Spirit Falls is the first novel in “The Long War”, a five-book series played out against the backdrop of the Cold War. It follows four people; two Russians and two (North) Americans, seeking truth using what tools they have: language, stories, and history. None is a poet studied in the nuance of the word though one is a singer-songwriter, another a linguist, the third a soldier, and the fourth a Soviet intelligence deception specialist. None wishes to lie but lie they must.
By background and training, I am as qualified as any to narrate this tale. Whether I am artist enough, time will tell. Big-hearted and big-mouthed Slavic visitors at our isolated 1950s Wisconsin farmhouse taught me storytelling and deception. They told big stories about their new Cadillac, Depression-era poverty, and ungrateful children. Now and then they hinted at that which they escaped––starvation, massacre, war, genocide––tragedies impressed upon a child’s mind by a momentary silence, a shake of the head, a wife’s anxious glance. It was not just the WWII veteran who lacked a language to articulate unspeakable horror. I listened as if they were fairy tales My disasters were more immediate––a July storm levels the oat field, a lightening strike kills half the milking cows, no car to take a girl to the prom.
In 1965, great adventures beckoned. I left to attend the University of Wisconsin and seek glory as a football walk-on. My world expanded 200 miles south along the narrow Highway 51 corridor. The complications were immediate. Football was two hours a day for eight weeks. One was expected to study. Go figure. I chose the Russian language for a semester or two to discover perhaps the facts hidden within those pained pauses around the kitchen table. It was as if I had slipped into the St. Lawrence River one-quarter mile upstream from Niagara Falls. The waters appeared still, in the distance the merest hint of rumble.
In Madison, Wisconsin, a northern Wisconsin farm boy encountered human beings exotic beyond his wildest imagining––New Yorkers. They were loud, articulate, argumentative, and certain in their various opinions. What was the Phyllis Diller joke, “if three New Yorkers enter a taxi without arguing, a bank has been robbed.” An Ivy League Jewish quota sent the brilliant children of Holocaust survivors into my insular world. And they too remembered loud-mouthed uncles who paused, the anxious aunt lifting a hand, a hint at memories too unbearable to speak.
My roommate was Michael. Think Garrison Keillor rooms with Jon Stewart. I dated Julia, the girl from Russian class. Think Tom Hanks taking Barbara Streisand to the Kollege Klub for a 25₵ beer.
Alas, friends lacked neither certitudes nor words with which to express them.
Books replaced football. I read Malraux’s Man’s Fate but also Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Shame, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and everything Dostoevsky wrote. I memorized passages of Blok, Akhmatova, and Pasternak. I studied diligently the Russian language. Never before or again would I read so much. The war in Vietnam. Student draft riots rolled up and down Madison’s State Street, and tear gas drifted through my room. My certitudes became as insubstantial as the cigarette smoke rising into the heavy arches over the heavy wooden tables in the Student Union Rathskeller.
A worldview evolved. Truth was mutable and contingent, but working truths existed. Both Fascists and Communists committed genocide. My father and his generation fought the Fascists into submission. In 1969, Communists held power over great swaths of the earth; when Communists assumed power, genocide ensued. It was as one plus one equals two.
I joined the Air Force, volunteered to serve in Vietnam. It was the right thing to do. I became a professional intelligence officer stationed along the perimeter of the Soviet Union. Background and happenstance brought deception, active measure, maskirovka, the dozens of words and techniques the all-powerful and eternal KGB, GRU and Communist Party Soviet Union used to mutate truth.
In July 1989, I was exhausted. The free world would be fighting Communism forever, but without me. I had no more to give. I left the military. In October 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Go Figure.
On long and cold Wisconsin winter nights, I revisit these battlefields of the mind. I survived the barrel ride over the Niagara Falls. This cherished friendship lasted, my memories warm and cherished; that friendship died, and I feel aching sadness and shame. I write to right my mistakes and deceptions. I rework situations, test my heroes, wish them to make wiser decisions, but alas, they are young and hopeful and live among the deceitful.