Saturday, September 1, 2012

Three Russians, a Russian-American, and Me

I didn’t expect, when I woke this past Wednesday, to have an extraordinary day.  It started with the quotidian: Up at six o’clock. Walk the dog for 15 or 20 minutes, the time depending on how much sniffing of the earth she has to accomplish before discovering the perfect site for her toilette.  Back home, I give her the expected reward, a slice of bread.  Shower. Put on my uniform. Go to Sam’s Deli for coffee and a sausage/egg/cheese sandwich. Drive four miles to work. Raise Old Glory. Settle in. Answer the phone, log in packages, pay some bills.

Then, at about 130PM, four people walk into the lobby. I greet them, ask if I can help them, wondering if they might want some ideas about places to see and things to do in the park.

No, they -- three Russians, and a Russian-American from Anchorage -- are on a mission. They do not have time to enjoy the many wonderful things to see and do in Cape Cod National Seashore. Here in South Wellfleet they want to learn everything I know (a good deal) about Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) who, as a boy in Bologna, Italy, began experimenting with wireless transmission in his backyard. The Russians want also to look at our display of circa 1903 equipment associated with this Italian man who, just a mile down from where I work, and at the young age of 29, accomplished the first trans-Atlantic wireless communications, which, for historical purposes, was an exchange of messages between President Theodore Roosevelt and King Edward VII.  Six years later, Marconi was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics.

We chat away -- they are three Russians, and Zlota, a travel agent, who is the Russians’ guide.

The Russians, two men and a woman, got themselves, however -- I forgot to ask, whether by train, airplane, auto, ferry -- from Moscow to Anchorage  where, as pre-arranged, they met Zlota, the travel agent. Zlota, a native of Russia, is now an American citizen. With her as their guide, and in a two-car caravan, they drove down the west coast of Canada and then across the United States. They are making a documentary for Russian television about communications inventions and inventors connected and associated within the United States., stopping at every site they know of where some important and historical invention is commerated; their last step on their pilgrimage, for instance, was Niagara Falls, where there is a statue of Nicholi Tesla (1856-1943), the man from Croatia who is credited with inventing, among many other things, the alternating current electrical supply system, an idea that was essential to the later inventions of wireless communications and radio. The Russian woman writes about broadcasting and communications for the Russian media.

I am falling in love. Fourfold. I want to insinuate myself into their warmth, into their lives.

I tell them everything. I’ve been on my job for nearly ten years, and there have been hundreds of people who have come in to honor and learn about Marconi. To some of these visitors, depending on my calibration of their interests, I even mention that Marconi has a daughter still living. She is a Princess -- Princess Maria Elettra. In Italian elettra means spark. “She’s a princess not because she is Marconi’s daughter,” I say, “but because she married an Italian prince.” Princess Elettra, as she is known, was born in 1930; Marconi died in 1936; so she hardly knew her father, but she travels far and wide to commemorate him, a sort of ambassador of his genius. She visited the park in 2005. When I heard that she was coming, I immediately began scheming to have my picture taken with her; I knew it would be an excellent “show and tell” for the Marconi Site visitors. (Short-wave radio operators seem to be the most avid Marconi fans, and they are generally male, but their wives are always more interested in seeing a picture of the princess, and invariable comment on her good looks and beautiful attire.)

The Princess, as it turned out, was absolutely lovely and charmful. She kindly inscribed for me a book, Marconi My Beloved, written by her mother about her father, a book to which the Princess has added a chapter of her own:

To George, My new friend in Wellfleet. Very happy to
be back and remember my father Guglielmo Marconi.
[signed] Elettra Marconi
Cape Cod 24-10-2005

I show Zlota, Igor, Alexander, and Galina, my copy of the book, pointing out the inscription, and show them the photo of the Princess and me posed with a photograph of her father.

I put my tongue in my cheek, as I do for many visitors (having long ago gotten my lines down pat), and tell them that the Princess and I liked each other, and that I felt that the Princess (who is now single) perhaps had a crush on me, but that I did not put any kindling on that little flame because I just didn’t want to go live in a palace in Rome ... palaces are, after all, so drafty and so hard to heat; and, in a chill, I just can’t maintain an elevated spirit.

These particular visitors ask the most interesting questions and have the most interesting comments ... and everything has to be translated, for only Zlota and Alexander speak English, and my single word of Russian is pravda; in our situation, I come upon no sentence in which I can insert it.

Moreover, they gave me a new item of trivia which I can mention to future visitors: At some point between 1903 and 1906, Marconi, aboard his yacht, pulled into a harbor near St. Petersburg so that he might meet the great Russian radio pioneer, Alexander Popov (1859-1906).

And I continue to be utterly charmed by them. I am falling deeper in love. They are all so warm and friendly and marvelously composed. I layed eyes on them for the first time just ten minutes ago but I am feeling that I am among kith and kin; we are kindred souls.


At last they ask if I will stand in front of the display and speak about Marconi. Igor clips a little black microphone to my collar; it is connected by wire to a small pack (batteries, I suppose) which Igor inserts into my pocket. Zlota stands to the cameraman Igor’s right. “Look at her, don’t look at the camera!” I am instructed.

“You have a beautiful smile!” Zlota says.

Well, I can’t recall, word for word, what I said. Not really.

I know I didn’t perform well. I’m accustomed to presenting infomation about Marconi in bits and pieces, not in a sustained monologue. If only I could have prepped for this! I forgot many things I would normally mention. At one point, eyeing Zlota, I confessed, “I can’t think of anything else to say!” “Tell us about the princess!” she said. I told them about the princess, intentionally omitting the drafty palaces part.

(Later I asked my work-bud Jack if he had observed me in my new role as an up-and-coming TV personality, soon to be known by all of Russia. “I walked through the lobby and heard you mumbling and stumbling -- is that what you’re talking about?” he said in a practiced unkindliness.)

When I am finished, and the microphone and battery-pack are removed, it has become time for my lunch break. I meet my new dearest friends down at the Marconi Site. I ask if I can be wired for the camera again; I want to say something personal: I say that I am thrilled that they have come such a great distance to this small Cape Cod town to honor a man who accomplished such great things, for in honoring him they are also honoring history. (One of them had mentioned that in Russia there simply are not ceremonies and memorials honoring historical events, such as we have here). And, at their request, I spoke about the April 14th ceremony that was held at this site to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary (less a day) of the deaths of 1,502 passengers when a liner christened the Titanic, while making its maiden trans-Atlantic crossing, struck an iceberg and sank; and I outlined the Wellfleet Marconi Station’s connection with that tragedy (for those details, see my feuilleton posted on this past April 14th).

And so it has become time for them to be on their way. “We must reach Manhattan this evening,” Zlota says. There is a Marconi Museum of sorts somewhere on the Upper East Side.

I back my Toyota pickup out of the parking spot, aim it toward  Headquarters, and am immediately seized with a flood of melancholy. I wish I could race to the bank, stuff my wallet with a wad of money, race another 100 feet to my home, quick-pack a suitcase, get on Route 6, and chase my favorite-people-in-the-world down and beg them to allow me to accompany them on the remainder of their travels.

Some lines from Goethe’s Faust come to mind:

Blessed present, wait awhile,
you are too beautiful;
I cannot bear to let you pass.

And then a couple of lines from an old Kris Kristofferson song: I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountain in the sky, aching with the feeling of the freedom of an eagle when she flies ....

I had just spent an hour or so with people who were as warm-hearted and as charming as any I’ve ever met. I want to embrace them, not just for a “one cheek and then the other cheek” gesture of farewell, but for the rest of my life.

Not all of us get to meet Russians except through the words of that country’s great novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Pasternak, and its poets such as -- to speak of those I’ve happened to read and love -- Joseph (or, in a more phonetically interesting spelling:Iosif) Brodsky, Anna Akhmatova, and Sergi Yesenin.
I feel blessed to have met four genuinely warm and wonderful Russians who were so much more than words on pages.

I was so beside myself for a few days, so stricken with melancholy, so distracted with a longing to re-live Wednesday afternoon, that I could barely clothe and feed myself. 

Today, Sunday, practicing one of my bad habits, I watch all the morning political shows -- Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and This Week with George Stephanopoulos -- and I feel especially sullied by Republicanism; there’s nothing warm-hearted there; there’s only the heart of greed. I stain the deck, thinking of the Russians. I install racks for our garden hoses, thinking of the Russians. I do my laundry, thinking of the Russians. Finally it has became late afternoon and I find myself so hungry that I can’t take the time to prepare anything, I need immediate gratification. I drive to my town’s newest restaurant. It’s practically right over the fence in back of my house and I should be ashamed to have driven instead of walking. I order a cheeseburger and choose as a side the “Amish” macaroni salad (having chopped boiled egg in it makes it, I guess, Amish). I have a pint of a local draft even though I don’t really like to drink beer because it makes me feel bloated. Then I look up from my table and see a bunch of lifeguards I work with walk in the door. More come; wives and children; they become a party of twelve or fourteen. One of them, placing an order with the bartender, notices me, waves, and I can read by his gestures that he is telling the bartender to send me a beer on him. Dismay. Another whole pint, after I’d struggled to get to the last sip-or-so of my first one? I’m no longer practiced at drinking; I’ve lost what was once a great capacity for alcohol. (I like to say that I had drank enough by the age of 45 to last the rest of my life.) But I gulped down as much of the second one as I could manage, hid it behind the table-centered condiments, and, feeling slightly tipsy and relaxed, small-chatted with several in the party on my way out. I thanked Scott for the beer. “You deserve it. You do a great job for us,” he said.  And, since this is the last weekend for most of the lifeguards, several of them being school teachers, this gathering, Scott said, “is sort of our last hoot and holler for this season.”

I come home, sit at the computer, and write this post, transfering my melancholy to a screen. I write this whole post with hardly a break.

Maybe I should get a little drunk more often.

I type and think fast when I'm a little drunk.

1 comment:

  1. Such an amazing story! What a wonderful life experience you've recorded. Days like this are all too rare. Glad to see how much you treasure it. :-)