CENTREVILLE, MARYLAND -- "Hello, my name is Chris Starkey," says the hatless young farmer dressed in jeans and a work coat and standing in front of what looks like an Ollie North-model security gate at the Soviet Embassy's compound on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He is speaking into a security mike located on a pole just beyond the gate.
"I sell tractors," Chris continues. "Belarus tractors from Byelorussia. Minsk. In Russia." He pauses for a moment. "Can anyone hear me?" he asks.
It is early morning of a cold and rainy October day. Chris is getting no answers from the stone-cold pole. A few feet behind the microphone he can see a remote camera aimed his way, panning slightly from side to side. He waves. A cautionary wave. This is not the kind of sales meeting he had in mind.
The security gate that bars Chris from his hoped-for appointment has sealed off the ample tree-lined entrance that dead-ends into a "Fall of the House of Usher" mansion. The compound, once the manor house and grounds of a prosperous farm, looks singularly deserted. And, glasnost or not, very uninviting. If the house is out of Poe, the whole place is out of Solzhenitsyn. Still, Chris Starkey tries his spiel again, this time with an eye to the camera, his wave turning into a gesture or two. Geraldo Rivera he is not.
What young Mr. Starkey is telling the camera (and -- who knows -- perhaps someone at a security console inside) is the truth and nothing but the truth. He truly is a Belarus tractor dealer living smack in the middle of what used to be Roy Dyson country. And the tractors he is peddling -- deep red hulking machines that look like a cross between an agrarian tank (in fact they share the same engines with some Russian tanks) and Nikita Khrushchev -- are very much of Russian manufacture, made in Minsk in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, just as Chris says. The name Byelorussia means "white Russia"; the color contrast between the tractor's paint job and its name is only one among many ironies that will sprout as our young American capitalist tries to sell his Russian farm equipment back to the Russians themselves.
But in the meantime, the open question for Chris -- as he continues talking and gesturing to various electronic devices -- is whether anyone anywhere (via phone line to Washington or satellite hookup to Moscow) is listening to his sales pitch. Or are the Russkies placidly sorting his voice imprint and photograph through a bank of computers to see if he is one of their own who needs to be brought in from the cold -- not a bad idea considering that the wind is picking up. To these questions there are as yet no answers. There is nothing as mute as a security camera; nothing as inscrutable as a one-way voice box. Willy Loman never had it so tough.
When one more attempt fails (are you there? Is anyone home?), Chris shivers as he shrugs, gets back into his truck (a Toyota) and considers his next move. Maybe there is someone in a nearby field who could help. Or maybe there is another entrance to the compound. Most farms on the Eastern Shore have two lanes into them; most farmers use the back door to their own house. Given the cold rain and the cold reception, it is probably best for Chris to back his truck out of the camera's range and poke around the chain-link-fenced edges of the compound a little. Who knows what a traveling tractor salesman might find? VONNIE'S RESTAURANT, ROUTES 213 AND 298
The Soviets' R&R retreat in "The Land of Pleasant Living" sits on 50 or so acres at Pioneer Point, six miles northwest of Centreville. The compound has a rich history: Much of it was built by a wealthy Irish-American family in the '30s. By the '50s it had been bought and sold a few times and was about to be turned into a nuclear power plant until the locals protested. The family that built it had a great lot of children (12 to be exact) whose names were set in medallions in the wall of the main building, which is known, for reasons that remain unclear, as Mostly Hall.
Bought by the Soviet Embassy in the early '70s, the place has always been something of a mystery to its American neighbors. It made the news briefly a few years ago when it turned out it fell just outside a limit the State Department put on travel by Soviet Embassy personnel. What goes on inside the gates is largely unknown, though in summer the place seems to be used as a camp for the children of embassy employees. Locals call it simply "the Russian compound."
"My thinking," Chris Starkey had said earlier over breakfast at Vonnie's, "is that the Russian compound used to be a farm, and they might still have some crop land they work. At least I hear they've got a big yard, and that means lots of grass to cut and some lanes to maintain. They're probably using John Deeres out there. If I can catch them at it, maybe I can embarrass them into a sale."
In case no one speaks English at the compound, Chris has decided to wear a Belarus T-shirt under his work coat; he shows it around to some of his friends who are coming and going through the restaurant.
Vonnie's is a rather famous Eastern Shore cafe cum sporting goods store cum farm market cum beauty shop (Vonnie herself gives the local women the most fashionable cuts for $15) cum truck stop cum motel. A sign on one of the many front doors proclaims: WE NOW HAVE CHICKEN NECKS. Below it another sign reads: BLOOD WORMS. The locals know these messages have nothing to do with the restaurant's menu.
Most of the customers at Vonnie's at this time of the morning (it's around 6 a.m.) are working men -- truckers, construction crews and farmers, all wearing either logo T-shirts like Chris's or various baseball caps sporting one slogan or another: Darling Construction, Southern States Co-op. One man's hat tells a small story that the good ole boys stop to read aloud and hoot over: "Trouble: One wife. One girlfriend. One bank note. All a month late."
Breakfast at Vonnie's is hearty, cheap and clearly dangerous if you're given to worrying about the pulp in your arteries: two eggs any style with toast, butter, jelly and coffee are $1.75. Home fries are 75 cents on the side. A tall stack of buttermilk pancakes will cost you $2.10. A side order of scrapple (if you don't know what it is, don't ask) is a buck fifty. But then, as the men in this part of the country say: It takes cholesterol to make testosterone.
But for Chris Starkey, Vonnie's is but a short pit stop (only coffee and toast) before he makes his move this morning on the Russian compound. And, although there is a commission at stake for him (even though the Russians would be buying one of their own state-owned tractors through the American Free Enterprise System), there are two other compelling reasons he is heading for Russia's doorstep, tractor (so to speak) in hand.
One of them is Alex. Alex was his Russian tractor teacher in Milwaukee, where Chris went to mechanics training school. It has been Chris's idea that Alex should come to the Eastern Shore and visit Starkey Farms; Chris would like to show him around. Goose hunting. The local college. Judy's Tavern. Crabbing. Whatever. America.
But Chris has learned that some kind of Soviet or American bureaucratic regulations prohibit Alex from traveling out of Milwaukee, except on business. And so far, none of Chris's tractors has broken down in such a way that he has needed Alex's services. If Chris can ever get into the Russian compound to sell them a tractor, he plans to make his case to spring Alex from Milwaukee.
"He's only been one place in America besides Wisconsin since he came to the United States," Chris says. "New Orleans. That's because they use the Russian tractors to pull the floats in the Mardi Gras parade and they want someone hanging out just in case. Imagine what you think of America if the only two places you've been are Milwaukee and Mardi Gras. It must blow your mind."
As for the second reason: "I'd like to sell enough Belaruses to win a free trip to the factory. In Russia. I'd like to see where they build the tractors and talk to the workers. I'd like to visit a farm and see how they do it all before they change it." It doesn't seem to occur to Chris that most men his age want to convert their bonuses into BMWs and Rolex watches, not a free trip to a Russian tractor plant.
Chris Starkey's own farm is a family affair whose main business is raising spinach (though it turns out you don't "raise" spinach, you "run" spinach). But like Vonnie's, Starkey's is a diversified operation. Chris's mother, Barbara Starkey, keeps sheep for wool and meat (she sells the special non-dyed fleece to both local spinners and the Chester River Knitting Co. just down the road). In the summer everybody gets into the act when the Starkeys put out their roadside produce stand to sell melons and tomatoes and corn. And then, of course, there are Chris's Russian tractors -- five or six of them lined up like oversize soldiers on the edge of Route 213 as it runs between Galena and Chestertown (or New York and Washington if, as the locals say, you want to get important about it).
In mid-September Chris had a "Field Day" for his tractors. About 30 farmers came by one Saturday morning to hang around Starkey Farms to gossip about the price of soybeans, the closing of the Chestertown branch of the local co-op, the abundance of rabid raccoons and the end of local cockfighting (there is some grumbling these days that these last two are both related to the "Bethesda bridge ladies" mucking around with animal rights legislation all the way to the statehouse in Annapolis), and finally (at last) to try out the red tractors that Chris was selling.
The tractors these men drove up and down the lanes of Starkey Farms and out into the fields to see how they handled are sturdy if somewhat outdated hunks of iron whose major visible feature is a complete absence of styling that results in a kind of Grapes of Wrath look. On the other hand, who needs a Ralph Lauren tractor, anyway?
Everybody was pretty much impressed. The price of the Belarus is low, about one-third to one-half that of an American tractor of similar size; the bigger difference comes at the bigger end, with the larger sizes selling here for $20,000 to $35,000. It is fuel-efficient (a fact that is extremely important to a farmer, as you'll understand if you imagine that plowing a field is something like driving your Wagoneer through Ocean City beach sand towing behind you all your major household appliances); and it is simple enough for a shade tree mechanic to repair if it comes to that.
Service is a big question for prospective buyers, of course. "You must remember," Chris Starkey told them, "that in Russia nobody from the government is going to come out to Siberia to fix your tractor. And there's no lawn and garden shop in the next town. When the Russians put these tractors out on the farms, they don't ever want to see them again." The Maytag repairman can eat his heart out if you believe the Belarus sales pitch.
Chris may well be right about the virtues of Belarus, but on that particular day, nobody was buying. Not even after a lunch of steamed crabs and cold Coors (think of it: Joseph Coors and Russian tractors). However, during the year or so since he set up shop, he has sold one tractor and leased another. But how come no sales at the Field Day?
"Well," Chris observes as he finishes his coffee and gets ready to hit the road, "the farm economy is pretty bust around here these days and everyone is trying to make do. I just wish they'd make do with my Russian tractors."
There is also the problem of name brands, and what the local farmers have come to trust. "Nothing runs like a Deere" is the John Deere tractor motto, and most of the farmers on the Eastern Shore (make that virtually all of them) have owned nothing but American tractors since day one. To these men a tractor is America, and the idea of, say, a Japanese tractor (Kubota, for instance) is a contradiction in terms. Beyond that there is the question of resale value -- not a major problem in the Soviet Union, but still alive and well here in the United States. And if that were not enough, there are more than a few bushels of the "buy American" syndrome to go around.
But again, ironies abound. As the Belarus people have trained Chris to point out, a lot of the tractors sold in America are manufactured somewhere else (John Deere makes some tractors at its own plants in Germany and buys others from a company in Japan). The United States imported more than 90,000 tractors in 1989 with more than 6,000 coming in from the Soviet Union and such Eastern European countries as Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia. For competitive reasons, the exact number of tractors each company (including such leaders as John Deere and Case) sells in America isn't released; you can get pretty close to the Belarus number, however, by extrapolating from the statistics in various farm journals. (The best guess is Belarus sold 3,000-plus tractors here in 1989. E.W. Muehlhausen, manager of operations for Belarus Machinery Inc. in Milwaukee, brags that sales are up 160 percent over the past three years.)
Still, Chris Starkey knows that the industry statistics and glossy promos you hand out on field days are only one kind of reality. If he's going to get Alex sprung from Milwaukee and get himself a trip to Minsk, he'd better hit the door-to-door tractor sales trail. Which is why, an hour or so after he leaves Vonnie's, he is standing in front of a security camera with the rain coming down while talking into a mike and waving hello to whoever is watching and listening -- even though there appears to be nothing happening. Nada. Nikogda. INSIDE THE RUSSIAN COMPOUND
Pay dirt. Well, not exactly. But a leg up.
After prowling around the edge of the compound, Chris finds another security gate, complete with the same kind of camera and voice box. Once again he piles out of his truck and starts selling his tractors to a remote mike. This time he gets some action. Maybe his voice profile cleared a post-Cold War hurdle. Whatever.
"Me worker," says a young Soviet about Chris's age who has come running up from behind a bank of motel-like buildings to the right. "Me worker." The kid smiles.
"I'm Chris," says Chris.
"Get boss," says Igor -- which in the end might turn out to be his name, although in the next hour or so Chris will meet an Igor, an Ivan and a Nikolai, plus a few Vladimirs and Luzins by phone from Washington. Or maybe the Vladimirs and Luzins are in the compound and the Igors and Ivans and Nikolais are on the phone; because of all the half-baked sign language and broken English, Chris never does figure out exactly which Russian is which.
No matter: "Me Worker" goes back to the nearby buildings, gets out a one-speed black bike and pedals off down a lane into the mist at the center of the compound, where you can barely see the outlines of Usher's melancholy house.
A few cold minutes later he bikes back toward the security gate (the camera is still panning away, the gate still very firmly closed), this time followed by a very big American station wagon out of which step two men wearing watch caps, both dressed like farmhands out of northern Italian movies. One -- Nikolai is the best short-term guess -- has a gold tooth and does the talking, what there is of it.
"I am selling Belarus tractors," says Chris.
"Belarus tractor," says Nikolai and smiles and nods in that way that tells you he has no idea what you've said.
"Yes," says Chris. "Do you want to buy any Belarus tractors? For yard work. For the lane. For the farm." And here Chris gestures to the fields beyond the compound.
"Yes," says Nikolai. And then he says something in Russian to Igor, and something else to Ivan. Then all three of them talk quite a lot of Russian together.
"Belarus tractors," says Chris Starkey again.
"Belarus tractors," says Ivan or Igor.
Belarus tractors," says Nikolai and smiles in a lovely, friendly way and nods and nods. The last vestiges of the Cold War are melting in a glow of friendly misunderstanding.
"Belarus tractors," says Chris Starkey with a gusto that signals he's suddenly remembered his T-shirt. He opens his coat and points to a tractor coming out of the middle of his chest.
Igor, Ivan and Nikolai peer through the chain-link fence at Chris's shirt. Then they begin to nod and talk miles and miles of Russian to one another, all the way from Leningrad to Vladivostok and back in a marathon of chatter. Igor or Ivan goes to the station wagon and somewhere inside presses a button. In a moment the compound gate slides aside and Chris walks through to handshakes all around, big smiles and lots more chatter. Clearly some mistake is going down at very great speeds. Behind him, the security gate rolls closed. VERY DEEP INSIDE THE RUSSIAN COMPOUND
What Nikolai and company think is this: Chris has been sent by the officials in Washington -- if not in Moscow -- to fix, guess what? A Belarus tractor, sitting under a nearby peach tree, that looks as if it has been without an operational fuel pump since the days of Leon Trotsky.
Chris peers into the tractor as if he were some Chekhovian doctor on his rounds. The problem is not all that serious. In fact, at Starkey's repair shop the part itself probably sits on a shelf, having migrated from Minsk to Milwaukee to Galena (so much for central planning, and isn't market efficiency wonderful?). But a new fuel pump and an hour's labor is not enough of a sale to get Chris to Minsk, much less Alex out of Wisconsin.
"Why don't you buy a new tractor?" says Chris, pointing at his exposed T-shirt.
"You want tractor?" says Ivan or Igor.
"Get tractor," says Nikolai.
"What tractor?" says Chris.
"You tractor," says Nikolai. No wonder it is difficult to get a disarmament agreement.
It isn't long, however, before Igor/Ivan comes rattling down the lane in a wheezy old International tractor that, it turns out, the Soviets (at least the ones on the ground in the rain in the compound) would like to sell. But at a pretty stiff price: $3,000. Chris figures it's worth a thousand in American cash. Persuading its owners to trade it in seems clearly beyond hope, but just as all the negotiations (fuel pump, new tractor sales, old tractor sales) are about to collapse, there comes from the second or third floor of the manor house itself the voice of a woman saying something very loudly in Russian.
"Follow up," says Nikolai, and after a short parade of bikes and cars, everybody is standing in what appears to be a laundry room in a basement that has -- along with the ever-present security camera (you never know what goes on among dirty clothes) -- a phone with roughly the same design features as the Belarus tractor itself. Clearly someone elsewhere knows that Chris is inside the gate, and as it turns out, wants to talk to him. Nikolai hands Chris the phone.
"Hello, my name is Chris Starkey and I am selling Belarus tractors and I wonder . . ." Someone, somewhere (Washington? It is never very clear to whom he is speaking) cuts him off. Chris listens. He listens some more. He nods but does not smile. Nikolai is smiling, as are Igor and Ivan. Upstairs a woman is singing. Chris nods and says thank you anyway.
The answer he's gotten is right out of the '50s at the U.N.: "Nyet." The compound has five tractors (not as big a state secret as the number of John Deere tractors sold in the United States), and that is tractors enough. Sorry. There's not even an offer to have him fix the broken Belarus parked under the peach tree. Everyone seems sad at this news. Nikolai rattles on to Vladimir or Luzin or whoever it is for a moment, and that is that. They step out of the laundry room into the rain. Once more there are handshakes all around. Chris -- who smokes not a little -- uses his best sign language to ask for a Russian cigarette. It may be as close as he'll get to Minsk.
"Centreville cigarettes," says Nikolai as he pulls out a pack of Jesse Helms's finest. "No from Russia. Too hard."
The agony of total defeat. Poor Chris. Poor Alex.
Then: From high in Mostly Hall you can hear a phone ringing. The woman's voice can be heard once again. She talks and talks, and then comes to the window and looks down into the yard and the men smoking. Nikolai! Nikolai! The phone! Is for Chris as well!
You've heard of revisionist history. How Grant wasn't such a bad president as everyone thinks he was? How Ike really did know what he was saying in his own fractured syntax? How, in the Soviet Union, it's now thought that Lenin wasn't such a swell guy after all? Well, this is revisionist tractor-speak:
Yes indeed, says someone on the ancient phone in the laundry room to Chris while the security camera scans the socks. Yes, on second thought we might very well be interested in a Belarus tractor from you, Mr. Starkey. How much would a good red tractor cost? And on further consideration we might need a front-end loader so our men can stand in the bucket to trim the trees and pick the peaches at the end of summer. And for sure we'd like the Trotsky-vintage Belarus parked in the rain fixed. How much will that cost the Soviet Socialist Republics? Please fax us more information. Let's see if we can do business.
When doors open wide enough to drive a tractor through, Chris thinks, all things become possible. "I have this friend," he begins. "His name is Alex . . ."
Robert Day teaches at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. He last wrote for the Magazine about the movie moguls of Washington, D.C.