"I want free."
The message was as simple as a message could be, and the man who shouted it was a seaman aboard a Russian trawler moored to an American Coast Guard cutter. When Simas Kudirka literally jumped ship in 1970, he landed squarely in the international limelight. Because the Americans, befuddled by red tape and fear, threw him back.
It was another four years, part spent in prison, before he made it for good.
The story is told in a first-rate TV movie. "The Defection of Simas Kudirka," airing tonight at 9 on Channel 9.
Kudirka attended a prescreening of the film the other night. Slight and short, with fine light brown hair, he speaks, someone said, in broken English. There is nothing broken about it. It is about as broken as the jet from a fire hose. What his words don't express, his arms and legs do.
"Russian people good," he said. "But Russian government tyrants, tyrants, tyrants. Russian communism is tool for international fools. Is 20th-century new clothes for old Russian Imperialism. Ivan the Terrible. Same thing."
In the two-hour picture, Alan Arkin briliantly evokes the passionate and impulsive personality of Kudirka, who in one desperate, instinctive leap left behind his 20-year career as a radio operator, his wife, his child - and would up in SOviet prisons because his passion was not matched by the Americans who received him.
In the film, the name of the Vigilant's young captain, Cmdr. Ralph Eustis, has been changed to Devon to spare him embarrassment. Eustis got an official reprimand for his part in the incident, while his superiors, who ordered him to turn Kudirka back to the Russians - even allowing four Russian seamen to come aboard an American vessel, beat the defector unconscious, tie and gag him and carry him off - were to retire unscathed.
They were Rear Adam. William B. Ellis and his chief of Staff, Capt. Fletcher W. Brown.
The episode reverberated in Congress for months, high officials were braced for being apparently unaware of America's history of sheltering refugees, and the State Department was berated for being of "little help."
Meanwhile Kudirka, at first released to his native Lithuania, later was tried as a traitor and jailed.
In fact, American Lithuanians were the ones who got him freed. Discovering that his mother had been born in America and brought to Lithuania at age 6, and that he had no father of record, they hounded the State Department to get Kudirka released on the grounds that he was after all an American citizen, though born in Lithuania.
Asked about his scene with Eustis-Devon on the VIgilant, when the captain elected to bring Russians aboard rather than ask his American crewmen to eject the defector, Kudirka said he got down on his knees and begged for asylum. The anguish of Eustis was underplayed in the film, he said.
"He was not like in movie. He cried. We cried together. My God, my Gold."
He has not seen Eustis since. He did however, visit the Vigilant with his wife later, taking time off from his job managing a 63-unit Bronx apartment house which he partly owns thanks to the efforts of his Lithuanian-American friends.
On his trip from New York to Washington with promotion people from CBS and United Technologies Corp., he carried his U.S. passport in his pocket all the time.
"Not possibility to speak clear in Russia," he said. "In American I can speak against Kissinger. I not like him because he have brain but not enough experience. He learn from books about Russia. We learn from blood. All our professors killed, Journalists killed."
When he arrived at Kennedy airport he was astonished to find Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago" on the bookstands for anyone to buy: "In Russia, if you would be found with that book - automatically, five years in jail."
As he talks, he throws himself around like a cheerleader. He clasps your arms, and when you clasp his in response, the biceps are hard as steel under the too-big jacket.
Though he was pleasantly amazed to find America very different from what he had been led to expect - unemployment and starvation and general unhappiness - he still can't understand one things vandalism.
"I hate vendals in schools Destroy things. Not respect for teacher.Why is this?" He was utterly baffled.
Now that he is a celebrity, he is writing a book, which will be published early next year. He isn't expecting serious retaliation, for as he puts it, "I Lithyanian, I not Soviet. My country not Russia" But he wants everyone to know that there are many dissidents in Soviet-dominated countries, and that they must not be forgotten.
One scene in the film shows him and his family having a picnic on a starkly beautiful bluff overlooking a fjord. Casually, he remarked that this particular scene couldn't have happened. "Not true," he said. "People not go near coast. Guns, fences. America last bastion of freedom.
"When America go underground, is better dying."