THE NUCLEAR AGE—Character Source

 

The sky that covered us with lifegiving air,

the sky brightened by the lifegiving sun

changed for our generation. It didn’t shelter us—

it exposed us to UFOs and the Bomb.

“Duck and cover, children. Duck and cover.

You only have seconds when you see

The Bright Flash.”

And so we were terrified by lightning, terrified by thunder,

terrified by airplanes, blimps, skywriters, shooting stars,

terrified by Russians, foreigners, economics, history.

When the crisis came, my father begged me

to come home, ignoring the good target Gladstone was,

with its major factory for missiles. I stayed in New York

and when the Soviet ships approached

the blockade off Cuba, I was in Russian class.

Gospozha Malishcheff was one of the elderly aristocrats

in exile on the Upper West Side. She told

of excursions on the Volga:

“The peasants came out of the forest,

bringing flowers and fruit.”

When her Czarist officer husband lost his life in the Civil War,

she escaped in a crowded boat to Constantinople.

She wound up in France, tutor to Rachmaninoff’s grandchildren,

delaying the composer’s escape from the Nazis

while they obtained her visa. History

had played rough with Gospozha Malishcheff.

Now, while the blockade is approached, she drills us

in the language preserving her culture as amber

preserves its insects. We wait for news of the confrontation,

of the start of the ultimate terror. We wait for distant

sounds. I smoke six cigarettes. We wait.

For those too young to remember, this was the Cuban Crisis. Gospozha Malishcheff was a real person. She was employed for sessions in which we would practice Russian conversation; we also had a regular faculty member on other days.

Another story: She could never get my name right. Perhaps her eyesight wasn’t up to reading the class roster clearly. She always called me “Mr. Gordon.”

Finally I looked up gardener in a Russian dictionary and the next time she called me “Mr. Gordon,” I called out: “Nyet—nyet—Sadovnik! Sadovnik!”

She looked up at me from her desk and smiled. “Ah,” she said, “Mr. Gardner!”

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