In March of 1958, five months after Sputnik began its first ninety-six
minute orbit around the earth, Life magazine ran a series-story
called Crisis In American Education. Two sixteen-year-old boys were
featured on the cover. EXCLUSIVE PICTURES OF A RUSSIAN SCHOOLBOY
VERSUS HIS US COUNTERPART, it read above their juxtaposed photographs.
The Russian, Alexei Kutzkov, frowns beneath a soot-streak moustache.
His shoulders disappear beneath an armor of fur. I can’t recall much
else about Alexei. Each time I’ve faced these two boys my focus has
perched upon the American. I’ve studied his grin, a white picket
fence, followed the swell of his acne-blemished cheeks, and stared at
his James Dean leather jacket, half-zipped over a wool sweater. This
is Stephen Lapekas of Chicago, Illinois. He is a vestige of the battle
Life lost to television in 1972, a faded reflection of my
nineteen-year-old self. He is my father.
A team of twelve Life reporters spent one month conducting
visitations to ninety public high schools throughout Sandburg’s “city
of the Big Shoulders.” “We’re looking for someone … more
average,” they explained to principals, stopping them in mid-reach for
honor roll lists. My dad didn’t even know anyone who was on Austin
High’s honor roll. He was a C student, Austin High’s top swimmer, and
thought of college as a golfer might think of a sand trap. Everybody
has to roll in sometime. He was Sandburg’s “Tool maker, stacker of
wheat,” an example of what every common, American boy should have
Jane Hernandez, a senior writer for Life, and photographer Tony
Jenkins documented my dad’s day-to-day life for one week. When he
asked why only a week, Jenkins answered, “Took God seven days to make
the world.” Their study started the day after he received a phone call
from Life‘s news editor, Tim Horton, who told my father he had
been selected out of seven-hundred other “candidates” to appear in
what was, at the time, one of the country’s most-read magazines.
Horton never talked in terms of a “story” as Jenkins had. Horton, my
father says, spoke of how life was like a lottery ticket, how this was
his winning number, and how if he just said ‘yes’ his face would
appear in the presence of icons like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe.
“Guess what, Dad? Remember those interviews I told you about? The ones
from school? With the reporters from Life?”
“No,” my grandfather said. He was crouched under the kitchen sink,
looking for a leak. Stephen stood above him. The name ‘Elvis’ was
still buzzing in his ear like a gnat. “Now give your brother that ride
to the library you promised him. Stanley says he’s got a project to
do, and I’ll be damned if the only thing that car is used for is so
you can go dancing with some fast girls at the Y.”
Over dinner my dad slid into a swamp of gravy and mashed potatoes and
forgot he had anything important to say even when his mother reached
over to pull him out.
“I know you would have rather had carrots, honey, but you still have
Jane Hernandez sat at the back of all of his classes, periods one
through six, and took down notes with the grace and efficiency of a
courtroom stenographer. My dad says he never knew what she was
writing. As she closed her notebook, the cover titled Stephen Lapekas
in black marker, he sometimes glimpsed pages that glowed with thick,
mysterious, pencil-lead scribbles. Tony usually sat with her, he
remembers, raising his camera in rhythm with his subject’s hand. “All
my teachers picked me for the easy ones,” my dad says. “If I have one
thing to thank the Russians for, it’s for making me a genius – if only
for a week”
One day after swim practice, photographer Tony Jenkins told my father
that he looked like he could use a ride home. By then the weeklong
study was two days from its end, and soon Life editors would
find themselves with the task of choosing only a few photos from over
“Mr. Jenkins,” he asked along the fifteen-minute drive from Austin
High to his house in Lourville, “who exactly is this kid in Russia?”
He had already tried asking Jane Hernandez the same question, but had
crumbled under his own apprehension. Aside from the fact that she only
spoke to my father when he said something she could write down,
Hernandez bore an uncanny resemblance to Connie Mitchler, the girl he
sat across from in fifth-period Geometry. Connie always had her head
in a book and was cold to classmates she wasn’t friends with.
Jenkins replied by reaching for the radio.
Beeep Beeep, Beeep Beeep.
Two chirps seized the airwaves. My dad says it sounded like the alarm
on the clock beside his bed. Except this sounded different, he
recalls, “like something from a long time ago, or a long ways away.”
This incessant beeping is the sound of Sputnik, an announcer
informed. Despite the recent launch of Explorer I, we cannot deny
that we have lost the Space Race. Will the Arms Race be next?
“Hear that?” Jenkins asked, twirling the knob. “That’s him. That’s who
this kid is,” and my dad still remembers the way the photographer’s
face pulled together, his features like folds in a sack, the cord
drawn tightly. As if at any second something terrible might happen.
In March, one month later, the article was published.
“Stephen Lapekas of Chicago,” it began, “starts out every school day
by meeting his high school steady, Penny Donahue, and heading for
Austin High. Ten minutes later he gets to Typing II class, slips
behind a large electric typewriter and another pleasant school day
begins.” A photograph of my father adjusting the tabulator, staring at
the Underwood as if at a lab specimen: “I type about a word a minute,”
he jokes in the box beneath. On the next page, a shot of my dad
walking back from a blackboard graffitied with mislabeled angles and
shapes, biting his lip to keep from laughing: “Stephen amuses the
class with his ineptitude,” the caption says.
Alexei’s pictures fill nearly the rest of the five-page article, and
in only one of them is he laughing: “When not reading Tolstoy or
Chekov, Alexei can be found playing fervent games of chess with
classmates,” reads one caption. In the photograph overhead he is
seated across from Oleg Koryokavsky, a schoolmate, chuckling because
the game is almost over and as the last line of the caption reveals,
On page thirty-nine, the third page of the article, “Alexei labors
with keen concentration upon a Gaz truck in shop class. Though he is
college applicant, he must still take vocational courses because they
are in curriculum.” His classmates clamber around him, friends of his
or the camera?
On the next page my father stands at the head of his English class,
under fifty stars and thirteen stripes, reading aloud from Great
Expectations. His finger follows the words while a girl seated at
the back peruses the pages of Modern Romances, which she has
tucked tightly inside her notebook.
On another page my father can be found dancing with Penny. The photo
is black-and-white like all the rest but I know his shoes are blue
suede. He still has them. He keeps them in his closet. Each scuff
looks like a scar. “After-school theatrics,” proclaims the caption
under this page-sized picture, “occupies Stephen Lapekas who, with
Penny Donahue (right), dances Rockin’ Cha at the YMCA. Stephen spent
four hours a week for two months rehearsing the YMCA centennial.”
And on the page directly beside this one, “After school study brings
Alexei Kutzkov to the curtained silence of his home. Alexei, who
seldom has a date, spends three to four hours a night on homework.”
Alexei, alone, a silhouette hunched over his desktop. Dancing with
famous names and dates and numbers in the dark.
A photo of Alexei on the Russian subway, paging through a textbook at
the side of a girl who is identified as a possible love interest:
“Alexei’s interest in the opposite sex has been slow to progress, but
just lately has he shown interest in the young Sonia Kolkutzi.” She is
a clone of the other Russian teenage girls pictured, boyish and
plain-featured, and built bigger than the meager Alexei. Her hands
look bloodless, nearly transparent.
“She looks like Miss Sloggard,” Donald observed, drawing laughter.
Miss Sloggard was the girl’s gym teacher at Austin High. She had the
strange and much talked about tendency of winking at the girls she
My father and his two friends were sprawled out on the living room
floor, each boy fanning through his copy. My grandmother had bought
out Bray’s Newsstand that morning. One issue ran a quarter. She was
planning on putting away six for “safe-keeping” and letting each of
Stephen’s friends keep one.
Donald snickered, “Penny is so much hotter than this whore. She’s
flatter than a fucking board!”
My grandfather suddenly appeared in the doorway, holding that
morning’s paper with hands creased from brush and bucket handles. He
was a house painter but lived like a farmer, waking and walking home
under skies dark enough to spot stars. My father has told me that in
the last days of his life he staggered at a severe stoop, as if he
were carrying a bag of flour on his back, and when he talked it was to
the carpet. Morticians were forced to break his back so he could be
laid flat inside his coffin when he died.
“Are girls and pictures all you boys pretend to be experts on?” he
demanded to know.
Each boy, unwilling to answer, read or pretended to read under the
weight of my grandfather’s stare. My father was one of those who
An English reporter, working with a Russian-based newspaper, called my
father in 1998. She had done her research. She knew everything about
my dad: His middle name, birthday, age, place of residence, place of
employment, marriage status (once-divorced). She knew about his
article in Life, and thought that the past forty-years could
yield something worthy of writing about.
“This is merely an offer,” she told my father, “but I thought perhaps
it would lie in your best interests and in the ones of my newspaper
that a follow-up be done … ”
“No thank you,” he said, as if she had interrupted him out of dinner
to try to sell him a vacuum cleaner or a new long-distance plan.
“No thank you,” he said, and then hung up.
“That magazine is a product of the time,” my dad said to me once after
recounting his phone call from Russia.
Life had not used one of Tony Jenkin’s photographs that
featured my father shooting a basketball, swinging a baseball bat, or
cupping his hands through Austin High’s Olympic-sized swimming pool.
He lettered in all three sports, but Hernandez only made mention of
his athletic abilities at the end of the article: “Stephen’s
extracurricular activities, in which he really shows talent and
energy, leave him little time for hard study.”
Two years ago my father fell down during one of our games of
one-on-one basketball at the YMCA. He saw me stutter-step and made a
charge for the paint, but instead slipped and fell to the hardwood
floor fast enough for me to remember the heart attack my uncle
recently had had. He pushed away my hand when I extended it to him,
then hobbled off toward the bleachers, holding the knee he had fallen
on. He looked nothing like the lean fifty-year-old I remembered from
our vacation in California, when I was ten then and had kept under his
shadow during our morning walks along the steep, cable-car streets.
But he looked like an old man that day in the gym, only a matter of
years later, as he limped to the bleachers, showing me his back.
Now my father is an airline pilot for TWA with a year left before he
turns sixty and is forced to retire. He met my mother in the seventies
when she was a stewardess for the same airline, before she quit to
stay at home and raise me. She had stories. People she met. OJ Simpson
once asked her on a date during a trip to Vegas, to which she (thank
God) said no; and Sonny Bono once called her the prettiest girl at
30,000 feet. My father saw her with the same eyes. They were married
one month after she brought him coffee in the cockpit for the first
time and commented over the curls of steam, “I wish all flyboys were
as cute as you.”
After two years they fell out of lust. In another four, my mom told
me, they fell out of love. It was that simple. But for eighteen years
they stayed married. Then flyboy flew away and the prettiest girl at
thirty thousand feet received custody. My father was on the edge of
retirement. No one knew what should come next.
The only things that seem real anymore: Their arguments over the
phone, my visits to his apartment, and this magazine which I’ve
brought down from the attic. I wonder where Penny is today when I turn
to the photograph of her and my dad walking hand-in-hand through
suburban Chicago. My mother cried when she heard they danced at his
reunion. This was a few months ago in November. He gave me the details
over dinner. They talked at the bar between songs, my father about
their senior prom, his hand around a beer, and Penny about being
lonely, her hand around him. They had the whole night. What was
Sputnik? What was shame?