by Nancy McDaniel
In early August 1991, I spent two weeks in the small fishing village of Cordova, Alaska. It was about two years after the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill, which so cruelly fouled Prince William Sound. I was there as a part of an Earthwatch team helping two professors interview local residents. We were trying to find out how the spill had affected their lives, their hopes, and their expectations for the future. The professors had a theory that technological disasters (e.g., oil spills, hazardous waste accidents, etc.) would be responded to differently than natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, floods, etc.) because there was “someone to blame” (versus it being “God’s will”), and there would be great uncertainty as to future lingering results.
In our first day’s orientation, our team was challenged to immerse ourselves into the community as deeply as possible. We were to become as much a part of the Cordova scene as we could in two weeks, to become as unobtrusive as a group of mostly “Lower 48” city slickers could be. (I took that challenge to heart and spent many a long late night hour at the Alaskan, a bar where we frequently imbibed our fill of “Vitamin R,” Rainier beer, the drink of choice of the locals. Given that the sun didn’t set until after 10 p.m., “sundowners” lasted a long time.)
Welcoming 150 Russian Visitors
They told us that a very exciting thing was about to happen, which we had not known about when we planned our trip. A shipload of over 150 Soviet citizens would be arriving on a goodwill exchange trip to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the voyage of Vitus Bering and his opening of the Bering Strait. On this ship would be a wide variety of people, including engineers and a rock opera company from Leningrad.
Cordova was going all out to welcome these visitors and we were to be an integral part of the celebration. We were thrilled to be included in a group that was learning Russian folk dances and would perform at the Saturday Night Salmon Feed and Street Dance. So we were to quickly immerse ourselves, to become quasi-Cordovans.
The Ship Docks
Thursday dawned, as had each day before it – cold and damp with the horizontal rain that drenched and chilled us deep to our bones. But it was a day I will never forget, the day the Soviets came, several months before the breakup of the USSR. We went down to the dock in the driving rain, all in our foul weather gear, to wait for the ship. It arrived at 1 p.m., to the presence and the cheering of the entire town.
The ship (Akademik Something) gingerly docked in the torrential rain to the accompaniment of arc-ing water from the volunteer fire department’s pumper trucks (sort of like carrying coals to Newcastle but no matter; the effect was nice even if the water was a bit superfluous). All the young children in their bright, multi-colored slickers stood smiling with wildflowers in their hands, waiting for the visitors to disembark. They were shy, yet proud of their role in this most historic occasion.
Welcoming the Russians
Cases of bad champagne were being chilled in big wash tubs on the fire engines. We all handed out flowers as the visitors slowly came down the gangplank, as they looked a bit nonplussed and overwhelmed by all the commotion. In turn, they handed us pins, mostly decommissioned ones of Lenin. I waited to find just-the-right person to hand my flowers to, then picked out an artistic looking man with a wild shock of wiry gray hair, who kissed my hand in thanks.
I have never seen so many smiles, on both sides; no one (including myself) could stop grinning and it seemed as though no one could believe their good fortune at being part of this memorable occasion. And then the most miraculous thing happened. Truly. For the first time in the three days we had been in Cordova, the sun came out briefly and brilliantly and the skies cleared, just for a few precious moments. In my journal, I wrote this line, “It was eerie and gorgeous as though God said, ‘This is good. Be friends and heal.'”
My Heart Touched
It was such a moment for me, a child of the Cold War. A child to whom, when I ate too fast (as I usually did), my father would say, “Slow down. You’re eating like the Russians are in Rockford” (sort of a companion piece to the exhortation not to waste food, which varied between “Think of the poor starving Armenians” or “Chinese” or whichever the hungriest country was at the time.)
The joy on the children’s faces, the unselfish sharing of this small town whose salmon-fishing based livelihood was in serious jeopardy, their very lives in a state of flux and unease, touched my heart. It was surely the beginning of the tumbling-down of the walls, although we didn’t know it yet.
Toasted Marshmallows and Weenie Roast
The next day we all went to Child’s Glacier. The glacier was, of course, awesome to see: big and blue, with noisy crashing and huge splashes as giant chunks “calved” off. But the highpoint was when the Soviets arrived and we threw their first American picnic for them: hot dogs, watermelon, nacho chips and toasted marshmallows, all the highly nutritional foods we Americans love at picnics. (Someone brought yogurt but that just sat in the cooler. Cooler? Why not just borrow a piece of glacier?)
Most of the Soviets were hesitant to toast the marshmallows themselves so Maurie and I were the designated toasters. We just let our guests pull the marshmallows off the sticks, all gooey and melty and then pop them in their mouths. Another good thing about America, they decided. Observing through new eyes even the silly little things we take for granted was quite heartwarming.
Leningrad/St. Petersburg Rock Opera
That night there was another remarkable event: the performance by the Leningrad/St. Petersburg Rock Opera company. I won’t ever forget the supremely odd juxtaposition: sitting in a typical small town American high school gymnasium on well-worn and hard bleachers, watching professional actors perform “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Russian. It was one of the strangest moments of my life – neither melting pot nor culture clash, just a feeling of living in the middle of a mixed metaphor for an hour or two.
The centerpiece of the visit was the Salmon Feed and Street Dance on Saturday night. Men from the town grilled salmon on big barbecues in the middle of Main Street. And along with all the accompaniments, it was free to the residents and our Soviet visitors. Our motley group performed, as best we could, the Russian folk dances. We were sweaty, tired and sore, but it was great fun and the Soviets seemed to appreciate our lame effort.
Finally, the street dance began. This could only have happened in a small town in Alaska on a bright August night. We were barefoot on Main Street, dancing to a band called The Humpytones, with most of the kids and the dogs in the town, at 12:15 a.m., just after the sun went down. One more magical moment in Cordova. Believe it.