It was hard for the Soviet Union to be as friendly with the United States as our government would have preferred (certainly five months down the road) in the early 1960s, although we made many overtures, especially in the context of mutual space exploration.
So, as part of a Soviet diplomatic function by their embassy, cosmonaut Gherman Titov, a handsome albeit smaller man than his US astronaut counterparts, was in attendance. NASA’s Paul Haney, the voice of Mission Control through 1969, was with a group of astronauts to give Titov and a few other Soviets a tour around Washington DC in early May of 1962.
Here’s a MovieTone news film that summarizes some of the trip.
But now it’s time for a story from Haney that graphically illustrates why we must drain every great story from as many NASA controllers, workers, astronauts and contractors before we lose their memories to eternity.
As NASA’s contribution to the delegation, Haney was part of the US group.
Haney recalls (from his NASA Oral History from 2003) Titov’s more candid thoughts of this tour, as well as an insistent suggestion for one evening’s entertainment.
HANEY: “We took off in the car. Everything we showed [Titov], he would use a word that I was to hear often in East Texas, and the word is, “Shee-ut,” [Laughter] It’s a negative word….
Everything we’d show him—the Washington Monument, 555 feet and 5 inches tall, he’d say,
“Shee-ut! We got obelisk in South Moscow 1,500 meters.”
I don’t give a damn what we showed him. The biggest rolling steel mill in the United States over near Baltimore.
“Shee-ut! We got one in Novorossiysk that makes three times that much steel.”…
I couldn’t resist. The second day we were going down Pennsylvania Avenue, and we had
a little time before going up to Capitol Hill, and we stopped at the Archives, 7th and
Pennsylvania. I took him in and showed him one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, and he didn’t say a word. He just looked at it, and he seemed to appreciate it.
And we got back in the car, and went on on our [ways].
All through the two days, he kept quizzing … us about “barbecue.” It was like a word
he’d just discovered …
“Bar-bee-cue. Is that the way you say it? Bar-bee-cue.” He’d stand there and look out [a] window. “Bar-bee-cue. Bar-bee-cue.”
… [Glenn] explained it to him: a barbecue [is where] you burn steaks on a grill and
usually have somebody over [for dinner]. Barbecue.
The second night we went … to the Soviet Embassy, and according to … diplomatic
protocol, they were entertaining us. [Alan] Shepard was in town for some reason. And we were going down the line, and I was about two people behind [Glenn]. Titov puts out his hand and introduces John to the ambassador, and he says to John, “I come your house tonight six o’clock for barbecue.” [Laughter]
He knew John lived … in Arlington across the river.
And John said, “Tonight?” It was then five o’clock.
SANDRA JOHNSON (Recording Historian): Oh, no.
HANEY: We had a quick little meeting. Shepard said he had another engagement and couldn’t stay around. I was the only one who knew where John lived, so I was detailed to stall and keep drinking as long as I could, which was a real challenge.
And then we had about four or five Packards full of Russians lined up to go do this barbecue.
… John took off immediately and got all of his Marine Corps neighbors to donate, raid their freezers and get steaks out and get braziers, and charcoal [going]. That’s what they used in the ‘60s. [A splash of] gas here and there[to get things going]…. I knew that I just had to delay as long as I could. So I took [the party] for a huge ride around the Pentagon. I thought they’d appreciate that. [Then I] took them around the second time, and they began to wonder….
As we pulled up in front of [Glenn’s] house, one of the braziers, … too much gas or
something in it, … had sparked off the paint on his carport under the garage…. The paint was on fire…. You didn’t need any guides or any help in knowing what was going on.
And these Russians piled out, and everybody was [manning] garden hoses and buckets and things like that.
The fire was out in about three minutes. [It] really didn’t burn much of anything except the steaks. But everybody was, “Wow!” There was even some photographers there from the Evening Star. They got a great bunch of pictures.
… [Later] Titov [walked] up to John, and … says,
“Tell me. Every time you have barbecue, you burn down house?”
[Laughter] One of the great lines I think I’ve ever heard.
So that’s what I told them at the Smithsonian. They appreciated that….”
This is shit you can’t make up, folks. I nearly shorted out my keyboard from crying so hard in laughter in writing this little tidbit.
And I’ve tried to find those photos from the now-defunct Washington Evening Star. I really did.
I can’t access them, but perhaps someone with a DC Public Library card might do it. The DC Public Library has the entire newspaper scanned to digital form from its start in 1852 to its closing in 1981. All you need is to login with your DC Public Library card and a PIN.
American Marines and rowdy firefighting Soviets gathered together must’ve made for one hell of a barbeque. If any of these were published in the paper, we NEED these photos!