I first met Alexei Kondratiev at one of the first meetings of the New York City Audubon Society back in 1980. He went up to me and asked me if I was a fan. I was rather taken aback to hear that at an Audubon meeting and asked him how he knew to ask that question. He smiled and said, "I thought that was you." He recognized me from EmpiriCon, a science fiction convention that I helped start and run when LunaCon moved out of New York City. Back then, none of my fannish friends were into birding and I had just joined the birding community the year before and didn't know any birders who were science fiction or comic book fans (though that would eventually change).
It's great to have a friend with whom you share disparate interests and Alexei and I started out that way and would soon discover others. My interest in things anthropological also coincided with an interest Alexei and I shared, but there was a huge difference in degree. Alexei knew anthropology of hundreds of different peoples on a level that seemed to me to be expert. I could ask him any question and he could answer it. One of my favorite magazines was Natural History (it was bundled with membership in the Museum of Natuiral History back then) and he was like an entire library of that magazine and the bibliographies besides (including the nature articles, I might add). Then I found out he taught Celtic Mythology at the Irish Arts Center on 51st St & 11th Ave. and took his class.
What a class! A lot of teachers can teach the facts of a subject and teach them well. Alexei's teaching style was far beyond that. He made the time periods and locales he was talking about come alive. He also related the peoples' points of views to the modern day in some way so everything was relevant no matter how strange it might have seemed in someone else's article on the same subject. He related religion, lifestyle and all the other aspects of a culture in fascinating ways.
After his class, we'd go out to eat at this incredible Chinese restaurant on the corner of 51st & 9th. Chinatown quality in Hell's Kitchen with huge portions. He got Kung Pao Shrimp and I got Orange Chicken about half the time. We went there for years until the place finally closed down. The conversation during those dinners felt like another hour of class just for me. And I knew what a privilege I was enjoying even at the time.
I've read several books on my favorite Celtic stories, of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna, and none of them come anywhere close to getting to know them as well as I did in one hour of Alexei's class on the subject. I enjoyed the stories so much I taped one of his classes so I could hear him tell the stories over and over.
Inspired by my enthusiasm, Mercy Van Vlack got into the Fianna as well and there were always one or two Fianna illustrations when she illustrated the Celtic League American Branch's Celtic Calendar. To me, the Fianna embodied much of what I like about Robin Hood or Doc Savage. Alexei always smiled when he heard me tell someone what I liked about the Fianna. When Mercy was picked to do the CLAB Celtic Calendar, I think he'd think over which Fianna story he wanted Mercy to draw next because he was always ready with some for Mercy to pick from.
I was hesitant to take his Celtic Christianity course at first. This was during Reagan, remember, and to my mind Reagan, the televangelists of the time and their followers were giving Christians a bad name and I had an aversion to taking a course on Christianity. But the course was taught by Alexei Kondratiev and we'd had enough conversations by then for me to realize emotionally as well as intellectually that this would be pretty far from being like any class that, say, Jerry Falwell would teach.
Another great class! And again, context! He put the early days of the church in the context of what else went on in the world during and before the events he was relating. He realized that Americans have little grounding in European history, so he included that in the class. So besides learning about how religion was changing in Europe in the first thousand years C.E., I also learned more European history in those ten weeks than I'd learned in my entire life to that point. And of course he made those thousand years relevant to today, especially the politics surrounding Christianity in its first millennium, particularly sexual politics. Some controversies in the church go back two thousand years, such as whether people are born good or are born in sin.
I remember one Chinese dinner after one of his Christianity classes where two students joined us, a Roman Catholic priest and a Theology teacher from John Jay College. I felt totally out of my league in such company as those three and mostly just listened, yet I did join in the conversation a little and was treated with respect, I think mostly because the priest and teacher knew I was friends with Alexei. The people I met through Alexei!
Eventually, my attending those classes, and my friendship with Alexei, led me to joining the Celtic League American Branch and eventually its Board of Directors and I became its webmaster.
Those classes and my friendship with Alexei also led to the creation of Vidorix the Druid for Evolution Comics. During those dinners, I learned that he'd had some science fiction stories published in French in Quebec. I also saw what a great story-teller he was. One of our motivations for creating Evolution Comics was that I was tired of having my intelligence insulted by the comic books coming out at the time, especially from the corporate comic book companies. There were too many examples of comics that did NOT do that for me to just settle for any ol' thing just because it was comics, even a favorite character.
When E. Nelson Bridwell died, Mercy Van Vlack and I decided to stop complaining and do something about it. Alexei was the first writer I called. I knew his stories would be fun to read, that he knew how to write fiction and that he would never insult anyone's intelligence.
His initial response was no. But he changed his mind when he came up with the idea of a time-traveling druid. He realized that he could treat every time period as a character in the story and the visual aspect of comics would help make each time and place come alive.
Now I was my teacher's editor. An interesting place to be in, but I never thought of it that way at the time. I thought of it as getting the type of comics I wanted and sharing them with fandom. I thought of it as sharing the wonderful mind of Alexei Kondratiev with comics fandom.
I had each Evolution Comics writer come up a description of the storyline and give a detailed description of the characters. I would discuss this with each writer and then give that to the artists of the series. The artist's sketch of the characters was then given back to the writer to make sure everything was working well. With the amount of history and mythology in Vidorix, that was especially important. In fact, artist Jim Fletcher, Alexei and I got together in Jim's apartment for this process.
For over half an hour, Alexei described Vidorix and Jim sketched. He went into great detail on the look and clothing of the character; the fact that Vidorix looks a bit like Alexei probably has something to do with them working up the character in person. After half an hour, Alexei was satisfied with what Jim sketched, but then Jim asked more questions for at least another 15 minutes. He wanted still more detail.
I remember being really excited by the teamwork that was developing before my eyes and not interrupting nor feeling a desire to interrupt. Jim had said when he took the job at less money per page than he was getting from Marvel or Heavy Metal that he didn't look upon it as a cut in pay, but in being paid to learn Celtic culture from an expert. Now why would I want to interrupt the creative process between two people like that!
I'll always wonder what would have happened if Capital City Distribution hadn't gone under. We had great sales from them and might have been able to continue. Alexei told me about what he was going to do with issues 8-10, which was to take place in Ireland and have Margaret Thatcher being influenced by The Grid. That's where the relationship between Nolwenn and Vidorix would develop. The Irish companion that would join them for the rest of the series would be gay, but that wouldn't be obvious at first. Sort of like Alexei himself. All of us missed out on some great stories!
I also remember being disappointed by the script for issue #3. It was interesting, but it just wasn't fun. There was no suspense. It was sort of like reading an outline rather than a whole story. I told Alexei that either stuff had to be cut or the story had to be doubled in size. Instead of the Iona story being two parts, it could be three. It's the kind of freedom you have in independent comics. Alexei chose the lengthening option, of course (I think most writers would have). He was pleased that some story elements that he cut because he didn't have the room could be put back. That is probably the reason why the next storyline was also three parts.
At some point in the early '80s, I organized a Big Day. That's a term birders use to describe a day where they try to see as many different species as possible. Our goal was always 100 species in New York City. At first, we rented a car and went from Central Park to Van Cortlandt Park (in the Bronx) to Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge (near Kennedy Airport in Queens). The next year we went from Central Park to Forest Park in Queens to Jamaica Bay. Then we just took a subway from Central Park to Jamaica Bay. It was Alexei, Mercy and me joined by Dale Dancis for a few years and also Erich Heinemann and Tom Fiore in some years. We usually got close to 100, sometimes more, sometimes less. (It was Erich's first day of birding ever, by the way.)
On one of those Big Days I saw my first Woodcock, a fly-by near the Jamaica Bay parking lot. It was such a fleeting glance I wasn't sure if I'd count such a life bird. Alexei asked me for my impressions and then assured me that it was a Woodcock I saw. When I wondered if it was a snipe, I remember him saying enthusiastically, "Then you saw the bill!" Then he asked me questions to separate Woodcock from snipe. I was still hesitant, but later while looking under bushes for Bobwhites, there was a Woodcock close up! All field marks visible to the naked eye. I reacted with wonderment and enthusiasm as so many birders do when they see a sought-after species for the first time (called a life bird, the first time in your life you see and/or identify a species of bird). I remember Alexei smiling as Erich asked, "Now do you believe that you saw a Woodcock?"
In the early '80s, Alexei taught a Beginning Birding class for New York City Audubon. I took the class mostly because I was friends with the teacher. One of the points he stressed was that a birder should know the common birds so well that when he saw something that was different, he'd know it was a different species and that would lead him to figure out which species it was. If you see a flock of all the same bird and something similar is with them, but is not one of them, it should stick out when you see it.
I once put that knowledge to good use when a friend of mine dropped his contact lens in the slush next to his car. I thought of Alexei and instead of trying to find the contact lens in with the bits of ice and snow, I thought that one of the ice crystals was going to look different from the others and that would be the contact lens. I found the lens in seconds, much to the wonderment of my friend. "I was using birdwatching techniques." "I don't care how you found it, I'm just glad you did!" I called Alexei the next day. I had to tell someone who'd understand and of course he did.
Alexei could tell a Ring-Billed Gull from a Herring Gull in an instant even from a distance in bad light. I was amazed by his ability to do that. He reminded me of his class and I said, "But they're BOTH common birds. How can you tell them from a distance like that?" "Because they look different from one another." I just shook my head at the time. Eventually, I got to become a good-enough birder that I could often do that, too. And whenever I do, I think of Alexei.
I remember my first trip to Jamaica Bay with Alexei, walking around the West Pond and him predicting a Yellowlegs (I forget Lesser or Greater) around the corner near the terrapin nesting area. "How do you know it'll be there?" He didn't get a chance to explain before we rounded the corner and there the Yellowlegs was. I realize now it was because of habitat and time of year and I've done the same thing since with different birds, but at the time I thought he was a birding wizard. Well, he was, but not for that reason.
I also think of Alexei when I see a Solitary Sandpiper because it was the first bird I ever identified correctly over what Alexei said it was (Spotted Sandpiper). It was early in the morning on a Big Day, on the edge of Dragonfly Pond (since renamed Turtle Pond after the rare dragonflies disappeared when the Parks Dept. drained it - Alexei could identify dragonflies to species, too, of course).
When I did my first Birds and Birding show on Eco-Logic, Alexei was one of the people I asked to come on. He knew more about international conservation efforts than the other three guests combined. I remember one guest asking me after the show with just a little awe in his voice, "Where did you FIND him?" He was as impressive to his colleagues, in whatever field you care to name, as he was to people who were merely interested observers.
Probably the most difficult families of American birds to identify to species are the empidonax flycatchers. Take a look through the internet and you'll see what I mean. I fancy myself pretty good at them, but nowhere near as good as Alexei. My life Gray Flycatcher is thanks to him and I'll always wonder which empie I saw in Glacier National Park (Alexei wasn't with us on that trip). I really like empies, but few other birders do. It was another aspect of birding that Alexei and I shared.
With a name like Kondratiev, he of course had Russian ancestry and for a while, his family had a Russian Easter celebration every year. As you might imagine, the people who attended the party were fascinating in a number of ways. There were Easter rituals I saw for the first time there, some of them clearly extending to pre-Christian times.
Among my strongest memories of those Easters was being in a room full of people and realizing there was only one other person besides me who only spoke English. There were speakers, often native speakers, of French, Russian, Spanish, Irish, Welsh, Scots-Gaelic and I forget what else. And who was Alexei hanging out with at the time? Al, the other English-only guy there. The two of them were in the corner laughing and laughing. I learned later that Al was his lover and when Al passed away a few years ago, Alexei was really pleased that I thought of Al with that image.
In 1991, Mercy Van Vlack and I went on one of our cross-country trips with our friend Art Lewandowski and this time we brought Alexei with us. It would be his first two appearances as a guest at a comic book convention, in Chicago and then San Diego, on consecutive weekends. In between we stopped at a number of National Parks, such as Rocky Mountain NP, Capital Reefs, Cedar Breaks, Zion, Bryce, the Grand Canyon and many others and I have no doubt whatsoever that we saw many more birds because Alexei was with us than we would have otherwise. Not just because he was an extra pair of eyes, but because he was such an educated pair of eyes and ears. He recognized calls of birds he had never seen and knew just where to look. It was amazing what he saw. What we saw. (All four of us saw a Roadrunner on that trip, but none of us saw the same one.)
This was the trip where we got to see Alexei's, ah, imperfections. He had to be reminded to put on sunscreen and had to be reminded to drink something while we were in the desert (in a very small non-air conditioned car). And when you began a conversation with him, he wouldn't answer, say, "Are you hungry, Alexei?" because he wouldn't hear it because he'd be so deep in thought. You had to say, "Alexei, are you hungry?" because he'd only come out of his concentration when he heard his name.
We also got to experience his wide knowledge in many other things. We were visiting my cousin in Albuquerque when I heard Alexei say from the kitchen, "Wow! A False Whip-Scorpion!" My cousin's girlfriend reacted instantly with "Not in MY kitchen!" then scooped it up in some container and threw it outside before Mercy or I could see what a False Whip-Scorpion looked like. I guess we'll never see one in real life.
That trip was my first one to southeast Arizona, a birding Mecca, one of the best birding areas in the U.S. (although you wouldn't know it from any of the Arizona visitors centers at the time). On our way, we went through Wilcox, Arizona and there was a store called the Friends of the Library Bookstore. Being Book People, we all went in and they were selling paperbacks for 35 cents, three for a dollar.
Most used bookstores back then didn't have very large science fiction sections. This one did. I picked up a few then suddenly realized I was in the presence of one of the most well-read science fiction fans I know. I asked Alexei to recommend books and at those prices, bought every one he recommended. I think I bought around two dozen books. It probably took me a year or more to read them all. I didn't like every single one, but I could see why he liked the ones that I didn't : they either had a Russian protagonist or locale or had a language aspect to them. Of course that would appeal more to him than to me. The rest were excellent.
And when we got to the Madera Canyon/Ramsey Canyon area, I remember getting 40 (!) life birds and Alexei probably got 35 (Mercy probably got 45)! We had a happy bird-day indeed!
I have fond memories of another trip with Alexei a few years later, this one a combination comic book and birding trip. We visited our friend Kevin Gould in Dallas and did a signing at Keith's Comics (no longer in business due to some wretched Texas politics) then went to Houston to visit our friend Will Harbaugh, do another signing and also be guests at a small local convention in Galveston. Alexei met us in Houston and accompanied us to the convention and then to Brownsville (the southern tip of Texas), where we would be seeing a lot of birds that can only be seen in southern Texas (funny how he appeared at three comic conventions a thousand or more miles away, but never went to a NYC comic convention).
On the drive down, we were scanning through the radio and came across a Spanish station that caught Alexei's interest. Mercy knows a little Spanish, but not enough to catch on to the conversation. Alexei, on the other hand, was really enjoying it and loosely translated for us. They were discussing how ocean currents favored immigration from some countries over others and it wasn't fair. It was the kind of discussion you weren't likely to hear anywhere else and we would have missed it if Alexei wasn't with us.
We saw a Great Kiskadee (a large flycatcher). The name comes from its call and Alexei told us that the name in Spanish translates to "Christ Lives." The bird says "Christo Frie!" Christ is free!
At Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park along the Rio Grande, Alexei met a birder he knew from Queens who had retired there! Then it turned out we had a lot of New York birders in common. Some of the Texas birders got really angry at us for that. One man who I was lending my binoculars to refused to use them after he found out I was from New York. His loss and my gain: I got longer looks at the Altamira Oriole.
Also as we went south, I remember Alexei getting quite excited as the plant life along the road changed. The eco-system was gradually becoming more similar to Mexico's, despite all the ranches and any changes they made to the environment. It reminds me of a story he told me about walking through the jungle in Yucatan, going to Mayan ruins and also looking at the birds, butterflies and other animals, not to mention the plants. He told me he had an odd feeling he couldn't figure out at first until he realized he was happy and it was such an unfamiliar feeling to him that he didn't recognize it. I think of that story with the trip to southern Texas because we weren't all that far from the Yucatan and he clearly was pleasantly remembering his time there.
Alexei's interests included music and his love of all the languages and cultures of the world was reflected in his taste in music. He had music from all over the world and one of the last times I had him on the radio, I asked him to bring some cd's and he brought music from Easter Island, some modern Diné music, some traditional Welsh music and some modern African music. We could have done a regular world music show and never duplicated a culture.
But I also talked about heavy metal music with him! For all his wide-ranging knowledge, he was not a snob. Not even close! He was more interested in sharing his knowledge than in showing off his intellect. It wasn't that long ago that we were having a conversation about the classical music influences in Ozzie Osbourne's guitarist Randy Rhoads.
He also made music. He may not have looked like a harpist, but his harp-playing was enchanting. I loved listening to him play and also watching his stubby fingers move over the strings. When he played at a convention, I would hear a regular chorus of amazed "He plays harp, TOO?" I think I had the same thought the first time I heard him.
I almost forgot another way his love of all the languages and cultures of the world was reflected: in food. Alexei loved to eat and loved the variety of food available in New York City. Not only in restaurants, but in the ingredients available to him in ethnic markets so he could cook his own. I've been fortunate to have sampled his cooking and it was excellent. He especially loved spicy food and though I like it, too, he ate it much spicier than I do. There are peppers that are so hot, they burn your skin when you touch them. Alexei would add a lot of them when he cooked for himself. Fewer if he was cooking for someone else.
I can't end this personal tribute to Alexei without mentioning Len Rosenberg. I met Len in the mid-'70s via Legion of Super-Heroes fandom. He's a former member of Interlac and one of my best friends. I credit him with enhancing my interest and knowledge of the world's religions, past and present. As I got to know Alexei better, I had a good feeling that Len and Alexei would get along really well. They have a lot of overlapping interests, and are both extremely knowledgeable in those interests and great communicators and teachers.
So I introduced them at one of my Paleozoic parties in the early '80s and they hit it off really well. Very VERY well. They became lovers until Alexei's death. As Len became disabled and ended up in an extended care facility, Alexei was there, helping Len beyond the call of duty, to the call of love. That laughter I mentioned above with Al; I heard it between Len and Alexei, as well. And Alexei's family treated him like a son-in-law until he passed away only a few months later.
Isn't it ironic how a man who himself made a lot of people happy to be around considered himself an unhappy man. Well, with his passing, I have a great deal of unhappiness. When I spoke at his funeral, I opened with how honored I was to be chosen to speak and how honored I am that my life overlapped with Alexei's in so many ways. He cubbyholed himself, even while finding connections with everything else so people who knew him in one way wouldn't have the slightest inkling of his other interests and areas of expertise.
I then added, "I know at a lot of funerals, people say, 'We're not here to mourn his death, but to celebrate his life.' I respectfully disagree. A joy shared is doubled and a pain shared is halved and we are together to multiply the joy of all our good memories and fractionalize the pain that we are only left with memories." And that is one aspect of what this whole web page is about.
To hear one of the radio shows I did with Alexei and read a shorter eulogy to him, go to the 'Nuff Said! audio archives page.
Ken Gale, NYC, July 7 - 29, 2010
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