Sunday in Moscow 1972
Photo by Valeri Krupsky
“I had never been in a submarine and knew almost nothing about them. But many years after leaving the Navy I received a telephone call from Peter Huchthauen, a new friend from an adjoining town here in Maine. He had heard I was on my way to Moscow and he asked me to do him a favor.
“Peter”, he began “during the Cold War I became aware of an accident between a Soviet and an American submarine. I am writing a book about it now that the incident has been de-classified. I was wondering if you mind taking the first draft of the book over to a Russian friend of mine who will proof read it for accuracy.”
I readily agreed and Peter dropped off a small package a few days later. I was in a rush to get everything together for the trip and did not think much more about his book till I was going thru my stuff in Moscow a few days later. I called the phone number on the envelope and talked with a Mr. Ivan Borisavitch who gave me instructions to an apartment complex on the outskirts of the city.
I am normally unable to tell the difference between an upscale neighborhood and a sketchy one in Russia but something told me that the building I was entering was different from its neighbors. There was not that worn out look from years of neglect. In fact there was a French feel to the architecture coupled with the smell of exotic cooking.
I rang Ivan’s bell and a short stocky man with bright blue eyes greeted me with a happy “hello, welcome to Russia” in perfect English. His wife behind him pointed me to a table set for a delicious lunch.
“I am so happy and grateful that you have brought Peter’s book to us. It will provide an important milestone in US-Soviet history. Have you heard the news about the Kurtst?”
I had heard on the news on the way over that a Russian submarine based in Murmansk had recently sunk in the White Sea and an international effort was underway to save the crew at the bottom of the ocean. “Come and sit down and we can talk. But first we must eat some of Masha’s wonderful cooking.”
“Have you read Peter’s book?” Ivan asked as we made our way to the dining room. I confessed that I had not. “Well, it tells an amazing story. You know Peter worked for your government here in Moscow during the ‘difficult times’ and he had heard of rumors of an accident where one of your subs crashed with one of ours. But it was in the interest of both sides to keep this quiet for years. Then one of these days along comes perestroika and Gorbachev and things between our countries begin to improve.”
Masha placed a delicious soup on the table and motioned for us to eat as we talked.
“Well, Peter and his wife were at a resort in New Hampshire one winter and during supper Peter heard a conversation at a nearby table that would change his life. A man who had been an officer on an American submarine was describing to his dinner partner an accident with his ship and a Russian sub.”
“Peter could not believe his ears. He was overhearing the whole story first hand, the name of the ship, the date, the place, even the name of the Russian sub. He waited until this man had finished his supper, then he slowly approached him on the stairs to the rooms above. Well, you can imagine Peter’s excitement when the man agreed to extend his evening and tell him the whole story. And now I will tell you the story that the stranger told Peter.” Ivan took a spoonful of the soup and now told me the story the hotel guest had told Peter.
“I was the engineering officer on the nuclear powered submarine the USS Augusta in the summer of 1985. We were off the New England coast searching for Soviet subs when we located the K-219 in about 1000 feet of water. We could identify her exactly by the sound her propellers made in the water.”
“At the time we had several submerged subs stationed off the coast of Murmansk where the K-219 was based. We had Russians spying for the US on shore who would see the name of a sub as it left the harbor and we would record their prop noises. Each sub had a unique fingerprint and soon we knew not only which sub was which but we knew the names of each of their captains and their specific history.
“So on this day we began to close in on the K-219 but with a special technique that prevented us from being detected. This meant that we knew she was there but she had no idea that we were there.”
“So these were games that everyone played, maybe crazy games and it was just a matter of time before someone got hurt. We were both in international waters so K-219 had as much right to be there as we did. But try and tell that to our captain. He wanted to see how close he could get, then scare the pants off his rival and send him back to Murmansk with his tail between his legs.”
As engineering officer, I had to slow down our atomic reactors as part of our disguise which meant we had little forward motion. We were basically coasting, two nuclear atomic reactor systems moving dangerously close to each other like two sharks circling for the kill. Except one was blind. All at once there was a crash and I went lurching forward. We had rammed the side of the K-219. Our damage control people reported that we had water coming into the forward part of the ship but there were no people in that compartment and we were in no danger of sinking. The captain broke silence, started up our engines and ordered that we surface immediately to render aid to the Russian sub if needed.”
“To our knowledge there was no precedent for aiding the Russians at sea. We knew that we were not to break radio silence and that the higher ups would decide how to politically handle this. But we also knew that these Russians were human beings and but for the grace of God we could be the ones in trouble. So the captain decided that we would render immediate assistance the minute they surfaced, if in fact they ever surfaced.”
“I was one of the few on deck to lower a life raft. It was as flat as a country pond that day. We had a man on the conning tower with a rifle looking for sharks. Several of our crew were fluent in Russian and they were on deck with me. It was very quiet, not a person spoke once everything was in place.”
“As the ship’s engineer and also a graduate of atomic engineering school, a horrible scenario was slowly playing out in my mind. If the K-219, also a nuke, was so badly damaged that she should sink before her crew could shut down her nuclear power plant, when she hit the bottom her reactors would overheat and explode like a nuclear bomb under us. We would all die, our ship would add to the radioactive cloud and we would make atomic history.”
“But no one spoke of leaving. And very soon the Soviet sub surfaced not three hundred yards away. Our raft was lowered into the water but before it made its way half the distance, a Russian flag signalman appeared on the deck and asked us to please call our rescue boat back. They told us that they had radioed a Russian freighter who was about 2 hours away to come to their rescue. Our captain replied that we had a doctor on board who spoke Russian but apparently there was no need for his services.”
“As far as I was concerned that was our cue to depart the scene and head for New London to attend to our damages but the old man would hear nothing of leaving. We stayed there for 7 hours before the freighter came along side. We could see that the subs pumps were working overtime to empty water from the seriously damaged hull. Then when we thought the last of the crew was safely on board, the freighter departed and suddenly the sub began to sink. Our captain immediately ordered everyone below and ordered our ship to submerge, in spite of our injury. Because we had such a much faster submersed speed, he was willing to take the risk. We made it to our base at New London in nine hours, arrived intentionally after dark and were escorted to a special dock where we were examined for nuclear contamination and told to never speak of the accident.”
Ivan paused for a moment and his wife went to make coffee. Then he began to tell his part in the story.
“The man had come to the end of his tale for the night and would not speak of it again. Peter could not sleep as he was sure that the man had more to tell. Luckily Peter met me several years later when a group of retired Russian and American submariners got together in Florida. You see I too was a sub captain and I knew the rest of the story. And now thanks to changes in both our countries I was at liberty to inform him of the truth.”
“The Russian captain knew almost immediately that his ship was in dire straits. He had trouble cooling his reactors down. It was a choice of running the pumps to save his crew until the freighter arrived or cooling his reactors so as to avoid a meltdown. When the crew was safely aboard the freighter, he and the engineering officer and two other crew members volunteered to stay on board while the ship sank. This way they were able to control the speed at which the sub fell, slowly so that the reactors had time to cool. But at some point, no one knows for sure when, the K-219 broke apart under the huge pressure of the deep ocean and all four men perished.
The courage of these four men prevented a nuclear accident of epic proportions off your coast. They received the highest award that the Soviet Union can present posthumously. They were heroes but nobody will know this until Peter’s book is published and released here in Russia. The book will be quite controversial and timely considering that today we have once again submariners trapped at the bottom of the sea. I am very happy that the book is safely here”.
I love Russian cooking but I can honestly say that I did not taste a bit of Masha’s meal that day. My mind went to the crew of the Kursk who were now sitting at the bottom of the White Sea as Russian politicians were arguing over whether to accept America’s aid in the rescue. And there was also a rumor that an American sub was seen entering a Norwegian port with a damaged bow. How would Peter’s book taste to the higher ups on both side of the Atlantic?
Masha and Ivan and I finished our coffee and I rose to depart. As my host shook my hand he held it for one long moment.
“Peter, I need to ask you for one more favor. Peter’s father was a great hero to the Russian people during World War II. He was an American colonel and a tank commander. His division fought alongside Soviet soldiers against overwhelming odds. But even though many died, at the end of the day the Germans retreated.” Ivan then reached inside his pocket and handed me a small box.
“He was awarded the Soviet Union’s highest medal of honor but for a number of political reasons it was never given to him publically. Would you now take it to his son?”
I had now been to Russia over 20 times and knew how difficult it was to take historic mementos out of the country. Ivan understood my reluctance.
“Look,” he said, “Peter and I understand the risks. Someday we may have an open society here. I think we are on the road. But I would like Peter to have his father’s medal before he too is gone.” So I took the small box and said I would do my best.
Ten days later at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport a customs official found the box hidden in a compartment in my carry on luggage. He called me aside.
“It is illegal for anyone to take historic artifacts out of Russia”, he reminded me. I pleaded with him, asked him to read the inscription, to have a moment of compassion for a war hero.
“ What do I care? How do I benefit from this man’s heroism? Do you think for a moment that my life is better? Can I go over to that duty free shop and buy a quart of single malt whiskey? No, but you can.”
What was he suggesting, here in the middle of a crowded waiting room with other customs officials busily at work? I could not believe my ears.
“Don’t worry, I will watch your bags. And you have plenty of time. I will make sure the plane will wait,” he smiled pleasantly.
One hour later a Lufthansa jet lifted off from Russian soil carrying with it a medal for a hero while one petty customs official was heading home to enjoy a bottle of Bushmill’s Single Malt. In the end, everybody got what he wanted. But it was my first straight up bribe and I felt a bit dirty.
The LLoyd Thomas refueling at sea
The night is bitter cold. We are fighting a nor’easter and the seas are building to 20 feet. Both port and starboard watches on the Lloyd Thomas are strapped to the hull with safety lines and the ship is rolling and pitching.
“Change heading to 045 degrees and reduce speed to 15 knots” says Lt. Jay, the officer of the deck for the midnight to 4 o’clock watch. I am the junior officer.
“Aye aye, sir. Change heading to 045 degrees and reduce speed to 15 knots,” the helmsman replies and the quartermaster notes the change in the ship’s log.
“Mr. Hagerty,” says Lt. Jay, “Send down some of your crew to assess ice on the main deck. We don’t want to freeze up and roll over. Make sure they are all wearing safety harnesses.”
I head below to wake some of my men and when I return to the bridge, Jay says, “I am sure glad the old man is out cold. I hope he stays that way.”
We are somewhere off the Grand Banks and we are getting a dose of typical November weather. We passed the New Bedford fishing fleet around 2300 hours and their crews were all out on deck, sliding around with no safety harnesses. We could not fathom how those guys could keep from falling overboard. Their ships were maybe 150 feet in length and ours was over 400.
All at once the sonar man comes on the line.
“Sir, we have contact with a submarine, bearing 094 degrees with a subsurface speed of 22 knots.”
“Quartermaster,” replied Lt. Jay, “ give me the coordinates of our present position.”
“Sir, estimated coordinates are 42.5 degrees north, 61.5 degrees West”
“Does that put us in International Waters?” asks Lt Jay.
“Yes sir, we are approximately 300 miles off the US coast and 240 miles off the Canadian coastline”.
“Thank God,” Jay whispers under his breath. “The old man is no fan of subs, no matter where they are from.”
“Sonar to bridge, we have confirmed contact with a submarine, probable nationality Soviet, Probable Class Akula, 10,000 tons with a top speed of 52 knots submerged.”
The Lloyd Thomas had begun anti-submarine drills with the Brunswick, Maine Naval Air Station four days before. No Russian submarine had been detected in the Gulf of Maine in the last 60 days. We were now ready to go home and the last thing anyone wanted was a full blown drill, especially in the face of this northeast storm.
“Sonar, get me the heading and speed of this bogy and ask the Communications Officer to come to the bridge”.
“Before you could say World War Three, Lt. Tom was standing next to us.
“Tom, do we know who this is?” asks Lt. Jay.
“Yes, Jay,” says Tom “ we’re pretty sure it’s the Rostov. Captain’s name is Melnikov, 42 years of age. Left Murmansk 22 day ago. And by the way, the Rostov is nuclear!”
“You mean you don’t know Melnikov’s wife’s name or his shirt size?” Jay replied.
“We are working on it. Give us 10 minutes.” Tom laughed and disappeared below deck to the communications center.
“Shit, standing orders are to wake the old man if we find a Ruskie out here. Pete, will you go down and wake the Captain?”
“Mr. Hagerty leaves the bridge to wake the Captain,” the quartermaster repeats out loud, then writes it verbatim in the log.
“Quartermaster, from now on, I want you to record every command given tonight here on the bridge.”
“Aye, sir. That is what I am doing.”
“I know that. This is not a reflection of your work. I have just got to make sure you can handle this. It could get very busy here in a few minutes.”
“Thank you sir, I will get some support”.
Just then the old man appeared, barely awake and in pajamas, wrapped in a Naval Academy blanket.
“What’s up Lt.?” he asks.
“Sir, we have a Russian boomer, heading east north east at an approximate speed of 22 knots. We made contact nine minutes ago and just confirmed its name and relevant specs.”
“ Lt., change course to 094 degrees. Increase speed to 22 knots. Let’s see what this son of a bitch is up to.”
This new course set us directly into the path of the oncoming waves. The effect was immediate. As the ship plowed thru the now oncoming sea, we would crest through one wave and crash down into the valley of the next. Spray towered over the hull and began immediately freezing to everything. I suddenly remembered my men working to chip ice off the deck. I made my way down three floors to the main deck and ordered them all inside. As we stood soaked and shivering in the passageway I began to feel the full effects of the ocean on the ship. Everything that was not tied down fell to the floor. The Engineering Officer came thru the bulkhead door and said that they had burst one high- pressure steam hose on the starboard engine.
I made my way back to the bridge and reported to Lt.Jay on the conditions below deck. I watched the quartermaster writing furiously everything that I was saying verbatim. Jay was still in command of the ship until the Captain ordered differently.
“Lt., what is the state of the HEDGEHOG rockets?” asked the captain. I knew that we had anti-submarine rockets mounted on the forward section of the ship, but they were closely guarded and rarely talked about.
“Sir, HEDGEHOG is at stage 3, covered and locked.” Jay’s first job on the ship was the Weapons Officer so he was quick to respond.
“Lt Depew, take the HEDGEHOG to Stage 2.”
“Sir, with all due respect, Stage 2 is called for only if we are provoked. This sub is in international waters and moving away from us.”
“Bull shit, this Russian captain is no fool. Look what he is doing to us. He knows who we are, why we are out here and he knows the sea conditions and our top speed. He is trying to sink us by dragging us through this storm till our engines fall apart or we roll over. I know his game.”
“Sir, we are in international waters. He has every right to be here as we do.”
“Lt., I am going below to get dressed. When I come back I want to see HEDGEHOG at Level 2. If we are still getting beat to shit, then I am prepared to go to Level 1. Am I clear?”
“Captain has left the bridge, Lt. Jay still Officer of the Deck,” chimed the quartermaster. Jay’s face looked pale in the red light of the ship’s night controls but he was composed.
“Peter,” Jay whispered as he took me out aside. “I want you to go find the Chief Bosunmate. He is the Sergeant at Arms for the ship. He has a side arm and handcuffs. I want you to tell him to come immediately to the bridge. If the Captain insists on going to Level One, I am going to arrest him and relieve him of his command. I will make this clear to the Chief. Just tell him to hurry.”
Jay was a graduate of the Naval Academy. He had wanted to be an Annapolis graduate since he was a small boy. He and his wife had opened up their family to me and were willing to respect my position on Vietnam. I had the highest admiration for him both as a leader of men and as a husband and friend. I knew I was now seeing the beginning of the end of his Naval Career.
“The Captain has returned to the bridge,” announced the quartermaster.
“Sir, do you want the con?” asks Jay.
“I will let you know if and when I will take control,” replied the captain.
“Engine room reports damage to # 2 superheated steam lines,” came a voice from the radio.
“Lt., what is our present position relative to the bogie?” asks the old man.
“Sir, we are approximately 3000 yards and slowly closing.”
“Let me know when we are within 2000 yards and take HEDGEHOG to Stage 1 now” replies the captain.
Everything now slows to a crawl in my mind. Lt. Jay motions to the Chief Bosunmate who has arrived on the bridge. They begin a conversation over on the port side of the bridge out of the captain’s hearing range. I see the Chief look at Jay like he has misunderstood what the Lt. has told him. I see the Chief unclip his handcuffs, I see Jay make his way across the bridge and then I hear Lt. Tom’s voice on the squawk box saying,
“Comm. Center to bridge, bogie increased speed to 48 knots, we have lost contact with the Rostov.”
The Chief takes a step backwards, steadies himself on the hand railing while Lt. Jay gives new orders to the helmsman steering the ship.
“Change heading to 240 degrees, change speed to 12 knots”. The captain stands there silent, alone in his thoughts. He turns and without a sound, leaves the bridge.
“Captain has left the bridge. Come to new heading and speed. Lt. Jay has the conn.”
One morning I was heading off to work in the woods. The weather was terrible, sleet and cold. I had to stop by the local saw shop where I had left some equipment to be repaired. Herbie the owner greeted me with a friendly smile.
“Peter,” he said as he settled his elbows on the countertop and the wind rattled his windows. “Is it true that you went to Harvard?”
I felt like I had been punched in the stomach and I almost bent over forward to catch my breath.
“Yah,” I replied cautiously, “why do you ask?”
“Well, what I can’t figure out is why a guy that has a degree from Harvard is going out to work on a crappy day like today. Nobody else is working, why you?”
The answer I tried to offer Herbie fell apart even before it left my mouth. I stood there frozen, my eyes glazed over and a feeling of panic sweeping through my body. Somehow I paid my bill, stumbled out into my truck and made it as far as the laundromat downtown where I pulled in and slowly watched the windshield cover with wet snow. Soon I would be invisible.
When I was a kid growing up in Cohasset, my summer mornings would be spent swimming in the ocean out front of our house. In the afternoons I would either go to sailing lessons or play tennis with friends. Many of my classmates mowed lawns or worked for their parents by the time they were ten. I never had a real job till I was 14 when I worked in the factory that my father owned.
Class lines were clearly drawn in my town. You were either a townie and your dad was a cop or a fisherman or you were a rich kid and your Dad worked in Boston. But because my Dad owned a small furniture factory in town and employed some of my friends’ parents I was cut some slack. Until the 5th grade I had friends on both sides of the tracks. But now as I sat in my truck and replayed the scene in Herbie’s saw shop, I remembered as if it were yesterday that Saturday morning just a few days before the end of summer vacation when my parents told me that I would leave public school and begin attending a small private school in a neighboring town.
I rode my bike down town where I met up with Bobbie and the old school gang and told them about this abrupt change of plans. They said something like “wow, that sucks,” but I could see that it came as no surprise. One of the kids there named Frankie gave me kind of a scary look. His dad was the man who collected our garbage and I had already been on the losing end of a playground fight with him in the second grade.
That next week I started the 5th grade at my new school. It wasn’t so bad. There was a Mr. Russell who smoked a pipe and taught a shop class where we all made a wooden box. Plus I knew a lot of my classmates from sailing and tennis. But I couldn’t wait till the following Saturday when I jumped on my bike and headed down town to see how my old school chums had fared during their first week back at school. As I approached the common, I saw Frankie and some of the old gang. But instead of heading over to them, I stopped. Frankie turned and saw me.
“There he is,” he shouted and everyone jumped on his bike. And at that moment I made a decision I have always regretted. I climbed on my bike and fled. From that day forward, whether in summer fall or spring, I was afraid to bike down town. Whenever I did have to bike past the common, I would get up a head of steam and go flying by. And of course if the old gang were there, no matter what they were doing, they would drop everything and join in the chase. As I replay that decision in my mind, I wonder if things might have been different if I had just stood my ground. My old friends never did catch me but in a sense I never got away.
Many years later, I was driving with my family by Cohasset Common on Christmas morning when I saw a plume of black smoke rising from the chimney of one of its stately homes. I knew immediately it was a chimney fire and probably started by wrapping paper burned in the fireplace. Back in Maine we had an old cape that we heated with wood and we were always on guard for such a fire.
I jumped from the car, ran to the door and knocked loudly, When nobody came I opened the door and entered the front hall. There to my right sitting on the living room floor was a happy family of four enjoying Christmas.
“Excuse me,” I said to my surprised hosts. “I am pretty sure you have a chimney fire and you need to call the fire department now.”
The husband slowly rose to his feet and put on his slippers.
“Look,” I said. “This is a very old house and you could lose it in a few minutes.” I suggested that we take a precautionary visit to the attic.”
“We need to feel all the chimney bricks that come in contact with wood,” I said. “You start up at the roof peak and I’ll work my way down to the floor”. Sure enough, the bricks up at the height of the attic were getting hot.
By the time I made it down stairs again, the family was all out of the house on the lawn watching the smoke. The husband came over to me as the fire department arrived.
“Hey, thanks for stopping. No telling were this could have gone. My name is Frank .” He grasped my hand with both of his and shook it warmly. I told him I was glad I could help.
As I left Frank and his family and drove back to my childhood home, I felt I had crosses a small bridge of healing. I had moved to a farm in Maine to leave Cohasset, Milton Academy, Harvard and my privileged background far behind. Working in the woods as a logger was about as far as I thought I could get from being the next Irish Catholic president of the United States. But Herbie had ‘outed’ me that stormy winter day in Maine. He stirred up the old ghosts. How long had I thought I could run from my past? And what was so wrong with my past that I needed to so carefully cover my tracks?
As the snow continued to fall in front of the laundromat, I revisited in my mind the Cohasset Commons and I rewrote history. I see a fall day, the leaves are turning, and I am biking to town to see my friends and tell them about my new school. As I approach them, they turn and one of them scowls. They all jump on their bikes and head towards me. But now I stand my ground. They ride up to me, crowd in real close.
“We’d thought we’d never see you again,” Bobbie says.
“What’s it like to be around a bunch of rich kids all day long?” Frankie taunts.
Now it’s time for me to speak.
“I really miss you guys. The new school is ok. There is a nice teacher who smokes a pipe and we all make wooden boxes together.”
My friend Eddie moves in close. “Do you know that your dad kicked me and my dad off your rocks this summer when we were fishing. My dad told me he used to fish there when he was a kid. Shit, who do you think you are?”
Eddie had never mentioned this to me before. I remember that night. We were all sitting there in the dining room having supper when this kid and his dad walk over the rocks in front of our house and start casting for stripers. My dad gets up and starts for the door. They are quite far off and I can’t see who they are.
“Dad,” I said. “Why can’t they fish?”
“I am sorry,” he replied “but our agent says he will cancel our insurance policy if I let them fish. He says that if they get hurt on the slippery rocks, they could sue us.”
I was just a small boy and I felt so helpless.
“You must think you’re pretty cool,’ says Frankie. “You living in that big house and my dad comes to collect the garbage. But my dad is just as good as yours.”
The boys push in a little closer. “I am sorry,” is all I can say.
Then I add, “I am just a kid. I don’t have a lot to say in what goes on or where I go to school. All I can say right now is I don’t want to loose you guys as friends. “
We all look at the ground, scuff our toes, then somebody says something about either all going down to the station to watch the train come through. Or maybe someone knocks me down and steals my bike. But whatever happens, in this version I stand my ground, I do not run. I do not give fear time to take root and flourish. I do not become the Indian scout that is dragging his blanket over the high mesas covering his tracks. I am just a 10- year old kid who is trying to do the right thing.
I fell asleep by the Laundromat and when I awoke it was near lunchtime. I drove home slowly as the snow piled up on the roads. I never did go to work that day. I stayed up late that night and when I finally climbed in bed next to Marty I took forever to fall asleep. I kept going back to my childhood, following myself as I moved from classroom bomb drills to bicycle riding to gathering crabs.
Years later, while feeding the horses their lunch, Willie joined me in the field as I was putting hay down. As he munched away, I could barely remember what he looked like as a small colt. His massive neck and legs now worked in harmony to eat the green forage lying on the snowy ground.
There was a tractor working across the street and when it lifted its bucket unexpectedly and pounded the ground to break through the frost, my 2000 lb bundle of muscle spun around, kicked his two rear heels high in the air and set off running down the hill and across the brook away from the fearful sound. Willie’s predecessors that survived in the wild would have died if they refused to honor this fear, this instinct to survive.
I ran from my old gang not because they had ever caused me harm. I ran because somewhere in my young mind I felt that I was part of an injustice. On some level I knew that it was unfair that Eddie and his dad could not fish off our rocks. But I did nothing to stop my father. I loved my dad. He was not a bad man, he was just afraid to lose his insurance policy. Willie was showing me how fear was a part of my genetic makeup and my response was to run. I was more like Willie than I ever imagined.
After our small Maine wedding, Marty and I headed for a one-night honeymoon in Portland and the following week Bob and I started looking for logging work with our horses. Because we did not yet have a truck or a trailer, our job had to be within walking distance of our farm. As luck would have it our neighbor, Lee Hamlin, had cut some beech, rock maple and birch on his woodlot just a short walk over the hill. Lee asked us if we could haul this wood out of the forest to the truck road with Nicker and Barney.
The first time we met Lee it was a cold wintry afternoon the very day we moved into our house. We had just purchased our farm from an old couple who had let Lee use his barn to house some of his ponies. It was on a Saturday and we had some friends come up from Boston to help us move in. We were just lifting our bathtub through the front door when our friend Paula came screaming out of the barn. At first I thought she had been attacked by a woodchuck or something because she just could not stop crying hysterically and pointing through the barn doors to the barnyard out back. “They’re killing your horses,” she sobbed.
We did not yet own any animals but as I entered the back barnyard I saw someone that had not been there yesterday, a man naked from the waist up and covered with blood working a large knife around the carcass of a dead and decapitated horse hanging from the limb of a maple tree. The severed head lay on the ground, its eyes open and looking up at me. The large man with a generous stomach stopped his work and greeted me with a guilty smile.
“Hi,” he said, “my name’s Lee” extending his blood covered hand, then drawing it back when he realized that it was not at the moment an object that one might want to shake. “I am sorry if I gave that young girl a scare. I suppose she does not see something like this every day.”
I smiled understandingly as if this were standard fare for me. He went on to say that this pony’s meat was for his hunting dogs and he appreciated my temporarily housing his meals on hooves and assured me that they would be gone in a few days. As Lee headed for home that day, he knocked on the kitchen door where we were cooking a meal for our friends and offered a piece of the pony’s loin roast to round out our supper menu. Lee was one of the last folks in my neck of the woods who made a living for his large family by hunting, trapping and cutting a little wood. And he would be the first landowner to hire us to work in his forest.
Marty and I had chosen this corner of Southwestern Maine to be around people like Lee. The Hamlin family had an uncanny way of knowing what you needed before you did. Lee’s father Dana would drive slowly past our driveway, wave and then be back in a few minutes brandishing a ¾” drive socket wrench to loosen that rusty bolt on my truck. Dana and his wife lived way up the valley in a small mobile trailer. Dana loved to hunt coyotes but also had a passionate respect for these predators. Once when he could still get around he took me up back behind his home and showed me a den where a young female was raising her three pups. On the day Dana was buried, Marty and I were heading to his funeral when a huge male coyote walked onto the road in front of our car and stood there staring at us. Over the years our town would prove to be an ideal place for us to raise a family, nurture a marriage and develop long lasting friendships with people like Lee and Dana.
One day in the early summer we were working on Lee’s lot, hand loading 200 lb sticks of hardwood onto a woods sled. The bugs were pretty thick and the day was working up to be a warm one. A friend from college named Ellen had stayed over the night before because she wanted to see the horses working but after about 30 minutes of biting insects she was ready to leave. Having said good-by to Bob and me and the horses, she headed back up over the hill to our farm. Bob asked Barney and Nick to start the load forward but they refused to move. He asked them to move again but no luck. Then Nicker bent his head toward the trail that Ellen had taken and let out a whinny. For some reason I took this to mean that all was not well.
“Hold on Bob, I said. “Let me check to see if Ellen is all right” and I headed up the path at a trot. Not 50 yards away I found her convulsing on the ground in the throws of a full blown seizure. I yelled for Bob and he was soon by my side.
“I think that she may have swallowed her tongue,” I said as her face turned a light shade of blue. I began to panic and I grabbed her jaw to try and pry it open.
“Don’t do that,” replied Bob. “Keep your fingers away from her teeth. She can lock down on them and bite them to the bone. Here, take this stick and pry her teeth open with it.”
So I began to slowly pry her jaw open while Bob inserted another stick to free her tongue. Blood stained saliva bubbled out of her mouth and we rolled her head to the side as she began to breathe again. Finally she dropped into a deep sleep for several minutes.
Bob went to tend to the horses and by the time he returned Ellen had begun to come around. She remembered nothing of what had happened and her hands began to shake when we described how we had found her. Back then there were no rescue units or 911 so we piled her on a mattress in the back of her station wagon and headed for the hospital in Portland. Bob followed in my car. On the way into town she searched for explanations as she lay on her back.
“I have never had seizures before,” she told me. “But both my parents were schizophrenics. My mother was a concert pianist and my father was a composer. I was born ‘placenta privia’ which means that I did not have the protection of the placenta during delivery. The muscles of my mother’s uterus pounded me unprotected into life. My therapist felt that this birth event may have had a profound effect on my psyche and we were just on the edge of exploring this when I came here to visit. I think that I may have just re-lived my birth out in the woods. I always felt that I could not survive re-living such a memory but I have.” Then her teeth began chattering uncontrollably and she had to stop talking.
Maine Medical did extensive research on Ellen, looking for a lesion on the brain or some medical explanation for what had happened. None was ever found. It was not till later in the day when Bob and I returned to the woodlot to bring the horses home that I remembered Nick’s whinny and the warning he gave me.
I was born in the late summer of 1945. The war was just over in the Pacific and my father’s brother Robert, a Marine Corps doctor, had not been heard of since the assault on Iwo Jima late in March. My parents had just bought a house by the ocean in Cohasset and while it was getting fixed up, we went to live with my grandmother Josephine on Beacon Hill in Boston. I was nicknamed ‘Spider’ and from the moment we moved into our new South Shore home, I would not be still. One of my first memories from my childhood was when I was six years old and my Uncle John and I were sitting on our front porch on a summer’s night looking out at the dark ocean and the lights of the passing ships.
“The Russians are out there,” he would whisper. “Somewhere tonight a submarine is surfacing, men are scrambling down the side into rubber boats and while you sleep, they will row quietly into our beach, hide their rafts and dress in normal American clothing. Why tomorrow you might be at the Central Market and one might be right next to you, buying an orange.”
I knew he was trying to scare me but the result was quite the opposite. I had no idea what a Russian looked like but I loved rafts and ships that could go beneath the waves. I would welcome these visitors and offer them my jackknife to peal their oranges. We would become friends.
The second grade classroom at the Ripley Road School was the sunniest in the building and our teacher Mrs. Kennedy was a gift from God. Her reading and writing lessons made the days fly by but what put her in the Best Teacher Hall of Fame category was what she did every fourth Friday of the month. At exactly 12:00 noon a siren would sound from our nearby police station and she would begin the drill to which we all looked forward. As she climbed on her desk in her high heel shoes, we would all scramble under ours. Then for two solid minutes she would make sounds with her mouth of atomic bombs being dropped by Russian airplanes that would burst apart our playground and surrounding forest. Then the all clear would sound followed by the lunch bell and we would all scramble off to our dinners.
I am not sure why I developed such a fascination with Russia. My Cub Scout leader told me a few years ago that I was always the one in her troupe trying to get boys to stop fighting. As I grew older I began to make up a very Slavic sounding language that my brother and I would use in public places to impress people. Our favorite expletive was “doctor nobi po-gee-tov!” People would stop and stare at these two very Irish looking guys in the throes of a heated debate in a language no one could decipher.
One Sunday when I was 12 we returned from church and saw out on the ocean in front of our house a three-masted schooner under full sail making for Boston Harbor. My father was a naval architect, a boat builder and a passionate lover of wooden ships and he knew that he was looking at something he had only ever seen before in pictures or drawings. He drove the car up into our driveway, jumped out and ran over to the rocks and stared.
“We must go and meet her,” he said. Mother packed a picnic breakfast and we followed the ship up the coast. There was a strong breeze from the southwest pushing her sails along and with our binoculars we could see the waves breaking against the bow and the men aloft adjusting sail.
My dad was born in South Boston and knew just where she would make port. But when we got to the pier, there was a police car blocking the public entrance. Being Sunday, there was no one else on the long wharf. My dad pulled up next to the officer.
“Good morning,” Dad said. “What are you doing out here on such a beautiful day”?
“Well, sir, I am awaiting the arrival of a sailing ship,” the officer replied.
“I know,” said my dad. “We saw her off Minot’s Light earlier under full sail and I was hoping that my family and I might visit her once she is settled.”
“I am sorry,” said the officer, “but I don’t think that will be possible. You see, that ship’s from Russia and she is just here overnight to take on water and a few supplies. No one can go ashore and no one can go on board.”
My father was crestfallen but he was not one to give up easily. The ship was still an hour away so we sat with Officer Reardon and shared our picnic breakfast with him. It turned out that my dad and Officer Reardon’s brother rowed in the same Irish racing boats called ‘curraghs’ across Boston Harbor when they were kids. The policeman agreed after a cup of my mom’s tea that there could be little harm in us going out on the dock to see the ship land. So our small group would be the official welcoming party that greeted the Russian training ship ‘’Nadezhda’ as she made her only stop in New England.
As this giant ship approached the pier, the orders to drop sail were given and as silently as a gliding gull she floated slowly towards us. Then as small ropes were tossed to us my dad took over, ordering us to pull in quickly the larger ropes that followed which we threw over the giant cleats that were cemented into the pier. First came the bow ropes, then the ropes from the stern.
“Stand back,” my father shouted as the heavy nylon ropes the size of my arms started groaning under the strain of the ship’s forward motion. If my dad not been on the pier I do not know how the ship would have landed for there needed to be someone like him to direct the securing of the on-shore lines. I watched his boat builder eyes twinkle with satisfaction as this huge sailing ship, propelled only by the wind, gently nestled up to the pier.
Our policeman stood in awe of the event and it slowly began to dawn on him that he was the only city official to welcome this majestic vessel, its captain and crew. His bewilderment turned to panic as the gangplank was extended over the side. Just then one of the young crew members, a boy a few years older than I waved and of course I waved back and yelled “doctor nobi po-gee-tov”! And of course he yelled back something in Russian like “what did you say?”
Our policeman asked my father, “Does your son speak Russian” and my father looked down at his feet and said “well, just a little.” And before you could say ‘borscht’ we were on board and making our way below deck. Our first introduction was to the ship’s doctor who was the only English speaker on board.
My father had a long history of dropping everything he was doing to greet random strangers. He was often calling my mom to say that he had just met the most interesting young couple at the shop and could he bring them home for supper. Well, today was no exception. Thanks to some salted fish, Russian black bread and vodka in our tea, Sergeant Reardon was graciously agreeing to everything Dad was suggesting. Arrangements were made from his CB radio for our Catholic Youth Organization back home to send up two school buses for the forty sailors, their captain, first mate and ship’s doctor. Three hours later we arrived in Cohasset to find a group of teen-age girls from our church standing in our driveway and by late afternoon our local dance band was playing ‘bee-bop’ music on our front porch to a bunch of dancing kids that shared no common language.
What I remember most about that day was the ship’s doctor. He was curious about my ‘few Russian words’ and because it was low tide I directed him down to the tide pools where I kept my crabs.
“I walk out at low tide and catch all the crabs I can find,” I told him. “I put them in these pools and when the sea rises they all swim out.”
We talked a little about his home in a place called Kaliningrad that he said was also on the ocean. There he had a family that he missed very much. The doctor seemed very happy to stay with me by the pools as the tide came in. We listened to the music from the house and the laughter. I liked him very much but was a little disappointed that the first Russian I was to meet did not arrive on a rubber raft from a submarine.
“Doctor,” I asked. “What does your ship’s name ‘Nadezhda’ mean?”
“It mean’s ‘hope’ in Russian,” he smiled. “It means ‘hope’.”