Where were you when Khrushchev banged his shoe? I know where I was — a few feet behind him at the back of the U.N. General Assembly hall in New York. Of course you might not have been born yet when this great event occurred, so maybe it means diddlysquat to you. But believe me, it made waves. “Russia is threatening the world again, this time with its leader’s shoe,” exclaimed the New York Times on page one.
But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. It all happened because of Alexandra. I fell in love with Alexandra in kindergarten, even got put in detention for kissing her on the lips in the cloakroom in back of class. We used to play together after school, skipped rope, made mud pies in her parents’ backyard off Witherspoon Street in Princeton. Her father was a professor at the University, taught Russian literature. I remember he had a gold tooth and his specialty was Gogol. Alexandra made sure to point out to me (more than once) that Gogol, like Alexandra herself, was Ukrainian. Her parents got out of the Soviet Union after the war, and she was born in Berchtesgaden, Germany, not far from Hitler’s Alpine hideaway. So she said. It seems that her parents followed the German army in its retreat. My father (rest in peace) said they were collaborators and killed Jews, despite her father’s highfalutin academic credentials.
After grammar school, I didn’t see much of Alexandra. Starting in junior high, she began her transformation from a gangly kid into a woman. It was as if a caterpillar spun its cocoon and transformed itself into a glorious butterfly. And of course, she became popular, invited to parties. In high school, even the star of the football team used to walk down the halls with her. She never seemed to be alone. Not so with me. I remained a nerd. My grades were high. But I played no sports. As my Uncle Max (who survived the war by escaping to the Soviet Union, by the way) pointed out, I had two left feet.
Alexandra was always polite when I ran into her in the hall. She didn’t giggle at me, like some of the girls. But she was always in a hurry. I never dared to dream of going out with her. Until one day in early October 1960, when we were both juniors in high school. I happened to leave the school building just as she was having trouble squeezing her geometry textbook into her already stuffed book bag.
“Here. Let me help you.”
“You got it in!” She gave me a huge smile.
I still loved the uneven curve of her lips.
We walked down the stairs together.
I fished around in my brain for something to say, but she spoke before I could come up with anything. “Khrushchev will be at the U.N. next week, and there’ll be a protest there against him because of all the murders and starvation he caused in the Ukraine in the 1930s. It’s on Columbus Day, so we’ll be off from school. My mom and dad were going to go to protest how he took all our family’s land and money, but they had to fly to Chicago on a family emergency. They want me to go in by train, but I’ve never taken the train into New York on my own. You want to come with me?”
Did I want to come with her? I had to hold my briefcase in front of me so it would cover the bulge.
I looked up and pretended to scour my mind for the intricate details of my overbooked schedule, counted out four seconds, then said: “Sure.”
I had gone into New York on my own many times, mostly by train. I loved trains. And New York was an escape from my tormented existence as a high school nerd. Walking down Broadway in Uncle Max’s hand-me-down trench coat, I was a man of the world.
Still, I didn’t want to screw anything up. So I studied the Pennsylvania Railroad train schedules, subway maps, maps of New York, even a brochure I had picked up at the U.N. during the summer. And I called my older cousin, Al, who was popular and managed to get girls to fool around with him in the back of his parents’ 1957 lavender Studebaker. We made a date to discuss the situation over lunch at the Annex on the Sunday before the big day.
We walked down the stairs into the dark, homey space of that old Princeton standby.
“Do you think I should kiss her good night when we get back from New York?”
“On your first date, don’t touch ’em with a ten-foot pole.”
“But I already kissed her in kindergarten.”
Al leaned over the table and poked me in the chest. “That was a different ball game, kid.”
The big day came, and I picked up Alex at her house. She wore a light blue dress and looked incredible. I hoped some of the popular kids saw us walking together toward the Dinky.
At Princeton Junction, I led Alex away from the tracks going to Trenton and toward the New York-bound tracks. The train was a few minutes late, but it had a real engine. Not just a bunch of railroad cars strung together. I liked that.
The hubbub of Manhattan really floored Alex. “This is amazing, and I never could have made it here on my own.”
Maybe she really liked me. Maybe next week we could go to a Broadway play. I stayed cool as I led her onto the IRT subway to Times Square, then the shuttle to Grand Central, and then toward the U.N. by foot.
“Wow, you really know your way around.”
“It’s not hard.”
Soon we heard chants and saw the crowd across the street from the U.N. They were mostly older people. “Murderer! Assassin! Khrushchev go home! Khrushchev go home!”
Demonstrators held up signs showing caricatures of Khrushchev with blood dripping from his hands, and they handed out leaflets with the same pictures. Alex told me he ordered the murder of kulaks (wealthy peasants) in the Ukraine when they refused to join collective farms. She started talking to some of the demonstrators in Ukrainian. I think she was telling them what Khrushchev did to her family. I was upstaged.
I took a bunch of pictures with Uncle Max’s old Leica, then got tired of standing around and decided to ask Alex if she wanted to go into the General Assembly session.
She was skeptical. “Do they let the public into these sessions when they have all these world leaders around?”
“I don’t know. But I’ve attended sessions a bunch of times. Let’s try.”
It was really only once, but I guess I wanted to inflate my status.
Alex hesitated, then gave me a sharp “Okay.”
I guided her through the throng of screaming anti-Khrushchev protestors and the police line. Inside, a guard checked my camera, and I led Alex to the ticket window to try and get passes to the visitors’ gallery. A woman and a little girl walked away from the window with tickets, and that got my hopes up.
“Maaaay I help you, sir?” The woman behind the window was a blonde Swedish beauty with a long pony tail.
“Two passes to the visitors’ gallery, please.”
“Oh, I’m soooo sorry, sir. I just gave out the last pair for today’s session.”
Maybe she noticed the blood drain out of my face.
“Listen. I can see how disappointed you are. I know that the U.K. Consulate across the street has some passes. Don’t tell anyone I told you, it’ll be our secret. But go right there and get them now while they still have them.”
They still had them. And those passes were not for the visitors’ gallery but for the floor of the General Assembly itself, in the back and just a few feet behind the Soviet delegation.
“Wow!” said Alex as a uniformed guard showed us into the hall. I wished I could ask Al whether this changed things in terms of that good night kiss.
When we sat down, we were in a good position to view Khrushchev and the whole Soviet delegation. We put on our headsets that translated the speeches into English. As the diplomats babbled on, an idea popped into my head. I thought to myself: If I could get Khrushchev to sign the back of one of those leaflets that the demonstrators passed around showing his hands dripping with blood, it would look really good to Alex — like I made a fool out of Khrushchev.
Soon a commotion began to brew. Khrushchev spoke and called one of the Western delegates a “toady of American imperialism.” Then he began banging his fists on his desk and soon switched to banging his shoe. In the ensuing mayhem, the red-faced Irish President of the General Assembly banged his gavel so hard to close the session that the head broke off and flew out into the hall. (Thankfully, no injuries were sustained in this sacred forum for the maintenance of peace.)
Seizing the opportunity afforded by the hullabaloo, I ran up to Khrushchev. Strapping men forged a human chain around him. But he waved them away. I found a pen and one of the leaflets in my jacket pocket. But those bullies that surrounded Khrushchev intimidated me, and at the last moment, I was afraid to pull out the leaflet. I had turned back into a high school nerd. Instead of the leaflet showing blood dripping from his hands, I handed Khrushchev the pass that had gotten Alex and me into the General Assembly. He signed it and shook my hand.
When I meekly showed Alex the autograph, she nearly ripped it up.
“Why did you abandon me and run over to that murderer? You even shook his hand. You’re disgusting!”
We rode back to Princeton in silence. After that day, she never spoke to me again.
By the way, recently I’ve read that some people are denying that Khrushchev really banged his shoe. But finally I can set the historical record straight on these momentous events of more than half a century ago.
YES. CHAIRMAN OF THE COUNCIL OF MINISTERS OF THE UNION OF SOVIET SOCIALIST REPUBLICS NIKITA SERGEYEVICH KHRUSHCHEV DID BANG HIS SHOE ON HIS DESK ON THE AFTERNOON OF COLUMBUS DAY, WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER THE TWELFTH, 1960.
If only I could get hold of Alex, she would be my witness. I always look for her at class reunions. But I’ve never seen her since high school graduation.
Do you think Alex would have become my girlfriend if I had conquered my fears and gotten Khrushchev to sign the back of the leaflet that showed his hands dripping with blood?
A native of Linden, Suretsky earned a bachelor’s degree at Columbia, master’s, law, and library science degrees from Rutgers, and a PhD in German and comparative literature at Stanford. After 25 years as a librarian, he retired to Highland Park. He regularly attends writers’ groups at Princeton Public Library.