I have a memory as a small boy of sitting with my white haired Irish Catholic grandmother Josephine on our front lawn high above the ocean. It is a beautiful summer day and she has just finished telling me a story, a rather fantastic one. I have followed her face closely as she talked. When her mouth stops moving I asked her “Nanna, is that true?”
Her face explodes into a smile and her laughter carries out over the summer waves. “You want the truth?” she asks as if she is talking not to a young boy but rather to someone who has stopped and challenged her at a border crossing. “I am sorry,” she said “but the truth has not always served me well.”
My grandmother came from a time when eating grass to survive the potato famine was only one generation old. As a Boston policeman’s daughter, she was the first Irish woman to graduate from Radcliffe College. Yet “Irish need not apply” was what greeted her as she went looking for a job. Maybe this is what framed her relationship with the “truth”.
In my early years anxiety and fear were routine playmates. In private school I threw up my breakfast every morning. At college I slept thru most of my classes because I was convinced that I was not smart enough to understand the material. I was Irish Catholic and afraid that I would accidentally impregnate every girl I touched. And when I was in the Navy and headed for war, I was afraid that I would soon be responsible killing an ‘enemy’ someone else wanted dead.
When I came back from the war in Southeast Asia I was often not able to tell my friends and loved ones the truth of what I had seen. I had been in relatively little danger. But something happened to me in Vietnam that shook me to the roots and brought into focus some of my deepest fears. I could not talk truthfully about my military experience because I had survived and some of my crewmembers did not. They died doing the job I would not do.
I cannot, therefore, guarantee that what I am now writing is really the truth. I have begun to contact old friends from these dark days. Most have been hard to find and some are reluctant to revisit the past again. I wanted them to help me separate what I imagine from what actually happened. But in the end they seem to warn that dead dogs are best left lying by the road.
What follows are stories from my life. Some are embellished and will stretch the imagination; others will be more ‘straight up’. Writing these stories has brought back the old ghosts and some still have the power to rob me of speaking the truth. But maybe these old ghosts can be like co-authors, a kind of business associate that you don’t completely trust but for some reason has a valuable point of view. I have told these stories so often that they now have a life of their own. I will try and stay out of their way.
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 US television history. I wondered aloud to my wife if this was appropriate viewing for a ten year old. 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 it all 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 Viet Cong soldiers, men I had been trained to kill, with whom I had spent one extraordinary night. “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 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, 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 Russia. 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 their address in Moscow and wished me well.
On the flight over I sat next to a middle-aged British woman married to a Russian. She had 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 reflected 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?
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 as I turned to face her and empty hallway was all I found. I knocked on the hotel room door.