“A plutonium physicist,” I answered gasping.
A battle had just ended between twenty-four greasy bikers with wiffleball bats in a penis-shaped ring called the “Coctagon.” I was out of shape but won and after being handed five hundred dollars had slipped away amid the chaos. I was standing alone catching my breath under a scraggly Creosote bush when the bearded man had ambled over.
“How the heck did you become a biker?”
“I’m not a biker,” I answered, breathing heavily. “Just love to build and ride motorcycles. Started when…I was fifteen. Long before—” I took a deep breath then spoke through the exhale, “—I started collecting obscure science degrees.”
“And what possessed you to get in there?” The bearded man pointed over his shoulder at the scattered remains of the chalk lines in the dirt.
“I wrestled in college,” I said then took a deep breath. “And I’ve been drinking.”
“So you build motorcycles, have highfalutin papers, and wrestle. That’s quite a combination,” the bearded man said, rubbing his graying chin. “Never heard that one before.”
I stood up, breath returning. “It’s led to crazy stuff.”
“Like what?” the man asked.
“Grab us beers and I’ll tell you over there,” I said gesturing to a picnic table turned pale from years in the Southern California desert.
The man ambled off.
I sat at the picnic bench and felt the evening breeze wash over my skin. Sweat evaporated, leaving a chill on my skin that balanced the burning in my lungs.
The bearded man returned with beer. “Name’s Frank,” he said and shook my hand.
I returned the greeting then took a long pull of beer. Waves of relaxation passed through my chest and into my arms. “Are you sure you want to hear this?” I asked. “It’s about a run-in I had with a KGB agent in Russia. Not motorcycles.”
“There’s enough of them things around here,” Frank said, looking at the sea of bikes around us. “I wanna hear something else.” He took a seat at the picnic bench and waited.
“OK, then,” I said. “It started with a trip to a secret city in Russian called Sarov where they made nuclear weapons.”
A group of American scientists had flown to Russia for a conference on plutonium two years earlier. We landed in Nizhny Novgorod then drove in a van to Sarov, a city absent from unclassified maps during the Cold War. We went through multiple security gates guarded by men with machine guns and dogs. Once inside, we were instructed to surrender all electronic devices before driving on to the guesthouse near their nuclear labs where we would be staying.
The guesthouse was functional. The walls were thick with small windows periodically spaced along each floor, one per room. The floors were olive-green linoleum, a color that reeked of a conservative institution trying to be trendy in the 50s. It was the same color used in bureaucratic building in the United States, except we had the money to renovate most of our buildings to a nondescript tan and blue. A spacious lobby greeted us with antique wooden furniture intermingled with velour chairs and shag rugs. At one end of the lobby was a wide staircase that led up to the rooms where the American and Russian scientists would stay, each isolated to their own floor.
The entire group was chaperoned by a chubby Babushka named Galena. She ushered us to and from the conference, patting our shoulders while saying kind things in broken English. She was lovely until crossed, at which point she turned into a banshee. We first witnessed this one day as the scientists were crossing a street to see an old church with the colorful onion-shaped domes in town. A Russian-made Lada sedan drove close to the scientists, swerving by us. Galena screamed, then jumped in front of the car, forcing it to stop. She marched to the driver’s side and demanded the man roll down his window. As he did, she leaned in and berated him in Russian. The man cowered. Satisfied he was broken, Galena turned to us and smiled, grabbed two scientists by the arms and bounced with interlocked arms towards the church like Dorthy leading the Lion and Tinman to the Wizard.
There were also two Russian agents who followed us everywhere. They never spoke to us. They never interacted with us. They never acknowledged our presence. They simply stood at a distance and watched. In silence. Behind mirrored sunglasses. The men were from the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, a fancy, new name for the KGB that ended with the fall of The Soviet Union in 1991.
Following my desire to poke the beast, each day I would ask the agents how they were doing. Or what they were doing after work. Or what was on the agenda. They simply ignored me, not even turning their head to register my presence. Undaunted, I kept trying with no response until one day, Sig Hecker, the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and world-renowned plutonium expert, said to me, “Don’t bother. I’ve been coming here for fifteen years and the agents never talk to us. I’m sure they know English, but they’ll never let us know that.”
He may have been right, but on the last day of the meeting alcohol changed everything.
That day we skipped technical talks and went to the countryside to see an old village. We looked at cabins made of massive timbers then drove to an open field where Russian men were busy cooking beef on skewers over a roaring fire. They handed them to us as we got off the van like some kind of meat prize. A man appeared with a cardboard box, opening it to reveal a case of vodka bottles. He passed them out with small glasses. In Russia, one always takes a shot of vodka with a bite of food called “zakuska,” and that was just what the Russians did as they ate skewered meat.
Everyone ate and drank: the scientists, Galena, the cooks, even our driver. And though they tried to hide it, the two KGB agents drank themselves at a safe distance from the main group. We polished off half the case of vodka before piling into the van to head back for a banquet in a hall by the guesthouse.
As often happens to folks when drinking, I wanted a cigarette. I did not have any and walked out of the banquet hall in hopes of finding one. I came across the two KGB agents standing outside the door and asked them for a cigarette. The agent near me reached into the pocket of his dated suit jacket and pulled out a pack of Marlboros. He opened it and extended them to me. I took one, and he lit it before they each took their own.
“You speak English, right?” I asked the agents.
The men stared ahead, smoking in silence.
“Come on. I know you speak English. There’s no way you’d be assigned to watch a bunch of Americans if you couldn’t understand what the hell we were saying.”
I leaned against the wall so all three of us were in a line with our backs against the industrial brick of the banquet hall. We smoked in silence, looking out onto the Russian laboratory dotted with birch and pine trees.
With our cigarettes nearing the end, the agent next to me said, “We speak little English.” He took a bottle of vodka from his pocket and offered me a drink before taking one himself. He was no longer taking a shot with a piece of food. “My name Alexi.” He was short with muscles built on muscles, a perfect example of the region’s ability to produce stout men. Alexi gestured towards the agent on his far side and said, “Dis is Oleg.”
Oleg nodded, taking a final drag of his cigarette before dropping it on the ground and stepping it out. He was taller and thinner than Alexi but strong with meaningful movements.
“Alexi, Oleg,” I said, “I’m glad you decided to talk to me.”
“You seem like good man,” Alexi said. “You only American who tried to talk with us.”
“Well it pissed me off that you ignored me.”
Alexi nodded. Then after a bit of silence said, “You are big man. Bigger than other Americans.”
“Before I became a scientist, I wrestled.”
Alexi’s cold demeanor broke. He turned to me and said in an excited tone, “I wrestle too. For Russia. Many years.”
“Do you still wrestle now?” I asked.
“No,” Alexi said shaking his head. “Too old and need money for family.”
His sadness was clear so added, “I can’t wrestle anymore either.”
Oleg broke his silence, revealing better English than Alexi’s. “Why don’t you two spar over there on the grass?” He pointed to the lawn next to the building. It was an open space with nothing beyond a life-sized brass statue of Vladimir Lenin.
With vodka coursing though my veins, I agreed.
Alexi reached into his jacket and removed a Makarov handgun. He put it on the stool near us, then took off his jacket, folded it, and hung it, along with his holster, from the cross brace of the stool.
Together we walked to the grass. We locked arms and wrestled.
Within seconds I knew I was outmatched. Alexi’s movements were fluid, strong. He moved with a power and ease that was never within my grasp as a wrestler. And while he could have dismantled me there in the grass below Lenin, he used just enough force to complete for each move.
We wrestled twenty minutes, until exhausted and covered in sweat. We stood and hugged, then turned towards the banquet hall to find everyone had come outside to watch us wrestle. It was just then the irony of the situation hit me.
As a child my fear of nuclear war horrible. Fueled by missile crises and movies like The Day After, I had a looming belief the USSR would attack the US. At any moment theatre ballistic missiles would be launched, starting the thirty-minute time clock – the time needed for the missiles to make their way over the North Pole and through space to their target – until the end of the world. Thirty minutes until our bodies would be evaporated by the blast wave. It was a horrible time, but it was also one of the few moments I remember my dad as a warm man who spent time to comfort me. For a week he put me to bed each night rubbing my back and describing scenes of nature.
Alexi put his arm around my shoulder and bowed to the audience. I followed. Folks cheered. Sig Hecker, smiling and shaking his head in disbelief, walked over to me and said, “I’ve been working with Russians for decades and have never seen anything like this.”
Folks slowly went inside as Alexi holstered his gun. He took a swig of vodka then handed it to me. I went back inside and drank and ate. Then danced with Galena until we pause and kissed each other on the cheek. The night was grand.
Needing another smoke, I went back outside and hung with Alexi and Oleg until Galena came out and said, “It is time to go back to the guest house.”
I realized at just that moment that I had no clue where Alexi and Oleg were staying.
The next morning I was jarred awake by the alarm clock. Encased in the sticky feel of a hangover, I showered and dressed then went to the lobby to meet the rest of the scientists. I stumbled down the stairs to find the two KGB agents sitting in the same chairs they had sat on every morning before, on the opposite side of the room from the scientists. They both sat upright, looked forward in silence. But when Alexi saw me, he bobbed in his seat and waved in a rapid side-top-side motion. Oleg shook his head and let a Mona Lisa smile break his lips.
Frank stared across the picnic table at me and muttered, “Holy crap.”
“I told you crazy stuff has happened.”
“I remember that crappy feeling of fear during the cold war. Never could totally shake it. Now people strap explosives to themselves and sneak around. Not sure which is worse.”
We watched drunk bikers run around a bonfire that grew as more and more was thrown on it.
As we watched, Frank said, “Folks are bringing out fireworks.”
“Good,” I said standing up. “Let’s drink some beer and blow shit up.”