nostalgia, politics, travel

Repost: Remembering Samantha Smith… pen pal to world leaders

Here’s another repost from June 2018, a post inspired by my childhood in the 1980s. This one is about the late Samantha Smith, who made history by writing to Yuri Andropov and getting invited to visit the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Samantha was nine days younger than me, but sadly, she died in a plane crash in 1985. Little did I know, when Samantha was alive, that I, too, would one day go to what was once the Soviet Union. The 80s were an interesting time to be a kid.

I was born on June 20, 1972.  Nine days later, Samantha Smith was born.  Samantha Smith would change the world during her 13 years of life.  I’m about to turn 46 (and now I’m 49) and I’m still wondering what my purpose is. 

A few weeks ago, I suddenly remembered Samantha Smith, who was ten years old when she wrote a moving letter to former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov.  She was concerned about the threat of nuclear war.  In the early 1980s, everyone was talking about nukes and the so-called “red button”.  Like so many of her peers, Samantha was scared.  But she had guts and initiative.  So, in November 1982, she wrote:

Dear Mr. Andropov,

My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren’t please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.

Sincerely,

Samantha Smith  

This was not Samantha’s first letter to a world leader.  In fact, she’d even written to another leader when she was five– Queen Elizabeth II– to express her admiration.  Samantha’s letter was printed in the Soviet paper, Pravda, but she did not receive a reply from Andropov right away.  Undaunted, Samantha wrote another letter, this time to the Soviet Union’s Ambassador to the United States. 

Mr. Andropov was very moved by Samantha’s letter.  He wrote back to her in April 1983, affirmed that the Soviet Union did not want to wage a nuclear war, and invited her to visit the Soviet Union at a time when Americans were not often allowed to go there. 

Dear Samantha,

I received your letter, which is like many others that have reached me recently from your country and from other countries around the world.

It seems to me – I can tell by your letter – that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling Becky, the friend of Tom Sawyer in the famous book of your compatriot Mark Twain. This book is well known and loved in our country by all boys and girls.

You write that you are anxious about whether there will be a nuclear war between our two countries. And you ask are we doing anything so that war will not break out.

Your question is the most important of those that every thinking man can pose. I will reply to you seriously and honestly.

Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are trying to do everything so that there will not be war on Earth. This is what every Soviet man wants. This is what the great founder of our state, Vladimir Lenin, taught us.

Soviet people well know what a terrible thing war is. Forty-two years ago, Nazi Germany, which strove for supremacy over the whole world, attacked our country, burned and destroyed many thousands of our towns and villages, killed millions of Soviet men, women and children.

In that war, which ended with our victory, we were in alliance with the United States: together we fought for the liberation of many people from the Nazi invaders. I hope that you know about this from your history lessons in school. And today we want very much to live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors on this earth — with those far away and those near by. And certainly with such a great country as the United States of America.

In America and in our country there are nuclear weapons — terrible weapons that can kill millions of people in an instant. But we do not want them to be ever used. That’s precisely why the Soviet Union solemnly declared throughout the entire world that never — never — will it use nuclear weapons first against any country. In general we propose to discontinue further production of them and to proceed to the abolition of all the stockpiles on Earth.

It seems to me that this is a sufficient answer to your second question: ‘Why do you want to wage war against the whole world or at least the United States?’ We want nothing of the kind. No one in our country–neither workers, peasants, writers nor doctors, neither grown-ups nor children, nor members of the government–want either a big or ‘little’ war.

We want peace — there is something that we are occupied with: growing wheat, building and inventing, writing books and flying into space. We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha.

I invite you, if your parents will let you, to come to our country, the best time being this summer. You will find out about our country, meet with your contemporaries, visit an international children’s camp – Artek – on the sea. And see for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples.

Thank you for your letter. I wish you all the best in your young life.

Y. Andropov

In the summer of 1983, Samantha visited Russia, where she caused quite a sensation.  She spent two weeks in Moscow as Mr. Andropov’s guest and had the opportunity to visit Artek, which was a big Soviet pioneer camp.  During the Soviet era, young children were involved in the Young Pioneers, which was a massive youth organization.  She also went to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), where she was presented with many gifts.  Smith and her parents were amazed by how friendly the people were.

So many years later, I was watching Samantha Smith on old YouTube videos.  There are many comments from Russians who remembered and admired her.  She truly was a heroine to many Russians and Americans alike, although there were some skeptics out there who felt she was being used as a Soviet propaganda pawn.

When Samantha and her parents came home to Maine, they were treated to a warm welcome involving a red carpet and limousine.  Samantha was interviewed by many famous people, including Ted Koppel and Johnny Carson.  In 1985, she even tried her hand at acting when she was cast as a regular in a TV show called Lime Street

Samantha Smith interviewed by Johnny Carson.
Samantha Smith being interviewed on The Today Show, after she had become a media sensation.

Tragically, on August 25, 1985, Samantha Smith and her father, Arthur, died in a plane crash.  They were returning home on Bar Harbor Airlines Flight 1808 after having filmed a segment for Lime Street.  The pilot was attempting to land the plane when it hit some trees 4007 feet shy of the runway. The airplane crashed, killing the six passengers and two crew members aboard.  Although some in the Soviet Union thought she might have been a victim of foul play, an investigation revealed that the pilots were inexperienced and the rainy weather conditions contributed to the difficulty in landing the plane.

News story about Samantha Smith’s death.

Samantha Smith’s visit inspired goodwill all over the world, especially in the United States and Russia.  In fact, in 1986, a Soviet child named Katya Lycheva even spent time in the United States.  A 1987 storyline on The Golden Girls was even inspired by Samantha’s story, although it was ditzy Rose Nylund who wrote the letter, not a ten year old girl.

Rose’s “Letter to Gorbachev”… 

I wonder what would have become of Samantha Smith had she been able to grow up.  I wonder what she would think of our current political situation.  I think of what it was like for me, 23 years ago, moving to what was once a Soviet country and finding out that the people over there are much like we are.  She could have had a wonderful career, spreading world peace and goodwill.  Some people are never meant to grow old, yet still manage to change the world.  

When I was watching videos on YouTube last night, I also thought of Ryan White, who was another one of my contemporaries.  He contracted AIDS after having been given a tainted blood infusion to treat his hemophilia.  Ryan White was kicked out of school and harassed by his peers for having AIDS.  In those days, a lot of small minded people thought of it as a disease God sent to punish gay people.  It didn’t help that Ryan was from a small town in Indiana, where there were many ignorant people who thought he was gay simply because he had what was then considered a “gay” disease.

White went on to influence the world, even making friends with Elton John and Michael Jackson, both of whom were at his funeral when he died in April 1990.  I vividly remember watching Lukas Haas play White in a TV movie about his life.  White was himself in the film with a minor role.  So was Sarah Jessica Parker.

While we’ve come a long way in the fight against AIDS since Ryan White’s day, we’re still really struggling with world peace.  I just started reading another book about the Holocaust.  It’s a story about a Jewish Dutch woman who watched as her country was overtaken by Nazis.  I have to confess, reading her comments about what happened before Hitler completely took over gave me chills.  So much of it is familiar today.  Maybe it’s not quite as extreme now as it was in the 40s… or maybe it just doesn’t seem as extreme to me as it might to someone with brown skin, living in America’s Heartland.  The one thing that gives me hope is that the world eventually came to its senses somewhat, after World War II.  I hope it doesn’t come to war to make the powers that be in the United States regain their senses…  

Well, those are my deep thoughts for today.  The 1980s were fascinating.  I’m glad I was around to see them. 

Standard
good news, history, lessons learned

My Peace Corps friend, Loretta…

Earlier this month, I took part in a Zoom meeting memorial my group of Armenia Returned Peace Corps Volunteers held for our former colleague, Matt Jensen, who was struck and killed by a speeding black Rolls Royce in Brooklyn, New York. During that meeting, I learned that another member of my group, Loretta Land, also died this year. She passed in January, having reached the age of 86 years.

I had recently been in touch with Loretta via Facebook, but she hadn’t been posting in awhile. I was afraid she might have stopped following me, as a lot of people tend to do when they don’t like my raunchy humor or outspoken posts about Trump. But, as it turned out, Loretta had simply moved on from this world. It wasn’t a total surprise, given her age, but I was a bit sad about the news.

I knew that Loretta had published a book about our time in Armenia. I decided to download it, and I’m now about halfway through it. It’s a pretty quick read, and if I’m honest, not the best edited or accurately fact-checked book I’ve ever read. And yet, I’m enjoying reading her book so much!

I always really admired Loretta, who was in her early 60s when she joined the Peace Corps. Loretta was about my dad’s age, and I think that had my dad not been married to my mom, he would have liked being in the Peace Corps himself. He was very excited when I told him I wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, as my eldest sister, Betsy, had in Morocco during the mid 1980s.

For some reason, Loretta always made me think of my dad… the best parts of him, anyway. Dad and I had kind of a rocky relationship, but he had a very altruistic, adventurous, adrenaline seeking side of him that was fun. Loretta was like that too, as I’m discovering as I read her book, Yes, You Can! Have a Second Life After 60.

I remember when we arrived for staging in Washington, DC, Loretta was interviewed by a reporter for the Associated Press. A newspaper article later surfaced about Loretta’s decision to join the Peace Corps at her age. She was the oldest one in our group, but the subsequent groups I encountered also had older people serving.

Loretta served as a business volunteer, and lived on the outskirts of Yerevan, not too far from the very last metro stop heading east. I never visited Loretta, even though I also lived in Yerevan. Yerevan, in the 1990s, was like a really big village, but it’s also pretty vast, with over three million people living there. Her work was in a village about fifteen kilometers away from Yerevan called Zovk, while mine was at a Yerevan city school that, at least when I was there, served kids of all ages. Now, I believe my former school is what’s called a “basic school”, that doesn’t serve the youngest or oldest children. My students were all among the youngest and eldest at the school.

It’s been so much fun to read Loretta’s memories of our time in Armenia. There are some things in her book that I never knew about– a lot of it is about her specific work in Zovk, as well as Yerevan proper. She’s written some things that were common experiences that I don’t remember, like when our training group was asked to write letters to ourselves about what we thought our last day in Armenia would be like. I don’t remember doing that, but I’m sure we must have… because I remember the training director and his wife, and it’s exactly the kind of exercise they would have had us do. Unfortunately, someone lost the letters we turned in, although Loretta said she’d kept hers, but then decided to throw it away instead of reading it. She wrote that she was sorry she’d done that.

She’s also spilled some tea about some things that I knew nothing about… like, for instance, that a couple of Volunteers traded their kerosene for a car and a driver (which they were not supposed to do). She doesn’t mention their names, but she does mention the area where they lived… and I have a feeling I know who they are. But at least they got something truly valuable for the kerosene. I remember one lady who lived with a host family came home to find that the family had traded her kerosene for 200 kilos of potatoes!

I got a kick of reading her mentions of people we knew from our group, or people in the very small and close-knit American diaspora that existed in Armenia in the 1990s. So far, she hasn’t mentioned me. I don’t expect she will, despite my unforgettable charm. 😉 But I have seen some names of our colleagues, as well as Peace Corps staff and other Americans in the community during that time. I had forgotten just how challenging and difficult life in Armenia could be back in the 90s. Reading Loretta’s account makes me proud that I managed to survive that tough existence, even if I wasn’t as amazing and effective as a Peace Corps Volunteer as she was.

Loretta’s book is reminding me of the traditions and customs in Armenia, as well as the very warm and hospitable nature of its people. I got pretty bitter and depressed during my time there, and I think I lost sight of what an amazing opportunity it was to get to experience life in what had been the Soviet Union, just after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. When I think about it, it just blows me away that I joined the Peace Corps. It was not something I had really aspired to do until I felt the itch to do something drastic to change my life. My life didn’t change in the way that I thought it would, but it did change. If not for my time in Armenia, I’m not sure I’d be living in Germany, for instance.

I find myself oddly gratified, too, to read that, like me, Loretta experienced depression while she was in the Peace Corps. I remember, back in those days, feeling like such a loser. I felt like I couldn’t accomplish anything. By the end of my second year, I had actually done some good things, but they felt insignificant. It wasn’t until later that I realized I’d been suffering from depression, which is a medical problem. It wasn’t until many years after I had been treated for the medical problem that I realized that, in fact, I had done some things that made a lasting and good impression. One of my former students now works for Peace Corps/Armenia. I had nothing to do with him landing that job, but I do realize that at least his experiences with me didn’t turn him off of Americans. 😉 And yes, he still remembered me many years later, and now we’re friends on Facebook.

I expect to be finished reading Loretta’s book very soon, and then I will write a proper review, which I will post on this blog, and probably the travel blog, too. But for now, I just want to post that I’m glad I bought the book and am now reading it. I wish I had read it when Loretta was still alive and I could talk to her about it. She was an amazing lady and I am so honored that I got to meet her. Honestly, I met so many incredible people thanks to my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia. It truly changed my life in so many wonderful ways… even if it didn’t always seem like it at the time.

Standard
movies, nostalgia, YouTube

Watching Gulag– anti Soviet propaganda thirty-six years later…

Yesterday’s post about “The Red Scare” inspired me to watch a movie I haven’t seen in years. I grew up at a time when everyone talked about the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. That fear was referenced in a lot of pop culture in the 80s.

In early 1985, the Cold War was in full swing.  I was twelve years old and acutely aware of the threat of nuclear war.  There were many books, TV plots, and movies about the hostilities between the United States and the former Soviet Union.  I was fascinated by it, though I lacked the ability to do a lot of reading about the Soviet Union.  I didn’t have Internet, nor did I have a library card until I was about fourteen.  What I did have in those days was HBO.  When I was growing up, a lot of my world centered around what was on HBO.

Back in the 80s, there was no shortage of films depicting how nasty the Soviet people were.  We had Red Dawn, which was about the United States being invaded by Russians and Cubans.  I watched film that I don’t know how many times.  It thrilled twelve year old me, even to the point at which I felt pretty strongly that I would join the military if the Russians ever invaded.  I think that was also one of the very first movies to have a PG-13 rating.  Since I was twelve, I thought it was “neato” that I got to see Red Dawn, even if I’d been watching R rated movies on HBO since I was about eight.

We had Born American,  a strange film by Renny Harlin that came out in 1986.  It was about three foolish guys on vacation in Finland who decide to cross into the Soviet Union just as some village girl is being raped and slaughtered by a local priest.  The guys get blamed for her rape and murder and end up in a hellish prison where humans are playing a bizarre chess game.

There was 1985’s White Nights, a film notably starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines.  Baryshnikov’s character was a famous ballet dancer who had defected to the United States and ended up back in Russia after a plane crash.  There, he meets Hines’ character, an American who grew disenchanted with the United States after Vietnam and ended up marrying a Russian.  They form an unlikely partnership, dance a lot, and escape to the West.

And there was also Gulag, a film that was made for Home Box Office.  It starred David Keith (of An Officer and a Gentleman and The Lords of Discipline fame) and Malcom McDowell, a Brit who has been in a shitload of films.  I remember seeing Gulag on HBO not long after it premiered.  I was probably too young to be watching it.  Having seen it on YouTube yesterday, I know I was too young.  It was actually a pretty scary film.

Gulag is the fictional story of Mickey Almon, a track star and Olympian who has been hired by a television network to cover sports in Moscow.  He and his wife are enjoying Soviet hospitality, although Mickey is a bit of an ugly American.  He’s loud, obnoxious, arrogant, and has a false sense of superiority for being from the United States.

At the beginning of the film, Almon runs into a Russian man who claims to be a scientist and asks him to take his story back to the United States.  The man promises that if Almon helps him, he’ll win the Nobel Peace Prize.  Almon is perplexed.  He’s not in the Soviet Union to help anyone.  He’s there to do a job.  But the guy’s request is compelling and as an American with a hero complex, Almon feels compelled to take action.  Naturally, he soon finds himself in serious trouble with the police.  Turns out the “scientist” is really a member of the KGB who has set Almon up to be a political pawn.

Next thing Mickey Almon knows, he’s locked in a filthy cell reeking of raw sewage.  The Russians demand that he sign a confession to spying.  Almon refuses for months and keeps going back to the rotten cell.  He’s forced to wear the same uniform for months, not allowed to shower, and grows a heavy beard.  One day, the guards tell him his wife has come.  They let him shower and give him fresh clothes.  Just when he thinks he’s going to see his wife, they bring back the putrid uniform and demand that he put it back on.

The prospect of wearing the filthy uniform and going back to the disgusting cell is too much for Mickey.   He finally breaks.  He’s been promised that if he confesses and makes a video for the Soviets, he’ll be deported back to the United States.  Of course, the promise of going home turns out to be a lie.  Pretty soon, Mickey is wrestled onto a crowded train with a bunch of other prisoners.  That’s when Almon learns he’s not going to the airport.  He’s destined for a ten year sentence at a gulag in Siberia.  Almon puts on a brave show, swearing at the guards and refusing to cower.  But eventually, Mickey Almon determines that he must take things into his own hands.  No one is going to rescue him.  He either has to stand the brutal, inhuman conditions, or find some way to escape.

As I was watching this film yesterday, I couldn’t help but realize that if Mickey Almon had actually been arrested in Moscow in the 80s, he would not have done ten years in a Soviet gulag.  The Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.  But in the 80s, we had no idea that it was going to fall apart.   In those days, the Soviet Union was a massive superpower and it was perceived to be a huge threat to the United States.  There was a lot of talk about who was going to “push the red button”.

Since I remember the 80s so clearly and they don’t seem like they were really that long ago, this film still gave me the willies.  And yet, just ten years after Gulag was released, I went to the former Soviet Union to live for two years.  I quickly found out that Soviets… Armenians, anyway… were just normal folks like everybody else.  Yes, the lifestyle there was different than what I was used to, but at their core, people living in what used to be Soviet Armenia were just people who wanted the best for themselves and their loved ones.  And I happened to be there at a time when their country was going through extreme turmoil due to the fall of the Soviet Union.

Another thing I noticed was that the film looked “old”.  I mean, I remember watching movies from the 60s and 70s when I was a child and thinking they looked dated.  I had that same experience yesterday.  1985 really was 36 years ago!  To put that in perspective, it would be the same as me watching a film in 1985 that was made in 1949.  1949 in the 1980s sure did seem like it was ages ago.  Hell, that was back before my parents were married.  The upshot is that now I feel ancient.

Actually, I’ve been going through a bit of a mid life crisis lately, so it probably wasn’t the best idea to watch this film.  It really does seem like yesterday that I was a teenager.  Now I’m about to turn 49 and I feel like there’s a lot I haven’t yet done.  I have never had a “real” career.  I don’t have children.  I have a great marriage and I’m grateful for that, but I think it’s mainly because I found an unusually patient guy who has already survived the wife from hell.  Anything I do seems to be very small potatoes to him.

I still have a few Armenian friends.  I wonder what they would think of Gulag and the other American made propaganda films.  I am sure they’ve seen their share of anti-American propaganda, too.  I kind of wish I’d had the chance to talk to some of them in person about it back when I saw them on a daily basis.

Anyway, if you’re curious, here’s a link to Gulag, which also has helpful Polish subtitles.  Enjoy!

Here’s the film, Gulag, which aired on HBO all the time in the 80s! It’s the only film, besides An Officer and a Gentleman I have ever seen David Keith in. What’s weird is that I have twin cousins who look a lot like David Keith. Every time I see him, I think of them.
Standard
book reviews

Repost: Book review of Exile from Latvia: My WWII Childhood- From Survival to Opportunity

I wrote this post for my original Blogspot blog on September 15, 2016. It appears here as/is.

It’s time for another book review.  Since my Internet sucked yesterday, I finished reading a book I’ve been working on for awhile.  Harry G. Kapeikis published his book, Exile from Latvia: My WWII Childhood- From Survival to Opportunity in November 2007.  I see the book, which is the first in a three part series, is now no longer available on Kindle.  I think that’s a pity.

I really enjoyed reading Mr. Kepeikis’s story of his Latvian childhood interrupted by the invasion of the Russians and subsequent liberation by the Germans.  Kepeikis and his family left Latvia and moved to Bavaria, where they eventually ended up in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp operated by the Americans, who were occupying Germany post World War II.  Although Kepeikis now writes in a very fluent, conversational English, in the 1940s, he was a young boy who spoke Latvian.  He did not speak German.  He did not speak English.  And there he was in a strange land with his family, trying to assimilate and survive.

Harry Kepeikis offers a unique perspective on history, albeit one that is definitely slanted by his own experiences.  His family rented land in Latvia, where they had rabbits and chickens and a big garden. It was their home.  When the Russians invaded, they began to round up Latvians and send them to Siberia, where they were forced to work.  Many people died of exposure, exhaustion, and starvation.  Kepeikis also writes of Latvian children being rounded up by Soviet authorities and sent to a “camp”, where they would learn about the “benefits” of being in the Soviet Union.  Kepeikis writes that many of the children who were rounded up never came home again.  His mother, whom he explains was very protective, hid her son in the cellar for days while the authorities came through their town looking for kids to send away to camp.

Germany, it seems, was equally frightening for the Kepeikis family, especially at first.  Kepeikis writes of seeing American soldiers, some of whom were black.  He had never seen black people before and was bewildered and, perhaps, afraid of them.  They spoke a language he didn’t understand.  But they also gave him chocolate.  He brought the chocolate home and his mother, being protective, told him not to eat it because she feared it was poisoned.  Of course, it wasn’t poisoned and Kepeikis eventually tasted it and loved it.  He sang the praises of American chocolate, which at least in the 40s, might very well have been superior to what one could find in Europe.

Because of the language barrier, Harry and his family often found themselves often confused, especially when it came time for them to go to a DP camp.  While the idea of being sent to a “camp” may sound sinister, Kepeikis makes it sound like it wasn’t so bad.  The families were put up in apartments that had running water and kitchens, which was a huge upgrade over camping out.  The kids were able to attend school.  They made friends.  Eventually, in 1950, the families who were in DP camps were allowed to move to one of several countries willing to receive them.  Some people went to Australia.  Some went to Canada, England, or Argentina.  Many ended up in the United States.

Because it was 1950, Kepeikis and his family took a ship across the Atlantic Ocean.  I have done a few cruises in my day and I know I have a tendency to get seasick.  Imagine being on a naval ship crossing the Atlantic in a time when the ships had no stabilizers.  Yes, there was rampant seasickness.  However, there was also plenty of food and companionship.  This part of the book is at the end, as Harry and his family are headed for their new home.  As I finished reading about their first glimpses of New York City, I found myself wishing the book was longer.  But, as I mentioned at the start of this review, this is the first book in a trilogy.  I want to read the other two books to understand how this man eventually assimilated into the United States.

What I liked about Exile from Latvia, is the firsthand account of what it was like for a man to change countries as a young child who didn’t understand everything at first.  I also appreciated, as an American, how grateful Harry was to the American soldiers who ultimately helped his family.  In a time when a lot of people have overwhelmingly negative things to say (and write) about the United States, I found this attitude very refreshing.  Of course, Harry’s family didn’t always trust the Americans… and rightfully so, given what they’d already been through.

I also think this book is extremely timely reading for many reasons.  First off, I live in Germany and have extensive experiences with the U.S. military as a “brat” and a spouse, so I can relate on many levels to Kepeikis’s impressions of the military and Germany.  Secondly, Germany is currently home to many refugees from Syria.  While Syria is a very different place and has a vastly different culture than any in Europe, reading Kepeikis’s account gave me an inkling of what it must be like for some of the refugees who had fled the Middle East, some of whom are now living in what used to be housing for U.S. military troops.  And thirdly, the United States is currently entertaining electing a man who has some disturbing similarities to Adolf Hitler.  While Kepeikis and his family ultimately came out of World War II in a better place, many people did not.  Actually, Kepeikis doesn’t focus much on Hitler.  His enemy was Josef Stalin, yet another toxic leader.

Anyway, as you can probably tell, I recommend Harry Kepeikis’s book, especially if you’re interested in reading about what happened to people who survived Soviet occupation and World War II.  I’m glad I read it and will have to read the next book.  Kepeikis is a good writer who spins a good story– and even demonstrates a vivid imagination as he writes about how he used to daydream in his garden as a child.  He also seems like a genuinely good man who reminds us that immigration and immigrants are a large part of what makes the United States the United States.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

Standard
memories, music, nostalgia, YouTube

The Red Scare!

Yesterday’s post about public TV caused me to fall down a very interesting rabbit hole on YouTube. Anyone who follows this blog for any length of time is likely to come to the conclusion that I have way too much time on my hands, most days. And when I get bored, I go hunting for things to alleviate my boredom. I had wanted to add a certain video showing a Soviet children’s show on yesterday’s post. I couldn’t find it, but I did find this video, which I also shared in yesterday’s post…

Someone in 1981 was REALLY scared of the Soviets taking over our capitalistic society… That still photo is Toni Ann Gisondi, who played Molly in the 1982 movie, Annie.

I didn’t really write about what’s in this video when I posted it yesterday. That’s because I discovered it at the end of my post and had already written a lot… and the former Soviet Union wasn’t really the point of yesterday’s writings, anyway. In this video, an elderly teacher, obviously stricken and terrified, tells her class that all current teachers will be forced to give up their classes. A little boy named Johnny tells the teacher not to panic as she explains why she’s so scared.

At 9:00am, right on the dot, a tall, attractive woman with reddish brown hair, blue eyes, and a vague British accent appears at the door. She wears what looks like a Soviet inspired uniform, enters the room, and tells the children that she’s their new teacher as she firmly kicks out the old lady who had originally been teaching the kids. She knows all of the students’ names, shocking them. Then she shocks me by poorly trying to sing “Children of the World”, a positively cringeworthy song by the Bee Gees. Talk about a Red Scare!

The young teacher has a kind and friendly demeanor, but it’s clear that beneath that calm, gentle facade lurks a woman who could probably kill the children if provoked. Or, at least have them sent to a gulag or something. They are impressed by her, but also a bit scared. The teacher very carefully leads the children to her lessons, gradually and insidiously teaching them not to blindly honor American values. But little Johnny, the same one who told the old teacher not to panic, is going to be a troublemaker. The teacher takes down the American flag, then tells everyone they’re going to cut the flag, so everyone can have a piece of it. Johnny looks like he’s going to wet his pants.

A little girl named Leslie (who played Nadia Comaneci in the movie, Nadia), cuts the first piece of the flag because it’s her birthday. More pieces are cut so that everyone can have a piece, just like it was a birthday cake. The kids all disrespect the flag, all very innocently, as the sound effects get more ominous. When a child asks why their first teacher was crying, the new Soviet model says she was just “tired” and needs a long rest. And she says teachers should be young… like she is– only 23 years old. The old bat will be sent away where she will be nice and “safe”.

Then Johnny, the truth teller, demands to know where his dad is. The teacher says Johnny’s dad is “going to school”, becomes sometimes grown ups have to go to school, too. The teacher explains that Johnny’s dad had “wrong thoughts” and needs to be re-educated. And Johnny can visit him, once he has a vacation. Dads who are in school get vacation just like kids in school, do. Oh dear. The teacher tells Johnny that his dad had some thoughts that were “old fashioned” and needed to be corrected. I see where this is going. Leftists are BAD, and not to be trusted. Then the other kids start wondering if their parents should go back to school, too.

Sinister! The Red Scare was alive and well in 1981– for different reasons, as it turned out. That was also the year I learned about puberty.

Then the teacher tells the kids that they’ll all be staying together, from now on, in a nice state supported home where they will be taught the right things. They can stay up and have a good time, eat candy, and tell stories, like a slumber party that never ends as the state slowly reforms their thinking to the “right” way… which of course, is the “left” way. Then someone brings up prayer, and the teacher implies that God isn’t real because He doesn’t answer their prayers for candy. So the teacher tells the kids to pray to “our leader”. While their eyes are squeezed shut, the teacher dumps out a bag of Hershey’s Kisses.

But that pesky troublemaker, Johnny sees what the teacher did, as his duped classmates say they’re going to pray to “our leader” every time. Johnny busts the teacher for her trickery. So the teacher says that it doesn’t matter who the children pray to… only humans can give you what you want, but praying is a waste of time… By the end of the film, Johnny is starting to see things the “right” way… which again, of course, is the “left” way. Wow. I had forgotten how different things were in the early 80s. Then, at the end, a narrator explains how easy it is to fall into the trap of giving up freedom.

I was a bit fascinated by the video, so I went looking for more. And since I was somehow under the impression that April Lerman was in the above video, I searched for her on YouTube. I thought maybe I’d finally find that godawful After School Special, “Little Miss Perfect”. No such luck. But I did find this weird Disney film about a boy growing up in Leningrad. I suppose the Disney movie was intended to make us less afraid of a “red scare”.

The kid’s accent is annoying as all get out. Otherwise, it was an interesting little video about a regime that would collapse in just a few years.

And sure enough, this morning I found that video I had been looking for yesterday that made me fall down the rabbit hole in the first place. One thing I loved about living in the former Soviet Union was how many very musically and artistically talented people are there. I meant to include the below video yesterday, but never managed to find it.

The Trololo guy, Eduard Khil, is in this video. I taught school in Armenia and my pupils didn’t have uniforms like the kids in this video or the one above it. However, they did wear black and white on the first day of school, which I think was the custom during the Soviet years. They don’t seem too scary, even if they are “commies”!
The “Trololo” guy, Eduard Khil… apparently, he did this in 1976 because the lyrics to the song were about a cowboy who was riding his stallion to his farm, excited about going home. Another legend has it that Khil had an argument with the songwriter that music is more important than lyrics and decided to sing a vocalise to make his point. Khil died in 2012, so he’s not scary, either!

My search for April Lerman’s turn in “Little Miss Perfect” led to yet another weird find. As I mentioned yesterday, Toni Ann Gisondi, who was in the video about “brainwashing children”, was in the 1982 movie, Annie. April Lerman was also in that film. She played Kate. April Lerman was also in another special film… one about puberty. Annie is about an orphan who has red hair and wears a red dress… and so it’s only fitting that she should be teaching us about the true red scare of every girl’s adolescence– the dreaded first period, otherwise known as menarche!

April Lerman, who now uses the name April Haney. She led me down quite a rabbit hole.

I’ve written about this topic a few times, but because I enjoy shocking people and being gross, I’m going to write about it again. Back in 1981, I was in the fourth grade. That was the year we all learned about puberty. I went to Botetourt Elementary School in Gloucester, Virginia for third and fourth grades, so things were pretty redneck. Strangely enough, neither my mom nor my sisters ever talked to me about menstruation. I used to see my mom’s feminine hygiene supplies in her little special wooden chest kept next to the toilet. I would steal them to make blankets for my model horses or Barbie dolls. Back in those days, the pads were super thick, like miniature mattresses. I didn’t know what they were for, but they made for good Barbie doll pillows and such.

Then, that fateful day in the early 80s, all us girls were ushered into “The Pit” (which no longer exists) and we all watched a film from the 1970s about periods. And it was literally a film, as in it was shown on a projector, not a VCR or DVD player… or even a Laser Disc. I don’t remember much more about the film, other than a scene where they showed a woman in a bathing cap diving into a pool. That was about the time in the movie where they discussed whether or not a woman can go swimming when she’s ragging. After the movie, a teacher, who later became a principal, talked to us about what it was to be a woman… or maybe she didn’t do it that year (fourth grade), but I do remember her doing it another year. Maybe it was when I was in the seventh grade. I do clearly remember her talking to us about womanhood, with her deep southern accent.

After the movie, we were all given the Personal Products pitch– that was the company who made the film, the accompanying booklet, and, if you sent in for it, a box of assorted maxi pads and tampons. I didn’t need any of that stuff until New Year’s Eve 1985, when I was 13.5 years old, almost to the dot. And I didn’t have my second period until July of 1986, when I was 14. I skipped six whole months. After that, I was like clockwork until very recently. Now that I’m pushing 49, my periods are becoming weird and irregular. I suspect I’ll be done with the whole nasty business very soon, and thank God for that.

I suppose the next incarnation of “Growing Up and Liking It” came about in 1984. The musical, Annie, was still running on Broadway, probably thanks to the 1982 film. So, some bright person at Personal Products decided to get a bunch of actresses who had starred in different productions of Annie to do a video about puberty for girls of the 80s. I found that video yesterday, because April Lerman was in it. But now it occurs to me how odd it is to do a menstruation video starring kids from Annie— red hair, red dress, no mom to teach her (just like in that brainwashing video), and blood gushing from between one’s legs. Growing up is a delight!

My face was probably like the still video shot above.

The video begins with seventeen year old Shelley Bruce, who had played Annie on Broadway, introducing everyone to the motley cast of girls who had been in other Annie productions. The girls were of varying ages and statuses of development. Some were new menstruators, while others were still waiting… and they all sat around a chatted about their menses as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Interspersed within their chat sessions is the soothing voice of a matronly looking woman who looks like Anne Murray. She explains everything in calm, motherly tones, assuring us that all girls eventually turn into women and get to endure the monthly mess.

Someone in the comment section wrote the brilliant line… “The blood’ll come out… tomorrow…” which caused me to cackle uproariously. I sang it to Bill this morning, and he added, “bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be blood.” And then it occurred to me that my own period hasn’t yet shown up this month and was really light and late last month. My… how quickly 40 years goes by!

Well… I suppose these young ladies all got paid for this. And I have to admit, I kind of enjoyed watching them dance. One of the girls, Sarah Navin, apparently died in 2005. I’m not sure why, but her obituary mentions donating to Susan G. Komen, so maybe she had breast cancer at a very young age. How sad!

It’s funny listening to Shelley, who comes off as a real “pal”, except it’s obvious they aren’t friends and barely know each other. And now they’re going to sit around and talk about their monthlies– girls who starred in a musical about a girl with red hair who has no mom with whom to discuss these things– at least not until she gets adopted by Daddy Warbucks and his secretary, Grace Farrell. The girls all have New York accents, and some look a little more comfortable on camera than others. Poor Shelley, though. To go from being Annie on Broadway to teaching girls about their periods! A buck’s a buck, I guess.

Here are two Annies… Shelley Bruce played Annie after Andrea McArdle, who was probably the most famous Broadway Annie. She doesn’t look like she did in 1984!

And just because I’m still in the rabbit hole, here’s another gem about people who’ve played Annie. But most of them haven’t talked to young girls about menstruation… It now seems odd that a bunch of kids in a show about orphans, again, meaning they don’t have moms to talk to them about this stuff, would be tasked with making this video. But I guess they were at the right age. Besides, having a mom around doesn’t necessarily mean she’s going to tell you about puberty. My mom was at home all the time when I was growing up and I don’t remember her ever talking to me about periods, except to tell me when I leaked and remind me to make sure I wrapped up my pads properly so my dad wouldn’t be offended.

My goodness… I never liked Annie’s stereotypical curly hair. It was a little Mrs. Roper, wasn’t it? The last Annie, who was in the menstruation video was not in this performance. Sarah Jessica Parker is in this! And we all know where she is, now!

Well… I suppose it’s time to come out of the YouTube rabbit hole and walk the dogs. May your day be without any visits from Aunt Flow or young Red Scare teachers who kick out your kindly instructors and want to get you to think the “right” way… which of course, is the “left” way… As for me, perhaps the blood’ll come out, tomorrow.

Edited to add… you must listen to Andrea McArdle do an impression of Carol Channing! Hysterical!

I’m glad I watched it just for Andrea’s impression.
Standard