Chapter 1: Customs Playboy

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LENINGRAD, 10 MARCH 1985, 10:38A

The hidden pack for the drop bunched beneath my long johns. The Aeroflot flight had been freezing, the pack’s stainless steel hardware sucked body heat, and the threadbare cotton blankets emblazoned with Vladimir Lenin’s image given out by the polyester’ed flight crew were useless.

As we landed, I switched out a New Order mixtape in my Walkman FM-1 for one that Camilla had given me the night before in Helsinki. Putting the New Order tape back into my zippered vinyl 10-cassette carrying case, I pulled out Queen’s The Game to make room for the New Order tape.

McGuiggan, sitting next to me aisle seat 7B, had given me the Queen record when we reached cruising altitude. I turned to him as we made our descent into Pulkova Airport and held the cassette over the armrest for him to take back. But he said “Nah, keep it,” and his already alabaster complexion was somehow paling a few shades whiter as I looked at him.

“You feel all right?” I asked, worried he might be airsick. The worst is landing in a foreign county next to a pucker.

“You think they’re going to search us good?” he asked through a shaking voice. This answer eased me a bit. No vomit potential. McGuiggan was merely deathfraid of Russian customs from all of Fr. G’s lessons leading up to the trip. “Fr. G said a lot of ‘western’ music was still considered contraband. I’m shedding anything that may be a threat to have me detained,” he continued. “Here take these, too.”

He handed me a tattered copy of a Bible and a bag of Reese’s Pieces and turned to look down the aisle as if to make sure he was not being watched. Before he turned back, I slipped the book down into the seat pocket under his tray table, behind the safety card. Then I opened the candy, turned to look out the window and hit my “play” button.

What do you have in store for me here, Camilla? I thought. The dB’s came chiming through my headphones. How do you know about these guys?

…Love, love is the answer
To the question
But thanks for
All the suggestions…

The plane rolled to Pulkova Airport Terminal 2 over blowing snowed-over tarmac. We stopped well short of the terminal. McGuiggan looked over me out the window.

“Oh, shit, man.”

“What?” I looked through the portal. McGuiggan pointed over me out the window at an object moving slowly towards us through drifting squalls intermittently washing out anything beyond the wing of the plane.

“It’s a goddamn soldier. Fuck, man!”

A scaffold-like structure on wheels, being pushed by four hard looking men. It was trailed by a young looking soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder.

“And we’re gonna have to fucking walk through this, I knew it. They’re trying to break us.”

I held my laughter. “It’s fucking stairs, McGuiggan. So we can get off this tin can.”

The stairs tapped against the plane and a flight attendant opened the cabin door. A cloud of snow billowed through the door, shimmering against the grungy plane walls. We stood, grabbed our bags, put on coats and exited into the freezing whiteout.

At the base of the stairs, the soldier pointed his rifle in the direction we were all to walk.

Fr G put his hand on my back as I followed the day-glo coats of a few students in front of me through the swirling snow. I looked back at him. Over his shoulder, the jet’s engines were still running.

“Welcome to Russia, David!” he called out against the screamsquall.

“I’m not in yet,” I shrugged.

“Don’t worry,” he said, pointing at me and then himself, nodding. “You’re in good hands.”

He’s too excited, I thought. Mrs X wouldn’t like this.

He used his hand on my back as leverage to propel himself forward, stealing my forward momentum and stopping me momentarily. I shrugged again and laughed.

Que sera sera, I thought.

The terminal building was about ½ a football pitch from the plane. An automatic sliding door opened upon our group’s approaching and all 14 of us students and 2 chaperones, Fr G and Mr. S, funneled into the customs area.

Fr G was immediately approached by a tall Russian in street clothes with a large fur hat. The man whispered in Fr G’s ear and they exchanged a few words. Fr G turned to the group.

“This is Sergei,” he said. “He’s going to be our tour guide.”

“I am Sergei,” Sergei said to us. “Tour guide for you.”

He held up an orange baton and beckoned us to follow him.

“Follow stick!” he called out. “This way customs.” He pied-pipered us to a couple of lines towards the far end of the arrival area. The large automatic sliding doors to the tarmac opened for each arriving plane and airport worker that needed to go out-to-in or in-to-out. The door never shut for long and tiny bitter gusts of jet-laden coldness enveloped me every couple minutes.

Fr G came up behind me, leaned down and said low, “Stay close.”

We hung towards the back of the line.

Zubes and Murph got through ahead of me and I saw them on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling glass divider between the arrival area and customs stations. This relaxed me a bit, since between them, they carried a few banned cassettes, at least one carton of cigarettes and a dozen pairs of bell-bottomed blue jeans for trading. A few more students made it through with the same kind of stuff and only 6 of us remained, 2 students and a chaperone at the front of each of our 2 customs lines, waiting our turns.

Then, commotion. Brushed back by a soldier rushing across the line, I looked up to see Stevie Connor getting pulled away from the customs desk, his arm grasped by a soldier. As he shouted “What?! What!?”, another soldier grabbed his other arm and they dragged him towards a grayish blue door on the wall adjacent to our line. Yet another soldier grabbed Stevie’s bag from the customs table and called out as a larger crowd of soldiers gathered round him. He pulled a Playboy magazine from the bag and brandished it. They laughed and cheered as a group and disappeared with Stevie and the bag through the door, which shut with a loud slapclap.

One soldier remained outside the door at attention. The low hum of airport activity continued as though nothing had happened, though our two customs lines were halted. New soldiers were already at the posts abandoned by the ones in the room with Stevie. Between me and the customs desk stood a soldier at attention with a gun held across his chest.

“Stop,” he intoned in a voice of accented-army authority. He looked at me. “Stay.”

“No problem,” I said.

He’s no more than 18, I thought and looked at his rifle, cocked and ready in both his hands. I’ve never shot a gun.

He looked above me, scanning the crowd like a Terminator.

D’vone, the other student left in line behind me, leaned into me and said “Playboys.”

“Yeah, I saw, too.” I turned my head towards Dvone, trying to keep the soldier in front of me in eyeshot.

Assume everyone can understand English, even if they don’t speak it or speak it well, Mrs. X said to me during an early training session. English communication is all about tone, not words.

Dvone continued in my ear.

“Stevie brought a bunch of his dad’s Playboys to sell over here. He showed me on the plane.” Pride filled Dvone’s face at his journalistic scoop. “You didn’t know that, I bet. I told him this would happen. I would be such a good spy.”

I looked at him, and laughed, knowing he was none the wiser to the pack strapped to my body.

“Dream on, Dvone,” I said.

“He had at least two dozen shag rags. Wouldn’t give me one, either.”

“Oh, boy.” Fr G sighed from behind me. “Playboys, huh?” He shot Dvone a caustic look. Dvone shrunk and looked down at the floor. “No, Dvone, you wouldn’t make a good spy,” he said and winked at me. “You talk too much.”

Fr G then walked calm and slow towards the gray door where the soldiers had stuffed Stevie.

I was all of a sudden fighting a mild fright. Part of my mind began to fire scenarios that had me getting back on the plane, or sleeping in this arrival area for a few days, or having everyone in our group get searched because of a few nudie rags…

Fr G joined Sergei to engage the sentry outside the door. “Guardian,” he said, pointing at himself. “Gar-dee-an.” He rocked an invisible baby in his arms and the guard nodded. Sergei showed the soldier his own ID badge and they were let inside. As the door cracked open, I could see Stevie sitting at a table, completely ashen and shaking, a young soldier leaning across the table, a finger in his face.

The door shut.

“What’s happening?” Zubes called from the other side of the customs area partition.

I shrugged my shoulders and gestured towards the door.

“Quiet!” a soldier crossing in front of Zubes called out on his way towards the door, and pointed first at Zubes then at me. His rifle swung lazy from his shoulder, and the tails of his crisp green overcoat, decorated with swaths of gold and red, luffed as he moved with quick intention. Our eyes met. No way is he more than 18 or 19, either, I thought. He put a finger to his lips and slid himself quick through the door.

Through this second cracking open of the door, I could see Stevie, still ashen, but now with a furrowed brow. Behind him, between Stevie and a wall-to-wall mirror (One way, I bet. I thought), Fr G laughed with a soldier and handed him a Playboy.

The door shut again.

The soldier between me and the customs tables turned his head toward his comrade guarding the door that held Stevie and smiled. They exchanged winks and head nods. He snapped his head back at attention, eyes slightly above the lines in front of him, which had grown by a couple planeloads of passengers as the 2 customs lines with our group were shut down.

Ten minutes later, Sergei and Fr G emerged from the door. Sergei went through a plate glass sliding walldoor to the other side of the customs booths and received Stevie from a soldier. Sergei held Stevie by the arm in front of the window wall and shook him at us with a stern look. The soldier looked pleased and laughed at Stevie’s just-peed-in-the-pants look. He nodded at Sergei in approval and left.

When he could see the soldier was out of range, Sergei let go of Stevie, who slumped forward onto the glass. A few seconds later, a soldier whom we had seen entering the gray door earlier, walked by and kicked the glass wall’s metal base to ward Stevie off the glass. Stevie jumped. The soldier laughed and walked on.

Then, all of sudden, the last of us students on the 2 customs lines were waved through en masse by the soldier who had been standing guard in front of me.

Stamp. Stamp. Stamp.

Next thing I knew, I was on the other side of the ironglass curtain wall.

As I moved away from the control booth on the other side, Fr G came up next to me and I said, “Just like planned, huh?”

“No,” Fr G said. “But I wasn’t worried either way.” He crouched down to the floor and unzipped his red and white-striped TWA travel carry-on tote bag. Reaching all the way to the bottom, he pulled a bottle of Jack Daniels to the surface long enough for me to see the label, then quickly settled it back into his bag and zipped it up.

“Trust me,” he said. “The Playboys are one thing, but Russians get tired of vodka every once in a while. You can’t imagine what a bottle of bourbon goes for over here. Of course, I didn’t expect this first customs to cost me two bottles of my six, but Stevie decided to be a shit can.”

“A lucky break, though, in a way,” I said.

“As long as you don’t count on luck,” Fr G said, throwing the TWA tote bag over his shoulder, “you take the break and never look back.”

We joined Sergei at the front of the pack of young gentlemen from America.

“This way hotel!” Sergei pointed towards the terminal ground-transportation exit. “Hotel Pribaltiskaya. Glorious hotel! This way bus to hotel!”

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