From Offshore: The Gdansk Resistors
An explanation of an obscure reference, at the request of Jim Bridges
Thursday, October 06, 2016 11:53 AM
Doctor Bob, so called, was a scientist and a clown, a stilt-walker in parades, a nerd and a jester and an antique tractor buff, a mechanic and a Ph.D., a survivor of much, a genius and an oddball and a sort of unrelated uncle to more than one. He told me about the Polish resisters. Uh, resistors. Both.
Eva Murray lives, works and writes on Matinicus Island.
At some point we noticed that Doctor Bob wore a resistor — and by that I mean the electronics component, the thing that looks like a little cylinder of plastic with different colored stripes around it and a bit of wire sticking out of each end — on his jacket. Sure, he was an acknowledged science geek, with a license plate that said “DNA,” but there had to be more to it than that.
He taught us the meaning of the resistor-as-worn-symbol. Of course during the 1980s in Poland if you wore a Solidarnosc button you were setting yourself up to be fired, or beaten up, or arrested. Support of the trade union was dangerous. A small electrical widget was a more subtle symbol, and meant so many things: resistance to the current power structure (electrical puns a given), but also the silencing of media, as a radio had probably been gutted to get the resistor — and Polish news media had become twisted Orwellian double-speak anyway — and the rebel Walesa was, we should recall, an electrician.
On occasion I still wear a resistor that Doctor Bob gave me. My daughter, who with her dad rummaged around in our household resistor assortment (of course we have such stuff here), selected just the right ones to make earrings for high school physics class. Yes, she knew what the colored bands mean, how much resistance, in Ohms, each was rated for.
As it happens, because it is indeed a small world, I have some good friends who live mostly in Washington, D.C., and own a home on Matinicus. Marcia teaches Russian and related things at Georgetown; Martin works the Kyrgyzstan Desk at the State Department. Or Kazakhstan. I am not ignorant of the difference, but I think he’s had both posts. Anyway, our friends know a thing or two about Eastern Europe.
Marcia and Martin were going to Poland; she was presenting a scholarly paper at an international Dostoevsky conference or some such, and as it happens, their trip would include Gdansk, where the Solidarity movement began in the shipyards. “Can we bring you back something?” Most people want some local foodstuff or a little flag. I started to laugh. “You don’t want to ask me that. You do realize I have a brick from France in my oven.…”
I told the story of our mutual friend Tom Rankin suggesting that if I could find a way to obtain an authentic French brick and place it in my oven, I could claim to make “French brick oven baked bread,” you put the hyphens where you wish. My daughter took up long-distance bicycle racing in high school and next thing you knew she and her aunt were headed for the Tour de France. “What can I bring you back,” she asked, and I replied quite seriously, “A brick.”
It is quite difficult, when you are merely a tourist and without better-than-average French, to get somebody to actually sell you a brick in Paris. She managed.
Anyway, I replied to Marcia’s question with the story of the French brick, and a little bit about the Lithuanian socket wrench which is another story, but Marcia is a tough egg and she persisted. “What is it you want?” by now rather intrigued.
“Resistors from the Gdansk shipyards.”
It was my intention to give an authentic Polish resistor to Doctor Bob. He was not well and I hoped to make the presentation while he was up and around and on his bicycle, if not his stilts. He had cancer and had lost a good portion of his innards to the surgeons already, and his tractor-ogling years might be numbered. (Bob Andersen died a few months after I gave him the Polish resistors at the 2014 Common Ground Fair.)
Being both quite expert on the usual topics of Eastern Europe, Marcia and Martin both knew all about Lech Walesa and the history of the Solidarity trade union and the oppression inflicted upon Polish people. They did not know much about electronics components or where to buy them, but they’d had tougher duties than that back in Soviet days, and they accepted the mission.
I was a little bit concerned that this story might sound a bit far-fetched, and I wanted it to be believable, and to be especially meaningful to Doctor Bob when I finally did present him with the resistors from the old country. “And bring back the receipt!”