Some of you may know of my interest in modern languages. as I have mentioned that fact from time to time. I had three years of Spanish, two of German, and one of Russian. The Russian came after my USAF years, in 1961. All these language courses were at the University of Chattanooga (present UTC).
When I got into the U.S. Air Force, they assigned me to a crash course in Russian as a result of the three years of Spanish. Thirty or so of us started the class - and a month later all but four of us had washed out. (I was third in my class!) In that month there was no time for anything but eat, sleep, and study Russian! It was also during the Cold War, and military translators were in great demand). Through the intervening years after my Air Force career ended I have tried to keep my knowledge of Russian alive, and recently found an excellent Internet site where language students from around the globe can meet and practice any languages they choose. It is most helpful - and I now have friends with whom I can chat in Spanish and German, as well as Russian. Even students in China have been attracted to me because I am listed as a speaker of "American English". For them that is quite important, and I have wound up with a bevy of Russian and Chinese friends - plus one young Vietnamese lady - who think of me as a "prize" find - especially here at the recent exam time!
Yes, the Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese kids have all been sweating ENGLISH exams, and asking me questions about the correct way to say something in English. Their questions have all been in English, of course, which is evidence that they already have an excellent start, and can handle some pretty advanced conversations by age 18! One Chinese boy wanted to know all about our use of expressions such as, "picky and choosy", which showed a well advanced knowledge of English. That same boy used the word "algorithm" as if it were a normal part of his vocabulary - although a word I have never once used in my life of 80+ years! A Russian boy (also 18) wanted help with our "active" and "passive" voices - two verbal modes they don't have in Russian, while a Chinese kid was interested in American agriculture. He knew far more about Monsanto and Agribusiness than I ever will! How many American kids - nationwide - I wonder, could match their level of competence in either Chinese or Russian - or in Agriculture? Very few, I think.
So, what's my big memory in all this, you ask? Let me tell you:
One chilly midnight in October of 1957, I went to work my shift in the control tower at Sewart Air Force Base. The watch supervisor, Joe F, was already signed in, and was scurrying around, more excitedly than ususal, trying to locate the frequency of a scary new and phenomenal "Sputnik" satellite that the Russians had just put into orbit! (That would have been Sputnik 1). I had not heard about it before I got to work, but Joe was always well-informed and up-to-date on everything. News had only come of this event in the past hour or two, and it literally sent shockwaves around the world: those secretive Russian Communists had beaten the U.S. in the race for Space! This was not supposed to happen, and that chilling event touched off a mad catch-up scramble - nationally - plus a full-fledged blame-game that followed, lasting for years.
I cannot remember for sure whether Airman Joe and I ever found Sputnik's frequency or heard its beeps that night. We probably did not, or otherwise the sound would still be reverberating through my head like a bad dream. I only remember the excitement generated by it - not just in our control tower, but on every national news broadcast and in every newspaper for days to come. Washington had never been caught so off-guard, and there was much finger-pointing and fault-finding which went on for years as a result. We (the U.S.) immediately blamed the Russians and their secretive Communist agenda, but they came back with the retort that ALL THEIR DATA for Sputnik HAD BEEN PUBLISHED IN SCIENTIFIC JOURNALS, AVAILABLE WORLD-WIDE, and in the U.S. for sure! But sadly, no U.S. scientists had been able to read the articles, as they were all written in Russian!
By 1960, however, when I returned to the University of Chattanooga (for Round Two), they were offering their very first course in the Russian Language, and at least one student magazine was being published in simplified Russian on a national basis. NASA, a brand new organization, had been hurried into existence by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, less than a year after Sputnik, and the subsequent space-race kicked off in high gear. The U.S. was greatly embarrassed by coming in second. We had been the first to FLY (in 1903), and should have been the first in Space! The University of Chattanooga made its contribution to that space-race by adding Russian 101, mentioned above, (which I took for an "easy A"). A really tiny (less than 2 feet in diameter) Russian invention had changed the world forever!
And those thoughts of my student days at the former University of Chattanooga bring me back to the present day students I spoke of earlier: the Chinese, Russian, and Vietnamese kids who are struggling to learn colloquial English. Both China and Russia, although potentially our enemies, ARE, after all, two much-needed trade partners! (China especially). Germany, once our VERY worst enemy, is now our greatest European friend and trade partner, and you will rarely find a German person who does not speak perfect English. They are taught it all through grade-school. My German sister-in-law, a Ph.D., grew up at Weimar in the old East Germany, learning both perfect Russian and perfect English, alongside her native German. You get my drift, I think. I just feel like American kids need to try reaching out to those with whom we are already trading, and with whom we keep basically friendly relations. What world leader could ever want another devastating and disruptive hot war?
I recently heard a joke on late-night talk radio: A TV newsman starts his broadcast with the ominous statement, "NUCLEAR WAR BREAKS OUT IN ALL PARTS OF EUROPE", and then says, "Details right after the Sports". (Laughter here!) and I am most certainly NOT suggesting by that snarky joke that American kids should give up sports, but the time spent on ONE SOCCER GAME PER WEEK might make a big difference in the future of our country - especially if that time were applied to the study of a useful modern language. It is true that we have "sister-cities" programs which are of great merit, but only a comparative few reap the benefits from such programs; fact is that we don't know much about their countries' cultures. The Vietnamese girl watches American movies WITHOUT sub-titles, and uses a brand of English that would make her fit in anywhere in the U.S. She has never been outside her own province, and seems to have no memory - through her parents or grandparents - of the bitter war we fought with her country long before she was born.
Incidentally, in my 1956 AF Russian class, I told you that only four of us survived the course. Head of our class was a Roman Catholic boy who had been grilled in Latin for most of his life. That had given him a fine background for the intricacies of Russian. They do not teach Latin anymore in our public schools, and I was very glad it was totally gone by my day - but in my mother's day, she got a good dose of it at Chattanooga Central HS. Forget your Global Warming or Climate Change, as we are far more likely to be culturally plowed under by a new generation of kids from the 2nd and 3rd World countries who understand our culture and speak our language!
Just my opinion, folks! Am fresh out of St. Elmo stories today!
Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at email@example.com.