Russian Language School

It was October in Indiana, 1964, and from the back seat of the taxicab, I watched the piles of yellow leaves along the street swirl up into the air in the wake of our passing.

Early in the morning the day before, dressed in my Air Force uniform, I had climbed onto a Greyhound bus and left Laramie, Wyoming behind. There was a dusting of snow on the ground when I left and a cold, dry wind blowing that had tugged at my garrison cap.  Here in Bloomington, Indiana, the lowering sun still warmed the pavement. The humid air had a different odor. It had that earthy smell of things still growing, unwilling to finally give it over and slide into dormancy. It was a time for planting the kinds of seeds that would wait underground for months before finally breaking into the spring sunlight.

Being that twenty-four hours on a cross-country bus can turn your brain into overcooked meatloaf, it will come as no surprise that I have no memory of signing-in, talking to anyone, or dragging my old suitcase up to my room. I was hanging uniforms up in the closet when a guy stuck his head in the door and introduced himself. He had been on the program for three months already, and I guess had appointed himself head of the Welcome Wagon for the new guys on this particular floor. He may have said some interesting things, but only one got through the afore-mentioned burnt meatloaf.

“People from Indiana,” he said, “are known as ‘Hoosiers.’ The Russian word that is pronounced ‘hoozheh’ means ‘worse.’ And that about says it all, man.”

After I had eaten and then slept for nearly ten hours, I began to feel somewhat human again and was able to process my surroundings. Bloomington, Indiana was a small Midwestern town surrounding a huge, Big 10 university campus. Thirty thousand young Hoosiers had come here to binge drink, have sex, and possibly even get an education on the side. They probably still do. On the edge of the IU campus at that time and covering about one city block, stood a small group of buildings belonging to the US Air Force. This was the USAF/IU Russian Language Training Program. Every three months about a hundred airmen fresh out of Basic Training would come in to replace the group that had just graduated. A year later, those airmen would leave the school having, if not fluency, then a fairly good ability to speak and understand the Russian language – especially the military terms.

During the thirty-five years that Stalin ruled Soviet Russia, more than three million Russians were forced to flee their country and find a life elsewhere. Compared to the twenty million who died from starvation, were executed, or froze to death in Siberian labor camps, the refugees were the lucky ones. From this long, nightmarish tragedy, one bright light did appear. Stalin provided native Russian speakers to teach American Airmen his language.

It’s funny, but in the more-than-fifty-years since I was at that school. My Russian skills have all but disappeared. “Hello,” “goodbye,” “go to Hell,” and “I want to sleep with you” are about all that remain. And yet, I can remember several of the native Russians who taught us as clearly as if I left there just last week. Each of them had a different story about how and why they left their native land and the paths that took them, finally, to the United States.

Paretsky rarely talked about his adventures, only that he had been an officer in the Soviet Army and was assigned to a company guarding the Finnish border. One night, he packed a little traveling bag and walked into the forest. An hour later, he was knocking on the door of a farmhouse in Finland. More than that, he would not say. I think he felt he was still an officer and was not comfortable telling enlisted men about his life.

On the other hand, Marya Borisovna was as garrulous as Paretsky was reserved. She had been one of the children in a family of Kulaks. When Stalin came to power in the late 1920s, all the agricultural land in the new Soviet Union was privately owned. If you were one of these landowners, you were a Kulak. When the Kulaks were told that the government now owned their land, everything on it, and everything it produced, the Kulaks were understandably upset and tried to resist. So the local Commissars divided the Kulaks into three groups – those who were to be shot, those who were to be transported to Siberian labor camps, and those who were to be thrown out of the country. Marya Borisovna’s family was among the exiles.

I don’t know how they got the order, but I can well imagine some pompous little blacksmith’s assistant turned bureaucrat showing up at the farmhouse door and telling them to be ready to leave in forty-eight hours.

After a long train ride south, they were marched across the border into Afghanistan and dumped. They were allowed to take nothing with them except the clothes on their backs. Marya Borisovna told us that it was her mother’s foresight that not only allowed the family to survive but made it possible for them all to immigrate to the United States. During the few days they had between being notified of what was to happen and the actual rounding-up by the Red Army, Marya’s mother had gone through her jewelry and carefully removed every gemstone. Then she and the older girls wrapped each of the stones in cloth and used them to replace the buttons on the family’s clothing. They were stopped and thoroughly searched several times on their way to the border, but their guards never twigged to the fact that the women’s dresses and the men’s waistcoats were all fastened with slightly odd-shaped cloth buttons. By judiciously selling a few here and a few there, the jewels lasted until they were safely housed in an apartment in lower Brooklyn, not far from Coney Island.

The most imposing figure of the “White” Russians who taught us was a tall, craggy man with white hair and an ugly scar on the left side of his scalp that started at his hairline and went back a few inches. He carried himself with the kind of quiet dignity that comes from going through Hell and surviving. This was Boris Nikolayevich Dubkov. He had been in the Red Army during World War Two (The Russians call it “The Great Patriotic War”) and rose to the rank of Starshina which corresponds to our Master Sergeant. Dubkov served in a T-34 tank as driver and second-in-command. To get the full effect of G-n Dubkov telling us his story, you have to imagine a tall man in a well-tailored suit with a deeply-accented rumbling voice. He holds a cigarette backward in the Russian manner and waves it around as he talks.

”In Battle of Kursk, I drive tank out of forest. See Panzer tank. Blow up Panzer tank. Turn to right, see another Panzer tank. It has machine gun shooting. Bullets come in through viewing window. One bullet hit here (he points to the scar on his scalp). Second bullet goes in here (he points to the lower inside corner of his right eye socket). Bullet comes out here (he points to the inside of his left ear). Many months in hospital. I do not die. But in this ear, I hear nothing, only bells. All of the time… only bells.”

Father Belitsky had been a Russian Orthodox priest for most of his long, adult life. He was ordained shortly before the 1917 revolution. Though the Bolsheviks had closed the churches and outlawed religious ceremonies, Father Belitsky, by being very careful, continued to secretly provide religious services to the people who needed them. It wasn’t until after the War that an informant betrayed him and he had to leave the country or be arrested. After we had been at the school for a few months and had begun to understand a little bit of the language, Father Belitsky invited a couple of us, John Zavacky and I, to witness a Mass. He had made the living room of his little house into a small church by setting up three short rows of folding chairs and covering the walls with painted wooden icons of different saints. Afterward, John and I joined him at his little kitchen table for shots of vodka with black pepper and a part-English, part Russian, and part-pantomime conversation.

My favorite Instructor, mostly because he was such a character, was Teodor Petrovich Gunisovsky. He was a Russian-speaking Ukrainian and was living in that Province of the CCCP when the Germans broke the Non-Aggression Pact and invaded in June of 1941. Having lived under Stalin for the past 15 years, thousands of Ukrainians thought “Anything has got to be better than this monster” and not only surrendered to the Germans but offered to help them defeat Stalin. G-n Gunisovsky was among these people. Had Hitler taken the deal, his combined army would probably have taken Moscow, and eventually the whole country, in a walk. Instead, he and his high command pronounced all Slavs to be “subhuman,” and tossed them into prison camps.

Gunisovsky and his fellow turncoats spent nearly two years in the German prison camp and were finally liberated by the counter-attacking Red Army in early 1943. But before the inmates could say “Dogi, ispolnyay svoy dolg!” (Feet, do your duty!), the Russian High Command realized who they were and threw them all into Russian prison camps. Gunisovsky spent another three or four years, barely avoiding death by starvation and frostbite, in several camps high in the Ural Mountains, a beautiful, but nearly trackless wilderness, about 1500 miles northeast of Moscow. Then one day he decided it was time to try to escape to the West. On foot. And he made it. The journey covered well over two thousand miles. It would be like walking cross-country from Chicago to San Francisco. Taking no main roads and avoiding anyone who looked like a Communist Party member, he depended on peasants for some food now and then and for a hayloft to sleep in. Here’s the kicker. While in the mountains, he had suffered snow-blindness so frequently that his corneas were permanently scarred. He was nearly blind.

Our names made as little sense to the Russians as their names to us. Most of them just relied on the plastic nameplates we all wore over our right breast-pockets. But Gunisovsky preferred to make up nicknames for his students. One guy, for example, was “Red-Eyed Devil” because he was frequently hungover. Another was “Airman Bigboots” because of his enormous feet. I was “Yazychnik.” The word translates as “barbarian” but its root is “the tongued one.” When one of my friends told Gunisovsky that I could touch the tip of my nose with my tongue, he called me in for a demonstration. I complied and was immediately awarded the name. Soon after, he was standing in the hallway with some other teachers when he saw me, called me over, and had me show them. Then he said something in Russian which doubled the other instructors over. Later, he told me the translation. “The Post Office should pay him to stand next to the mail slot as a service to people with stamps and envelopes.”

It may have been that the Stalinist autocracy only drove the kind, big-hearted, fun-loving people out of the country and let only the cold and nasty pieces of work stay. But I doubt it. I think the folks at that school were a cross-section of what most all Russian people are like. And what are they like? They are very much like us.

Theatre Disasters

Over the years, I’ve always been attracted to live theatre (and no, I didn’t spell that incorrectly. One sees movies in a “theater” but if it’s a live show and you spell it “…er”, we theatre folk will smack you over the head with a powder puff.)  I’ve acted in a lot of shows, two dozen at last count, and there are a few more that I’ve written or directed.  If you add in the shows that I wasn’t in, but built the set, the total would be much higher. Here’s a hint for anyone who would like to get involved in a theatre company. First, learn Carpentry. If, when applying to join said company, you let on that you know your way around wood and tools, they will snap you up like a throat lozenge at an auctioneers’ convention.

Acting in a production, even a small, local theatre gig, can be pretty stressful. Anyone who thinks that “just standing on a stage and reciting lines” isn’t high stress has never stood on that stage, in front of several hundred people, in complete silence, and wondered what the Hell is that thing you were supposed to be saying. Like folks in other high-stress activities, actors like to go to a local bar after a performance or rehearsal, nurse a beer, and swap stories about theatre. Subjects usually include “Impossible Directors,” “Actors Without a Clue,” and “Producers with Starry Eyes and Tight Fists.”

But one of the most favored categories is “Theatre Disasters.” These are not actual disasters like the theatre burning down or The President getting shot, but more on the order of the bizarre and hilarious. For example, there’s the story of the guy whose memory, in the middle of a scene, suddenly went blank. After a few moments of tedious silence, he turned and walked off stage, got in his car, and went home.

Here are three stories. All are true. I was not there for any of the three, but I know people who were and I got these tales from them.

The first happened in a production of the musical play Peter Pan. Because the show, despite being more than 60 years old, is still very popular,  several companies around the country specialize in providing all the necessary technical things that local theatres need to pull it off. As well as sets and costumes, they provide all the ropes, pulleys, and harnesses needed to fly Peter, Wendy, Michael, and John around the stage. And, of course, they hire out professional stagehands that are trained to know what line to pull exactly when.

In the last scene of the play, Wendy and her brothers are in bed in the nursery and Peter flies in through the window. He has come to see Wendy for the last time. They sing a final song and Peter whisks away. Since the musical role of Peter was originated by Mary Martin, it has become a tradition to cast an athletic young woman in the role of Peter Pan. This production was no exception. On this night, at the same time the two leads are singing “Don’t Say Goodbye” to each other, the backstage flying crew has slipped out the back door for a smoke. The stagehand who flies Peter suddenly realizes that the song is ending and in a few moments the actress playing Peter is going to throw herself out of the nursery window. He runs for the ropes. On stage, Peter nimbly hops up onto the windowsill. Backstage, the crewman grabs the rope and kicks off the brake. Peter crows like a rooster, leaps out the window and falls on her face on the stage outside. At the same moment, Wendy shoots up out of bed, flails into the middle of the room, swings around, and slams back into a wall.

In a noble gesture, the audience was charged no extra for the slapstick fun.

The second story was told to me by my friend Donna, who is the Artistic Director of The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival and has been for many years. The Company produces three plays every summer, two by Shakespeare and one other, usually a classic, by another playwright. The play in question was Romeo and Juliet, and the scene was the swordfight between Mercutio and Tybalt. Romeo tries to break up the fight but instead hinders his cousin Mercutio. Tybalt’s sword slips under Romeo’s arm and skewers Mercutio. Then Tybalt and the other Capulets run away.

Let’s pause for a quick note about stage combat with swords. Swords made for stage duels all have flat, steel buttons welded to the pointy end and this button cannot puncture clothing or people. To make it seem as if it did, there is a device called a “blood bag.” It is a very flimsy plastic bag filled with chocolate syrup, corn syrup, and red food coloring. This is slipped into a special pocket sewn into the victim’s costume. When the button on the attacker’s sword hits the correct spot, the bag splits open, and very realistic-looking blood pours out and stains the victim’s shirt.

On this particular night, the button on Tybalt’s sword, instead of just breaking the bag, got entangled with the torn plastic. When the actor jerked the sword back, the bloody bag went flying across the stage, hit the proscenium, and slowly slid down, leaving a dripping, crimson track behind. Donna said it looked like Tybalt had ripped out Mercutio’s liver and flung it across the stage. Although the cast plunged ahead with the dialogue, the gasps and screams drowned out Mercutio saying, “…a scratch, ‘tis but a scratch,” before he keeled over and expired.

Finally, let’s turn to Chicago, my old pal Patti, and her story of the “starving pirates.”

There are several major universities in the Chicago area with active Theatre Departments. Every year, theatre graduates from Northwestern, Loyola, DePaul, and the University of Chicago walk out the front gates clutching their little mortarboards and wondering, “What the hell do I do now?” Many of them get together with some of their acting friends, chip in to rent a small storefront or a warehouse, paint the inside walls black, and start putting up shows. The nationally-famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company started just this way. There are, at last count, approximately 200 small theatre companies in Chicago. They include A Red Orchid Theatre, Lifeline Theatre, Remy Bummpo Theatre Company, Redtwist Theatre, The Conspirators, and TUTA Theatre. Very few of the spaces they are performing in have more than 50 seats, and because these spaces were originally built for far different purposes, their layouts can be very peculiar. I have been to a show where, to relieve yourself at Intermission, you had to get into a line that went across the stage, by the door to the former storage closet that now served as the actors’ dressing room, and down the hall to a single bathroom.

My friend Patti had been hired to direct a new show, a drama about pirates. I don’t remember the name of the show, but let’s call it The Last Cruise of the Frigate Matilda or “Tillie” for short. The space was the old gymnasium in Hull House at the Jane Addams complex. The room was tall and roughly square with a balcony on three sides. The advantages were that there was plenty of overhead space to hang lights and that although the seating was limited every seat in the house had a great view of the stage. Steppenwolf put up plays there in the 1980s before their big, new theatre was built. The disadvantages were that the gym was down a long hallway from the front door, and if you came down that hallway and didn’t turn left or right, you’d walk right onto the stage.

Tillie is about a band of pirates whose ship gets caught in a hurricane and though it still floats, it is too badly damaged to sail. There is a fight over the only longboat and the Captain, his lady love, and the First Mate are forced to stay aboard as the crew rows away. There is no food, no hope of rescue, and they prepare to die of starvation.

Some plays go like a dream in rehearsal and are ready to open with time to spare. At least that’s what I’ve heard. I’ve only ever been involved with the other kind – the kind that attracts last-minute problems like bats to a beehive hairdo. And Tillie was one of those. Usually, the rehearsal schedule for the final week is Technical Rehearsal on Tuesday, Dress Rehearsal on Wednesday, and Opening Night (Also known as Critics’ Night) on Thursday. Rehearsals for Tillie had been such a tough slog that the cast and crew had had to show up Thursday morning for Tech, do their Dress that afternoon, then take two hours to rest and eat before opening the show at eight o’clock that night.

At six o’clock, Patti gathered the cast and crew together to give them the bad news.  To get the show ready to open, they would have to work for two more hours. There would be no time to rest, no time to eat dinner. As a consolation, Patti promised to order pizzas for everyone to be delivered to the building’s rear door at ten o’clock, just after the final curtain.

Why do people do live theatre? It’s surely not for the money and most of it is not that much fun. But you do what you are asked as well as you can because you never know when some magical Theatre Miracle will slip out from the shadows and grab you by the scruff of the neck. For the cast and crew of Tillie, it came in the middle of the first act. The show that had seemed to be doomed, the show that was held together only by prayer, baling wire, and duct tape was working! The timing was good, the energy was building, and the audience was being swept along. When a play is going well and the company and spectators are in sync, the feeling for everyone is wonderful, subtle, and almost transcendent.

Patti was one of those Directors who are unable to sit down and so roam the theatre, scribbling notes, checking sightlines, and taking the temperature of the audience. She was aware which seats had been reserved for critics and was happy to see that the people in them, while not grinning broadly, were not grimacing or rolling their eyes.

Things were still going well toward the end of the second and final act. The Captain, his Mistress, and the First Mate, in the advanced stages of starvation, were admitting to each other that there was no hope of survival and so began revealing the secrets they had kept inside for years. Patti was up in the far corner of the balcony when she heard something she was not expecting. It was a deep, male voice coming from a long way away.

“Hello? Is anybody here?”

Patti began to run. Patti was a big woman who was surprisingly strong and fast, especially when driven by terror. She was quickly out of the balcony door and flying past half a dozen classrooms to get to the stairs. She sprinted down the stairway, two steps at a time, listening to a pair of heavy boots clunk their way down the main hallway toward the stage. As she got to the bottom she was mentally damning the woman who answered the phone at the pizza place to the lowest ring of Hell for not making it clear that the delivery was to go to the back door of the building, not the front.

On stage, the First Mate seized a rope and dragged himself up to a standing position. As he addressed the other two, he pulled a knife out of his belt and held it up to his own throat.

“I have loved you both too deeply and for too long to watch you starve to death. There is not so much of this body left for you to make a meal on, but I give it to you freely.”

Before the Captain could say his next line, a stranger appeared on stage. He was holding nine flat, white cardboard boxes. Squinting in the lights, he yelled out.

“PIZZA MAN!”

A hand landed on his shoulder and dragged him back off stage.

The critics that were there gleefully filled their reviews with the story of how the starving pirates were rescued by a timely delivery of pizza pies and barely mentioned the play at all. Audiences afterward grew slimmer and slimmer. The play closed within a few weeks and as far as Patti knows, was never produced again.