Being With The People — A Diary by Kirk Edwards: Leningrad 1989 — Home
For The Madera Tribune
The diary of Kirk Edwards, a 1973 MHS graduate, sits open, displaying entries of his journey to the Soviet Union as part of the U.S. Coast Guard Band.
In 1989, Kirk Edwards, a 1973 MHS graduate, had an experience unique to Madera natives. He traveled as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Band to the Soviet Union — the first U.S. Band to do so. Throughout his stay, he kept a diary, an abridged copy of which is here published, in serial form, for the first time.
We arrived in Frankfort quite late. So, we had to proceed directly to our departure gate. Instead of having our scheduled two-hour lay over, we joined a long line at the gate. The familiar international security checks were conducted as we stood in line.
As I was seated on the Frankfort to New York flight, I was surprised to discover that I was not seated with Tony. A young woman of average height with shoulder length, stringy brown hair, and a fair complexion sat next to me. She was traveling with two boys, a toddler and a five-year-old. She was subtly attractive, bright and outgoing, down to earth, and seemingly very intellectual. Her name was Sharon.
Sharon was traveling from Saudi Arabia to Louisiana to visit her parents. She said that she had married a Saudi Arabian student while attending college in her native state of Florida. She called the children by Saudi Arabian names. The children both spoke Arabic, although the 5 year old also understood English. Sharon had converted to Islam and moved to her husband’s homeland.
I told Sharon about our visit to Leningrad. I was very surprised when she said that she had heard about our visit on a newscast while she was still in Saudi Arabia. Sharon seemed quite intrigued with our visit to Russia, as I related the details of our visit.
As we neared John F. Kennedy airport, it was clear that she would miss her connecting flight to New Orleans. When we arrived in NYC, I helped her take her luggage out of the overhead compartment. She was very frantic as she waited for her luggage at the luggage carousel. I grabbed her luggage as she pointed it out. I held the baby and watched her older son as she went to the ticket counter to inquire about another connecting flight to New Orleans. She collected her luggage and gathered her children when she returned. She had discovered a flight that was scheduled to depart soon. She said thank you and goodbye as she sped away with her children in tow.
I gathered my luggage and took it to the customs area. I was still afraid that some of my souvenirs would be seized. But, the customs officer did not even examine my luggage. He asked, “Are you active duty military personnel?” I replied, “Yes.” Then he waived me though the checkpoint. I was so happy I felt like celebrating, just as I had felt when I had successfully negotiated the customs checkpoint in Leningrad.
Dick Bradley, the Arrow Bus driver, was a welcome sight as we emerged from the baggage claim area. As we sped down the highway, I marveled at how great the disparities are between the U.S. and Russia or the USSR. Contrasting our sprawling airports, the highways streaming with modern cars, and our apparent prosperity to that of the USSR was mind-boggling. A stillness prevailed on the bus as the 25 hour trip from Leningrad had taken its toll on us. I was awakened from a deep sleep as we pulled into a McDonald’s restaurant at a rest stop along Interstate 95 highway for a dinner stop. I decided to forego dinner at that time, and only eat some cookies.
Coast Guard Band trombonist Mark Weaver and I craved a House Special pizza from Mr. G’s restaurant in New London, Conneticut. But, we could not convince anyone else to join us because everyone else was so exhausted. Darkness was falling as we continued our trek toward our home base. It was so strange to experience darkness again after a week of the “White Nights.”
The next time that I regained conscientiousness was after we arrived at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Mark and I drove directly to Mr. G’s after claiming our luggage.
The large house special pizza tasted wonderful. It was so good that we practically inhaled it and seriously considered ordering a second pizza. We also asked for two large glasses of water to drink with the pizza. Ironically, the water tasted quite odd.
When I arrived home I was anxious to take inventory of all of the treasures that I had acquired in Leningrad. I was very much distressed to find many of the items that I had purchased at the Beriozka store, the Russian record albums, and many other gifts missing. I was so upset that I could hardly sleep. I was almost frantic as I drove to the Coast Guard Academy the next morning. When I found Senior Chief Jerry Levine in the Coast Guard Band Music Library, I told him of my misfortune. I described the articles that I had lost or misplaced on the return trip from Leningrad. I asked if I might be able to write to the Octobersky Hotel to inquire about the items. Jerry said that a maid had probably picked them up.
“Those people are so poor that the Beriozka store purchases must have seemed like gold to them,” he explained. The language barrier would have been another obstacle in communicating with the Octobersky Hotel staff that I had not previously considered. I was distraught as I prepared to leave Leamy Hall, where the Coast Guard Band is based.
“Kirk,” Jerry yelled. Jerry appeared in the hallway just before I left the building and beckoned me to return to the Music Library. He had discovered some items stuffed in the music folder cases suspiciously resembling the ones that I described. I was elated as I peered into the black storage cases to find all of my missing treasures. It seemed as though I found a part of myself when I discovered those mementos.
I retired from the Coast Guard on October 1, 2011.
I often gaze at the paintings and drawings that are featured on the walls of my home. The portrait sketched by Sergey Smolovich hangs on the wall behind the place where I usually sit at the kitchen table.