Mystery Gift | Newberry

Mystery Gift

If you’re trying to confuse me, it’s working.

That postcard that was tucked into a box—the one with the, er, unusual nude and the message “Thinking of you”—merely caused a few chuckles. The tube with the miniature hat and cane in it may be useful to us (IF someone donates a Ken doll and IF he wants to go to the Award Dinner in Spring, as who wouldn’t). The book on collecting antique Christmas tree lights will go onto our shelves in the Bookshop.

But why just one Mah Jongg tile? Why did you give away that book on training your household staff? Did you lose all your money in the last crash, or have all your maids and footmen sworn an oath of eternal loyalty? That album of Israeli political cartoons of the forties has apparently confused everyone. To judge by the cover, everybody tries to open it on the right instead of on the left. (The captions are in Hebrew, English, and French, so apparently we feel it should open on the English and French side of the book.)

We can cope with these things. Do you think you could explain this pennant?

We get pennants now and again. If you haven’t seen these vintage souvenirs from college, camp, or tourist trap at the Book Fair, it’s because I can’t figure out where to attach the price (neither felt nor silk is a good base for a sticky label) or how to display the pennant (much better for them to be displayed flat, but that means getting them to sit flat against a board, inside a bag, even though dozens of people are going to pick it up, say “My Uncle Jasper had one just like that”, and put it down again.

This pennant has bypassed that problem, at least. It comes in its one plastic display bag. So I can put a label on the plastic, and spare the pennant.

If I knew exactly what it is.

See, first of all, it’s Russian. This is not the problem that once it was, as we now have the Interwebs, where there are all kinds of translation engines, some of them with special keyboards you can call up if the alphabet isn’t your usual. We ALSO have a massive catalog of scholars working in the building, and one of these is a wizard with Russian. (He looked at a book I handed him once, shook his head, and said “That’s Ukrainian.” They didn’t teach that kind of stuff in MY high school.)

So between Google’s digital brain and Jack’s rather more reliable one, I now know most of what the pennant SAYS. This is not the same as knowing what it means.

The pennant has something to do with the Moscow Aviation Institute, something to do with the Order of Lenin, and something to do with the Order of the October Revolution. These last two were the second and third highest awards the Soviet government granted. (The only thing higher was to be named a Hero of the Soviet Union.) And then there’s this line no one can read. Google claims it’s Bulgarian; Jack says it’s likely to be the name of the person who received the pennant. Neither of these answers the question, “So what is this pennant?”

It’s not either of the awards: those were medals. Was it something the winner of the medals could hang in the window or suspend from the car antenna during a parade? Or did the MAI receive the two awards (institutions were eligible) and gave the pennants to those who worked at the Institute, either as an honor or as a pass for the front door?

And then there’s the bonus question: is it worth anything?

The MAI is still around. I don’t know whether it’s bragging about the Order of Lenin nowadays. I assume these pennants are rare, at least in Chicago, but I don’t know that. I don’t even know if there’d be a market for counterfeit MAI pennants, but maybe someone gave me one of those.

Tell you what: next time include the medals as well. Then I’ll know.

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