Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Hunt of Red October

Red October, who visited Ukraine last week to meet the one woman he'd contacted through a marriage agency, is not your typical American. In fact, after participating in a Duke University study on cultural identity, he's got the data to back it up. From Mongolia to Eastern Europe – this is where he's most likely to feel at home, he said. To reach this conclusion, researchers put him through a psychological exam, gave him a series of written tests, and even had him react to a fabricated language that was designed to reveal his most natural thought patterns and closest linguistic grouping.

From Mongolia to Eastern Europe. For a man of English, Dutch and Polish origins, this may seem an unlikely grouping. But then Red October, who served six years in the US Navy, including time on a nuclear submarine, had an unlikely childhood. The adopted son of a U.S. serviceman and his Korean wife, he was shuttled off to his Korean grandmother, with whom he lived until he was twelve, when he didn't prove the answer to his parents' martial woes. While other American boys and girls were developing their first crushes and maybe falling for the Girl Next Door, he was living in a mountainous village without a television or a phone.

In this village, when he was eight years of age, he first dreamt of a woman he'd see in his dreams throughout his life – a woman with dark hair and a voice just so. Nothing remarkable, but lasting and memorable all the same, as any recurring dream is bound to be.

When he met his first wife, Red October says he thought she bore a resemblance to this woman he'd see in his sleep. But the magic with her was quickly gone. They divorced after what he described as Jerry Springer-type behavior: excessive drinking, infidelity, selfishness.

"It turned out it obviously wasn't her," he said.

The Dream Girl only reappeared in his life when he visited the Anastasia website and found his current fiancée's profile. For Red October, there was no need to contact or search for anyone else. She was it.

"I didn't come here looking for a fantasy," he said. "I came here looking for the person I've been looking for since I was eight. I found the person I wanted, and that was it."

While he said he was certain from the start, his fiancée was not equally convinced. To introduce himself, Red October sent a seven page letter.

"I thought he was crazy," his fiancée said, "or very, very, very, very good."

When we met at Café Versay, across the street from the Kharkov Hotel, the couple had seen each other in person for less than a week after exchanging hundreds of text messages, emails and phone calls since August of the previous year. Already, they both seemed very comfortable with each other – touching, talking, sitting close. If she wasn't leaning into his ear to ask what I had just said (I spoke too fast, she said), he was leaning into to her to explain what he'd just told me.

Red October understands more Russian than he speaks (this after studying the language for a year at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where his teacher was a former plumber from Leningrad who'd secured his position twelve days after crossing the border to Finland and defecting at the US Embassy.) His fiancée knows less English. Both have a child from a previous relationship: Red October an 11 year-old son, his fiancée a 10-year-old daughter. At the luxury apartment they plan to share in Seattle, they will speak both languages.

"I thought speaking both languages would help both of them and both of us," he said.

An obvious lesson from his last marriage: to give as much as you want to take.

"I told my fiancée when you come to America, you're my equal," he said.

The sentiment sounded sincere, and it was certainly represented a big change from his military days, when the thirty-something, former Cold Warrior was one of five men responsible for a single nuclear warhead on their George Washington Carver class submarine. 

"I was the magic guy for that missile," he said. "I was the guy to look at the board and open the hatch."

They weren't supposed to know their target, but the coordinates never changed and it was easy enough to look it up on a map: Kharkov, Ukraine. The exact target, a nuclear power plant on the outskirts of town.

"I'd never seen it from ground level," he told me. "I'd only seen it from above."

I left Red October and his fiancee near where I'd found them: at the statue of Lenin on Svobody Square. They asked that I take a photo. It was for their file, I learned. Something needed to convince the US Embassy that their relationship was real and that they had indeed seen each other and that she was deserving of a visa.

I counted to three and took the photograph.