Learning Russian During the Cold War

I've written about Monterey on this blog before, but my time there has been on my mind quite a bit the past few weeks. There's been a lot of talk lately about whether we're entering a new Cold War with Russia. I'll leave the analysis and conclusions to the experts. Having lived through and participated in the first one probably doesn't give me any special insight, but it did provide me with a bunch of memories that are being brought back to the surface by current events. That memory jar has been aided by being contacted by an old Army friend. In addition to reporting on the whereabouts and status of people I haven't seen in three decades, she sends pictures she's managed to dig up, pictures that make me smile through a flood of memories and emotions.

My minor role in the Cold War began when I joined the Army in 1981. After finishing Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, I reported for duty at the Presidio of Monterey to learn Russian at the Defense Language Institute. I was 23 years old and, honestly, I hit the jackpot. The U.S. Army housed me, fed me, and paid me while I studied Russian in one of the country's most beautiful spots. Every day I'd walk down the hill from the Company C barracks to the classrooms in the Slavic Division that were one either side of Soldier Field. The walk was accompanied by a sweeping view of Monterey Bay and the Gabilan Mountains to the east. There were a couple of mornings that the peaks of those mountains were dusted with snow. It was all nearly too spectacular to believe, and it never grew old.

We went to class six hours a day, had P.T. right after class, and then studied in the evening, usually for 2 to 3 hours in preparation for the next day. Most of our teachers were native speakers, and many of them had survived the Nazi invasion of Russia in World War II. One made her way on foot as a teenager during the war from the Volga River to Archangelsk. Check it out on a map. That's a hell of a long way. Another survived being shot through one of her kidneys by the Nazis when she was in Casablanca. A third was a lieutenant in the Soviet Army during the Battle of Stalingrad. He was a sapper whose job was to go behind the Germans' lines at night and sabotage their equipment. And another spent years in Cuba in the health care industry as part of the Soviet Union's enormous financial commitment to that country. For those of us who were paying attention, and that was nearly all of us, the voices of these men and women were an extraordinary archive of suffering and triumph beyond anything any of us had or would likely experience.

During our off hours we were free to roam, and roam we did: up the coast to Santa Cruz, down the coast to Big Sur, day trips to Carmel, or just wandering around Steinbeck's haunts in Monterey, from Fisherman's Wharf, to Pacific Grove, out to Asilomar and all points in between. Monterey is a special place, and the people I met while there for 18 months more than 30 years ago will always occupy a special place in my heart. If there's another Cold War, instead of worrying about what the Russians are going to do next, I'll get lost in my memories of how things were the first time around, and that includes a year and a half I was privileged to spend learning Russian in Monterey.