Beneath the Darkest Sky

Jason Overstreet

BENEATH THE DARKEST SKY

This book is dedicated to the memory of Lovett Fort-Whiteman.

“An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

—W.E.B. Du Bois

Acknowledgments

To my family: I love y’all! Thanks, Frank Weimann, Selena James, Lulu Martinez, James Fugate, Ben Jealous, Vanny Nguyen, Deborah Burton-Johnson, Anne Saller, Gabby Gruen, and Ryan Herr. All of you have been so kind and supportive.

Thanks to the helpful folks at UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library. A writer has never felt so at home. I’d be remiss not to mention how indebted I am to Professor Mark Hamilton for setting me on my creative path. And finally, I want to acknowledge the passing of a dear friend and artist, Deanna Hamro, who we lost in 2016. All of us love and miss you so much, DD!

1

Moscow, Russia

August 1937

I SAT AT THE DINING ROOM TABLE WITH MY FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD TWINS, James and Ginger, waiting for my wife to come home for dinner. Six o’clock turned to seven and then eight. No sight of her and no telephone call either.

I’d asked the children to go ahead and eat their pot roast and vegetables from the Torgsin grocery, but they couldn’t muster up an appetite, consumed with worry over their absent mother. In the twenty-plus years we’d been together, she’d never been late for a planned dinner. I knew something was wrong.

When the clock struck nine, I sent the children to bed. Shortly thereafter was a hard knock on the door, and I rushed to answer. Two large NKVD policemen, “blue tops” we called them, stood there stone-faced. Both mustached, one five-eleven and stocky, the other six-three and broad shouldered.

“Is your name Prescott Sweet, and is this your residence?” the stocky one asked in Russian, which I spoke fluently.

“Yes, Prescott Sweet. That is me. What is the problem, officers?”

They looked at each other, obviously a bit surprised that I’d responded in the Russian tongue, something they hadn’t expected from a colored American.

“Come with us,” the tall one said, reaching out and grabbing my arm.

I flung it free and stepped back into the living room. “Tell me what this is about,” I said. “Where is my wife? Loretta Sweet! What have you done to her?”

“She has been jailed for being a counterrevolutionary,” he said. “Now… come with us.”

“She is no such thing!” I said.

They both rushed me, and I swung at the stocky one, connecting to his jaw and dropping him, his hat rolling across the floor. The other took his baton and rapped me on the side of my head, cutting my left ear open. Before I could move again, both were on top of me, cuffing my wrists behind my back within seconds.

“This is a fucking strong black baboon,” said one, digging his knee into my spine. These were two of the most physically imposing and robust men I’d ever encountered. Two of Stalin’s finest.

“Daddy!” cried Ginger from the front hallway.

“I’m fine, sweetheart,” I said, still speaking Russian, as both of my children were also fluent. “They’ve made a terrible mistake and I’ll clear it all up. Daddy will be right back. Wait here with your brother.”

James came storming down the hallway from his back room and tackled the tall one.

“Stop, son!” I yelled, as the blue top grabbed him around the neck and threw him to the floor so easily it was as if he were throwing a sack of potatoes. Then he cuffed him, yanked him up, and led him outside.

“Don’t you dare hurt my boy!” I groaned.

The stocky one, still on top of me, jumped up and grabbed Ginger by the arm, leading her out as well.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart!” I shouted, rocking back and forth on my belly, wrists cutting at the metal cuffs, chin held up from the floor, blood pouring out of my ear. “Daddy will be there to get you right away. You hear me?”

As I lay there on the floor alone listening to the painful sound of car doors slamming outside, my instinct still had me trying to break free from the cuffs. But this was only causing more injury.

“Come!” said the returning tall blue top, yanking me up by my extended arms, damn near dislocating my shoulders.

“You sons of bitches!” I screamed. “Don’t you lay a finger on my daughter!”

“Come!” he repeated, leading me outside and to the backseat of his parked black vehicle. With my son sitting next to me, I turned and watched the other blue top get in the car behind us, where Ginger had been placed. I was numb. I was helpless.

“Where are your passports?” said the tall one, so quickly his Russian was hard to pick up. He stood there holding my door open. “All of your family’s passports! Where?”

“They are in a brown leather bag,” I said, grimacing, blood streaming down my cheek. “In the back room on the left. They’re inside the closet.”

* * *

“Podozhdite!” he said, slamming the door.

Forty-eight hours later, having spent them in an eight-by-eight dark closet of a jail cell at Taganka Prison with my son, James, hugging me and crying nonstop, we were escorted to a train in the cover of darkness. We had already stood in front of a three-person panel of Soviet officials, a “troika” the guard who’d opened our jail cell had called them. They’d informed us that we’d been officially sentenced to ten years of prison for our involvement in counterrevolutionary activities. A complete fabrication!

The lights streaming above and along the tracks were bright, and the line facing our train car was made up of distraught and petrified men, all of them white, perhaps a few of them foreign like us, but most probably Russian. Not a woman in sight.

“ON YOUR KNEES!” shouted a blue top policeman, his vicious canine growling up and down the line. “And keep your heads down.”

All of us did as he said. On our knees we remained for a good hour, waiting for God knows what. With my blue suit pants digging into the rocky dirt, I noticed the bloodstains on the sleeves of my white dress shirt from the cutting cuffs that night. Staying still, I could see in my periphery that there were hundreds of men in both directions waiting to board the other cars as the NKVD surveyed all of us like animals about to be herded into a slaughterhouse. NKVD was simply the joint law enforcement agency for all of the Soviet Union. Whether policemen, military soldiers, intelligence agents, traffic directors, border and prison guards, firefighters, etcetera, they all fell under the NKVD umbrella. Most people just referred to any and all officials as NKVD, mainly because, regardless of title, they each acted without limitation and were part of this mysterious authority machine.

We could hear the blue tops roaming about, perhaps inspecting the train and checking individuals for weapons. I figured if anyone even hinted at trying to stand they’d shoot him. Perhaps this was a simple test. Finally, the officers began poking individuals with their guns one by one and telling them to stand and get in line.

“You… give me your papers, zek!” he said, the tip of his rifle digging into my shoulder.

The troika had given me a document, so I reached into my pants pocket and handed it to him.

“You’re an American! Do you have your passport?”

“Yes.”

“Give it to me!”

Again I dug in my pocket and handed it over.

“Is this your son, zek?”

“Yes,” I said. “Give him your passport and papers, son.”

James did as I said and the officer read.

“Both of you, stand… now!”

James and I got up and rushed to get in line. At least the blue tops had some kernel of humanity within them, because I hadn’t been certain they’d allow the two of us to stay together. Still, I kept my fingers crossed, hoping this would remain the case.

As we stood in line, a guard walked the line and checked all of our passports once more. He wrote each of our names down on a list. I assumed it was for later roll calls.

I made quick observations as I boarded the car. To the right was a compartment with a regular wooden door. It was open and inside was a bunk bed, an NKDV uniform hanging on the wall, and two cushioned seats, obviously the living quarters for this car’s guards.

Returning my focus straight ahead, it was fairly dark, the windows to my left along the corridor covered with heavy curtains. It stank of sweat and tobacco throughout. A few lit lanterns hung along the corridor wall, but most remained off. There were compartments to our right, six wooden seats in each—sets of three facing one another.

I counted ten compartments total, or cages, if you will, as the only thing separating them were heavy, black chain-mail curtains. As we continued down the corridor, the smell of urine and feces became intense. Just as I began to cover my nose, an officer far ahead in front yelled for us to stop. I had been so consumed with studying how they’d reconstructed the car for the sole purpose of transporting prisoners that I bumped hard into the man in front of me. James and I were now standing in f ...

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