As told to me a few times by Morrie Chaflen. In his own style and his own words as I remember it. Here’s his adventure in the USSR.
“Hubert Horatio Humphrey came to the U of MN from a small, very small, town in South Dakota. The biggest business in the town was his dad’s drug store and soda fountain. The biggest events were the Church Fall Festival and the summer arrival of a traveling circus. The kind that consists of one extended family that change into the next act by changing costumes. So the lion, (one old toothless lion), tamer also was part of the high wire act, and so it went with everybody. Nobody was a one-act performer.
The one who never changed costumes was the head man. He wore his clown suit as the head clown and the emcee. Hubert said that clown was the best part of the show.. Hubert really liked clowns; and when he found out that the Moscow Circus with Popov, the Russian Sunshine Clown, was performing t the Brussels’ World Fair, he got the State Department to appoint him as a U.S. Ambassador to the fair. Once there he widened the culture exchange, got the city that had elected him mayor years before, Minneapolis, the first week engagement of the Russian Circus, and even got his old friend, me, a tour in Russia. And darn near broke up that old friendship when those two yahoos had their guns pointed at me.
But wait I’m getting ahead of myself.
The kids were all gung- ho about the tour, chance to see great ballet, art museums, Russian history and culture…but what they saw was USSR Collective farms, Collected factories, and Collected ruts on the roads we had to travel on. Each day had a short bus tour to see the sights and listen to somebody from the Propaganda Ministry drone on about how the USSR life was the best in the world. After the first couple rides, nobody wanted to go on another; but Smith, our State Department overseer, said we had to have a few go on each tour, and he suggested using a round robin so each skater went on one bus in every venue.
On the tour, our food was centered around the beet. Beets fixed every way imaginable… and dark bread, and chicken. To drink, there was water, vodka, water mixed with vodka. Most all of us stuck with the water, even if it had a gray color and a taste that varied from city to city.
But heck, we were making more money than ever before on a tour, thanks to the State Department. We had a small per diem to spend in the USSR, and the rest waiting, tax free, in our bank accounts back home. Since any money you received in the USSR had to be spent in the USSR. You couldn’t take it out of the country. You could leave it in an account and spend it when, if, you came back.
I was allowed to bring in one hand to be the stage carp to Russian hands. One wardrobe mistress to handle the Russian wardrobe gals. One sewing machine that the Russians never used…they argued they could sew better and faster by hand. And one ice-maker/Zamboni mechanic/driver…and Wee Willy was the best there was.
Wee Willy stood about 6’4”. He had a build that would qualify him to play tight end for the Vikings. Strong as a Russki weight lifter, gentle as a lamb, and a natural mechanic. I called him just Willy. Darned if I was gong to call someone wee when I to look up to talk to. I asked him once what was with the nickname Wee, and he said because he was the runt of the family. Hate to foot the food bill for that bunch.
I had hired him shortly after we got our first Zamboni. We were in Charleston, WV and the machine needed a tune-up. Our driver didn’t want to get his hands dirty and Willy, who surfaced the arena ice by hand, asked to take a shot at fixing the machine. Half hour later he was driving it like a pro. Hired him on the spot.
When the Russian tour came up, Willy had also just returned from a short visit to the factory of Peter Zamboni, the man who conceived and built the first Zamboni, the Model A.
Peter had built it just to use at the Zamboni brothers ice skating rink. Sonja Henie heard about it and demanded he build one for her tour. Now when Sonja spoke, the figure skating world listened and pretty soon Zamboni was making his machines for all the big skating shows, including Holiday.
We got one of his first Model B’s. Now, instead of just putting the ice scraper on top of a Jeep, it was on top of a frame built for it. And some new improvements to the scraper. We took a Model B on the Russian tour just like Humphrey told us to.
When we got to the first city we were briefed by Smith, the State Department liaison.
‘Glad to me you, Mr. Smith.’
‘Not Mr. Just Smith.’
‘Is Smith your first or last name?’
‘Both.’ Then he points over to the 3 men wearing black leather coats. ‘And these are your translators.’ I started to talk to them but Smith grabbed my elbow. ‘Don’t bother. They can’t speak English.’
‘Kilo. Golf. Bravo.’
‘Oh! What’s their names, Manny, Moe, and Jack? Hey, maybe…Larry, Moe, and Curly? Since they couldn’t understand English, I figured I’d get a poke at the bad ass KGB I heard so much about.
‘Yeah, the second sounds about right. If you need help talking to a Russian, go through me or Svetlana. I was told she’ll be with us all the time.’ He nodded to a woman talking to Willy. ‘Call her Svet for short.’
There was nothing short about Svet. In her work boots, she was only about two inches shy from looking Willy straight in the eyes…when she wasn’t checking him all over. That gal had plans for Willy; but so did a lot of the skaters, and they had all struck out. Willy always put them of by saying he had a fiancée back home in the mountains, but that didn’t put off Svet. His mountains where far away.
Svet became his shadow. She sat next to him when they ate, or on bus rides, and was behind him when he was tuning up or driving the Zamboni. After the first venue, she knew enough to take over for Willy, if needed.
(It didn’t dawn om me at the time but Willy had a second shadow, Moe. On bus rides, Larry and Curly sat in the last row. Moe behind the driver. Willy and Svet in the next row. If Willy and Svet were not on the ride, neither was Moe.)
On the first day of our second city, Willy complained to me because Svet kept pestering him to let her drive. ‘Boss, I keep telling her, if you want to drive, get your own. And she says she can’t. There isn’t another Zamboni in the whole USSR. And then she says but there will be soon. I figure they must have some on order with Mr. Zamboni. Oh, and Boss, she keeps volunteering me to go on those darn bus tours’.
I couldn’t help him with Svet but I knew how to keep Willy off the tours. Once I said he has piano playing fingers, long and slim. When I asked if ever played piano, he said no, just my harmonica and he played You are my sunshine. I asked On the him to play another tune but he only knew Sunshine.
Next day tour I asked him to play a song for us. When he finished playing Sunshine, everybody applauded and asked him to play again. So we got another Sunshine. A little later, I asked him to play a tune for us… Yup no more demands from Svet that they go on the day tours.
We sold out every performance in the tour. Standing room only, even in the aisles. They sure loved figure skating. Smith said they grew up with ballet and skating was ballet on ice. I laughed and asked if they had a Bolshoi Figure Skating. He gave me a small smile and commented maybe in the near future.
The audiences liked the show, but the biggest applause was always reserved for Willy, Svet, and the Zamboni. Some of the audience came early to watch the ice being surfaced for the. They stayed in their seats at intermission and waited after the show until Wee Willy finished and parked the Zamboni. I thought maybe I should have left the skaters at home and just brought the Zamboni. Smith said those Zamboni lovers were workers at Russian ice arenas.
All in all, I was very happy with the tour. I had already talked to Smith about a possible China Tour. Get a little détente going there too. And then after the last performance of the tour, I got bite where it hurt most!
Looking in the rear view mirror, I should have known! But Russian mirrors are foggy. Heck, they’re so foggy, I grew a beard, for fear of cutting my throat shaving.
I had wrapped up the paper work, aka Red Tape, and was about to check on the final load out when Slats, our head carpenter came running. He was shouting something about the Zamboni.
‘I took off running. They weren’t going to pull something like that on me. No way! But I pulled up in a hurry when the KGB’s answer to the Three Stooges came from behind the Zamboni.
Moe, with his hands in the pocket of his black leather ankle length coat, stood in the center of his two stooges. He had that come-on-I-dare-you look on his face.
Larry and Curly were wearing their black leather knee length leather coats. And each had a BIG pistol pointed at me.
Thinking back I should have been praying; but at the time all I could think of was, “What in the name of Hubert Horatio Humphrey did I get into???”
Willy was standing by the machine watching as a herd of Russians, supervised by Svet, were tearing the Zamboni apart, piece by piece. He held out his hands palms up and came toward me; but Smith, who had placed a hand on my shoulder, waved him back.
As much as I wanted to stay, the sight of those BIG guns and the look on Moe’s mug, were more than enough to allow Smith to get me in his assigned car and drive away.
I cut loose with a string of swearing for a good five minutes. Once I got my over it, I apologized to Smith for my language. He said no sweat, he had heard the words before. So then I cut loose with some I figured he never heard before because I was making them up as I went along. And I didn’t stop until we got to the hotel.
I told Smith I had already packed and brought my luggage to the arena. Why did we come back to the hotel. Smith said to pick up something I forgot.
There was an U.S. Embassy ‘translator’, complete with a BIG bulge under his suit coat sitting in front of the room door. He nodded to us and stepped aside so Smith could unlock the door. I followed Smith into the dark room. No light on. Shades down over the window. Once we were in and Smith shut the door, he turned on the light.
I used a couple words Smith had heard before! On the bed, there was U.S. greenbacks scattered around, a lot of them; and when I looked closely, they all had old Ben Franklin’s picture staring back a me. Now in those days, a hundred dollar bill was as rare as a two dollar bill today. And a flock of them were sitting on the bed.
‘Should be enough to pay for the Zamboni,’ Smith said.
‘Probably three,’ I said, ‘And enough left over for a couple steak dinners when you and I get back to the good old USA.’ Smith laughed and said it was a date.
Then I came back to Earth.
‘Hell,’ I said, ‘We have to spend it all here. There’s no way we can get it out of Russia. Damn! Damn! Damn!’
Smith laughed and put them into a large metal attache case that had US Diplomatic Pouch painted on top and bottom with a chain welded to it and a handcuff on the other end. And while he took care of the money, he told me it was tax free to do whatever I wanted with it, and said there is also a new Zamboni waiting back in Minneapolis.
‘Now, let’s go home.’
In the car he broke the news that Willy was staying in Russia for a while. He and Svet had work to do, seeing that the parts the Russians had duplicated were assembled correctly to make ‘Russian Zambonis’, and Russians were taught how to drive them. For how long he was staying, who knows. There’s a lot of arenas in the USSR, and if Svet has her way, he might never come home.
‘Nah,’ I told Smith, ‘Wee Willy’s got a girl back in the mountains waiting to marry him.’
I fell asleep in the plane as soon as I sat down and buckled up. Hours later I woke up and immediately asked Smith how much did Hubert Humphrey know and when did he find out?
‘He was briefed last week,’ Smith said, ‘And ordered not to let you know. Then your old friend did some ordering of his own. That new Zamboni waiting for you…Senator Humphrey ordered that that be added to the money you would get because you lost your Zamboni to the Russians. Then he ordered that everyone on the tour receive a nice tax free bonus on top of their wages.’
‘Sounds like the Hubert Horatio Humphrey I know’, I said. ‘How about you? Did you get a bonus too?’
Smith smiled and told me no bonus but a jump up one pay grade and all his wages during the Russian tour were made tax free.
‘Good! Great!’, I muttered and went back to sleep.
After a couple weeks vacation, we began another tour. One stop was in West Berlin, as close to the wall as possible, hoping to spread a little detente by osmosis. I was in my office wagon with my back to the door when it opened and let the sunlight in, briefly, then disappeared because of the large man entering. Wee Willy was back!
‘Come to tell you, Boss, I’m back. Smith had told me I would still have a job when I was ready.’
I didn’t bother to look up. ‘Since when is Smith telling me who I have to hire?’ I said in the gruffest manner I could without letting on how happy I was. He began to hem and haw and I jumped up and gave him a hug. Well, as much as I could, my arms were too short to wrap my arms all around him.
I made him sit and tell me what happened after we left.
Seems the mechanics were working in 12 hour shifts turning out the machines. Soon as they built one, Svet would try it out. She had last say on whether it passed the test. Next was to line up the would-be driver and Willy would be the instructor. If any of the mechanics or drivers screwed up, Svet’s brother, Ivan, would ship them off to a collective farm.
‘He sounds like a real bad ass.’
‘He was bound and determined I was going to marry Svet. He didn’t want me to go back home because that would mean Svet would take charge of all the Zambonis in Russia and he didn’t want to see her with that kind of authority. Said he was going to see that I could never leave Russia.’
‘A Real bad ass. Glad I didn’t have him around on the tour.’
‘Boss. You did! Only you called him Moe’
‘Little Moe was big Svet’s brother! Must have had different fathers. So how did Svet take it when you said you were leaving?
‘She loved it. Forgot all about trying to marry me. She said with me gone she’d be number one Zamboni expert in the whole USSR.’
‘So when is my number one Zamboni expert ready to get back to work?’
If it’s ok with you, I’d like some time yet. See I’m flying home and marrying Li’l Lou.’
I had to laugh. Wee Willy and Li’l Lou. ‘Lil’ Lou? She the runt of her family?’
‘Oh, no, Boss. She’s regular size. Li’l Lou is nickname. Her folks were thinking their first born to be a boy and name him Amos after his Pa, and have nickname of Junior. So when the first born was a girl, they named her after Lou Ella, her mom. And they nicknamed her Li’l Lou instead of Junior. They saved the nickname Junior for their first boy.
‘And what does Li’l Lou think about having a husband on tour most of the time?
‘Well, Boss,’ Willy said, ‘I know you have a hard time finding good wardrobe people and then keeping them. Li’l Lou can sew by hand or by machine. Can make a dress from a pattern or just from a drawing…’
Willy had it all figured out.
‘Tell you what, Willy,’ I said, ‘Get married and go on a four week paid vacation for my wedding present to you. Then come to Minneapolis and I’ll give Li’l Lou her present. A job so you both will be on the same tour. Now get moving.’
He wanted to say more but I waved him out. ‘Oh! Just one more thing, Willy. Play me a song.’
That sure made him smile and he launched into You Are My Sunshine. I never thought he had time to learn anything else to play like maybe the Russian National Anthem.
So now, anytime you watch a Russian win a medal for figure skating or a Russian score a goal in hockey, you can bet that the ice they learned on was surfaced courtesy of a descendant of the Zamboni the KGB got from me.
Of course, if you mention the word Zamboni to a Russian, he’ll tell you, with a straight face, it’s another earth-shaking invention the Russians came up with.”
And then when Morrie finished his story would hum a little of
You Are My Sunshine.
Like I said
Morris, (Call me Morrie} Chaflen was
a risk taker, a warm human being, and
a great story teller.
If you ever met him, you would never forget him’
I know that for a personal fact.