During a trip to Los Angeles, my host asked if I would like to chat with a mutual acquaintance, who happened to be a former Soviet basketball star. The woman, now in her late seventies, immigrated to the USA and is presently living in the North Hollywood, California area. I told my host that I would be delighted to speak to the woman, but I reminded him that my Armenian remained rusty for I had little practice over the past four decades, besides the former star may not remember me.
My host smiled, picked up the telephone and dialed Lena’s number. As I waited, I recalled the many pleasant days and weeks I had spent with her. In the late 1940’s and during the decade of the 1950’s, Lena was definitely one of the premier basketball players of Soviet Armenia, if not the Soviet Union. Lena had represented the Armenian Soviet Republic in more tournaments that I could count. And I was elated to know she had survived the Soviet régime and was alive and in good health.
In the former Soviet Union, women and men’s basketball teams usually traveled together and played in the same tournaments when they represented their republic in national tournaments. Much like brothers and sisters, teammates got to know each other quite well.
My host finished dialing and there was a brief exchange of words in Armenian before he handed me the telephone. Since Lena did not speak English, the entire dialogue took place in Armenian. I immediately introduced myself to and asked about her health and welfare and how she was adjusting to the American way of life. There was no immediate response from the other end. Lena’s first words to me, in Armenian, were: Eddie (Edward) is that you?
I immediately repeated my name.
Lena was not convinced. “Edward, quit playing your silly games with me. I know it is you!”
“But…this is Tom.” And I tossed in my father’s name as is accustomed in the Russian culture to convince her. “This is Tom Boghosovich…Mooradian. Lena, don’t you remember me – we went to so many tournaments together. “
“Impossible!” Lena shouted back into the phone.
I was now completely frustrated and was about to return the telephone to my host when I decided to try one more time. I thought maybe my language skills were so bad that I had not made myself clear. Speaking slowly and deliberately I again repeated my name and conjured up certain stories that she and I had shared. I explained that I left the USSR in 1960, that she and I attended the same university together, that she – and then I named off a few of her teammates – used to wash my socks and shirts when we were on the road.
There was that nervous pause again before she shouted, as many Soviets do during telephone conversations into the phone. “Impossible!”
“Why is it impossible? Do you think Tom is dead?”
“No! I know he is alive. Abraham has told me so. But you can’t be Tom because Tom didn’t speak Armenian as well as you. Whoever you are you are a good imposter.” And she hung up.
I was speechless. I handed the phone back to my host. He smiled and said, “You’ll be back in October. I will make sure that Lena attends one of your talks.”
Tom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess. Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!