Fiction May 1998

Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War

If a man can't walk around in his own country without fear, what business does he have selling freedom to the Russians?

Khrushchev was in power, or we thought he was, that month I spent as cultural ambassador and banjo-picking bridge between the superpowers, helping to stave off nuclear holocaust. It was September into October of 1964. We had a cultural-exchange program with the Soviets at the time. Our State Department's theory was that almost any American paraded before the oppressed Soviet masses would be, just in his easy manner of walking and talking, such an advertisement for the free way of life that cells of subversion would pop up in his wake like dandelions on an April lawn. So my mission wasn't as innocent as it seemed. Still, I was game to undertake it.

My home lies on the far side of the Blue Ridge in western Virginia, which isn't the same as West Virginia, though it's getting close. Washington, D.C., to me spells "big city," and when the official franked letters began to come through, it never occurred to me to resist something as big and beautiful as the pre-Vietnam U.S. government. Russia is just one more struggling country now, run by economists with sweaty palms, but then it was the dark side of the moon. The Aeroflot plane from Paris smelled of boiled potatoes, as I recall, and the stewardesses were as hefty as packed suitcases. When we landed, at midnight, we might have been descending over the ocean, there were so few lights under us.

The airport was illuminated dimly, as if by those bedside lamps that hotels give you, not to read by. One of the young soldiers was pawing through a well-worn Playboy that some discomfited fur trader had tried to smuggle in, and my first impression of how life worked under communism was the glare of that poor centerfold's sweet bare skin under those brownish airport lights. The magazine was confiscated, but I don't want to believe that the traveling salesman was sent to the gulag. He had a touch of Asia in his cheekbones—it wasn't as if we had corrupted a pure-blooded Russian. The State Department boys swooped me out the customs door into a chauffeured limo that smelled not of boiled potatoes, exactly, but very deeply of tobacco, another natural product. My granddaddy's barn used to smell like that, even after the cured leaf had been baled and sold. I knew I was going to like it here.

On the airport road into Moscow in those days there was this giant billboard of Lenin, leaning forward with a wicked goateed grin and pointing to something up above with a single finger, like John the Baptist pointing to a Jesus we couldn't see yet. "I love that," my chief State Department escort said from the jump seat. "To three hundred million people—'Up yours.'" He was Bud Nevins, cultural attaché. I saw a lot of Bud, Bud and his lovely wife, April, in the weeks to come.

Washington had been an adventure already. I had been briefed on a couple of afternoons by a combination of our experts and some refugees from the Soviet Union. One portly old charmer, who had been upper-middle management in the KGB, filled a whole afternoon around a long leather-topped table by telling me what restaurants to go to and what food to order—smoked sturgeon, piroshki, mushroom pie. His mouth was watering, though from the look of him he hadn't exactly starved under capitalism. Still, no food like home cooking; I could sympathize with that.

Those Washington people loved to party. Each briefing would be followed by a reception, and at one of the receptions a little black-haired coffee fetcher from that afternoon's briefing came up to me as if this time her breasts were being offered on a tray. They were sizable, pert breasts, in a peach-colored cotton chemise that had just outgrown being a T-shirt.

"Sir, you are my god," she told me. That's always nice to hear, and she shouldn't have spoiled it by adding "Except of course for Earl Scruggs. And that nice tall Allen Shelton, who used to fill in on banjo with the Virginia Boys—oh, he was cute! Now, have you heard those new sides the McReynoldses have cut down in Jacksonville, with this boy named Bobby Thompson? He is the future! He has this whole new style—you can hear the melody! 'Hard Hearted.' 'Dixie Hoedown.' Oh, my!"

"Young lady, you know I'm not exactly bluegrass," I told her politely. "Earl, well, he's beginning to miss notes, but you can't get away from him; he's a giant, and Don Reno likewise. Nevertheless, my idol intellectually is Pete Seeger, if you must know; he's the one, him and the Weavers, brought back the five-string after the war, after the dance bands all but turned the banjo into a ukelele."

"So folksy and pokey and phony, if you're asking me," she said, with a hurried overemphasis that I was beginning to get used to, while her warm black eyes darted back and forth on my face like stirred-up horseflies. "And a traitor to his country besides."

"Well," I admitted, "you won't find him on Grand Ole Opry real soon, but the college kids eat him up, and for his sheer sincere picking—none of that show-biz flash that sometimes bothers me about Earl. Young lady, you should calm yourself and sit down and listen sometime to those albums Pete cut with Woody and the Almanacs before the war."

"I did," she said eagerly. "I did, I did. 'Talking Union.' 'Sod Buster Ballads.' Wonderful true-blue lefty stuff. The West Coast Communists must have loved it. Mr. Chester, did you ever in your life listen to a program called Jamboree, out of Wheeling?"

"Did I? I got my first air time on it, on good old WWVA. Me and Jim Buchanan on fiddle, before he got big. 'Are You Lost in Sin?' and 'Don't Say Good-bye If You Love Me,' with a little 'Somebody Loves You, Darlin'" for a rideout. Did I catch your name, may I ask?"

"You'll laugh. It's a silly name."

"I bet now it isn't. You got to love the name the good Lord gave you."

"It wasn't the good Lord, it was my hateful mother." Momentarily holding a deep breath that rounded out her cheeks like a trumpet player's, she said, "Imogene." Then she exhaled in a blubbery rush and said, "Imogene Frye. Isn't it silly?"

"No," I said. That was my first lie to her. She seemed a little off-center right from the first, but Imogene could talk banjo, and here, in this city of block-long buildings and charcoal suits, that was as welcome to me as borscht and salted cucumber would have been to that homeless KGB colonel, locked out forever as a traitor from the land he loved.

"I loved," this Imogene was saying, "the licks you took on `Heavy Traffic Ahead.' And the repeat an octave higher on `Walking in Jerusalem Just Like John.'"

"It wasn't an octave, it was a fifth," I told her, settling in and lifting two bourbons from a silver tray that a kindly Negro was carrying around. I saw that this was going to be a conversation. Banjos were getting to be hot then, what with that Beverly Hillbillies theme, and I didn't want to engage with any shallow groupie. "Do you ever tune in WDBJ, out of Roanoke?" I asked her. "And tell me exactly why you think this Bobby Thompson is the future."

She saw my hurt, with those hot bright eyes that looked to be all pupil, and hastened to reassure me in her hurried, twitchy way of talking that I was the present, the past, and the future as far as she was concerned. Neither of us, I think, had the habit of drinking, but the trays kept coming around, brought by black men in white gloves, and by the time the reception broke up, the whole scene might have been a picture printed on silk, waving gently in and out. The Iron Curtain experts had drifted away to their homes in Bethesda and Silver Spring, and it seemed the most natural thing in the free world that little Imogene, to whom I must have looked a little wavy myself, would be inviting me back to her apartment somewhere off in one of those neighborhoods where they say it's not safe for a white man to show his face late at night.

Presented by

John Updike is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), and sixteen other novels. His most recent book is Toward the End of Time (1997).

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In