Bringing Thrust and Parry to New England’s Highways

With my friend Henry Harutunian at Harvard, spring 1968

The story I’m about to recount took place over half a century ago, in 1966–68, when I was working on my master’s degree in Soviet area studies at Harvard. During the first year of this two-year, multi-disciplinary program, I continued my study of the Russian language, following up on four years of undergraduate Russian at Yale. The class at Harvard met five times a week, four of which were devoted exclusively to a small-group meeting with a native speaker for wide-ranging conversations about anything that came to mind.

The native speaker was a brand-new immigrant to the U.S., Henry Harutunian, an ethnic Armenian who, like most non-Russian citizens of the USSR, was bilingual and spoke Russian like a Muscovite.

After a few months of spending four hours a week with Henry, we became friends, and one day after class he asked if I would do him a favor. Would I please teach him to drive?

As anyone who has ever had a teenage son or daughter knows, teaching someone to drive is no trivial undertaking. In Henry’s case, it was made more challenging not only by his unfamiliarity with English but by his profession. In the USSR, Henry had not been a language teacher. He was a fencing coach, and at the Olympic level to boot.

Little did I understand that fencers — especially supercharged ones like Henry — are in a class all their own in the face of hand-eye-foot coordination challenges.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself, because before I ever slid into the passenger seat next to my eager pupil, we had to confront the little matter of the written exam. At this early point in his American sojourn, Henry had barely begun to speak English. Together we spent several weeks poring over the RMV (Registry of Motor Vehicles) booklet with all the possible questions on the test. But because he did not read English, we did it orally, with me explaining each question to him and discussing the proper answer. In Massachusetts at the time, people who couldn’t speak English were required to flunk the written test three times before being allowed to take it orally in the presence of an interpreter, a function that I, at long last, gamely filled.

With Henry’s having finally cleared this hurdle, the real adventure began. Together, we drove all over the Boston area — home to what are arguably the nation’s most erratic and unpredictable drivers, something that exponentially increased the hair-raising potential of our project. In addition, the entire experience was conducted in Russian, a language which, although I had acquired a modest fluency by then, was hardly a true second language for me. With Henry behind the wheel, I instantly learned how to say “brake!”

I can’t tell you how many times we would find ourselves at a stop sign, needing to cross an intersection or turn into a flow of traffic when Henry would spot an infinitesimal gap and dart right into it. This fencer was all thrust. However, to my amazement and everlasting gratitude, he never had to parry, though it often seemed a near thing. The white-knuckle experience was mine alone, however. Nothing could shake Henry’s supreme confidence.

Although I was sure Henry needed a lot more practice before he should consider taking the road test, he insisted on doing it on the first day it was legally permissible — as I recall, just two or three weeks after getting his learner’s permit. I sat in the back seat, interpreting, as the examiner began putting him through his paces. We hadn’t gone three or four blocks when the examiner told Henry to return to the RMV testing station. He had already clearly messed up a few things, and I breathed a sigh of relief at the prospect of his being told to practice some more and try again in a few weeks.

I was speechless when the examiner then signed the paper that turned Henry loose as a licensed driver!

This was in the spring of 1968, and it wasn’t long before I finished at Harvard and left for India to work as a Peace Corps volunteer. Henry, meanwhile, headed off to Yale (where I’d introduced him to the Athletic Department — more on that next week), but we stayed in touch. It came as no big surprise to me to read in one of his letters that he was regularly covering the distance between New Haven and the Boston area, where his family still lived, in jaw-dropping time. In fact, I’m convinced that Henry holds the land speed record for the New Haven-Boston corridor, and I suspect that, like Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs, it will be a very long time before it falls.

Congratulations, Henry, on having survived unscathed on America’s roads even as every soul who’s ever ridden with you — according to rumblings I’ve heard from your Yale alums — has marveled at how you manage to do it!

But wait. There’s more! My introduction of Henry to Yale Athletics led to his serving as coach of the men’s and women’s varsity fencing teams for nearly half a century. I hope you’ll stay tuned for that part of the story next week.

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