Famous 5/6/22

Recollections with Richard Bleil

Somewhere around 1990, I was living with a family, watching their son after he got home from middle school in exchange for room and board.  The father was a rather famous physicist at MIT, but the funny thing is, most people hadn’t heard of him.  Kosta was the national civilian expert on nuclear arms policy, so the national news would consult him when they wanted an opinion that wasn’t the standard government speaking points on nuclear weapons. 

It’s funny that the famous people I have met, most of them through Kosta, actually, are not your typical celebrities.  I’ve rubbed elbows with Nobel Laureates and politicians, and people I didn’t even know were famous.  Kosta, through is position, attended conferences and meetings with generals and leaders around the world, from all countries.  And, like meeting anybody has the potential to do, he made his friends along the way. 

We had an arrangement.  I had my own parking spot in the driveway and typically entered the house through the kitchen as we all did, but, if I were to walk in and see the dining room door closed, that was a signal to me that they had somebody visiting and I should not disturb them.  It rarely happened, but when it did, I would sneak out the side kitchen door and down to the basement where my bedroom was. 

My friends were getting married, and I had purchased a nice wedding gift for them.  We planned to meet before they left to marry a few states away, and being a graduate student, I really didn’t have the money to attend the wedding.  And, on a more personal note, as lonely as I have been throughout my life, I honestly don’t like attending weddings anyway.  They serve as just another reminder of my singledom in the shadow of another couple’s happiness.  No, I don’t hold it against the couple, but nor do I want to cast my own cloud on their day.

So we met for supper, and I gave them their prize, even though I was running a low-grade fever and really wasn’t feeling my best.  Getting home, the dining room door was closed.  Not thinking much about it, I quietly made my way to my basement bedroom, took off my clothes, and retired for what I thought was the evening. 

It wasn’t long before I heard rather light footsteps coming down the stairs, and realized they were those of their son.  He knocked, and I said, “Yes?”  “Dad said you should come upstairs.”  “Please thank you father,” I replied, “but tell him that I’m under the weather.”

Up the stairs he plodded with my reply.  Less than a minute later, I heard the heavier and angrier plodding of his father’s footsteps.  He knocked on the door, pushed it open, and saw me in bed.  “You’re dead!” he exclaimed.  “Not yet, “ I answered.

“Well,” he said in a serious voice, “I think you should get out of bed, come upstairs, and have some sponge cake with General Michael Miltstein of the Soviet Union.”

“I should put on some clothes, shouldn’t I?”

“Yes, he’s liberal.  He’s not THAT liberal.”

So, I struggle out of bed as Kosta returns and find something in my graduate student wardrobe that wasn’t too smelly or dirty and headed upstairs.  And there he was.

This was shortly after the Chernobyl nuclear plant went up (and while the Ukraine was still a part of the Soviet Union but shortly before they declared their independence).  He and my friend Kosta were embroiled in a rather serious discussion about the use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes (nuclear power plants).  General Miltstein, of course, argued against it because of the Chernobyl disaster.  Kosta, on the other hand, took the stand that all that is needed is to put nuclear power plant operations in the hands of the Navy who had never had a nuclear accident in all of the vessels and all of the years they had been in operation (at least none that had been reported at that time).  I’m trying to be polite, smiling, nodding unenthusiastically, thanking Judith when she gave me some of the desert when General Miltstein, sitting to my left, put his hand on the table, turned to me, glaring, and said sternly in a thick Russian accent, “So, Rrrichard, what do YOU think?”

Sheepishly, I replied, “I think I want to go back to bed.”

General Miltstein has passed on long ago.  I can’t help but wonder what he would have thought of the Ukrainian invasion.  Being a citizen of Russia, no doubt he would have followed orders, and as intelligent as he is, I’m glad he was not in charge of the invasion.  But not only was he intelligent, but he was at the same time charming and delightful to speak with.  Russian and American (and other) generals do meet from time to time for a variety of reasons, and I remembered thinking that if US generals were as human as he was, then we’re in better shape than I had feared.

And for those wonder, after the laughter died down, I sided with Kosta, saying that we’ve already done too much damage with fossil-fuel based power plants.  Yes, I stood up to a Russian General face to face.

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