The Russian

He was not tall but neither was he short, 5'-8" actually, which was average in those days. He was of medium build, walked with a bit of a swagger which gave him an air of confidence even though he seemed thin and lithe, almost effeminate when not in motion. We knew as soon as he spoke that he was Russian.

"I'm looking for Mehan," he said.

I looked at Peterson and his expression signaled that he was as clueless as I as to who the stranger might be. "I'm Mehan," I replied, "What can we do for you?"

"Pleased to meet you, my name is Chirskoff," the Russian said extending his hand first to me and then to Pete adding, "And you must be Peterson?"

Always impatient and disinclined to polite formality, or polite language for that matter, Pete ignored Chirskoff's hand. "We're busy," he demanded, "what in the hell do you want?"

Pete was being typically rude although for once, I really couldn't fault him. We had been in the Cavite shipyards since early morning dealing with one problem after the other. Furthermore, we had long since learned that every time a stranger appeared, it probably meant some new expense, or delay, or yet another problem of which we had plenty as it was.

Still, the man seemed familiar. I was accustomed to playing referee to Pete's pugnacious encounters and I thought I ought to intervene before things got out of hand between the two. "Chirskoff," I said, "I believe I've heard that name--you're with the company right?"

The two men were still glowering at each other. Chirskoff turned his gaze from Pete to me, "Yes, things are moving too slowly in Manila. I am here from Shanghai to expedite matters."

I looked at Pete. Chirskoff's explanation had done nothing to assuage his disposition toward the man. We had worked feverishly since returning to Manila on the SS John McLean and I could tell Peterson looked at Chirskoff's arrival as an intrusion, and probably as a vote of no confidence from the company. Peterson again challenged the newcomer bluntly, "And how long do you plan to stay?"

Chirskoff's eyes flashed back to Peterson. "I am here indefinitely," he said firing back at Peterson, "in fact I am moving my family here. We will stay in Manila as long as it takes, or as long as there is profit to be made in the Philippines, if that is all right with you." The accent was more pronounced when he was angry.

I had to admire the Russian for not backing down. Peterson could be extremely abrasive when he wanted to and this was one of those times that he wanted to. I was less critical about Chirskoff's arrival than Peterson. The company had erred and then was placing unrealistic demands on us as a result. We had more work than we could handle and if the Russian was willing to help, that was fine with me.

After a brief Jeep tour of the Cavite shipyard we returned to the dock where Chirskoff had interrupted us earlier. We boarded the nearest F boat providing Chirskoff with a first hand look at what rust buckets the company had purchased and how naïve they had been in their assessment of repair costs and schedules.

Peterson was at his best when focused on matters of engineering and as he described to Chirskoff in detail all the work we had accomplished and the problems still remaining, all tension dissolved between the two men. Chirskoff eventually commented that he could now see why Peterson had been in such a bad mood. By the time Chirskoff left that afternoon to return to Manila, Pete had cooled down and Chirskoff seemed a little less the peacock as when he first appeared.

That night Chirskoff, Pete, and I had dinner at the Manila Hotel, on Chirskoff's company expense account. Pete was on his best behavior with getting a free meal and apparently deciding the Russian was not such a bad fellow after all. In the more relaxed setting of dinner, Chirskoff too conversed in amiable tones, even asking us to skip the formalities and call him Cheese, as did all of his "close friends."

It was clear at once that Mr. Vladimir Nicolaevitch Chirskoff, a.k.a. Vadim Chirskoff, a.k.a. Cheese, was at his peak as a social animal. He was well groomed and appropriately dressed, though his wardrobe had clearly seen better days. He spoke freely, drank expensive imported liquor, and ate lavishly at the company's expense. Over the course of the evening, we learned that Chirskoff was a Russian national born in Vladivostok, Russia, an industrial seaport town on the Golden Horn Bay.

When he was 10 years old Chirskoff's family moved to Yokohama, Japan, where he attended St. Joseph's College until graduating with the American equivalent of a high school diploma in 1934. Able to speak Russian, Japanese, and English he found it easy after graduation to get temporary jobs, in a law office for a couple of months, for the United Artists Studios for a year, and for a Swiss firm by the name of Lichman Waelchl Co., also for a year.

Always working but unable to find what he felt was meaningful employment, Chirskoff went to sea on a succession of Scandinavian boats with the purpose of traveling. Upon returning to Japan in 1939, he was still unable to obtain a suitable job so he left for Shanghai where business was purported to be booming. In Shanghai he found work as a sales agent for a firm involved in marine construction, where he remained until the outbreak of WWII.

On November 11, 1940 Chirskoff married Nina Denisova who bore him one son, Georgi. During the war they lived a meager existence on money Cheese made from odd jobs, or in trading of goods and U.S. currency on the black market. After the war, he went to work for Java China Trading Co., which had been previously owned by relatives of his wife Nina.

Java‑China had owned and operated three 8,000 ton vessels before the war but those were sunk by the Japanese. After the war the company's new owner, J. L. Winkleman, decided to again engage in coastal shipping but his money was tied up in Java as a result of the Indonesian War of Independence. Winkelman procured investments from firms owned by Chinese friends and purchased several surplus F boats from the U.S. Foreign Liquidation Commission.

By this time, the night had grown late and Chirskoff's narration had reached the point at which Peterson and I had entered the picture arriving in Shanghai on the FS‑261. After dinner, Pete and I left Chirskoff at the Manila Hotel and returned to Connie's. The next day things really began to happen but not as the company had anticipated.

Cheese it turned out was imbued with a passion for living in grand style, particularly at the company's expense, and nothing but the best would do. When we picked him up the following morning, he told us he had made arrangements for us all to take up residence in a suite at the Manila Hotel, insisting the upgrade was necessary to cast an appropriate image for executives of the Java China Trading Company, particularly since we were dealing with top Army brass.

Cheese threw money around like a Persian prince, which greatly enhanced our social lives but did nothing to advance the progress of getting the F boats under way. In addition to our luxury hotel accommodations, lavish dining, and entertaining of guests, he rented a limousine at 100 pesos per day until he was able to buy a Cadillac for 6,000 pesos.

The car, a 1941 Cadillac Fleetwood was one of only two we knew of in the country, and it was a pretentious extravagance. In a war ravaged and poverty stricken country, only the Nations President and the employees of Java‑China Trading Company could be seen traveling in such luxury.

In keeping with our new privileged status, Cheese also hired a chauffeur to drive the Cadillac. We called the chauffer A‑Boy, which as I recall, sounded something like his Filipino name but was easier to pronounce. A‑Boy was a large dangerous looking man but he was actually very good natured with the disposition of a lamb. I preferred to drive myself and I thought the idea of having a chauffeur was a little absurd, so when I drove the car, A‑Boy was promoted to passenger status.

Though we had neither time nor reason to question Chirskoff's activities, we quickly realized there was something eccentric about him. He seemed to mingle with a wide range of people including a few shifty characters, an array of influential businessmen, and several of his countrymen who, when not conducting business, spoke mostly Russian and stayed within their private social circle.

When our new Russian friend disappeared for hours on end without explanation, we attributed it to his gregarious nature and to his apparent need to feed his ego by cultivating an ever expanding circle of acquaintances.

Cheese was by all appearances very pro-western in philosophy and was a particularly enthusiastic capitalist. Grateful for our newly upgraded lifestyle and whatever help Cheese offered, Pete and I buried ourselves in our work, unaware of the trouble that followed the man from Shanghai or the many eyes that now secretly traced our every move.

Stories of Philip A. Mehan - Written by Scott Dawes © 2005-2009