John Collier’s office was in the East End in an old industrial building not far from the Thames River. Modiano Wools, Ltd. was then the largest wool company in the world. Based in Australia, John oversaw their European business dealings.
“I have already taken the liberty of moving your Russian wool down to Southampton.” I had arrived the night before from Amsterdam and we were dining at John’s club. “But it may be a bit before I can get it on a ship to Boston.”
“How should I get you the payment for trans-shipping the wool?” I asked.
“Oh dear, don’t worry about that now,” he replied. “I will send you this bill and you can wire me back the amount to this London bank.”
He handed me the invoice on Modiano stationary and for the first time I actually saw the price I was paying for Nikolai’s wool, US $1.21/ lb. clean FOB Southampton. I was so relieved by Nickolai’s support for the project that I had forgotten to check the price of the wool. Even today, thirty years later I have almost no connection to money, never knowing if I have any in my wallet. Thank God for Marty!
The bill arrived two weeks after my return to Maine. I went to our local bank in Kezar Falls and sent a money transfer for the amount. It was not till I returned home that I realized that there was no charge for the freight from Southampton to Boston. I quickly sent John a Telex requesting a bill for shipping. John’s reply followed the next day.
“Dear Peter, Wool on its way soon. Know you plan subsequent shipments of Type 22. Will handle shipping costs at a later date. My best, John.”
I thought this a bit odd as it made the final pricing of the wool a bit difficult. But we took a guess at the cost and began waiting for the arrival of our one bale. Thanksgiving arrived, then Christmas. Finally came word from Modiano.
“Wool booked on S.S. Wainwright, ETA Boston, 1 February, 1986. Please send contact information of brokering agent. Best, John”.
What was a brokering agent? I called my Uncle Paul who was a lawyer in Boston and he gave me a list of a dozen international freight-forwarding companies. I started working the list. As I did, I thought how wonderful it would have been if I could have made this call to my father instead. He had died suddenly nine years before. He would have enjoyed the irony of his “back to the land” son now looking for the phone number of a commercial broker to handle an overseas shipment from Russia.
I remembered the day we were walking through his factory and came across a stack of birch veneer plywood. He fingered the flawless wood and handed me a sheet. “I use it to finish the insides of the chest of drawers.” As I admired it I turned it over and saw words written in Russian Cyrillic.”
“Dad, where does this come from?”
“Oh, I get it from Morton Waldfogel in East Boston.”
“No, I mean where is this made?”
“It is called Baltic Birch so it must come from the Baltic.”
My dad was not much of a traveler. Except for a family trip to Bermuda I can never remember him ever leaving New England. So I called my brother John who had taken over running the business after my dad’s death, asked him for his Baltic Birch connection and by that very afternoon I was chatting away with Morton.
“Peter, this is very interesting and exciting what you are doing. I never could get your dad to fully appreciate the Soviet connection. He was too absorbed with the great quality of the product to ever wonder about its origin. Baltic Birch comes from the Baltic Republics, probably Latvia or Estonia. I have done very well working with the Soviets. I believe you will too”.
He suggested I contact a Bob Kenny to handle this deal. “Now most brokers today won’t touch stuff from behind the Iron Curtain. But Bob is a good guy to have on your team”.
“How much did you pay for the wool?” was Mr. Kenny’s first question when I called him the following day.
“Christ, that’s a hell of a good price. Sure I can broker this wool. I’ll visit customs when the Wainwright arrives and give you a call.”
Ten days later the call came. “Son’s of bitches, you won’t believe what’s happened!” I thought Mr. Kenny was referring to the Russians.
“No! It’s the U. S. Customs. They want to charge you a tax because the USSR does not enjoy our most favored nation status. That’s outrageous. Do you know how much US grain they buy from us every year. Hell, our farmers would be done for if they lost that market.”
I was about to tell him that yes, I had some first hand information on this subject but instead I asked “Well, what do you think we should so?”
“Well, we sure as hell aren't going to pay the bastards.” I had checked out Bob Kenny before I had made my first call. He was a well-respected member of the Boston Wool Trade, went to my Uncle Fred’s church and was known to be a cautious and conservative financial agent. I tried to match this person to the one I had on the phone.
Bob negotiated with customs unsuccessfully for two days before we agreed to pay the import duty. Then the second shoe hit the floor.
“Hey this is Bob. The longshoremen are refusing to offload the wool. They saw the Russian writing on the bale and they won’t touch it. Ever since the KAL shoot down people here treat Russians like the plague.” Months before a Soviet MIG fighter shot down a Korean Airline’s passenger jet that had strayed over Soviet airspace killing everyone on board. I remembered Marlin Brando in “On the Waterfront” and how he faced off a corrupt longshoreman’s union. What could I steal from his script to get things moving?
I called some friends who ran a small PR firm in the North End and we came up with a plan. They would put out a release to all the wire services and local media announcing a press conference in two days. We chose the Old Post Office Square building in the heart of Boston’s financial district.
On the day of the event I put together three large bags of wool from our Maine sheep and hauled them to the conference site. With a coat and tie and jeans and work boots I stood in front of television and still cameras and asked if trade with the Soviets might not be a way to warm up the cold war. Did the longshoremen want to stand in the way of a small farmer from Maine who wants to set-aside just for the moment the mistakes of the past? Because if he is deprived of this chance to do something, however small, then his children may never know what it feels like to grow up, fall in love and have children of their own.
The only thing missing that day was Nickolai Emelianov in his Italian suit. But he must have been there is spirit because United Press International and the Associated Press sent their stories of the day out across America and not only caused the longshoremen to relent and release the wool the following day but led to subsequent articles in the Wall Street Journal, Dunn and Bradstreet Weekly, People Magazine and appearances on the Today Show and Soviet Television’s ‘International Panorama’ with Vladimir Dounaev.
I now know that this degree of interest did not come primarily from what I was saying but from what the American people wanted to hear. We were tired of the Cold War rhetoric, of mutually assured destruction. We wanted a new day, a ‘novi deen’ in Russian. Peace Fleece gave America knitters a taste of what a moment without fear might look like. Warm Wool from a Cold War.
Bob Kenney admitted to me that he had never met a Russian, that he had never handled a product from a communist country before. He had woken up the day after the press conference wondering if what he had done was really for the greater good. We were coming into some kind of holiday that would close down commerce for a long weekend. I suggested that he write Emelianov a Telex saying that the wool had cleared and to thank him for all his help. That afternoon Bob called back and said that he had sent such a message and would stay late in the office in case a Telex came back. This was before the days of e-mail. Fax’s were just starting to be used.
I looked at my watch and told him that with an eight-hour difference I thought there was little chance of a reply today. But that very night I was awakened by an elated voice. It was midnight. EST, 8 am. Moscow time.
“He just wrote back,” Bob shouted excitedly over the phone. “Listen!”
“Dear Mr. Kenny, Thank you for all your good work in making this importation a success. My company is happy to be a part of the Peace Fleece venture. We look forward to hosting your arrival in Moscow. My best wishes to you and your family. Sincerely, Nikolai Emelianov.
Three years later John Collier once again found me in his office. It was my turn to take him out to lunch. It was the third shipment of Russian wool and still no shipping bill from Modiano. “With all due respect,” I began. “I know where Bradford is. It is up in Yorkshire, just about as far from Southampton as you can get and still be in England. You have trucked this wool to the dock and shipped it across the sea. You have done more that enough. We are a for profit company. We can pay you for your efforts.”
We were sipping a chicken broth at an East End restaurant. John took the napkin from his lap and lightly dried his lips.
“Look Peter,” he said kindly. “I sit in my office all day long, moving millions of dollars worth of wool around the world. And I go home at night to watch the same depressing news on the telly. And I ask myself, what can I do? And I go to sleep feeling quite helpless.”
“So you come along and you bring Nickolai with you and you ask me for help, help in an area I know something about. So now when I go to bed at night, I feel part of something that is doing something. I feel better, I sleep better. Let me do this small bit please.”
We are never alone in this world. If you are on the right path around every corner there is a friend ready to help you meet your goal.
The door was heavy and made of thick, polished birch. I heard a voice on the other side say “da” so I slowly built up my courage and entered. There behind a desk was an attractive woman, maybe ten years younger than me, smiling. I used the only sentence I knew in Russian. “Vwi gavaritye pa angliski?”
“Peter…Peter Hagerty…. from Milton Academy.”
How could this be, the first Russian secretary I meet and she is talking about my boarding school? I smile and nod ‘yes’.
“I danced with you once many years ago at a party in Boston.”
Jesse Nielsen and her husband Steven had moved from Boston to join the Moscow office staff of Chilewich Trading Company, trading farm machinery, vegetable oils, precious gems and thoroughbred racehorses. I stood before Jessica elated.
“So Peter, what are you doing here?” asked Jessica over a steaming cup of morning tea. I had no memory of our past dance together but I quickly explained my idea of meeting a Russian shepherd, buying Soviet wool, blending it with our own wool and making a knitting yarn.
“Is someone expecting to meet with you here?” she asked. “Do you have an appointment?”
“No,” I replied, starting to feel foolish.
“Oh this might be interesting,” Jessica explained, sensing my faltering spirit. “First it is Friday and it is late August. Most businessmen take this day off and join their families at the dacha for a long weekend.” For some reason I suddenly became aware of my dress, old cowboy boots, a pair of stained pants and a non-matching coat and no tie. What was I doing here?
“Second, it is very unusual for a foreign businessman like you to arrive with no appointment. They often make visitors wait days, sometime weeks before they agree to meet them. This generates foreign currency for the hotels. But look, this is a slow day for us. We have good contacts; let me give it a try.”
So for the next hour Jesse worked the phones like a pro. With perfect Russian pronunciation she called friends and associates to find with whom it was I needed to meet. All at once she looked up from the phone with a smile. We had a name. Nikolai Borisovitch Emelianov, Firm Runo, 33 Architect Vlassova. Jesse called his office and just like that we had a 2 pm appointment that very day. As I rejoiced over a second cup of tea, an impeccably dressed young man entered Jesse’s office.
“Stephen, this is Peter Hagerty. He just arrived this morning from the States and he has an appointment with Nikolai Emelianov today. Strangely Emelianov seemed not surprised at my call, like he was expecting Peter.”
Stephen, Jesse’s husband and co-worker, extended me his hand in congratulations.
‘Look,” he said. “Today I only have a few things to do. I have some reports to file but I have a driver downstairs and Vlassova is a hard place to reach by metro. First we will have lunch and then I would be happy to accompany you to the meeting, if that is ok.” In just one hour everything had come together. I found my contact, met an old acquaintance and was about to go to Stephen’s club for lunch. I began to wonder if there was a higher power at work here.
“Mr.Hagerty, it is such a pleasure to meet you,” he said in perfect English. Dressed in a pin stripe tropical wool suit, Guicci shoes and Italian silk tie, Nikolai entered the door of the conference room and extended a hand in greeting. His attire stood in contrast to the bare, birch paneled walls and the portrait of Lenin by the window. He was not exactly the Russian shepherd standing on the hill with his flock but he was impressive all the same.” Why do I enjoy the honor of your presence today?”
As we had waited in this conference room for our meeting with Mr. Emelianov, the chief director of all fiber flowing in and out of the USSR, a moment of panic had seized me. My sport coat was crumpled and did not match my pants. My cowboy boots were worn and dirty. I felt very out of place and unprepared and shared my anxiety with Stephen. “Just be yourself. Don’t try and be anyone other than who you are and you will be fine.”
“Well sir,” I began “I am a sheep farmer from Maine. I am interested in purchasing a small amount of Soviet wool, perhaps one bale, import it into the US and blend it with the wool of our own sheep and market a knitting yarn called Peace Fleece.” If a smile and a frown can simultaneously coexist, it did so momentarily on Emelianov’s face.
“With all due respect,” Mr. Emelianov replied “this idea of yours will be very difficult We use all the wool we grow to meet the needs of the Soviet people. We have never exported wool to America. Why should I sell wool to you?”
“Because your President Andropov and our President Reagan agree that there should be more trade between our countries…”
“ Look, I know what our presidents say. Maybe I could sell you a container load but only one bale for your project, the paperwork would kill us. You come all this way for a bale of wool. Please tell me, why are you really here?”
I suddenly realized that this conversation was going nowhere. I remembered the woman I sat next to on the plane. “Don’t show your emotion. Be strong.” But disappointment was welling up inside as I realized how unprepared I was for all of this. I sheared sheep and cut wood, I was not an international businessman. I didn’t even have a decent business card much less Guicci suit. And I just assumed that when I met my Russian counterpart he would embrace the idea.
“Please,” Nickolai insisted “talk frankly. I am sincerely interested in your motives.”
I did detect sincerity in his words so I took a deep breath and struggled to gather my thoughts. I began by telling him some of my story, my history of the war and my wife and children in Maine.
“I have a daughter who is nine years old and a son who is five. I believe that if you or I cannot do something today, even in a small way, to bring our countries closer, then the chances that my children will survive this Cold War are lessened. My daughter may never know what it feels like to fall in love, my son may never see the birth of his own child. If you or I can do something in business to better understand who we are, maybe in a small way I will feel more hopeful.”
Emelianov stood up and walked down to the window by Lenin and looked out at the playground, his hands stuffed down into the pockets of his suit pants. Some of the children were playing summer hockey, others kicking a soccer ball into a goal. He stood there for a long time.
“You know, you sound just like my wife,” he finally said with his back to me. “And sometimes they are right ….” He then returned to the desk, picked up his phone and ordered an international call. We waited in an awkward silence for several minutes before the phone rang.
“Hello John, this is Nick. Yes, great. Hot summer here too. I thought it always rains in London. Look I have an American named Peter Hagerty in my office who wants to buy some of our Type 22 that is up in Bradford. Could you break off one bale of that lot and send it to….”
“Boston,” I mouthed.
“Boston. He can come to London next week to sign all the paperwork.” Nikolai nodded to me. I gave him thumbs up. And it was done. Peace Fleece was born.
This was the first of many trips I would make to visit with Nikolai. We became as close to friends as we could during those times. I helped to find his daughter a summer job in the States, he found me more wool when I needed it. I never visited his home and he never visited mine. There was a formality there that was necessary.
Then one day I got a call from him. He was doing some business in wool in Texas and was stopping in Boston on the way home. Could we meet and have a meal? I left Maine early on a beautiful summer afternoon and was soon shaking Nikolai’s hand in the lobby of the Harborside Hotel on Boston’s waterfront. I was regretting that I had not brought Marty or one of the kids to meet this man who had done so much for us. Nikolai invited me up to his room.
It was 1991 and things were very bad in Moscow. There was little food in the shops and it was dangerous to be on the streets, even in the daytime. He asked me if I would not tell anyone that he was staying in this luxurious hotel. He said that the Texans had paid for the trip and had insisted on making all the arrangements. Still, he felt badly enjoying this luxury when things were so rough back home.
Since 1985 when we first met, we had never been in a relaxed setting where we could just talk. Now it was awkward getting conversation going but over dinner we began to loosen up and I remember giving him a big hug when we said good-by. This would be the last time I would see him alive.
I was never sure what happened. Six months later when in Moscow I called his office and asked for him. I was passed from person to person until I reached Igor, his personal assistant. Igor spoke only Russian and after a pause, said sadly, “Peter, Nick oo-mer”. I was alone in Luba’s apartment at the time. I remembered the word as a dark one and thanked Igor in a sober tone for the news. Luba’s dictionary said ‘dead’.
The Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho believes that if one is on the right path, there will be people that will appear out of nowhere to make your journey through life a success. There have been countless numbers of people over the years that have appeared in my life to sweep away the rubble and make clear the way. Nickolai was the first on my journey and he will never be far from my thoughts.
There were roughly forty women with scarves on their heads and brooms in their hands and they slowly moved across Red Square in a long, single line. The warm August morning brought with it a slight breeze that ruffled their skirts as these women swept the paper, cigarette butts and candy wrappings into an ever-growing wind row. I stood there in front of my hotel eager to head out across Moscow but not quite ready to begin. As I marveled at these ladies’ energy, I thought back over the journey that had brought me half way around the world to Moscow, the capitol of the USSR.
My eight year old daughter Cora had come home from school one afternoon in the fall of 1983 and asked me what I was doing that evening. I told her that I was at her disposal. Her teacher told her class that if they wanted to watch an ABC special that evening they should ask a parent to join them. Well, I was intrigued.
“The Day After” began with a graphic depiction of nuclear war as seen through the eyes of farmers, soldiers and students in and around the University of Kansas at Lawrence. This docudrama starring Jason Robards drew the second largest audience in television history. I wondered aloud to my wife if this was appropriate viewing for eight year olds. But we watched the show and I was deeply shaken by the graphic imagery and powerful script.
Shortly after falling asleep that night, I suddenly awoke and saw though the bedroom skylight an airline with blinking lights flying high up in the cold night sky over our farm. The stars shone brightly and there was no moon. All at once a bright light detach itself from the back of the plane and began tumbling towards earth. I shook Marty awake and we both agreed that it looked like it might be heading directly towards our farm. We ran towards our children’s bedrooms but were blown backwards by an explosion that threw us both to the floor. I ran towards Cora’s door and when I opened it, I saw her bedroom wall crumbled below in the driveway. Both of our children lay in the rubble, consumed by a raging fire. I then awoke, drenched with sweat.
All that winter I questioned what I was doing with my life. Logging with horses, nursing chilled lambs by the wood stove, shearing sheep in the spring, cutting hay in the summer, an ideal life by some standards. But what did it all matter if a nuclear bomb could end everything with the mere push of a button? A dark cloud began to consume me over morning coffee and some days I could barely get out of bed.
In late January of that winter, fighter jets from Pease Air Force Base began making low altitude, supersonic flights down our valley every Saturday morning. The planes were on top of us before we could hear them and the horses and sheep would scatter across the field in panic at the sound of their after burners. I found myself slipping deeper into a sense of helplessness. I would visit my next-door neighbor Lester who raised dairy cows and he would offer that the world was in terrible shape.
“Now what can one person do? What are you or I supposed to do? It’s just too big.” He would stand there with a pitch folk in his hand and dare me to differ.
I remembered Lester’s booming voice as I made my way across Red Square. I took his challenge that day on his farm and put it in my pocket and carried it home. That night over supper Marty reminded me of my visit to the Mekong years ago and the four young Vietnamese soldiers I met on the monk’s island. “What if there is somebody in the Soviet Union right now that is just as depressed as you. Maybe that person is a shepherd who spends his days on the hill with his sheep, shears their wool and cuts their hay. If you find this person, perhaps we could do something together.”
By late that spring I decided I would go to Russia and in mid-August I joined a group of Iowa farmers that were headed to Moscow to negotiate their grain contracts. Brad and his wife Emma were in their late 60’s and were corn and soybean farmers from north central Iowa. They explained to me why they were on this trip.
“The Soviet Union has over the years grown dependent on supplies of American wheat, corn and soy beans to supplement their own poor harvests. But last year the US government ordered us to stop shipping grain to the USSR. And this came at a time when American farmers like us were facing an historic economic crisis.”
“On top of this, Iowa farmers with loans could not make their payments because the market for their crops crashed through the floor due to the huge surpluses piling up at the grain silos. My neighbor Wes Harris shot himself three weeks ago after he lost his fourth generation family farm to a bank auction.”
“We have two choices, give up our way of life or sell our crops across the border into Canada where they will be re-loaded on ships headed to the Soviet Union. I feel like a criminal but our government has left us no choice.”
I doubted if there was a Democrat in the group. And they were proposing to end run an embargo to a communist country. Already this trip was worthwhile.
We all met at JFK Airport in New York for the Moscow flight. The same day my childhood friend Michael who trades natural gas with the Soviets told me of a small American company that had an office in Moscow. Simon Chilewich and Sons had been in Russia for years, bartering soybeans for race horses and precious gems. “Go visit them in New York before you leave,” Michael insisted. “Maybe they can help you find your shepherd.” So I walked into their Wall Street office with no scheduled appointment the very afternoon of my Mosocw flight and Gary Gailes, their overseas director, met me with a smile and a handshake.
“Absolutely,” Gary exclaimed. “Use our office from day one. We have a good reputation over there. We never left when things got bad. We just took our losses and rode it out. It is a tough but very rewarding place. There are wonderful people there.” He gave me the address of their Moscow office and wished me well.
On the flight over I sat next to a middle-aged British woman married to a Russian. She has lived for years in Moscow. She asked me what I was up to and I told her.
“Since we moved to our small farm in Maine my wife and I have been raising sheep. We sell the wool and eat the meat. We once thought that if we left the city and moved to the end of a country road we would feel safe. It turns out that is not the case.”
She fingered the ice in her drink as I continued. “So we came up with the idea of my going to the USSR, meeting a sheep farmer there, buying his or her wool, blending it with our wool and making a yarn that could show that our two counties can co-exist, that there is an alternative to nuclear war”. My companion digested my words and ordered another drink from the stewardess. I reflect on what I have just said and as her silence continued, I began to seriously doubt what I was up to. Back in Maine it sounded like a great idea. My friends admired my courage. Nobody challenged my expectations.
“Look,” she finally said turning to me. “You seem like a nice guy. Well educated, you’ve been around a bit. But Russia is different. I was a young girl in London during the war. My favorite uncle was killed, my school was destroyed. I saw dead people on the street. But it was nothing compared to what Russians went through. They are a very tough people. Yes, they are friendly. Complete strangers will cook you soup in their kitchen. But you must be tough when you are talking business with a Russian. Negotiate from strength, not from weakness. I know. I have been married to one for over 40 years.”
Now I stood in front of the Rossia Hotel on my first morning in Moscow watching the women with their brooms made of birch branches. A machine could have clearly done this job more quickly but I was getting my first taste of what the USSR called “full employment”.
The sun had been up for hours but most of Moscow’s citizens were now out at the country dacha enjoying their traditional August vacation. As I crossed Red Square and headed onto Karl Marx Plochet, I noticed that all the store and street signs were written in Cyrillic and I regretted that I had not taken my language lessons more seriously. I wondered what my Russian counterpart was doing on this warm summer morning. Was he tending his sheep on a high mountain pasture or maybe fishing by a rushing stream with his children? What would he say to my greeting “doctor nobi-po-gee-tov” when we first met?
Somehow I found my way to the Hotel National where Chilewich Corp rented office space. Its roof top sign turned out to be the only one in all of Moscow written in English. Because I was a foreigner in Western attire the doorman welcomed me cordially. As I entered the lobby my instinct told me to keep moving, to look as if you are late for an important meeting.
What would my grandmother Josephine say to me if we were walking side by side right now? It helped to imagine her next to me, a formidable ally by my side with her large form and white hair impressing the front desk. I felt her arm steer me towards the stairway where we quickly climbed to the second floor and took a right down the hallway. “Look at the room numbers on the doors as you pass” her confident voice told me. My cowboy boots made a singing sound as they touched the hotel carpet.
Higher and higher we climbed until an old voice whispered, “There, on the door over there, English writing.”
Under Room 420 was written in polished brass letters:
‘Simon Chilewich and Sons, 120 Wall Street, New York, New York.’
“We made it,” I cheered as I squeezed her arm but I turned to meet an empty hallway. I knocked.