It was not wise to shout a Russian greeting at a motorcade carrying a Soviet premier in 1967. I could have been arrested or even shot. That I wasn't, turned out to be the second Mr.Magoo moment of my brief visit to New York.
The first had been moments earlier when one of the young men in the group I walked past coming up the stairs of a subway exit approached me too closely and asked for a light. "Sorry, I don't smoke," I said honestly, shrugging and offering a friendly smile. I had never stopped walking, and I continued up the cement stairs. Nothing more was said. I learned much later that I likely had been the target of a street gang's classic set up. Had I stopped and lit the man's cigarette I might have been robbed, or worse.
It was midday in mid-June 1967. I was wearing my Army uniform, having just returned from West Germany after serving a three-year tour. Perhaps it was the uniform or the sense of purpose in my carriage that allowed me passage from the gang's predatory intent. Perhaps there were too many other potential targets or witnesses around, or maybe it just wasn't my time.
I had arrived by bus from Fort Dix, New Jersey, where I'd mustered out. I had several hours to kill before my train left to take me home to Columbus, Wisconsin. It was my first time in New York. I'd left my bags in a locker at the train station and was doing a walkabout to see as much as I could before catching the train.
This was 43 years ago, folks, so my memory is serving up only the most indelible images. I assume I had a quick lunch, probably after buying my train ticket. I remember carrying a tube of toothpaste and a tooth brush in a paper bag, which I must have purchased about the same time. I was holding the bag when I reached Fifth Avenue at Rockefeller Plaza. It struck me as odd that there was no traffic on the avenue. None. But there were police officers, some on horseback, positioned along both sides as far as I could see in either direction. It seemed I was the only civilian present, but none of the officers acknowledged or approached me.
After a minute or so just standing there wondering what was up, I saw movement to my left. Several motorcycles ahead of a black car aflutter with flags were rolling up the avenue. As they neared, I saw others following closely. It was a motorcade for somebody important. I remembered seeing headlines on the newspaper that morning declaring that Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin was in the city to speak at the United Nations. The Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbors had been fought about two weeks earlier and the Soviets had called for an emergency U.N. General Assembly session to discuss Middle East security.
My papers for an early release from active duty to return to college had come through while my unit was packed and awaiting in a row of vehicles for orders to be flown to Wheelus Air Base in Tripoli, Libya. Our mission was to have evacuated U.S. citizens in case the war expanded to that country. My emotions were mixed - excitement to be going home tempered by disappointment that I was leaving my unit in a time of crisis. As things turned out, my buddies never left Germany. The war ended shortly after my flight touched down at Fort Dix.
On Fifth Avenue now, my sense of its importance grew exponentially as the motorcade drew nearer. This was coincidence of historic proportion for me, something to tell my grandchildren, my dad would have said. Nearly four years earlier I'd been in an airplane enroute from Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, when JFK was murdered. Learned about the shooting when our plane stopped in Philadelphia to refuel. Learned the president was dead when the driver pulled our bus to the curb in Worcester, Mass., so we could buy EXTRA editions of the local newspaper from a kid on a corner. Official motorcades have sparked an ambivalence in me ever since.
Manhattan - Fifth Avenue
Small American flags sprouted from the fenders of the first couple of cars. Men in business suits walked briskly alongside, their heads swiveling constantly. Then more motorcyles, ridden by helmeted police officers, and then...another black limousine, accompanied by more walking men in suits. A scowling man leaned out of the front passenger window and two other suited men stood on a platform at the limo's rear. Red flags fluttered on this one's fenders. This was Kosygin.
"Zdrastvutya!" I shouted triumphantly at the car. I'd studied Russian in the Army. I was being a good American welcoming a visitor to my country with a greeting in his own language. I was being stupid.
Before I coud take a breath to shout a followup "Prevetstvovatye!" (welcome) the man leaning out of the car leaned even further and fixed me with an ungracious glare. Simultaneously, the man on my side of the limo's rear platform turned to me, as well. I don't remember if he glared or not. I most likely didn't notice, as my eyes were fixed on the submachine gun in his hands, its lethal barrel pointed straight at my grinning idiot face.
The grin vanished as I suddenly remembered the paper bag in my hand. I dropped it at my feet and spread my arms wide, empty palms facing front. I awaited the ratatatat from the rear of Kosygin's limo that would assure my footnote in history with no grandchildren to read about it. The motorcade eased on by. It seemed every visible face in and around the motorcade vehicles glared at me until they were out of sight. I don't remember if the New York police officers were aware of what had just happened. None of them approached me then or after the parade had passed.
I imagine it wasn't too much longer before I started breathing again, picked up my paper bag and sauntered back from whence I came.
This story is included in the collection If The Woodsman is Late