And so, given a life trajectory that paralleled the cold war -- yes, hiding under our desks in grade school -- I am distressed at what 'the bored boy in the back of the class' is now doing to Professor Obama.
Aleppo, Crimea, the Ukraine and now our elections.
We, my generation, had ardent dreams, fueled by our post war ascent as the global hegemon. One was to see a person of color in the White House -- as commander in chief. Another was to witness the amalgamation of progressive principles from Vancouver to Vladivostok, as the saying went - in that fateful winter of 91/92 - when the Soviet enterprise collapsed and an American NGO (Non-Governmental Organization} looked for advantage.
So, late one night, still sitting at my desk at the headquarters of CRS, it had come to me. A channel where the dam had broken and the thought rushed in. That great Russian land mass in the Far East. Explored and settled by Europeans, like our own West. In the same era. Often inhospitable but with untold riches in the land. And there it was – Europeans – a century and a half later on both sides of a narrow strait. There it was, for all to see, a great new center of gravity that ignored old boundaries. The untold possibility for energy in Russia, the unequaled creativity of America’s West Coast, and the markets of China, all now, absent the cold war, rubbing shoulders. No fear, I thought, notwithstanding a million cultural impediments, that the force and the logic of it would be far too overwhelming. CRS could play its bit in the promotion of mutual dependency between China, Russia and the States. Get in with our stock and trade – Humanitarian assistance – and then try to pull West Coast’s human centered organizations into Vlad and Khabarovsk. Far East to Far West.
I mean you had to believe, even supposing as true what Hegel had described as the almost equal re-actions each step of the way - as new forces prevailed over outdated nation-states. And new monsters, some argued, got let out of a box. Governance by the multinationals. The faceless cold-blooded rule by the bottom line.
But then I had asked myself, what had been the record of nation state? How many of those dead boys marched as if to a pied piper year after year to lie, soon enough, staring up at the sun as their bowels baked in its heat. No, there could be no case in which the rule of multi-nationals could be worse. And better a battlefield between human centered and dollar centered than armies of those boys; than that infantry lying wasted. And all that calculation did not even speak to the unspeakable – our collective pulverization in a hailstorm of nuclear missiles.
Such was my thinking that night as I poured more coffee and stalled the dreaded exit out onto Baltimore’s desolate winter streets, eventually to take my place on the vinyl seat. In the end, it did not matter. Should not matter. We invest in God’s ‘water above’ when and where we find it. Forces are changing the investment climate dramatically – as it has never been changed before – and CRS is either relevant or not.
So…no…not to Moscow…a dying center of gravity. Yes, to getting a flight in from Japan.
And so I had, that winter of ‘91-92, put on my long johns and Gortex boots and down parkas and insulated gloves along with a small sack of Kennedy half dollars, together with a much larger amount of greenbacks distributed around my body and I had got myself through most ordered, most correct, most electrified Japan to, one Wednesday, walk across the Tarmac and up the ramp of an Aeroflot to Khabarovsk. Thin as an arrow we shot out of there. Pedal to the metal, an almost vertical take-off shoving me back in my permanently reclined seat, and while still in ascent, she had filled a plastic cup to the brim with vodka. Over those foreboding straits on a starless winter night. Cozy in all my layers of wool and Gortex with the vodka warming the innards. Not a flying contrivance this. But, as I said a shot into the heavens. A warm canister full of smoke and vodka and other associated odors, speeding to Russia.
By that winter, the truth had long before settled in. Those cement giants – the woman with the kerchief and bundle of wheat in bronzed arms – the man also looking skyward open shirted and wielding a great hammer. Both now known as frauds. By that winter there was nothing that was bronzed and hopeful.
That terminal at Khabarovsk was falling apart and no-one cared. It was poor parts to begin with and no maintenance thereafter. A tin clapboard hanging askew, a gate off its hinge. A cracked block put under a bench to keep it up.
It was midnight in that broken down terminal, a large shed really, suffused in a low brown glow in which you heaved and pushed through some narrow hallway with your gear and then sat on it before the desultory response of a uniform who long ago had known the fraud. You were now in that midnight gloom, the low brown light. With these huge furry men, draped in animal pelts with hoary breath and the ubiquitous smokes, the bits of red coals, sparkling in the dim firmament of the shed.
Finally pushing out into a what seemed, eerily, almost like a crowd of wooly mammoths – me quite un-hairy and nylon in my Gortex. Now waiting in a cold that stung the lungs and made me hop, and deplete my calories at a very fast rate. Literally having to squeeze under the steering wheel to get into the passenger side, on a seat nailed to a floor, through which, as we moved, I could see gravel and ice. And then into town on his only one working gear – him, hairy smoking driver – wiping away frost to see out and continually pointing at me and saying America and then at himself and saying Russia. Some other words too but incomprehensible and so then it was back to, you America – me Russia. ‘Til he had pulled me up to the Intourist hotel and I had extracted myself and gotten past the exchange of greenbacks which, I noted, he was quite smart enough to recognize.
What a lobby. The structure was as ordained. Originally designed to assure nothing beautiful could be insinuated and now veering off toward ‘wreck’. But the contents made my eyes pop. Such was the wealth of this empire in ruin that where there had been the occasional grizzly pioneers in Tirana or Skopje, here there was a noisy bustle of them, many also wrapped up in the pelts, unshaved – down from the North – with great gold wristwatches and striking Slavic faeries by their shoulders. Faeries – dancers – lovely Slavic beauties. And Vodka all around. Tip the God-damned bottle up and watch the bubbles gurgle. They told this Gortex clad sensitive the most wonderful stories, these grisly men…hospital directors, selling off all their metal frame beds for scrap... tanks from the legendary soviet Army, disassembled and shipped to Yokohama to be melted down and transformed into razor blades for the hairless Asian. And God knows what else was being kept under wraps.
Off from the lobby they were unwinding in a vast hall – not the grisly men now but the townsfolk. I mean you had to check yourself from gawking in disbelief, from ridiculing these losers. Corsaged, and corseted and trussed up in flower prints and costume jewelry with these hairdos that towered like Pisa, all gummed up and glossy, most leaning a bit from the grandeur of the cage-work doing the Lindy with abandon with rubes in zoot suits and ‘slows’, I swear, to Perry Como. Talk about walking out of that lobby full of hairy pioneers into a Soviet prom of sorts and then retreating between times to ply-board tables littered with plates of salmon and caviar and bottles of Vodka and plastic flower centerpieces. I, as mucker about, as Yankee anthropologist, just stood and marveled, looking back and forth from lobby to dance hall. Really soaking in the culture and entranced by the faeries circulating around me.
But ultimately excluded from both parties. Reluctantly taking my life in my hands and taking the elevator ‘up’. Creaking and banging upward. And, of course, there she was – ham handed babushka. With big wart on nose and black hairs on chin, exchanging my ticket for her key, thoroughly aware that the bronzed giants were frauds.
My room was a hot box – no controls. But at least, no broken window for that Arctic air to get in. All cheap veneer and sagging mattress, a frayed synthetic cube with a radio which didn’t work. And a ruckus across a thin adjoining wall where Russians were getting drunk to beat the band. No faerie voice, just the loud slurring shouts and taunts of drunkards.
So I stripped off my Gortex and pushed my bag against the door, as early warning, since a good shove would have taken it off its frame and lay amidst the ruckus and once again blew my circles, wondering whether a procurer in the lobby had commanded a faerie to knock.
The next day I descended for my caviar and salmon – no matter it was breakfast – for that’s what they dropped in front of you – whenever.
And those who dropped it were certainly not the faeries. Nor yet the babushka on my floor. Some intermediate stage of Russian womanhood, I guessed. Hands red and wrinkled. About two inches of dark root under the peroxide. Swollen ankles and impervious to any of my forlorn attempts to induce a smile. Hard-bitten, I concluded. So I left and put myself out the door into the Arctic for my Arctic mucking, forewarned by an Intourist guide, in so many words, that my calories would only allow me outside for a few hours.
So I tromped down the icy cobbles in my Gortex boots with a belly still growling from breakfast. Spit had been the big myth in the lobby last night. Chugging, end up, the vodka down and repeating how it froze before it landed. Well I hadn’t spit that night and so, first thing, I spit now but it was too sunny. And then my poor resected bowel growled again and I shuddered to think of ever having to drop my trow behind a bush in such piercing cold. I laughed. I mean I imagined they would retract so far up for warmth, it would take a week to find them again. “Foot soldier for Western Civ. neutered by the cold”, I imagined the headline. No faerie for me.
So down the streets and through the parks on my limited calories. Nothing fixed, nothing re-painted. Nothing put back to a right angle. But a decadence which could have been really quite inconsequential under those beautiful skies if it hadn’t been for the purposeful eradication of nearly all beauty across the great city. No art or beauty, even in decline. No mysteries, I thought, no art. No art, no beauty. They, imagine if you can, tried to eliminate the mysteries in this most mysterious land. Only here and there, an erasure not done, was something turned for whim or inspiration often as not with a root now cracking it or a stone fallen away.
Past the men huddled and shifting back and forth around the games of chance. Past the empty shelves. Past the chilblain. The icicles hanging like lollies off the greybeards. Past the steaming soup kitchen and into the market where the de-capitalization was now, before my eyes, taking shape. Here it was, the old babushkas in these pelts rocking from boot to boot on the ice all day, pathetically, before two used toothbrushes, a comb and a glass tea cup on a piece of newspaper. Hundreds of them, with few buyers. The commies did not turn out beautiful things to sell. It was these old women selling junk. Here and there a dog or cat for sale or a precious cameo from before the revolution.
Aside it, the Koreans were doing so much better. They found a way. I’ve never known profit not to find a way. Under a long tent, selling vegetables from another culture. Every variety of stewed or bottled veggie and some small sticks of meat frying in a pan. Small sinewy women chattering away and selling their morsels and tidbits to their ancestral neighbor – those raw-boned white men from the North – now so hopelessly dismayed at their empire being reduced to a bad joke. Without a clue, with not even any instinct of how to do what the West does. Beauty long dead. The individual, other than the crook, long dead. Governors with their nails deep embedded in each other's throats. The land eradicated. Pantry bare. Children, almost a forgotten solace. Just to drink and laugh and sing in some barren room 'til you fall down drunk, mouth down against some grimy floor.
The challenge was keeping the hole open. I had walked by hundreds of these encampments, evidently abandoned, with some old charred wood strewn about the frozen hole. The scattered remains of a fire.
I mean it was of no consequence to be on the Amur river. You just walked off the bank in your Gortex boots and circled in reasonable proximity to the fishermen, most in some small makeshift shelter with a fire inside, in their furs, blankly staring at the line dropping through the open hole. Occasionally digging into their fur and pulling out a bottle.
A pleasure, I guessed, sitting alone in the shack: hot tea, some hard bread, an occasional swig. A Russian voluptuary, ballooning off the magazine page before his eyes, absent-mindedly waiting for the rattle of a can to inform him that some great pike from the north had swallowed the hook.
I had no fear for the thickness. God knows, a tank could cross over into China. It was the fault lines and the buckling of the mighty river which could shake and topple me into a crevice and then close again and pop me like a pimple. So I had walked toward China, tentatively. Away from the Russian ice-fishermen. Trembling when the ice shifted or tore but fascinated that I, a lonely relief worker, could walk across this legendary boundary and just step up on the other side into the Middle Kingdom. Few people, I thought, know how close we rawboned white men live from the inscrutables of China. I can vouch for it. A half hour in your Gortex from bank to bank. Less if you don’t halt every few minutes to imagine the ice parting and falling through, eventually, I imagined, to be snared down river on one of those fishermen’s hooks, though I imagine it would take some doing to get me back up through his hole.
I got back to the hotel just before my calories had run out, toes just beginning to numb, curling over the wad of greenbacks in my boot. Careful now, I whispered. Human-centered was walking around with magic in his boot. And human centered could end up with a smashed skull and pushed down through one of those self-same holes in the Amur.