Russians Are Coming ! The Russians Are Here!
FEATURE by Alan Bodian
PROVINCETOWN, MA -- The precise date eludes me but certain events are fixed and so I can use them to triangulate an approximate time frame. Of one thing I am certain, it was a Saturday night because it is when the Beachcombers meet.
In the middle sixties, I began research on a feature documentary biography of Jack Johnson, the first black Heavyweight Champion, and during this period I had access to an incredible library of fight films dating all the way back to Thomas Edison's Kinetograph, the original motion picture camera. To exploit his invention in 1894, Edison paid Gentleman Jim Corbett the then-staggering sum of five thousand dollars to give an exhibition in the first commercial film ever made.
One morning, I met Sal Del Deo at the local Post Office and when he learned what I was doing, his face lit up like a man rediscovering his lost youth. Can you get LaMotta? Yes. Zale? Yes. Robinson? Yes. When I answered in the affirmative about Sugar Ray Robinson, Sal's face took on the same glow it probably did when he first saw Giotta's murals in Padua.
Remembering that Sal's wife Josephine kept a strictly non-violent household, and that all of her feelings on the subject were expressed solemnly and profoundly on the anniversary of Hiroshima, I suspected that pugilism was off limits in their family compound up on Atkins Mayo Road.
You can take the boy out of Providence but you can't take the boy completely out of the man. Sal was a closet fight fan and to help requite his secret passion, I promised to borrow several reels of legendary bouts, including LaMotta and Robinson for the Saturday after next. Sal, still deeply committed to launching Sal's Place, promised to make every effort to show up at the Beachcombers in two weeks.
"Robinson-LaMotta," he whistled, the way a young art student might on learning that one man was responsible for painting the entire ceiling in the Sistine Chapel!
"Are you sure they'll let you borrow them?"
No problem, I responded reassuringly, realizing that I would have to find a ride from New York to bring several cans of film up to the Cape. At the time, the economics of writing on spec precluded the luxury of having my own transportation.
It was one of those prickly summer nights Bostonians refer to as a 'scaacha,' flattening the 'o' in scorcher as if it were pounded out on an anvil. The ride from New York was slow, hot and sticky but I managed to bring three cans of precious film and stored them behind a potbelly stove at the Beachcombers. My arrival with 'The Raging Bull' and the incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson was anticlimactic, taking a back seat to a local drama which unfolded before I returned.
During my absence, a fishing boat named the Charlotte G. spotted a Russian trawler off Race Point. The skipper on the Charlotte G. believed the Russians inadvertently strayed into a huge field of purse-seine, and as a result a section of netting lodged in its propellor. Rather than maneuver normally, the trawler Murmansk seemed unable to sail at full capacity and floundered off shore.
In town, word spread swiftly and there was much speculation the wounded Murmansk would make its way into Provincetown Harbor in search of repair. High drama indeed. This was a crescendo period in the Cold War, especially international waters, and here in historic old Provincetown, we were about to go eyeball-to-eyeball with our vaunted global adversaries.
Unlike urban areas where treatment is limited or inaccessible, for decades Provincetown was blessed with the presence of Dr. Hiebert, truly a man for all seasons and any medical emergency. Once honored as Massachusett's Doctor of the Year, Hiebert's house at 322 Commercial Street, next to where Cafe Blase is now, was open seven days a week and never seemed closed. The range of treatment would make current debate on a patients' Bill of Rights seem like a charade to countless citizens treated in the course of an average day.
In addition to a broad spectrum of specialties, he held several titles, chief among them designation as U.S. Public Health Officer. Hiebert was a staunch conservative and dedicated defender of the Republic in the face of foreign contamination. Scanning the harbor, Hiebert was profoundly convinced the U.S. Public Health Service was the frontline of national defense and when a hostile vessel was reported coming around the Point, it was time to answer the call and go into action.
Bright and early one morning, the injured trawler was sighted beyond the breakwater, between McMillan Wharf and Corn Hill, a considerable stretch measuring some five miles according to the current Harbor Master. Certainly beyond the three-mile limit the Russians mistakenly believed in effect, though in actuality it was twelve miles for international commerce.
As an avid student of medical history, Hiebert noted that research proved it was Spanish Conquistadors who brought sexually transmitted diseases into the New World. Not this time, he proclaimed heroically, the Service was drawing a line in the sand. So long as Hiebert had a say in the matter, Communists wouldn't be permitted to import their godless viruses into the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!
In order to perform his role as chief defender of domestic waters, and in effect, speak as the Voice of All America, Hiebert required the services of a skilled interpreter. Not just anyone who happened to know a few phrases, but a person who passed muster for unequivocal loyalty to democratic institutions.
Nicholai Afonchikov--Afon to everyone--needed no loyalty oath to demonstrate sound qualifications on all counts. Of impeccable patrimony, Afon was descendant of Cossacks and was driven into exile after the Revolution. A gentle, kindly man who lived humbly and could never be accused of 'coddling communists,' a term bandied about in Congressional hearings determined to cleanse our shores of subversion. Afon lived a life of quiet dignity in a Spartan cottage near the Patrician where he painted small canvases and went sailing in a handmade catamaran using a bed sheet from a yard sale to harness the wind.
Afon was the first and only choice to be the voice and ears of Hiebert on their dasring mission. As a team, who better to represent the Nation, the Commonwealth and The Incorporated Town of Provincetown, First Landing Place of the Pilgrims?
PART TWO IN NEXT ISSUE OF LIVELY-ARTS.