From Russia With Love

I was rifling through the pockets of my father’s Air Force dress uniform, looking for tobacco or maybe even cash, and found only a little black booklet with RESTRICTED in big yellow letters on the cover. Exciting! It said something like Authorized RCAF Intelligence Personnel Only, so of course I opened it; what could be the worst they’d do to a treasonous little kid? I don’t think they had juvenile courts martial back then.

Anyhoo, the big military secret turned out to be nothing but a course in intermediate Russian. Refusing to be underwhelmed, I added up Restricted + Intelligence + Russian and “decided” that my dad had been a spy.  Maybe he still was, as he had remained in the Air Force Reserve post-war. Or maybe not. He did his war service on the sensible side of the Pacific, and I understand that he was a radio operator with the rank of Sergeant, and that the Air Force taught him Russian so he could listen in on what our not-to-be-trusted “allies” had to say for themselves.  His achievement in Russian seemed to have been in comprehension and not so much in conversation. Who knows but that if he’d better mastered the latter skill he couldn’t have prevented the Cold War? I have always blamed him for not doing so.

He had the same problem with French: he could read it and get the jokes on French TV, but couldn’t speak it to save his life, so could not carry on a conversation with his French-Canadian neighbours. Then again, why would he, what with there being no talking to the French?

From the restricted textbook I taught myself the Russian alphabet, but it wouldn’t be till high school that I learned a meaningful phrase in Russian, from the older classmate who introduced me to Samuel Beckett, the Greek & Roman philosophers, and marijuana: I guess this made him my guru, so it was a shock to learn that a decade later he’d been jailed for crimes against pre-schoolers. The phrase was “Любовь не картошка.”  It’s pronounced something like “Lyubov nya katorshka” and means, of course, “Love is not a potato.” Useful to know, but on balance I’d rather have learned this from my father the failed peacemaker. Too bad we never had “that chat”.

Not so long ago I had an elderly English drinking buddy, Roy Snow, who’d served in the RAF in the Battle of Britain, prior to which he and many of his compatriots trained at the RCAF base in Carberry, a little bit west of Winnipegland. I asked him whether the English flyboys had had much social intercourse with the locals. They had indeed, so I told him that we’d had a Somerville Avenue neighbour named Beryl, born and raised in Carberry and eighteen or so at the time he was stationed there. I posited that they may well have met once or twice at the Saturday night dance, and then I let my imagination run wild: “So, Roy, do you think you might have… I mean, I guess you probably…er…”

“RAF, William, RAF. Of course I did.”