How and when PA got started – Part 4
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Today, you’ll read Part 4 of how Pyramyd Air began. This story is written by the company’s owner and founder, Joshua Ungier.
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How and when PA got started – Part 4
by Joshua Ungier
This story picks up at the point where I left you at the end of Part 3 in January.
We landed at Sheremetyevo-1 airport just after 1800 hours. Moscow was frozen solid. We hailed a taxi. It was an old Volga, with its windshield cracked all the way across. Bone-chilling cold and howling wind forced snow to fly parallel to the ground. Narrow streets were funneling and amplifying the howling wind to a dangerous velocity. Any debris not pinned under ice and snow was airborne. The sidewalks were empty. Walking was impossible.
GAZ-24 “Volga” prototype in 1967.
Snow and ice piled up in front of the hotel entrance were blocking the door. “Do not worry. I will get you to the door” our driver announced. Before we realized it, he drove up onto the sidewalk to the door of the lobby. We all laughed.
“Why are you laughing? There are no pedestrians, so I drive!” He handled our heavy suitcases with moves of a practiced juggler. We doubled his pay in dollars. He drove off happy. “If you need me, I will come back tomorrow.” He said. We were not so sure about that.
We entered the hotel lobby through a meandering glass corridor through which we funneled into a single file. With the glass walls on both sides of us, we were scrutinized at all times by the hotel “security.” We felt like we were in a fish tank. At the end of the walkway, a video camera with a red light blinking furiously copied every move we made.
Further down the corridor, a bored and scruffy gorilla, dressed as a guard, demanded, “Dokumenty.” We all obliged. He glanced at our passport photos and our faces repeatedly. Clearly aggressive and irritated by something, he shoved them back to us. We stood there waiting for further abuse. It came swiftly.
Glaring at us he demanded: “Kto mezdu wami govorit po Russki?” (Who among you speaks Russian?) As rehearsed, we looked at each other, reached into our pockets and pulled out pocket-sized dictionaries. Although I speak Russian fluently, I decided to pretend I did not. Just for fun.
Pretending not to understand what he said I shrug my shoulders with a look of total ignorance and offered him my dictionary opened to the Russian – English page. Without accepting it, he continued in broken English “You speak Russian?” It could have been an act. Or may be not.
“No one here does” I replied quickly before someone pointed to me.
“Nu. Poshli togda!” Meaning “Mosey on now.” he growled. As we turned to walk away he said loudly enough for all in the room to hear: “Amerikanskiye svolochi. Parazity.” What an ass I thought. I did not turn around. I am sure that is what he wanted.
“What did he say?” they all asked.
A few steps away from the guard’s ear, I translated in a whisper, “American scum. Parasites. He really does not like us, does he?”
The elevator took us up to the ninth floor. A smell of cheap cigarettes wafted through the dark and dingy corridor. At the end of the long corridor behind an old desk sat a homely old woman. As soon as she saw us, she began to scribble something in a thick journal. She was in charge of the floor. A chaperone, you might say. With her pencil, she wrote down who we were, where we went, when and with whom we arrived.
Unmarried women were not allowed alone in a room with a man. To have that privilege you must bring proof of marriage in a form of a certificate or pay a bribe to the guard downstairs and to the “chaperone” on your floor.
We retired to our rooms. After a rusty brown-water shower and a sleeping pill, I flipped on the TV. A horror movie! John Wayne talking to George Kennedy in Russian. The Duke, dubbed! Is there no end to blasphemy? I promptly turned off the tube. Whew! The next morning I arose and prepared for the day.
Our departure for the USA was not scheduled until early the following morning, so we had a whole day in Moscow to ourselves. Around 8 a.m., we all gathered in the hotel lobby and planned the rest of the day. We all agreed to meet at Pizza Hut at 1600 hrs. Yes, I said the Pizza Hut. My friend implied that he had heard we could order beer with our pizza.
Every cab driver in Moscow knows where the Pizza Hut is located a “concierge” assured us. Having all day to ourselves, we all split up and drove off in different directions. I stopped at a McDonald’s. Yes. There are several of them in Moscow. The first one opened 20 years ago. Although I am not normally a Big Mac lover, I could not help it! I needed it! Well…a Big Mac in Moscow tastes exactly like it does in USA. For a while I was back home. Oh…home!
I asked the driver to stay with me for the rest of the day. I gave him $100 to do so. He eagerly agreed. “There is another $50 for you at the end of the day,” I said. I was not worried now that he would split as soon as I got out of the cab. We were driving by Tretiyakowskaya Galeria–an amazing art gallery. I got lost. The cab with its engine running was always waiting for me. In broken English, he asked me if I would like to see a new international sporting goods store that opened the week before. It was just around the corner. I agreed.
I do not remember the name of the store, but it was big–very big. The walls were emblazoned by statuesque figures of men and women in perfect physical shape and beauty. Some were holding tennis rackets others were shown with bows or rifles. Other posters were of water skiers.
On the opposite wall there were posters of young men and women holding, what appeared to be competition pistols. Above that area, a poster proclaimed “Vozdushnoje oruzje” or “Air Guns.” The store was crowded. The cold outside made people linger longer than usual. Some people were waiting for a bus that stops outside the door.
I was standing in the middle of the store looking around when I noticed cameras all over the place. There was a mirror behind each cash register that I am almost positive was a one-way mirror. Each of them was crudely framed with a cheap plastic strap. Light seeping through a crack between the wall and the mirror gave away its function.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. I stepped forward two steps and then turned around. In front of me stood a middle-aged man. His jacket showed its age by the intensity of brown-colored spots made by coffee spilled over the ages. He reeked of cheap tobacco and beer. A technique he probably used to mask his body odor. “What do you want?” I asked, clearly disturbed by him.
A familiar word came out of his mouth, “Dokumenty.”
I was just about to snap and tell him what to do with himself when I realized that Americans are a welcome addition to the local jails. So, I produced my passport. He looked at me and than at the photograph a dozen times. “It is me. I did not shave this morning.” I said it in English. He looked up for the last time and handed back my passport, at which point I figured we were finished. It took me a while, walking through the crowd, to get over to the airgun counter.
A large counter across the showroom had a dozen air pistols under glass. Most were German and French. Several Russian air pistols were intermixed among them. I recognized none. A line of air rifle barrels was propped up against the wall. Among them was the familiar IZH 60 I had seen earlier in Tashkent.
I took out a pocket-sized camera borrowed from my friend and pointed it at the display. Almost immediately the foul smell materialized at my side. “No photo! No photo. Nielzia!” or “Not permitted!” I put away the camera.
“May I take a look?” I asked in English.
A young woman behind the counter looked at me and said “Izvenitie?” (Excuse me?) The man translated for her my request. I looked at him a bit surprised.
“I talk great English good. Right?”
“Riiight” I said. “You sure does.” He smiled, pleased with himself.
The young lady handed me the rifle. This time I examined the rifle more thoroughly than in Tashkent. I was clearly surprised. Light rifle, extendable stock. A modern-looking gun. The walls were covered with Chinese air guns. There were a few French and East German air guns. The Slavia 630 and 631 were also well-represented.
“Do you have any American airguns?” I asked the woman.
She understood the word American. “No. No American .”
“Strange!” I thought out loud. “What about Crosman or Beeman? How about Daisy?”
“No. No American.”
A young man standing next to me looked at me curiously.
“Are you American?” He asked in English.
“Yes I am.”
“We need American rifles.” He said. “I see them in magazines.”
My smelly shadow never left my side. “Don’t you have something better to do than to follow me around?” I said quietly.
“Don’t be stupid” he replied. “Now everyone knows you are an American. You look like an American and smell like an American. I am protecting you.”
“You smell my soap, Irish Spring, and my American mouth wash. You know what soap is. Don’t you,” I replied. He spat on the floor, cursed me loudly in Russian (I will not translate this part!) and walked away. I spent another fifteen minutes looking around, then left the store. My cab was waiting with its engine running.
“Pizza Hut!” I announced.
“Net problemy,” responded the driver.
We all showed up on time. We had pizza with beer! Yes! You can buy beer with pizza in Moscow.
It was a tight squeeze in the cab on the way back to the hotel. And when we arrived they had another surprise for us. While we were out being tourists, our rooms were ransacked. My Cannon, along with rolls of the films from Tashkent, were gone. My favorite black cowboy hat along with my parka and some other items were also missing. Apparently, the safe combination and the room key are available to more people than just me.
The rest of the party did not fare any better. I called for the hotel “security” and told him what had happened. He arrived at my room a few minutes later.
“The floor supervisor (the lady at the end of the corridor) saw nothing, heard nothing, and knows nothing,” he said. Just like Sergeant Shultz! I thought.
The policy of keeping passports and airline tickets with us at all times paid off. We could still leave Moscow. I asked the driver to come back the next day with another cab to accommodate all of us, plus our now less-full baggage.
On the way to the airport the next morning, to kill time, I spoke to Jethro about the airguns. He said he had a dozen at home and on the farm. They were to keeps pests away and so on. Apparently, everyone in my group except my partner and me had airguns.
Fourteen hours later, I was home to a hot shower, bagels and cream cheese with lox and tomatoes and sweet onions. Just what the doctor ordered.
The next morning on the way to the office, I got a call from Joshi. He loved the samples from Uzbekistan, so I was done. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a sign: “Atlantic Gun and Tackle.” Why not stop in? There was not a single Russian, German, French or Czech airgun in the place. However, there were lots of Crosman, Beeman and Daisy guns.
I finished my marble and lumber obligations and never looked back.
Then I started thinking about airguns in earnest.
A few trips later to Russia, I found a partner to import American airguns to Russia while I imported Russian airguns to USA. The deal did not work out, and I decided to start on my own.
And that’s how Pyramyd Air got started. It started in the basement of my house.
But that’s another story….In my next and last installment, I will try to go into more detail as time and memory permit.
To my wonderful readers.
I so appreciate your interest and words of support for my writing. I am not a writer by any means. In my own way, I wanted to share some of my memories from years past. Some of the things I remember are hard to describe in words. How does one describe hundreds of 60-ft. high transmission towers standing in a row cowered with a thin coating of ice looking like ghosts against an intensely blue cloudless sky, temperature of -43C, (six degrees warmer than an hour before) wires hung low and parallel to the road and coated with a paper-thin blanket of ice? With the slightest touch of wind, a crackle of broken ice showers down like cut diamonds. That is what went on for miles.
As I remember any interesting vignettes from my trips, I will be glad to continue to share them with you.
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