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The Road to Москва

By | September 7, 2012 - 9:00 am

A flight of Soviet Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 jet fighters prepares to take off, under direction of a field controller, equipped with flags and radio. 1950′s. Public Domain photograph. National Museum of the US Air Force.

For Vlad and Marina

“Get up from your desks and into the hall, NOW. HURRY!” shrieks my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Smith. She is not one to be barking orders, but the alarms are blaring. Even though we all know it’s a drill, it’s unnerving. “Pull a mat up over you!” Smith reminds us as we swarm towards the door, the first and the largest squeezing through before the rest of us. I feel like a crushed bug.

The crushed bug feeling doesn’t go away as I huddle under the mat along with several other girls. “These won’t help much,” I mutter more to myself than to anyone in particular. “Not if they drop the bomb!” I visualize body parts and all the other icky things 3rd grade boys chatter about. Blood and guts – splattered everywhere. It’s disgusting and I try to distract myself by singing “Jesus Loves Me” in my mind.

I don’t like the air raid drills at school. Some of the boys do because they get out of class and they can goof around under the mats, mostly bothering the girls. But the sirens always make me jump and my tummy feels weird when they go off.

The world has gone insane since atom bombs were dropped on Japan. And now we are in the Korean War. Not that we are very close to Korea. The Japanese were in the Aleutian Islands during the Second World War, so our military put us under Marshall Law, whatever THAT is, as soon as our troops shipped out to Korea.

We are all ID’ed like lab rats, and have to wear metal dog tags with our names and blood types on them. I am A Positive. I wonder what the positive means. I don’t feel very positive now, hiding under a mat in the hallway at North Star Elementary in Anchorage.

I remember December 15, 1950. We are skating on the backyard ice rink at Jo Ann’s house when someone yells from the back door. “Children, come inside NOW!”

“Not another war” I hear Mother say, as I remove a skate at the porch. She sounds upset and I remember that WWII was not that long ago. I was not quite born when it began, but Mother was alarmed. I could feel it. I don’t remember much about that war except that we hardly went anywhere, and Mother and Daddy would intently listen to the radio every evening. After dinner we were always told to be quiet so they could hear the latest news. I don’t know why they listened; it never made them happy.

I hear a woman’s voice just as I put my left skate next to its mate. “We’ll probably have to ration again; not easy, up here! We have so few choices, it seems like we’re always going without.”

“Well, we won’t need blackout curtains for half the year,” a male voice pipes up. I think he is trying to be funny, but I’m not sure.

The grownups gather all us kids around the radio.

We are told to sit still and listen to President Truman. Jack squirms; he’d rather be skating. I don’t understand everything the President says, but I know something is horribly wrong and I’m starting to get scared. Then I hear him say he’s declaring a national emergency. What does that mean? I think it has something to do with the Russians testing their first A-bomb. I heard Mother and Daddy talking about it a few days ago. The President finishes speaking and the radio is turned off. All the adults are quiet and thoughtful.

By 4th grade I am used to the air raid drills. Jo Ann and I play spies during recess at the Quonset Huts. It doesn’t feel so bad anymore to be in a war. Playing spies makes me feel grown up, but mostly I still don’t feel very safe.

In the spring of our 5th grade year, I find out Josef Stalin is dying. I think he’s the President of Russia. I know the Russians are our enemies, but I pray for him anyway.

♦♦♦

“Holy Cow,” I mutter under my breath. I’m on the flight home from Seattle in May of 1961. The couple next to me is having a heated discussion about building a bomb shelter in their back yard. “But it’s too small,” the woman is saying. He retorts that it doesn’t have to be big, just safe, and hold enough food and water to get past the initial radioactive stage. I wish he wouldn’t have said that because now I can’t stop thinking about nuclear war.

I slip a sideways glance their way. It’s obvious they have money. She has a GIGANTIC ring on her left ring finger and it nearly blinds me with its icy fire. What about the rest of us poor yokels who can’t afford a personal bomb shelter, I want to shout. In fact, I can’t think of a single community shelter in Anchorage, although there must be some somewhere. I guess we are just left alone to take our chances with everyone else, I think. My little voice inside sneers “Yeah, all except for THEM” and briefly glares at Mr. and Mrs. Bomb Shelter.

The Cold War is growing icier by the moment as the “evil empire” lurks menacingly just off our shores. There are nukes on the Chugach range behind us and with two military bases in the Anchorage bowl we consider ourselves to be a first strike target. Oh Great! Jets scramble almost daily from Elmendorf AFB and play tag with Russian MiGs just off the coastline. Maybe the DEW LINE will protect us, I think. “I doubt it!” the little voice in my head counters. I think maybe I should add “threatened by war year after year” to my short autobiography.

♦♦♦

“%&#$!” I round the curve at the bottom of the hill, and just barely miss the darkened, stalled car that takes up way too much of my lane. The road is slick with snow that leisurely falls, but continues to accumulate. John is asleep in the passenger seat of our VW bug and Naomi peacefully snoozes in the back, neither disturbed by my swerving or swearing. Thank heavens I’ve been paying attention, I think. It’s the Cuban Crisis of October 1962, one of the thirteen days that nearly changed the world.

The stalled car is fading quickly behind me as I glance in my rear view mirror. The Seward Highway levels out now as it winds its way around the arm toward Anchorage. The quiet purr of the engine accompanied by sounds of my snoring husband and soft gurgles from my baby take my thoughts away from the near miss and bring me back to the reason for this journey.

The world is mad, MAD! Khrushchev is on one side of the pond rattling his sabers, Kennedy and his war chiefs on the other. And I am a twenty-year old mother with a six-week old baby and scared out of my mind. Maybe being responsible for a baby makes one hyper-vigilant to political posturing, but while most of my high school friends and young family members are studying at college, or partying as the case may be, I am worrying about World War III and wondering where we can hide. As if the Alaska bush offers any sanctuary. What are we thinking!

I am afraid to stay alone at night in our little rental on “R” Street and I beg John to take me to work with him at night when he works for his Dad. “But the fuel company your parents own is a remodeled house. It has a bedroom!” I plead with him until I win. I climb into bed every night, Naomi in my arms. “I’ll protect you, my little one,” I coo to her as we both fall asleep. She into the deep, relaxed slumber of an infant; me into a restless sleep pierced with dreams of air raid sirens and people screaming. At least John is close by if I need him.

One morning we know the end is near. Our military is at DEFCON 3; Soviet ships and subs are close to the quarantine line near Cuba. John and I decide we should take a drive over Johnson Pass into the Kenai to scout out safe shelters for fleeing. I wonder if we can actually get out of Anchorage. Only two narrow roads, one north and one south, don’t portend well for evacuation of the city. Driving back to Anchorage, my heart is as icy as the road. God grant that the world doesn’t blow up. Please keep our baby safe!

♦♦♦

“War is all my kids know,” I say to a co-worker. “That’s all I’ve ever known!” It’s been more than a decade of war and Vietnam rages on with no inkling of an end. “I wonder how many of my classmates have gone to Nam or died there.” She doesn’t answer me, caught up in her own thoughts. “Or came away damaged in some ghastly, insidious way,” I continue, more to myself than my friend.

The jets still go up, chasing illusive MiGs. Everyday the news is filled with some implied threat from Russia. Détente` hasn’t quite reached the horizon. When it comes, Nixon and Brezhnev will make efforts to cooperate, but for now fear continues to run rampant. TV, movies and books abound with plots of spies who vanquish the horrible “commie” villains. Russians are the bad guys; we are the good guys. Simple as that.

But I’m not so sure. I think about all the beautiful Russian Orthodox churches splashed across the face of Alaska. I think about the Russian names everywhere in the state: Kasilov; Chirikov; Baranov; Shelekhov; Bering. I am reminded of all the Alaskans with Russian heritage. We once belonged to them, I think. Do they want us back, sorry they sold us? Surely ordinary Russians want peace as much as we do, I muse.

The “Old Believers” have settled in Nikolaevsk now, a tiny village tucked in the woods somewhere on the Kenai Peninsula. They are members of a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church who fled their homeland in the early part of the twentieth century. They still dress like they did in Russia years ago, and now and then I see them on the streets of Anchorage, shopping for supplies to take back to their secluded town. They look like normal people, I think, not like spies.

I desperately want to meet one, but cannot. My work is now as a clerk in Federal Court, and I will be giving the Oath of Citizenship to many people, but because I am new, I am not chosen to go to Nikolaevsk for this ceremony. I am sad, hoping this might have been a way to heal my threatened heart.

♦♦♦

It is February, 1988, and I borrow enough money to go to the first Soviet-American Citizens Summit in Alexandria, VA. I spend the week with 100 Russians: top of their field publishers, astronauts, artists and others of the elite. Five hundred Americans attend, mostly pacifists considered to be on a lower social status rung. We laugh at this curious fact. It is now the last night, and we listen to Ted Turner give the keynote address. Afterwards we stand, hand in hand, all 600 of us, and sing “We Shall Overcome.” I am holding hands with an imposing man I presume to be a KBG agent. Who cares; we all wipe tears away as we sing. There is hope, after all.

♦♦♦

A few years later I become a member of the Eugene-Irkutsk Sister City Committee and create a family-to-family pen-pal program between our cities. Thanks to the help of a young radio announcer in Irkutsk, more than a hundred letters from Russia arrive in my mailbox, some in English, most in Cyrillic. I am scrambling for translators.

Jana in front of St. Basil's in Moscow, May 1994.

It is May, 1994, and I am in Moscow as a member of the US – Russian Sister Cities Conference. I spend the week with our American and Irkutsk contingents. We attend conferences together, eat together, talk and drink together. I learn to say Чут чут (pronounced chut’-chut) meaning “a little bit.” Chut’-chut keeps my wine glass from emptying too hastily. We share many stories and laugh a lot.

Now and then I get to spend time with a young Russian woman I met a year earlier in Oregon. She is able to translate for me when we visit the Duma (Parliament). When we see her representative, she is very excited and tells me she recently voted for the first time.

My heart melts as I get to know these beautiful people who have survived so much, and who are like us in a thousand ways that we cannot imagine. I listen to their stories of fear during the cold war, and their concerns over the “American Imperialists.” We laugh together, long and hard, but it’s not funny what our governments have sold us about the other. These people, like most people, are not evil. We really all just want peaceful lives for our loved ones and ourselves.

And now it is time. It is midnight. I have been promised a surprise. I am led out of the hotel onto a street, and told to shut my eyes. My American friend leads me carefully across the cobblestones, and turns me around, just so.

“Open your eyes, now, Jana” she says softly. I obey. And my heart skips.

I am standing in Red Square. The pentagonal luminescent Ruby Stars glitter on top of five Kremlin towers, each an enormous jewel in the black night sky. In front of me is St. Basil’s Cathedral. It takes my breath away and is by far the most vibrant and enchanting building I have ever seen. My heart fills my mouth. Breathe, I remind myself, breathe.

I look around, my eyes hungrily drinking in the surroundings. All the pictures I have seen in all the magazines and books and movies don’t do this justice. St. Basils, the Ruby Stars, the Kremlin are so incredibly beautiful! I still cannot believe I am here, on the soil of the ‘enemy’ who struck such fear in my heart for so many years. I am standing in Red Square!

And then the tears start. They run in streams down my cheeks and off my jaw, splashing onto my jacket. I don’t care, I think as I silently sob. This is the most extraordinary place I have ever been. I look down at the well-worn cobblestones and imagine I can see the blood and tears of centuries on those stones, resonating with the passion of these amazing people. Their anguish flows in my veins and I can feel the heart beat of Mother Russia. For that small fragment of time, it is MY heart, too, and I succumb to her allure, still sobbing, still just barely breathing as I allow a powerful healing to wash over me. I know I am profoundly changed in this moment. Changed by this astonishing moment, never again able to look at life the same.

♦♦♦

In June 1963 President Kennedy addressed our nation:

“For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

♦♦♦

Today I think about my beloved Russian friends: Vlad and Marina. They are so precious to me and have added so much value to my life. I think about that little girl, hiding under the mat at North Star Elementary. And I still hope for a future when children are not afraid and the warlords no longer rattle their sabers.

About Jana Ariane Nelson

Jana Ariane Nelson (nee Janet Griffith) moved to Anchorage in 1948 with her parents, Donald and Denney Griffith, and her twin brother, Jack.

Jana worked in the legal field in Anchorage before moving to Oregon.  She retired from Lane Community College in Eugene where she was the Mathematics Division Coordinator.

Her daughter, Naomi Sweetman, is the Alaska DARE Coordinator and her son, John Nelson, is a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch in Anchorage.  Jana has 4 grandchildren and one great grandchild in the Anchorage area.  Her brother, Jack, runs the Griffith Lab at the University of North Carolina.

For more stories of early Anchorage, visit growingupanchorage.com.

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