Walter and Ruth Biskov arrived here in the mid-1970s from Loskia, then a small satellite state of the ill-fated USSR. This lent their English, while grammatically perfect, a seductive accent – most pleasant to the ear and an effective door-opener in late twentieth century Australia.

    Ruth immediately found a job sewing sleeves into shirts while Walter went to work in the food markets. Neither job bore any relationship to the sophisticated skills each had acquired at elite Soviet universities. Ruth, a talented musician, used her excellent ear to study and absorb languages. She could speak nine fluently. 

    For his part, Walter had earned a first class honours degree from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology where he studied theoretical and applied physics, applied mathematics and data analysis.

    But the locals were not interested in all that. They warmed to the fun young couple who were keen to join in whatever the community offered. The exotic pair worked hard at their menial jobs without complaint and were first with their hands out when someone needed help.

    Over time, Walter and Ruth introduced small offerings from their own culture, largely food, some song and, when the party needed a kick along, a vodka distilled from the canchee bulb which they found growing in abundance along the highway’s edge that led out of town.

    Buying in

    The shop, land and dwelling cost them $97,000 in 1981. Rumour had it that they paid for it in cash but they would neither confirm nor deny this when asked. It was out near The Barracks, the home of the Australian 13th Commando Force and the 4th Australian Signals Directorate.

    It is hard to imagine that a delicatessen offering a mix that included specific European victuals could have survived in such an environment – populated largely by transient military families putting down short roots only to have them excavated with little warning as the breadwinner’s presence [read male parent] was suddenly and immediately needed elsewhere in this wide brown land, or even overseas.

    The stayers, the remainder of the inhabitants of this bleak suburb were ‘battlers’, unsophisticated Aussies grateful for a foothold in the highly-desired home ownership stakes near serious defence money that guaranteed a decent education for their children and top shelf health care, no matter what misfortune befell The Economy.

    Walter and Ruth Biskov became Wallo and Roofie Bishoff as the locals offered their spin on the awkward names the pair brought with them. The couple read the community well. They immediately changed their names by deed poll. The photo shows them grinning madly in front of their new store beneath an elaborately painted sign that boasted ‘Wallo and Roofie’s Deli’ and in smaller type: ‘Your Economic Grocers’.


    Wallo and Roofie began by offering fresh seasonal foods and a wide range of day-to-day basics – bread, milk, butter, sugar etc.

    Not only were the Bishoffs able to offer these products at very competitive price points, they also threw in free delivery for those who liked to place an order by telephone. This was unheard of and set tongues a wagging as backyard accountants tried to figure out how they were able to do it and still seem to be profitable. Soon the benefits of shopping with the sunny Bishoffs silenced the back fence rumour mill and the good citizens of the parish flocked to their door.

    Those who had the wherewithal to order from the comfort of their loungeroom were easily identified when Wallo’s absurd Morris J van was spotted in their driveways. It began to be spotted making regular trips in and out of The Barracks as well.

    Oh what a lovely war

    The Barracks was established in 1964 to welcome the ‘nashos’ – those unfortunate young men called up to serve their country by preventing the godless communist hordes from swamping democratic South Vietnam [yay!] with their cruel, inhuman Chinese ideology [boo!]. 

    At least, that’s how our allies in the USA described it. They also suggested that if this particular domino fell it was only a matter of time before Australians too were rounded up and formed into collectives where each would provide according to their ability and receive according to their needs.

    60,000 Australian soldiers served in Vietnam in the ten years we were obliged to participate in this ‘police action’ [war was never declared]. Of them, 521 died, 3,000 were wounded and most were never the same again.

    By the time Wallo and Roofie had opened their little store, the last Australian troops had long since returned to civilian life and The Barracks had been re-purposed as quite a different training facility.

    The dark arts

    Much was learned from the activities of the ‘enemy’ in Vietnam, the wily Viet Cong. These hardy soldiers fought in small groups carrying light but highly-effective weaponry and went about the countryside under the ground. They would appear out of the mouths of cleverly camouflaged tunnel openings, have their wicked way and vanish as silently as they arrived. Our brave lads both hated and envied this brutally successful tactic. They respected the tactical nous behind it and wanted it for themselves. Or similar.

    But, while our lads were more than up to the task of keeping the commie rabble at bay, they were constantly undermined by their American allies who favoured the strategy of blunt force: heavy ‘carpet’ bombing followed by laying waste at ground level with flame, defoliants and lead at industrial levels. This indiscriminate tactic resulted in substantial ‘collateral’ [i.e. innocent locals] damage and the loss of the support of the desirable ‘hearts and minds’ of the very people they insisted they were there to protect.

    A close-knit band of seven regular soldiers saw this firsthand. They had returned from a third tour of duty in Southeast Asia with a clear idea of what it takes to fight a ‘war’ in the twentieth century. It was plain that indiscriminate blunt-force brutality favoured by the US served no one’s interests. Small groups of mobile, highly motivated warriors seemed to be the answer. That they had first class intelligence harvested by comrades hiding in plain sight in the enemy’s community served them well.

    Laconic Australians, press-ganged into a fight they didn’t believe in was not going to do it.

    The Magnificent Seven, as they branded themselves, set about badgering anyone who slowed down long enough to listen that the future of an effective Australian fighting force lay in the Viet Cong example. With some tweaks. 

    And so the Australian 13th Commando Force and the 4th Australian Signals Directorate were born. The 13th became an elite fighting force. Small bands of fighters with a singular set of skills, capable of inflicting significant damage on an enemy – any enemy, anytime, anywhere. The 4th was their eyes and ears. Spooks who could insert themselves in any society and gather nuts of information until they had an entire orchard’s worth on which to feast.

    There was a lot going on in The Barracks.

    The conduit

    Sergei Kazosky was the son of Baskian immigrants. His parents arrived here in 1974 from Baskia, a small satellite state of the ill-fated USSR. His father Josef Kazosky had been ostracized by his village comrades for favouring poetry over ploughing and rather than spend an indefinite period in some hostile gulag, he and his then pregnant wife, Ekaterina, chose the underground railway to glorious western freedom.

    While they favoured Boston or Buffalo, they got Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre. For reasons of zero merit, the couple were from then on the target of relentless racist bullying. Born in the camp, Sergei quickly became Steve and his surname, hilariously, Kransky. Because this is what happens in gloriously free Australia.

    Steve thrived in his adopted homeland. Not academically, but his physical prowess ensured he had plenty of pals, at least while the footy season lasted. All the time he watched his parents diminish. There was no room in their adopted homeland for a poet and his adoring wife. His father’s metaphor, his allusion, his abstract gatherings belonged in an older, wider world. Without a taste for the local doggerel he was lost here. Steve watched in despair as his parents were quietly eroded by this and other indignities until they vanished altogether.

    He apparently never forgave Australia for what we did to them.

    In the meantime, he learned that he had a gift for the stove and the pot. He took on kitchen work at The Barracks to be close to his folks who lived nearby. Though his bolshie attitude initially found him merely peeling spuds and wiping things, it wasn’t long before his natural talent led him to the exalted rank of chef to the officers’ mess.

    Steve’s promotion was owed in no small part to his ability to create culinary magic from the fine ingredients he discovered at the local grocery store – Wallo and Roofie’s Deli.

    Just desserts

    Napoleon said that an army marches on its stomach. He would know. He was French. Steve learned this truth from the accolades poured on him by the commanders he was feeding with his take on that country’s ‘grande cuisine’ – a long tradition he was not afraid to tinker with. 

    Steve began to be welcomed to the table where sat the leaders of Australia’s crack troops and spies. Initially the conversation was guarded and coded, but as the table became more comfortable with Steve’s presence, so too the discussions became more open.

    Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Wallo was delivering the best fresh food and ingredients to support Steve’s genius. The two migrant boys with a similar back story became fast friends. They spoke to each other in Russian.

    Steve and Wallo began to spend time in each other’s homes, usually with an evaporating bottle of vodka set between them. Roofie was there too, never drinking, just quietly listening. As the bottle drained, the two men became increasingly misty-eyed, lamenting the decline and fall of their homeland.

    When Steve revealed his bitterness over how his adopted country treated his parents, Wallo sat back in his chair, drained his glass and smiled at Roofie.

    The groom

    Steve didn’t ‘notice’ Wallo’s casual interest in the conversations he overhead in the mess. He thought nothing of Wallo’s fascination with the comings and goings of various dignitaries and foreign military personnel. Even when Wallo asked him to repeat his intimate knowledge of the layout of The Barracks, Steve was pleased to be able to demonstrate his fastidious observation skills.

    Steve was also happy to allow Wallo’s reinforcing of his anger towards a nation that treated his parents so abominably. ‘May the swine suffer,’ he would toast to Steve in Russian. ‘Nostrovia!’ Steve would respond.

    He even accompanied a grateful Wallo on a tour of the mess dining room and thought nothing strange when afterwards Wallo said he had left his order book in there and would it be OK to quickly go back in and recover it. Of course it would.

    The device Wallo left attached to the underside of the table was powerful enough to transmit conversations more than four kilometres – about the distance between The Barracks and Wallo and Roofie’s Deli.

    Lieutenant Steve Kransky of the 4th Australian Signals Directorate had finished his assignment. 

    Four days later Wallo and Roofie’s Deli, Your Economic Grocers, was surrounded by a platoon from the Australian 13th Commando Force. Walter Biskov, aka Wallo Bishoff, was arrested at the scene and charged with a range of espionage offences.

    Ruth Biskov, aka Roofie Bishoff, was nowhere to be found.

    Words and music © John Dickson 2023

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