" said Dorothy, clearly annoyed. "Get around to buying one at about the time Billy's in college?"

Their argument was interrupted by the sound of a dog barking, earnestly and aggressively.

"See, what'd I tell you?" said James. "The dog's probably attacking Billy." He strode to the front door while Dorothy stepped to the living room window. "Look!"

Indeed, the scruffy hound was barking at the boy, staying between Billy and the ball they had been playing with, which had rolled into some weeds. But there was no attack in progress. In fact, Billy was laughing as he kept trying to get past the dog and retrieve the ball.

It was Dorothy that noticed the movement.

"Snake!" cried Dorothy. "There's a snake in the weeds near the ball!" James shifted his gaze, saw the snake, and grabbed the shotgun that stood next to the door. He racked a round into the weapon's chamber as he stepped out onto the veranda.

Even at a distance, he could see it was a rattler. A big one, and apparently, a specimen that had not read any of the books that explain how rattlers attack only when cornered, because this one was advancing at something of an angle toward the boy and the dog. Looking past the furiously barking Sailor, Billy suddenly saw the rattler and tried too fast to step back, tripping and falling on his back in his haste. The dog turned to confront the snake, made a war face, and growled.

As James brought his shotgun up, the snake slithered to a point directly between him and his son, and coiled itself. James lowered the weapon, as his son was in the line of fire. The dog crouched.

The next couple of seconds were a blur. The dog jumped squarely in front of Billy as the snake struck, blocking the momentum of the snake's forward motion with its body. Sailor then whirled and struck the reptile, pinning it to the ground with both front paws, and then snapped its jaws at the serpent's head, very nearly severing the head from the nearly yard-long body on the second try.

As mother and father ran from the house, the dog dropped the snake and trotted to the boy, who was still on his back, wide-eyed. Sailor sniffed the boy's face, sat down on his haunches, and looked around, as if scanning the area for other threats.

As Dorothy knelt to comfort her son, James picked up the snake's remains and took them around the side of the house and threw them in the trash barrel. By the time he returned to Billy and Dorothy, the boy was standing up. The dog looked up at James, breathing heavily, its tongue hanging out in the afternoon heat. Then it turned its head to look at Billy, and at that moment, James Dunham realized his wife was right. Here was a companion for his son and a protector for his family. As the family began to move slowly toward the house, Sailor got up too.

And fell over on his side.

"Sailor!" cried Billy. "What's the matter? Are you okay?" The boy dropped to his knees and started petting the dog's head. James handed the shotgun to Dorothy, went down on one knee, and examined the dog, which was now breathing even more heavily. He ran his hands through the dog's coat and felt bumps of inflamed tissue that, on closer examination, revealed two angry red puncture wounds a little more than an inch apart.

"Snake bite," said James. "Billy, I want you to go into the garage and bring me the blanket that's in the big blue plastic crate labeled 'Camping' that's under the workbench on the left-hand side. Hurry!" The boy ran off in the direction of the garage.

"Honey," said James, "please look up the name and address of a vet or an animal hospital in town, give them a call and tell them we're coming with a dog that's been bitten by a rattlesnake, and then call my cell and tell me the address, okay? There's no time to lose."

"Okay," said Dorothy, and walked rapidly toward the house. Billy returned from the garage, out of breath, carrying a small, black army blanket, which James took and placed on the back seat of the car.

As James put the dog on the blanket, Billy asked "Can I come, too?"

"I don't know if that's such a good idea, Billy" said James, imagining what might take place at the veterinarian's office.

"But I can hold Sailor still while you drive," said Billy, "and pet him, and keep him calm, and let him know that we care about him."

"Okay, Billy," said James. "You sit in the back and hold Sailor. Keep him from moving around."

James ignored the speed limit on his way into town, stopping only to listen to Dorothy's phoned instructions on the location of the vet's office. By the time they arrived at the vet's, Sailor's breathing was very shallow, and his rear legs were twitching. Billy was crying and petting Sailor's head. Sailor's eyes seemed not to blink very often and his tongue hung listlessly from his mouth.

"I love you, Sailor," said Billy. "Please don't die!"

In the examination room, the vet examined the dog and shook his head.

"Look, doctor," said James. "This dog... Sailor... just saved my boy's life. You have to pull him through. You just have to. Whatever it costs, I'll pay." He felt his eyes getting moist.

"There's nothing that can be done, really," said the vet. "A snake bite like that puts a lot of toxin into the bloodstream, and too many places suffer too much damage. I'm sorry. The best I can do for you at the moment is put the animal out of its misery." James looked at Sailor, then at Billy, and then closed his eyes and nodded his head. He could not speak.

As the vet was opening a cabinet on the far wall of the examination room, Sailor gave a great shudder, and stopped breathing.

"Don't die, Sailor," cried Billy, heaving great sobs. "I love you!"

"I'm sorry, son" said the vet, examining the dog. "Sailor's dead." After a moment, he added. "I guess he sure must've been one special dog."

"He saved me," sobbed Billy. "I'm never going to forget him!" The boy hugged Sailor's neck and sobbed some more. After several minutes, Billy unwrapped his arms from around Sailor's neck, and turned to his father. "Sailor saved me," said the boy, through his tears. "Why did he have to die?"

James had no answer but to kneel and embrace his son, and they cried together for a while.

And in his mind, James the planner was already blocking out time to take Billy and Dorothy to the town's animal shelter, not someday, but sometime soon, to fill the void left by Sailor.

alexpgp: (Corfu!)
I sweated blood over the "welcome to the USSR" speech I gave to each new group of tourists arriving from the United States that bicentennial year. I polished it, and practiced its delivery, because it had to be quick and thorough, yet interesting enough to hold my audience's attention for the length of a long commercial television interruption back home. While delivering a generally upbeat and wholesome message (summarized by "we're going to have a great time!"), the principal point of my spiel was to convince my newly arrived charges to avoid striking out on their own: don't exchange currency on the street, don't buy item such as icons, samovars or antiques, and above all, refrain from associating with political dissidents.

As in any such endeavor, there will always be that 10% of the crowd that fails to absorb the message.

In my experience, membership in that last decile is not necessarily due to a lack of education or intelligence. In fact, my most memorable interaction with a member of this never-quite-up-to-speed group involved a university professor of economics. On the evening before his group's departure for home, said professor knocked on my door as I was getting ready to join the group for dinner, and asked me to come with him to his room.

"Is everything okay?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said. "I need some advice."

I followed the professor into his room. On the bed, half-buried in a mound of well-wrinkled newspaper, there was a samovar. It was old and grungy, and not in the best of condition, but it was an honest-to-goodness antique samovar, dated 1869, which doubtless had boiled countless gallons of water and brewed many, many kettles of tea over its lifetime.

"Where did you get the samovar?" I asked.

"I bought it at an antique shop," said the professor. "Isn't it a beauty? The reason I knocked on your door, though, is that now I'm hearing that I won't be able to take it out of the country. Is that true?"

"Well, you heard right," I said (mentally adding probably from me, back when you arrived). "Foreigners need to jump through a number of hoops and get proper appraisals and approvals before the authorities will let an antique like this out of the country."

"But it's not as if this is some kind of national treasure," protested the professor.

"I can only agree, but I don't make the rules," I said, and gave a little shrug.

"Isn't there anything that can be done?" he asked.

"I don't think so, but let me give the problem some thought," I said. "In the meantime, we're about to be late for dinner and we can't let that happen, can we? I'll see you downstairs, okay?"

I left the professor's room and took the elevator down to the second floor, then turned left, toward the main dining room. As I passed by the display window of the hotel's Beriozka shop – one of several state-run souvenir shops for foreigners situated strategically around Moscow – I saw a number of people from my group standing in line to exchange their foreign currency for all sorts of knick-knacks, including nesting dolls, lacquered boxes, and modern, electric stainless-steel versions of the samovar up in the professor's room. Business was good.

They have a strange saying in Russia: "If it's forbidden, but you want to very much, then it's permitted." I'm not saying I understood it very well, but the saying echoed in my mind as I mulled over the professor's predicament and made a decision. A little while later, I buttonholed the professor as he left the dining room.

"Professor, are you a risk-taker?" I asked.

"Well, yes. Sometimes," he said. "Why?"

We had a brief discussion about his immediate problem, which ended with the professor nodding agreement, whereupon I told him what I wanted him to do, and arranged to meet him in his room in half an hour. I went up to my room and fetched my multipurpose Swiss Army knife.

When I arrived at the professor's room, I saw that he had fulfilled my instructions to the letter. With the greatest of care, I used the various implements on my knife to undo the knot in the string that was tied around the package from the Beriozka shop. Then I laid the undamaged string to one side and carefully unwrapped the several layers of rough paper imprinted with the Beriozka logo that had been used to wrap the contents of the package.

Moving with care and deliberation, I replaced the utilitarian stainless steel samovar the professor had bought in the hotel's Beriozka shop with the purchased antique article, then I carefully rewrapped the samovar with the Beriozka paper and retied the string around the package. Unless the departure customs examination was particularly thorough, there was no reason to think the Beriozka package would attract a second glance while clearing customs the following day at the airport.

"So, what happens if I get caught doing this?" asked the professor as I admired my knot-tying skills.

"Well, as I mentioned in the dining room downstairs, if you get caught, I'm to be left out of it. I will disavow any knowledge of this, is that clear?"

"Yes," he said, "you have my word on that, but if I am caught, what can they do to me?"

"They may make you fill out a bunch of forms," I said, "but in the end, about the worst they can do to you is confiscate the samovar and kick you out of the country. Maybe fine you. The way things stand without this scheme, they'll still confiscate the samovar and you're leaving tomorrow anyway." The professor nodded.

"Okay, I understand, but why did you have me buy all this other stuff?" asked the professor, pointing at two bags of other souvenirs that I asked him to buy, including a set of nesting matrioshka dolls, some wooden spoons, and a mandolin-like balalaika.

"You want to give the impression that you're a harmless souvenir-hound that went crazy inside the Beriozka shop," I said. "Whatever you do, do not treat the samovar package as if it is your nearest and dearest possession." The professor nodded once more, and handed me the steel samovar as I left his room. "This is for you," he said.

By the time I got back to my room, it occurred to me the samovar I had been given was overly heavy for its size. I removed the cover, and discovered the professor had managed to stow a compact bottle of cranberry liqueur inside the samovar while I had fussed with the decoy package. Fair enough, I thought, and grinned.

The next day, I accompanied the group to the airport and watched as the group slowly percolated through the customs stations. When his turn came, the professor put the samovar on the ground so that he could give the customs official his passport and declaration, and then scooted it along the floor with his feet while carrying his other two bags of souvenirs through the gate to the check-in counter. Bravo, professor!

After the entire group had been processed, I turned to go claim a table in the airport's coffee shop while I waited for the new group arriving on the same plane taking the old group home. I pulled out my carefully worded welcome speech and a pen. The text needed a little more polish, I thought - a little more oomph! - to better get my message across.

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Thirty-five years ago this July, crews from the United States and the Soviet Union rode their respective spacecraft into orbit from opposite ends of the planet. Following precisely plotted trajectories, and guided by their crews and by specialists on the ground, the Apollo and Soyuz vehicles met, maneuvered, and docked high over the Earth's surface, and for a while, the crewed capsules of the world's two principal space-faring nations flew as a single entity around our globe.

As had been the case with the race to the moon, the mission – during which American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts met in space and shook hands for the first time – was primarily of political significance during a time of "détente," when Cold War tensions between the US and USSR relaxed. There were a number of side effects, too, both intended and unintended.

Among the intended side effects were the technical achievements of the project, which included the design and implementation of a common docking assembly that would allow Soviet and American vehicles to link up in space and allow humans to pass from one vehicle to another. Among the unintended effects was the solid friendship, based on professionalism and profound mutual respect, between Thomas Stafford, the commander of the US crew, and Aleksey Leonov, his counterpart on the Soviet side.

Following a trend set by moon flights following Apollo 11 (with the exception of the Apollo 13 life-or-death cliff-hanger), the American public largely ignored the joint flight of Apollo with Soyuz. Personally, I don't recall being aware of the flight at the time. If news coverage of the mission penetrated my consciousness at all, it was quickly forgotten in the humdrum routine of daily life.

And so it was that, the following year, I found myself shepherding a group of tourists from Canada at the Intourist Hotel in Moscow. Dinner was being cleared from the table, and my waiter, a fellow named Vova, was clearly excited about something.

"You seem in a happy mood," I said. "Is fortune smiling on your beloved Dynamo soccer team?"

"Oh, no," he said with a laugh as he picked up my dinner plate. "Haven't you heard?"

"Heard what?" I said.

"The American astronauts who flew with our cosmonauts last year are staying in the hotel," said Vova, punctuating his remark by pointing at the package of Apollo-Soyuz cigarettes that sat near my ashtray. While I may not have been aware of the flight back in the States, the event was such a big deal in the Soviet Union that I could not help but be aware of it since becoming my employer's Moscow representative.

"You're kidding!" I said.

"It's the truth!' said Vova. "They are here to visit the cosmonaut center and are staying in the hotel. They take their meals over there." Vova used his chin to point at a door that led to a private dining room.

A few minutes later, on impulse, I crossed the room and began to loiter near the door of room Vova had indicated. A minute or two later, a man wearing Western clothes came out of the room. I buttonholed him.

"Excuse me," I said, "but is it true that the Apollo crew is staying at the hotel?" I tried hard to put an "Aw, shucks, hail-fellow-American-well-met" tone in my voice.

"Why, yes, as a matter of fact, the crew is staying here," said the man. "If you can wait a moment, I'll see what I can do." As he disappeared back into the room, I mused about how the man had cut to the chase and answered the question I had not gotten around to asking, of whether there was a chance I could meet the astronauts.

The door opened and the man motioned me inside. The room was dimly lit and almost empty. There were two other men in the room besides me and the man who had invited me in. They rose to greet me, and I was introduced to General Tom Stafford. The two other US astronauts, Vance Brand and Deke Slayton, had already gone up to their rooms.

I had never met an astronaut in the flesh before, yet here I was, face-to-face with a man who had flown in space not just once, but several times. I was tongue-tied, but managed to stammer something mundane. General Stafford told me he was pleased to meet me, and shook my hand, whereupon the man who had ushered me into the room took me by the arm, pressed a Public Affairs package into my fingers and I shortly found myself back in the main dining room of the hotel. A photograph in that package, of the joint US-Soviet crew and autographed by all of the crewmembers, today remains a prized possession.

The next time I saw General Stafford was in my boss's office in the mid-1990s, after I had been hired as the program manager for the NASA contractor that provided Russian language services at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. In the course of our chat – Stafford's visit was of a social nature, as he and my boss had known each other for quite some time – I mentioned having met him that evening in 1976 at the Intourist, and described the circumstances of that meeting.

After hearing me out, Stafford smiled, and then apologized, saying that he didn't remember the meeting. "We met a lot of people in those days," said Stafford.

A few months later, I was interpreting for what was known at the time as the "Stafford-Utkin Safety Commission" (which has a much longer and more official name these days, but still concerns itself with safety issues). Over lunch one day, I mentioned my first meeting with General Stafford to one of the Russian members of the commission, himself a former cosmonaut. His eyebrows rose and his lips pursed for a second, and then he surprised me by asking "So now do you understand how you came to be where you are and are doing what you do?"

"You think my involvement with the space program is the result of that meeting?" I asked, in a skeptical voice.

"Oh, you might disagree completely," he said, "but the ranks of American specialists are filled with people like you who, at one time or another, met an astronaut in their youth." I remained unconvinced, and said so.

"Think what you like," said my interlocutor, stirring his coffee, "but then tell me that interpreting for petroleum geologists gives you as much pleasure, or that you understand other technical subjects as well as you do the workings of the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station."

As I weighed what I had heard, I looked over at a table where Stafford had paused to chat with other Russian members of the commission, and decided that, if my presence really was the result of that long-ago meeting, it had been a very fortunate turn of events for me, indeed.

* * *

Display devoted to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Gagarin Museum, Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan

Display devoted to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project,
Gagarin Museum, Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan

* * *
My other topic entry for this week's LJ Idol is located here.

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"Honey, my water broke," said Galina's voice from somewhere in the darkness of our apartment, "we need to get to the hospital." I switched on a lamp as she came out of the bathroom and leaned against the door jamb.

It was 3:05 am, but Galina's words roused me instantly. I made sure Galina was okay, then got dressed with the deliberate haste one learns only in boot camp and scrambled out the door of our fourth-floor walkup with a tee shirt still in my hand. As I went down the steps, snippets of Lucy Goes to the Hospital (one of the more memorable episodes of I Love Lucy) played in the back of my mind. I recalled the comedic chaos that erupted when Lucy said "This is it!"

As I went out the apartment's front door, I knew I wouldn't do the Ricky-Ricardo-in-a-panic routine and forget my own name and address, but hints of chaos were making themselves apparent. I was acutely aware that it was the middle of the night, near the intersection of 84th Street and Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights, and that I had to get my wife to the New York Infirmary (on the lower East side of Manhattan, if memory serves) with the least amount of delay.

As a typical carless New Yorker, the only feasible mode of transportation under the circumstances was a taxicab, which is why I ended up standing in the middle of a desolate Northern Boulevard early on a Friday morning in May, bare-chested, waving my tee shirt for all I was worth, hoping to flag down a cab. There was not a lit pair of headlights in sight. In moments, however, a cab did come into view, headed in the right direction along Northern Boulevard. I flagged it down, explained the situation, pointed to the entrance of the apartment building, and as the driver turned down 84th Street, I trotted back to the apartment to see if I could help Galina in any way.

Fourth-floor walkups are, by the same token, fourth-floor walkdowns, and getting down four long flights of stairs wasn't the easiest task in the world for Galina. Eventually, though, we made it to the waiting cab, which proceeded to hightail it through an empty arterial route into Manhattan. We arrived at the Infirmary without incident. Galina was admitted and I was shown the waiting room.

Around 7:30 am or so, I was told that Galina was still in labor and that there was no telling when she would actually give birth. As I was on the verge of literally bouncing off the walls of the waiting room at that point, I decided to walk over to where I worked, over on 8th Avenue and up a couple of blocks, and put in an appearance at the office. I bought a box of cigars along the way.

About two hours later, I was drinking coffee when the phone rang. I was a father, said the voice at the other end. The baby was a boy. "Your wife is fine," said the voice, "but the baby is having trouble breathing." I said I'd be right over and hung up the phone.

You know that cliché involving a cold feeling around your heart? Over several blocks, all the hopes and dreams I had nurtured for our child collapsed like a castle made of toy blocks and I shouldered my way through that icy grip, my mind going back to the time Galina had called to tell me our first baby had miscarried. By the time I got to the hospital, I had calmed myself down, convincing myself that the doctors were being overly cautious in their language.

When I got to the maternity ward, the information that had been given to me over the phone was repeated as I strained to look through two panes of chicken-wire glass at a crib wa-a-ay over there - two rooms over - with what appeared to be a huddled blanket inside it. I was told that arrangements were being made to transfer the baby to St. Vincent's Hospital, where there was a neonatal intensive care unit. It took me a moment to realize that "having trouble breathing" was way more serious than I could imagine.

Galina was sedated and sleeping, so I set off for St. Vincent's. As I made my way, I worked to again punch through the cold, oppressive weight that had resumed its station around my soul. I did so by sublimating my fear into a desire to lash out at the source of my fear and destroy it. While waiting for the light to change at one corner, I felt a strong, almost overwhelming urge to pit myself against whatever it is that causes babies to be born sick or afflicts them in childhood with deadly diseases.

I looked around and my eye caught sight of a face, and thinking back, I could not tell you if it was on an advertising poster or over the entrance to a church. It was a face that, ordinarily, would be considered an inoffensive, if not benevolent face, but I focused my wrath on it anyway.

Hey! You want to get to my kid? Well, why don't you go through me first, huh? C'mon, man! You and me, mano-a-mano, right here, right now! I will not let you pass! I will smash your smug face, rip out your heart, and send you back to hell!

The light changed and I was swept across the street in a tide of swarming pedestrians.

I got to St. Vincent's in time to stand around outside the building for what seemed like forever until the ambulance carrying Andrew arrived. He was in an incubator-like contraption that looked like an aquarium on top of a gurney, and he was whisked into the building before I could get a good look at him. I was strangely happy that things went as fast as they did, as I figured the faster the paramedics got our baby into intensive care, the better.

Upstairs, I introduced myself to the staff and was walked through the procedure that would enable me to see my child. Scrubbing - for a long time - with a disposable brush soaked in iodine, or something similar. A small price. Then a mask, a gown, and booties. If the kid was going to catch something, it wasn't going to be from me or any other visitor.

My first sight of our boy was of a tiny infant almost hidden by all of the stuff he was hooked up to. An IV drip. An oxygen monitor. ECG leads. A positive-pressure, oxygen-enriched air feed. I forget what else. Tubes all over the place; more plastic than child. On my way out of the facility, I caught sight of a bulletin board with pictures of kids who had "graduated" from the neonatal unit, and it caused me to take a huge gulp of air. I was among those who daily faced the thing I had seen on the street corner and who had, from time to time, come away from the beast victorious. The thought comforted me.

The next day, if memory serves, Andrew's lungs collapsed. By the time I found out about that, a surgeon had been called and had already done what was necessary to snatch our son back from the threshold of death. The next time I saw our boy, he was hooked up to even more technology, which I found pretty amazing.

Galina and I visited Andrew often during his stay at St. Vincent's; I made it a point to come by during my lunch hour, as the hospital was very near where I worked. I learned that Andrew suffered from "Respiratory Distress Syndrome," and a further question clarified what, exactly, a "syndrome" is (basically, "we've seen this before"). Day by day, however, there were fewer connections between Andrew and the medical technology that monitored his well-being. Eventually, the day came when we took him home.

Andrew just turned 31.

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The first time I came ashore in an amtrac, it occurred to me that "hitting the beach" was not so much an informal way of describing a Marine amphibious landing as it was a literal description of events.

Our amtrac – the term is a portmanteau of "amphibious tractor" (designated more formally as a "Landing Vehicle, Tracked, Personnel, Mark 7" in the convoluted lingo of the military) – collided with the Atlantic coast of Virginia at its top waterborne speed of 8 miles per hour, emerging from the ocean like some fantastic armored brute, an organism of ugly metal angles clustered around parts that growled and clanked, belching a spoor of dark gray diesel exhaust.

The stomachs of the two dozen gyrenes in the troop compartment had barely recovered from the impact of landfall when the engines stopped whining and the vehicle rolled to a stop. We gripped our weapons tightly as we faced the door at the rear of the vehicle, waiting for it to drop. A few seconds later, our sergeant stuck his head down into our compartment and announced that an umpire had declared our craft to have suffered a direct hit, and all of us – the amtrac's crew of three, the sergeant, and all of us were now, for the purposes of the exercise, "crispy critters," to use the sergeant's words.

"Incoming fire has the right of way," say Murphy's Laws of Combat, and as I slowly exhaled a deep breath and let the tension drain from my body, the voice in my mind ad-libbed: Thank you for participating in this mock military invasion. Had this been an actual combat situation, your underwear would be scattered over a half mile of beach and you would now be standing in line at the Pearly Gates. I don't know what anyone else was thinking, but for several minutes, there was a pretty quiet bunch of leathernecks in that troop compartment.

Several weeks later, during a similar training exercise held over the weekend, our amtrac hit the beach, advanced some short distance, braked to a sudden stop, and the rear door came down with a crash. We squinted in the bright sunlight as we disembarked and ran around the sides of our 24-ton armored conveyance. The four-man fire team I was part of began to advance toward the dune line, and stopped in its tracks.

For reasons best known to the Corps Public Affairs Office, the beach was brimming with civilians pointing cameras in our direction, and one particular group of buxom young women wearing bikinis was successfully attracting the attention of the landing force by seductively wiggling various body parts and invitingly shouting "Yoo-hoo!"

"Move! Move! Move!" yelled our sergeant, looking back in our direction. "This ain't the time or the place! There's some poor bastards up ahead who are depending on you to be on their flank! Get your butts in gear!"

So we moved, paying more attention to how we looked as we passed by the girls than to where we were going, and a few moments later, a whistle blew. I looked over to see an umpire signaling to us.

"You Marines just walked into the kill zone of a machine gun located over there," said the umpire, pointing at the dunes to our front. "I'm sorry to inform you that all you fellows are KIA." We who had just been "killed in action" sat down heavily on the sand and as we did, I decided I didn't much like exercise umpires, who seemed intent on killing me off at every opportunity, for any convenient reason, good or bad.

* * *
Two months later, our company was deployed for a night exercise in the middle of the North Carolina woods. I was a radioman by then, and my assignment that night was to set up a listening post several hundred yards away from the company's position and to report on any "enemy" movement in my vicinity. I set my post up in the middle of a small thicket of shrubbery, digging a deep fighting hole for myself and my radio, and settled down for what I hoped would be a quiet night, where my greatest challenge would be to stay awake.

Things were quiet until about 11 pm, when I heard what I thought were the sounds of people moving through the woods. I made a short radio report and paused to listen some more. By the time I had heard enough to confirm the presence of an opposing force, a small group of the "enemy" had paused to confer right at my thicket, kneeling in the darkness to shine a small red flashlight at a map. They were so close to me, I could have reached out from the shrubbery and touched any member of the group, though in truth I didn't dare move, or even breath heavily.

"Okay," said a calm, authoritative voice, presumably that of the officer commanding the force. "This is how I want to set up our assault."

Touch them? I wondered. How about I just do this? Through the leaves I extended my hand, which was wrapped around my radio's microphone. Then I pressed the 'Transmit' button.

The officer's briefing was short and direct. First platoon, here, along this stream bed. Second platoon, there, on the right flank. On my whistle. One-two-three, just like in the book. "Any questions?" asked the officer. Nobody said anything.

The red flashlight was snapped off and I heard the sound of the map being folded. "Right, let's do this." My hand withdrew, back behind the screen of branches and leaves, where I quietly released the 'Transmit' button.

As the "enemy" moved past me to advance on my company's position, I risked a radio call to confirm that the company was aware of the advancing enemy force. The operator at the company's command post could barely contain his laughter.

"We heard every word," said the operator, "and we're ready for 'em. And the skipper is impressed… says there's a 48-hour pass in your future, after a refresher session on standard radio procedure."

A few minutes later, I heard the sound of firing from the direction of the company's position. Despite the hour and the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, there were no umpires around, I hunkered down in my fighting hole. "Don't look conspicuous, it draws fire," say Murphy's Laws of Combat, and at this point, I didn't want anything to jeopardize an otherwise perfect exercise.

alexpgp: (Chess)
Among the benefits of the chess class taught by a member of the camp's staff in the dining hall during the "quiet hour" scheduled after lunch was finding myself within a few feet of – and among the first in line for – the Good Humor truck that arrived daily to dispense sweet, frozen treats when the hour of imposed respite was over.

At the time, it was the only benefit I could identify, because in all other respects, chess was pretty frustrating. I had begun the class with a fundamental knowledge of the way the pieces moved, but soon found myself rudderless, a multiple victim of simple mating attacks and over-the-board campaigns of destructive maneuvering.

I kept at it, though, for the sake of being at or near the head of the line to buy a "Strawberry Shortcake" or a "Chocolate Éclair" ice cream bar. I finished second from the bottom in the camp's end-of-summer tournament, and then only because the kid who placed last quit the tournament after his first game.

The following school year was a challenge, academically. In addition to my usual nemesis – French – I now also had to deal with algebra, which offered its own kind of aggravation. Taken one small piece at a time, algebra made perfect sense to me. But when the time came to actually make the animal do something, well, I had no idea how to proceed. If French had been a source of Cs and the occasional B on my report cards in seventh and eighth grades, with algebra, I now faced the prospect of actually failing a school subject for the first time.

One afternoon a week or so before Halloween, I dropped by our local paperback book store with 60 cents burning a hole in my pocket. I needed to distract myself with a book, because school was becoming unbearable. While browsing, I was surprised to find a book on chess. It had an outlandish and unlikely title, something along the lines of How to Play Devastatingly and Brilliant Winning Chess. It was filled with diagrams of chess positions and arcane move descriptions like "P-KN3" and "BxQ" which made no sense to me at the time, but it seemed just the thing to take my mind off topics in French civilisation and the distributive law in algebra.

The notation was actually pretty easy to learn, and I zipped through the book in a couple of weeks. I recall being struck by the fact that the winning moves in the diagrammed positions were possible only because things occurred in a certain sequence. The Rook takes the Knight there so that now, even though the Rook is captured in reply, the pawn that was protected by the Knight is no longer protected, so now the Queen takes the pawn and it's checkmate!

As I vainly tried to memorize what French verbs used être as the auxiliary verb in the passé composé, I started to play chess after school with my two best friends, and I actually started to win the occasional game, though mostly by accident, at first. And though I couldn't find the roots of a quadratic equation to save my life, as Easter approached, I could increasingly find ways to checkmate my friends over the board.

A little after Easter vacation that year, something "clicked" for me in math. It suddenly became clear to me that if I commuted the terms here, then applied the distributive law like so, followed by a few more steps, in a certain order, that I would eventually get the answer. The algebra Mrs. Haines had tried to teach us since the previous September crystallized over a matter of days, it seemed. By the time I took the state-wide "Regents" examination, it all made sense to me. I walked out of the exam room feeling pretty good.

On the last day of school, as our class was being dismissed for the summer, my homeroom teacher took me aside and told me the principal wanted to give me my report card personally. When I got to his office, I found Mrs. Haines there, too.

"Good afternoon, young man," said Mr. Follansbee, the principal. "How are you, today?"

"Fine, I guess," I said. What was going on? I wondered.

"Take a seat," he said, gesturing toward a seat at a desk at the window. I sat down.

"Mrs. Haines and I were just discussing your score on the algebra Regents examination," said Follansbee. "You know, you did pretty well." I smiled. "In fact," he continued, "both she and I think your improvement over these past few weeks is nothing short of a miracle." My smile got bigger. "So we were wondering if… you would do a couple of problems here for us right now so we could see how you do it for ourselves. Do you mind?"

I had no objection. In fact, ever since algebra had stopped being a mystery to me, I sort of enjoyed doing it (almost as much as I enjoyed playing chess), so I gladly accepted a pencil and zipped through the three problems that were typed on the sheet that Follansbee gave me. When I was finished, Mrs. Haines picked up the paper, and as she looked at it, her eyebrows rose and a "doesn't that beat all" expression appeared on her face. She then smiled, looked at Follansbee, and gave a little shrug.

The principal picked a report-card-sized envelope from his desk and handed it to me, and then shook my hand. "Thank you for stopping by my office," he said. "It was a pleasure meeting you. I wish you the best of success in high school, and beyond." I thanked him, said goodbye to Mrs. Haines, and took my leave. On the way home, I opened the envelope to look at my Regents algebra score. Ninety-eight! Wow!

The result was enough to earn a final grade of B in math, and I had managed to squeak by with a B- in French. Needless to say, my parents were happy.

A few days later, I was back at camp, where soon after, I could be found at the chess board during the rest hour, learning more about the game, waiting for the Good Humor truck, and sizing up my opponents. I was starting as a solid underdog, chess-wise, but the summer was young, and felt pretty good about my prospects.

The fact was, though, I was already on a winning streak.

alexpgp: (Default)
"Listen up!" said Marine Senior Drill Instruction Jansen, striding into our squad bay, "when I call your name from this roster, I want you to answer up with your religious preference. Is that clear?"

"Sir! Yes, sir!" our platoon shouted in unison. Although we had been in boot camp for only three days, we recruits had already learned that the first and last words out of our mouth when speaking would be "sir!"

"What was that, ladies?" Our response had failed to impress him.

"Sir! Yes, sir!" we yelled, neck tendons straining and eyes popping.

Jansen turned and planted himself behind the battered wooden table at the center of the squad bay. As if on cue, the two assistant Drill Instructors, Edwards and Bass, strutted into the room in freshly starched uniforms and began to pace up and down between the twin rows of recruits standing at attention in front of their "racks." They proceeded to critically examine every aspect of our appearance, from our posture, to the alignment of our belt buckles, to the presence of stray threads jutting from our clothes.

"Abercrombie!" barked Jansen.

"Sir! Catholic, sir!"


"Sir! Protestant, sir!"

And so it went, without a hitch, until the H's.


"Sir! Baptist, sir!"

"That means you're a Protestant, Hawthorne," said Jansen, after a beat. He spoke in a tone one uses to explain difficult concepts to small children.

"Sir! No, sir! I'm a Baptist, sir!"

Religion was momentarily forgotten as the assistant Dis pivoted toward their new prey like a pair of coyotes about to take down a newborn lamb. Hawthorne had crossed the line.

"I?" bellowed Edwards, in Hawthorne's left ear.

"I?" echoed Bass, in Hawthorne's right ear.

"Do you know what an 'I' is, maggot?" asked Edwards, loud enough to be heard at the other end of the building.

"Do you, huh, you steaming pile of puke? Do you?" spluttered Bass. His body jerked like a mad puppeteer's marionette.

"An 'I' is something you look out of," said Edwards, answering his own question. He suddenly turned to make sure the recruits behind him—myself included—were still at attention, with eyes locked to the front. Meanwhile, Bass dropped his voice and said, to Hawthorne, "Jumping jacks!… Ready!… Begin!" Hawthorne, having been rudely jerked back to the here-and-now of recruit training, obeyed the order, hopping while moving his arms and legs, in a fair imitation of someone trying to play hopscotch and dance the Highland fling at the same time.

It was just as well that Hawthorne had not uttered the other word forbidden to us—"you"—because that sin brought forth (in addition to the inevitable punishment exercise) a verbal tirade in which "you" turned into "ewe," with said female sheep transitioning abruptly to one particular degenerate thing one might do with a female sheep, to the subject of sex in general, and eventually, to a desire to engage in homosexual sex with a drill instructor. Despite the speciousness of this etymological "chain of reasoning," it was, under the circumstances, irrefutable.

Having thus established Hawthorne to be a "Protestant," Sergeant Jansen continued down the roster. I was prepared to answer "no preference" when my name was called because frankly, I was not particularly religious, and because, in some small way, I wanted to assert my individuality. My notion was scotched when Jansen got to the K's.


"Sir! No preference, sir!"

"What do you mean, Kirk?" asked Jansen.

"Sir! The private has no preference, sir! The private's an atheist, sir!"

The squad bay was silent for several beats, for although Marines are reputed to be the meanest cusses to walk the earth, they're also supposed to be a God-fearing crew. It says so, right in the Handbook.

"No preference, huh, Kirk?"

"Sir! Yes, sir!"

I heard a rhythmic tapping noise from Jansen's direction. It sounded like a pencil eraser bouncing off a clipboard, but I dared not look, lest I risk the wrath of the ever-vigilant assistant Dis. The tapping paused for a second, then resumed. Then stopped again.

"Kirk, since you've got no preference, you're a Protestant," said Jansen.


"We've got fifteen Catholics and eleven Protestants," explained Jansen, "so, you're a Protestant. Is that clear?"

"Sir!... Yes, sir!"

My plan had been scuttled. As I prepared to accept my Protestant fate, Jansen called the name of the recruit directly above me in the roster, who stood about a yard to my right.


"Sir! Greek Orthodox, sir!" said Lambros, in a voice I felt was a bit louder and more emphatic than it had to be.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Jansen's head jerk in our direction. "Christ!" he said, loud enough to be heard on the street, "There's one in every crowd!" Then his arm moved in an arc and I heard something - a pencil – skitter across the floor.

Within seconds, Edwards and Bass had assumed stations in front and on either side of Lambros, like guard dogs waiting for a signal to attack. I felt a smile start to claw its way up past my solar plexus, and stifled it. It was one thing to vicariously enjoy Lambros' moment of being different, quite another to show my enjoyment. I felt Bass looking at me. My eyes stayed locked to the front.

"Private Lambros," said Jansen, "the Marine Corps will do what it can to accommodate your religious beliefs, but in the event an Orthodox chaplain can't be found, which services would you prefer to attend, Catholic or Protestant?"

Mentally, I willed Lambros to stand firm, to cite the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or even the Mayflower Compact, if need be, but to hold fast, make the most of this modest moment in the sun, and to stand out from the rest of us sorry wretches, as we stood stiffly in our ill-fitting uniforms, with stubble where our hair used to be.

"Sir!" said Lambros, after a moment, "the private would like to think it over, sir!"

Jansen got up and walked over to and stopped in front of Lambros, while Edwards and Bass continued to hover behind him. "Recruit," said Jansen, in a quiet conversational tone, "you think about your answer and tell me what you decide. In the meantime, as our count is still lopsided, I'm going to put you down as a Protestant. Do you find that acceptable?"

"Sir! Yes, sir!" said Lambros, in the same quiet tone. Jansen gave a little nod and returned to his table and the roster. As things turned out, everyone in the platoon besides Lambros fit - or was made to - into the slots of "Catholic" and "Protestant."

I never did find out how the problem was resolved, or if it was at all. I saw Lambros at the Protestant service a few times, perhaps, but really didn't keep tabs, as I typically spent as much time as possible during the Sunday service in a prayerful posture, kneeling, with hands together, head bowed, and eyes closed.

Catching up on sleep, of course.

alexpgp: (Default)
After I stopped working in the Soviet Union, my mother told me she had stayed up nights worrying that, during one of my stays in the USSR, I would be kidnapped by the KGB and sent to a prison camp in Siberia. To tell the truth, the thought that something like that might happen had crossed my mind (I had, after all, read the first volume of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago soon after it had been published), but it was the era of détente, of improved relations between the world's superpowers, where our Apollo had recently orbited the Earth with their Soyuz. I was young, pure of heart, strong of arm, and anyway, why would the KGB bother with an insignificant nobody like me?

KGB. The letters meant Committee for State Security in Russian, and the organization – metaphorically described as the "sword and shield" of the Communist Party – could trace its lineage back to the Extraordinary Commission (the fearsome "Cheka") of the Revolutionary period, and farther back, to weak-sister secret police organizations of czarist times. The KGB was truly an omnipresent force in the Soviet Union, a fact I learned shortly after I started working there.

I first stepped onto Soviet soil in the capital of Ukraine, Kiev. At lunch on our group's second day, I was asked to join a distinguished-looking older gentleman at a separate table, set for two, not far from the rest of the group. He looked like a rich uncle who didn't spend much on clothes, preferring to squander his money on food – for our private table was immaculately set and bristled with appetizers and a crystal carafe of what I soon learned was Armenian cognac.

The man introduced himself as Fyodor Yakovlevich, the head of the regional office of the Soviet travel agency Intourist, and he had arranged this tête-à-tête over lunch so that we might get acquainted and discuss any issues that may have arisen over the course of my group's brief stay in the Ukrainian capital.

I was flattered by the attention, but between nibbles of smoked sturgeon and black caviar washed down with cognac, our lunch quickly turned into a rapid-fire interrogation about my family background, education, military experience, and most significantly, my political opinions. At one point – I forget the exact context – my host remarked that all American generals were most assuredly warmongers, and paused to consume a tidbit of smoked salmon.

"Well, Fyodor Yakovlevich," I said, choosing my words carefully, "I think you are exaggerating. It is the job of generals everywhere – both here and in my country – to be on guard against potential enemies." I was about to tell a joke and change the subject, but Fyodor Yakovlevich interrupted.

"But Soviet generals are on guard against the enemies of the USSR, as it is their proper role," he said. "And those enemies include warmongering American generals." As one can't argue with a skipping record, I let the matter drop.

A year later, on the first day of my tenure as my employer's Moscow representative, the outgoing rep – a fellow named Paolo – visited me in my room at the then-new Intourist Hotel on Gorky Street. As we positioned ourselves to sit down at the table near the window, Paolo put a finger to his lips and pointed at the fire sensor embedded in the ceiling. Announcing that he simply couldn't miss the broadcast of that day's soccer game, he begged my pardon, turned on the television, set the volume a bit higher than I was used to, and then got down to the business of explaining the lay of the land as he saw it.

In a low voice, he warned me (with a malevolent look at the fire sensor) that the KGB had bugged every hotel room in Moscow. This I found hard to believe, if only because there couldn't be that much audio equipment in the country, not to mention the not insignificant army of linguists that would be required to listen to countless hours of people breathing, snoring, farting, mumbling, and of endless petty squabbling between people who shared a room. However, I didn't argue the point, I just smiled and nodded my head for Paolo to continue.

"One final thing," said Paolo, at the end of his short briefing, "don't be a Boy Scout! Don't be above doing an occasional deal in the black market." Seeing my puzzled look, he explained: "If you never exchange dollars for rubles on the black market, if you never sell a pair of jeans, you will draw attention to yourself. The way the Russians think, anyone – especially an American – who completely avoids the black market does so only because they don't want to jeopardize their mission as a spy. So unless you want the goons breathing down your neck, dip your toes in the black market now and then, but keep a low profile and for the love of God, don't overdo it, or you will end up in jail!" While I took Paolo's advice with a grain of salt, it seemed to do the trick.

I learned a lot over the course of the next year. I learned that Intourist occupied a box in the KGB's organization chart, which suggested that the many attractive and personable Intourist guides I worked with were KGB operatives. I learned where the KGB had its office in the hotel's lobby (and saw how, on occasion, "troublemakers" would be frog-marched inside). I learned that a foreigner could rent a car and not have to worry – the way locals had to – about anyone swiping the windshield wipers or side-view mirrors from a parked vehicle. All in all, it was a very educational period for me.

My trip back to the States at the end of that year's assignment took me through Kiev with a tour group, and I was anticipating yet another lunch in the hotel dining room with Fyodor Yakovlevich, who I surmised held a KGB rank of Colonel, though I would never dare try to confirm my suspicion to his face. As I supervised my group's check-in at the hotel, I idly wondered if he would continue his efforts to "recruit" me.

On our group's second morning in Kiev, I was surprised to be asked to come visit him at his office for lunch and an "informal discussion." This seemed a step up, and in any event, who was I to say no to (perhaps) a Colonel?

Fyodor Yakovlevich's office was richly furnished in dark colors, ornate, and seemed only slightly smaller than a basketball court. Tall windows led to a balcony overlooking a pleasant garden. There were three telephones on his spacious desk. A steaming samovar stood on a sideboard, and glasses for tea stood next to it, set in sterling silver holders.

A stranger sat uncomfortably in a too-small chair next to a table near the windows, and it seemed to me his feet reached the ground only through an effort of will. As I approached the men, I observed that although the stranger and Fyodor Yakovlevich shared the same incompetent haberdasher, the way Fyodor Yakovlevich unctuously danced attendance on the man in the chair made it obvious they did not share the same rank.

"Please be seated," said Fyodor Yakovlevich, taking a seat and indicating the remaining chair at the table, across from the stranger. I sat down. A waitress materialized and efficiently served us lunch, then disappeared. The stranger cleared his throat and came directly to the point, without introducing himself.

"Do you work for the CIA?" he asked.

There are moments when I manage to embark on quite a train of thought in almost no time at all, and this was one of those moments. What a stupid question! I thought. Only a numbskull would answer 'Yes' if they did, but on the other hand, 'No' means you either really don't work for the CIA, or you do and are lying about it. As it turned out, I most certainly did not work for the CIA, so answering the question was easy.

"No," I said, and hoped I sounded convincing. Twice in the next 20 minutes, though, I suppressed the urge to laugh out loud at the idiocy of the question. Our meal proceeded smoothly, with not much conversation, and once the dessert course was cleared, I was dismissed and delivered back to my hotel.

* * *

A week later, I stopped by my employer's office in New York to file my expense reports and pick up my paycheck. "There are some government men in the conference room," said Penny, our receptionist, as she handed me my envelope. "They have some questions they want to ask."

"What about?" I asked.

"I don't know," said Penny.

The company's conference room was a cold, cramped little space that was festooned with travel posters artfully arranged to cover cracks in the gypsum wallboard. The two suits inside welcomed me, introduced themselves, and then asked me a set of inane questions that could only have been designed to waste both my time and theirs. After twenty minutes of this, I made a show of looking at my watch.

"Just one more question," said one of the suits. "Are you working for the KGB?"

Again one of those moments: Do these people all belong to the same country club?

"No," I said, and the meeting ended. I managed to keep my composure until I got out to my car. Then I broke out in a long, loud laugh. I kept chuckling all the way home.

alexpgp: (Default)
I was told it was the kind of pizzeria – a ristorante-pizzeria, actually – where one calls ahead several days for a reservation. From the racket coming from inside, which sounded a little like the Three Stooges playing house while channeling the Keystone Kops, I didn’t know what to think.

I was in Italy to promote my company's newest software products, and had been invited by the folks at our office in Milan, Italy, to join them for dinner to celebrate the birthday of one of their number. Our group was standing around outside the place, enjoying an early June evening on the via Pacini while our table was being prepared, when I caught the eye of a man in his 50s, wearing coke bottle glasses, standing at his post in the restaurant's open doorway.

Recognizing me as an American, he motioned me over and straight-facedly told me, in heavily accented English, "I warn you, Italians have no sense of humor." This announcement would have carried more weight, I suppose, had he not been wearing an electric blue shirt and a red straw hat several sizes too small that was tied to his head by a cord that ran under his chin.

I had to chuckle. "You will pardon me if I don't believe you," I said, smiling. The man at the door raised his eyebrows and gave a little smile, too, then cocked his ear as if listening to something that had been said inside, made an announcement in Italian to our group, and stepped aside to let us in.

It became evident, soon after we were seated, that the doorman had three partners in crime (four, if you count the cook), and though I had the showbiz genre right, I had guessed the wrong act. The shortest of them looked way too much like Zeppo Marx, and was apparently in charge of the establishment's acoustic ambiance, because from time to time, he'd lean through the window between the dining room and the kitchen, grab an armload of aluminum pie trays, and then turn around and fling them into the air! He would then gauge his success of his artistry by observing the reactions of seated patrons when the trays landed on the floor with a crash.

Our waiter sported heavy eyebrows and a bushy moustache, and he reminded me of Groucho Marx. Even with my almost nonexistent Italian, it didn't take long for me to notice that he addressed all the men as 'Pasquale'. Nobody seemed to mind.

The third waiter was much younger than his confederates and seemed to be the odd man in the group, as he had perfectly ordinary features and didn't look like he was having much fun, although from time to time his determined demeanor would evaporate like a drop of water on a red-hot griddle. Once, he took the towel from under his belt and made a show of dusting the seats of the chairs of a party about to be seated, then vigorously polished the bald head of one of the newly seated customers. That earned a round of applause from the dining room.

If the atmosphere was irreverent and merry, the food was plentiful and excellent. After drinks were served, I ordered a "four seasons" pizza. It came garnished with ham, mushrooms, olives, and artichokes and was delicious (though I must admit, I wasn't prepared for the olives to be unpitted, or to eat pizza with a knife and fork). Then "Groucho" came by again to take our order for the next course, which surprised me a little, as the pizza had been rather filling. However, I was determined to fit in with the group as much as possible, so I ordered fried calamari with shrimp. This, too, was pretty good, except I was a little surprised to be served breaded shrimp that had been fried with their legs and shell! There was plenty of pasta to go around, and a very drinkable wine that, I was told, is bottled expressly for this restaurant.

The cook, who looked like Harpo (except with shorter hair), would come out of the kitchen from time to time to help keep things, uh, going. He particularly seemed to enjoy bringing small cups of espresso to the ladies at various tables and then, when they expressed surprise about the espresso (which they hadn't ordered), he'd get so upset, he'd eventually "spill" the (empty) cup in their lap.

At odd times during the evening, all conversation in the establishment was drowned out as the staff paraded out from the kitchen, singing with abandon and loudly playing a strange assortment of instruments. During each sortie, the procession would eventually stop at the table of a birthday celebrant to offer best wishes and a cake.

One of the instruments that struck my eye was a kind of clapper (a tricca ballaca, I was told later) in which two pivoting hammers strike a center board, which is fixed firmly between them in a frame. This seemed an awful lot of trouble to go to for a series of 'clack' sounds, but whatever the instrument lacked in tonal range, it made up for with spectacle (especially in "Zeppo's" hands). I had never seen anything of the kind, before or since.

All through the evening, sellers of various wares were welcomed by the management and allowed to circulate among the customers. One such woman, elderly and missing some teeth, offered individually wrapped roses that men bought for the ladies. Another street peddler sold cigarettes and spent about three-quarters of an hour haggling with a prospective customer over the price of a carton of Marlboros (that were almost certainly counterfeit, explained a young woman who sat opposite me).

For dessert, I ordered an affogato al caffè, which I was told is Italian for "drowned in coffee." The dish consisted of a scoop of vanilla gelato ice cream with espresso and Amaretto liqueur poured over it. When I ordered a cappuccino to go with it, "Groucho" raised his eyebrows and directed a short speech in my direction. From the way his hands were moving, I suspected he was suggesting I leave the restaurant and go down the street for some reason. I turned to Stefano, a colleague who had been helping me out with my nonexistent Italian, for an explanation.

"He says that, for cappuccino, maybe you could go outside and down the street to the, eh, ospedale – hospital? – where the old people live and ask for some there now, but this ristaurante does not serve cappuccino so late in the day."

"Oh," I said, and then, to "Groucho," "Mi scusi. My error." I ordered an espresso, which was noted down approvingly.

Our group sat and socialized long after the last espresso was served, and I felt completely at home, despite my inability to express myself. We finally rose from the table at around midnight, and after numerous hugs and handshakes, dispersed along our separate ways.

If I ever go back to Milan, I'll be sure to call ahead for a reservation.

* * *

Week 20 voting ends Saturday, April 3, at 3 pm EDT. In addition to voting check boxes, the poll also provides links to everyone's entries. Your support is appreciated.

alexpgp: (Semeuse)
One summer, during one of my weekend visits to her apartment, my grandmother brought out a special keepsake for the two of us to look at. It was a thin, 3-ring black notebook with my grandfather’s stamp collection. Most of them were US stamps issued in the 1930s and 1940s, but there was also a smattering of stamps that my grandfather had picked up, here and there, when he had been in the military during and immediately after World War I.

There were some stamps with “REPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE” printed above the figure of a woman who looked a little like she was dancing; I correctly guessed they were from France. On the next page, there was a stamp with “DEUTCHES REICH” printed across the bottom, below a drawing of a helmeted woman wearing some kind of armor. My grandmother told me the stamp was from Germany.

The collection was small, but it had a large enough impact.

My interest was piqued, because the stamps represented a link – however tenuous – to my grandfather, who had died before my second birthday, and because the stamps opened up an exotic world of places far away from our apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens. I decided to also become a stamp collector, and learned enough about the hobby from library books to get started by the time school was back in session.

One day the following year, when I was in seventh grade, my mother told me she had made the acquaintance of some new neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Isheyeff, who lived in the apartment building next door. My mom was going over to visit with Mrs. Isheyeff to practice her French, and I had been invited to come along because Mr. Isheyeff also collected stamps and had expressed a friendly interest in seeing my collection.

On the appointed day, at the appointed hour, I turned out with my mother at the Isheyeff front door. I was in my Sunday-go-to-meeting best, and carried my beginner’s album under my arm. Mrs. Isheyeff opened the door and invited us to come in. It was like stepping through a time portal.

The Isheyeffs turned out to be an elderly Russian émigré couple, and their apartment had a definite style to it. The walls were painted sky blue, with white trim around the top edge. Large, dark oil paintings hung on the walls of the living room, in elaborate heavy frames. The sofas were soft and had lace on the armrests.

A tapestry depicting hunters sitting around a camp fire hung on the wall in the adjoining dining room, which was dominated by a long, broad table of dark wood that had a dozen chairs arranged around it. Aside from the table, which had two large silver candelabra on it, every horizontal surface in the place seemed crowded with photos and small knick-knacks. The apartment was cozy, and its atmosphere was cultured, and even somewhat... aristocratic.

After we were seated, Mrs. Isheyeff served refreshments, consisting of tea for the adults and a glass of ginger ale for me. There was also a plate of oatmeal cookies on the tray, and I was invited to help myself.

The adults spent a few minutes sipping hot tea and discussing the weather, and then my mom and Mrs. Isheyeff started to converse in French. The way my mom had explained it to me, this gave her an opportunity to maintain her conversational skills, but years later I decided she could not pass up an opportunity to shoot the breeze in French, with cultured Russians, while sitting in what looked and felt like a sitting room in St. Petersburg before the Russian Revolution. It was just the sort of historical re-enactment that would appeal to my mother, but I digress...

After a minute or so, Mr. Isheyeff quietly cleared his throat and announced that he and I would leave the ladies to their conversation and retire to his study and look at stamps. His study was a small room off the dining room, with a desk in the center of the room and bookshelves along most of the walls, except in one corner, behind the door, where there were a number of photographs mounted on the wall, under a white flag with a dark blue diagonal cross on it.

While Mr. Isheyeff looked at my album, I walked carefully around the room, looking at the bookshelves. Almost all the words on the spines were in Russian, but as my knowledge of the language was limited to just a few letters of the alphabet, my attention soon turned to the photos in the corner, and the flag.

“What flag is that?” I asked, turning to Mr. Isheyeff. He had finished looking at my album and had apparently been looking at me as I was examining his study.

“It is the Andreyevsky flag,” he said, and I knew, from the way his voice changed when he spoke the words, that he had said them in another language, probably Russian. “The flag of St. Andrew,” he continued, “the flag of the Imperial Russian Navy.”

“Who are all the men in the photographs?” I asked. One of the pictures showed an officer sticking his head through a large hole that had been shot through a much larger version of the same flag that hung on the wall. The man was smiling at the camera.

“Friends and shipmates,” he said. “I served as an officer on a ship in the Baltic Sea during the Great War.” I could faintly hear him take a slow, deep breath. “But we withdrew to my study to look at stamps, did we not?” he said, and then smiled and put a hand on my album. “You have the beginnings of a good collection, here. Would you like to see some of my stamps?”

I went over and sat in the chair opposite his as he opened an album of French stamps for me to look at. I recognized a series of stamps with the dancing woman design and pointed to them. “There are some stamps like that in my grandfather’s collection,” I said.

“Ah, yes,” said Mr. Isheyeff, “the very famous semeuse.” I didn’t recognize the word, and decided, since Mr. Isheyeff’s voice had changed again, that it was another foreign word. French, from the sound of it.

Seeing what was probably a blank look on my face, Mr. Isheyeff barked a little laugh and apologized. “Pardon me,” he said. “La semeuse is a woman who is... oh, what’s the word... she’s throwing seeds into the field. There is a word for that in English, do you know it?”

“Sowing?” I suggested.

“Exactly!” he said. “She is sowing seeds. Do you see the bag of seeds she holds before her? The seeds represent ideas. The entire image is a symbol, you see.” He opened a drawer, took out a magnifying glass, and held it out to me. “Take a look.” As I looked at one of the stamps through the magnifier, Mr. Isheyeff pointed out the sun rising in the background (which stood for a bright future) and the cap the woman was wearing, with its forward-pointing peak. “That is a freedom cap,” said Mr. Isheyeff, “and so, the whole design becomes a celebration of the ideals of the French Republic.”

Mr. Isheyeff turned the pages and pointed out special stamps. One of them was brown and had a picture of a bridge with a lot of arches. “Be observant if you ever see a stamp like that,” he said. “Some of them are worth quite a bit of money.”

There was a stamp showing two women, representing France and the United States, shaking hands to commemorate the 150th birthday of the US Constitution, and another with the Statue of Liberty, which had been printed to celebrate the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

The rest of the visit went by in a blur, and eventually, it was time to leave. My mother and I said our goodbyes, and our hosts invited us to come visit again. Over the next few years, until our family moved out of the neighborhood, I did visit Mr. Isheyeff a few times and always came away with more knowledge – about stamps and other subjects – than I had arrived with.

One thing I learned is that if you try to collect everything philatelic you'll soon realize you have neither the time or money to spare, which is why eventually, collectors specialize. Some decide to collect stamps from just one or a group of countries; others might collect envelopes, or stamps depicting some common theme, such as butterflies or spaceships. Mr. Isheyeff, it turns out, collected the stamps of France and of French colonies throughout the world. As for me, I was reluctant to make any such choice, and eventually, my interest in stamps waned and my album was relegated to a shelf in a closet.

Now, decades later, I find myself again stirred by the lure of stamps, as a pleasant microcosm of all that people around the world feel worthy of commemorating, though in fact, I’ve specialized my interest.

Wouldn’t you know it? I collect the stamps of France.

alexpgp: (Liftoff!)
There's been some buzz this week about the prospect of finding the body of Andrew Irvine, one of the two men who died in an attempt to scale Mount Everest in 1924. The interest apparently lies not as much with Irvine's body, as it does with a Kodak camera he was known to have taken with him on the expedition, and not so much with camera, really, as with the film it contains. After much speculative discussion, experts have declared there is reason to believe that, if the film is recovered and kept frozen, it may give up some usable images.

Mountain climbing is a tough racket, and Everest is reknowned as a harsh mistress. The mountain was, after all, the inspiration for one of history's most fundamentally honest answers to a reporter's question. When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, George Mallory – Irvine's partner in that fatal 1924 climb – replied, "Because it's there!"

One man who knows exactly how tough Everest can be is former astronaut Scott Parazynski. One year after a back injury cut short his attempt to climb Everest, he gained the summit in May 2009, carrying - among other things - rocks from the Moon. Those samples, along with a small rock sample from the top of Everest, are now destined to travel to the International Space Station aboard the next Space Shuttle mission.

I don't know Scott very well, but my work at NASA did throw us together a few times over the years, both directly and indirectly. I first met him back in the mid -1990s, at about the time he was declared ineligible to fly aboard the Russian Soyuz space capsule because he was two inches taller than the height specified as acceptable by Russian flight surgeons. Talk about disappointment!

Over the years, my clearest memory of Parazynski is of a training session at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which houses what has to be the world's largest swimming pool. The pool is about 40 feet deep and contains over 6 million gallons of water. Submerged under the surface are mockups of various chunks of station hardware with which astronauts work in space. The idea behind working submerged in water is that, properly balanced to near-perfect neutral buoyancy, the experience is said to closely mimic what it feels like to work in the weightlessness of space.

The Lab's pool area is also really photogenic - expansive, well-lit, colorful, and brimming with activity - and my assignment that day was to interpret for a Russian news crew that was filming a news story about the space program. Initially, there wasn't much for me to do as the crew unlimbered their camera equipment and focused on the action around Parazynski and another crew member as the pair prepared to suit up for their training run.

By the time we arrived, the astronauts were already there, wearing special "undergarments" with a number of narrow plastic tubes embedded in the fabric. Water circulating in these tubes keeps the body of a suit's occupant cool, which is important, because without such regulation, the suit would get unbearably hot pretty quick. After a few moments spent chatting with the divers who were going to assist in the training, the astronauts sat down on the floor, extended their legs, and awkwardly wriggled into the lower part of their suits.

Once that was done and the boots were properly attached, the half-suited astronauts were ready to don the top portion of their suits. Everyone involved in the process - including Yuri, a Russian cosmonaut I had worked with on several occasions and a crewmate of Scott's - took their time to make sure all the seams and joints were properly sealed.

Watching an astronaut don a space suit torso at the NBL is pretty amusing, because the astronaut looks like he's "dancing" into it with arms raised above his head, aided by many twists, turns, bumps, and grinds. It reminded me of someone doing the limbo, rotated vertically. Eventually, the upper portion of the suit was mated to the lower, the helmet was locked in place, final checks were made, and the hard part was over. Everyone except NBL staff members cleared away from the suited astronauts.

Yuri came over to stand by me as the staff strapped the astronauts to the platform, which was then hauled into the air, swung out over the water, and lowered slowly into the pool. Once the platform and its encapsulated human cargo was submerged, divers would unstrap the suited astronauts and tow them over to where they would start their training run.

As the news crew continued to document the lowering of the platform into the pool, Yuri looked up and around the hall, and I followed his gaze. Overhead, on the opposite side of the pool, was the control room, where the training director and his cohort monitor the goings-on using a bank of video monitors and voice loops. Behind us, above a row of international flags, was the visitor's gallery.

That day, the gallery windows were crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with kids, doubtless on field trips with classroom groups. A few of the students waved down at us and Yuri waved back. He caught me looking at him and smiled.

"I remember going on field trips like that when I was a boy," he said. "Although we never visited anything as cool as this!" He spread his arms a little to embrace the pool and its surroundings.

"Where did you go?" I asked.

"Once, our teacher took us to visit a glider field near our city," he said. "Seeing those gliders... up close... getting to sit in one...," he paused, giving his head a little shake, "that was when I decided I wanted to fly more than anything else in the world."

The crew completed filming at the NBL, interviewed Yuri later that afternoon, and finished their day with more camera work, shooting a segment at the JSC "rocket park," a collection of rockets and engines that is, for many, an iconic image of space exploration. As the crew put away its camera and sound equipment, I took out my own camera and took some photographs of my own., for no reason except, perhaps, to somehow say "I was here!"

If the film in Irvine's camera does show that he and Mallory attained Everest's summit 30 years before Edmund Hillary accomplished the deed, there are some that some say the images will rewrite the history books, though I tend to doubt it. One thing I do not doubt, though, is how utterly cool it is to have acquired the skills to be able to passionately pursue a goal "because it's there!"

Throw Back Week - Intersection Variation

My previous topic: Moments of Devastating Beauty
My topic this time: Current Events
URL of current event story:

My partner is [ profile] furzicle. Her entry is here.


If you liked my and [ profile] furzicle's entries, please visit the poll for this week's LJ Idol and make sure you cast your votes! Voting closes at 8 pm EST on Wednesday, February 3.
alexpgp: (Default)
Judging from the level of chatter from my fellow students as we waited for the prof to show up, few noticed the caped, black-clad figure that strode into the room and now stood at ease behind the desk in front of the blackboard. After a few moments, the newcomer smiled slightly, raised his fists to the sides of his head, then threw his hands upward and outward, in our direction. Twin balls of fire hissed menacingly into the air above our heads and vanished.

That got everyone's attention. The room fell silent.

"Good evening," said the man, spreading his arms in a gesture of hospitality. "Welcome to the Open University course on magic." He motioned for us to sit, and we did.

"If you've come to learn something about stage magic," he said, "you've come to the right place. If, on the other hand, you've come to learn about the supernatural - spells and whatnot - I have two things to say to you."

He paused to glance down at his gloved left hand and began to tug at the fingertips. "First - and it pains me to say this, but someone has to - LEARN TO READ! The course catalog description clearly states this class covers only show-business-style stage magic." The left hand was now ungloved and he began tugging at the fingertips of his gloved right hand.

"Second, if you did, mistakenly, sign up for this class with the expectation we'd be studying the supernatural," the other glove was coming off now, "I want you to get up, gather your things, and run - not walk - to the office for a refund before I turn you into a rabbit, or into some other kind of livestock suitable for a magic performance."

With his last words, a white bird fluttered from the gloves he had been mashing together in his hands.

A handful of students rose and quietly bolted from the room. Once things settled down, our teacher smiled and looked around at us, a twinkle in his eye. "Now, that's what I call an entrance!" he said. We who remained in the classroom broke out in applause.

Our teacher introduced himself. His name was Zack, and he had been doing magic ever since he could remember. In "real life," he was a student at the "regular" university - our course was part of a community project that lay far outside the usual academic curriculum - and he sang in a rock band that performed stage illusions along with its music.

In that first session, he started us off with something modest, a sleight called "the French drop," where the performer takes a coin and makes it vanish. "The move itself is no big deal," said Zack, repeatedly demonstrating how to perform the sleight from several angles. "The tough part is to make it look absolutely natural and absolutely logical."

"What do you mean, 'logical'?" asked a student.

"Excellent question!" said Zack. Whereupon he led us in a fascinating (and thorough) discussion of the hows and whys of always doing things for a reason when performing magic. In the weeks to come, he would incessantly ask "Why are you doing that?" as we went about mastering basic effects.

Contrary to what one might expect, the course demanded a fair amount of discipline. There were handouts that included articles on psychology. There was homework, mostly involving hours of practice to develop new physical skills and perform moves until they were utterly natural. There was even a field trip.

The trip was arranged to attend a performance by "The Amazing Kreskin" at a local community college. Zack said it would be an excellent introduction to a branch of magic called mentalism, in which the performer reads minds, makes predictions, and performs feats of memorization and hypnotism. "You'll love it," said Zack, as he passed around his handout on mental effects, "it'll be a gas!" And so it was, at least judging from the steady stream of "Oohhs" and "Aahhs" from Kreskin's audience.

When Kreskin called for volunteers to be hypnotized, I managed to be among about a dozen individuals selected to join him on stage. He moved among us, implanting suggestions as he went. He used no pendulum or other gimmick, nor did he propose that any of us was "getting sleepy." He merely spoke briefly to each volunteer in a normal tone of voice. His suggestion to me was that, when he snapped his fingers, I would forget my name.

"Ridiculous!" I thought to myself, "It'll never happen."

Having made his suggestions, Kreskin returned to the spotlight and said a few words to the audience. Then he motioned for me to join him at center stage and we chatted briefly about nothing at all. I stood there, smiling, looking out at the audience. Finally, he turned to me and asked, "What's your name?"

"Alex," I replied, without hesitation. Oh, man, I was primed!

Kreskin snapped his fingers. "What's your name?" he repeated.

My mouth opened, but nothing came out. I knew I had a name, but didn't know what it was!

The audience tittered. My mouth opened and closed, in a good impersonation of a beached fish. The more my mouth worked, the louder the audience laughed. The louder they laughed, the harder I tried to remember my name, without success.

All of this took maybe 5 to 7 seconds, but the bottom line was: Truly, I could not remember my name.

Then I focused my attention on an armrest of an empty seat in the front row and cleared my mind.

"Alex," I announced a moment later, looking back up.

Snap. "What is it?"

My mind went blank again, but only until I cleared it by not focusing on trying to remember. This time, however, I held off "recovering" for a few seconds (I must confess that now, I was working the crowd, a little). When I finally did "remember" my name again, Kreskin thanked me for helping me, called for a round of applause, and called the other volunteers to center stage, one by one. Overall, it was quite a performance, let me tell you.

In the car headed back to campus, Zack asked me, "How did you feel standing there on stage, nervous?"

"No, I felt great!" I said.

He punched me lightly in the arm. "I thought so!" he said. "You're a natural, so you're going to emcee our magic show!" Zack was serious about his craft and, as it turned out, the class "final exam" would be to organize and perform a magic show at the Student Union, which we did, with two performances on one fine spring Saturday. The show even made a little money.

In ensuing years, I embraced and then let go of performing magic, but over those years, I've found the lessons Zack taught to be of use - of greater utility, in fact, than the knowledge gleaned in a number of the academic courses I took.

That said, I might add that - from time to time - it's handy to know how to perform the French drop, too.

alexpgp: (Default)
Galina and I were married at the awkwardly named "Palace of Marriages No. 1," located on Griboedov Street in Moscow, back when there was still a Soviet Union. It was a Tuesday in late December. Galina's gown was white, my suit was gray, and the woman officiating under the bust of Lenin wore a bright red sash.

After we said the words and signed the forms, the woman looked at Galina and then at me, and concluded I was the apostate Soviet citizen marrying the foreigner. She leaned over and quietly admonished me, whispering "Do not forget your motherland!" I smiled and promised I wouldn't.

I thought it was a surprising move on her part, because for a Soviet to want to marry a foreigner in those days was very nearly tantamount to treason, and good citizens did not lightly treat with turncoats. Upon announcing our intention to get married, Galina lost her job, with no official reason given. Unofficially, we heard she was no longer considered "politically reliable," and that having her on staff was a liability to her employer. There was a darker side to such ostracism, as well.

On the day I left for home, some rough-mouthed men came by Galina's apartment late at night and pounded the door, demanding to be let in. "It's me, slut," shouted one of them, "I need you to give me back my suit." The door stayed shut. The pounding continued, and the verbal abuse intensified.

The door stayed shut.

Finally, as the men left for the night, one of them cried out, "You can't hide at home forever, bitch!" Whereupon a comrade of his added, "And life can be dangerous! You could slip and fall under a subway!" This elicited a laugh from his compatriots, and the bastards continued to laugh and curse as they retreated down the stairs.

When Galina related this incident to me during our first phone conversation after my return to the States after our whirlwind three-day honeymoon, my blood ran cold.

You see, I recalled having a drink with a guy named Mark, a fellow expat and "regular" at the second-floor, one-night-a-week Marine Bar at the US Embassy, about a month or so before I popped the question to Galina. That particular night, he looked like hell - desheveled hair, red-rimmed eyes - so I asked him what had happened.

"Lena's dead," he said. He'd broken up with Lena, his girlfriend, the week before. There had been a time they were considering getting married.

"Sorry to hear that," I said. "What happened?"

"Her friends say she jumped in front of a train in the Metro," he said. "But I can't find out anything official, because nobody'll talk to me."

I said nothing, but thought: Lena jump in front of a subway? Preposterous! Lena had been around the block a few times and was no stranger to disappointment. I couldn't imagine her doing the Dutch act over something like a failed relationship.

"Her roommate says she thinks Lena was pushed," added Mark, "to serve as 'an example'." He gulped down the rest of his drink and looked at me with haunted eyes. "What do you think, would someone do that?"

I took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "I don't think so," I said. "Maybe you didn't know Lena as well as you thought," I added, "or maybe she lost her footing on the platform. At any rate, I wouldn't put too much stock in the 'example' angle. You've got to figure professional assassins have bigger plans, more important targets. Lena's roommate's just not thinking straight."

That seemed to quiet Mark, but I recall he still got very drunk that night. We fell out of touch by the time Galina and I decided to get married, and by that time, I had put our conversation out of my mind.

Hearing Galina summarize what had happened the night I left for the States hardened my resolve to do what what was necessary to get her out of the USSR and join me in the United States, but pronto. I was motivated, as we used to say in the Marines.

Once Galina assembled and submitted the necessary paperwork to emigrate from the USSR at her end, I filled in the appropriate immigration forms at mine and went to the Federal Building in downtown Manhattan to file them in person.

"Has your wife received her emigration papers from the Soviet government?" asked the clerk behind the counter, reviewing my paperwork.

"She's just applied for them," I answered. The clerk slid the papers back across the counter at me. "You file these only after she gets an answer from the Soviet authorities. It's basically a rubber stamp at our end." I collected the papers and went home.

What I should have done is gone to another clerk, because the papers could have - and should have - been filed when I had tried to do so, whereupon Galina could've come to the US as soon as the wheels of Soviet bureaucracy had finished turning. Instead, when I returned to file my paperwork (after Galina had been granted permission to emigrate), I was told the process would take two months, possibly longer!

I returned home, and I was pretty bummed out. Two more months! Was there anything I could do to accelerate the process? The answer seemed to be: no.

And then, as I opened my phone bill, it hit me...

The Helsinki Accords were a then-recent human-rights news item that kept getting a lot of press. The accords - a nonbinding agreement signed by (among others) the United States and the Soviet Union - affirmed a commitment on the part of the signatories to relax international tensions and, in particular, to facilitate the reunification of family members residing in different countries.

The USSR had come in for a lot of media criticism because they had made the emigration process something of a gauntlet to be run, often including strip searches and indiscriminate confiscation of property, typically involving old Jewish men and women leaving the Soviet Union for Israel and the United States.

As my plan gelled, I sat down with my old Moscow address book and called the phone company to set up a time for a phone call to Moscow, station-to-station, at $8 for the first three minutes. (That was the way things were done in those days, mostly because it gave an opportunity for the Soviets to monitor phone calls being made from abroad, which was essential to my plan.) I jotted down my talking points in preparation for the call.

At the appointed hour, my phone rang and the connection was made. In a few moments, I was speaking with a consular officer at the US Embassy. I introduced myself and then let fly.

"Why is the United States Government delaying my reunification with my wife?" I asked. "That would seem to be a clear violation of the Helsinki Accords, wouldn't it?"

"Well, sir..." said the officer.

"And after the stink we raise about how the Soviets violate human rights!" I very nearly shouted. "I'm not so sure the people at the Federal Building in Manhattan didn't deliberately 'misinform' me of the procedure for getting me wife out of the USSR! Do you know her life's been threatened because she married me?"

"Sir, I understand..." came the response.

I didn't let the poor fellow finish, I'm afraid, until I had laid out - with great emotion and in repetitive detail - what I hoped might be the outline for a minor public relations disaster for my own government (should any, um, eavesdroppers decide to make it an issue), whereupon the officer said he'd look into the case personally, took my contact information, and we cut the connection. It had been an expensive phone call, but I felt it had been worth the effort. I settled down to wait.

The next day, I got a phone call from someone at the Federal Building in Manhattan. I was told Galina's paperwork would be ready in two days!

Did my scheme work? I don't know.

I like to think the officer I spoke with just did the right thing, interceding on my behalf without considering anything else. Still...

alexpgp: (Default)
Occasionally, something small triggers a synapse, which nudges a dim memory, which elbows a nagging recollection, and the next thing you know, you're on the Internet chasing an unscratched itch with a Louisville Slugger. With me, it started as a snippet from a poem I'd heard on the radio a generation ago. Eventually, Google yielded the name of the poem, The Ballad of Yukon Jake, and then I did a search on Jean Shepherd, whose voice recited those lines to me from a radio speaker when I was young. I learned he died in October 1999, just a little over a decade ago.

I imagine many of you may be asking, "Jean...who?" That's right. Go ahead. Make me feel old.

Who was Jean Shepherd? Well, “Shep” was a rare talent who observed the world, extracted the silliness, pretension, humor and absurdity, distilled it down to "white lightning" strength, and then administered it in liberal doses that left you rolling on the floor, laughing yourself blue.

My first encounter with Shep was purely accidental. About a week after my fifteenth birthday, I was under the covers in my bedroom, in the dark, surreptitiously listening to my new, 8-transistor AM pocket radio. This was strictly against my parents’ rules, but I figured, hey, it was Saturday night, and if God hadn’t intended for me to use the earphone, the radio wouldn’t have come with one.

I was blindly tuning around for something that sounded interesting when BOOM! I tuned in a signal that nearly blew out my eardrum.

It was some guy, holding forth in front of an audience. He called them “fellow sufferers” and referred to us radio listeners as “wretched reprobates,” and for a moment, I thought I’d picked up a come-to-God broadcast from someplace in the boonies – a neat trick from Queens, New York – but there was too much laughter in his voice. I took my thumb off the dial.

The speaker was spinning a tale involving him and some buddies named Schwartz and Flick, and the audience kept howling with merriment, and I could tell the storyteller was laughing, too. Pretty soon, so was I (and, under the circumstances, trying to do so quietly).

And so began my time as a Shepherd fan. I wasn't a dyed-in-the-wool kind of fanatic, but I always managed to listen once or twice a week. I recall that on weekdays, Shepherd broadcast his show from the WOR studio between 10 and 11 pm, and on Saturday nights, he'd do a show from 9 pm to midnight at a club called The Limelight in Greenwich Village.

Then again, come to think of it, maybe I was something of a fanatic. Looking at my high school yearbook, I note that, among the standard mix of Biblical and other high-falutin' quotes selected by the members of my graduating class to set off our respective mug shots, I was the one who proclaimed The king is dead! Long live Jean Shepherd!

After acquiring a tape recorder, I captured a number of Shep’s broadcasts, and I listened to some of them so many times that I ended up memorizing – by osmosis, apparently - poems such as The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Pines, by Robert W. Service.

Then there was the, um, minor scam I pulled in freshman year at college at the student newspaper office, pitching my attendance at a Shepherd press conference at Town Hall in Manhattan as newsworthy, but really with only one thought in mind: to obtain press credentials to see Shep in person, up close and personal. (It didn't quite turn out that way. I got into the press conference, just barely, together with about every journalism major within 200 miles of Central Park. All of us stuffed a small room to hear Shepherd hold forth on I’ve-long-forgotten-what and to lead us, at the end of the event, in his trademark cry of “Excelsior!”)

Shepherd did talk radio way before talk radio was cool, at a time when radio personalities relied on their own talent and imagination and not telephones to fill the air time. Shepherd was an artist, a raconteur, and in his own way, a rabble-rouser.

One story from before my discovery of Shep was his I, Libertine hoax, in which he asked his late-night listeners – whom he christened “the night people” (as distinguished from those who went about their mundane lives engaged in what Shep called “creeping meatballism”) - to go into bookstores the following day to ask for a book titled I, Libertine. The gimmick? No such book existed.

“The first couple of times,” said Shep, “the response is going to be ‘I, Libertine? Never heard of it.’ By mid-day, you'll hear ’Sorry, we just sold the last copy!’ By late afternoon, they’ll be saying ‘It’s back-ordered!’” Would I, Libertine make the best-seller list? Who could tell? Shep’s practical joke took on a life of its own.

Rumors cropped up suggesting the book had been banned in Boston. Listeners wrote in, saying they had dared to submit term papers on the book, and had received respectable grades in return (including the occasional "deep" comment about the book from a prof). Eventually, a publisher hired Theodore Sturgeon to write the book based on Shep’s outline, and I, Libertine actually went on to become a short-lived bestseller.

Besides his radio work, Shep wrote books and articles, and later produced a PBS series called Jean Shepherd's America. But I think what he will always be remembered for is his movie-length tale of A Christmas Story, light-heartedly relating the Yuletide tribulations of a boy named Ralphie in Depression-era Indiana. No doubt you’ve seen it, as it’s a classic offering on the tube during this time of the year.

As with perhaps too many things in my life, I moved on from Shep to other things without too many thoughts or backward glances. I was saddened to learn of his death. Sad, too, to know he missed one of the finer opportunities in recent memory to snicker at society's foibles when the year changed from 1999 to 2000. He would have had a lot of fun with that, I think.

Then again, we might not have survived the laughter.

alexpgp: (Chess)
In 1990, in the 10th round of a chess tournament held in the Netherlands, a Soviet grandmaster responded to his opponent's opening move by nervously poking a pawn two squares forward instead of the intended one square. His response did not, nor could it by itself lead to, a lost game, and in fact it led to a perfectly sound opening, but the unintended move changed the tenor of the game, and the Soviet player eventually lost. It's surprising how little things can have such an effect.

The German language has a marvelous word for this kind of seemingly unintended move: Fingerfehler. The word literally translates as "finger-mistake," which sounds like a gallant attempt to excuse a brain lapse, but I digress, even before I've really started...

I had been playing serious chess for about a dozen years when I found myself with a 3-0 score going into the fourth round of a weekend tournament on Long Island. All things considered, I had a reasonable shot at finishing well in the standings, perhaps even winning a small cash prize about equal to the tournament entry fee.

In that fourth game, after cracking my opponent's position open by sacrificing a Bishop for a pawn in front of his castled King, I settled down to check and double-check the sequence of moves - what chess players call a "combination" - that I would have to play to put my opponent out of his misery and rack up another point. Then I did it again, and then once more, though to be frank, by this time I was savoring the feeling of imminent victory.

As you may imagine, the order of moves in a combination matters, as does the order of steps you perform to, say, eat an apple. You can't chew the apple before you've taken a bite; you can't take a bite until you've brought the apple to your mouth, and so on. For the chess combination I had in mind, the order of moves was critical.

I spent so much time reviewing the combination that my opponent got up to get a glass of water and then wander around the tournament hall, looking at the positions on other boards.

Satisfied that victory was only three moves away, I deliberately, confidently, and authoritatively picked up... the wrong piece!

And instantly replaced it on its original square.

I was too stunned to wonder how something like that had happened. I felt my face flush. I looked around. My opponent was over on the other side of the hall, observing a game. Nobody was looking at me or even in my direction. As far as I could tell, nobody had seen what I had done.

You see, according to the "touch-move" rule of tournament play, which requires a touched piece to be moved, I was obliged to move the piece I had picked up, even though I had done so inadvertently. In my case, it just so happened that moving the touched piece not only blew away my intended combination, but combined with the earlier loss of my Bishop, it pretty much guaranteed I'd lose the game.

"Forget about it, it never happened," said a voice in my head. "Nobody saw your little slip, which you didn't mean anyway, so play the winning move! Smash him!"

"No! Don't!" shouted an almost identical voice from very nearly the same place in my head. "You know the rules. It doesn't matter what you meant. You've got to move the piece you touched!"

"Are you nuts?" said the first voice. "What you committed was a textbook 'Fingerfehler'. You know what the right piece to move is, and you know you intended to move it, so what's the problem? Play the winning move!"

My hand hovered over the correct piece as my opponent returned to the board and resumed his seat.

"What kind of victory is that going to be?" asked the second voice. "Pretty hollow, that's what kind. Are you going to feel good about..."

"Oh, come on!" interrupted the first voice. "This is no time to turn Boy Scout! It's not as if you're committing perjury against an innocent defendant in a murder trial or stealing money or something. It's a game, for crying out loud!"

My hand hesitated.

"Yeah, exactly!" came the response. "That's the point, it is just a game, so why cheat? If you can't do the right thing now, when it doesn't really matter, then how are you going to react if you're in a position where the stakes actually mean something?"

"What a load of baloney! Come on, win the game!" said the first voice, "and I'll guarantee any regret you may feel will be minimal and forgotten almost immediately."

My fingers flexed.

"Move the touched piece, even if it means you lose the game," said the second voice, "and I'll guarantee you won't feel any regret about this decision ever."

While I was weighing the respective arguments, my opponent had used the position of my hand to divine the move I was undoubtedly on the verge of making and had connected the few remaining dots to his own checkmate.

"Oh, man!" he said. "A mate in three." He sighed heavily. "You win," he said, "I resign." He extended his hand across the board for the customary post-game handshake, and in that moment, I made my decision without any further thought.

"Well," I said, taking his hand, "to tell you the truth, I actually touched another piece first, by accident, while you were away from the board, and was struggling to figure out what I should do. As it turns out, moving the other piece would've lost the game for me, so actually,... I guess I'm the one who should resign. It's the right thing to do. You win."

Our hands remained clasped for some time as he gave me a long appraising look. Eventually, we broke the handshake and I started to gather my things. My opponent just sat there and just looked at me.

"You know, I don't know if I'd have had the guts to admit something like that if the same thing had happened to me," he said, after a few moments. "So, considering how both of us should have lost this game, how about we call it a draw?"

I readily agreed to split the point, though mentally I disagreed with what he said about needing guts to do what I did. In the end, what I did was the easiest thing in the world.

It's surprising how little things can have such an effect.

alexpgp: (Default)
We go in through the kitchen entrance, a route reserved for employees, the magicians, and Eddie’s good friends. Margie, my date, stops just inside the door and looks around. A large table sits in the middle of the room, surrounded by a half dozen chairs. Doors lead to the bar and the kitchen proper, while to the right, twin arches lead to the dining rooms.

There are several decks of cards on the table, along with a set of chrome-plated cups and some small red balls. Over in the corner, on the floor, there sits a red-and-black box with a head-sized hole in the side. Next to it, a rabbit crouches in a cage, quietly chewing on something. Amazingly for this time of the night, there is nobody else in the room.

As if on cue, Eddie comes in from the bar, carrying a drink and turning sideways slightly as his bulk barely clears the doorway.

“Hi, Eddie,” I say, “I’d like you to meet Margie.” Eddie's face lights up and we shake hands all around and Margie can’t help but notice the garish tattoos that adorn Eddie’s arms, giving him the vaguely sinister look of a grizzled old salt who sailed aboard tramp steamers carrying smuggled cargo.

“Why, hel-lo Mar-gie,” singsongs Eddie, like a new father to his baby girl. Turning to me a moment later, Eddie drops his voice to a stage whisper and asks, “Since when do you go out with girls who wear only one earring?” His eyes dart back to my date.

Margie’s eyes widen and her hands streak to her ears, but both earrings are where they are supposed to be. As relief floods her face, Eddie erupts in a belly laugh that’s so infectious that moments later, Margie and I are laughing, too, and suddenly, the three of us are old friends.

Eddie owns the Forks Hotel, located on Broadway in Cheektowaga, a suburb of Buffalo, New York. On weekend nights, magicians can be found at the bar and in the adjoining dining rooms, casting their spells and committing minor miracles at the tables. The walls are decorated throughout with framed autographed photographs that represent a “Who’s Who of Magic,” from legends like Dai Vernon and Del Ray to the talented amateurs that perform at the Forks.

Though Eddie is a saloonkeeper (and, indeed, the son of a saloonkeeper as well), somewhere in his misspent youth, he became an expert in the manipulation of cards and dice. During World War II, he was assigned to an Army special services company as an entertainer – a stage magician, as it turns out, who specialized in Houdini-style escapes from locked trunks - and in his off hours he showed GIs how to avoid being cheated in crooked gambling games. After the war, Eddie occasionally took time off from running the Forks to work as a “gambling detective,” where he would be invited to sit in on “friendly” games in some pretty exotic cities, which resulted in the exposure of a number of cheats.

Margie and I spend a great evening watching the performers in the dining rooms, and eventually we gravitate back to the table at the kitchen entrance, where we sit and shoot the breeze with some of my magician friends. At about 2 am, after Eddie finishes performing a coin routine for Margie using a handful of quarters, a silver dollar, and her pinky ring, the new kid (there was always a “new kid” at the Forks) sits down across the table and asks Eddie why he does the same tricks every time, never varying his routine.

“Well, kid, it’s like this,” says Eddie, in a surprisingly serious tone, “when you perform for an audience, you’ve got to know your stuff cold. Everything’s got to click – the timing, the moves, the patter… everything.” He pauses to sip at the tequila sunrise that sits next to his elbow. “Once you master a routine, you stick to it. Polish it. Make it better. Get rid of the weak spots.”

“What about new stuff?” asks the kid. “Performing the same routine over and over sounds boring.”

“Well, you replace your weak spots with new stuff that you've practiced until it’s good enough to show people,” says Eddie, taking another sip of his drink. “Anyway, if you get a little sick of your routine, remember that your audience hasn’t seen it yet, and your job is to entertain them, not yourself.”

A few minutes later, as Margie and I are getting up to leave, Eddie is showing the kid how to handle two playing cards and make them appear like one. The way Eddie does this is uncanny; the kid is sitting there, bug-eyed, watching Eddie's moves, his mouth hanging slightly open.

“Good night, Eddie,” I say, and he looks up from the cards.

“Goodnight, Alex. Take it easy out there. And Margie,” – his body assumes a confidential posture as he stands up and puts the back of his hand in front of his mouth, as if to whisper something to my date, but he speaks at a normal volume – “if this fellow tries any, you know, ‘funny’ stuff, you come tell me and I’ll straighten him out.” He momentarily waves a meaty fist in my direction as if to underscore the point, then all three of us start to laugh again.

"Good night, Eddie" says Margie, as I open the door for her.

“Good night, kids,” says Eddie. “Be happy!”


alexpgp: (Default)

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