By Florence Sandler (1923 – 2008)
[Author’s Note: this a special guest post by a relatively unknown, but talented writer. In this captivating true story, she manages to capture a time, a place, and a personality. This personal story along with a few other moving memoirs were recently found among Florence’s papers. At the bottom of this post, read more about this unique writer and how this story landed up here.]
I never saw him holding a newspaper. And in those days when our family sat at the radio listening to Walter Winchell in the evening, my father pored over medical and dental journals. On his bedroom desk, there was always a pile of publications concerning new drugs. Yet despite his narrow interests, it did not surprise me that when my brother, Andy, was put in prison in Poland, Harry Field, who lived for his profession, dental surgery, knew exactly what to do. It was not merely this one instance. In an emergency, in a crisis of any sort, my father’s judgment was infallible. Who else would have asked, “How much should I pay?” when the American ambassador’s Paris office phoned to tell him Andy was in jail.
Since my husband and I lived only a few blocks away from my parents’ home, I stopped by often and was there when my father learned that Audrey, Andy’s wife, had been allowed to continue to Paris on the train the two of them had boarded in Moscow. She and my little brother, I always thought of him that way because I am fifteen years older, had spent two weeks there after Andy, a Russian Studies major, graduated from Columbia University where he won a Fulbright fellowship. According to the ambassador’s office, when the conductor of their train shouted at Andy in Russian, which she neither spoke nor understood, Audrey began to cry. She described the way Andy seized and shook the conductor’s coat collar.
Much later, Andy would defend himself by telling us that the conductor said his ticket was for the following day, so he had to return. He admitted that he grabbed the man’s collar but insisted he only said, in perfect Russian, “Now see what you did, you made her cry!” According to Audrey, the words were no sooner out of his mouth than the train ground to a stop. At the embassy, she described the way Andy was dragged off by two guards. Naturally, she was terrified because she had no idea of what became of him. In short order, however, an investigation was underway.
Within an hour, the American embassy informed my father that his daughter-in-law was fine, but his son was being held for assault. “Who do I pay?” I heard him ask as I stood beside him on the phone.
He Needs Insulin
“This has nothing to do with money,” they told my father. “A misunderstanding because of a language barrier is a routine matter. The State Department will take care of everything in no time at all.” Despite their assurances, my father asked his question again.
To me and to my mother he grumbled, “They say don’t worry, Dr. Field. Leave it to us, Dr. Field. I don’t believe them, and besides, a diabetic like Andy can’t survive in jail. He needs insulin.” My father called his lawyer, insisting that he phone every lawyer in Washington until he found one who would name the person to pay.
Although he, too, thought the matter should be left to the State Department, my father’s lawyer did make inquiries and finally reached a Washington lawyer who repeated, “How much should you pay? I’ll look into it.”
Apparently, he knew the appropriate bureaus to call in Paris and Moscow because he told my father that Andy’s bail had been set at the equivalent of $900. He advised my father to pay it and sent word to my brother that he should jump bail and head for home as soon as he was released.
During this period when our family was so frantic, an item in the New York Times noted the suicide of a young American hiker imprisoned by the Russians who accused him of entering Russia, not by accident, as he claimed, but in order to spy. “Were his parents notified as mine were?” I have always wondered. I ask myself if they were satisfied to be told their son’s release was a simple matter best left to the State Department I will never know, but I suspect that young man’s father did not ask the question my father demanded again and again. “How much should I pay?”
As a side note, Andy Field, the young hostage in the story, later became the world’s leading authority on Vladimir Nabokov, about whom he wrote a biography and several other books. He taught Russian literature for several decades at the University of Queensland in Australia.
More About Florence Sandler…
Florence was an unusually gifted and creative woman in all her endeavors. After raising four children (including my wife, Amy, for whom I will forever be in her debt), Florence earned her Ph.D. from Drew University at age 65, proving it’s never too late. After receiving her degree, she taught writing at Seton Hall University for several years. In addition to being fluent in French and German, her specialty and expertise were Arthurian Legend. In 1987, a highlight was her keynote speech, given at an international conference of Arthurian Scholars held in the Netherlands. Amy recently found this personal story along with a few other moving memoirs among Florence’s papers.
I loved Florence from the first day I met her in 1968, invited to dinner as Amy’s serious boyfriend. I’m not sure whether it was the first or second sentence out of my mouth when she corrected my grammar. Needless to say, her grammar was always flawless, and her lifelong love of learning and literature was an inspiration to me and her students. The story above, and the others Amy found, have never been published. I felt that they deserved an audience. I hope you agree.
If you would like to read another story By Florence Sandler, please leave a Comment below and I will be happy to post another favorite in the future.
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