The Gorbachev Surfboard
Concept & Design: George Orbelian – Artist & Shaper: Bill Stewart
Concept & Design: George Orbelian – Artist & Shaper: Bill Stewart
President Mikhail Gorbachev’s historic visit to san francisco in 1990 (invitation by Harry Orbelian and Dianne Feinstein moscow 1985)
In Harry’s words, “We were in Moscow at a business delegation dinner in 1985. Close to two hundred people were there to hear Gorbachev speak at our main event. At the conclusion of the evening, everyone rose and moved toward the busses that would return us to the hotel. I noticed Gorbachev was available and suggested to Dianne that we go up and meet him. Dianne was hesitant at first, she said, “Harry, what if we get turned away, it would not be good for my political career.” But I couldn’t imagine Gorbachev would turn us away, first of all, Dianne is an attractive woman and she was also the Mayor of San Francisco. I escorted Dianne by the elbow and we made our way through the crowd toward Gorbachev. As we got closer, we were closed in on by security guards from both sides, I told them in Russian – “You’re doing a great job comrades.” They stopped and we continued approaching Gorbachev and once I introduced Dianne Feinstein as the Mayor of San Francisco, Gorbachev immediately started asking questions. Gorbachev asked, “How does taxation work, how do you support public transportation, utilities, garbage collection, sewerage, power, telecommunications. How does government work with business?” Gorbachev was trying to transition Russia from communism to capitalism and he had many questions and now he could get answers from the Mayor of one the greatest cities in the free world. I was translating the best I could, but there was too much to answer. The busses were filling up and Dianne and I needed to go so I said, President Gorbachev we are giving you an official invitation to San Francisco to continue this conversation.” For years, I continued to follow up on the invitation, then in 1990 – some five years later – Gorbachev would finally visit San Francisco.”
~ As a Russian speaker, my understanding of “perestroika” encompasses compete re-thinking, re-designing and re-building – not repairing. The subtle choices available to an interpreter and how this “artistic license” can influence meanings, understandings and outcomes is something that can not be taken lightly, especially in discussions that lead to deliberations and decisions of global importance.
It was 1990 and the phone rang in the middle of a cool, foggy night at 100 Alton Avenue in the Forest Hill district of San Francisco. This was not an uncommon event in our home due to the time difference between San Francisco and Moscow, Russia. My mother handed the receiver to my father without speaking – she knew it was for him, it was always for him.
My father snapped awake – his mind already reeling with a number of possibilities as to who was on the other end of the line. This time, it was the Kremlin, in Russian he was asked, “Does the invitation for President Gorbachev to visit San Francisco remain in effect?” My father answered, “I will have to confirm, give me your number and I will call you back.” The bedside lights were both on, he wrote down the number and called his friends, confirmed the invitation and returned the call to Moscow to assure Gorbachev’s office that the visit was on.
When I came by to give him a ride downtown that morning, he was more energized and excited than usual – I doubt he slept at all after the call. The Gorbachev visit to San Francisco had been in the works for five years, since 1985. Now this dream of his was being realized and the gravity of logistics consumed him as he ran over every aspect of the visit in detail through his mind. My dad was a connector – he put people and ideas together – he connected people and ideas. He had the contacts, and knew what to do, but he also knew that getting all the required participants to work together as a cohesive and comprehensive team would be a challenge. He was also an excellent chess player and he enjoyed watching moves he had put into motion years before they produce his anticipated results.
Harry asked me, “What do you think we should give him?” I knew he put a great deal of thought into the gifts he chose for the dignitaries he hosted. Thirty plus years of managing GUMP’S, one of the most exclusive, high end stores in the world with departments that were museums where you could buy things, had exposed him to the finest and he wanted a gift equal to the experience of visiting San Francisco – the gift had to be right and it had to make an impression.
“What are you thinking?” I asked. “Wine, California wine,” came his answer. “No, too ordinary – you can get wine anywhere,” I replied, then continued, “You gave Brezhnev my rifle (.30 / .30 Winchester 1966 Centennial Model), you’ve given actual cable car bells mounted on a walnut base with an engraved plaque. This has to be a really special gift with an obvious connection to California.” “What do you suggest, then.” he asked. After thinking for a moment, I came up with the answer, “A surfboard. Hammer and Sickle on one side of the stringer and the Stars and Stripes on the other, two words on the bottom, World Peace – a board Gorbachev could surf.”
“George, you’re living in a dream world.” The words rolled off his tongue with the familiarity born from extensive practice. “Why not? I asked, it would certainly be original, I doubt Gorbachev has a surfboard, and if there was ever a guy that needed a surfboard, and a chance to go surfing – it is Gorbachev.”
Our discussion while navigating morning rush hour traffic between the inner Sunset district and the Financial District of downtown San francisco was interrupted by a call. Ever since the advent of cell phones my truck had become a mobile office and this morning the calls took over the remainder of the drive.
As Harry got out of the truck at California Street he said, “Think of something”, as he closed the door to my VW Pickup. I already had.
That evening I called Bill Stewart, “Billy, my dad invited Gorbachev to San Francisco, we just got confirmation he’s coming and I want you to make a surfboard for him. Hammer and Sickle on one side of the stringer, Stars and Stripes on the other. World Peace on the bottom.” Bill answered, “Hey, I’ve got some people over here for a barbecue – let me call you tomorrow morning.”
The next morning, Bill Stewart calls me, “Hey, did you call me yesterday and ask me to make you a surfboard for Gorbachev?” “Yes”, I replied. “Man, I thought I had a dream – that’s crazy! But I love the idea, George – I’ll do it!
I tell Bill, “Look, this has to be a real board that Gorby can surf – not some phony, decorative wall hanger – it has to perform, be something that he can take out and ride or at least go for a paddle on the Volga! Hammer and Sickle on one side of the stringer, Stars and Stripes on the other, just a simple “World Peace” on the bottom.”
“OK”, says Bill, “I’m on it.”
Bill was an innovative surfboard designer and shaper, but he was also an artist with a talent for airbrushing – and with his own surfboard factory, he was the perfect guy to pull this project together with speed and quality.
Within about 35 minutes of settling details with Bill Stewart, my surf buddy John McManus calls me. At the time John was the current head of CNN’s Northern California office in San Francisco, “Hey George, do you know this guy Harry Orbelian?” “Yeah, I know him,” I replied, “What’s up?” “Do you have any way to contact him?”, John asked. “Sure”, I replied, “He’s my dad – what do you need?” I asked. John replied, “We’ve been trying to reach him to do an interview about Gorbachev’s upcoming visit – but nobody will return our calls.” I asked John, “When do you want to do the interview?” “Tomorrow morning at his office at 10:30.” John, my dad and I have a hotline between us for our real estate, let me call him right now and I’ll get right back to you. How much time do you need?” John answered, “About 35 minutes – 45 max for set up and the interview.” “OK, let me find out” I answered.
My dad answered on the characteristic first ring, “Orbelian, what do you want George, I’m busy.” “Dad”, I started, “CNN has been calling you and you haven’t returned their calls.” “How do you know?” he asked. “Because my friend John McManus runs the Northern California office and he just called me – they need an interview with you.”
George, I’m getting about four hundred phone calls a day – we’re overwhelmed. What do you want, I have to go…” “CNN interview tomorrow at your office, the film crew will be there at 10:30 – it will take about 35 – 45 minutes – I’ll be there with them OK?” “Yes, that’s fine – pick me up early, bye.”
I called John back and gave him the news that everything was set, “By the way John, being a surfer, you’ll appreciate that I’m having a custom surfboard made for Gorbachev as a gift – Bill Stewart is making it.” “Hey, John replied, “I like that idea – let me get the Los Angeles CNN crew on it.”
Within hours, CNN arrived at Bill Stewart’s shaping bay in San Clemente. The film crew set up and filmed the creation of the Gorbachev board and broadcast the footage around the world as part of building interest in Gorbachev’s historic visit to the United States. Bill was soon overwhelmed with recognition, his phone started ringing with congratulations, people were stopping by the shop just to see where this piece of history was being made, and Bill couldn’t walk down the sidewalk or through a supermarket without being recognized and stopped for the obligatory, “Aren’t you the guy I saw on CNN that’s making a surfboard for Gorbachev?”
Bill was enamored by the attention, but he stayed focussed and had the board built and delivered to San Francisco within a remarkably quick five days.
The Gorbachev board arrived at my friend Bob Wise’s surf shop – of Wise Surfboards in San Francisco. I put the box in the back of my truck and took it to the Alton house, unpacking it on a sunny, lazy Saturday morning and brought it into the living room and set it on a big Persian carpet in the living room.
“Hey Dad…Pop…” I yelled. “What do you want George, I’m reading the paper.” he called back. “Come look – I want to show you something.” Harry walks from the master bedroom on the second floor down the hallway in his green velour bath robe, the morning paper folded in his hand. He turns and takes about four steps down the stairs and stops mid-step – looking past the Grandfather Clock, through two arches, his attention caught by something unfamiliar in the middle of the living room floor. The Gorbachev board is sitting in the middle of the living room, gleaming and shiny like someone had just pulled a Ferarri into the house. My dad, rarely at a loss for words, was speechless – for a moment, then he composed himself, “We’ll give that to him.” – Harry had approved of the Gorbachev board.
“George, on the day of the event have the board at the Fairmont by 12:30,” he said.
When I got down to the Fairmont, the waiting media descended on me and the board and I gave some background, left it with management and took off – the crowds were building and I knew it was going to get very congested.
I headed back home to watch developments on the news.
Later that afternoon, Harry calls me, “George, they’re not going to let Gorbachev near the board before it is checked out. You have to go pick it up and take it to the Russian Consulate (Green Street). “Dad, you’re inside – outside is impossible, crowds of well-wishers and protesters, helicopters, barricades, police lines, horse police, I don’t know how I can get anywhere near the Fairmont with this high level event going on.”
“That’s your problem”, Harry said, and hung up.
I thought for a minute and settled on a sure long shot – my friend Tim Dwyer, an FBI agent.
I called and he answered, “Tim, I need you and your credentials to blow through security around the Fairmont, I have to go pick up a surfboard I had made for Gorbachev and deliver it to the Russian Consulate on Green Street so they can check it out before Gorbachev goes near it. Do you have time to go down to the Fairmont with me if I come and pick you up?”
“Sure” answered Tim, he was a fellow father of twins and if there was one thing we appreciated about each other, it was the fact that we were always up for an adventure.
I drove over and picked up Tim, we drove to the Fairmont, we sailed through security, picked up the board and dropped it off on Green Street.
The next day, Tim and his friends watched the board being loaded onto Russia’s equivalent of Air Force One as Gorbachev, his wife and entourage headed back to “not the U.S.S.R.” – but “Russia”.