From Russia With Love

Cover of "From Russia with Love (James Bo...
Cover via Amazon

From Russia With Love

 

In the summer of 1971, I saw the movie, “Dr Strangelove – Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”   At 10 years old, I did not totally appreciate the bizarre characters like Brigadier General Jack D Ripper or Dr. Strangelove.  I could not entirely understand why Slim Pickens aka Major TJ  “ King” Kong rode the atomic bomb out of the B52 bomber like a bucking bronco.  However, I clearly understood that the US and Russia were fighting a Cold War.  My fiery imagination was stoked by a father who was constantly criticizing the US for letting down its guard against “commies” and “spies”.  Hollywood was full of “Reds” and while Senator Joseph McCarthy did his best in the 50’s to root out these ideological weeds, communist dogma was invasive and required relentless vigilance to detect and remove political parasites.  The entertainment industry, Congress, all of Europe and even our church had been infiltrated by the vodka swilling, plate breaking, Gulag operating, godless collectivists who were just biding their time waiting for the last capitalist to sell them the rope that they would hang us with.

I had to do my patriotic duty and keep our neighborhood safe for democracy.  This required me to develop a clandestine intelligence organization to inform on any person who might be providing secrets to the enemy.  I was not sure what secrets the Reds could gather from a neighborhood that was more boring than watching paint dry. However, one never knew where a sleeper cell might be cocooned.  Authors like Robert Ludlum described how sleeper agents could lay dormant for a generation.  A Manchurian candidate could be activated with a simple phone call. 

 

“ Is this Mrs. Ruth Turpin of 1828 Windsor Road?”

 

“ Yes, who is this?”

 

” Sasha sells sea shells by the sea shore.”

With this heavily accented, tongue twisting alliteration, my mother, the sleeper agent, would go into a brainwashed trance, drive her station wagon up the winding mountain roads of Mt. Wilson and blow up the radio tower disabling all radio and TV transmissions across the San Gabriel valley, isolating us from the outside world. Just up the street in Pasadena was Cal Tech, a bastion of high IQ engineers, rocket scientists and astrophysicists.  We were indeed a tempting target.  The 64,000 ruble question was which of my neighbors might be actually conspiring to sabotage our town.  Could the confederate turn out to be someone we never suspected like green thumbed Mr. Seidell who upon being “ activated” would fly across the country to Washington DC and attempt to assassinate President Nixon with his trowel?  Spies were clever and not easy to catch.  They were ruthless and not above posing as retirees, gardeners and even parents. 

I recruited my friends to assist me in patrolling our neighborhood.  Of particular interest was Mr. Harmon who lived across the street with his parents and kept odd hours.  We also had some concerns about Mr. Meister who routinely screamed at us to get off his lawn.  Vodka and socialism made people angry and loud.  Perhaps, Mr. Meister missed the snow of Moscow and was annoyed at the constant sun and temperate climate of Southern California.  On a warm summer afternoon, armed with binoculars, a Polaroid camera and walkie-talkies, we embarked on a series of information gathering patrols. 

The next morning, my mother received several angry calls from neighbors who were concerned over a disturbed child peering into windows, crawling through juniper bushes and in one case, taking a photograph.   Although I was not identified in person, the default accusation on our block was to always blame the Turpin boys.  Annoyed, and lacking actionable information, my mother could not deduce the identity of the young peeping Tom.  As all good spies do, I convincingly lied when interrogated. I even provided an alibi. While she could not prove anything, she lectured me about people’s personal privacy.  If she only knew that we had already uncovered some seamy information about some of our “upstanding “neighbors, including the disgusting fact that ultra tan Mr. Brown sunbathed in the nude and mowed his backyard in a Speedo while Mrs. Franke watched him from her adjacent upstairs window.  It seemed moral decline was everywhere.

 

My parents were naïve and did not understand the town was teeming with traitors.I even suspected my brother of selling information to foreign agents.  He was a weak individual with liberal ideas.  I searched his room and discovered a magazine stuffed between his mattresses.   It was called amazingly “ From Russia With Love” and had a beautiful woman in a provocative pose on the cover. It was obviously intended for fans of the 1963 James Bond thriller starring Sean Connery. The magazine was weathered and torn.  I opened it and to my delight and shame, I saw photographs of naked “Russian” women.  None of these women looked sinister like Spectre agent Rosa Klebb, the spy who attempted to kill James Bond with a poison tipped knife that jutted out from the end of her boot.  No, these women seemed, well – – more open to détente.  

 As any dedicated spy would, I immediately disappeared behind the garage for to “study” the magazine to be certain that if I ever saw any of these women in public, I could identify them, even with their clothes on.

 

After committing each page to memory, I carefully tucked the magazine under my pillow and went off to school ready to share what I had learned with my friends in homeroom.  I knew my brother would not report the magazine as missing.  Yet, as I was sitting through Social Studies class, my mother was fatefully making my bed. I rode home in record time, as I was eager to examine the magazine models for other distinguishing features – beauty marks etc.  As I walked in the back door, I immediately knew that something was not right.  I was escorted into the dining room, which was the center for all corrective action.  My mother looked overly concerned and for a moment I thought there had been a death in the family.  “ Honey, is there anything you want to talk to me or your dad about?”  I was stumped and then I saw the magazine on the chair next to her.  “ That’s not mine.” I protested.  “ It’s Tom’s!”  I protested to no avail. She remained convinced of my guilt.  “The neighbors have been complaining about someone peeking in their windows and now I have found this adult magazine in your room. I think you and dad need to have a talk. “

Suddenly, it hit me.  It was all so clever – I had been framed.  I was obviously getting too close to someone or something and “they” wanted me out of the way. Like my Dad always said, those Reds are pretty determined and would go to great lengths to remove any threat.  Later that evening I endured my father’s unimaginative lecture on the birds and the bees.  I had already heard a more graphic and entertaining version from Dennis Higgins in gym class.  It would do me no good to attempt an explanation to my Dad.  I would have to endure this punishment and bide my time. 

One thing was certain.  When I got older, I wanted to join the CIA – especially if it meant interrogating one of those Russian women.  After all, I was probably the only guy who could pick them out of a police line up.

 

Taming The Dancing Bear

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Image by Dawn Camp via Flickr

Taming The Dancing Bear

“We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.”– Japanese proverb

It was the uniform of the condemned: the hand me down blue blazer, striped tie knotted with a baseball sized double Windsor, a starched white pin point, and itchy, gray wool slacks with razor edged military creases. It was not even Sunday.  It was Saturday evening and I was going to the first of what promised to be several humiliating classes called “Cotillion”. I did not know what a cotillion was but judging from the wry, sardonic smile on my older brother’s face, I was not going to like it.  Cotillion was supposed to transform us into young gentleman and ladies – gentrified aesthetes whose table manners were only exceeded by their ability to do the cha-cha.  Each parent secretly held hopes that this rigorous social sandpapering would prepare their child to some day become the US cultural attaché to some exotic European country.

The dance macabre was held at the town community center and was hosted by the imperious Commander and Mrs. U. The Commander was a rigid cardboard cut out who feared no man except his spouse and dance partner, a Joan Crawford stunt double replete with hyperthyroid eyes and a fearsome tire skid unibrow. Her toxic perfume could have emptied an entire trench line in WWI. We suspected that life with Mrs. U was the equivalent of going to war – long periods of tedious boredom punctuated by episodes of sheer terror. We hugged the walls, a knot of restless and irritable fifth graders, pushing and shoving one another toward the demilitarized zone of ballroom floor that separated us from the mysterious tangle of Cinderella gowns, bowed hair and polished glass slippers.

“Heel, toe, heel, toe, slide, slide, slide” shrilled with mind numbing repetition through an ancient loudspeaker.  For the young attendees, the experience was reminiscent of a political reeducation camp in Cambodia.  For Mrs. U, each Saturday evening brought the chance to transform into a dreamy Blanche Dubois reliving a time when Tommy Dorsey music was floating on the cool autumn air and young men were lining up to fill her dance card. When the first few notes of Blue Danube fell like a soft silk veil, the U’s roamed the floor in a nostalgic blackout looking for partners.  A silent rosary could be heard from the mouths of every child, ” Please do not pick me, please do not pick me.” An alabaster claw clutched my arm.  “ Come with me, young man.  Let’s show this ballroom how to waltz!”  Nervous snickers and total humiliation swirled around me as Mrs. Unander proceeded to break me like a green colt. After enduring the Box Step with the skeleton lady, the music mercifully stopped. I returned to the fray of cowlicks and tight collars, emasculated and reeking of cheap perfume.

Our liberation from Cotillion and dancing was short lived.  The early trauma was followed by an even greater confusion of middle school and high school dances.  As boys, we understood that girls liked to dance and that asking the opposite sex to trip the light fantastic could lead to “going out” – – one of the many jasmine scented rites of passages compulsory to a young man’s journey. The gymnasium social scene was a tight onion of posturing and hormones.  An outer layer of boys and girls adorned the gym walls and risers watching the vortex of motion with envy and contempt.  The core of this anxious adolescent scallion was an evolving social order of post pubescent royalty – – princes, ladies in waiting, dukes, jesters and the first cut of prom kings and drama queens.  The dancing was free form expression with boys confined to safe, unimaginative jerking from side to side with the occasional overbite and riff of an air guitar.  The girls were infinitely more expressive with arms above their heads swaying like Moroccan belly dancers in a swirling hot wind.  And then there were the mavericks – individualistic kids who dared to dance outside the safety zone – using moves borrowed from American bandstand or Soul Train to distinguish them and perhaps leap frog the established social hierarchy by dancing with the most popular girls.  We would mock and badger these counter cultural souls from the safety of our shadows.  Yet, we were the ones who were not dancing.

I tried to break ranks with my larger, inept brethren practicing moves in front of the mirror days before dances.  There was simply no sequence of steps or motions that did not make me look as if I was on the cusp of an epileptic seizure.  My father was no help.  The man, who had grown up in a time with great dance steps like the Jitterbug and the Lindy Hop, had one series of moves that my brothers and I simply referred to as “the hydroplane”.  He would sway side to side like a Rodeo Drive palm tree while moving his hands parallel to the ground.  It appeared as though he was a tragic Prometheus forever condemned to administer Pledge wax to an imaginary tabletop.  My brothers were no help as they were equally challenged.  My last hope, my mother, could not stop laughing each time we privately attempted to hustle.  I was the dancing bear in the circus.

I married and was immediately diagnosed by my coordinated partner as suffering from severe rhythmic deficit syndrome (SRDS).  SRDS can effect anyone but I was sadly the poster child for the disorder.  My spouse patiently pushed therapy – – dancing at parties, weddings and informal gatherings.  Each step was painful and I created excuses to avoid the rectangular parquets of humiliation.  She signed us up for a couples dancing class but I flunked out.  I observed other men also challenged with SRDS who loathed parties with bands and DJs.  The music would start and this band of left footed brothers would flee to the toilets, bars and patios as if a fire had been declared, leaving their dates, partners and spouses to dance with one another and that same loathsome maverick that would see this opportunity to once again become the center of the galaxy of dancing queens.

It took twenty years but I finally stopped fleeing the party at the first machine gun burst of music. To my surprise, no one noticed ursus clumsius lumber on to the dance floor, as all were preoccupied with their own self- expression.  They had obviously observed dancing bears before. As the bass thumped and the music pitched, I noticed the ghost of an awkward adolescent hesitating at the party door, looking back at me – a thick, teetering jenga stack of overbites and invisible guitar riffs – smiling and then melting away. I glanced around the floor and watched as other bears entered the fray.  The maverick was still roaming the floor, ever the opportunist, feasting on partnerless women, urging all to join him in some Latin Salsa line step that he had learned while on a recent business trip to Sao Paolo.  I smiled and moved predictably, balancing on my invisible circus ball – arms confined within the proverbial safety zone. Somewhere off in the cosmos, the Unanders would be smiling.

The girls were still beautiful.  The music was still intoxicating.  The best part of all was no one cared.  Not even me.