Duende is hard to define, especially if you don’t know Spanish. I first saw it used by a Spanish writer named Lorca, and then in the 1960’s and ‘70’s by a Boston newspaper writer named George Frazier. He used the word to describe people with a certain grace or charm – a style that you know when you see it even if you don’t quite know what the word really means.
I’ve been to Russia twice. The first time was in 1973. We arrived in Moscow on October 5, the day before the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Two days later I saw a headline in Pravda and asked our guide what it said. She didn’t want to answer but finally translated it for me – “It says, ‘Jews Attack Arabs.’” “Yesterday?” I asked, “On Yom Kippur? Do you believe that?” “Do you believe everything in your newspapers?” she replied, with a look that told me all I needed to know.
The “Yom Kippur War” was just one of several historic events that took place while we were away. A few days later Spiro Agnew resigned as Vice-President, and President Nixon appointed Gerald Ford to replace him. Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. The day before we returned, the President ordered Watergate Prosecutor Archibald Cox not to turn over the secret White House Tapes. When Cox said he intended to comply with the court’s order, the President ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire him. Richardson refused and then did the honorable thing. He quit. So did his successor, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. This immediately became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” And it changed history, leading to the downfall of Richard Nixon.
All in all, our time away was a busy two weeks, but we knew little of what had happened. I do remember hearing one piece of news when we were in Leningrad (as it was then called) – that America’s new vice-president had previously been in the car business. Wrong Ford!
We landed at Kennedy Airport on a Sunday and took a cab to LaGuardia for our plane to Boston. I was starved for news. “We’ve been away for two weeks,” I told the driver. What did we miss?” “You missed a lot,” he said. “The Knicks lost last night, the Islanders stink, the Giants are awful, and the Mets are about to lose the seventh game of the World Series.” I told him I was a Red Sox fan.
We were standing at baggage claim in Boston and there, standing next to us waiting for his bag, was that debonair columnist, George Frazier. I introduced myself as a loyal reader, he asked where we had been, and I told him Russia for two weeks. “You missed a lot,” he said. “We heard all about it,” I replied. “Do you know about the Saturday Night Massacre?” he asked. “Oh yes,” I replied. “Our cab driver in New York brought us completely up to date – the Islanders, the Knicks, the Giants, and the Mets.”
Mr. Frazier gave me a puzzled look and then, without missing a beat inquired, “Did he tell you that Willie Mays played his last game?” “No, he didn’t mention that,” I replied. “Mays really had it, didn’t he Mr. Frazier?” We both knew the word I had in mind. Duende.