Tag Archives: Soviet Union

Through the Iron Curtain, 1978

Robin Walz took this photograph of the Kremlin. He asked me to pose. I had to hold up my right hand to shade the camera lens from the brilliant sun.

Robin Walz took this photograph of the Kremlin. He asked me to pose. I had to hold up my right hand to shade the camera lens from the brilliant sun.

In 1978 I went through a number of Winter to Spring cycles. After six weeks in snowy southwestern France, the weather had just started to turn balmy when it was time to leave. We boarded a train to Paris, switched to another one that drove straight across Germany without stopping, delivering us to Warsaw on Easter weekend.

Our next train was a local, packed with rustic crowds returning from Easter celebrations in the capital. Not only was it impossible to find a seat in a compartment, but the aisles themselves were crammed Continue reading

What We Later Learn

Oblivious to the true history of the site, my Whitworth College tour mates and I clambered through preserved battle lines at Babi Yar.

Oblivious to the true history of the site, my Whitworth College tour mates and I clambered through preserved battle lines at Babi Yar.

In the Spring of 1978 the Whitworth College study tour of the Soviet Union made the last major stop on our visit, at Kiev. As usual, our group was posted to a tourist hotel, provided with buses and a suave trained tour guide, and directed to all the major tourist sites in the area. Having spent the summer before reading some chronicles of ancient Russia in which the origins of the empire of the Rus were placed at Kiev, this was one of the places I most looked forward to seeing.

From the bluffs above the river outside the walls of the medieval Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastery I looked down on ragged forests that I was sure concealed the remains of the Viking camps that became Kiev’s first royal halls. But the tour guide had a schedule to keep and he herded us all inside the church hall. It was somewhat disconcerting to find Ukrainian peasants inside the church, gamely trying to worship while the guide led us from icon to icon, pointing out the hollow jars buried inside the heavy columns with their mouths exposed to provide reverberation. As I stood gape-mouthed and amazed at the intricate details of the church an old woman in a head scarf and a brown apron shifted past me, muttering the warning, “Ne smeyatsia!” She had mistaken my appreciation of the building for mockery of the worshipers. Continue reading

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 Continue reading

The Summer it Rained Airplanes

Two mechanics crank the handle of a USAAF Bell P-39Q-1-BE Airacobra, at Hamilton Army Airfield, California, in July, 1943. Saga Boy II was flown by Lt.Col. Edward S. Chickering, commander of the 357th Fighter Group. USAAF photograph as published in Wikipedia Commons.

Early Sunday morning, June 11, 1944, Stanley L. Stroud opened the door to the cockpit of his P-39Q fighter trainer for the last time. Stroud lifted off from Moses Lake Army Air Force Base and headed towards the Lower Crab Creek country to practice strafing or firing his cannon. Maybe both. Maybe he was one of the “flyboys” my dad accused of shooting at livestock grazing along the creek.

Stroud probably drained his ammo cans before pulling up out of the valley, headed east. He may even have jettisoned the empty shells, although that practice was frowned upon. We used to collect .50 caliber shells, some of them still live, and other ammunition from time to time as we wandered across the vacant lands along the creek. With his ammo used up, Stroud gunned the engine and pulled back on the stick to sweep upwards out of the Crab Creek Valley. It would have been a thrill of sheer power, with a roaring 12 cylinder engine just behind his seat, one of the most muscular machines in the world. At the time, nobody knew why it happened, but pilots had for years reported that the P-39 would sometimes spin out of control. As Stroud gained altitude and shot eastwards along the northern flank of Saddle Mountain it happened to him. Stroud may have been knocked unconscious by inertia forcing the blood out of his brain. We can only hope that was the case. His plane plummeted in a tight spiral known as a Stall/Spin, exploding against the face of Saddle Mountain in a huge fireball. A seared patch of hillside, roughly the shape of Alaska, was branded into the sagebrush for at least the next forty years. Today you’d have to know where to look.

When I first heard his story in grade school, the pilot had no name and the story was told as if such an accident were unusual. It was one of the legacy tales that made my hometown seem special. But when I began to research that incident for this article I discovered something astounding. Stroud’s death was only one of 123 accidents involving P-39s from two Army Air Force Base Units located in Moses Lake and Ephrata that were training fighter pilots that summer 1944. All of these incidents occurred in only about five months, from late April to late August, 1944 (except one, which took place the following January). Continue reading

The Horse and Me

Oscar Danielson on his Crab Creek farm in Grant County, WA, circa 1920

Oscar Danielson on his Crab Creek farm in Grant County, WA, circa 1920

“FIDDLE, n. An instrument to tickle human ears by friction of a horse’s tail on the entrails of a cat.”
Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914) American journalist and short-story writer: The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911

My father’s claim to fame is that an incident in his life made it into a book, Sagebrush Homesteads, by Laura Tice Lage. In this passage, Lage describes how my grandfather was working in his hay field when he spotted a pesky wabbit. At that time, rabbits were destroying crops so completely that many farmers near Crab Creek were being ruined. Grandpa Oscar was prepared, though. He snatched up his twelve gauge shotgun and fired at the bunny. The book doesn’t say if he hit the thing, or not. The most dramatic result of that shot was that Oscar’s horse was spooked. It galloped away, towing the wagon along with it…and my child father in the wagon.

My father always detested horses.

I’m wondering if that trait isn’t hereditary. Not that I detest horses, but that horses seem to have a thing about me! I first noticed that problem when I was a teenager. Years before, I had blithely told my mother who it was that I someday hoped to marry. Let’s call her Julie. As a teenager, I would never have revealed such a secret, but the feeling remained. Julie was still the woman I most wanted to impress. She was my age, so I knew her well, since all the children in that end of Adams County attended the same schools. I had been, for a time, her brother’s best friend–had even spent some sleepovers at her house. So when I ran across this beautiful, statuesque blond at the local fair, I considered it a matchless opportunity to impress her. But Julie was on horseback, and as I stood close by, chatting her up (as the Northern Irish lads would have described it), Julie’s horse decided to dispose of the suitor: it took a deliberate step in my direction, and it landed on my foot. Have you ever had eight hundred pounds dropped on your toes? My courtship ended suddenly and dramatically.

Continue reading