A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The KGB And Me

Next week the cloak-and-dagger television series "The Americans," about a typical middle class couple who are actually Soviet spies working undercover in Washington D.C. during the Reagan years, debuts its third season.
The narrative has now moved to 1985. Leonid Brezhnev is dead, and the USSR is being run by a succession of aging apparatchiks who keep dying, one after another.
By coincidence, that's exactly when I had a run-in with a Russian spy myself.
The date was Aug. 25, 1985, and the top news story of the day was that Samantha Smith had been killed in a plane crash.
Samantha was a 9-year-old from Maine who had written a charmingly innocent letter in 1983 to Soviet president Yuri Andropov, asking why the Russians hated us.
Andropov recognized a good public relations opportunity and promptly invited Samantha to the USSR to see for herself.
Which she did, to great fanfare, and she became a symbol of hope for world peace. When she died, everyone was feeling all misty-eyed, and the spirit of d├ętente was in the air.
Dianne Feinstein was Mayor of San Francisco at the time, and she was big on promoting East-West understanding. By coincidence, she threw a party honoring the Soviet Consul General the day after Samantha died.
I was covering the event, and I introduced myself to the Consul General. He promptly grabbed me by the elbow, ushered me across the room, and introduced me to a TASS reporter named Yuri Algunov. "You're a journalist. He's a journalist," he said. "Talk!"
Imbued with the spirit of Samantha Smith, I accepted all this at face value – big mistake, as I was to discover – and invited Yuri over to the East Bay the following week for lunch.
The lunch went well until we paid the bill, and then he said, "Let's go for a walk."
As we walked he said, "You know, I could feed you some stories that would give you great scoops. Are you interested?"
I thought, "Martin, you are getting way out of your league." I told him I'd think it over and promptly ran home and called my friend Dennis, who used to work for the Defense Intelligence Agency, for advice.
"The guy's a KGB agent," Dennis said. "He's trying to 'cultivate' you. The first few stories he feeds you will be true. Then, when he's got you hooked, he'll feed you a lie that will do big damage to our country. I'd call the FBI right away."
Which I did. The agent who answered the phone said, "Hi, Martin. We've been wondering when we were going to hear from you. Been talking to our friend Yuri, have you?"
"Yes," I gulped.
"Well, in case you're curious, he's exactly what you think he is."
"Oh my God," I said. "How did I get into this?"
"Don't worry," he said. "Happens all the time. Hey, how'd you like to help us catch him? It'll make a great column for you."
Now I knew I was in over my head. I hastily declined, and he took it with good grace.
Funny thing, though: Yuri was supposed to call me back to find out if I would accept his offer. But he never did. Could it be that both sides were bugging me at the same time?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Grump


 (Photo courtesy of Chronicle Books)
It's official: Berkeley is the grumpiest town in the country.
Says who? Grumpy Cat, the biggest feline star on the Internet, who chose Berkeley as the winner of the #GrumpyTownUSA contest, with the prize being a special appearance by Grumpy Cat herself.
For those who never go online, let me explain: Grumpy Cat (original name: Tardar Sauce) is a 2 1/2-year-old female with a perpetually grumpy look on her face due to an underbite.
To date, her Facebook page has more than 7 million "likes." Her puss has been on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and the cover of New York magazine, and she was named "Most Influential Cat of 2012" by MSNBC.
She is the "author" of two books – "Grumpy Cat: The Grumpy Book," which reached No. 7 on the New York Times Bestseller list, and "The Grumpy Guide to Life," which did even better, debuting on the Times Bestseller list at no. 3.
Last fall Grumpy Cat challenged animal lovers all over the country to enter the #GrumpyTownUSA contest and say why their hometown should be graced by a visit. The Berkeley Humane Society enlisted Mayor Tom Bates, the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce and the Berkeley Police in the cause; and lo and behold, Berkeley won!
"I think they chose us because Grumpy Cat was a rescue animal herself," says executive director Jeffrey Zerwekh.
Grumpy Cat will be at the Humane Society, 2700 9th Street, on January 24 to participate in the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Society's new Mobile Adoption Center, a fully-customized, temperature controlled, 26-foot RV with modular kennels inside capable of holding up to 30 animals in comfort and safety.
"It'll enable us to take the cats and dogs to where people actually are instead of waiting for them to come to us," Zerwekh says.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place at Noon, and then Grumpy Cat will be available for selfies with her fans from 1 to 3. Since she's such a popular pussycat, I'd advise reserving a spot by visiting the Society's website, berkeleyhumane.org. That's also where you can donate or sign up to volunteer.
While you're at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, you can also check out the adorable cats and dogs currently available for adoption.
Berkeley Humane has come a long way back since the disastrous fire in 2010 that killed 15 cats – 15 others were saved by heroic staffers and volunteers, thank God - and gutted half its building, including the animal hospital and the shelter. Since then, the Society has been operating out of the other half, the part that's still standing
And it never quit on its mission to find new homes for homeless dogs and cats, not even for a single day. Adoptions have increased every year since the fire, and last year the Society placed 1,030 animals in loving new homes, the most in its 88-year history.
The new Mobile Adoption Center is just the latest step in that comeback.
"We're fiscally strong, and we have the largest volunteer corps ever," says Zerwekh. "We're so thankful that they somehow made it work in a very challenging environment, with half the building burned out. We're hoping Grumpy Cat's visit will create new awareness and bring added resources so we can finally rebuild our building."

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Efharisto

January 9 was a bittersweet day for Andy Mousalimas of Oakland. The sweet part was watching his son James being sworn in as the new Superintendent of Schools of San Joaquin County.
But it was also bitter because Mary, his beloved wife for 66 years, wasn't there to join the celebration. Mary died last September 6, and Andy and his kids – and their kids – miss her terribly.
And they're not alone. The entire local Hellenic community is in mourning for Mary, who – besides being one of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet - pioneered the preservation of Greek-American history in the East Bay. In 2009 she received the Medal Of St. Paul, the highest honor awarded to a member of the laity by the Greek Orthodox Church.
As for Andy, he has the distinction of creating not one but two of America's most popular pastimes: fantasy football and trivia contests.
Fantasy Football was founded in 1962 by Andy, Warriors exec Scotty Sterling and Raiders part owner Bill Winkenbach – all of whom have busts in the Fantasy Football Hall of Fame.
They named it GOPPL – short for Greater Oakland Pigskin Prognostication League – and Andy's bar, the King's X Tavern at Piedmont and 51st,, was fantasy football central. The idea went viral, and the rest is history.
In 1970 Andy started a new game at the King's X called a trivia contest. And, again, the rest is history.
Then, in 1991, Perry Phillips, my fellow columnist at the Oakland Tribune, died. I had heard rumors that Perry was a secret agent for the OSS – the forerunner of the CIA - during World War II, so I called the CIA to check it out.
"He sure was," said the agent on the other end. "He was part of a commando unit called Operation Noah's Ark that operated behind enemy lines in occupied Greece and Yugoslavia. But there's a guy in your neck of the woods named Andy Mousalimas who served with Mr. Phillips, and he can tell you all about it. I hope to meet him some day. He's a very brave man."
So I called Andy and said, "Andy, you've been holding out on me!"
"Well," he said, "I hate to brag."
But he has a lot to brag about if he wanted to: a Bronze Star, European Campaign Ribbon (with four Battle Stars), Asia Campaign Ribbon (with three Battle Stars), British Paratroop Ribbon, Chinese Paratroop Ribbon, and the Presidential Unit Citation.
What he's proudest of is the fact that even though the Nazis were systematically starving the civilian population – more than 300,000 people starved to death during the German occupation – and offering huge rewards in food and money to anyone who turned one of the commandos in, not a single Greek ever did.
Andy and his buddies sabotaged infrastructure, collected intelligence, set up emergency landing fields for damaged Allied planes returning home from bombing missions, killed thousands of German soldiers (and pinned down tens of thousands more), and got into Hitler's head so badly, he issued the infamous Fuhrer Order No. 003830: "From now on, all enemies on so-called commando missions are to be slaughtered to the last man."
Andy celebrated his 90th birthday last week. Happy birthday, Andy. And efharisto. That's Greek for "thank you."