Fifty years ago, I was a young man, with secret dreams of dancing in fame and glory on the world stage.
Now that dream has now come true, because I stand here at a podium on that stage. I give lectures that moan under the weight of hefty statistics to my criminology students around the world, and grant TV interviews that ask me to recount my daring deeds ..... over and over until I sometimes feel like a parrot in a three piece suit.
Mark Twain observed that; "Certain things, like the sight of a hangman's noose, tend to organize one's thoughts".
When a man reaches my age, tedious pleasantries and polite nonsense lose their charm, because they squander precious time. When the hangman's noose is no longer a shapeless blur on the distant horizon, and draws within an arms reach of knocking on the door, it changes a man's priorities.
So now I talk about what I want to, instead caring what my audience wants to hear.
Old age in our culture makes me long for the Neanderthal days, when the experience of age was a precious commodity essential to the survival of everyone in the tribe. Today's cult of youth places a far higher value upon white teeth that it does upon the words that pass between them, and the shape of one's body more than the depth of the heart and the keenness of the mind that it holds... almost like excess baggage.
Death arrives when one no longer has something of value to offer the world, or when the world no longer wants it. After that, the grave is an overdue technicality.
But things are a little different for me, because I am a world renowned guru on all the works and all the ways of the criminal mind.
Perhaps I owe my success to the irony that I have devoted my life to studying those who would steal their way to that destination, and take lives away on a whim.
My students inspire me and disappoint me at the same time. They work very hard in their endeavors to absorb the knowledge I have to offer, and I am equally determined to do that effectively, but our reasons are often light years apart.
My lofty motivation to make a better and safer world overlooks their unbridled lust for power, authority, influence, and comic book heroics.
In other words, exactly the same things that inspired me at their age.
Some of my embryonic angels of mercy believe that the path to earn their wings begins at a job as a well compensated assassin.
But I cannot fault them too much for that, because that was the path I chose.
They are our future policeman, investigators, public defenders, state prosecutors, forensic pathologists, military commandos, national and world leaders......so I diligently overlook the fact that youth is wasted on the young, and make a strenuous effort to offer them the same high esteem that they shower upon me.
When I look into their eyes, I want to see an earnest determination to emulate my example with hard work and personal sacrifice. But often I only see an envy for my status, along with the unspoken question; "How did you do it, you old rascal?"
It is as if they expect me to reveal a secret shortcut to the treasure chest of life's rewards waiting at the foot of the rainbow, which avoids the arduous winding road that one must travel to arrive there.
But they are young and reluctant to accept the simple truth that we can only experience the dawn through the path of night.
I first saw Nina at a prom where I invited her to dance. She just laughed - as a movie actress might laugh at a marriage proposal from a schoolboy.
I went to get some punch, and saw her silhouette behind a satin curtain, where I overheard her whisper loudly to a friend "His cap is wider than his shoulders and his enormous ears make him look like a taxi carriage with both doors open! ......and those shortcomings require at least two stars on the epaulets to tolerate"; she laughed ....
I moved over to the Captain's table. He was away mingling with party officials, so I talked with his wife. Nina's mother had overheard her daughter's secret conversation too, as perhaps we were both meant to.
She leaned over and whispered to me; "the girls don't really dance with the young men here, but rather with the uniforms they wear.....perhaps if you grow you hair long, you could tape your ears back out of the way". I know she was only trying to help.
I spent the rest of evening watching Nina dance, and the long parade of suitors posturing themselves to gain her favor. She spurned all their advances and then left the dance with someone she did not even know, who simply winked at her....maybe to insure that we were all properly tormented with her adorable little feminine games......
A few months later, I became a junior lieutenant with two stars. I was amazed at how much better they made that uniform fit me.
My first destination was a dance party in the officer's club. She was there, of course, with a long line of admirers competing for her attention. It reminded me of the way that dogs fight over a scrap of raw meat, except that the growls and snarls were replaced with flowery words and witty banter. She was not available for a dance, but at least I had a chance to talk with her. I jokingly asked if she could ever fall in love with a man sporting two large ears and two small stars. She said she preferred small ears and large stars.
I graduated from KGB training college that year. I mastered five languages, and made a special effort to become fluent in American culture, slang and literature in the hopes that might lead me to a commission as a spy in Washington D.C., which was on the top shelf of all spy assignments.
I also gained a deadly expertise in all kinds of exotic weaponry, tidy ways to assassinate, impressionable ways to interrogate, psychological engineering, sky diving, scuba diving, mountaineering, and many other kinds of dark proficiencies that would be useful to an agent of a state built upon fear. I practiced my English so often that my fellow recruits called me Yankee Doodle.
My only free time between study sessions was on Saturday evenings, when I visited the officers's club. My lovely Captain's daughter was always in the company of officers, flirting, dancing, and playing " hard to get". She had no time for me and was always leaving with someone who outranked me, and looked at me in the same way that a Pirate Ship Captain looks at a Cabin Boy.
I was often frustrated in my studies, and like many young people back then, I wanted to become a famous spy, but could not understand why I had to learn the Chinese language. After all, Chinese is such an awful sounding language. Their music sounds like dropping silverware on a cold concrete floor, and when our Chinese teachers argued, it sounded like a lot like a dogfight. Could I not simply spy in the countries whose languages better suited my tastes?
My first assignment as a newly graduated KGB agent was an unusual one - which was an omen of things to come. I posed as a member of a famous international choir that traveled the world, including capitalist countries, where the risk of someone requesting asylum was very high.
My duty was to follow them everywhere, to meetings, to dinner, and even participating in performances - which was tortuous to me, and also to everyone who had to hear me sing. So I decided to sing "solo tenor"...meaning "so low" I could not be heard.....and "ten or" twelve miles away. I stood in the far corner and just mouthed the words with no sound. But eventually, I actually began to join in.... softly at first. Soon, I discovered that I could actually carry a tune without having my knees buckle under the weight. I became more and more confident, and began to sing louder and louder.
I continued to travel with the choir for several years and everyone in the group knew who I was. They did not like me and treated me much like a crow at a grasshopper convention. Eventually, they hatched a secret plot to play an elaborate joke on me.
It was at a concert in Berlin, when suddenly, in accordance with their clever scheme, everyone stopped singing at the same time in the middle of a concerto...........leaving me all alone - and howling like a sick goose at the top of my lungs - to a baffled audience of over a thousand refined musical connoisseurs.
There was a long, awkward silence that seemed to last an hour, and then, because my singing was so bad, the audience suddenly erupted in uproarious laughter. They thought that it was intentional - as a way to inject a bit of comic relief into the serous artistic performance. It was my misfortune that one of my superiors happened to be in the audience, and after the concert, sought out the Director to compliment him on such a creative stroke of showmanship.
The Director's response was to eagerly promise that it would become a regular part of the of the repertoire. So, instead of suffering that humiliation only once, I was forced to relive that catastrophe every night - much to the delight of it's authors. When my reassignment finally came, it was a very happy day.
The Captain's daughter almost fell off of her chair laughing when I told her this story. I think that at that point, she began to think of me as a loser with a sense of humor, which charmed her. But that evening, she left with a humorless major.
After I performed my swan song in Berlin, my next job was with the Coast Guard on the Black Sea, where many top party officials had built ornate waterside dachas for vacations and important meetings.
The scenic countryside was very rich in game for hunting, but not quite so rich with fish to catch, as the result of a secret industrial accident that happened upstream a while before.
My duty was to sit on the shore in full scuba gear, with a pair of binoculars, and several bags of large Trout, which were designed to clip handily onto my diving belt.
My superior saw to it that the officials were told of a secret pre-selected "hot spot" that was teeming with hungry fish, and that the best way to catch them was to cast out their lines with a heavy weight that would sink to the bottom.
They did not know that the weights they were given had a tiny transceiver hidden inside them so that I could find them underwater without getting too near the surface. I would watch for them to drop anchor, then slip into the water with the bag of fish attached to my belt, and swim out along the bottom to where they were fishing.
When my directional earpiece began to signal, I would swim over to their line, hook a nice big fish on their line, and give it good, hard tug.
They would rapidly reel in their prize, and I would just wait until they would cast out again, and continue the process until I ran low on Trout or air. I would then sneak back to the shore to get a new tank of air, a new bag of fish, and begin all over again.
Sometimes their good luck lasted for several tanks of air.
I wondered why my superior went to such great lengths just to see that some party bosses had a good fishing day, and later found out that it was because he had been severely reprimanded for the industrial accident - which was in his district - and the only way he was able to keep from being demoted was to promise them that it would not harm the fishing near their precious vacation cottages.
This job did not seem to offer many career advancement opportunities, and it was hard to decide if it was a step up, down or sideways from my previous singing career, but that question was soon answered in a most memorable way.
One day, while securing a fat fish onto the hook of an even fatter party chief, the line became entangled in my belt. I dropped my knife in the frenzy, and struggled desperately to break the high test line as they slowly hauled me up toward the surface. I can only imagine their delirious excitement when they first saw my bubbles - which they must have thought were originating from a monstrous sturgeon..
Unable to free myself, I grabbed the submerged portion of the motor and tried to hide under the boat, while sawing the line across the propeller blade until it snapped.
I immediately dived down to the bottom and began to swim as fast as I could for the safety of shore, as bullets began to break the surface of the water and zing along my bubble trail.
I was deep enough that I was not in any danger, but the fact that they were emptying their automatic pistols in my direction made me suspect that they had realized that I was not a sturgeon. The boat came racing toward me and stopped directly overhead.
I could not run, I could not hide, and I could not make them go away.
On top of that, my air was almost gone.
I was most willing to lay down my life for my country, but on the other hand, I was not wild about the prospect of resting for eternity beneath a tombstone that read:
Here lies Dimitri Volkov
Who bravely laid down his life,
For a stinking bag of Trout.
So I did what all honorable and brave KGB agents do in that perilous situation. I unhooked the bag of fish, swam up near the side of the boat, and quickly tossed it into their laps.
I then dived back down to wait for a few moments - to give them a few seconds to realize that I was not a foreign spy masquerading as a giant sturgeon, but rather just a simple "fishing luck engineer" from the Coast Guard unit.
When the shooting stopped, I quickly surfaced and shouted " DO NOT SHOOT !!! I AM ON SPECIAL MISSION !!!! "
It startled them so much that the fat one fell over backwards into the water. I swam around to make sure he did not drown and helped him into the boat, and then followed him in.
I thought I knew every cussword in the Russian language, but I was wrong. By the time we reached shore, they had begun to laugh at my ridiculous situation, and I had pretty well decided to change my name, buy a disguise, and open a pretzel stand in Red Square.
This story entertained everyone who heard it - to no end. When it came to the attention of the top party officials, I was told by a secretary who worked in the politburo that Breshnev himself intervened in the matter to order that I not be punished for botching that ridiculous duty, because he was laughing too hard to consider it. I guess he thought that just bearing my name would be more than enough punishment.
Their towering rage was reserved for my superior, who was reassigned to Siberia and never heard from again.
When this tale reached the Captain's daughter, she joined me and everyone else in the absolute certainty that my career advancement has come to a screeching halt.
Somehow, it did seem to be the best time to tell her that I did it all to win a promotion - along with her heart.
That was the beginning of my depressed period - which lasted a long time. But I did not give up. The further away the possibility of winning her heart became, the more determined I became..
I was a man of forty, with three small stars on my shoulder, no job, and no prospects.
Finally, an opportunity presented itself in the form of a prison assignment. It was a "minimum prestige" assignment, and that is probably why they offered it to me. I was put into a cell with criminals who were awaiting trial, with orders to obtain information that may be useful to the prosecutors.
It got off to a rocky start when I forgot to change all of my clothes and was tossed in a cell inhabited by career criminals who recognized that my shoes and trousers were standard police issue.
I was beaten senseless and almost died during the two months I spent in the hospital.
This was truly the low point of my life. I had bungled every assignment that I was given, was a 40 years old lieutenant (which is like being a 25 year old boy scout), broke, friendless and deeply depressed.
She came to me in a hospital, like an angel of mercy. She was aging, but still very beautiful. She brought me some home cooked food and wished me to get well soon - and then kissed me.
It was then that I realized my Captain's daughter had a warm and compassionate heart, and it captured mine.
And it also inspired me to move heaven and earth to win her love. It was the major turning point in my life.
After my wounds healed, my career took on a significance that eclipsed everything else. I immersed myself in studies of criminology in preparation for a decade long prison assignment. It was an assignment that nobody wanted, but held the promise of a Colonel's stars if it was accomplished effectively.
It was my last chance to redeem myself in everyone's eyes, and I was determined to perform my duty better than anyone else in the entire KGB possibly could.
I became an expert in every tiny convolution of the criminal mind, and intimately familiar with every detail of the broad spectrum of illegal activity. I not only studied criminal thugs, but I dressed, talked and acted like them. And in many ways, I actually became one of them - while still maintaining my dignity and devotion to duty.
My job was to mix and mingle with a cornucopia of criminals, most of whom fell into the category of "high profile low lifes". I would befriend them by inventing a web of believable lies designed to pass myself off as one of them.
My home was a hundred different cells, my friends were a thousand hardened criminals, and my reason was a single star to add to my shoulder.
I kept a detailed record of names and places and times, but all in my head so that nothing was written. I trained my memory like a championship boxer trains his muscles.
I even made a few friends in those cold, concrete boxes full of precious bastards, which included genius level thieves, sadistic murderers, depraved child rapists, prayer mumbling separatists, ruthless racketeers, small change extortionists , upper crust embezzlers, cowardly traitors, and soulless power brokers........ because among them were also some decent and innocent victims of the Soviet system.
The cells of the precious bastards were often shared with idealistic young dissidents, creative artists, renowned musicians, prize winning authors, school teachers and brilliant scientists....the wretched victims of our glorious state who, in any other country, would be the subject of wine toasts, television interviews and engraved plaques. Some of them should have been at a podium saying "I would like to thank the Nobel Committee for this prize....." instead of groveling on their knees with the words; "Please sir, can you remove these handcuffs a moment, so I may unzip my pants to piss?"
It's an unfair world, but nobody consulted me on the rules. I was just doing my duty.. My job was to gain their confidence, wring useful information out of them with casual trickery, pass it along to my superiors, and then do it all over again.
And just like a doctor or a whore, I did not get personally involved.
Most of the time I felt that I was doing good work that was necessary to secure and protect the state. But sometimes........... it seemed that the chief difference between "them" and "us" was that some of both groups were on the wrong side of the bars.
Of all the agents, my productivity became legendary, and I was quickly promoted to a Major, and then to Colonel two years later, when my work came to the attention of the KGB inner circle.
Over the ten years of my confinement, I cracked major murder cases, disclosed information that put high officials behind bars for corruption, and provided the information necessary to break up large operations of the Russian mafia involving drugs, extortion, and the kidnapping of innocent children for prostitution.
But my crowning achievement was in the revelation of a military coup being planned by some rogue Generals to overthrow the central government itself. For that, I was rewarded with the rank of Major-General.
Along with that, I also acquired an ulcer along with a mild form of tuberculosis, and the first real "vacation" of my professional life.
The health problems were a small price to pay, and the vacation was too short.
As every soldier, my dream has always been to go for a casual walk wearing a General's jacket. But when that dream came true, it did not measure up to my fantasy. There are some things in life that seem better than they really are because one's imagination of them focuses on the glory - conveniently omitting the blood, sacrifice and pain that make them possible.
I found myself wanting to contact Nina. After all, she was the reason for all of my hard work and success, and even though there were many young and beautiful women who would love to be seen on the arm of General, there was no room for them in my heart, because she still filled it to the brim.
I prepared myself for the possibility that she was married by now. I had to find out.
I decided to visit her parents first. Sadly, the Captain had passed away many years before, and Nina's mother was the victim of a cerebral stroke, and half out of her mind. My appearance seemed lift her spirits immensely, and it was gratifying that she was so kind to me, but as I sat down in her living room to talk to her, I quickly realized that she did not have even a remote idea of who I was.
Suddenly, Nina came downstairs, and did not recognize me for a few seconds. When she suddenly did, she almost fainted from joy.
We took a vacation together on the Black Sea, where we sailed past the site of my "Trout luck engineering" adventure so many years before.
We enjoyed quiet times and spent over a week at luxurious hotel, where I would just lay on the beach, watching her swim. She seemed truly happy, and that made me happy - whether or not I really was.
I sometimes thought about all those lucky fellows who spent their vacations with her when she was young, voluptuous, and the toast of the town.........and had men tripping over their own feet just to open a door for her.
Those days were gone forever.
She wanted to marry, and I honestly do not know if it was me or my jacket that she desired.
But somehow it no longer mattered, because we were both bound to each other by something that transcended even love.
Our lives were intertwined - woven together by the invisible hand of destiny that made it impossible to tell where she leaves off and I begin.
All that remained was that she wanted to marry a General, and I wanted to marry the Captain's daughter.
We couldn't marry right away, because I had one last mission to perform in Siberia. It was supposed to last for two months, but it stretched out into three years.
Decades before, I would have worried about whether my darling would be faithful to me, but not now.
My mission was successful, and earned me yet another star.
I also wrote a doctoral thesis on the criminal mind, followed by a novel about my adventures in the KGB - that I could speak of officially.
When I returned, we were quietly married with no fireworks. We don't talk much because we are more comfortable in silence. We usually know what each other is thinking, and it often involves the fond wish that we were young and full of life again. And I sometimes wish that I had swept her off her feet at that dance all those years ago, and persuaded her to run away with me so we could have lived the happy struggles of young lovers while surrounding ourselves with a family.......So that instead of asking myself heavy philosophical questions like this, I could be listening to my grandson squeal with delight as I show him how to catch a Trout and tell him of the ancient adventures of a Trout engineer........
We live a simple life on a large boat that I bought, but am too old to sail. It is like a comb that life handed me when I was bald. It sits moored in the harbor, like a monument to the things we never did, and never will.
I sometimes ask myself; "Am I a fortunate man? And when I take a good look around I see the dream boat that I acquired when I am too old to sail it.......and the silent wife who only married me when all other possibilities faded away. All of my dreams eventually came true, and I've achieved all that I ever wanted, but timing is everything and trump cards are useless at the end of the game.
I have learned that fame and glory are like the Captain's daughter. They elude those who chase them, and seek out those who do not really care for them.......like me, here and now.