Pa’s Arrest

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(HOST) Today marks the 20th anniversary of an event that thrust commentator Caleb Daniloff’s father into the international spotlight. Lately, Caleb’s been reflecting on how his view of his father has changed since then.

(DANILOFF) It happened when I was sixteen. I was sneaking a cigarette on our balcony in Moscow when my mom burst out. “Pa’s been arrested for espionage,” she stammered. It was a cool summer morning, twenty years ago today.

My Russian friends Kot and Kolya were over visiting. Before he left, Kolya grabbed my arm and said reassuringly, “Tvoi otets matros.” Which roughly means, “Your dad’s a tough bird.”

Kolya’s words stuck with me. Not because it was a touching show of support, but because when I thought of tough birds, my journalist dad did not leap to mind. To me, he had the air of a professor. He wore highwater pants and thick glasses, wouldn’t step on a bug and rocked embarrassingly on his heels when he talked.

A week later, when I visited him at Lefortova Prison, he looked crumpled – no shoelaces or belt, no look of disapproval. His demeanor was calm as if he were spending time at a sanatorium. I’d been coached by Refusnik friends of my parents to extract information for the Western reporters camped outside. As a sullen, easily embarrassed teenager, I found interviewing my father far more comfortable than talking with him.

While diplomats tried to defuse the crisis, part of me thought having a dad behind bars, even on bogus charges, was kinda cool. Hollow heels and tie-tack cameras his mild, distant manner just a front. But when he was released a month later and the story faded, my dad and I went back to growing apart.

After graduating UVM in the mid-nineties and not knowing what else to do, I went into journalism myself. I knew I’d be treated to endless apple-not-falling-far-from-the-tree comments. By this time, my dad was running a graduate journalism program in Boston. I’d become a boozy kid with half-baked dreams of making it as a rock poet. The apple had fallen way far from the tree, I wanted to shout, rotten to the core.

In the end, daily journalism wasn’t for me: the relentless deadlines, the pressure to produce the next story. Not in the blood, I’d tell people.

But it is in my father’s blood, and lately he’s been spilling it onto the pages of a memoir which covers a lengthy career, from copyboy to White House correspondent. And I’m getting to know a person I never knew existed.

My dad launched his career in 1960s Moscow, in an age of teletype machines and reporters rushing to phone booths to file stories. He learned to develop film in the backseat of a speeding car.

But what strikes me most is his early bumblings. He failed at his first-choice professions, despite degrees from Harvard and Oxford. He was once fired from The Washington Post, by Ben Bradlee himself, no less.

And when he finally got settled with UPI, he writes about the shame of coming back to the newsroom empty-handed and not being able to find his way to press conferences. I might as well have been reading about myself.

My father is now in his early seventies and still teaching. I’ll watch him jog up the drive of his home in southern Vermont. I’ll listen to him talk about recent travels in Uzbekistan. I’ll see him get animated about finally confronting the man who set him up for the KGB all those years ago. And it strikes me that a son often can’t see his father for the trees. But twenty years ago a Russian teenager had detected what I now clearly see: one tough bird.

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter, book reviewer and freelance journalist.

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