From the forthcoming novel, Broken Codes
The Soviet Pilot
“This has been one fucking boring mission, Vail.” U.S. Army Major Frank Ratkovich ran his hand over his bald head and flicked his cigar butt out the car window. For two days Ratkovich and Vail had surveyed radar sites in southern East Germany, a routine tour to note and photograph equipment changes. There was a lull in exercise activity; the massive Soviet troop rotations had been completed; training was still limited to in-garrison activities. “I thought you zoomies knew how to stir things up.”
Ratkovich was a second-generation Russian whose father had been an Imperial Army cadet and anti-Bolshevik White officer evacuated from Balaclava with Wrangel’s defeated army in November 1920. After a half-decade in Paris, the father made his way to America to become a wealthy California businessman while awaiting the collapse of communism and the restoration of the monarchy. The son, less sanguine, attended his father’s bloodcurdling stories of Soviet perfidy, and was prepared to jump as an 82nd Airborne Division pathfinder when the time came to attack Moscow. Meanwhile, he intended to enjoy himself. On appearance alone, he was nicknamed “the mad Russian.” Ratkovich liked to keep things stirred, if only to establish a ring of truth to his title. The “Whites” were every Soviet child’s worst nightmare. In their schoolbooks, monarchists filled the air like evil spirits in a Heironymus Bosch painting, insinuating themselves into the most loyal Soviet soul. Trotsky and Tukachevski and Bukharin, the very founders of the Soviet state, had become their agents. Every July 4th, the U.S. Liaison Mission invited their Soviet counterparts to a picnic at the Potsdam mission house. Russ had watched a young Russian wife glance askance at Ratkovich, not knowing what to do with her hands, resisting the tug to make the exaggerated Orthodox sign of the cross. Ratkovich reached into his fatigue pocket and pulled out a leather cigar holder. He offered Russ one, who waved it off.
Frank looked into the dimmed city street. “Hey, we’re in Merseberg. There’s a medieval town hall here. You’re the cultured son of a bitch, Vail. I’ll show it to you.”
“Christ, Frank, I can’t drink the rest of the night. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas and I are catching the duty train to Frankfurt tomorrow night for a conference in Ramstein. We have to work on his briefing all day tomorrow.”
“It’ll prepare you for the Pentagon.” Ratkovich leaned over the seat to give the young Army driver directions. “Catch route 39 north. Stop at the Rathaus. We’re going to do some economic reconnaissance.”
“How long you going to be in there?” the soldier asked.
” Hard to say, but you succumb to some luscious big-busted German spy without my permission, your ass is grass.”
“Understood, sir,” and he saluted with his left hand. “I have to get permission.” The driver, a sardonic college dropout, savored officer hypocrisy, suffering like the laborer he had never been.
“We’ll send you out a soda.”
“Hey. I’d appreciate that.”
The 17th-century Rathaus, built with heavy blocks of red sandstone, was set back, unlike the neighboring buildings which bordered on the street. Its facade was shell-pocked, but it had apparently escaped serious damage.
They descended a dark half-flight of stairs. Ratkovich pulled on the heavy door, then braced to pull against the unexpected resistance. He pantomimed squirting oil on the heavy iron hinges. It creaked open and they stood on a landing above a large multi-vaulted room, lit by three hanging lamps, dim save for one vault across the room. The walls were painted in medieval German scenes— a castle; voluptuous maidens in dirndls; tall, gaunt men minding heavy horses; farm and logging equipment. Somehow the fascist artist had escaped socialist realism censors. In the lighted vault stood a large fireplace, unlit, the wall above it smoke-blackened. The tables and benches were heavy oak. Four men, above whom hung a layer of cigarette smoke, sat around a single table. A squat man, his bald head circled with ring of dark hair, like a monk, stood at the beer pull, filling a earthenware mug. On the far side of the bar, a man in coveralls sat alone, at the edge of darkness. Ratkovich and Vail crossed the room to the table nearest the fireplace, the damp air filled with the smell of stale smoke, cold sausage, and hot sauerkraut.
“Der Herr Ober must be the executive officer to the underworld,” Russ said, “and Brigadier General Lucifer must be through that big door.”
Frank pantomimed opening an old-style beer bottle to the barkeep and indicated the number with an upraised thumb and forefinger. “And how’s bouts lighting this fireplace. I’m freezing my ass off,” he said loudly.
“Ach, Herr Oberst, wood costs alot,” the proprietor said, promoting Ratkovich two ranks.
“Macht’s nicht.” Frank pulled a West German 20 DM note and laid it on the table. “It’s on me. And buy that Soviet pilot bastard one on me,” he said, pointing into the dark.
Russ looked where Ratkovich had waved his arm. The German worker whom Vail had dismissed on entry was the Soviet pilot, his coveralls a flight suit. Russ had been traveling around East Germany for more than a year, had seen Soviet soldiers by the thousands in garrison, convoy, and field training, many fewer in East German civilian areas, and absolutely none alone.
The pilot was stocky with wiry hair brushed straight back. He sat square to the table, feet flat on the floor, holding his beer with one hand, collar open and black chest hair spilling out. A German worker would sit with head down, shirt buttoned, both hands around his drink, a smaller target. The difference could not have been clearer had he been wearing a neon sign.
The waiter carried the schnapps and beer to the Soviet pilot, who waved it off. The waiter pointed to Frank and Russ.
“Come over. Have a drink before we shoot your sorry ass out of the clouds,” Frank said in Russian.
The pilot looked at them through eyes slit with suspicion. “Who are you?”
“Americans.” Ratkovich thumped his chest. “Army air defense.” He hit Russ in the chest, spilling beer on his hands. “Fighter pilot.”
“In your dreams,” the Russian rumbled. “Get twenty more of you,” and he knocked back the schnapps. “Make it worth my while to stand up, clean out you nest of vipers.”
Frank slapped the empty chair. The fire behind them began to crackle, its light dancing over the stocky Russian, blazing his eyes. He considered, came to a conclusion, picked up his beer, and walked to their table, like a block of granite with legs. “Popov,” he said, “Anatolii,” and sat in the empty chair, facing the fire.
Frank lifted the Schnapps bottle and said over his shoulder. “Take this fruit juice away; bring us something to drink!”
Herr Pech, the monkish innkeeper, sourly regarded the events unfolding. The evening had been nearly over. The American television program Bonanza started in 20 minutes on ZDF Berlin. Now these Amis walked in like they owned the place. He could have closed the place on them, but when they invited the pilot over, it became problematic socialist legality. The party bosses were leery of messing with Russians.
Herr Pech brought two bottles of vodka, one labeled in Polish, the other in Russian. “Good work,” Frank said, shaking the innkeeper’s hand, palming a 20DM note into it. Frank twisted the cap off the Polish vodka, sniffed deeply and recoiled like a snail touched by a grain of salt. He passed the bottle under the Popov’s nose.
“Polish piss,” the Russian agreed, following Ratkovich with suspicious eyes.
In despair, Russ watched Frank tear the tab from the Russian bottle. A vodka hangover was not something to approach lightly. Ratkovich and Popov were bulky, between 200-240 pounds each. Custom dictated each man drink one-third of the liter bottle. The two Russians could pour it down, able to store the numbing liquid elsewhere than their brains; those incapable were long since dead.
Frank poured three glasses to the brim, then shouted over his shoulder. “Something to eat!” He pulled his cigars — green and long — from his pocket, searched for a match, then looked into the fireplace, as if he would withdraw a coal with his bare fingers. Russ pulled his lighter, a ornate silver contraption with a clear plastic fuel tank in which was a picture of a trout breaking the water, and slid it across the table.
Popov examined Frank’s cigars, a look of distaste sliding over his face. He reached into the thigh pocket of his flight suit and withdrew a box of Cuban Cohibas, unattainable in Western Europe, which the Russians bought for five kopeck a piece in the Soviet Union. But Popov eyed the lighter.
They knocked the vodka down neat. Russ’s eyes watered, as if he had drunk JP-4 aviation fuel. Ratkovich and Popov had laid their pricks on the table, comparing size.
“Just arrive?” Russ asked, soldier-talk in any army. “Where you from?”
Popov gestured to the east. “Been here a few days.” He was either lying or telling the truth. If lying, that meant he was, by age and rank, permanent cadre, the mid-officer ranks who stayed in Germany ten years and trained the cannon fodder. The Soviet military rotated their troops en masse, the spring rotation being the largest, the fall rotation slightly smaller. He was too old and senior to have been part of the semi-annual troop rotation. But permanent cadre would be more closely supervised.
“Test pilot.” He thumped his chest. “I got a fighter that will clean your clock, boy.”
“MIG-21s? Shot those down like clay pigeons in Vietnam,” Russ retorted. In my dreams, Russ thought. “In the F-105. In two years I’ll be in the F-16s.”
Anatolii snorted. “Vietnam? Yellow-assed slant eyes kicked your ass with equipment we tossed away.” With Russ’s lighter Popov lit a cigar, then pushed the remaining to Russ. Russ lit one. It was mild. If he was careful, he wouldn’t close the evening by puking all over the table. Russ pushed the lighter back to the Soviet pilot and gestured for him to keep it.
Popov continued. “Fuck with us, we’ll teach you a thing or two about war. When we come at you, we’re going blow your bases to hell, crater your runways, and the few of you that get into the air, we’re going to flip coins, see who gets to pick you out of the sky like so many fluttering pigeons. Zdrovo!”
Popov and Ratkovich knocked back their shots. Russ drank a quarter glass and followed it with a bite out of a slab of black bread. Vodka etiquette permitted sipping. God save you if you threw it over your shoulder or poured it on the floor. During his intensive language course, a guest lecturer, effeminate and Lithuanian, narrated an anecdote to illuminate the Russian’s natural barbarity. He had served as a translator at a Soviet-American victory parties after VE day, anxious to return to his State Department career. The rough-hewn American and Russian soldiers were celebrating, tossing off toast after toast, while he, in order not to fail his translator duties, tossed his drink past his ear. A Russian general, unable to contain his outrage, pulled him into his meaty face, and growled. ”If you were in my Army, I’d have you shot!”
The lecturer gazed around the classroom. To Russ, further evidence was required. A summary execution was justified.
Ratkovich refilled each glass to the brim. Herr Pech brought a wooden board covered with pickled vegetables, blood sausage, and a large wheel of Brie, its dusty mold-white surface, its off-color yellow interior glowing in the firelight. The fire, Russian vodka and mild Cuban cigars — contraband in America— warmed the room equally.
Ratkovich sliced a razor-thin slice of brie, spread it on black bread, and followed it with a sip of vodka. “Can’t happen.” He bit a slab of sausage in half and drew out his note book. “See. There’s no way you will have less than 10% abort rate.”
Popov shrugged his shoulders. He would grant the point. He slit a pickle in half and ate both at once.
Ratkovich continued. “The NATO stationary SAM belt will strip 25% off the first wave. You will have to evade the mobile HAWK while dog-fighting to the airbases. How many will get lost? If you get 15% of your generated sorties on target, I’ll kiss your ass.”
A glob of tobacco-laced saliva with the consistency of used motor oil pooled in Russ’s mouth. The Cuban cigar was stronger than estimated. He looked for some place to spit, but Ratkovich was between him and the fire. He swallowed it.
Popov leaned forward to spear a pickled herring and laid it across a slab of brown bread. He cut a slice of the brie as a slow smile crossed his face. The warm fire driving back the ring of damp and darkness, good Russian vodka warming the inside, a circle of friends eating pickled vegetables and early fall cucumbers on a wooden platter, this was the Russian way to pass an evening. He wet his finger in the pickle brine, then drew a line on the table. “It won’t be a wave.” He stroked three lines perpendicular to the long line, like arrows. “We will attack at daybreak, the rising sun at our backs. What percentage of your force will be asleep? We’ll attain at least 75% of the sorties on target.”
The tobacco juice joined the vodka in Russ’s stomach, the mixture sending a light feather up his esophagus. He thought if he opened his mouth wide enough to bite off the black bread, he would throw up. He spied the brie and somehow imagined it would settle the vile mixture.
Popov picked up a beer coaster and the blunt pencil the innkeeper had left to track the alcohol they drank. “You build jets, like Swiss watches, that will only take off and land at JFK.”
Russ inhaled shallow breaths, a sheen of sweat on his forehead. Zh – Ef – Ka? What the hell did that mean?
Popov sketched an aircraft, a jet fighter, on the back of the beer coaster. “That’s what I fly.” He poked his chest with his thumb, looking into Russ’s pale face, his own reflecting the blazing firelight. “I’m a crack pilot, Snaiper pervogo ranga.”
“That’s like our VSTOL Harrier. Short take-off and landing,” Ratkovich said out of the corner of his mouth, an edge of excitement in his voice. He turned to Popov. “That what you’re flying at Merseberg?”
Russ cut the brie in half. The mustiness of the damp cellar crept within the circle of light, chilling his back while the blazing fire brought beads of sweat to his forehead. In the border region between the dark, damp, and cold cellar and the heated circle, cigar smoke hung motionless, enveloping Russ like a funereal miasma. He popped the chunk of brie into his mouth to quell the nausea swelling like a volcanic eruption. The cheese slid down his throat, coating his esophagus with a suffocating mold.
Popov stopped drawing and looked at him, stunned.
Ratkovich’s expression seemed to freeze at that point where you see a person fall over the edge of a cliff, but before you realize there is nothing to be done.
The brie was not brie. It was pig fat — aged, pure, unrendered. It hit Russ’s stomach like a charged rubber ball, condensed its energy and rebounded, bringing tobacco juice, beer, vodka, sausage, and bread with it. He knelt on the floor, wretching, the concrete cold and damp, hot liquid splashing his hands.
“Nekulturnyj,” said Popov, crushing an onion with his fist, placing a leaf on his dark bread, taking an enormous bite, and chasing it with vodka.
“ Just a kid,” Ratkovich replied with a wave of the hand. “Malchishka.”