Story time

May. 2nd, 2013 12:56 am
[personal profile] mayamaia
Back in the nineties, my dad briefly had the job of his dreams. He was made a nuclear engineer tasked with helping his former-Soviet counterparts figure out how to safely package and ship nuclear waste and unreacted material as part of varied disarmament agreements. Since he was obsessed with all things Russian (I grew up with kasha and Aleksandir Nyevsky and Doctor Zhivago, yep), he was thrilled.

As the CCCP had recently collapsed, very curious people would sometimes ask him what the Russians he worked with were like. My memory wants to say that this story actually happened to Papa's cousin, which could make sense since Tony is a diplomat, but I don't think he speaks Russian and anyway he doesn't live near San Francisco so it probably did happen to Papa.

The story is very simple. He was taking some visitors around the city to see the sights. One man, however, remained determinedly unimpressed. The Coit Tower, its murals a beautiful monument to workers from the Great Depression... (Papa would here drop his deepest baritone into a perfect Russian accent) "This we have in Russia." The Transamerica Pyramid, a striking example of architechture... "This we have in Russia." Museums, gardens, restaurants... "This too we have in Russia."

Finally, they came to the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, its red girders arching across a golden sky. The man gazed up at it for a moment, then, with a satisfied nod, he said, "This too we have in Russia... but ours is bigger."

And whoever had asked would laugh, and Papa would laugh with them, and there would be this moment of dissonance... because the joke was about missing the point, and I think the listeners may have missed the point themselves.

The bridge is great, yes, but above all it is beautiful. Its size is not its glory. Yet that visitor to a foreign land may have been feeling not so much a need for one-upmanship as a sudden and unexpected pride in a country he had thought mysteriously trailing behind the forbidden West.

I wonder.

Papa tells beautiful stories about the steppes of Kazakhstan. He went there for work, to try to determine why there were no records of the fissionable material they produced for the soviets. He tells, too, mad stories about the giant ultra-modern hotel where he was housed, standing strangely in the desolation.

Date: 2013-05-02 12:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
That's a very interesting and charming narrative. Your father's work must have been very interesting, and incredibly beyond the norm.

Date: 2013-05-05 08:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Most of his work was not like that. He was stuck in an office in a poor corner of the DOE which was overrun with bureaucracy. But briefly he was directly involved with ensuring the future safety of the world. It was nice.

After that, he was mostly reviewing grant requests and then he went to head up maintenance of a national lab before he retired. He dealt with a lot of stupidity and routine.



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