Now, boys and girls, away we go with Part 4.
1990-92: Funny how relatively recent history, even personal history, can sometimes seem harder to recall than events of the more distant past. When I think of the early ’90’s, I mostly recall my days drinking beer in the Old Port in Portland, Maine, my college classes at USM (I hated “Media and Politics” but loved “History of the Middle East”), sporadically dated a girl named ‘Becca (strange relationship, that one), tagged and shipped thousands of items in the L.L. Bean warehouse, and made two trips to the good ‘ole USSR.
I could go on for several thousand words about my two trips to a superpower that was on the verge of disintegration. What I can tell you are three things: 1) No one saw it coming 2) The Russian / Ukrainian people are just like us, and, at the same time, couldn’t be more unlike us and 3) I brought a Ukrainian girl home with me.
In May, 1990, on a student exchange with Kharkov University, Kharkov, USSR, I got to live with a Ukrainian family in this city replete with 1950’s Stalinist architecture, about twice the size of Atlanta, for one week. Kharkov is about 280 miles from the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster zone.
A friend of mine lived with a family whose oldest daughter (let’s call her Valentina) often accompanied our little American / Soviet group on bus trips to various sites. (Gotta love those Soviet field trips. “Please remember not to take pictures of our railroads or infrastructure!”)
The Russians often tried to impress us Americans with the sheer size of everything in their country. One day, while passing a humongous factory in our railroad car, our Russian handler told us that this was the largest factory of its kind in the world, but, due to a shortage of spare parts, most of the tractors didn’t work.
Another time, we were shown a cannon in Moscow that was the biggest cannon of its time, used to face-down Napoleon in the early 19th century. Unfortunately, it was so big, and required so much gunpowder, that it’s barrel cracked after the first time it was fired, so could no longer be used. Then we were shown a replica of the world’s biggest chandelier, a beautiful, ornate monster that must have weighed as much as a T-34 Tank. It was so big, we were told, that it couldn’t be hung from a ceiling for fear of it falling down and crushing someone beneath it.
This became the basis of a joke that would inevitably lead us to skewer the Soviet political system. As we joked to ourselves, unkindly mocking our hosts, “We have the biggest cannon, but it is too big to use. We have the biggest chandelier, but it is too big to use. We have the biggest factories, but they, too, are too big to use. And we also have the world’s most liberal Constitution. Unfortunately, it is so liberal, we can’t use it.”
One thing led to another, and Valentina, a dark and mysterious girl who loved American jokes and jeans, but preferred the fatalism of the Russian soul to what we like to call “American Optimism,” became my girl, for a while.
“Last time we met was a low lit room / We was close together as a bride and groom”
On a trip to Brooklyn, N.Y. in late 1991, Valentina was in the car with myself and my friend James, and a Russian dude of unknown origin (she had Russian contacts in America through her dad, a well-placed bureaucrat in the Russian government machine.)
“You led me on with those innocent eyes / You know I love the element of surprise”
On our way over the Brooklyn Bridge, she looked over at the amazing skyline of Manhattan, particularly over at the Twin Towers, and declared, as simply as you might discuss your favorite kind of salad dressing, “Someday, those will be destroyed. All of this will be destroyed.” By this time, we’d been together for several months, and she was already becoming more than a little weird to live with, so I wasn’t perhaps quite as patient or diplomatic as perhaps I should have been. I said, “Honey, what the hell are you talking about? This is Manhattan. Who the hell is gonna destroy Manhattan?!”
“We ate the food / Drank the Wine / Everyone having a good time / Except you, you were talking about the end of the world.”
I knew that she didn’t mean the USSR would be the culprit. Hell, she and I both knew by that time what a lame fiasco her nation had become. But that moment came back to me and froze me in place when I saw the news coming out of New York City on 9/11.
“In the garden I was playing guitar / I kissed your lips and broke your heart / You, you were acting like it was the end of the world.”
Valentina has been out of my life now for 20 years. I heard she moved out west and joined a cult. It wouldn’t surprise me. But whenever I hear mention of Russia, or listen to the song featured in the music video below, I still think of her.
It’s easy to forget that amidst all this travel and confusion, I graduated Summa Cum Laude from USM in May of 1992, after five years of study, with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Now what?
1993: After the personal and international debacle that was the Soviet Union, I felt a need to reach out and embrace America in the most impractical way possible, I would drive across the entire country by myself. I set out a couple of days after a monster March snowstorm that shut down the eastern seaboard from Maine to northern Virginia, arriving in Nashville, TN a couple of days later on a freezing, 25-degree morning. My brother, Mark, was attending Western Washington State U. at the time in Bellingham, WA, a couple of hours outside of Seattle, and I decided to make the 3,000 mile journey out there to visit him and stay a few days.
Driving along I-40 through Memphis, this was the first time I’d ever crossed the Mississippi River. The desert southwest, where I visited some relatives I hadn’t seen in ten years, was a revelation. From the pine trees of Flagstaff, AZ down to the desert below, I had never experienced such a variety of climate and terrain in my life. Some places, such as Kingman, AZ, Barstow and Bakersfield, CA each seemed to be a place I’d once seen in a movie set, perhaps a Sci-Fi monster movie from the 1950’s, (Them!) or a backdrop for an old Bogart film (They Drive By Night.) I knew one thing. I’d never be caught dead in any of those places after sundown.
Eventually arriving in Bellingham (Fairhaven, actually), I met my brother in a local coffee shop with his friend, Steve. This was one of the coolest, most relaxing vacations I’d ever been on. We were living virtually at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, we drove into Seattle a couple of times, and one day, we drove all the way on up to Vancouver, where I suddenly remembered that I should probably call my boss over at L.L. Bean to let him know where I was and that I’d probably be away from work for a while. The conversation, as I recall, from a red pay phone booth in Vancouver, went something like this:
“Hey, Russ. This is Bill Miller.”
“Hi Bill, you calling in sick today?”
“Ah, not exactly, Russ. I had to make an emergency trip out-of-state.”
“Oh, you gonna be back tomorrow?”
“Not likely, Russ. I’m in Vancouver, and I’m gonna need a leave of absence for about a week or so.”
“Vancouver, Canada? Jesus H. Christ! (Pause)…So there’s no way you can make it back by tomorrow? We’re really swamped here, what with fishing season just around the corner.”
“Sorry, Russ, I drove out here, so it’s gonna take a while to get back to Maine.”
“You drove out there? Well, see if you can make it back by next Tuesday or Wednesday.”
“O.K., thanks, Russ. I’ll see you in about a week. I owe you one.”
Russ was a good guy, but would have been in over his head in a glass of water.
Twelve days later, I was back in Maine. My first day back at the L.L. Bean warehouse, Russ came over and said, “You feel like tagging items upstairs in Zone 50?” “Sure, man,” I responded. Just like old times.
Meanwhile, over at Shea Stadium, the Mets were on a journey of their own, from excellence to mediocrity, (why stop there?) and on down to awfulness.
In 1990, led by an unbelievable rotation of Frank Viola (2o wins) Dwight Gooden (19 wins) David Cone (233 K’s), Sid Fernandez (just 6.5 hits / 9 innings) and Ron Darling, the Mets won 91 games and finished in second place in their division. Recall this is the same year as my first happy visit to Russia.
1991: Gooden and Viola are now just ordinary pitchers, Cone gets zero run support, and Wally freakin’ Whitehurst replaces El Sid in the rotation. 37-year old former Yankee Rick Cerone is our glossy new catcher. The wheels have now completely fallen off of the 23-year old Greg Jefferies bandwagon. Dave Magadan is the most boring Mets player of all-time. Ho-Jo enjoys a 30-30 season that almost no one seems to notice. Even Hubie Brooks, once shipped off to Montreal in the Gary Carter trade, has now been reunited with the Mets, perhaps to fully recall and embrace the losing years of the early ’80’s. Outfielder Kevin McReynolds foreshadows Jason Bay by nearly 20 years.
The Mets win just 77 games, good for 5th place.
1992: The Mets are now fully locked into their “Lose Now” strategy. They sign free agent Bobby Bonilla in the off-season to shore up their offense, and he repays the Mets confidence with 19 homers and a .249 batting average. The grounds crew unearths a pair of fossils on the right side of the infield. It is later determined by forensic experts that they were once Eddie Murray and Willie Randolph. The Mets slide down to 72 wins. Recall that this is the year both the USSR and my relationship with my Soviet-era significant other disintegrate.
1993: I’m thousands of miles away from Anthony Young, and his 1-16 record, so I consider this year a success on my part, even as it’s an unmitigated disaster at Shea Stadium. The Mets have hit bottom (again), and my time at L.L. Bean is also nearly done as well. The good news is that I join my first fantasy baseball league with a couple of friends from L.L. Bean’s. The league lasts 15 years before finally disbanding.
1994: Is my last year at L.L. Bean. To this day, the seven and a half years I spent at Bean’s are the most I have ever worked at any one single location in my life. I had studied in the ETEP (Extended Teacher Education Program) through USM to be a teacher during the fall / spring of 1993-94. So in early August, 1994, just as the baseball season ground to a tragic halt due to management-labor strife, I quit L.L. Bean and moved up to a little town called Penobscot along the Maine coast (Northern Bay) to be a sixth grade public school teacher.
As it turned out, one year in a small Maine town far from friends and family, was enough for me. But I must say that working in a school where nearly every single teacher had a basement bar in their home certainly did help me get through the long winter. I managed to get food poisoning once from eating a tainted raw clam, and I used up two entire cords of wood heating my small, rented home. The year was quite an experience, but not one I’d be anxious to repeat.
1995: A period of general flux and instability. To continue to teach, or not to teach? A year away from teaching convinced me that I wanted to get back at it, and as soon as possible. Meanwhile, through my friend Steve and my brother Mark, I started working part-time at a place called Advanced Systems in Measurement in Dover, NH, overlooking Cocheco Falls, while I was now living in Gorham, ME., about an hour away. We scored, using a rubric, the standardized tests taken by children in grades four, eight and eleven from various states around the nation. Coffee, reading, grading, more coffee, reading, grading, etc. Not a bad deal. Low-stress work for which we were paid a “competitive” wage.
In a shortened, 144-game season, the Mets finished just six games under .500, but manager Dallas Green was already on his way to destroying the arms of three fine young prospects: Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher, and Jason Isringhausen (“Isringhausen”, it turns out, is German for “elbow inflammation.”)
1996-97: Another year and a half at Advanced Systems. By the late summer of ’97, I knew two things: 1) I was going to start teaching again in the fall and 2) I really liked the girl who kept approaching me to double-check the student papers she was scoring. She would feign confusion over what to make of a particular paragraph written by a student so that she could come and visit me over at my table two or three times a day.
I was now “Table Leader” of a group of six people, surely the least impressive middle-management job in the nation. For some reason, this young woman seemed to take a liking to me, and couldn’t quite figure out what to make of me, since I so obviously couldn’t care less about the job, yet seemed to take it reasonably seriously. (This has been the undercurrent of a good portion of my adult life.)
Meanwhile in 1996, the Mets win their normal 71 games. But in 1997, the year I go back to teaching, and, more importantly, begin dating my future wife, Christa, the Mets really begin turning things around. The ’97 Mets, with Bobby Valentine at the helm (before he completely lost his Goddamned mind), turned it around with a respectable 88 wins. Better years were ahead.
1998-2000: Christa and I date for a couple of years, then I propose to her in a little park in the North End of Boston, and we are married in the fall of 1999. We get ourselves a little apartment in Sanford, Maine, I nearly punch out my redneck neighbor who makes a pass at my wife, and we have one snowstorm that lasts three full days. I’m a special education teacher at Gorham High School, and Christa is working at the University of New Hampshire in the computer lab.
It’s a good life, and we’re happy. No kids yet, plenty of money, and enough time to have fun together. My job as a special ed. teacher is extremely challenging, but I grow to love my kids. We are saving money for a house, and looking forward to starting a family together. It took me a hell of a long time to get to this point, but it was worth the wait.
The Mets again win 88 games in 1998, then accumulate an impressive 97 wins in 1999. They make it to the playoffs in ’99, where they lose to the Braves, 4 games to 2.
In the year 2000, New York has its first Subway Series in many decades. Unfortunately, only one team comes to play baseball, and it’s not the Mets. The Mets win just a single game to the Yankees as ‘Roid Rage Roger Clemens throws a piece of broken bat at Mike Piazza after Piazza’s bat shatters and a piece of it nearly hits Clemens. Piazza looks at Clemens as if Clemens has lost his mind.
If only Piazza had charged the mound that day, it might have lit a fire under the Mets collective asses. Still, a trip to the World Series, and an N.L. Pennant does not a bad season make. Who knew that from that day to this, the Mets would enjoy only one more trip to the playoffs (2006), and no more visits to the World Series?
Over the past dozen years, I have been a very fortunate man. I taught at the high school level for a dozen years. My own family has grown and prospered. We moved from snows of Maine to relative warmth of South Carolina about three years ago. While America has experienced horror upon horror over the past decade, one tragedy almost appearing to lead somehow to the next, I have settled into a middle-aged man’s emotional toolbox of regret, bemusement, and acceptance over the things I’ve done, the things I’ve left undone, and the short time I may have left to do the things worth doing.
My family is my strength, and my reason for being. I am thankful for the friends I’ve made, even for the ones I’ve lost along the way, and for the ones I’ve met through this blog.
Thank you, all of you, for reading, for caring just a bit, and for listening.
I hope this series has been worth reading. It has been, in an unexpected way for me, a necessary and useful investment of time and energy which I intend never to repeat.