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As the propless crow flies there are just two stops on the jet air route between the Borough of Queens in the State of New York and Alma-Ata, the winter sports city in the Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan in the Soviet Union, 237 miles from the Chinese border.
On paper, and I presume on the ground, Queens and Kazakhstan are just 7,529 miles apart, a distance which the new U.S. jets and the three-year-old Russian Tupolevs, whose routes link in Paris, can chew up in less than 15 hours. On a recent Sunday night, instead of an evening at home with Sullivan, my wife and I decided to spend an evening abroad with Pan American; and grasping the coattails of a brisk following wind we flew off to Paris in six hours and 34 minutes. There on the following day we were to board the Russian jet which flies from Paris to Moscow twice a week, covering the 1,540 miles in about three and a half hours.
Arriving at Le Bourget Field, we discovered that the Tupolev was in Brussels. Thoughtfully, the Russians handed out tickets on the Belgian airline so we could fly up to meet it. It was our first encounter with the Tupolev which, we came to learn, is possessed of a somewhat Callasesque temperament, frequently delivering a dazzling performance, but highly independent, not always considerate of the paying customers and, like all divas, ultrasensitive to the weather.
On takeoff the Tupolev emits C above high C, but once in the air it whips along at better than 500 miles an hour, usually at an altitude of 30,000 feet. In the interests of avoiding blackouts, should the pressurization fail, oxygen masks connected to sinister black cables are tucked into the pockets of the seats. To avoid red-outs, the magazine racks are stuffed with enough propaganda to subvert a charter chapter of the D.A.R. During the three and a half hours we flew with the Russians, we learned that Lithuania had been taken over at the request of the Lithuanians to prevent the spread of Western imperialism, and that the reason that American authorities permitted the recent wave of "gruesome" jokes to flourish is that these jokes inspire sadistic, aggressive qualities in future soldiers.
We floated to earth in Moscow on a Tuesday evening, and it was agreed to catch the Friday plane for Alma-Ata and spend the weekend deep in the snows of Kazakhstan. Aeroflot's Tupolev departs Moscow for Alma-Ata daily at the handy hour of 5:45 a.m., which requires anyone staying in a downtown Moscow hotel to leave a call for 3 a.m. We were saved from this fate when, on Thursday afternoon, on the eve of our departure, the temperamental Tupolev for Alma-Ata was canceled. We were left with the choice of a 15-hour puddle-jumping flight on an Ilyushin 14—it is, after all, 2,125 miles from Moscow to the capital of Kazakhstan—or else a three-hour flight to Tashkent on the jet route to India and a short connecting flight to Alma-Ata. We chose the jet which, on paper anyway, flies daily to Tashkent at 11:25 in the morning. On the day we chose to take it, however, it chose to leave at 9. There followed thereafter a series of happenstances which I noted in abbreviated form and was later able to smuggle out of Russia under my swollen eyelids.
FRIDAY. Rose to jangle of bells at 6 a.m. Shaved, dressed and waited for breakfast. Telephone rang. Unidentified voice said in English that flight was delayed until noon. Dawn not due until about 10 a.m. Town pretty dead. Read Inside Russia Today. Gunther says " Alma-Ata wants to be St. Moritz." 10:30 a.m. Telephone rang again. Flight delayed until 5:45 a.m. Saturday morning. That night went to bed 6 p.m., set alarm for 3 a.m.
SATURDAY. Alarm rang at 3 a.m. Shaved, dressed. Sleepy waiter appeared with breakfast. 3:30. Phone rang. Flight delayed until noon. Looked out window. Red stars glowing on Kremlin towers. Wondered whether Serov's successor was softening us up. By now am ready to confess to antiparty deviations. Noon. They come for us. Drag us off to airport in black Zim. Put in Tupolev 104. Doors close. I would be as complacent if it were Lubyanka. It sits on field for one hour and a half. Suddenly shoots down runway, taking us to exile in Tashkent in far-off Uzbekistan at 500 miles an hour.
Two things of note happened on our arrival in Central Asia three and a half hours later. It was discovered that five miles up over Mother Russia, Vadim—who had been assigned by Intourist, the Soviet travel bureau, to be our mouthpiece while in the country—had blown an eardrum. Secondly, we were met by Siegfried Dubrofsky, a young fur-hatted Grover Whalen who greets visitors on behalf of the local Intourist agency. Dubrofsky's greeting to us was that a congress of cotton pickers had descended on the town to celebrate their meeting of the year's quota, and in view of our many delays he had been unable to hold our rooms. We retired to the airport restaurant to drown our miseries in a bowl of vodka—I could cheerfully have drowned Dubrofsky—and to see what manner of haute cuisine to shake the very foundations of Escoffier emanates from an Uzbek kitchen in an airport 3,500 miles from Lap�rouse.
The setting could hardly be more splendid. The dining room has lavender walls, great crystal chandeliers and those looping satin drapes that hang in the caf�s of Vienna. There wasn't a Sachertorte in sight, but the place was jumping with Uzbeks, who sat about the tables in black-and-white skullcaps hovering over giant soup bowls called kasa. A pair of Russians were at the next table. They had been joined by a third, a man equipped with bifokalnie ochky, eyeglasses so thick they seemed to have been cut from the bottom of milk bottles. All three now—I could have sworn they were clothing merchants from West 26th Street-turned around to stare at my wife, doubtless the only American girl for miles around. They were only outdone at this practice by the Uzbeks, who moved in so close that I began passing out cigarettes. They responded by placing their hands over their hearts and bowing slightly, but it hardly deterred them from enjoying the refreshing American view of what one of our interpreters referred to as my "dearest half." Indeed the dearest half was lapping it up, and in view of the tenets of the share-alike society, I began to think of her as the People's Wife.
As for our hotel room, it was clear that some quota-meeting Uzbek had got his cotton-picking hands on our reservations, and there was nothing for Dubrofsky to do but dump us at the airport inn, a cheerless, bathless ramshackle Roto Broil, suffocating with heat.