Behind the Iron Curtain - My Trip to the Soviet Union - Cast of Conspirators

As I mentioned in the previous chapter, there were 46 brave souls on our little two week excursion. And seeing as you will be reading this through, I think I should introduce you to the cast of characters ahead of time. (This is mostly because I don’t feel like writing out long descriptions every time I mention someone new.) Besides, there’s more than enough material in the descriptions to make up an entire chapter.

The students, appearing in alphabetical order:

Jeremy A was by far one of the oldest of the group, if not the oldest looking (not counting the adults). He was definitely one of the tallest. His rowdiness and general lack of calmness defined him not only as a leader amongst many followers, but also as one of the class clowns (which in all reality isn’t much, since a large portion of the class seemed to share Jeremy’s restless nature). Jeremy’s crowing moment was on the Kiev night train, when he so effectively put one of the toilets out of commission, when he decided to change his name to “ralph”.

Kelly B was one of the nicest people on the trip and definitely one of the most laissez faire. To the best of my knowledge, I never once saw her without a smile on her face and a spring in her step. This was despite a great deal of ridicule she received from a number of people (myself included) with regards to her camera (she brought an old 110mm camera) and her bathing suit (which had frills). Other people kill for less than that. She just went on without a care.

John B was one of the quieter people, he didn’t make much noise. This may have been because his mother was one of our chaperones. (Having a parent tag along on such a trip has to be a bit of a downer, and even more so if it’s your mom.) But I have to admit, for a guy with his mother on a trip where almost all of us straddled the line international terrorism, he played pretty cool.

Shaun C was one strange individual. Although I never asked, I think he was part of the naval cadets, as he had this nasty habit (or so he told us) of going for long stints on naval vessels, only to return and worship the ground that women walk on. During our trip, he tried to collect as much Soviet Naval gear as he could find. He wasn’t the only one, just the most fanatic about it.

Marnie C was one of a group of girls most of us referred to as the “Three Musketeers”. If you needed to find just one of them, chances are if you found one, you found all three. I don’t know much about any of these girls, other than the fact that they looked only thirteen or fourteen years old, but were probably much older (you needed to be in at least Grade 11 to participate in the program).

You might mistake Chris F for dead if you didn’t know him better. His laid back attitude during the trip lasted 24 hours a day. I don’t recall one moment where he was more animated than a smile on his face. (Except for one night in Sochi.) I didn’t see very much of him during the trip, but when I did he was wearing dark sunglasses — even at night. He was also one of the sort of people who would rather have fun partying than sleep or learn. Chris’ biggest (and only) blunder on the trip was slamming the door in KB’s face one night in Odessa.

Anita F was another of the revelers. So much as whisper the possibility of a party, and Anita would emerge from the woodwork, bottle in hand. Come to think of it, most of us, including teachers and a few adults were like that too. There are other things that could be said, but that would spoil the story later on.

Kelly H, as you already know, was one of the people from my school. Although a fellow OT Devil, she preferred to hang around with Jeremy, Jen H, and group, so I didn’t talk with her much. What few times I did speak with Kelly, she commented on all the bruises she was developing (mostly on her legs), none of which she remember receiving.

Jamie H was different than all of us. For starters, he wasn’t even from Halton, let alone a student in the whole fiasco. He was from the American East Coast (exact whereabouts unknown, but I place my bets on Massachusetts). So why was Jamie on the trip? He was Mr. Black’s cousin. Now I don’t know if that was a problem or a Godsend (depending on your point of view), but Jamie seemed to like it. He was one of the Quiet Few, along with John B and Paul McC.

Sonya H is related to Jamie somehow (in what way I’m not sure), which of course meant that she was in some way related to Mr. Black (again, in what way I’m not sure). She was a small girl (only in size, not in spirit) who seemed to want to break free from her parents (two more of our chaperones) and just go crazy. I guess in a strange way I felt a little sorry for Sonya. Both parents had to feel like being tied to a leash. John B certainly didn’t have it that bad.

Jennifer H was another student from Oakville, but wasn’t a student at my school. Although she lived very close to my school, she went to Q.E. Park on the other side of town (French Immersion was my guess). She fell into the “party before learning” crowd, which was clearly evident with her t-shirt that read: “Beer It’s Not Just For Breakfast Anymore”. She was another person with parent in tow. However, her father was, fortunately for us, one of those awesome parents who was as enthusiastic about the trip as the students.

Kristen K was the second Musketeer. Again, like in Marnie’s case, I don’t know that much about her. But I at least knew which Musketeer was Marnie. I’m still not even sure which of the remaining two Musketeers is Kristen!

Andrew K was one of those people you would always want with you when you visit a Russian-speaking country – he knew Russian. If it hadn’t been for him, I would have had a really impossible time with the stewards and porters on the trains we took between Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa. (None of the crew on the trains spoke any English.). He wasn’t much of an outspoken person but he took the trip very well — usually by following Greg to the next social gathering.

I, again, have to mention Greg Lane. It just simply can’t be helped. Now I don’t know if he was to get any credits for the trip or if he was simply just a supervisor (if you could even call him that). He was, without a doubt or comparison, the most festive-driven person on the trip — even when he was sober (I never saw him in an inebriated state, but from what I heard, he was the quintessential party animal). To put in a cinematic perspective, Greg was the Canadian version of Ferris Bueller.

Paul McC, like Jen H, had brought his father along with him. Paul was a lot like John B in the way that he was a quiet person (at least when compared to some of the more rowdier members of our troupe), not raising much of a ruckus. If you think it was because his father was there, I raise an objection when we were in Moscow, a group of us got lost (more on that later), and he acted very much the same way as he did around his father.

Mike McGrath was one of the few people outside the Three Musketeers that I didn’t know much about. From what I remember, he was in a group with Sasha S. He was a seemingly quiet person, minding his business and his time — at least until someone cracked a bottle of vodka.

Konrad N regularly challenged Greg Lane for the coveted “Loudest Canadian Student Touring the Soviet Union” prize. You always knew when Konrad was around – especially if he had a fair bit to drink. The most memorable time was when he made sure that everyone knew he possessed the biggest penis on the trip. (We didn’t bother to challenge him on that.)

Toni N was a guy-magnet. She was the sort of woman that strange men don’t give flowers to — they give vital parts of their anatomy just so they can talk to her. (Having Toni around made otherwise dull group evenings all the more interesting.) Toni was a master at innuendo, and I was regularly amazed at certain people’s ability to take said innuendo without bursting at the seams.

I took me four days to finally get Kara Lynn P‘s name right. I kept calling her Caroline, or Carleen, Karolyn, and names similar to that. Every time I got the name wrong, she corrected me. Not once did she yell or scream (at me or anyone else) for the screw-up, so for that I give Kara Lynn full marks for patience and tolerance of other’s stupidity. Kara Lynn and Toni looked somewhat alike. But unlike Toni, Kara Lynn was not very outgoing, and was quite shy.

Lisa P was almost the female equivalent to Greg Lane. I stress “almost”. Although she had a penchant for being quite loud (especially when belting out rousing courses of Dancing Queen, Take a Chance on Me, and Super Trouper), Lisa also had a quiet side (assuming you call a Who concert quiet). She was particularly bad if you made the mistake of supplying her with any form of alcohol, or if you tried to keep her up all night.

Derek P had to have loved his mom. But in the way they expressed themselves to each other, you would have thought otherwise. Greg was the first person outside of foursome from my school that I got to know. Pete, Derek, and I were originally signed as roommates during the trip, but the two of them ditched me in a heartbeat when we found out there were only two people to a room.

Tammy R was one of these perennially happy people that most want to strangle, if only for the reason that people should not be allowed to be that happy. Even when several large, menacing looking Russian men started following our little army from city-to-city, and start menacing with Tammy, she seemed to take it quite well.

Jason R was my roommate for most of the trip. Jason could easily be best described as Bob and Doug Mackenzie’s little brother (for those of you who have no idea who Bob and Doug Mackenzie are, I strongly recommend you find a video tape of SCTV with a Great White North sketch.) I would have loved to see this guy in university. During our trip, he was one of the fortunate few to see the basic Russian flat (apartment). He was famed for the word: “Downtown!”, which after a while garnered the response: “Shut up!”

Laila S was the second person from my school. She was a year behind me (both Kelly and Pete Skrivanic were a year ahead of me), but she was “fastracking” through high school, so technically she was in my year. She was a remarkably beautiful person (in body and spirit), and like most of the group, longed for a good reason to party. She was one of a few to pick up a new name on the trip — Greg had a very hard time trying to pronounce her name at the beginning, so instead he called her Fred.

Sasha S was an enigma to me. I only saw him a total of five times while we were on the trip, and whenever I did see him, he was sleeping. You always knew you were looking at Sasha because of his near-trademark brown fedora. A young Indiana Jones, perhaps?

Pete S was the last person (not counting myself) who went to my school. He was the one who actually initiated the infamous “Vodka & Orange Juice Incident” (explained in detail later on). He was a good friend who always knew the right thing to say at the right time, regardless of who he was talking to. He was also the only one to get sick from drinking the water in Leningrad (although that wasn’t until two days after getting home).

Helen S and Mina S were the first of two sibling groups on the trip (I don’t think that Jamie and Sonya Hosking were brother and sister), and were the only ethnic variation in our otherwise all-Caucasian group. They were also very weird (little did Helen know that “Pepsi” is pronounced the same way in Russian as it is in English — which for some unknown reason made Jason call her Grandma).

Marcus T was another member of the Jeremy Society, so once again, I don’t know much about him. But from what I did see, he was a quiet, self-contained person.

Kim V and Lisa V (were the other two siblings, yet listening to them, you couldn’t tell. Kim seemed to me to be a bit of a rebel while Lisa was about 1/2 nun (no offense intended). Though this may have been due to the fact that Kim was younger than Lisa, and there’s that supposed sibling rivalry, and bla bla bla. Kim was much more of a party person than Lisa, but by the time we got to Sochi, Lisa had loosened up. Kim hung around with Lisa Penner while Lisa decided to stay with Greg (whose carefree attitude probably rubbed off on Lisa).

Renee W was the third, and last, Musketeer. To this day, I don’t know which of the last two (Kristen Knox or herself) is Renee. So, like Kristen and Marnie, I knew next to nothing about Renee. I know that one of the remaining two Musketeers was her, but as to which one, that I don’t know.

Now you’re familiar with the rabble-rousers. It’s time to meet the ones who tried to keep us under control. I have to give them all full marks for the job they tried to do. But let’s face it — they were hopelessly outnumbered. They kept track of us, making sure that none of the busses, planes, or trains left without us. They were the ones who made sure that we were in our beds when we were supposed to be (one thing I really hated, with a passion). They were the ones who probably had the worst time — they were supposed to be our role models, so they had to be on better behaviour than us. In a few cases, their composure lasted as long as ours.

The Authority Figures, appearing in alphabetical order:

Keith Black, as mentioned several times before, was the architect of our trip. He was also The Law — whatever he said was law. And we obeyed that law — so long as we were within visual range. Once we were out of sight, his rule kind of went out of mind. It’s still a wonder that none of us got shipped home, or got arrested. After a while, we gave up on calling him “Mr. Black”, and started to call him “KB” instead. No doubt he had been a teacher for quite some time, and was a seasoned traveler. He became famed for his yellow visor and that annoying video camera of his. I even mentioned it in my photo album in one of the captions: “Smile, you’re on KBTV — for the four thousandth time!!!”

Freda B was John Braniff’s mother. She wasn’t a particularly tall person, but what she lacked in altitude she made up in kindness. She was usually talking to someone, but she was not the kind of person who would bore you to death.

Glen and Mary Findlay, as previously mentioned, were KB’s watchdogs. If the Big Man wasn’t around, Glen would fill the position, and he did so several times. Mary Findlay, affectionately called Mother by Mr. Findlay, was a typical grandmother type person, that’s why I liked her so much. She reminded me of my grandmother (my financial benefactor), who made some wicked chocolate chip cookies and … well you get the point. Mr. Findlay was not without flaw. I don’t think he trusted any of us, and such would often jump to conclusions. For example, I have a nasty habit of sleeping so soundly, I probably couldn’t even hear a jet engine if I were right next to it. He interpreted it as a drunken sleep, despite the fact that I was probably one of a very small number (if possibly the only one) who didn’t drink.

John Hansen was by far one of the coolest teachers I have ever known (with the notable exceptions of my high school chemistry teacher, and a couple of my university profs. Mr. Hansen was well liked by us students. Many hung around with him. Picture this: a forty year old student. That’s more or less what he was. He did things that we “wee wild ones” didn’t do, such as drink vodka (or beer, I’m not too sure what it was) out of a Pepsi bottle.

Carol and Glen Hosking were the parents to Sonya Hosking and the relatives of Jamie Hosking. They were a help to a few of us in Helsinki by telling a few of us that a market was within walking distance of our hotel. They too were nice people, but I think they were just a little too protective of Sonya. But as it is impolite to say such things, I’ll only hint at it.

John Howard was a liberal parent. If I ever have kids (now there’s a scary thought), he’s the one I want to mold myself after. Jennifer Howard is one lucky person to have a dad like that. Once, he caught a bunch of us, breaking one of KB’s rules (not exactly a rare occurrence) by having “mixed doubles” in one room. But did he do anything? (Mind you, neither did John Phillips.)

Herb McClelland, as you can probably guess, was Paul McClelland’s father. This was an enterprising person. He turned an educational visit into a business trip. Right now, to the best of my knowledge, he is doing some serious trading with the Soviets (Russians, Ukrainians, and so forth).

I have no idea what role Tom Munn filled. I never found out if he was anyone’s parent or if he was another teacher. Every time I did see him, he was with his Canon EOS camera. In case you’re wondering (even if you’re not), he looked a lot like Gordon Lightfoot (a Canadian folk singer, for those of you not in-the-know).

William O’Reilly became “Radar” (as in “Radar O’Reilly” from M*A*S*H fame) even before we set down in the Soviet Union. And let me tell you, we used that name whenever we got the chance. Radar was a bit of a spoilsport for most of the time, but overall he was a nice guy. But this guy had no idea of how to blend in with a crowd. Given, the average Soviet could easily pick us out, but several other tourists mistook us for Soviets. Radar, well, let’s just say that black knee-high socks, a tourist-type hat and the all white clothes were a dead give away.

John Phillips was the most popular teacher of the Inner Circle (an unofficial name I bestowed on the group I was fortunate enough to be allowed to be a minor part of). This was a really progressive teacher. Toni and Lisa Van Egmond would often torment him (in many ways, some more risque than others), but he always took it in stride. He carried with him a set of tapes containing tunes that we would stuff in the bus’ tape deck whenever we got the chance.

As some of you can guess, some of us got homesick (some of us got just plain weird). Be it one or the other (or both), we (especially those of the Inner Circle) quickly turned Doreen Pollitt into “Mom”. And we did call her that, not just behind her back. (In the first draft of this log, I accidentally left her out. Don’t ask me how, I honestly don’t know. When Derek phoned to have chat, she took over the conversation and bawled me out for my oversight. So, “Mom”, here you are, immortalized in words.)

And last, but not least (or so I hope), is me, Geoff Sowrey, the Observer and the author of this log. The only thing that I will say was that I was a shutter bug and a pain in the ass. (The latter usually stemmed from the former under conditions when I shouldn’t have been around.) You’ll learn more about me as the story progresses…

Before we left on this trip, I only knew about ten of the people going (and then, only from the classes). It wasn’t until we were a good five days in until I finally knew most of the people. But even by the end, as you can plainly see, I still hadn’t gotten to know everyone.

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