Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




    In America, it would be possible for Dad to be the kind of man that he wanted to be.
    If he hadn't accepted the offer made by Ahmed, it was because he didn't think that at his age he could make a Cherkess out of himself.  And, in his memoirs, my father would regret the time that he'd wasted while he was in Turkey, and his complete failure to make any connection with a cosmopolitan city like Constantinople.  He'd also turn down a suggestion from Ivan that Dad join him at his monastery in Serbia and become a monk.
    However, he was prepared to work hard to make an American out of himself, and he would be successful at it.  He would even find himself criticized by fellow Russians for being "too American."
    My father knew no English when he landed at Ellis Island.  Later, however, he wouldn't sound like a movie Russian, unlike the two friends he stayed in contact with through the years.  Dad learned to speak American English with an accent so slight and so rare that it would be possible to overlook the fact that English wasn't his first language.
    During my childhood, our family would travel from Michigan to visit my mother's sisters in upstate New York.  To shorten the route, we would cut across Ontario, and when we passed through Canadian customs, we'd all be asked where we were born.  On the first trip we made, my father said, "Voronezh, Russia."  But these were the Commie-fearing Fifties, and that answer cost Dad a lot of unnecessary explanation while the rest of the family sat in the car and waited for him.  So, on later trips, he would say, "Syracuse, New York," just like my mother, and the answer was delivered so flawlessly that he was never doubted.
    During the year after he arrived in the United States, my father took jobs that paid him much better than he had been doing in Turkey, but which he didn't like very much.  For the better part of the year, he put Lorna Doone cookies into the oven and took them out again at the National Biscuit Company -- a job that would leave him with a lifelong aversion to Scottish shortbread.  And then, during the summer, he cut grass with a sickle at a cemetery in Brooklyn.
    Far more important, however, he discovered something called the Russian Student Fund.  He passed their examination for financial aid, and with their help he was accepted as a student at the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University.
    The other Russians he knew in the immigrant community in New York told Dad not to go.  But he was afraid that if he didn't go then, he would never be able to, and it was with a distinct sense of relief that he left New York City for Syracuse in September 1924.
    At first, he found it very difficult.  He could barely understand anything his teachers said, and he had to write his assignments in Russian and then translate them word by word into English.  But, a little at a time, he began to get the hang of the culture.  He says that what helped him most at the outset was the casualness and lack of inhibition that he found at college football games.  That helped to break the ice for him.
    His father wrote to ask whether he had a horse, and to remind him that it was a mark of a gentleman to have one.  But the reassertion of class privilege wasn't the direction Dad was headed.  Instead of that, he did whatever he had to do, from washing windows to mowing lawns, to turn himself into the kind of technical man -- the person able to bridge the scientific and the practical -- that his father had been impressed by, but been unable to be himself.
    He earned a bachelor's degree in only three years -- and owed the Russian Student Fund $1758.31 for the help they had given him -- then continued on for a master's degree, and finally, in 1931, a Ph.D. It was the only doctorate granted that year by the New York State College of Forestry.
    So prominent would my father become in his field of specialization -- the cell anatomy and uses of different kinds of wood -- that people would come to study with him from Germany, Finland, Iran and India.  Even today, you'll find his books cited as authoritative on the Web.
    Along with the other changes he went through in this country, Dad modified his name.  In Russia, he'd been Alexei Ivanovitch Panshin -- with a distinctive soft sign after the first n -- known to his family as Lyolya and to his friends as Alyosha.  But in the United States, he would regularize his name, cutting it down to Alexis John Panshin, known professionally as A.J., and familiarly as Alex.
    In America, my father was free to trim away anything and everything that interfered with reason.  He became a man so regular and four-square that he could set out to build a modern house, pick Frank Lloyd Wright to design it for him, and then fall out with him and fire him for being insufficiently rational.

    I only knew Dad to revert once to the risk-taking behavior which marked the year which carried him from Voronezh to Georgia.  And significantly, it happened in Russia.
    In 1959, my father was asked to be a member of an exchange mission, a U.S. Forestry Delegation traveling in the Soviet Union.  On the last day they were in Moscow, Dad changed into old clothes so he wouldn't be conspicuous, gave the slip to their Intourist watchdog, and went looking for an address that he'd been given by his sister Katya.
    He found a bleak, three-story cement building, one of a number forming a quadrangle.  He says that it reminded him more of a prison than a place for free people to live.
    He rang a bell on the second floor, and when an elderly woman answered the door, he recognized her after the passage of forty years.
    He said, "Shura!  I am Lyolya."
    His sister Shura gasped and pulled him inside.  She lived in this apartment together with another sister, Lyena, and Lyena's husband who was at the race track for the day and wouldn't be home soon.  The three of them hugged.  And my father had three full hours to talk to his sisters and find out about his family.
    His eldest brother, Nikolai, had been sent to Siberia for eight years.  When he returned from exile, he was a broken man who had essentially been allowed to starve to death.  His second brother, Vanya, had been a factory manager.  He was shot in 1923.  His third brother, Volodya, the would-be revolutionary who'd told their father that he was an oppressor of the masses, had left home during the turmoil and never been heard of again.  He was presumed dead.  And my father -- the youngest of thirteen children -- was now the eldest male in his family.
    His sisters had done their best through the hard years to hang onto something of what the family had once owned.  And they gave what they had managed to save to Dad as his inheritance.  He brought it home with him from Russia.
    His patrimony consisted of a silver soup ladle, six ornately engraved gold teaspoons, and a little silver cup in the shape of a horse's head, struck to celebrate the trotting race that my grandfather once won in Paris.

    For myself, I still have a few questions:
    What happened to Ahmed?  And what would have become of my father if he'd gone off with the Cherkessi?
    Once they established control of Russia, the Communists had been ruthless in their remaking of reality.  They changed the name of the country.  Ekaterinodar had been renamed Krasnodar.  Batalpashinsk had become Cherkessk.  Mihailovka was now a part of Krylovsky State Farm.  Spasso-Preobrajenski was turned from a convent into a tuberculosis sanitarium.
    Ahmed wouldn't have escaped that.  Did he die from a bullet, too, or did he end his days selling newspapers at a kiosk in Kiev?
    What happened to that anomalous red granite boulder found in the black earth of Petropavlovka and dragged by my grandfather to Mihailovka after the destruction of his experimental sheep ranch?  Is it where he placed it, or has it moved on once more in its inexorable progress from its unknown place of origin to its unguessable destination?
    Most of all, I wonder what happened to the Panshin who sailed from Voronezh for the New World.  Was his determination to get there aided by well-wishers and benefactors along the way?  And did miracles also happen to him when he needed them?
    If he did reach America -- and I think that if he really really wanted to, he did -- how long did he retain his boyar's beard and distinctive clothing after he arrived?  Did he change his name, or only have daughters?
    Is it possible that unbeknownst to either of us, his descendants are living across the street from me today?

Drawing by Boris Artzybasheff

    This essay is primarily based on my father's memoirs, I Remember, printed for his family in 1972 in an edition of about twenty copies.
    As an adult, my older brother Dan has learned Russian and made a number of trips to Russia.  He's visited both Voronezh and Krylovsky State Farm.  He's at work on a public edition of I Remember.
    I've tried to follow Dad's perceptions and memories exactly.  But, as might be expected of any of us, despite Dad's allegiance to reason and factual accuracy, his memory wasn't always perfect.  For instance, he recalled that anomalous boulder as six feet high, six feet wide, and twelve feet long.  A mighty big rock.  But Dan, who has been there and taken pictures, says that it is really more like two feet high, two feet wide, and six feet long.  It is still unusual in that country, however, and it has moved on further.


Ivan Nikiforovitch Panshin

Alexis John Panshin


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Photo of A.J. Panshin courtesy of Daniel Panshin

Border courtesy of FDZ Graphics
Bullet courtesy of Dreamcatcher Graphics