“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’.”