August, 1983: Prologue — Pioneers and Scouts
Two boys sat a world apart, soaking up ideas as their skin soaked up intense rays of summer sun, ideas that wrapped seeds of destruction inside promises of warmth and comfort.
In Ukraine, on the sandy shores of the Black Sea, 12-year-old Dima digested his lunch, eager to escape the hot sun. He eyed the cold saltwater swishing ashore bare meters from him, wishing he were splashing in it instead of sprawling on a blanket with the other Young Pioneers.
The university student wagging his finger at them could barely compete with crashing waves and screaming gulls, but he preached with the fervor of a missionary, reedy voice cracking with passion.
Dima leaned forward, pushing sweaty blond bangs out of his eyes, captivated despite himself by the handsome young Komsomolets. Swimming forgotten, he piped up, forgetting that interrupting a leader of the Communist Youth League was very impolite.
“But why, Oleg Pavlovich?” he asked. “Why can’t they understand? Don’t they care?”
“Who can know, Dmitry?” The young man shrugged and scratched his scraggly goatee. “Who can say why the industrialists and the bourgeoisie fight so hard against the workers. Selfishness? Greed? Perhaps that can explain it, yes?”
Dima nodded, thoughtful.
“Just be thankful,” the man continued, waving his arms around in a broad circle, “that you were born in Russia. That you have a father who is a war hero in Afghanistan, who taught you to love the Rodina and respect the Party. You are fortunate to know the truth, and one day you will join us in the struggle.”
Dima’s eyes shone as he imagined the possibilities. As soon as he turned 14, he vowed, he would join Komsomol as a full member. When he was old enough, he would become an Army officer like his father. He would join the Party if they would have him.
His chest swelled as he imagined an impossibly distant future when as a very old man, he would be on hand to welcome the peace and paradise his people and Party had introduced to the Earth.
Ian Collins, 16 and full of his own dreams, sat on a rickety wooden pier that jutted out over the crystal waters of Lake Michigan. Dangling his bare feet in the cool lake, thin legs poking out of cut-off jeans, he buried himself in a book while the sun darkened his already bronzed skin.
Ian was lazing through his last summer of Boy Scout camp, and he wanted nothing more than to be done with it.
“No! No way, man!” he’d protested after a lunch of hot dogs and macaroni salad. Just thinking about another afternoon of “capture the flag” was enough to force tears of boredom out of his eyes. He yearned to do something real, something that mattered.
He’d always loved Scouting, but this year it frustrated him. He was practically an adult. He wanted more in his life than games for boys.
Ian’s head jerked around. He relaxed when he saw the camp director folding his bulky frame down beside him.
“Ah, that’s better,” sighed Mr. Proulx. “Nice to take a load off. I’m afraid I’m getting a little old for all this, Ian. I need my afternoon naps.”
The boy smiled, unsure if he was supposed to answer.
Proulx held out a hand. “Mind if I take a look?”
Ian handed the book over silently, wondering if he should be annoyed. Proulx pushed wisps of grey hair out of the way and peered at it through half-moon reading glasses.
“Ah! Robert Heinlein. You have excellent taste. Ex naval officer, you know. But we’ll not hold that against him. Much.”
Ian smiled, knowing the man was a retired Air Force general.
“Have you thought about a possible military career for yourself?”
“Huh? Me?” Ian didn’t roll his eyes, but he wanted to. The idea was just short of ridiculous.
“Why so surprised? You’re bright. You aced my chemistry class last year. Ran circles around most of the other guys. I’m not talking about the infantry. You’d make a fine professional officer.”
“Well … I …,” stammered Ian. “I never thought about it. You mean be a pilot like you?”
“Well, that’s one idea, although with your eyes …” Proulx indicated Ian’s glasses with a jerk of his chin. “That might not be realistic.”
“Then what do you mean?”
The man fixed him with an intense look. “Listen to me. I’ve been paying attention to you. I know you’re different from most of the other boys.”
Ian’s stomach flipped. How had Proulx guessed? He thought he’d hidden it so well! He blushed to the tips of his ears. “Different? I’m not! What do you mean?”
“You care about things. You pay attention to life. You think. You’re a serious young man.”
The boy let out his breath, not even realizing he’d been holding it. “Yes. Yes, I suppose I do. Er … I suppose I am. You really think so?”
Proulx nodded, then waited a few moments before speaking again. “It’s not fashionable anymore, is it? he said. “But you love your country. You’re a patriot.”
Ian thought about that, feet splashing through the water a little harder, a little faster. “I feel lucky to be an American, Mr. Proulx. I really do. But…”
“You think I actually could? Like go to the Academy or something? Me?”
Proulx snorted then smiled. “Of course you could! Listen, you’ll be in my physics class next year. I’ll help. We’ll apply to the academies and for ROTC scholarships as a backup. I’ll write an official letter of recommendation. I’m telling you now, Ian, you’ll make an outstanding officer.”
The boy sat there long after his teacher left, book forgotten, dreaming bigger dreams than he’d found in its pages, bigger dreams than he would have dared dream when he woke up that morning.
He laughed to remember he’d been afraid Proulx knew his secret.
This is the prologue of a serialized novel, a genre-bending Cold War geopolitical thriller cum gay coming-of-age romance. You can expect a chapter every couple of days, and for those of you who read an earlier version, this time, it’s finished!!
Expect to meet mighty warriors, evil commissars, bumbling KGB officers, bar-tending Greek philosophers, at least one haughty standard poodle, and a princess — not the fairy tale kind, the hard kind who lives off the labor of people struggling beneath her.
The action is set in Berlin, Russia, Greece, and Tunisia. The settings and the characters are pulled directly from my own life, but the story is entirely fictional.
I never fled Berlin with the son of a Soviet Air Force general hiding from the KGB. Or if I did, I’ll never admit it.
Get set for a wild ride!
On to the the next chapter. Let’s get this story started!
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.