Selling Soles in the USSR

In 1986, three months after the Chernobyl disaster, I sailed into Soviet waters on an oversized yacht with a group of successful though quite young stockbrokers.  At the entrance to St. Petersburg harbor, we were boarded by the harbormaster and a couple of people working for Intourist which, at that time, was the only tourist agency allowed to operate by the communist government. Their job, we soon learnt, was to interrogate any passenger whose passport raised suspicion and to determine who would be allowed to disembark.  They had almost three hours to complete their interrogations as that was how long it took to sail past the massive Soviet fleet of warships moored there.

At the mouth of the harbor we were also assigned two escorts: Cold War Era destroyers with troops standing on their decks at alert.  Some of the idiots on board our ship responded by breaking out the champagne, cranking up “Born in the USA” full blast, and skeet-shooting off the bow.  The scene below during the interrogations and our later indoctrination was much more somber.  One woman with a South African passport was informed she could not disembark with her American husband.  Two men were interrogated for over an hour because of time they had spent in Israel.  The rest of us got a severe lookover in case if we had something to confess.  After the list of permitted tourists was complete, we were told the rules:

  • We were not allowed to engage in conversations with people on the street
  • We were not allowed to buy from any street vendors. 
  • We could only purchase “trinkets” from approved Intourist shops which we would be taken to.
  • We were only allowed to take photographs with permission from our Intourist guides.
  • And most importantly, we were not allowed to sell our personal belongings to people on the streets. Apparently shoes were the number one thing the residents tried to buy off tourists. 

Breaking any of these rules meant you would be detained and not allowed to continue on your cruise.  I had a hard time understanding any of the rules, especially the third.  Why would the Soviet government care if I walked around barefoot because I was silly enough to sell my shoes?  Besides, my shoes weren’t fashionable; just sturdy.  Still, I was assured that a tourist had actually sold his boots on the streets of Moscow and gotten himself in hot water with the KGB. 

The St. Petersburg terminal was one of the grimmest places I’ve ever seen.  To either side of the entrance was a ten foot chainlink fence topped with barbed wire that blocked those greeting travelers from actually being on the docks.  Ours was the only ship containing passengers that day but people stood at the fence watching us with gray faces and deep pocketed eyes as we strutted into the customs office for further interrogations.  All of us Jim Dandy, well-fed Americans with new shoes and clothes that fit, still humming Born in the USA and giddy from champagne quickly realized that stories of Soviet oppression had not been exaggerated for political gain;  they were real.

  

Of our selection of shore excursions, we’d opted for a tour of the city which would end at the Hermitage followed by a traditional Russian banquet.  It was a cloudy, humid and hot day as we were shuttled in buses without air-conditioning past monuments and palaces. Very little context was provided by the Intourist guides who seemed more concerned with monitoring our activities.  Here you may take pictures.  At Intourist shop you may buy guides in English of city.

I remember smiling at the people packed like sardines in city buses next to us only to have them look down.  I remember how everything seemed tired and ready to die in St. Petersburg.  The buildings, the traffic and even the statues. Uncared for, soot-covered and badly in need of a paint job.  But the Hermitage I thought would brighten the day. For those of you who’ve never been, it is a huge museum which at one time was the Winter Palace for Catherine the Great.  On a hot July day you would expect huge crowds but we had no problem getting close to masterpieces by Rembrandt and Rubens.  Only not too close.  The paintings and sculptures were guarded by fierce women far past retirement age sitting on folding chairs in each room.  The thing I remember the most – far more than the masterpieces and museum pieces and the insane amount of gold – was the lack of water fountains, indoor toilets and elevators.  To pee, you had to run down three flights of marble stairs and persuade the person guarding the back door to let you use one of the portable potties sitting on hot asphalt behind the museum.

I imagine that situation has changed by now.

By the time we got to the restaurant where our banquet was to take place, we were hungry and thirsty.  Our Intourist guides had apparently been hired for their endurance skills.  The notion of comfort or customer satisfaction was alien to them.  We were just a bunch of lazy spoiled American who expected to have a good time.  Shame on us!

However, we had a problem.  Chernobyl had poisoned livestock and crops and the only thing safe to eat was caviar bottled before the disaster, vodka and champagne. I suppose to many people the idea of dining solely on those three things sounds heavenly but I couldn’t resist taking a chance and trying the borscht.  I felt sorry for the waiters and the cooks as their food was ignored but then I was told that the massive amount of food we’d left behind would definitely not be wasted. Russians had no choice but to eat the poisoned food whereas we could return to the ship.

There was a nighttime excursion we meant to go on but several glasses of Russian vodka (which is alarmingly smooth) and champagne rendered us completely without energy and we stayed onboard.

The next morning the ship was set to sail at eight but one of the passengers had not returned the night before.  Somehow he’d evaded his keepers long enough to meet the love of his life and that was it.  He was staying with her.  Intourist informed our captain that until he was apprehended, our ship would not be allowed to leave the Soviet Union.  The two young men he’d been with the night before were taken below and interrogated and within a half hour he was located and dragged back aboard ship. I don’t even think they needed to waterboard those two dudes to get them to rat on their friend. 

The Russian girl followed him and stood behind the chain link fence sobbing and screaming his name.   I often wonder how long it took for him to forget about her entirely. Probably as long as it will take for Americans to forget the treasonous actions of Trump.

No Time for Fascists

th-5What did you do on your summer vacation?

Remember this essay prompt?  Well, for seven years (from ages 9 to 16)  I could’ve written the same thing over and over again. As soon as school ended we were on the road in an overstuffed station wagon headed south from Reno Nevada. Six long hours later we’d arrive at our destination – a naval weapons station on the western edge of the Mojave Desert known as China Lake. The name is misleading. There’s no lake there, only dry lake beds. Before the military decided to build a base that area was known as the place where Chinese men mined borax.

Not many people head into the desert for the summer, let alone to a place where weaponry is tested, but our trip was one of necessity. Teaching college is a noble profession but it won’t support a family of five and so my father made up for shortfalls in income by teaching aeronautics to Navy pilots.

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The entrance to China Lake

At that time members of the military lived on a base surrounded by a ten-foot fence topped with razor wire. The gates were guarded day and night by heavily armed soldiers. If you didn’t have a security badge, you didn’t get in, or out. Even children.The families of the “enlisted men” lived in a cluster of boxlike houses with yards so full of prickly weeds you’d ruin your feet if you went out barefoot and, unless there was an availability in the much nicer officers’ grotto, that’s where my family stayed.

The average temperature on the Mojave Desert in the summer is 117 degrees (fahrenheit) and so we lived like moles during the day. Our only escape from the madness of board games, puzzles and each other was the NCO gym with its olympic-size indoor pool.  Next door to the gym was the movie theater where 25 cents got you a double feature – remember double features? If we didn’t have 25 cents, we went to the library. I read until I nearly went blind, generally historic romances set in lush, green countries like Fife and Fandago and The Scarlett Pimpernel. 

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Aerial view of the base

Once the sun began to set we were freed from swamp cooler air and let loose to run wild while our parents participated in that sacred military ritual of Happy Hour. If we were housed with the officers’ families we’d make a beeline for the Officer’s Club where there was an outdoor pool, snack bar, jukebox, and ping-pong tables. If we were with the enlisteds, we’d spend the night scouring alleyways looking for used condoms, half-smoked cigarettes and beer cans that were not quite empty.    

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The Officer’s Club

Just outside the razor-wire fence lived civilians, most of whom worked for the Navy. They ranged from skilled contractors to your regular Joe Schmoo desert rat working at a gas station up on Highway 395. Over the years we got to know a few of them but generally people inside the gates and those outside did not mingle socially. The military might be integrated but it’s still an authoritarian, fascist state where rank is everything which brings me to the point of this post.

Someone on Facebook recently made the comment that he’s voting for Trump because the US needs “a fascist kick in the ass.” I don’t know this person. He’s a friend of a friend but does anyone in their right mind want to turn this country into a Cold War era China Lake where you must carry a badge to get in and out of where you’ve been assigned to live? The military for most people is a brief time in their lives but in a fascist regime, no one gets out.  

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So, if you feel like you need a fascist kick in the ass, by all means, join the Army.  Don’t sentence us all to China Lake.

On a happy note, I just downloaded Geoff LePard’s Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle which is free on Amazon for the next few days. It’s described as a hilarious coming of age  so hopefully it will get me out of the Trump Funk.

Images in this post are all from Bing.com

 

Breaking my Vow

When I first started blogging a couple of years ago, I vowed to stay away from three subjects: religion, politics and cats.  So far I’ve stayed away from two of them.

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Guess which promise I broke first?

Yup, you got it.  Cats! Pretty Kitty claims I vowed not to write about all animals and that I broke my vow with one of my very first posts. 

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From my second blog post “Man Training 1.0”

Well, I am about to break another.  I shouldn’t but after those two Republican debates I can’t help myself.  American people what are you thinking?  Those debates were broadcast all over the world and probably into outer space where this very afternoon the Federation of Planets is having their own debate: whether or not to  send Captain Kirk back from the future.

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“In order to save Planet Earth you expect me to go back to 2015 and beam aboard a stage full of politicians? What if they infect the Enterprise and take us back to the Middle Ages?”

And the feedback from the “man/woman/idiot” on the street was even more mind-numbing. For example, Megyn Kelly interviewed a woman on The Kelly Show who basically said: “I like Carly Fiorina because she’s a bulldog!  She’ll take on Hilary Clinton and she’ll win!”

President Bulldog, er, Fiorina - are you ready for your breakfast of liberal over-easy?

President Bulldog, er, Fiorina – are you ready for your breakfast of liberal over-easy?

Really?  This isn’t a dog fight, lady, even though you might want it to be.

To the many people who say: “I support Donald Trump because he’s not afraid to speak his mind.”

I say, yes, and that’s the scary part.  Do you really want him to call someone like Andrea Merkel a fat, stupid cow for negotiating with Russia which you know he’ll do because he doesn’t hold anything back, remember?th-2

And for crying out loud, can we stop talking about fetuses already?  Why aren’t we talking about children living in poverty?

Images are from BIng.com