My mother had remarried the year before, to George Mikhalapov, a Russian émigré nuclear physicist turned businessman. I felt warmly towards him from our first meeting and called him Mr. Mikhally, an affectionate shortening of his name that stuck even after he’d been married to my mother for years. He’d been working at Bell Labs in New Jersey, and in 1957, he was offered a job heading up the Brush Beryllium Corporation, a Cleveland defense and aerospace company that made specialized parts for NASA and the Department of Defense. We moved to Cleveland for the start of the school year, and I entered second grade at the Hawken School, all boys. One of my good friends was Andy Day, the son of the headmaster; Andy would come in and out of my life for decades.


My sister and I, with our mother and nanny, made a book for my stepfather, a photographically illustrated version of the Russian folk song Stenka Razin, about a Volga river pirate who throws a princess into the river instead of looking like a love-struck sissy to his crew. I played a pirate and also the princess, my sister played Stenka Razin, our Ukrainian nanny, Roxanne, took the photographs, and my mother directed and wrote out the words on file cards that were set on the pages opposite the pictures.


Stenka Razin was a historical figure, the Russian Robin Hood, who led a revolt against the Tsar in 1671. His is a fascinating and unbelievably bloody story. Razin was executed by being quartered, hitched to four horses and pulled apart. My stepfather's story included an anti-Tsar uprising too. Mr. Mikhally’s father was an officer in the Tsar’s cavalry. During the 1905 Russian Revolution, the infant Mr. Mikhally—born 1905—and his mother and father, Sergei, were on a train that was stopped by peasant rebels. Sergei went out on his own to confront the rebels, and they demanded that he surrender his sword. He was so offended that he drew his sword and cut off the head of the leader of the peasants. The rest of the rebels took his sword away, marched him back to the train, got all the women and children off the train, and then burned it with all the men inside. That's how Mr. Mikhally lost his father.

Kelly Nowels