Russians Are Coming ! The Russians Are Here!
FEATURE by Alan Bodian
PROVINCETOWN, MA -- Since the early days of artists in Provincetown, Saturday at the Beachcombers has been a night of camaraderie, horror, and as luck will have it, often a very good meal. From time to time, feminists have branded the Beachcombers a citadel of male chauvinism. During the maelstrom of militant feminism, it was politically convenient not to challenge this characterization until something changed my mind. I chanced to be in a room with a group of women, all of whom happened to be spouses of Beachcombers and all of whom seemed to share the same secret. To a woman, each looked upon Saturday as their most sacred night of the week... total liberation...no cooking and cleaning...a night to let one's hair down and enjoy the sheer pleasure of enjoying one's true self without constraints. To hear them exult, I have a suspicion Susan B. Anthony would have given it thumbs up.
Sunday was the icing on the cake. Some Beachcombers, names withheld, perhaps guilt-ridden because of uncensored indulgences, not to mention billiards, Jim Beam and Cuban cigars, volunteered to trim hedges, replace shingles and finally capitulate to clear long-overdue basements. In domestic affairs, too, there is a balance of payments.
A confirmed moviegoer, Dr. Hiebert enjoyed a long-standing invitation from Bill Shafir, owner of the Art Cinema, who welcomed him to come whenever he pleased, and as a courtesy, seated Hiebert on the aisle five or six rows from the exit in case of emergency. Often, after the main title and credits and a few scenes, Hiebert would nod off and have his first respite in a long and grueling day. The manna of insomniacs, one can safely say the good doctor got some of his most restorative sleep during the Golden Age of Cinema. Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut could scarcely have imagined the unintended consequences of their cinematic masterpieces. The box office confirmed that Hiebert did not attend on the eve of his dramatic excursion to face down the intrusive Murmansk.
Not since President Taft dedicated the Monument had town hall been in such a state of arousal, and at the Beachcombers on Saturday night, the air was electric with great expectations. Our cherished member Afon came to give an eyewitness account of his induction into service under the banner of the U.S. Public Health Service. The air was heavy, but despite the 'scaacha' the place was pascked and tables spilled out on the deck where diners in the Flagship craned their necks to see what in the world was going on.
It was my turn to keep the Log, only because I was sitting near the Skipper and had one of the few available pens in the house. The Log, a bulging ledger full of anecdotal non sequiturs and a mishmash of hard-to-read minutes, is a kind of ongoing oral history of the hulk which houses the Beachcombers. To feminists who may harbor conspiracy theories, it would take at least the Rosetta Stone to decipher these inscrutable tablets in order to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.
Fishermen out on the wharf that fateful morning described Hiebert and Afon climbing down into a dory with outboard motor, the tiller manned by a local seaman who volunteered to navigate into troubled waters. The dory put-putted round the breakwater before heading in the direction of Corn Hill and the stricken trawler Murmansk. Once the motor revved up to full speed, Hiebert stood in the bow clutching a photocopy of his UPHS Certificate while Afon held on tenaciously to protect against an angry shower of spray.
Pictorially, this tableau could become the counterpoint to Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware. A diptych? Dr/ Hiebert Crossing Cape Cod Bay.
* * *
After reading last week's minutes, the next item on the agenda was New Business.
A rare moment of hushed silence as Afon rose to his feet to give his first-person account of last week's historic East-West confrontation out in the harbor.
"Doctor Hiebert come my place very, very early and we go wharf where other man in dory wait for us..."
"Hey, Afon...speak louder," a voice from a far table out on the deck bellowed. "Tell us about Hiebert and those goddam Russkies!"
"Cool it, Blow Hard," a voice of reason intervened, "give the good man a chance to tell the story in his own way."
"Much wind...we come close Murmansk...water choppy...dory very small...trawler very large...we see one or two crew on deck...Dr. Hiebert ask me to speak with Captain."
When I asked for a translation, Afon said he asked if the Captain was on board, and the answer was, "The Captain is on board and the Captain is asleep." Can you wake him up? No, came an emphatic reply, crew never wake Captain when Captain asleep!
After Afon relayed the information, Hiebert was demonstrably beside himself, like a spurned executive whose underlings fail to carry out orders. Stalemate. Afon sighed...unable to shape the course of history...his was not to reason why.
"A fruitless course of action," Hiebert finally gestured to Afon, "we'll have to try something else."
"PAPIROSI," one of the crew shouted down to Afon as the dory made ready to depart.
"Nyet...mojetbweet zaftra," Afon called back, with a broad infectious smile and affirmative wave of both arms.
"Cut out all that foreign double-talk and tell us what it means!"
"It means...he ask if we have cigarettes...I tell him no...but maybe have cigarettes tomorrow."
The crew waved back exuberantly, as though a lasting bond had been formed. "Afon," they might have said, to borrow a line from Casablanca, "this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Hiebert had absolutely no patience for this kind of banter and ordered the dory forthwith back to shore where he planned further consultation with the Coast Guard at Race Point.
Curtain. Act One.
* * *
A fog horn moaned and clouds began to lift as dawn broke innocently on a glorious summer day. Under cover of darkness, having solved its probleems, the Murmansk slipped away and headed for a rendezvous with a Soviet factory ship out at George's Bank. Pervasive calm was the order of the day. Afon received an honorable discharge and the promise of a letter of commendation to follow. That morning, Provincetown Harbor sparkled with a newfound air of freedom as the Republic once more was out of harm's way.
Late into Saturday night, Beachcombers kept plying Afon with drink and questions to which he readily complied, becoming more and more animated as the night wore on, finding celebrity much to his liking. Out of the depths of Russian despair, Afon positively glowed center stage in his fifteen minutes of fame.
It was 11.30 when Sal Del Deo finally arrived, drenched in perspiration after having cooked more than two hundred and fifty dinners on the busiest night in memory.
A space had to be cleared so I could set up the projector and begin to screen the first of a program of ring classics.
By the time Robinson-LaMotta came on, it seemed muted and pale in comparison with the tales Afon shared with us, we privileged members of the Beachcombers. Saturdays like that are truly nights to remember. A silent film, even with dubbed sound track, can rarely equal the sound and fury and fun of real life as it happens to the people we love in real time.