Ponary Death Pit (photo courtesy of Juliux from Wikipedia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Courtesy of my driver Boris and his lead foot, fueled by my Al Green cassette tape, our Russian Volga sedan resumed its cruise down the A4 highway towards my lunch appointment with my father’s family in Varena, Lithuania. We had just survived a traffic stop a few moments earlier where Boris effectively told the zit-faced highway patroller to go fuck himself. The USSR seemed to have a great surfeit of immature officers populating the police, immigration, customs, animal control, and doubtlessly numerous other constabularies.
My very first experience of the Soviet Union the previous week was instructive of this very point. It was upon my arrival into the USSR on an Air France nonstop flight from Charles de Gaulle to Sheremetyevo airports.
It was May 1985, and, as a student of history and world politics, I was excited to be flying into a very different kind of country. I had had some extensive experiences in Europe already, but this, the USSR was to be verily alien. As a kicker, I would be meeting my Father’s family in Lithuania after a week in Moscow.
In preparation for my trip, I read everything I could about Russians (inhabitants of the world’s largest country), Lithuanians (great basketball players), and the Baltics (I would also be passing through Riga, Latvia). Hedrick Smith’s “The Russians” had earned a prized place in my personal library, with dog-ears on the dog-ears.
(WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS CONTENT BORROWED FROM GOP DEBATES. PLEASE DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE OFFENDED BY GOP DEBATE CONTENT!)
Back home in America, the highway traffic stop is probably the greatest display of power a state like New York, New Jersey, Hawai’i (or any of the 47 others and 1 district) can exert over an unfortunate traveler. There is an additional risk of nastiness if you happen to be driving while intoxicated, black, or as an American in the backroads of the USSR. I fell solidly in the last two categories.
Back home, the cop car that pulls you over on I-95 (or H-1) is typically a blazing high performance Ford Crown Victoria festooned with the great seal of the state under whose laws, you, the hapless driver have apparently transgressed. You get the whole show, complete with stylized hat, jack boots, ribboned trousers, shoulder brushes, leather pistol holster, handcuffs, the works. Every state has its own variant of this uniform. Be a very wary bear.
Russian bears do dance, but these ain’t Russian!
Wrapped in the aforementioned trappings of authority, US States perform traffic stops with overdone celebratory unctuousness. But everyone considers Connecticut or Alaska or the District to be relatively toothless. We know, for example, that Connecticut is not going to build a wall around itself or deport everyone of Rhode Island descent. Not that there aren’t criminals from Providence stealing algae from the Connecticut River. But I digress. The states flash a lot of power by way of shiny patrol cars and uniform embellishments (big bark), but rank low on the holocaust scale (little dick).
Before I cover the apparently sudden demise of my father’s mother Patricia in Queens, NY, on August 22, 1943, let me backtrack a bit and take a look at her origins. At least the little that is known. So I go in search of… my paternal grandparents!
For that, my story today starts off on one beautiful bright Saturday morning in May 1985. I was in a rental car rolling through verdant countryside. The birds were chirping, the sun was streaming, and my Al Green cassette tape was cranking through the sound system; Al crooning “Love and Happiness.” It was a happenin’ morning!
Yet this was not your normal stretch of New Jersey Turnpike, say between Elizabeth and Rahway. Nor was I in a 1984 Buick LeSabre. This road trip was distinctive for many reasons!
Well for one thing, the player’s fast forward was broken so when I got to the end of the last song on side 1, I had to eject the tape, stick my finger into one sprocket, and twirl the tape around my finger until I got to the end of side 1 (which was the beginning of side 2).
But that was just a nit. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was rockin’ a recent vintage Volga sedan like the one pictured below.
Switch out I-95, and sub-in the fact that I was rolling southbound on the A4, a rural two lane highway in Soviet occupied Lithuania.
Aside from World War II and the War of the Worlds broadcast, there were other haps in the 1930s and 1940s that informed my Dad’s interests and personality. For example, as he told me numerous times, his favorite comic strip of the era was Flash Gordon. Flash was big at the time. Dad loved Flash so much, it was even his college nickname!
As I reviewed the original comic strip in preparation for this post, I was struck by how much it resembles Star Wars of my generation. The action takes place on the planet Mongo, locale of kingdoms like Arboria (forests) and Frigia (ice). Kings and Queens galore! And the villain? A bad guy with interesting headwear!
Meet Ming the Merciless!
When looking at the above image of Ming, I am not sure if Darth Vader was ever so similar a lady killer. Well, the young Jedi Anakin certainly was, in the prequels. Unfortunately, he lost his man parts — GOP Presidential candidates please take note — on the lava planet (or moon, whichever) after losing the sword fight to Obi Wan.
On the other hand, what Flash didn’t have was the tiresome drama of Luke and Leia playing “who’s your daddy?” Who needs parents anyway? That’s right, you heard it asked here on the Bernard Olcott Story blog!
Over the past few weeks, I have written a lot about the 1940s, an era well before my time. It was, by any measure, a very scary decade.
In my travels across Europe, I have gone looking for the remnants of World War II. (Interestingly, none are visible in Japan, except for the gradual realization that all architecture is post 1950.) There is the tour of Churchill’s bunker on King Charles Street in London. Walking around Paris, you can’t help but notice the historical markers here and there memorializing the location where a patriot was shot by the Nazis. In both cities, I have walked down certain streets and noticed numerous pockmarks on the graceful facades.¹
At times, I have looked up into the sky and tried to imagine the sounds of bombers, the rumble of artillery, or the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire. From the damage to the buildings around me, I could tell I was standing in the very places where hell reigned. But, in every case, I failed to feel it. Just cloudy skies above, and the sounds of traffic around me. I could sense the highs and graces of Europe, but I just couldn’t visualize or feel the war that was very real.
The drumbeat to the war is best documented, in my opinion, in William L. Shirer’s remarkable tome The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich. A bigoted politician – whose ancestor had fortuitously changed the family name from something sounding silly ² – built a national campaign scapegoating minorities to win an election in a major European state. He successfully manipulated the new media of the era – radio and motion pictures – to win the adulation of the masses.³
Sound familiar? Can’t happen here, right?