The crowd was large and unorganized a mob really. They had gathered haphazardly in front of the Stephen C. O'Connell Center and, as their numbers grew, snaked back across the parking lot beyond the parking garage. They seemed to stretch on to the edge of University Avenue in the darkness. They had come from Ocala, Archer, Newberry, Palatka, East Gainesville, West Gainesville, the south side of Jacksonville, and from dorms a few hundred yards away.
They had begun to arrive when the low sun shot powerful horizontal beams from the west that made the brick and ivied, neogothic buildings cast long irregular shadows across the campus. Now they stood huddled in front of the that white bubulous edifice while mustachioed UPD officers in uniforms their pot bellies had outgrown stared back at them through the illuminated glass. The UPD, in all their wisdom, had kept the doors locked while the crowd grew large, anxious, and annoyed. They did it for security purposed someone said; to make things safe for the man who had helped make the world safe for us: Mikail Gorbachev.
There were hippies and right-wingers, Zapatista supporters and MBA candidates. There were Slavs and Anglos, Africans and Asians. There were Jews and Arabs, with the headgear to prove it. There were jocks and geeks, frat boys and punk rockers. One guy wore a too-tight-for- his-buff-body gray athletic shirt with the old Soviet CCCP designation in black letters across it. He was short and compact with blue eyes and dark receding hair. He looked quite pissed off.
A snowy-haired fellow with thick glasses and a big red nose had no less the twenty or so tarnished medals penned to an old raggedy suit meandered amicable through the crowd looking like he was trying
to find the Central Committee of the Politburo meeting.
Somebody said the place had the feeling of a Russian bread line. Somebody else opined what was needed was a good old fashioned Trotskyist rally.
Just before things got revolutionary, at an hour before the designated start time, the UPD through open the doors and watched thousands of people reenact the old "All in Family" routine where Archie and Meathead both try to fit their wide frames through the narrow door at the same time. People got stepped on, tripped, bumped into, fondled, groped, pushed, brushed aside, cutoff, bumped over it was an intimate beginning to the evenings festivities.
Thirty minutes before the Great Man was to speak the place was filling fast. A young lady in the front row of the second tier of seats studied a document entitled "Infertility in the Mare." Some sorority girls talked about hairdos and a Poli-Sci group made fun of the advertisement found in that day's Alligator newspaper. It had Gorby against a black background, smiling like Satan, flanked by two bright red hammer-and-sickle symbols. The man who had helped dismantle the Soviet Union, drastically reduce the world's nuclear arms supply, and tried for years to the protect the environment, was cast in that advertisement like so many of his predecessors from the 40's through the 70's: the demonical chief of an evil empire bent on world domination one piece of geography at a time. Gorby was different, and deserved better the Poli-Sci boys all agreed.
Just as the girl studying about equine reproduction started on a paragraph subtitled "The Cervix: Tone and Presence," a man with more tone and presence than any cervix ever had stepped in behind the little curtain at the west end of the arena floor. An initial muffled wave of excitement and intensity rippled from the seats behind the rostrum, whose occupants now had an overhead view of the night's speaker, around both sides of the large oval of bleachers and down onto the floor. The cheering intensified as the nervous, this-is-as-close-as-I'll-be-to-greatness-in-my-entire -pitiful-existence-thinking Accent speakers bureau chairman tried to give a rousing introduction and keep his voice from cracking. He failed on both counts. His voice cracked and he gave each word the same intense intonation usually reserved for parts of the introduction like "Nobel Prize," and "Time's Man of the Year," so that "It is my pleasure" was delivered with the same spaced, excited monotone as every other word. In any case he finished and one of the greatest world leaders of all time strode to the rostrum waving to the crowd. He dispensed the beet-faced Accent chairman with a strong handshake and, from somewhere, picked up a large mug from which he sipped twice. His bald, mustachioed, translator having taken his seat on the side of the stage and attached a pair headphones to his head, gave a nod to the Nobelist.
Gorbachev lowered the microphone to about chest level and boomed a sentence in his liquidy sometimes-y-vowel-sounding Russian at the crowd who leaned in anticipating the translation. "This is a very large cup...and I don't know where to put it," said the translator in his Russian brogue as Gorby hefted the large mug and smiled out at the anxious thousands. Slowly, the room broke up. It was beautiful, human, and hilarious. Then, Mikail got down to business.
He is an energetic speaker. So energetic he sometimes drowns out his translator who struggles to keep up and out voice the 68-year-old who still seems to have a lot of salt in him. The speech was profound, worthy of the man, long, and detailed. He spoke of three priorities, which are here synopsized in a vulgar and inadequate manner:
1. Globalization of governments and businesses: It's necessary but, it turns out, evil happening. The developed world is bullying everyone else. It encourages too-rapid a pace of development then shrinks in horror and indignation at the financial and environmental results. Some say let the market allocate resources as it will and let the strong survive and the weak be crushed (scattered applause from the John Birch/Milton Friedman apostles). The west needs to be more responsible, less full of itself, and more helpful to the less developed world (booming applause from the entire audience).
2. The destruction of the environment. The burgeoning world economy and the biosphere are locked in a Texas rules, tag-team, full cage, death match. News Flash: the economy is winning the biosphere is dying and will be nearly all the way dead pretty soon. The when-are-you-idiots-going-to-get-it News Flash: The economy is run by humans who need the biosphere, which they in have in a choke hold, to survive as a species. Prediction: The biosphere will win the match in the end. Right before it is completely destroyed human beings will cease to have the resources necessary to survive. The biosphere will withdraw its support like a battered, hard-working woman from a deadbeat, jobless husband. Humans will die and the biosphere will start over with the little things, like frogs maybe.
3. The necessity of a new global community: This part of the speech falls into the I'd-like-to- buy-the-world-a-coke category. We need to get along. "Mr. Reagan," he told the Gipper once, "when our people meet they have no problem relating to one another and getting along, why can't we put our differences aside and do the same?" The whole world needs to act more morally, especially the United States who, since the demise of its archenemy, had been acting like an Alpha Male run amuck.
There was time for a lot of questions and the people had begun lining up even before the address was over. There was time for many, but three got asked because Gorby believes in really answering questions on the order of a 15 or 20 minute analysis and opinion session for each question asked.
The first questions came not from the microphones at either side of the rear part of the arena floor, but in the form of a shouting lunatic, who sounded not unlike Sam Donaldson, in the top row: "Mr. President! What about Chechnya!? Do you have anything to say about Chechnya!?"
The lady who would have been the first formal questioner sought to proceed and ignore the Donaldsonesque nut in the top row. "Mr. Chairman," she started in. She addressed him by the chairman moniker, one assumes, because he is the chairman of Green Cross International, the environmental group. But "Mr. President" one must agree would have been more appropriate. And but anyway Gorby, feisty as he is, leaned in and asked his translator something and then, holding up both hands to quell the Mr. Charimaning coming from the back of the room, said through his translator: "A question has been posed about Chechnya. I responded to one in the press conference, I will respond here." He followed this with a erudite and chloroformic explanation of all that went wrong with Chechnya. Again, a vulgar summary: Chechnya could have been handled politically. I wanted to be the mediator. The Chechnyans wanted me to be the mediator. President Yeltsin (drunk jackass you could see it in Gorby's face) did not want to have a mediator. Now there are bombs killing civilians in Moscow and bombs killing civilians in Chechnya, and (he was greatly adamant about the next part well at least the translator was) we must defeat the bandits! We MUST DEFEAT THE BANDITS!
The Formal Questions and some (very abbreviated) answers:
1. Q: Mr. Chairman? Mr. Chairman? I am Hillary Digwiller (not the real name of course) and I run some kind wacko, left-wing, tree-hugging organization (a paraphrase to be sure) and I was wondering about the Green Cross Charter, I mean you have a charter and we have a charter, but what about our charters? Could you say something about the charters?
A: I'm glad you're involved. I support your organization if its purpose is to protect the environment, but put in your charter what ever you damn well feel like putting in your charter! (Not a completely inaccurate approximation of what he really said.)
2. Q: Mr. President, it's an honor sir because it is an honor sir, to just be in, an honor sir, your presence and uh, it's a real honor. (Gorby says "Thank You.") Now the Soviet Union has been portrayed as this "evil empire," that wanted to take over the world. Were you guys really that evil?
3. Q: Mr. President I would like to give my condolences on the death of your wife Raisa. (Gorby says "Thank You.") Now, Mr. President, a lot of young people who are young and people in this country are growing because they're still young and many of these youngsters have been told that Ronald Reagan scared the you-know-what out of you and that is why these young folks think the Soviet Union fell. Is that how it happened?
A: I like Ronald Reagan. He was fun to work with. The rest of that bunk about him scaring us is a bunch of you-know-what.
4. Q: Mr. Gorbachev, are there environmental laws in Russia comparable to our environmental laws in the U.S.
The evening was finished. Gorby waved to us all, I mean as a country it seemed, and looked a little sad as we gave him the standing ovation. Perhaps he knew what we all refuse to believe: we're doomed. The ovations are all he will get for his warnings. The world is being destroyed, the weak are being trampled, and folks hate other folks. But we walked out into our peaceful, contrived, capitalistic night not really believing it.
In the car, Rock 104 was rocking and we forgot immediately everything the Great Man had said. As Steve Earle once penned: "To listen to the radio, you'd think that all was well...But you and me and Cisco know it's going straight to hell."