Culture of fear

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(HOST) Commentator Caleb Daniloff finds that when the past sneaks up on you, its best to pay attention.

(DANILOFF) As we were walking the dogs the other day, my wife and I came across a foul odor: sewer fumes, sour milk, rotten vegetables, it was hard to tell. Without thinking, I turned to Chris and went, “Foo.” She looked at me kinda funny, at this odd noise she’d not heard me make before. I was just as surprised. It was a Russian expression, and it had issued from my mouth like an unexpected burp.

The last time I’d used “Foo” – the Slavic equivalent of “Ew” – I was a young teen living in 1980’s Moscow where my parents were stationed as journalists.

My dogs tugged forward on their leads but I was careening backward, an invisible rope jerking me over a chasm, back to 1983 and the abandoned kindergarten shelter where I gathered with my Soviet friends to smoke cigarettes and tell stories, mostly about America. The smell of spoiled milk and rotten cabbage hung thick in the Moscow air.

We whiled away countless afternoons in that hut, playing cards and spitting sunflower seeds. Kids came and went with rounds of firm handshakes, clad in stiff school uniforms and Pioneer scarves. I brought news magazines from my dad’s office and passed my Walkman around. We shared bottles of overly sweet Russian Pepsi and leaned cigarettes into tiny flames. At night, we became a constellation of cherry stars.

My pals chided me that I was soft because I’d never feared my government, that my leaders could be ridiculed, that store shelves were always stocked. Few of my Russian friends had fathers and they rarely read the Soviet press. Instead they passed around a worn copy of Bulgakov’s banned masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. Through them, I learned to distrust authority and make bread taste like eggs by sprinkling it with cigarette ash. Through me they came to believe in America.

I showed movies to them on our VCR – Animal House, Breaking Away, Hair, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I translated and provided background, describing any aspect of American society they could think to ask about, whether I was expert or not. America was one of their favorite subjects, and gave their eyes a certain shine.

These boys taught me to wolf whistle, to light a match off my jeans, to pry bottlecaps off with my teeth. We walked arm in arm on the street, shook hands whenever a car separated us, offered a foot for accidentally stepping on someone else’s. I hadn’t thought of these things in ages, but at one time they were very much a part of who I was. Perhaps that “Foo” was a memory’s last moan.

After we got home, I hung up the leashes and switched on the news. Leading the broadcast was a report that President Bush had approved the leaking of classified information that led to the outing of a CIA operative. Domestic spying, secret prisons, torture, xenophobia, and a growing culture of fear – current dark features of American political and social life that were once the provenance of the former Soviet Union. I realized the America I was once able to describe so clearly in Russian exists now mostly in the vapor of memory. And I can’t help feeling I let those boys down, the ones in that kindergarten hut including the boy with the Walkman, telling stories as much to himself as to his friends.

Caleb Daniloff is a freelance writer and recipient of the 2005 Ralph Nading Hill Jr. Literary Prize.

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