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.