Studying Russian

Although the rock I sat on was in direct sunlight, a brisk upriver wind kept me cool. The papers on my lap rattled in the breeze and the pages of the black-bound reference book chattered, but I was gazing out across a tiny inlet where the river’s water formed an eddy. It was the color and texture of desert-baked glass, slipping smoothly past me, drawn by the rush of the current beyond the boulder point. Across the river a sheer cliff of basalt loomed over me, soaring upward to a rugged crest far above.

It was the summer of 1977. I was studying Russian.

I developed this habit of disappearing when I had a day off work. I would wait for the heat to build until it was well over ninety degrees. Then I would borrow my dad’s gold 1970 Ford Maverick (a color that was marketed as Freudian Gilt) and I would head out. I kept the window cranked down for the natural air conditioning–the only type the car afforded. Higher speed meant better relief from the heat, but I was drawn to the old Corfu Road where I had to slow down. The dust that filtered through the open window was another price I paid.

I don’t know what drew me to this place the first time I went there. I had driven the entire length of the Corfu Road, turned left at Beverly and headed south through Sentinel Gap. I remember stopping on side roads that led to the river bank, but there the river was impounded by Wanapum Dam. Farther on I tried again, where the reservoir behind Priest Rapids Dam kept the current in check. I was just exploring.

I purposely avoided anyplace with people. I had my books and papers on the seat beside me with a couple of bottles of soda and some sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. I was working on the complexity of the adjectival endings Russian uses, and I knew I needed someplace where I wouldn’t be disturbed. farther on I passed the turnoff to Priest Rapids Dam and not long afterwards I found a hard-packed sandy lane that would take me towards the river bank, so I followed it. There was nobody around. As it turned out, the place was perfect.

It was too perfect. I did very little studying when I got there, drawn to the scenery and the traces of history I found around me. When I stepped out of the car I noticed a flattened woven wire fence that must have once surrounded someone’s home. Broken glass and sun-bleached boards and a few piles of river-rounded boulders were the only other traces of that homestead. What a lovely spot to live! Not far from here was the old Figure Two Ranch. Maybe this was wreckage from the old ranch. Somebody ran a ferry in the late 1800s a few miles downstream, catering to the odd travelers seeking Joel Palmer’s route to British Columbia. But any artifacts of the ranching era must have paled beside the remains the Wanapum people left behind.

A few steps off the road I came upon heaps of rock and sand, a maze of shallow trenches. It became clear to me that this was a looted archaeological site of some significance. Somebody spent a lot of time digging through the rocky earth here, stealing artifacts and destroying the scientific value of some ancient Native American village. Crumpled beer cans, broken bottles and trapped dry tumbleweeds were left in exchange for whatever stonework had been recovered. I climbed past the pits, disgusted.

On the riverbank, though, I found what I had been looking for. Here was the Columbia’s last stretch of free-flowing water, dark green and rushing past  stoney shores below Priest Rapids. I found a comfortable boulder to sit on while I ate my lunch and struggled with Russian, but I constantly found myself distracted. My mind wandered. My eyes probed. I lost myself in the beauty of this place, despoiled as it was.

That year I had signed up to join a college study tour of the Soviet Union that would take place the following year. To prepare for the trip we were expected to read up on Russian history and to learn as much of the language as we could. It was right up my alley. I went so far as to digest Russian folktales and emergent literature from medieval Kiev. None of this was required, but I figured it would help me understand the character of the Russian people.

My perch on the riverbank was perhaps a failure from the academic perspective. Nonetheless, I returned to the same boulder several times that summer, dutifully carrying books and papers with me. I’m not sure I learned much Russian there, but it was an alluring spot where I felt a certain magic.

My trip to the Soviet Union was scheduled for May, 1978. A professor who reputedly used to work for the CIA was to lead us. The plan was to spend a few weeks at an off-season vacation village in Southwestern France (not far from the village my French teacher at college had grown up in), then to take trains across Europe to visit a number of Eastern European cities: Prague, Vilnius, Leningrad, Moscow. The trip would then follow the Trans-Siberian Railroad across the Volga, through the Urals and into Siberia to Novosibirsk. From there we would take an Aeroflot flight to Uzbekistan. We would visit Tashkent and Samarkand, then fly to Armenia. Our final Soviet destination was Kiev, from which we would take a train back through Czechoslovakia to Austria, re-entering what we called the Free World in those days.

I wasn’t sure how I would pay for such an ambitious trip. My summertime wages went towards tuition, books and housing at a rather expensive private college. Travel overseas seemed extravagant. But the professor in charge assured me that if I wanted to go, he would find a way for me to do it. That might be because I was one of three students on the trip who had any training in French at all. I would be starting my second year of college French in the Fall. That pegged me as a translator for the group.

In September I had a peculiar schedule. I studied Russian history and culture, Russian language and French. Then there was the required course in Christianity and probably something in my major: Art or Theater or Literature. I’d have to check my records to be sure. In spite of the confusion natural to the attempt to learn two very different foreign languages at the same time, that term went well. Until December.

On December 17, as the term drew to a close, my oldest sister Alice suddenly went into a coma. My CIA professor, seeking to console me, told me that if she died I wouldn’t be required to take the final exams. And she did die. My mother flew to LA to be with her in the hospital, and after three days beside Alice’s bed she made the decision to pull the life support that was keeping Alice alive. Having lost a daughter myself, I find my mother’s decision incredibly hard to imagine. I remember rain bucketing down at the graveside in Othello, and a kindly umbrella a cousin offered my mother. I dropped my plans to go to Russia.

I didn’t return to school in January. I explained that I was worried about my parents. Now I think I had some issues to work over: Alice and I had never gotten along, for reasons I didn’t entirely understand. But at the time I told myself that somebody needed to be with my mother and father for a while to be sure they were going to be alright. My CIA professor actually drove down from Spokane to visit me, seeking to convince me to come back. He assured me that my place was still open and that he could arrange for financial help. I remember telling him that I was concerned about my parents. As I look back on the time, I know I was actually working things out for myself.

That January I drove west on the Corfu Highway, turned south at Beverly and pulled off onto the sandy track that led me to the riverbank. The day was short, the weather cold and the river didn’t sparkle like it had the previous summer. I think I cried as I sat on the boulder that time. It’s been a long time. At any rate, I realized that I wasn’t doing my parents any good by staying home. I decided I would go back to college in February. I returned to my French, my Russian, my Theater and Art.

As I packed for the trip to the Soviet Union that May I placed my belongings in boxes in my parents’ basement. On top I taped a letter for my folks–just in case something were to happen to me on the trip. I’m not sure what I thought I was leaving in those boxes that my parents had to be protected from. But in the letter I told my parents not to open the boxes, instead to send them directly to a friend of mine in California. They never had to open the letter. A few months later I burned it in our old wood stove and opened the boxes myself.

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