Noe Valley Voice October 1997

A Man from Vladivostok

By Florence Holub

Last June we were surprised to receive an envelope in the mail that bore quite a dignified-looking insignia: a crown on top of a shield, with a tiger in the center, and, behind the tiger, two crossed anchors adorned with ribbons.

This turned out to be the coat of arms for the naval fortress of Vladivostok, on the east coast of Russia. Inside the envelope was an invitation to the 90th birthday celebration of "Fyodor 'Ted' Nikolaevich Merkuloff, son of Nikolai Dionisievich Merkulov and Stanislava Branislavovna."

Included in the announcement was the following impressive biography:

He was born July 5, 1907, na Cedanke, a beautiful forested, salmon- and Ussuri tiger ­ rich river valley just north of the great bastion of Vladivostok.

During the profound reign of the last tsar of all the Russias [Nicholas II], his monarchist father managed to build, at the Eastern Bosphorus, a home and family, become a successful match factory owner, and foment a counter-revolution. Always at his father's side, Ted saw it all.

When the Bolsheviks took power, the family fled to north China, where the happy-go-lucky Ted ran guns to Outer Mongolia, became a lieutenant colonel of an armored train division in a warlord's army, and went through yet another revolution. In the Far East he met his three (!) future wives. Ted saw it all.

After a few more global adventures, and a few years in San Francisco, and a few great-grandchildren, he is now happily ensconced in Calistoga in the Bay Area with his last wife Mushka. Truly, Ted has seen it all.

If you have a moment, perhaps send Ted a note to help celebrate his milestone [his 90th birthday]...

We immediately did so, for Ted is an old respected friend. Perhaps some longtime Noe Valley residents will remember the gentleman who lived in our neighborhood for many years.

My man Leo and I first met Ted and Lucy Merkoloff 30 years ago at Edison Elementary School, on one of those evenings set up for parents to visit the classroom and discuss their child's progress with the teacher. Our youngest son, Eric, and his classmate Walter Merkuloff had Ms. Geinzer -- a dedicated teacher who worked hard to instill a love of learning in her students' young minds. The boys were doing well and had already formed a close friendship, so it was especially pleasing to become acquainted with the friendly couple who were Walter's parents.

The Merkoloffs lived at 20th and Church, only a short distance away, so over the years we became friends and learned their eventful life story. Speaking in a slight Russian accent, Ted delivered his accounts with such passion, Leo and I often sat spellbound, marveling at his irrepressible spirit.

When Ted was a young man, his family fled to China after the Bolshevik revolution. I've never forgotten his description of running guns across the barren and formidable Gobi Desert. He rarely encountered anyone, he told us, but when he did, it was usually a band of Mongols -- indigenous nomads who would invite him into their tent to share what little they possessed with a weary and hungry stranger.

Throughout his life, whenever Ted performed an unsolicited act of generosity, as he often did, he remembered the kindness of these nomads, saying, "I do it for the Mongols."

Ted was again forced to flee his home after the revolution in China. This time he escaped to the Philippine Islands, and there awaited a relief ship headed for a haven somewhere in the West.

During his stay in the Philippines, Ted met Lucy, another refugee escaping from China and his soon-to-be second wife. Much enamored of Lucy, Ted was determined to persuade her to marry him, even though she was engaged to another man. Lucy did not encourage him, yet he persisted.

Some of the older women among the refugees urged Lucy to wed this charming but penniless suitor. After all, he came from a distinguished Russian family. But others advised her to wait and marry the absent but affluent gentleman to whom she was already engaged.

Through it all, Ted refused to be discouraged, and conjured up a scheme to turn the tide in his favor. Since he no longer possessed a wardrobe, he spent his last $10 on a fine bathing suit. Then, with everyone on the beach watching, he strode into the surf, plunged into the waves, and swam out to sea -- far out of sight. Once there, he paddled just enough to keep his head above water, drifting with the tide, floating on his back, anything to pass an hour or two. This was a piece of cake for him, because in his youth he had competed as an open ocean swimmer.

When ample time had passed, he headed for shore, and as he rose from the surf, a roar of relief went up from the crowd. More importantly, when he saw Lucy's tearful, fearful expression transform to joyfulness, he knew he had won her heart at last.

The refugee ship arrived, and the lovebirds married and honeymooned on board, in the company of refugees who, like them, had little more than the bare necessities. One might assume that the voyage was a terrible ordeal, but in fact it was a high point in their lives. Their secret was that they were able to find enjoyment in the simplest of activities. Whenever a birthday of one of the passengers was approaching, they quietly hoarded pennies until they had enough to buy some tea leaves. On the appointed day, they brewed up a pot, and everyone partook of the rare treat as though it were a glass of champagne!

After many moons and many ports, the ship docked at the Dominican Republic in the West Indies. Ted and Lucy were given temporary asylum until they could emigrate to the United States. As a young man, Ted had visited San Francisco and found it so enticing that he vowed to someday return. As soon as their visas arrived, the couple took a boat to Florida, then boarded a Greyhound bus that delivered them to the Bay Area.

We met Ted and Lucy a decade or so later, in the early '60s, after they had ac-quired their house in Noe Valley, where they were raising their daughter Natalie (Natasha) and son Walter (Vladimir).

We found Lucy to be a warm friend and loving mother and were charmed by her elegant manner of speech and style. The first time I saw her she was wearing a fur hat like those seen in Russian films. For the school bake sale, she brought Russian piroshski -- delicious pastries filled with meat and onions -- instead of cupcakes. When I gobbled down four, one after another, she kindly gave me her recipe. I have prepared and served piroshkis many times, and I always think of Lucy when I do.

When our sons graduated from James Lick Middle School, I sat with them as Ted and Lucy proudly watched Walter, who gave the valedictorian speech.

But Lucy had already developed a heart condition that soon took her life, leaving the family bereft, especially Ted. He was inconsolable, and everyone worried about him. Friends and relatives from all over the country, alerted by the Russian grapevine, wrote letters of sympathy and words of advice.

One lady even offered her young daughter as a wife who would take good care of him. But to us he confided that he did not want a girl, he wanted a woman! And eventually he found her -- a mature, graceful "womanchka" named Mushka ("Little Fly"). She worked at the Russian Center, on the White Rus-sian community newspaper Russian Life.

Amazingly, Ted had known Mushka when she was a ballet dancer in North China -- a prima ballerina! Naturally, he began spending most of his time at the Russian Center, and it was not long before he had won Mushka's heart, too.

With Ted's children grown, the newlyweds moved to "the Avenues," where, as San Franciscans know, a large Russian-American colony now flourishes. The communication between our families dwindled to an exchange of cards at Christmas. A year ago, Ted and Mushka moved to Calistoga, to be closer to Natasha, who is now married.

Through most of his life, Ted has been unable to visit the place of his birth. During the Soviet regime, Vladivostok was a closed and guarded naval base. But after the fall of the U.S.S.R., the city reopened its gates. And Ted, one of the last living survivors of those who took part in the counterrevolution against the Bolsheviks, was invited in 1993 to attend a long overdue celebration -- as a guest of honor. On a newly established direct flight, he returned after 71 years to the fortress city of his birth. He was accompanied by his son Walter, who still lives in Noe Valley.

Once there, Ted met the mayor and vice mayor, who held a news conference at City Hall in his honor. He donated his historical and original photos to the Provincial Museum, where he was also interviewed by the local historian. Later he saw himself on Russian television.

Yes, our 90-year-old friend has led a remarkable life. Leo and I can only say, Fyodor "Ted" Nikolaevich Merkuloff, we salute you!