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A Backroad Guide for Mr. Gorbachev

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Last March PEOPLE asked readers to suggest an itinerary for Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s first U.S. visit. We hoped he could see something of America once his summit meeting with President Reagan was done, some places that would best describe our hopes, our strengths and our struggles. We received 6,351 letters, and we visited some of the people and places our readers suggested. We’re convinced now that Mr. Gorbachev should drop in on them, too. After he’s through talking turkey with President Reagan, he could talk crawfish, gumbo and roux with some Louisiana Cajuns. Or experience some of the sheer joy of capitalism at a lingerie sales party. Or visit a ghetto school, where children struggle twice as hard, to learn and to overcome poverty.

Eleanor, W.Va.

Back in the ’30s, whenever a Republican didn’t like the way Franklin Roosevelt was running the government, he’d grouse, “This country’s goin’ to socialism.”

The town of Eleanor, W.Va. was about as far as America got.

Eleanor was a company town, and the company was the U.S. government. During the Depression, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration came to West Virginia, a state so mountainous even the rivers run out of breath, and bought up 2,200 acres of unusually flat and hospitable land. On this site, with the help of government money and government supervisors, rose the community of Putnam County Farms, later renamed by the residents to honor Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited several times. The town was designed to be self-sufficient, with its own farm, and the families selected for occupancy were those of unemployed working men who “before the Depression had a record of successful earning capacity.” The construction schedule called for the completion of 150 cinderblock houses in 90 days, which didn’t leave a whole lot of time to add amenities.

“The place was a mudhole,” says Frank Beheler, 78, who left his home in Lincoln County with a dollar in his pocket and walked and hitchhiked here, arriving March 29, 1935. “There wasn’t a shade tree here or a bit of grass. I said I’d be gone in 30 days. Been here 51 years.”

Two hours after arriving, he had a bed in the barracks and a job digging a sewer line, and when it came time for his family to join him, he walked over to the project office to apply for the house he liked. He remembers how that went: The assistant manager didn’t know which forms to fill out, so he said, “I’ll let you have the durn thing,” and handed him a key. Beheler still uses the key to open his front door.

His wife, Naomi, arrived in May. He remembers what she said. She looked at all the mud, started crying and said she wanted to go home.

The houses were simple, with unfinished attics where the children slept and walls of cement over cinderblock, inside and out. They were special, too, with features like clawfoot bathtubs, beamed ceilings, chestnut floors and working fireplaces. Each house had one narrow closet under the stairs, because Depression families didn’t have much clothing, even if they did have a lot of kids. Sheryl Harmon, 16, a high school student who invited Gorbachev to visit and learn the history of Eleanor, says she’d need two of those closets for her wardrobe alone.

Of the 150 houses built, one burned down. The rest are still standing and occupied, although most of the original homesteaders have died or moved away. Beheler left several times to work in the Cleveland steel mills or the Virginia shipyards, whenever the jobs played out in West Virginia, but he always came back to be with his friends. “I miss ’em,” he says, “gee whiz, yeah. They were the best bunch of men I ever met, all of us out of the same place, the poorhouse. It couldn’t have been any more happy or successful, couldn’t have been.”

Bartlett, Ill.

She’s 11 years old and her life, she says, is “just right.”

Well, practically.

“My mom won’t let me have a bikini,” Stephanie Richards explains.

A manifest problem. Every 11-year-old should have a bikini.

“Actually,” she admits, “I don’t think I’m ready for one yet.”

Stephanie has a boyfriend in her math class. He is a unilateral boyfriend. Gorbachev should understand this kind of thinking.

“I don’t think he likes me,” she says.

Hard to believe. Stephanie is very nice. In fact, we went to see her because she wrote, “I am 11 and I am nice.” Apparently her boyfriend at Horizon School in the Chicago suburb of Hanover Park doesn’t agree at all.

“He likes a different girl. She’s a brat,” she says.

Why does he like the other girl?

“She’s pretty.”

Long pause.

“And she’s developed.”

Perhaps just right for a bikini?


And thus the bikini crisis?


Stephanie not only is nice, by all standards except those of a certain pubescent boy whose name we will not mention, she also looks nice. She is 5’1″ with reddish-brown hair and freckles. She wore culottes, pink tights, flowered canvas shoes, carried a pink purse and looked smashing on the afternoon we lunched at Benchers Club Room and Grille because we weren’t near a fast-food fish restaurant, which she prefers. She ordered sautéed brook trout, which, she said, “didn’t taste like fish, only looked like fish.”

It is unlikely that Russian 11-year-olds have all the same interests as American 11-year-olds. One of Stephanie’s favorite games is pretend credit cards. One of her obsessions is her weight, which she is trying to keep under 100 pounds until she reaches sixth grade. She asks questions only an 11-year-old could ask, like “Why do men wear tattoos?”

There is another reason why Gorbachev should meet her. She has a colorful preteen vocabulary that leans heavily toward pejoratives like “gross,” “yucky,” “weird” and “pitiful.” He might find these useful during summit talks.

Sneedville, Tenn.

A room at the Town Motel costs $15, a T-bone steak at Mike’s goes for $5 and the parking meters are only a penny, though nobody pays. This is city living in Hancock County, an isolated corner of Appalachia where more than a third of the population receive food stamps, more than half live below the poverty level and the per capita income is the fourth lowest in the nation. Despite that, wrote Gary Dale Johnson, 33, a farmer and the new principal of Hancock County High School, Sneedville’s spirit “typifies the basic American belief in the American Way.”

Sneedville is basic, all right. The busiest street is Main St. The jail is on Jail St. There are no churches on Church St., but there used to be two. Of the 1986 high school graduating class of 73, nine boys joined the Marines and two girls enlisted in the Army. “You walk around here in a uniform, people look up to you,” a high school junior said.

There are no bars in Sneedville. No movie theaters, either. Johnson says there’s hardly ever any excitement, except “when the guys come down from the hills” and patronize the local package stores. Back in 1896, Sneedville had its most excitement ever when Maired Hatfield came down from the hills and got himself hanged for murder—he said women and liquor made him do it. Yes, there are Hatfields living in Hancock County, and McCoys, too, but the only real feud these days is between the Pepsi and Coke distributors, who got caught up in the brand-name rivalry about a year ago and started battling for space on the limited Sneedville streets. At last count there were 35 soda machines to quench a population of only 1,285. The kids in Johnson’s world history class say they know of one machine you can kick and get two or three cans for the price of one. On Saturday nights, when they’re not kicking the soda machine, they ride around the center of town 30 or 40 times. On Sundays they all go to church.

No federal highways come to Sneedville and no railroads either. “Well, at least we’ve never had anybody killed at a railroad crossing,” says David Jones, chairman of the school board. The Clinch River is navigable, but it hasn’t done much for local commerce since it doesn’t go anywhere commerce wants to go. Charles Turner, 70, a former mayor, says, “Nobody goes through Sneedville going anywhere. If you come here, you got to turn around and go back.”

All that traffic never getting to Sneedville has left the countryside unchanged. You can ride along unpaved roads and see skeletons of Unpainted, abandoned barns, the sun filtering through the slats onto stalls empty for decades. One day each year you can see families holding picnics in the cemeteries where their ancestors are buried, many of the graves marked only with rocks. The air, like the river, is unpolluted, and from the fire tower on Newman’s Ridge, the highest point in the county, you can see into three other states. “All you can hear from up here,” says Charles’s brother, Sonny Turner, 67, “are the birds, the bees, the wind and occasionally a jet going over. And you know what? We like it that way.”

Melbourne, Fla.

Ron Reed, 25, and Danielle Fenichel, 22, are a modern American love story. She was in a singles bar this past Valentine’s Day when Ron saved her from a short, bearded creep who insisted he was a disc jockey and kept asking her to dance. By May they were engaged. Last month Ron left his job at the Kennedy Space Center, loaded up his 1985 Nissan Sentra and the two of them drove off to see the country. He expects the trip will last six months, take them to 25 states, allow him to visit most of his old Air Force buddies and that Danielle will still love him after all that. He could be right. “I just want to be with him,” she says with a sigh.

His Japanese car seats four, two comfortably. They have invited Gorbachev to join them on part of their trip, and they are offering him the front passenger seat. Danielle says she’ll sit in the back with the cooler of ham and cheese sandwiches.

“He’ll get to see a lot of pretty countryside,” says Ron, “and he’ll get to see freedom of life in general, which is something I doubt they have in Russia. I think he’ll be surprised to find that I would give up a job to do something pleasurable instead of working all my life—he’d probably never get it through his head why somebody would want to do that.”

Gorbachev should be warned that Ron has outfitted the car with an AM-FM radio, cassette tape deck, FM signal booster, 60-watt speakers and something called a Sound Exploder amp. He loves rock. Danielle prefers disco. Gorbachev likes the classics. The trip could prove that music isn’t an international language, after all.

Fredericksburg, Va.

Let the lingerie party begin.

“Our main philosophy,” Terrie Thomas Welsh, 21, explains, “is to bring femininity back to the female.”

All around her, in the living room of Barbara Baldacci, 39, women nod approvingly, men appreciatively.

Terrie is an agent for Undercover-Wear, a company that sells intimate apparel through parties in private homes, and she wants Gorbachev to learn that women can be sexy without being perverse. Barbara, who is the hostess, offered her home after attending another Undercover Wear party. She receives merchandise credits for organizing the evening and inviting friends, male and female.

The women at the gathering are about to model more revealing clothing than they ordinarily wear. The men are about to see a lot more than they ordinarily see of women who are merely friends. Nobody looks bored.

Terrie, except for purple fingernails, is quite demure. Barbara, more in the spirit of the evening, is wearing an UndercoverWear outfit called Venus. Terrie explains that this sort of outfit, known in the trade as a “teddy,” is ordinarily worn when one is home alone.

“I wouldn’t wear it out,” Terrie says.

“Maybe you wouldn’t,” Barbara replies confidently.

Not everyone is as adaptable as Barbara, but there are remedies. Terrie administers a series of tests designed to relax the women, make them more receptive to modeling outfits with names like Teddy Bare, Hide ‘n Seek, Pleasure Seeker. The UndercoverWear examinations are not to be confused with the college boards. In the sensuality rating test, women are given points for answering certain questions positively, among the more benign, “Do you tease before you please?” In an upset, Barbara places second. The winner is Terrie’s grandmother, Meta “Dolly” Thomas, 62, who is also an enthusiastic model. She parades in several gossamer outfits while Terrie yells, “Hang onto your stuff, grandma.”

Among the items worn by Dolly was one that Terrie selected especially for Raisa Gorbachev. Called Chanel, the three-piece 100 percent nylon casual lounger comes in black and is sure to add daring to long winter nights at the dacha.

Chicago, Ill.

Our escort through the fiercely clean hallways of the Mary C. Terrell Elementary School was a first grader, age 7, who said he lived with his grandmother, mother, uncles and aunties.

“My father don’t live with me,” he said.

Why not?

“He in jail.”

Parents’ Day is different at a ghetto school. Lynne Karzi, 38, who teaches first grade, says that in her class of 27, most of the children do not live with a father, not more than half ever see their fathers and only two of those fathers are “very caring.” She says there used to be three like that, but one was shot and killed last year.

Every one of the 750 children in the school is black. Karzi, who is white, took her class apple picking last October and her father came along. “One little boy was shocked that my father was white,” she says. “The children forget that I am.” Another day a little girl came to school carrying a suitcase and announced that she was going home for the weekend with the teacher. “She said her mother told her it was okay,” Karzi says.

The Terrell School serves the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, 22 blocks of high-rise buildings with screened-in balconies, blacktop yards and broken playground equipment. Because the project has almost no grass, the teachers plant bulbs in the school courtyard each year so the children can see for themselves that plants come up in the spring. “I want people to know that this is a very nice school, that the kids are progressing,” Karzi says.

The school emphasizes the basics, like math, reading and getting to class on time. Twice a day, just before classes begin and just before lunch is over, the principal walks around the project, sternly reminding kids to get to school. Almost every day Karzi assigns homework to her first graders, not just to reinforce what she’s teaching but also to give them activities at home. “Maybe they don’t have the toys and books at home that children normally have,” she says.

Although the school windows are barred (to keep people out, not students in) and an alarm system is connected to the police station, Karzi remains undaunted. She has created a classroom that blossoms with engaging animal posters and brightly colored alphabet figures. Performances of “The Three Little Pigs” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” are presented to visitors, the roles played by ambitious first graders who say they will leave the theater one day to become doctors, dentists, policemen, janitors, detectives and Hulk Hogan.

“I think people automatically assume that because these kids live in a project, they can’t learn,” she says. “But I have children who read and write beautifully. They’re going to make something of themselves. I know it.”

The project neighborhood is one of the most concentrated areas of poverty in the United States. Almost every child in the school is supported by welfare, and many are so poor they have to miss school the days their mothers wash their only set of clothes. “The kids don’t know how poor they are and we don’t let that stop us,” says the principal, Reva Hairston, 53. Not long ago the school held a jump-rope marathon, and the students donated all the money they collected to charity.

Gaithersburg, Md.

She likes concerts. He likes ball games.

She likes parades and Fourth of July fireworks. He likes staying home and reading the paper.

She loves the beach. “He hates it, hates it, hates it,” she says.

She picked Disneyland for their honeymoon. “Figure that out,” he says.

Nancye and Laurence Suggs have been married for 10 years, all of it happy except the evenings when she makes a wonderful dinner and he comes home late.

“I love to cook,” she says.

“Eating isn’t a big thing for me,” he replies.

Nancye, 42, and Laurence, 57, are a successful American couple, bickering only about the things that don’t matter. They long ago stopped noticing that she is white and he is black. She says, “We’ve been together so long we’re not different anymore.”

They met in 1962 while she was a switchboard operator and he was the building engineer. They were friends before they were serious, and to listen to Laurence, he may never have gotten serious at all.

“One date she said to me, ‘Let’s get married.’ I told her I’d think about it. I thought about it for five or six years. I wasn’t the marrying kind. I said, ‘Let’s live together.’ She didn’t like that. She’s one of those church girls.”

The marriage took place in 1976 at All Souls Episcopal Church in Washington, and now Nancye is treasurer of the church. On Sundays, after services, she attends to church business, visits friends, cares for the lonely and the sick. On Sundays he’d rather stay home in their condominium apartment than go to church with her. “It takes all day to get back home,” he says.

Her faith is substantial, and she believes Gorbachev would be inspired by a visit to the Lincoln Alcove at the Washington Cathedral. After visiting the cathedral one Sunday afternoon, Nancye dutifully decided to bring ice cream to her 91-year-old great-aunt, sick with pneumonia. Although the hospital parking lot was full, she drove in anyway.

“I’ll tell you something about parking places,” she said. “Pray for one and you always get one. That’s the truth.”

“Oh, God,” Laurence moaned.

Brighton Beach, N.Y.

The neighborhood resembles a czar’s dress parade. The shops of Brighton Beach Avenue, located under the elevated tracks and a block from the beach, are as stuffed with delicacies as a sturgeon’s belly. There are French perfumes, cherished because they are prohibitively expensive in the Soviet Union. There are Italian sweets, savored because so many of the Russian Jews who immigrated here associate them with their first months of freedom in Europe.

Some of the women wear mink coats when they shop. The restaurants, which have names like Odessa and Primorski, are fantasies of strobe lights, party balloons and overdressed revelers. Lev Litvak, 55, who came here from Odessa in 1978 and operates a shoe repair shop, says, “Here we have no KGB, so what is there to worry about?”

I. Bradford Spielman, a U.S. administrative law judge who lives in Brooklyn, wants Gorbachev to see some of the people who left his country to find a better life in the community called Little-Odessa-by-the-Sea. Dina Feldman, 25, who came here from the Ukraine in 1972, says the immigrants adapted so well to the American free market system because they had to trade in the black market while living in the Soviet Union.

Everyone is not doing so well, of course. A 77-year-old woman, leaning on her cane, her face drawn, talks of a better standard of living in the Soviet Union. Two years ago she and her husband left Kiev and settled in Brighton Beach. The elderly of Kiev, she says, are not second-class citizens as they are here. Services are plentiful there, the bureaucracy more helpful, apartments not so expensive. Since her husband died, she has been alone much of the time, even though most of her neighbors are Russian Jews, like herself.

Yet even this lonely woman would not dream of returning to a country where she is unwanted. Asked what she would say to Gorbachev if he came to Brighton Beach, she smiled, her only smile of the conversation, and said, “I could say nothing. I think he is better than any of the leaders who came before him, but to him, I am an enemy of his country because I left. I am nothing to him.”

French Settlement, La.

This is what tough men do in this part of America, men who catch 100-pound loggerhead turtles with their bare hands, drive their pickup trucks hard and their hunting dogs harder, carry a shotgun in one hand and a beer can in the other: When these kind of men get together in Cajun country, they talk about preparing a perfect roux.

Probably nowhere else in America do men consider cooking such an honorable pastime as in this stretch of Louisiana between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The people who settled southeast Louisiana were mostly French with generous dollops of Spanish and Basque added, and from them evolved a peppery, fragrant cuisine that tends to be quite filling, since visitors are required to eat five or six plates.

“Everyone at my hunting club has a specialty,” says Sparky Cedotal, who was assisting with the boiling of 240 pounds of crawfish for a Sunday picnic. “One cooks sauce piquante, one cooks gumbo, one cooks étouffée, and none of them let you around the stove when they’re cooking. What else are we going to do with our spare time? The only time we’re interested in sports is when LSU is on TV in a bowl game. The rest of the time we cook.”

There are two ways to get a good meal down here. You can paddle a boat into the bayou and catch something yourself, like an alligator gar. That’s a 100-plus-pound beast with the body of a fish, the jawline of an alligator and a nice flavor when made into a fish patty with onions. You catch a gar with a two-pound fish for bait and a four-foot wire for a line. When the gar is weak from fighting, you pull it up and shoot it. “You don’t want that thing live in your boat,” says Pegi Haley-Moran, 32, who invited Gorbachev to experience Cajun hospitality.

An easier way to get something to eat is for Haley-Moran to organize a relentless schedule of meals. We started our eating at Kenny Deslatte’s Bayview Tavern with cracklings (pork fat fried crisp in lard), jambalaya (chicken and pork sausage over rice) and turtle sauce piquante (freshly caught turtle in a sauce of onion, garlic, bell pepper, parsley and roux, which hereabouts is made from flour and oil). “You got to be careful how you handle the turtle,” says Deslatte. “Those jaws can pop a broomstick in half.”

Another afternoon we had a picnic on the banks of the Amite River, a tributary of the Mississippi. Cajun picnics are not like Yankee picnics, which offer cold chicken, macaroni salad and a dozen earnest athletic activities.

For this outing, Rodney Sheets and his crew from Riverside Bait & Seafood boiled about eight pounds of crawfish for every man, woman and child; Kevin Diez of Diez Seafood supplied crunchy catfish filets; Denis Bertrand showed off his original crawfish fettucini, and Alan Robert and Don Wall prepared alligator sauce piquante, a laborious recipe considering that you start by catching an alligator. After lunch, everybody fell down on the grass under the cypresses and wild pecan trees and watched Rodney’s Labrador retriever fetch. It was just the right amount of exercise.

“We’re pretty laid down around here,” said Ann Haley, Pegi’s mom.

“You mean laid-back,” said Pegi.

“Well, most of the time we’re laid down, too.”