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My collaborator, Greg Gagarin, the last living Zebra, greets father time with a smile and a bourbon.


June 1945 (l). My collaborator on Project Zebra, the young American naval officer, Gregory Gagarin, 22, with a fluency in Russian and a family genealogy that gathered respect in da Rodina (Russia). October 2017 (r). A smiling Greg, age 96, and now blind, shares a moment with wife Anne and daughter Katharine.

I met Gregory Gagarin at the Russian Cultural Center in Washington D.C. I had been invited by the Russian Government to explain how and why an American, with no Russian ancestry, would choose to write a book about the world’s first female pilot—a Russian teenager named Lilia Litvyak, who is all but unknown outside of Russia.

As I proudly explained the book was a collaboration with a Russian museum curator and a Ukrainian English teacher that took four trips to both countries and hundreds of interviews with ordinary Russians. This lanky 6-foot-3-inch 80-something aged man rose from his chair and proudly announced to the 100 or so people in attendance, “This young man (nobody had called me that in 30 years) has done something I thought I would never see in English.”

The startled crowd turned. “He has represented Russia as it was, and, why it was.” And, so it was that evening that every book available quickly disappeared. Some people buying two and three copies. Well, as it turned out, Call Sign, White Lily, became an Amazon historical fiction best-seller. More importantly, it’s publication changed my life forever in so many ways. (More about that in past and future blogs).

As things turned out, Greg and I, and his entire family, became collaborators on my 10th and latest book, Project Zebra. Roosevelt and Stalin’s top-secret mission to train 300 Soviet airmen in America.

It became a bit complicated when Greg lost his site, but his memory and recollections remained sharp as a tack, and, his treasure trove of memorabilia from that historical mission in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, was mind-boggling. His passion lead me down avenues to find more stories and more memorabilia, including opening boxes in the that has not been touched in 70 years in the garage of the deceased American commander, Stanley Chernack.

As the book rolls out, I give Greg a weekly update to keep his spirits up. The City of Elizabeth City has approved the erection of an 18-foot tall Project Zebra bronze monument that will be completed by two Russian sculptors and paid for by the Russian Government. The unveiling is scheduled for late next summer.

On my recent trip to the Gagarin home, I told Greg about the monument. He smiled, “about damn time,” pledged to be there, “one way or another,” and then finished his double bourbon on the rocks.

DATE: Feb.08.2018 | CATEGORY: My Books, On Russia & Ukraine | COMMENTS: 0