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Monday, June 28, 2010


The previous Wig & Pen entry touching on Nikita Khrushchev evoked the childhood reminiscence below.

That’s not Mr.Yetvin in the above photo, but my grandfather, Abraham Isaac Sandman. Like Yetvin and Nikita Khrushchev, he spoke fluent Russian, was built close to the ground, and exuded a peasant’s unstuffiness. Unlike Yetvin, Zadie saw the glass as half full. For him, an indispensible recreation was swimming (perhaps natating is a better word) stark naked at the YMCA with his ageing mates. (Watching them launch from the diving board was breathtaking.)

Another passion was grocery shopping on behalf of the two women in his life, his wife (my grandmother) and his daughter (my mother). A savvy arbitrageur, he would travel the seven hills of Worcester, Massachusetts with his portfolio of coupons in search of the slightest price advantage. His accomplice was always his light blue 1952 Mercury, dubbed the Speedmobile by the kids on my street. “Luyis, into the machine; times a- wastin’,” he'd exhort.  My friends would ride their bikes or run alongside the Speedmobile, keeping pace and often passing us.

Mr. Yetvin was decidedly bald. His suspenders and khaki pants secured shirts with large checks that resembled Kansas from the air. To my friends and me, Yetvin and Khrushchev might  have been separated at birth. It was 1961—the year of the Bay of Pigs. We were deeply fearful of Russian missiles and Russian spies. Yetvin’s disposition exuded subversiveness. He would snarl at any children who got too close to the embankment-lawn that buffered his brick cottage. Some of the kids would respond with cat calls, even flipping him the bird. Little Howie Rubin once rode his bike half way up Yetvin’s pitched driveway. Yetvin followed him down the driveway with an edger.

In the late spring of 1962, the Yetvin Affair took a foreboding turn. Our neighbor stopped mowing his lawn. By July it was nearly waist high. More than once we watched Yetvin—sometimes smirking, sometimes snarling—take a sickle to what looked increasingly like a wheat field. “A sickle—like in the Soviet flag,” remarked my next door neighbor, Adam Weinstein.

Then one day in late July, Jamie Rubin—Howie’s older brother—rang my doorbell. “Get down to Yetvin’s—now,” he gasped. “The lawn is burning. The old fart set his lawn on fire.” The embankment and several yards of lawn behind it were ablaze. My fear was Pavlovan and primal. The crackling flames, the heat, the smell, and the prospect of a dangerous elemental force out of control in a middle class Worcester neighborhood—What could be more unsettling to an 11-year old?

Back in the early 1960s, everybody burned paper and brush in outdoor metal incinerators. Smoke and its
byproducts were regular ingredients in the evening air. But Yetvin’s inferno was an affront to the neighborhood, to the order of things—and worse still, to the sanctity of the American lawn. For weeks, the jet-black scorched earth that once was lawn festered as a badge of his subversiveness. “Stay away from Yetvin and his yard,” my father demanded. “He’s unstable.”

Ten years later as a student of anthropology, I had an epiphany while reading Smolensk under Soviet Rule, a book about agricultural practices, land distribution, and politics in a Belarussian city and district during the 1920s and 1930s. Russians, it turned out, burned their fields to enrich their fertility ( a variant on the widespread practice of slash-and-burn agriculture.) That brought back memories of Yetvin. Suddenly he seemed a tad less loony—although no less subversive or mysterious.  If you have inside information about Mr. Yetvin, please contact this blog.  What became of  him? And more to the point, what actually was his game?

1 comment:

Peter Chartrand said...

This is probably what our priest at Christ the King church in Tatnuck had in mind when forbade us to swim at the Y.