I chose one path, he the other: A memoir of Mexico, circa 1975

The spy who snatched Baryshnikov

5 minute read
Baryshnikov: Escape by night.
Baryshnikov: Escape by night.
Those of us more or less annual regulars at the Sotovento/Catalina Cliff Club in Zihuatanejo knew each other to some degree. The depth of this knowledge ran the gamut from established friendships to polite recognition, none of which extended to the palapa wars we waged against each other.

Beginning in the late '60s on Zihuatanejo's delightful Playa la Ropa (Mexican for the beach of clothes"“ named for washed-up garments from a shipwreck off this placid Pacific Ocean bay front, so the legend goes), in order to gain profound shade and beach chairs and establish ownership for the day, you had to descend 100 or more steps carved into the cliff before sunrise to place magazines or books on a choice palapa. Soon we snowbirds were setting travel alarms for 4 a.m., then 3 a.m., to beat midnight assaults.

At the Sotovento/Catalina, no one complained of Montezuma's revenge— only lack of sleep in competing for the limited number of shade rich palapas supplied by the hotel management.

A distinguished greybeard

One January in the '70s, apprehensive about new competition, I tried to size up a distinguished-looking greybeard who shared with us the fourth of the seven terraces of our seven-tiered hotel. He had stopped evidently for conversation. I didn't recognize the gentleman and remarked to my wife, after settling into my daily fresh orange juice and dark rum on the terrace that ran the length of our ocean-view tier, "He was speaking English, but I couldn't quite get the accent."

My question was answered several days later during another late afternoon orange juice-and-rum recovery session. I watched as the newcomer emerged from his room and set up his own medicinals.

From my vantage point I couldn't make out the contents of the two large bottles, but my curiosity was encouraged by an invitation to join the stranger. (The bottles turned out to be two imperial quarts, one gin, one scotch.)

"Richard Sinclair," he introduced himself and motioned me to a chair. "Canadian," he announced when I questioned his accent, "but to England and the RAF in 1938. 1938 before the war, which I believed inevitable. So I ditched college and took up the Sinclair tradition of fighting for Great Britain. I am," he stated with no sign of romantic emotion, "the only son of a father killed in the First World War who was the only son of a Sinclair killed in the Boer War."

Sons bred to service

I took a large gulp of the drink nearest me as the image of what he had said sunk in. British traditions of scarlet uniforms and duty seemed as foreign as our cobbled streets in Society Hill while Zihuantanjo Bay lapped gently below us. Laggards were still wandering the beach. "Don't you realize it's cocktail time?" my inner voice screamed at them, and I took another gulp of the nearest drink as I considered the image of the only sons born and bred to fall in service to the crown.

"So you flew in the Battle of Britain won by the Spitfires," I offered.

"The Hurricanes, actually," he rejoined. "The Spitifires got the headlines in the American press, and I ended up in the situation room that Churchill frequented."

There was the hint of emotion as he mentioned Churchill. "Of course," he added, "Sptifires or Hurricanes, it was the 'round the clock heroics of the pilots we must remember."

After the war

Sinclair went on to recount his time with NORAD after the war, including working deep under the Colorado mountains and the troubling suggestion of at least one American general willing to nuke any past or present opponent.

It seemed appropriate to change the subject. Sinclair announced that he had now turned to archaeology. Six months a year he worked on a dig near Cuzco in Peru, then returning to Mexico to improve his Spanish before taking a breather in Canada.

"Bye the bye," he asked, "What do you do?" I described my interest in theater, investing or producing on Broadway and designing interpretive programs for the National Park Service.

"'This is my island'

Sinclair, evincing his first real enthusiasm, said he would like to show me something. He disappeared into his room and returned with a large volume of photographs. "This is my island back home," he said.

It was not an itty-bitty island. It looked quite sizable: large enough for a proper house, support structures and a substantial pier and dock"“ or whatever you sailors call it.

Properly impressed, I waited for Mr. Sinclair to reveal more of his photos. He needed go no farther than turning the page.

"Do you recognize this fellow?" he asked.

The face on the muscular young man in shorts standing on the pier on his island was indeed familiar.

"Baryshnikov," I exclaimed.

"That's right— Sasha." Then came the topper: "I snatched him," Sinclair said.

Making the switch

Drinking under the warmth of the setting Mexican sun can energize a dramatically inclined mindset, but this was more than one could expect.

"He had indicated a desire to defect," Sinclair explained. To whom, Sinclair did not state and I was not about to interrupt his narrative. However I did recall that Sinclair had told me his wife was of eastern European background and Sinclair had been the Canadian with NORAD. Was Sinclair in espionage, perhaps?

"The Russian Ballet was in Toronto, and near the theater where they performed there was an approach where cars could drive up on either side of a covered walkway. At the appointed hour, a car with Sasha pulled up on one side. Baryshnikov jumped out and into my car on the other side. The walkway prevented the other car from pursuing us, and I took him to my island, where he hid out."

Baryshnikov's defection in 1974 was a known fact. I accepted Sinclair's story. I had no pictures of my own to present. So I took the final drink proffered and wobbled back to our room.

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