• Old Photos: Surviving a Nuclear Blast

    We were driving on I-70 when my Mom saw the billboard for the Churchill Memorial in Fulton, MO. I told her what I knew about the “Iron Curtain” speech; the American experience during the Cold War; the radiation drills; famous videos of kids hiding under their desks; even the fallout shelters in Kansas City.

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  • Uh Oh! Hotline

    Don’t know how to break bad news to an unfortunate father-to-be? Southwest Boulevard offers a good conversation starter:

    Just drive him past this billboard and tell him your pregnancy test looked just like the one in the photo this morning.
    Good luck with “your options”…

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  • I Went To Russia And All I Have To Show Is A Prison Tattoo

    When I was growing up® there was an old joke (which I may have told here before, but I only remember about three of these so I have to recycle): An American is walking around in Moscow and falls into an unmarked open manhole. He screams: “I can’t believe some idiot left a manhole open here without any warnings! Where were the cones, tape, warning red flags?”
    An old Russian passer-by says “When you were crossing the border did you see a giant red flag?”
    “Yes” -American replies,
    “That was your warning!” (I need to brush up on my dialogue punctuation, but you get the idea)
    Few Americans who comment here have actually been to Russia and they will confirm that being a foreigner there is like running a plow through a minefield, you never know when it’s gonna blow, but you are pretty sure it will, sooner or later. The only protection is your wallet but you can’t just go around openly paying people off, it’s an art. Apparently at there are enough foreigners who have not mastered the art of bribery to have a special international prison described by one unfortunate victim in his book Zone 22 ( I am pretty sure the same book is published in the US as Tomorrow You Go Home: One Man’s Harrowing Imprisonment in a Modern-Day Russian Gulag)

    zone-22 Tomorrow

    I haven’t read the book yet, I am waiting for my turn at the library, but there are plenty of blurbs around to suggest that if you don’t know what you are doing you may come back from Russia with a couple of prison tattoos instead of Matryoshkas for your girlfriend.
    If I like the book I may review it in a few weeks.

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  • Behind the Iron Curtain: Military Draft

    image-10When I was growing up© every able-bodied male over 18 years old was drafted to serve 2 years in the Army or 3 years in the Navy. Very few people were able to escape the draft based on health and other reasons. Going to college resulted in getting the lowest officer rank but even then a person had to serve some time and if you quit or got kicked out of school, guys in uniform came looking for you without delay. Threat of the military service was probably the single largest stimulus for getting into and staying in college for any male.

    Exactly 20 years ago, on July 8th, 1988 I had to report for duty at the local draft station. Several hundred young men gathered in the yard waiting for their fate to be decided by chance and lucky or unlucky circumstances. We all wore old clothes and had backpacks with personal items, we all tried to act brave pretending that this was just another day in our so far mostly care-free lives. In reality, for many of us it was the first day of our adult lives. Most of us have never been separated from our parents for more than a few weeks, many of us never traveled far away from home, we stood there looking like we could care less but our future couldn’t have been any more uncertain.

    In the middle of the yard on a desk there were stacks of personal files. Once in a while an officer walked in (they called them “buyers”) with a requisition for a certain number of people and grabbed a handful of files from the top of the stack. That simple act decided where the draftee would spend the next few years: the most unlucky ones were stuck for 3 years in the Navy where being short almost guaranteed a submarine; the others got the Army and shorter guys didn’t fare much better – they were a perfect fit for a tank. In 1988 they were still sending people to Afghanistan, so your file being on top in the wrong time could ultimately decide if you would come home in a zinc coffin. And then there were locations – anywhere from remote posts inside the Arctic Circle, to scorching desert sands; mountains, faraway borders, big cities, resort towns, or somewhere deep in the woods where you’d see people once in 6 months – military was everywhere and all these places needed new “meat”.

    My parents didn’t try our “Jewish luck” – a friendly (bribed) officer kept taking my file off the top of the stack until a good buyer showed up. I ended up only a few hundred miles away in the engineering regiment. My parents were happy – I was not too far, I never found out how much money and favors did it cost my Dad. I was happy – I didn’t end up in some horrible dump. “Friendly” officer was happy – he had a reason to celebrate. And the Soviet Army got one of the most worthless soldiers in its history.

    That hot day in July of ’88 is still with me. Anxiety and fear long ago faded away but I still remember the buyer grabbing my file from the stack, like a hand of fate grabbing my life and pulling it into a mysterious unknown future.

    I wrote a little about my first day here.

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  • Old Photos: I Witnessed History

    On the morning of August 19, 1991 I was eating breakfast and watching news on my TV (something like this) when the announcer reverted to the official voice they used when someone died and announced that due to the health reasons M.S.Gorbachev can no longer perform his duties and  the control of the country is being taken over by a State Committee of the State of Emergency. This was the beginning of the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt. People had different reactions to the events; I for one wasn’t surprised at all: many people weren’t happy about Gorbachev’s reforms and were hoping for some form of reversal, and this was just what they were asking for.

    This is what their first press-conference looked like (in Russian). For a group of conspirators they acted too strange and spaced out. Some of them were not exactly well-known before the events.

    The coup was over in 3 days with the press and the army refusing to support the conspirators and suppress demonstrations in Moscow and other places.

    Gorbachev returned to Moscow but never regained his full capacity and the USSR was over before the year’s end.
    One might say that right there over my breakfast I witnessed the beginning of the end of the country I grew up in. Recently I had a chance to find out how these events were covered in the American press. After the the putsch was over the Kansas City Star combined all of its coverage into a special insert.

    18 years later people still argue if this was the right way to go. At that time it probably couldn’t go in any other way, but every forum is overloaded with people mourning the loss of the USSR – the superpower.
    I witnessed it then and thanks to one of my readers had a chance to revisit it now from the other side of where the Iron Curtain used to be.
    More videos of the American news coverage.

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