The Russian Who Loved Arizona

They had no English but they did have a piece of paper from which they were preparing to read. It was dark and in the unlighted marina in Odessa I could not make out who they were when they came aknocking on my hull.

"Hello Sasha", I called, thinking that they were some of the folk from the Seamen's club. Uncomfortable to begin with, being addressed in English almost sent them scurrying back into the dark shadows of the hardstand through which they had appeared.

"Sasha? Is that you Sasha?" No reply save some indistinct mumbles. I realized finally that they were not Sasha. Out of the murk and the mumble I was able to hear what sounded, distantly, like English. It was ten at night and I had had a difficult day trading my seven words of Russian for the twentyfive words of English that was the vocabulary of most of the sailors in the marina. How to get rid of them quickly, was all I could think about. A warm and welcome bunk was waiting and these two wanted to palaver in a language they did not know and in an accent I could hardly understand.

But I was their guest...the first Western 'pleasure yacht' (the officials did not know what else to call us) to ever to make port at Odessa. I was obligated to be at least as nice as my Russian hosts had been to me.

"Come on aboard," I called. They carefully negotiated my gangplank and, in the cold wet of a March night on the Black Sea, they took off their shoes and trouped below.

I was delighted to see that they were not carrying the obligatory bottle of vodka that appears as oil for all social intercourse. Vodka, and hospitable, welcoming Russians had laid my crew low more than once in the few days we had been here. At least they did not want to drink into dawn and semiconsciousness. The Russians have a phenomenal capacity and I have none.

We draped ourselves about the pilot house and after a few spasebos and many smiles the paper came out and its message, so carefully crafted by a real English speaker, was passed.

"At one PM," (read with a heavy Russian accent) "on this Saturday next our new boat into the water is put. We shall place on her the name at that time."

I acknowledged the news, still puzzled and awaited more. The two, one young boy and the other, a tall and balding sailor with a weathered face, smiled and addressed themselves again to the paper.

"When into the water our boat goes we shall name her." Full stop. I nodded and waited. "You, my dear and honored Captain, shall Christen her for us. You, dear Sir, will honor us and our new boat to be the Godfather." With that they both rose and made a small bobbing bow while spreading their arms outward from their body, palms up, in a swimming gesture all the while ducking their heads in imitation of the bobbing bow of their bodies. It was an altogether startling act of contrite obeisance...as if the request was simply too much to ask. The little dance said that they would understand if I curtly refused and chased them out into the dark.

I was stunned. It was a scene out of Gogol with peasants seeking approval of the master for a new born son. The gestures ill fitted the world of socialist equality in which my Russian supplicants had been reared. Ancient habits die hard.

Curiously, the night turned soft, made light by the warmth and the truth, of their need. A yellow moon appeared and borne on the dying wind a whiff of incense, as from a high church alter, came from the two sailors. They were remaking unpleasant reality with only half remembered incantations. They had called up a structured, magical, past.

The Godfather is chosen for real, imagined or mystical powers so that he may intervene with the gods in favor of the new child. It was a gesture as ancient as the earth of old Russia. Seventy years of Marxism and a thousand of Christianity drifted away as I felt the pull of archaic belief.

They must have taken my silence, born of surprise, as the commencement of a refusal. They shuffled and made as if to leave, hurriedly, from the embarrassment of having discommoded me. I was searching for the word and gesture that would repay the drama they had brought. I was not of their time or of their place. I had no memory of a hundred generations of serfdom only recently overlay with a more modern and less gentle servitude. I could not return the bow, a little more haughtily perhaps, with the correct mode of acceptance. I grinned like an ape, nodded vigorously and, in English which of course they did not understand, I said, "I'll bring the champagne."

The launching, the christening, was a joy. Friends and distant relatives, representatives of the sailing club to which he had for so many years belonged, mothers and fathers all hummed with excitement. The fullness of pleasure banked the cold wind and eked a bit of reluctant sunlight from the northern sky. The smiles of the onlookers and the sense that now finally it was their time filled the dockside as the little boat, a quarter tonner crouched, a bit fearfully, under the looming crane. This was the sailor's biggest day capping 3000 days of grayness and despair.

3000 days because the last time the sailor had been given a boat amid the shortages of Soviet life, was ten years before when he had earned the right to skipper an ancient and creaky wooden boat hardly able to sail out of its own wake. She was, ten years ago, a thing of intense beauty and light amid the despair of the time. The sailor was offered the choice of a new name for her, the Planning Committee being doctrinally unsuperstitious about renaming boats.

"Arizona...I want to name her Arizona," was his instant, thoughtless, automatic response ten years ago.

"Arizona?" the Chairman sputtered, "Arizona? An American State. You want to name a Soviet boat after an American State !" The sailor suddenly realized the enormity of the gaffe. Even his chance of getting the boat hung in the balance.

"Ha, ha. A small joke Mr. Chairman. Of course we shall name her Stalina. . And so she carried that name till Gorbachev loomed out of the Chekhovian mists of the Kremlin when Stalina became Peristroika .

The crane dipped the perky vessel into the water, the cheers rang out, and the Godfather, bearing gifts of charts and sailing books (in English, alas) was warned that he must not strike the little vessel with the champagne lest he damage her. The cork popped on good Odessa champagne and the Arizona , for so she was named after ten years of waiting, slid off like an eel into a spanky breeze that might have given lesser sailors pause.

Later over too many vodkas and with the help of a Russian friend who had good English, I asked the question which had burned in me since the beginning of the drama.

"Why, my Russian friend, why Arizona ? Why Arizona ten years ago when it was dangerous and why Arizona now when your country has freedoms enough to name ten thousand boats ?"

The sailor smiled. The story he said, started back in the bleak and cold steppes of eastern Russia. He had been brought up there, on a collective farm, and he never, in his entire youth, ever remembered being warm. Then, somewhere in a book, he read of hot, dry and sunny Arizona...the opposite ends of creation from the cold wet winds of his steppe. Arizona became his picture of Heaven. The sailor fell in love with the heat, the sun and finally with the curious sonority of the word itself.

"No politics, my American friend, nothing to do with America, nothing to do with our Marxist difficulties...no," and here the yearning look spread over his face no longer able to fully dream the dreams of youth, "no, I just came to be in love with Arizona as a young man might fall in love with a maid. I was seduced by the thought of the soft and sensuous feel of Arizona's sand and the warmth, as from a woman's body, of her sun.

"Ahh, Arizona, Arizona."

The sailor sighed that huge, full sigh of which only Russians seem capable and wandered off into the cold rain to commune with his boat. The clouds parted for an instant and a shaft of Arizona sunlight, half a world out of place, settled around his shoulders, toasting this happy sailor.