Soviet Union, 1977

In August of 1977, I took vacation from my job at The Louisville Times and set out for the Soviet Union, signing up for a 22-day tour. I had crisscrossed the U.S. and traveled around Europe three times, so I considered myself a veteran traveler. But I knew this journey would be different.

And so it proved, from introducing Central Asians to Polaroid instant photography to encounters with the KGB; from dodging gourds thrown by an angry Muslim in Uzbekistan to waving at a binoculared and curious teen girl at the Kirov; from witnessing a chair-throwing brawl at a tennis match in Tbilisi, Georgia to sheltering from an early snowfall on the shore of Siberia’s vast Lake Baikal.

Most of my previous travel forays had been solo or with a friend or two, but for this journey I would have to sign up with a tour group, required of American tourists by the Soviet government. At Dulles International Airport, I met my nine fellow travelers, all veterans of international journeys.

Two were retirees from the State Department and a third had lived in India, working for a U.S. health agency. Helen’s State Department background included working with train loads of refugees in north Africa. She was traveling with Marie, a psychologist friend who had brought her Polaroid camera. When she took an instant portrait of the hotel manager in Samarkand, he saw to it that our next meal included fresh grapes, which unfortunately led to several of us coming down with the Czar’s Revenge. Dick’s experience with the health agency meant that he was an expert on intestinal maladies, knowledge that was of great use. 

Our U.S. escort was Lillian, a Philadelphian in her mid-20s. Her parents had emigrated from Ukraine shortly after World War II. She spoke fluent Russian and had recently returned to the U.S. after a year of study in Leningrad. Her familiarity with the Soviet system and Russian-language skill would prove essential. The trip would not have been nearly as enlightening, or as much fun, without her presence.

The flight provided a proper introduction. The food was memorable because of its inedibility. I can still picture a rubbery piece of baked chicken of a notable grayish appearance. I opted to wait until our French refueling stop to eat — even fast food at Orly would be better than what was served up by the indifferent Aeroflot stewardesses.

The plane, a Soviet-built Tupolev, was at capacity, primarily with apparatchiks of the Soviet diplomatic corps and/or their families returning to Moscow. Just across the aisle from me and Lillian were three middle-aged Soviet women, each gripping shopping bags stuffed to the bursting point.

When the seat-belt light went off, the bags were opened and the trio began comparing the contents — wigs. The women spent the first hour of the flight trying on, swapping, and giggling. Lillian explained that wigs like these were unavailable in the Soviet Union. “They probably took orders from friends before they departed on their U.S. visit,” she said.

Then, in Russian, Lillian complimented the women on their choices, getting beaming smiles from the be-wigged trio.

As our flight neared Moscow, Lillian told us what to expect with Soviet customs. Printed material would be carefully examined. No Playboy magazines, no books that depicted the USSR in a light that wasn’t favorable as defined by the Kremlin apparatchiks. Such publications were in high demand, Lillian told us. I was carrying Desmond Smith’s guide to Moscow, and it caused a short delay when the customs officer confused it with Hedrick Smith’s book on life in the Soviet Union, which was banned. A supervisor was summoned and after a few minutes of looking and conferring, my guidebook was handed back and we were ushered through.

Just outside the customs area our Intourist escort, Anya, introduced herself. She would prove efficient, a staunch Communist — and a hidebound apparatchik. By the next day, Lillian, Helen, Marie and I were working on ways to circumnavigate Anya.

The bus ride into Moscow introduced us to Soviet architecture and suburban planning — complexes of multi-story, gray-concrete buildings surrounded by unkempt fields crossed by worn paths leading to bus stops.

But once we entered the city, the architecture of czarist Russia proved more interesting, with pastel-colored buildings providing visual relief from the massive Soviet edifices. And as we neared Red Square, St. Basil’s onion-shaped domes vibrantly countered the Kremlin’s forbidding limestone walls.

Our hotel, the Intourist, was just off the square. It was, according to Desmond Smith, exclusively for foreign guests. The government did not want foreigners mingling with ordinary Soviet citizens. In the airports, we would discover, domestic lounges were separated from those used by foreigners.

After check-in we had the first of many meals featuring tough meat of mysterious origin. The meals invariably included well-prepared French fries, which became my primary sustenance. Then came an inner-city tour, Anya pointing out the official monuments and buildings, Lillian pointing out those that Intourist didn’t want us to know about, such as the pale-yellow building that housed the KGB.

We wandered Red Square, toured St. Basil’s and stood in line for an hour or so to get a glimpse of Lenin in his tomb. Soldiers patrolled the line, making sure there were no cameras or other banned materials. Lenin looked remarkably good for someone dead for 50 years, good enough so that many Western experts believe that he is made from wax.

Each time we re-entered the hotel, we had to dodge a couple of teens wanting to purchase any blue jeans we might have or offering advantageous ruble/dollar exchange rates. A word or two from Anya and they would drift away. Off the hotel lobby there was a “dollar store” where foreigners could purchase Soviet souvenirs, but payment could only be made in U.S. dollars. There was also a bar, popular with late-night drinkers, that likewise only accepted dollars.

From those seeking jeans or dollars, there would be a hurried “nichevo” uttered as they scattered at Anya’s admonition. Lillian explained that the word was the Russian equivalent of an accommodating shrug and the phrase “never mind.” Muscovites, we learned, use the term several times daily – trying to complete a phone call, summoning an elevator, waiting for service from an indifferent waiter.

At our second meal in Moscow, facing another unidentifiable piece of meat, Helen looked at Marie, shrugged and muttered “nichevo”, much to our amusement and Anya’s embarrassment.

After our introduction to Moscow’s official Soviet-dom, we boarded another Aeroflot Tupolev and headed south to Tbilisi, to the area that produced Josef Stalin. And where, according to journalist Hedrick Smith’s knowledgeable account of his Soviet experiences, the Kremlin’s hold had been severely compromised. Georgia, Smith reported, was home to entire off-the-books industries dedicated to producing black-market products destined for Moscow and Leningrad.

We were booked into the Tbilisi Hotel, an establishment on the far side of its glory days. High ceilings, marble staircases, room-size oil paintings – and an all-male dining-room band that could have graced the stage of a 1940s Hollywood movie. Each musician was outfitted in dark dress pants and starched white shirts. When they learned that we were Americans, they broke into “Yankee Doodle” then followed up with “Melancholy Baby” featuring phonetic-English vocals.

Lillian’s experience in Georgia was limited, but she compared it to “more like a sunny Mediterranean country” than the dreary and gray Moscow we had just witnessed. After our check-in, Lillian and I took a walk around downtown. Within a block a boy of about 9 or 10 was following us, trying to flirt with Lillian. She confronted him with a torrent of Russian, sending him running – after he aimed a quick forearm-jerk insult at us, “just like it’s done in Rome,” Lillian noted.

On our walk, we noticed a flyer for a tennis event scheduled a couple of hours later. Featured were Billie Jean King and four other Americans, including John Lloyd, then married to Chrissie Everett. We decided we had to attend.

Back at the hotel, Lillian approached Anya about getting a couple of tickets for the pair of us. “Impossible,” Anya said, noting that we were scheduled to attend the circus at the same time. Lillian then figured out where the tennis was taking place and how we could get there by bus. After arrival, we had no trouble purchasing tickets, even though the venue, a small indoor facility, only held about a thousand fans.

There, after the distraction of the metal-chair brawl on the landing behind us (quickly broken up by Soviet security), we were introduced to the character who would prove to be one of the journey’s most interesting. 

“In Moscow, just ask for Andrei the Great – everyone knows me there,” he told us. 

Lillian and I, seated about 20 rows up, had decided to try to make our presence known to the participating Americans. We yelled “Hey, John” at an appropriately quiet break in the action, assuming that was the last thing Lloyd would be expecting in Soviet Georgia. We were correct – he immediately turned in our direction and, spotting a cute blonde (that would be Lillian), he motioned us down. We were soon sitting with Lloyd (King was involved in her match), the American official in charge of the tour, and the Soviet translater/liaison/keeper, Andrei the Great.

The American official – I don’t remember his name – was obviously taken with Lillian, but she was familiar with such attention and knew how to handle it. During a break in the action, Andrei and Mr. Official invited us back to the locker room for soft drinks. There, we got to know Andrei better.

He looked and sounded like Marty Allen, a Jewish comedian popular at the time: small of stature with an impressive Afro haircut and a distinctive Brooklyn accent. When I suggested that he must have spent time in New York to master English, he said that he had never been outside the Soviet Union and could not leave: “I’m still in trouble over my two divorces and three marriages,” he explained with a grin.

Besides, he contended, he did not want to leave. “I love my country. If I don’t like my job, I don’t pay much attention to my duties, and they give me another job.” Each comment was accompanied by a laugh.

Later, as Lillian and I returned to our hotel, she guessed that Andrei was KGB. The government, she said, would want the U.S. contingent closely watched while they were in the USSR so the apparatchiks would provide someone who spoke perfect English and therefore would be able to understand the meaning behind any probing questions. And any Russian with that kind of English expertise would have received the best training and education, the kind of training provided by the KGB.

When we neared our hotel rooms, Lillian noted that our floor lady was making a phone call – “She is telling Anya that we have returned,” she said, adding with a smile, “Anya will now be able to relax and get a good night’s sleep.”

After Soviet Georgia, we flew east for Uzbekistan, with stops scheduled in Tashkent, Samarkand and Bokhara. Tashkent, the Soviet Union’s fourth largest city at the time, had been the site of a devastating earthquake in 1966 and had been re-built with massive box-like Soviet edifices, official-looking and intimidating. If Tbilisi was more Mediterranean in culture and ambience, Tashkent, with its new buildings proudly utilitarian in their severity, was more a statement of the future as defined by official communism.

Our itinerary included show-off visits to a large center-city park, the country’s largest statue of Lenin, and, in the evening, a ballet.

Lillian had told us that Tashkent was rumored to be the site of a notorious “thieves’ market” where black-market goods were available. One item that supposedly could be found there was lapis lazuli, the semi-precious, intensely blue stone that has been mined in central Asia for centuries.

The next day, after Anya explained that “thieves’ markets” were illegal in the Soviet Union and therefore did not exist, we were taken to a sprawling outdoor market.

 Helen and Marie were looking for lapis lazuli, the rest of us just looking and taking a photo or two. At one point, as I haggled with a skull-capped man over a couple of small gourds that had been fashioned into snuff holders, the seller noticed that one member of our party was taking a picture. He immediately launched a gourd in the direction of the camera. We got the message.

After marveling at piles of melons and tastings of a sticky, grape-juice candy, we went back to the hotel for another meal only made palatable by the stiff shot of ice-cold vodka that served as the aperitif.

And then we were off to a lecture by local officials and a visiting dignitary. The subjects were economics and history. As we were discovering, the authoritative figures we encountered outside of Moscow were, invariably, posted from Moscow. The main speaker was such a figure. And, as a hedge against any slip-ups, his interpreter/translator was a Muscovite as well.

We were not the only English speakers in attendance, but the others were obviously on official business, with economics apparently the interest. At one point, after an inquiry delivered in Russian, the translator, with a surprised glance at the speaker that quickly turned into a pained stare, took the economist to task, while murmurs broke out among the Russian-speakers in the audience.

“Uh, oh – our speaker just made a mistake,” Lillian whispered.

Finally, the translator responded with a muddled jumble of economic catch phrases that brought the lecture to an end. The question, Lillian explained as we prepared to leave, had been an inquiry about the paramount goal of the Soviet system. The answer, delivered forcefully by the economist: “We want to bury the United States.” The translator told him he could not say that – and decided that was an excellent spot to end the talk.

After our check-in at the Samarkand Hotel in the centuries-old central Asian city, we got an irritating, nichevo-generating welcome. The elevator was not functioning and our rooms were on the seventh floor. Help with the bags for some of the older group was provided but I chose to lug my stuff up the stairs. Slowed by my labors, I noticed that each step seemed to be a different height from the one before. 

Setting my bags down, I took a closer look. Though I didn’t try to measure them, it was obvious that there was plenty of variety. Did the height depend on which workman had that job on that day? Had the hotel been constructed by a crew involving Ivan Denisovitch Shukov’s cadre? Or was it simply another example of the nichevo shrug?

Finally settled in my room, I watched as a windstorm hit the city, rust-colored dust blotting out the streets below. Through the centuries Samarkand has been the site of tyrannical raids by Mongol hordes and other ruthless invaders, and I was tempted to see the storm as an ominous sign. Besides, I had earlier agreed to participate in a bit of intrigue that would not set well with the apparatchiks. 

During the flight from Tashkent, Lillian had asked if I would accompany her on an errand after our arrival. A friend from her Leningrad school days was working at the city’s other tourist hotel and he owed her money. “It’s a couple of blocks away from where we are staying,” she said. “But we’ll need to get away without Anya finding out.”

Naturally, I had signed up. 

After the storm blew itself out and we had downed our dinner-time shot of vodka and our fried potatoes, Lillian and I worked out a simple plan.

I would linger in the lobby after dinner until I saw Lillian leave for a “walk.” I would wait a few minutes before following and meeting her a hundred yards or so away at a vacant lot. We would then cross to a parallel street where the other hotel was located. Simple enough.

Then she added, with an accomplice’s wink, “Of course we’ll be followed.”

And we were. Streetlights made our shadows stand out on the building next to the lot – and the shadow of the man following us was also clearly evident.

“He knows we know he’s there,” she whispered. “It’s all part of a game they play.”

Our escort followed us to Hotel Two, where we discovered that Lillian’s friend was no longer employed. As we returned to Hotel One, our companion – and his shadow – lagged several yards behind, finally fading into the darkness as we entered the lobby.

At our first breakfast in Samarkand, Marie brought out her Polaroid camera. Pleased that he had American guests, the hotel manager was hovering around our table, ensuring that everything was suitable. After Marie asked him to smile for a picture, he watched in amazement as the photo emerged from the camera and his image – in color – slowly appeared.

Marie presented him with the picture and he soon was surrounded by his employees, marveling at this instant portrait.

Afterwards, he asked if we had any special meal requests. Our immediate answer was fresh vegetables or fruit.

At our evening meal, each of us found a large bunch of fresh grapes at our seat. And the manager introduced us to his wife. He had showed her his portrait and she had not believed him when he said he got it a minute or two after it was taken. So to convince her, he brought her to work. Naturally, Marie then took a picture of the two of them together. As hotel employees and restaurant guests passed the photo around we enjoyed our fresh grapes.

Unfortunately for several of us, me included, the grapes led to the Czars’ Revenge. Dick, who was not affected, explained that the onslaught did not mean that we had food poisoning: “When your stomach is introduced to bacteria it hasn’t encountered previously, it reacts by quickly sending it on. I guess that my stomach became familiar with that particular bacteria while I was living in India.”

He then generously shared from his cache of Pepto Bismol.

The next day we encountered Timur the Lame – aka Tamerlane – who is generally ranked in the top tier of history’s ruthless conquerors, up there with Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun. Historians estimate that Timur was responsible for 17,000,000 deaths. 

His demise in 1405 (while on the way to do battle with a Sino counterpart) was well-marked and his followers made sure he got a proper burial in his base of operations, Samarkand. In the early 1950s, the tomb, suitably grand for a despot of his fame, had drawn the attention of the Soviets and been spruced up to add credence to their claims of respect for the area’s history. 

So, after we had wondered at the splendors of the Bibi-Khanym mosque, one of Timur’s signature projects, we were taken to his final resting place. Helen noted that she had never expected to be standing near the remains of a murderous despot, and then we got to talking about how we had come to Central Asia, in a part of the Soviet Union that was generally off-limits to Americans until officialdom’s recent “thaw.” I confessed that a movie had been my inspiration.

The film was “The Man Who Would Be King,” based on a Rudyard Kipling story, directed by John Houston and starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. The setting was Baluchistan, a sprawling mountainous site stretching over modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A trip to a travel agent led to the discovery that my best bet for seeing Central Asia was a 22-day tour of the Soviet Union. As bonus, I would spend time in Moscow, Leningrad and Siberia. At the time, I had only a vague notion of Tamerlane, an almost-mythic figure. Now, I was standing only a few feet away from his remains, resting under dirt and stone in a highly polished mausoleum.

But, as our discussion continued, it was pointed out that given the reign of Josef Stalin, it was perhaps a despotic kinship that led to the restoration. Stalin’s brutality, Helen noted, was responsible for an estimated 20,000,000 deaths.

Next stop after Samarkand was Bukhara, close enough so that Aeroflot opted for a propeller-driven airplane, their version of the work-horse DC-3 once common in the U.S. As with our other Aeroflot trips, the plane was at capacity. 

The city, much smaller than Tashkent and Samarkand, seemed more rural in nature. Heaping piles of raw cotton were visible over the tops of walls as we were driven to official tourist sites. Cotton, Anya pointed out, is a primary product of the area, and would be transformed into the brightly colored textiles the area is known for. The textiles were also popular with tourists from Eastern Europe and Russia seeking respite from their gray existence to the north and west.

Centuries-old medresseh and mosques turned into museums awaited tilework restoration. As we had begun to notice, the museums featured at least one elderly female stationed in each room, usually occupying a chair just inside the door. They were there, Lillian said, to keep an eye on us. And they all seemed to be entranced by the clothing worn by the women in our group – its Western style and bright colors in sharp contrast to the drab frumpiness of their attire.

In a small museum, the woman seated next to a highly polished samovar that occupied a place of pride took her eyes off Lillian’s  dress long enough to make sure that I understood I was not to take her picture. Once Lillian explained that I was only interested in the samovar, she grudgingly moved aside so I could get my picture.

As a reminder of its history of brutal rulers, Bukhara’s skyline was dominated by the Kelyan Minaret, built in the 12th century. In addition to its roles as an observation post and pulpit for calls to prayer, it had earned the nickname as the Tower of Death: Criminals and others out of favor with area rulers were thrown to their death from its top.

Other lingering images involve massive fortress walls still intact after a thousand years, and mosaics featuring Chinese dragons as well as Persian peacocks, visual testament to the city’s importance as a stop on the ancient Silk Road.

And, there’s the image accompanying this fragment, a photo representative of what we were witnessing in 1977: an Uzbek leading his cow down an otherwise empty street, taken from the balcony of my room in a modern, multi-level hotel, this one featuring a working elevator.

 Next up was a half-day’s bus trip across the border into Tajikistan, the republic that provided the USSR a buffer from Afghanistan to the south and China to the east.

Intourist wanted us to see an archeological dig near the hamlet of Pendzhikent. Soviet scientists had dug around a centuries-old Zoriastrian site, but from all we could tell, the dig had not been active for decades. Weed-infestation made the “attraction” anticlimactic, so we were driven back to Pendzhikent to visit a small museum.

Featured were a few ancient baubles, but what stood out to me was a display of graphic anti-Islamic propaganda: bloody images of torture and beheadings parroting the official Moscow take on the religion. Anya attempted an excusatory explanation, but since most of us were still having problems with the Czar’s Revenge we were more interested in the museum’s restrooms. And, for a change, at least a couple of the toilets were outfitted with seats.

The ride back to civilization included a stop at a roadside farm commune where female workers were harvesting potatoes and tobacco was drying on racks. Someone in our group noted that both products were new-world discoveries, which was news to Anya. But our visit was not a planned educational one – it was another bathroom stop.

By air, Eastern Uzbekistan to Irkutsk involves a flight of more than 3,000 miles – we would land in Tashkent and transfer from a small prop-jet to a larger craft. Simple enough in the U.S., but as we eventually learned, complicated in the Soviet Union. After deplaning at Tashkent’s modern airport, we were ushered into the vast lounge set aside for foreign travelers, which we had to ourselves. Through a glass window we could see the much busier departure area for Soviet travelers, just below us.

As we waited to board the plane for our next leg – between trips to the bathroom – we played cards, we read, we talked with each other, we wondered what was taking so long. I decided to take advantage of the empty space to get some exercise by walking from end to end. 

After much discussion, Lillian decided that she needed to visit the airport’s clinic for help with her stomach problem. Her report back to us: “They decided I needed to eat more, which is the last thing I need to do. All I got was the typical nichevo response.”

We played cards some more, we refined our grousing, Helen and Marie joined me in walking, introducing military-style cadence until the others let us know that we were no longer amusing. Anya, becoming more and more frustrated, would make periodic trips downstairs seeking information. Finally, someone mentioned that all our flights had been at capacity. And Lillian said, “that’s it – they’re waiting until every seat has been filled.”

If she was correct – and she probably was – potential travelers were having too much fun in Tashkent to continue their journeys, postponing departure until the next day. We were taken back to the Tashkent Hotel – without our luggage – as the flight was rescheduled for the next day. Fortunately, since the hotel was new the toilets still had their seats.

The view from our jet was of miles of desert wasteland until we neared Kazekstan’s then-capital, Alma Ata, a re-fueling stop. We were now in the ancient homeland of the Sythes, one of the brutal nomad groups that dominated central Asia and had periodically threatened southern Europe in centuries past.

We had a couple of hours, so I decided to get outside the airport to try and appease my own nomadic yen by wandering around a bit. I managed to slip by Anya, but the airport was far removed from the rest of the city, so I didn’t go far, settling for an unobstructed view of the Tien Shen Mountains. The range defines the border with China.

Eventually, the Czar’s Revenge forced me back into the airport. But at least I could tell my friends that I had seen China, only admitting when pressed that it was from a couple of hundred miles away.

Late afternoon, we arrived in Irkutsk, unofficial capital of Siberia. A frontier atmosphere was dominant – wooden frame houses with firewood stacked outside, oxen-pulled work wagons on city streets, beat-up vehicles re-purposed as residences perched on high spots along the roiling Angara River and its tributaries. And the area’s bloody Soviet history underlined that impression.

Many of the Russians involved in the Decembrist Revolution of the early 1800s were exiled to the city, then again after the October revolution of 1917. During the latter, the area was the site of fierce battles between the Reds and the Whites. 

We were domiciled at the Angara Hotel, an older downtown facility. Its location, I realized, would help in the daybreak excursions I was determined to make – I could easily walk to the shores of the Angara River a bit farther east.

At dinner, the hotel chef presented us with a welcome surprise – a golden aspic featuring a variety of mushrooms. Unfortunately, most of us could only nibble at it thanks to the wrathful grapes of Samarkand.

After dinner there was another circus, this one highlighted by bears playing ice hockey. The crowd was more enthusiastic than the bears, but at least the action wasn’t marred by chair-throwing fans like we had seen at the tennis matches in Tbilisi.

Daybreak the next morning I was at a bridge over a small tributary of the Angara shooting pictures when I heard the clip-clop of horses and turned to be greeted by a friendly pair of Buryats on a wagon.

Then, as I realized breakfast time was near and I didn’t want to face Anya’s ire, I headed back to the hotel. Within a block or so I heard a familiar sound – a female was leading an exercise group in a small park. A peek through the shrubbery revealed a dozen or so women working out to the recorded voice from a Soviet boom box. And the voice’s familiarity made sense now that I could hear her clearly. It was a Jane Fonda tape.

After an hour-long drive the next day we arrived at a small settlement on the shore of Lake Baikal, the deepest and oldest in the world. There we toured a museum devoted to the lake’s water residents, many of which are found only in Baikal. Lunch – involving fish, of course – was in a modern facility overlooking the water. 

Afterward, I attracted the attention of a goat, who followed me around as we checked out the wooden houses and their hand-carved frames and eaves. With snow swirling, the decision was made to return to Irkutsk. As I climbed back on board our bus, the nanny followed, finally being removed by the driver, her bleats sounding eerily like “nichevo.” The consensus of my fellow travelers was that she was attracted to my ragged beard.

We departed Irkutsk the next morning for Leningrad, our journey involving five time-zone changes, two refueling stops and a switch to a different jet in Moscow.

Our landing for fuel in Novosibersk provided a scare. The jet – at passenger capacity, of course – taxied to the end of the runway, and turned to proceed to the terminal. Then the engines abruptly shut down. We sat and waited, and waited, and waited. There were nervous murmurs. Then someone noticed a fire truck headed in our direction with lights flashing. The murmurs became louder. Finally, Lillian got an explanation from a stewardess: The fire truck was needed to restart the jet engines. Soon, we were in the air again.

By the time of our visit to Leningrad, thanks to the persistence of the Czar’s Revenge and the always-present Soviet atmosphere of repression and its resultant fear, I was looking forward to returning to the USA. But Leningrad provided a final ray of sun despite overcast skies. 

Interestingly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Russia was quick to return the city’s pre-USSR name. St. Petersburg is much more suited considering the city’s Italian baroque architecture, its arts orientation, and its working, up-to-date facilities, many of which were built in Finland with a resultant Scandinavian-modern vibe.

Our schedule included the Hermitage, with its rich collection of Impressionist paintings, and Petrodverets, the summer palace of Peter the Great with its tricked-up carousels. Our hotel was outfitted in Scandinavian-modern and overlooked the Aurora, the World War I ship that played a key role in the Bolshevik uprising that led to the establishment of the Soviet Union.

After a chance encounter with a poster touting a performance at the Kirov theater, Helen, Marie and I decided to see if we could obtain tickets. We were successful, but discovered that the staging was of “Eugene Onegin,” a Tchaikovsky opera, instead of the ballet we thought we would be attending. But we had good seats, the theater was beautiful, and I assume the performance was up to par. It was my first operatic experience, so I won’t venture a critique.

Before the opera began, I noticed a family in one of the private balcony boxes that included a girl of about 14. She was equipped with opera glasses and she had them trained on us. We synchronized a wave at her and were suitably rewarded with an embarrassed smile, then after whispers from her mother, the girl’s binoculars were put away.

At intermission, we ventured from the auditorium in search of a drink – and found a charming custom from the past. There was a room set aside for promenading, with couples marching around, two by two, on a rectangular carpet as others watched and whispered among themselves. We assumed that the dress of the females was the primary topic.

Once we had returned to the hotel, I re-packed my bags, climbed into bed and, looking forward to the return home, fell asleep. Then, only a few minutes later, I was jolted awake by loud explosions. After shaking the sleep-fog from my head, I looked out the window and discovered fireworks exploding over the Aurora. The city was celebrating a newly approved constitution, I learned at breakfast. But we interpreted the fireworks differently – they provided a suitable departure for us.

The next day Lillian and I took advantage of a two-hour refueling stop in Paris with a simple meal at an airport café. We agreed that the feast – a freshly baked baguette accompanied by a soft, flavorful cheese and cold Dutch beer – was the perfect welcome back to a world where such treats were normal. All I remember of the final leg back to Dulles was that I had no problem sleeping.

Hillbilly Tales

During the Christmas holidays a few years back I got a phone call from a Boston friend. His first words were “Well, I just had a Flannery O’Connor experience.”

Now, my friend is a true Bostonian – born in Boston, went to college in Boston, entire journalism career working in Boston. But he had recently married a woman from eastern North Carolina, and he had spent the Christmas holidays with her family, way south of his geographical comfort zone.

My friend usually is not fazed by new experiences, but too much of his knowledge of the South has been based on conversations with me and other newspaper veterans from south of the Mason-Dixon. And we Southerners are known to exaggerate when talking about our background, and, perhaps more damning, to nurture eccentricity in fellow Southerners to ensure we have dependable sources for our tales.

I wanted details, and he quickly obliged. The day after Christmas, it seems, featured generous amounts of alcohol, runaway ice, and a pair of great-uncles, one of whom had lost his driver’s license because of DUI incidents. “Instead of Over the River and Through the Woods,” he said, “the excursion was Over the Highway and Through the Fields.”

Early on the 26th, one of his bride’s uncles – we’ll call him Doc – made the decision to visit HIS uncle, who lived a few miles away. There they met up with the great-uncle, who will be Buster here, and his brother. “Since the loss of his driver’s license,” my friend continued, “the brother kept up with his relatives by driving through farm fields to the highway, then looking around to make sure there was no evidence of the constabulary before gunning his vehicle across the road.”

As Doc and my friend arrived at Buster’s, the first thing they noticed “was one of those Chevrolet Impalas from the ‘70s, you know, about the size of Indiana; it was parked in the front yard with a “For Sale” sign stuck inside the windshield.

“After a moonshine-fueled welcome from the great-uncles-in-law, the bourbon came out, and we were introduced to Buster’s new refrigerator, which featured an ice-maker and dispenser in the door. The bourbon required ice, of course, but Buster had not mastered the dispenser and ice was soon flying all over the kitchen. It was like ice-skating on linoleum.

“When I went to the bathroom, there were four stand-up urinals. I guess they were from an old theater or some public building and he had gotten a deal on ‘em. They were all connected to the plumbing; if you’re going to plumb one, might as well plumb them all.

“The bourbon kept flowing, and the flying ice was making it more difficult to maneuver, so I started taking small sips to regulate my intake – someone had to stay sober. That turned out to be the best decision, as it was decided that I should see the beaver dam down on the other side of the farm, and since I possessed a valid driver’s license I was drafted to be the wheelman.

 “The for-sale sign was removed from the Chevy and we set off across the fields. The car apparently still had its original shocks and the fields had exacted a heavy toll. Controlling the Impala on North Carolina farm fields in December was like handling a winter sled in New England. The tires were baloney skins and a lot of quick spinning of the steering wheel was the only way to keep the car from bogging down in mud. 

Sure, there was a beaver dam on the creek, which I think was probably the farm’s border.  It had flooded maybe a low acre, and the adjacent saplings had suffered the beavers’ craftsmanship. Not a beaver in sight.  So, for all of the build-up and transportation perils what we had was essentially a visit to an irrigation pond.

“As I started the drive back to the farmhouse, I worried I would never gain traction. And I was NOT walking back through those barren, furrowed acres with three drunk Tarheels, who seemed unconcerned – or oblivious – to any potential predicament.

 “A successful return trip, I suppose, was all that kept my motoring skills from being the most memorable aspect of the outing. Funny what passes for holiday entertainment in Dorches, North Carolina.”

Prose Strikes Out

 First published in The Boston Globe, April 1994

The scribes, stimulated by the sunshine of Fort Myers, have filed their first spring-training stories, thrown out their first cliches of the season.

  And as sure as the hopeful reports will continue from City of Palms Park, as sure as the Mets — individually and en masse — will do something juvenile, baseball’s great myth, its greatest cliche, will again be perpetrated.

  The literary lions will send back their musings about the boys of summer, about baseball as metaphor, about baseball as life itself. And once again, the seemingly intelligent among the fans will embrace their words, smiling at sentences praising baseball as the intellectual sport, as the pastime for thinkers.

  A W.P. Kinsella will print it and they will come. A John Updike will describe a “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark” and they will look at each other and nod knowingly. A David Halberstam will windily proclaim that the game will seem “more than almost anything else … to symbolize normalcy.”

  The game will transcend other, less intellectual sports and become The Game. “Grace” and “elegance” and “ballet” will appear in the same sentences as “double play” and “shoe-top catch.” George Will, in his laborious way, will rhapsodize about the Craft and what it requires in watching. “Being a serious baseball fan, meaning an informed and attentive and observant fan … is doing something that makes demands on the mind of the doer,” he writes in “Men at Work.”

  But as the exhibition games begin, the observant fan will note overweight human caricatures grotesquely stuffed into stretched knit uniforms. Patient, he will watch as they make obscene adjustments. Attentive, he will notice the oozing tobacco spittle and how it forms a brown accent line on the chin, as effective as face paint in establishing a clown.

  He will stand and yell when these comic characters rush at each other, arms flailing, and fall to the ground in imitation of professional wrestling. He will shake his head when managers and umpires stand belly to belly, heads wagging, mouths moving.

  After the game, maybe these grotesques will grace the fan with lighted firecrackers, if there’s still time after they’ve sprayed bleach at sportswriters or invectives at their teammates. The more intelligent of those fans will be safe at home when the clowns hold the bar-brawl ritual that often enough closes their day’s activity.

  And the writers will continue their homage. Baseball is, Will continues, “a game that rewards, and thus elicits, a remarkable level of intelligence from those who compete.”

  Are you listening, Vince Coleman? Lenny Dykstra? Jose Canseco, Wade Boggs, Jack Clark, Oil Can Boyd, Rob Dibble, Roger Clemens? And Pete Rose and Steve Howe and Denny McLain and Dwight Gooden?

  And how about those who manage and own? George Steinbrenner and Rose again? And, attempting gender equity in baseball burlesque, Marge Schott? Their predecessors include Billy Martin, Horace Stoneman, Bill Veeck and Charles Finley.

  In 1983, only a year after a cocaine scandal in the Kansas City Royals clubhouse, Sparky Anderson, pennant-winning manager and revered baseball mind, profoundly observed, “In the old days, 24 of the 25 guys on every team were drunk. Today, nobody hardly drinks anymore, and very few take drugs.”

  Warren Giles, the president of the National League, was asked about drugs in 1969. “It has never come up, and I don’t think it ever will,” he proclaimed. Over in the American League, spokesman Bob Holbrook agreed: “Baseball players don’t use those types of things.”

  Their thoughts, obviously, were on the higher truths of The Game.

  The players, with their “remarkable level of intelligence,”
 were finding higher truth in other ways.

  Dock Ellis, who partied with Jimi Hendrix and pitched a no-hitter for the Pirates under the influence of LSD in 1970, told an interviewer after his career was finished: “I was using everything, I mean everything. For about eight or nine years, I was an addict.”

  Bob Uecker, once a journeyman catcher and now a beer pitchman, found his high the old-fashioned way. “Anybody can play sober,” he once said. “I liked to get out there and play liquored up.”

  Still, Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post sportswriter, can muse on The Game’s “sense of moderation — of both physical and emotional temperance.”

  And novelist George V. Higgins can write, “Baseball is to our everyday experience what poetry often is to common speech — a slightly elevated and concentrated form.”

  Maybe the writers view the display on the field (and off) as the ancient Romans did their spectator “games”: aristocracy enjoying the skills — and follies — of the plebeian class.

  Or maybe it isn’t really The Game itself, but the musings themselves, as William Zinsser wisely noted in his book, “Spring Training”: “Writing about baseball seemed to be some kind of validating rite for the American male.”
  Or maybe it is simple guilt. A baseball game consumes several hours, time that could be spent on the Great American Novel, on an insightful political treatise, or a profound philosophical tome. The game must be elevated to The Game to atone for wasted time.

  That’s the way Sinclair Lewis saw it. Cocking a cynical eye on the lower-case game in his novel “Babbitt,” Lewis wrote: “But the game was a custom of his clan and it gave outlet for the homicidal and sides-taking instincts which Babbitt called ‘patriotism’ and ‘love of sport.’ No sense a man’s working his fool head off. I’m going to the game three days a week.”

Restless Native

Holbert’s

 

By Chris Wohlwend

 

Holbert’s Cash Grocery was one of those neighborhood spots that were common before supermarkets and fast-food behemoths drove them out of business. You could get a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread or a can of beans without having to drive to the business district.

 

There was Nelson’s, which was only a block east of Fair Garden School, close enough to get a Grapette after the final bell, or, if you lived in Park City, Pinkston’s on Olive Street, easy walking distance from Park Junior High School. Many also served hot dogs, hamburgers, or, sometimes, fried bologna sandwiches.

 

A hot dog could be had for a dime, a bologna sandwich or hamburger for a quarter. A couple of chili dogs, a bag of chips and a cold drink – what else was needed for a meal that was long on taste if short on nutrition?

 

At Holbert’s, I would take whatever empty soft-drink bottles I could round up and turn them in for two cents each. If I had enough empties, I had the price of a cold Grapette.

 

But the bottles had to be damage-free. The man who ran Holbert’s would sometimes refuse to accept a soft-drink bottle, pointing out a small chip that he said made it worthless. Once when I was in his store, he caught a kid trying to cheat him out of a penny gumball. I don’t remember the details – it might have been a penny-sized slug. He told the perp that if he ever saw him in his store again he would call the police.

 

His attitude was understandable given his clientele. His store sat on top of the ridge that defined Burlington’s southern boundary, at the corner of Fern Street and Skyline Drive.

 

The south side of the ridge was peppered with small, run-down houses, some of which had never gotten beyond tar-paper siding. I sometimes delivered the afternoon paper on that side of the ridge, helping out one of my neighbors who had the route. Scruffy dogs could make the job chancy. Collection days often meant payment in pennies – if there was payment at all.

 

It was the neighborhood of a couple of boys I first met at Holbert’s – Foxx and Crowder. I didn’t know them from Fair Garden; they apparently had decided to forego formal schooling.

 

I never knew where Crowder called home, but Foxx lived a few doors beyond Holbert’s. And he joined us when we decided to dig a hideout into the side of a hill in the woods between our house and Holbert’s. There we could escape younger siblings and the neighborhood’s nosy old ladies.

 

A meeting at the hideout featured a lot of big talk, and Foxx would sometimes demonstrate how to smoke cigarettes. I don’t remember any of us taking up his dare on the fags, but I do remember that he confessed that his old man was in prison for selling marijuana.

 

Of course he had to explain what marijuana was. He went on to helpfully tell us how his dad would empty half of the tobacco out of a Lucky Strike and replace it with pot. He was caught, Foxx said, with an entire carton of Luckies that he had meticulously loaded.

 

Once I started high school the hideout was forgotten and I only saw Foxx occasionally. He and Crowder were boxing fans and I sometimes ran into them at Golden Gloves matches at the Jacobs Building in Chilhowee Park.

 

But the last time I heard anything about the pair was several years later, when I was living in Kentucky, working for The Louisville Times newspaper.

 

I had picked up a copy of The Knoxville Journal and discovered a story that featured Foxx and Crowder and the East Knoxville area where we had lived.

There had been a middle-of-the-night gathering in a wooded section alongside the Holston River behind the country club golf course. I knew the spot – I had camped there when I was in the Boy Scouts.

 

There was a bonfire and a lot of alcohol. Crowder had either jumped or was thrown into the river. He didn’t surface – his body was found the next day.

 

I called a Burlington acquaintance for details. “There were quite a few of them partying,” he told me. “And they’d been going since the middle of the afternoon. It was well after midnight when he went in.”

 

“I’ve heard,” he added, “that they think Foxx may have shoved him in, either just horsing around or on-purpose.”

 

Given the alcohol, the time of the night, the reputations – and rap sheets – of those present, the authorities eventually ended their investigation and Crowder’s death was ruled an accident.

 

By then, the site of Holbert’s, which had closed decades earlier, was a trash-strewn lot.

Holbert’s Grocery

Holbert’s

Holbert’s Cash Grocery was one of those neighborhood spots that were common before supermarkets and fast-food behemoths drove them out of business. You could get a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread or a can of beans without having to drive to the business district.

There was Nelson’s, which was only a block east of Fair Garden School, close enough to get a Grapette after the final bell, or, if you lived in Park City, Pinkston’s on Olive Street, easy walking distance from Park Junior High School. Many also served hot dogs, hamburgers, or, sometimes, fried bologna sandwiches.

A hot dog could be had for a dime, a bologna sandwich or hamburger for a quarter. A couple of chili dogs, a bag of chips and a cold drink – what else was needed for a meal that was long on taste if short on nutrition?

At Holbert’s, I would take whatever empty soft-drink bottles I could round up and turn them in for two cents each. If I had enough empties, I had the price of a cold Grapette.

But the bottles had to be damage-free. The man who ran Holbert’s would sometimes refuse to accept a soft-drink bottle, pointing out a small chip that he said made it worthless. Once when I was in his store, he caught a kid trying to cheat him out of a penny gumball. I don’t remember the details – it might have been a penny-sized slug. He told the perp that if he ever saw him in his store again he would call the police.

His attitude was understandable given his clientele. His store sat on top of the ridge that defined Burlington’s southern boundary, at the corner of Fern Street and Skyline Drive.

The south side of the ridge was peppered with small, run-down houses, some of which had never gotten beyond tar-paper siding. I sometimes delivered the afternoon paper on that side of the ridge, helping out one of my neighbors who had the route. Scruffy dogs could make the job chancy. Collection days often meant payment in pennies – if there was payment at all.

It was the neighborhood of a couple of boys I first met at Holbert’s – Foxx and Crowder. I didn’t know them from Fair Garden; they apparently had decided to forego formal schooling.

I never knew where Crowder called home, but Foxx lived a few doors beyond Holbert’s. And he joined us when we decided to dig a hideout into the side of a hill in the woods between our house and Holbert’s. There we could escape younger siblings and the neighborhood’s nosy old ladies.

A meeting at the hideout featured a lot of big talk, and Foxx would sometimes demonstrate how to smoke cigarettes. I don’t remember any of us taking up his dare on the fags, but I do remember that he confessed that his old man was in prison for selling marijuana.

Of course he had to explain what marijuana was. He went on to helpfully tell us how his dad would empty half of the tobacco out of a Lucky Strike and replace it with pot. He was caught, Foxx said, with an entire carton of Luckies that he had meticulously loaded.

Once I started high school the hideout was forgotten and I only saw Foxx occasionally. He and Crowder were boxing fans and I sometimes ran into them at Golden Gloves matches at the Jacobs Building in Chilhowee Park.

But the last time I heard anything about the pair was several years later, when I was living in Kentucky, working for The Louisville Times newspaper.

I had picked up a copy of The Knoxville Journal and discovered a story that featured Foxx and Crowder and the East Knoxville area where we had lived.

There had been a middle-of-the-night gathering in a wooded section alongside the Holston River behind the country club golf course. I knew the spot – I had camped there when I was in the Boy Scouts.

There was a bonfire and a lot of alcohol. Crowder had either jumped or was thrown into the river. He didn’t surface – his body was found the next day.

I called a Burlington acquaintance for details. “There were quite a few of them partying,” he told me. “And they’d been going since the middle of the afternoon. It was well after midnight when he went in.”

“I’ve heard,” he added, “that they think Foxx may have shoved him in, either just horsing around or on-purpose.”

Given the alcohol, the time of the night, the reputations – and rap sheets – of those present, the authorities eventually ended their investigation and Crowder’s death was ruled an accident.

By then, the site of Holbert’s, which had closed decades earlier, was a trash-strewn lot.

The founding of the zoo

 The founding of the zoo

Two of my uncles, with assistance from a couple of baby alligators, founded Knoxville’s zoo. At least, that’s the story my mother told me. But I don’t want to mislead – the founding came about not as a noble act aimed at educating the general population. It happened as the result of a prank.

My mother and her four brothers grew up in Burlington, on Lakeside Street, the short thoroughfare that forms the eastern boundary of Chilhowee Park. So they had a vast playground, complete with its own body of water, Lake Ottosee. The park had wildlife – songbirds and ducks and fish. So my uncles can be forgiven for thinking that alligators would be a natural, if not altogether welcome, addition.

One summer in the late 1930s. as my mother told the story, Uncle Kenneth and Uncle Maynard, then in their late teens, made a trip to Florida. There, they discovered tourist stops that sold live baby alligators. And they decided that alligator mississipiensis would be right at home in Burlington. Their motives, as my mother related them, were completely innocent. She contended that they did not think of introducing them into Lake Ottosee, that they believed that my grandmother would welcome them into the household. Besides, she said, they were not thinking about the gators multiplying – they thought both babies were male, even naming them Kenneth and Maynard. Or maybe it was my grandmother who bestowed the monikers. My mother said she could not remember for sure.

But conversations that I had with my uncles when I was a teen-ager made me think that their intent was more devious, that, from the beginning, they saw the lake as the natural home for the pair.

Understandably, my grandmother wasn’t enamored of the horny new arrivals. A dog and a cat were pets enough, she reasoned. (The chickens that had the run of the backyard were not pets – they were there to supply food.) So, before they had time to make friends with the dog and cat, before they had grown enough to take more than a passing interest in the chickens, the gators were transported to the lake and set free.

Initially, it being summer and the water being studded with fuzzy ducklings, Kenneth and Maynard had easy pickings at mealtime. But as the ducklings – and the gators – matured mealtime became noisier, with whipping tails and panicky squawking and feathery splashing. Children fishing from the banks for sunfish took notice. Soon, Kenneth and Maynard were well on their way to becoming the stuff of urban legend.

Children and their parents informed park personnel, who were at first skeptical – until they witnessed snack-time themselves. Traps were set and the pair soon imprisoned.

But then the park’s overseers faced the problem of what to do with a couple of fast-growing alligators. An idea was hatched, and, on the hill facing the lake from the west side of the park, a pen was constructed, with a small pond and a few rocks. The alligators, at least, could view their former home, with its duck population, from their new digs.

Later, they would be joined on the hill by a pair of lions (named Romeo and Juliet), a troop of monkeys, fowl ranging from noisy guineas to showy peacocks to pushy pigeons taking advantage of the park-provided food intended for the official residents. Eventually, Ole Diamond, the elephant generally credited with being the catalyst of today’s first-rate zoological garden, would join them.

But, in my family, Kenneth and Maynard, two scaley Florida fugitives named for their rescuers, were the true founders of the zoo.

The founding of the zoo

 

Two of my uncles, with assistance from a couple of baby alligators, founded Knoxville’s zoo. At least, that’s the story my mother told me. But I don’t want to mislead – the founding came about not as a noble act aimed at educating the general population. It happened as the result of a prank.

My mother and her four brothers grew up in Burlington, on Lakeside Street, the short thoroughfare that forms the eastern boundary of Chilhowee Park. So they had a vast playground, complete with its own body of water, Lake Ottosee. The park had wildlife – songbirds and ducks and fish. So my uncles can be forgiven for thinking that alligators would be a natural, if not altogether welcome, addition.

One summer in the late 1930s. as my mother told the story, Uncle Kenneth and Uncle Maynard, then in their late teens, made a trip to Florida. There, they discovered tourist stops that sold live baby alligators. And they decided that alligator mississipiensis would be right at home in Burlington. Their motives, as my mother related them, were completely innocent. She contended that they did not think of introducing them into Lake Ottosee, that they believed that my grandmother would welcome them into the household. Besides, she said, they were not thinking about the gators multiplying – they thought both babies were male, even naming them Kenneth and Maynard. Or maybe it was my grandmother who bestowed the monikers. My mother said she could not remember for sure.

But conversations that I had with my uncles when I was a teen-ager made me think that their intent was more devious, that, from the beginning, they saw the lake as the natural home for the pair.

Understandably, my grandmother wasn’t enamored of the horny new arrivals. A dog and a cat were pets enough, she reasoned. (The chickens that had the run of the backyard were not pets – they were there to supply food.) So, before they had time to make friends with the dog and cat, before they had grown enough to take more than a passing interest in the chickens, the gators were transported to the lake and set free.

Initially, it being summer and the water being studded with fuzzy ducklings, Kenneth and Maynard had easy pickings at mealtime. But as the ducklings – and the gators – matured mealtime became noisier, with whipping tails and panicky squawking and feathery splashing. Children fishing from the banks for sunfish took notice. Soon, Kenneth and Maynard were well on their way to becoming the stuff of urban legend.

Children and their parents informed park personnel, who were at first skeptical – until they witnessed snack-time themselves. Traps were set and the pair soon imprisoned.

But then the park’s overseers faced the problem of what to do with a couple of fast-growing alligators. An idea was hatched, and, on the hill facing the lake from the west side of the park, a pen was constructed, with a small pond and a few rocks. The alligators, at least, could view their former home, with its duck population, from their new digs.

Later, they would be joined on the hill by a pair of lions (named Romeo and Juliet), a troop of monkeys, fowl ranging from noisy guineas to showy peacocks to pushy pigeons taking advantage of the park-provided food intended for the official residents. Eventually, Ole Diamond, the elephant generally credited with being the catalyst of today’s first-rate zoological garden, would join them.

But, in my family, Kenneth and Maynard, two scaley Florida fugitives named for their rescuers, were the true founders of the zoo.