Sunday, December 30, 2007


…on that Rooshian hat, among other things. Pictured immediately above is a detail shot of the hat insignia, which, as I indicated in the original post below, is Russian Navy. The enamel on the Red Star is coming undone, if you look closely. The good news is it was that way when I bought the badge (hat and insignia sold separately, see vendors for details), the better news is that the deterioration doesn’t seem to be getting any worse after these 15 or so years.

Pictured immediately below is another souvenir from the Moscow trips: a gen-u-wine Red Army belt and brass belt buckle. The buckle is in dire need of polishing and I was gonna do just that for you, Gentle Reader. Until I retrieved my can of Brasso from under the sink, only to find its contents have long since evaporated into the ether and beyond.

So: gig me.

I lusted after one of these belts since the first time I saw one back in the late ‘60s or very early ‘70s. I was assigned to USAFSS (at Wakkanai AS, more about which…here) in 1968 when I saw my first Red Army belt… or three, or six. USAFSS was a fairly insular org for some career fields back in the day, especially the Russian linguists. These linguists would shuttle from assignment to assignment at “listening” sites we had around the periphery of the old USSR. One such site was the 6912th Security Group in Berlin. There were three ways to get to Berlin at the height of the Cold War…one could fly, drive in convoys from the West German border to Berlin on an approved route (with NO deviations allowed!), or one could take the “Duty Train.” And the Duty Train was where most of the guys I knew got their belts.

To cut right to the chase… the Duty Train stopped for “inspection” at multiple locations during the transit from West Germany into Berlin. These inspections were mostly performed by the East German Border Guards, but there were always contingents of Red Army (read: Russian) troops hanging around…either participating in the inspections (“Show us your papers!”) or observing. Those Red Army troops just loved Playboys, American cigarettes, and American whiskey…and were more than willing to trade the shirts off their backs, or their hats, or their belts… for same. That’s how 96.9% of the guys I knew got their belts. The going rate was a carton of cigs for a belt...straight across. A fifth of whiskey would buy you a belt and additional treasures, as well, but I digress. And you couldn’t buy one of these Red Army belts/buckles from the guys that had them at any price…the belt buckles were among the most prized souvenirs of the times.

Fast-forward to the ‘90s and my first biz trip to Moscow. One can imagine my absolute delight at finding all SORTS of Soviet military memorabilia for sale in the biggest danged flea market I’ve ever seen. One could literally buy entire uniforms, including boots and all the appropriate insignia, there. Not to mention actual military equipment (but no weapons were visible) being sold out of the back of Russian Army trucks, and I kid thee not. One member of my team bought fully-functional night-vision goggles for around $200.00 at the same flea market where I bought my hat and belt. I wasn’t ready to go that far, Gentle Reader, what with being concerned I’d get ripped off (how do you know they work, in broad daylight?) and a great deal more concerned about an out-going customs officer finding them in my luggage as I was leaving the country (My friend got away clean, however, sailing through the departure customs inspection.). The prospect of an espionage trial just didn’t appeal to me…at all. I limited my purchases to the hat, belt, various pins and such, and other, non-military souvenirs.

And lots of vodka and caviar, of course.


  1. Buck, Didn't you find it sad though that so many of our former enemy's troops were reduced to selling their uniforms to buy their vodka? Many were conscripts, yes, but how many were, like us, professional soldiers once upon a time?

    And my hat, in case you ever wondered, came back with a friend who was in the Russian version of our Cheyenne Mountain to help make sure we made it through that millenium New Years without finally finding out what MAD was really all about.

    Happy New Year! Doc

  2. Doc: The whole situation in Russia when I went ('92 or '93, I forget) was sad. I had great empathy for the vets, especially the older ones, but it was the old women who really got to me. No matter where one went there was always a group of old women ...and I'm talking primarily women between 60 and 70 years of age... standing silently outside the Metro stations, against buildings, in the park, selling something, anything. When I say "anything," I mean a single dried mackerel, a framed icon, bottles of soda, paintings, porcelain pitchers, you-name-it. And they'd scatter like flocks of small birds when the police came into view. THAT was sad.

    Of course, there were others... talented buskers of all ages, old and older men, younger men, and hookers. Lots of hookers. The Russian mafia were very visible at that time, too. Big-ass Mercedes, first generation mobile phones (usually carried by some minion), and loud...very loud. I saw those types everywhere, as well.

    As I noted elsewhere in comments, I really need to focus just a bit and write about the experiences I had there. Including the night a young Red Army tanker captain, one of my team members, and I got rip-roaring drunk together. The captain spoke not a word of English and my friend and I spoke VERY little Russian, but Dang! we "communicated" until the wee hours. That's a war story worth the telling...

    About the origins of your hat...thanks for letting me know. Have you ever posted about your friend's experiences? I'll bet he has some great stories, as well! I can only imagine being at the Russian equivalent of NORAD. Wow.

    Jay: The first half is nearly over and the AFA is LARGE and IN CHARGE (assuming you consider a one touchdown lead "in charge")!! Too early for beer, though.

  3. Buck sez: "I really need to focus just a bit and write about the experiences I had there."

    Bec sez: I've been waiting, y'know...
    :) You and Doc have been witnesses to history on a very personal level and you're both talented writers. (Not to pressure you or anything)

  4. Buck, Let me second Bec! You need to tell those stories. Here's an idea: go to the web version of War, Literature & the Arts and read some of the stuff there, particularly any issue where there's personal narrative. I'm picturing a piece titled something like "The Cost of Peace" with your recollections of some of those trips. Just a thought. In the meantime, I know I speak for all your readers when I say we'd love to have them here.

    On the Russian Mafia, if you haven't seen Eastern Promises, it's worth a look. I gave it an A- here.

    RE: The Bowl game. I listened to it on the radio here. Hated to hear what happened to Shawn Carney. He was my student for freshman comp. He and Kip McCarthy sat next to each other on the back row of a mini-lectinar and even then had a sense of destiny about them (which is to say that, like most gifted jocks, neither seemed to believe that their feces was odiferous). Still, I think I once titled a post "It Ain't Conceit if It's True." Maybe I need to read my own stuff more often. ;-) And I've had that surgery he's facing, so suddenly I can't feel anything but sympathy for the boy. I ever tear another ligament in my knee, I'm probably done skydiving. The pain of the injury ain't nothing compared to the surgery.

  5. Doc: Thanks for the links...especially the WLA link. I spent quite a while in the wee, wee hours this morning reading there. Bookmarked, it is.

    I'm not sure reading other folk's stuff is gonna help with my block about my Russian adventures. I'm hoping the arrival of the photo archives arrive from SN2's place in Omaha will help to jog the memory.

    Re: The game, and Carney's injury. I winced (which is waaay too mild a term) when I saw that, and agree whole-heartedly about injuries vs. the surgery that follows. I have a couple of those tee shirts myself.


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