originally published in Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Arts
On May 23rd, Dad would have been 97 years old.
I. Little League
My dad coached my team, the Wildcats, and hit us grounders during warm up before each game. When we’d practice our batting Dad pitched to each of us. He never treated me any differently than the others on my team, though they weren’t friends of mine, and even though I couldn’t hit the side of a barn. I was nine and we all played hard. It was 1969 and the Mets went from last to first. Like me, their ninth season of existence, and like me, little was expected of them. But they started winning. I cut out a coupon from a carton of milk for free tickets and we went to Shea to watch them win. Dad helped us move through the parking lot and up the colossal cement stadium steps with ease in time to see them move from three runs down to one run up. Some player hit the “cycle” Dad said; he had hit a single, a double, a triple and a homer. I looked toward first base and a man behind that dugout held a sign that said “You Gotta Believe.” He had other signs, too. One said “Let’s Go Mets!” and everyone chanted “LET’S GO METS!” The infield was the cleanest dirt I’d ever seen and the outfield a shade of green television couldn’t convey. The stands were abuzz with talking and cheering and old men drank beer and their sons ate peanuts or hot dogs and the summer suddenly seemed alive. I wanted to breathe baseball.
The next day the Wildcats played some rival Long Island team and I told Dad I wanted to drive in some runs. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “You hit a home run and I’ll buy you ice cream every day for a week.” Everyone on the team laughed. It was laughable.
On my second at bat, though, I felt stronger than Cleon Jones and took a high pitch and sent it over the first baseman’s head into right. I was around second when it rolled to the chain-link fence. I couldn’t hit but I could run fast. By the time someone threw the ball to the cut-off man, I was across home staring at seven straight days of ice cream. Dad was quiet back then, never a man of words; but I could see how proud he was that day.
For years that story stayed in the family, everyone making fun of my appetite for desserts. “Put ice cream in the deal and the boy can produce,” they’d joke.
But I kept thinking of that sign behind first, the man who stood up the whole game holding up different placards. The one that blinded me was “You Gotta Believe!” which he held up after the homer that gave the Mets the win. I saw that sign all the way home that day, and all the way home the next.
When the Mets won the World Series three months later, he held up one last sign: “There Are No Words!”
Growing up doesn’t come with instructions. I’d look at Dad and see the man with the sign. It’s a lot of faith, a lot of support. He was a great coach. He knew I couldn’t hit worth a damn; but he didn’t stop me from playing ball.
Big Al came in the Harris House Pub by eleven thirty every morning for a few Buds and a pack of cigarettes. He couldn’t see well and moved slowly. He’d sit at the bar and talk about his son and how he doesn’t call anymore, and how he hasn’t seen him since he was young, who told him once: “I’m not spending my days dogging it for my blind dad.” Al gazed with difficulty across thick glasses and walked the snowy streets with his hand touching the wall. He’d stop every block and rest, but eventually he’d swing open the old door to the pub and sit on his stool. He’d order his Bud and begin the questioning.
“Who played in the first world series and who won?” I’d laugh and make a few drinks for other customers then wander into the back. I’d return with ice for the bin and say,
“Pittsburgh versus Boston, 1903 and Boston won …um…five to three!”
“Excellent, Bob, here’s another quarter,” he’d say and laugh, telling his friend Kenny at the next stool how I was a walking encyclopedia of baseball facts. “Who struck out the most batters in his career?” I’d return from the kitchen with hot food for another customer.
“Too easy, Al, I grew up watching him when he was with the Mets!
Nolan Ryan!”Two bits more hit the bar.
A co-worker figured I had a baseball book in the back but I didn’t.
An hour later: “When was the first professional baseball league formed?”
I’d roll out a keg and while tapping it tell him, slowly as if in a state of recollection, “18…7…1.”
Kenny followed me to the kitchen door after one of Al’s questions and heard me on the phone: “Hey, highest batting average.
Cobb? What was it? Got it, talk to you soon.” I turned and he laughed.
“Some sports hotline?” he asked. “Dad,” I told him.
“Cobb. 367,” I said, placing another beer on the counter without charging him. Al never lost a dime.
Back when payphones were standard my father had an 800 number at his desk, and wherever I traveled in the United States I could call him for free. I’d tell him where I was and how life was, and he’d tell me what was new with him and my mom. A certain peace permeated the air back then. A sense of silence drifted through the desert and plains and mountains as I moved through, the comfort of calling always in my mind. If I felt lost I knew Dad would answer and we’d talk about nothing, but it meant everything.
Dad’s hearing is weak now, and he rarely talks on the phone. He watches the games with subtitles on, but they don’t always keep up with the announcers’ rapid-paced reporting. It’s harder to see the score box on the television and sometimes keeping track of what’s going on can be frustrating. When that happens he tells me about his boyhood in Brooklyn, the Branch Richie days of the Dodgers, and going to Ebbetts Field with his friends or his father. He still knows the players’ names, the records, and where they went after the Dodgers went to California. I tell him the time so he can watch the weather, and we talk about the Mets. We’ll complain about a weak bullpen or celebrate their clutch hitters, and we enjoy that the season passes slowly, but baseball has nothing to do with it.
III. Instructions for Walking with an Old Man at the Mall
First of all, he’s walking, you’re joining him. Don’t stop if he doesn’t. Don’t keep walking if he doesn’t. You are a shadow, an imitation.
Stand on his side where he can better hear you. If he can’t, repeat yourself as if for the first time, no matter how many times. Never say “never mind.” When he tells you something, you have never heard that story before, even if you can repeat it word for word. When he tells you about the baseball games with his dad seventy years earlier, they are new stories, and your response must sound genuine. When he tells you about the time he went swimming at camp with his friends, and how when they went to retrieve their clothes from under a boat they found a snake, be amazed again, ask what happened. Laugh again since he will laugh.
When he pauses in front of a store, don’t question it. At that moment, allow his sole purpose in pausing is to look at whatever item is in that display. He might mention how he used to own that tool, those pants. Let him know you remember; do not make a big deal that he remembered. He needs you to know he didn’t stop “to rest”—he stopped to look at the display. When he says he could use that new suit, a new pair of shoes, or a new whatever is new, agree. If he happens to stop in front of Frederick’s of Hollywood, there’s no need to joke; it will only emphasize he couldn’t get past a place he would never stop with his son. This time he simply couldn’t continue. Talk instead about his grandkids. Talk about the rain. Do not talk about old times. There’s no need to recall the time he drove you to the airport for a flight to college and you saw him hours later waving to you onboard the plane. Avoid bringing up the time just the two of you spent the day at Shea Stadium when you were a child. Instead, ask about the Mets and if he happened to catch the game last week. You know he did. Let him tell you about it.
When he seems tired but doesn’t want you to keep stopping, stop to fix your shoe, to read a sign; look for a bench and suggest you sit and talk. He’ll ask about your son; he’ll ask about work. Have something to say other than “fine, Dad.”
Do not look at your watch. Do not check your phone; most definitely do not check your phone. Leave both in the car. Do not indicate in any way he is keeping you from anything. No other time is relevant anymore. But you will grow tired and restless. If he senses this, he will insist you leave. He will say he knows you have a lot going on, and he’ll say he’ll see you later, and he’ll do whatever he can to make you feel he is completely fine with it. Stay anyway. Then sit a bit longer. Do not ask about the doctors; the walk is to forget about the doctors. Do not quiz him on medicine or schedules. He is out for a walk, you joined him, it is something about which he will tell others— that he went for a walk at the mall and his son was there and joined him. Do not let his story end with “but he had to go.”
When he can’t remember where he parked his car, ask if he parked in the usual area. He did. Sit down for a few minutes. It will come to him. There’s no need to ask probing questions like “which stores” or “what street” he was near. Just sit a while. He’ll remember. You’re not in a rush.
When you leave the mall be near him as he steps from the curb, but do not help. He will be fragile and unstable. The step from curb to parking lot is a leap; he used to do it with you on his shoulders and two others running out front. Let him step down on his own but be ready. He bruises easily and a simple scrape is a trip to the doctor. Have the patience he had when your childhood curbs seemed like the cliffs of Dover.
Don’t say, “I guess I’d better get going.” Don’t make plans. Don’t make any comment to indicate he did well or that it was a “good walk.” He didn’t do well and it wasn’t a good walk. He’s older now. He’s slower now, but he knows this. Really, once the walk is done, the time spent together always seems to have passed faster than we recall.
The seasons, too, pass faster. He knows this as well.
When I was young—early twenties—as a journalism student I kept up-do-date on national and world events even after I knew I would not be pursing a career in the Fourth Estate. My interest in and passion for accuracy in reporting and objectivity in sources is as strong now as it was then, which simply is a way of saying I even before the ease of technology made staying current on events in a world that was pre-computer, pre-internet, pre-psycho-at-the-helm world, I tried to know what was going on. And looking back, I don’t remember anything near the caliber of terror on all levels of life we face now.
Even without tuning in, life can be stressful and downright nerve wracking to just start a conversation with neighbors if politics or the economy enters the conversation. And truth be told, I’m not handling it all very well. It might be my meds are off, it might be other stress factors, or it simply might be extreme negative information overload.
The news is crushing me; the constant stream of repetitive speculation and guesswork, the constant commentary instead of news, the constant personal stories about individuals so we can better understand the big picture keeps me trying to tread water in the deep of information, but it is simply not natural for humanity to be in a constant state of anxiety, always waiting for the next tragedy, the next shooting, the next outrageous court decision, the next fascist takeover. But we are. We tune in each morning to see what blew up the night before. This lack of peacefulness and hope is decidedly dangerous.
The west is burning, the arctic is melting, the waters are rising, the war rages on; the day-to-day struggle to keep my eye on what’s in front of me has become more difficult, and I wasn’t all that stable to begin with.
*** (Deep breath. In. Out.)
Instead, my friends, just for now, the news from Deltaville:
Tonight a dense fog has drifted in off the Chesapeake, and the marsh is alive with spring peepers. The fox is not around tonight, probably holed up in her den with her kits out in the woods, and I just heard a foghorn drift up from the river—a sound that rings forth from my childhood on the Great South Bay when we could hear the fishing boats headed out (or in) early in the morning when the fog was always present. It’s like that here today; something familiar, even the salty air is familiar.
My fox likes kibbles and bits—mixed together. She likes mashed potatoes and the occasional bird. I talked to a vet yesterday who said feeding the fox is not an issue, and, in fact, might help any kits she may have in some den in the woods out back. This gal is getting used to me (the fox, not the vet). I call her “my fox” simply out of affection, not ownership. When she hears my car door or the screen door slam on the porch, she scurries through the woods to the edge of the grass next to the driveway and sits, her bushy tail wrapped around her. If I talk gently or whistle lightly, she’ll cautiously move closer—ten feet or so away—and wait. If I go in the house to retrieve food, she doesn’t disappear. I return and she’s sitting like my dog Sandy used to, knowing what was to come. I put water out too, despite the deluge which has soaked this lower part of the peninsula for the past few weeks. I just now looked out my second story window to the normal fox area, and she is not there. The food’s gone too, though. One night I looked out and she was looking up at me like, “I knew you were in there; I saw the light. Get down here.”
It feels good to connect to something that connects to me. That mutual appreciation is a deeply natural state of being that humans need. At least I do. Like a very limited few people in my life, it feels like this fox and I can finish each other’s sentences, as if we think alike. And perhaps we do. I’m certainly more comfortable around her than I am nearly everyone else who is thinking of a dozen different things while pretending to be listening to me. Everyone’s distracted.
Come on, honestly. How many people sometimes think I just hope things don’t get completely bad until after I die?Maybe there is too much information. Maybe all the electronic and wireless vibration and movement in the atmosphere has so saturated the air that it is affecting our very cells and making us more anxious, more violent, more distracted.
Or maybe we simply don’t connect anymore now that we’ve homogenized our existence. The uniqueness is lost. It is fair to say humanity is having some serious connectivity issues, and while we are spending a great deal of time digging in and defending our position, we are spending very little time attempting to find common ground, instead we remain on full alert, ready to dart back into our den at the slightest movement.
I’m not trying to be simpleminded here; I am simpleminded—I usually have to try to be more engaged and more involved in issues and complicated discussions. No, my default position is sitting in a canoe watching the river run.
Just as individuals need a breather from time to time, a vacation if necessary, Humanity needs to take five, like how when the stock market gets out of control the feds will shut it down for a day to give investors a chance to take a breath, put it back in perspective, and return with a clear and rational mind. Yeah. That. Humanity needs to leave the building for a bit and return to its natural state.Ever wonder what your default position is? We probably don’t spend nearly enough time there.Mine is outside, or laughing with someone who gets me. And as it turns out, little more than that is ever necessary.
I hear the fox. I’m out of apples. I hope she likes fudge stripes.
For two decades I traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, to teach, to write, and to lead Study Abroad groups. In that time I had the privilege of celebrating Victory Day a dozen times in the city on May 9th. During the day I would attend memorial services at the Priskarevskoe Cemetery, where three quarters of a million people–mostly women and children–are buried. I was there when Bill Clinton was in attendance, and George W. Bush, and Vladimir Putin. It is a somber place, and Shostakovich and Pachelbel play on the speakers while thousands walk around and pay respects to the vets in attendance. Then that night a million people fill the streets and drink and watch fireworks and remember that Hitler, despite his demands to wipe the city from the face of the map, could not defeat the “Defenders of Leningrad.”
This is their story as related in a chapter from my new book. Thank you for reading.–BK
(from The Iron Scar: A Father and Son in Siberia)
This evening I sit in the dining car somewhere in eastern Siberia, writing, drinking tea, and the only other passengers are an elderly man and his son, also drinking tea. They’re quiet and both glance at me from time to time. Eventually, I walk to their booth and ask if I can join them—the younger of the two speaks broken English and he waves to the empty spot next to his father. He introduces himself as Dima; and the elderly man, Sergei, wears two or three medals on his green shirt, and I ask if one particular medal is the same as another I had seen in St. Petersburg, given for bravery during the siege of Leningrad. It is.
The dining car on the trans-Siberian railroad looks much like old Airstream-style diners in America, with booths along both sides, full size windows at each one with small curtains, and all are kept clean, with flowers, a napkin holder and place mats. At one end of the car is a bar with well drinks as well as a small variety of more expensive liquor on a higher shelf, and a generous selection of domestic and imported beers and soft drinks. The menu rivals the most common pub at home. Grilled chicken, hamburgers with French fries and other sides are available, as well as more complete dinners and some appetizers. Caviar, too, and salmon slices with toast, borsch, and traditional fare such as cabbage and sausages for tourists like us who wish to feel part of the landscape, and for locals whose daily diet includes such items anyway.
The prices are about the same as they would be at stateside diners, but Russians for the most part can’t afford that and usually buy their food from the babushkas at the stops along the way. Seeing as how there are so few tourists, the booths are always available, so Michael and I spend much of our time here, playing chess, eating, and working.
Paying attention to this sudden mixture of cultures is the tender. This always smiling woman sits at her own booth near the bar with several pads spread about which apparently need her attention. From time to time she looks up, partly to see if we need anything and partly, it seems, to catch what she can of our conversation. She normally likes to play traditional music on the player whenever I sit down, but when she sees me join this veteran and his son, she puts on Shostakovich. We all recognize it immediately and the old man smiles. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, in the forties and performed it for the first time to a packed theater in his besieged city of Leningrad. Despite the rattle of Nazi bombs exploding in the background, no one left the performance. Today in the memorial cemetery in that city where nearly 700,000 people are buried, Piskaryovskoye Cemetery, it is still played while thousands of people pay their respects. I have spent many Victory Days there, meeting veterans, offering them a carnation in thanks for their work in the war, so it is an honor to share tea with this veteran.
It would be negligent of any traveler, foreign or domestic, to make this journey without learning about and acknowledging the Blockade in Leningrad, the horrors of the Great Patriotic War, and the incomprehensible courage displayed by the citizens of what is now St. Petersburg, which was bombarded by the Nazi’s for 900 days in an effort to complete Hitler’s desire to “wipe Leningrad from the map.” That history is this old man’s youth; and the fact he survived and went on to raise a son is nothing short of miraculous.
This is where this great railway and Russian history collide.
The original name in Russia for the railway was the “Great Siberian Way,” and it was only in the west we called it the trans-Siberian railway. At the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900, the railway was an exhibit with the most extravagant interior cars on display and promoted as the ride of Czars. While it was true the line from St. Petersburg to Yekaterinburg was indeed the rail for Czar Nicholas II and his family to seek refuge in their palace on the Iset River, the promotion at the Fair was misleading since from the start this railway mostly carried people to war. When Czar Alexander put his son Nicholas on the project, he did so with the assistance of Sergei Witte, a minister in the Russian government and confidant of the Czar. The heart of the empire was, indeed, in the western third of the country. St. Petersburg and Moscow were, and still are for that matter, the center of the Russian universe, and from the time of Peter the Great’s ambition to create a “Window to the West,” the powers-that-be focused their attentions there. But in the late 1800’s, the government noted the potential resources available in the east, thinking Siberia might be an economic boon instead of simply a destiny for dissidents. At the same time, St. Petersburg had its eye on parts of Manchuria and moved forward with the rail to that destination under the pretense of trade; the truth is they eventually occupied the territory, a move which aggravated Japan who also wanted control of the area. Japan saw the TSRR as a tool of expansion and eventual invasion, which, of course, it was. Hence, the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. But the tracks weren’t finished yet, and troop movement in the area where roads even today are poor, meant ultimate defeat for Russia.
Still, they had their rail, which a few years later was completed to the Pacific port of Vladivostok. But Japan had its day, and instead of Russia using the railway to dominate the eastern Asian region, Japan did just that by defeating Russia’s Pacific fleet and controlling territory they long wanted. Their rise to power anticipated the conflict in the Pacific which would be that part of the globe’s World War Two.
During World War One, the United States had many economic interests in the region, not the least of which was a ton of weapons strewn north from Vladivostok along the rail. To protect those interests, President Wilson sent eight thousand US troops to the region—the only time US soldiers were stationed in Russia. The War in Europe would not be over for another three months, but in Russia, change was constant. The Mensheviks had ousted Czar Nicholas and replaced him with Kerensky, who the Bolsheviks quickly ousted, so the allies had no one with whom to work in eastern Asia. But it was during that short and welcome reign of Kerensky that the US took over the operation of the trans-Siberian railway, a move supported by the allies in Europe and seen as the spread of democracy the western world had hoped for. At the same time, however, the Bolshevik Revolution swept east literally following the tracks all the way to Vladivostok. The United States withdrew their interests and in a few short years the noble ambitions of the entire empire would quickly derail.
Josef Stalin took over the Soviet Union in 1922, a post he would hold for thirty-one years. He longed for a railway across the polar region of Russia to expedite travel to the Far East. This “Dead Road” was built by “enemies of the people” of Russia. It is estimated that 300,000 prisoners worked on this project with a third of them dying in the brutal northern winters. The entire project proved short-lived, however, when the short part of the line which had been completed sank into the ice and snow. But Stalin understood the value of rail transport, and the pogroms started by the Czar to relocate Jews to eastern Russia were continued under his rule with the aid of the Trans-Siberian railway further south. It was no possible to purge entire towns, exile anyone who so much as spoke about him without praise, as well as those who outwardly opposed the oppressive government. In fact, not many people during those years rode the railway by choice. It was a means for guards to get to work or to send prisoners east. The rail between St. Petersburg and Moscow remained a crucial route between what is considered the cultural capital in the north and the political capital an eight-hour ride south. And the cross-continental railway in post-coup Russia became a means of transport for workers heading to and from a job, families going to a dacha, and the rare and idealistic tourist heading to Beijing or Vladivostok.
Aside from so much death associated with this transport, there is one glaring and essential exception when rail travel was, in fact, a lifeline in Russia: The Great Patriotic War. World War Two. A separate rail from the trans-Siberian route was built by hand every single winter during the war across the frozen Lake Ladoga just to the east of Leningrad to try and bring in supplies and bring out citizens of the city, which was besieged from September 8th, 1941, until January 27th, 1944. During that time nearly one and a half million people in the city—mostly women and children—died of starvation. The people of the city to this day are most proud of the fact that, despite nine-hundred days of bombardment, the Nazi’s still couldn’t defeat the “defenders of Leningrad.” And because of the invading Germans, factories were moved from the western part of the country to the most eastern reaches of European Russia, in the Ural Mountains, where more than three hundred plants were rebuilt close to the railway, mostly by the prisoner population.
Before me now, however, is a man who refused to leave Leningrad. I mention my understanding of his courage and struggle, and the old man smiles. He places his hand on my wrist and says, yes, he could have ridden the rail across the lake during that first winter—he was just a young teenager, and no one would have questioned it. But he chose to stay and help transport whatever food he could to the front line, which during the blockade was in every direction.
The tender brings a plate of salmon and bread which they share with me, and we drink more tea. Sergei dips some bread in his tea, and his son offers me salmon.
We speak for quite some time about the trail, about Michael and I and our wild idea to see Siberia, and about their present journey to a Dacha to spend August. Eventually, I ask about his medal, about the war, and how much he remembers. Sergei takes a long bite of his bread and nods toward the plate of salmon. “Food was the most significant issue,” Dima translates as he looks in despair at his father, clearly knowing what comes next. “Leningrad’s population of dogs, cats, horses, rats, and crows disappeared as they became the main courses on many dinner tables. Nothing was off limits. People ate dirt, paper, and wood. The vast majority of casualties were not soldiers, but women and children.”
This much I know already: The siege of Leningrad is political history as well as military history, yet it is also personal. It is the story of a child living on a few grams of bread, his mother making sure he only takes small bites throughout the day for fear if he eats it all at once he will surely starve to death. He will anyway, and the history of the siege of Leningrad must include the story of these women who survived, these sorrowful mothers, who had to grasp whatever sliver of hope they could that they would win in the end so to save their beloved Mother Russia.
The siege is one of the chapters in books about 20th-century atrocities; yet it is also the conversation over beers in a corner pub, where as late as the nineties when I first started coming here, most veterans still held back their emotions against the questions of the curious’. Some allowed others to cross the line into their world, allowed them to suffer the starvation through stories and tears because they knew it might be the only way these great heroes, the defenders of Leningrad, will be remembered.
I recall a conversation I had once with a woman in St. Petersburg’s Palace Square. She was fifteen during the siege when she had to pull a sleigh carrying the body of her sister, who had died of starvation. She made it to the graveyard and left her sister on the pile of bodies. Another there, Alexander, remembered how he would cut up a piece of bread once a day for his brothers. His parents had died of starvation some time earlier.
Nearly three million civilians, including nearly half a million children, refused to surrender despite having to deal with extreme hardships in the encircled city. Food and fuel would last only about two months after the siege began, and by winter there was no heat, no water, almost no electricity, and little sustenance. These citizens still had two more years of this to endure. Leningrad is roughly at the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska. It gets cold.
During that first January and February, 200,000 people died of cold and starvation. Because disease was a problem, the bodies were carried to various locations in the city. Even so, people continued to work in the deplorable conditions to keep the war industries operating. When they were not working or looking for food and water, they were carrying the dead, dragging bodies on children’s sleighs or pulling them through the snow by their wrists to the cemetery.
One man said, “To take someone who has died to the cemetery is an affair of so much labor that it exhausts the last strength in the survivors. The living, having fulfilled their duty to the dead, are themselves brought to the brink of death.”
But the people of Leningrad would not surrender. I met a woman named Sophia in a graveyard on the north side of the city. She had been an adolescent during the reign of Czar Nicholas II and thirty years later lost her husband and son during the siege. We sat on a bench, and she told me of her life, of her family, as if time had turned it into a hazy event she had heard someone talk about years earlier. Her hands were transparent, and she spoke of Leningrad as being a prisoner of war, with no rations and no electricity and little hope. The city became a concentration camp, its citizens condemned to death by Hitler.
But thousands of people were evacuated across Lake Ladoga via the famous frozen Doroga Zhinzni, the Road of Life. During warm weather, some were boated across, but in winter they were carried on trucks across the frozen lake under German fire and moved via the railway. Heading north was pointless; the Finnish Army, allied with the Germans since the bitter Winter War with the Soviets in 1939-1940, held the line there. But once across the lake, this very train took people further east until the rails simply could not run. When we stand between the cars and rumble along, listening to the clashing of metal beneath us, it is hard for me not to think of the thousands of starving citizens transported east, listening to the same sounds.
“We simply had nothing to eat.” Yes, starvation was the Nazi’s objective. The blockade was a time during which one gauged success by being alive or not. Some survivors, however, tell of encounters with people who had such severe mental illness from disease and starvation that it had become unbearable. The accounts are sometimes spurious, but too many narratives contain too many parallel events to write them off as exaggerated. Several wrote of what became known as “blockade cannibalism,” including the story of a boy who was enticed to enter someone’s apartment to eat warm cereal
One woman used one of her dead children to feed the others.
For nearly three years, Leningrad was under attack night and day, and almost half its population, including 700,000 women and children, perished. The Germans left the city of Peter the Great, his “Window to the West,” in ruins. Still, the Nazis could not defeat Leningrad.
The likes of that bravery and sacrifice will never be seen again.
During those years as well as a decade before and past Stalin’s death in 1954, Soviet industrialization moved many citizens to the region stretching from Omsk to the Pacific, and the vast majority of these people worked in towns built for the sole purpose of some factory. But the most infamous use of the railroad during this dark period was to transport prisoners to the Gulag system. Prisoners in the penal system in Russia were tapped to exploit the natural resources in the mineral-rich east. It started officially in 1929, but just five years later, nearly half a million Soviet citizens with a prison term of three years or longer were loaded on these railcars and transported to the Gulags. Five years after that, the camp population totaled more than two million. Some eighteen to twenty million inmates, while suffering the most inhumane conditions, facilitated the exploitation of timber and minerals in remote areas in slightly more than two decades. They also laid railroads which branched off of this one, constructed roads, secured dams, and worked in the factories and on the farms,
The veteran looks around and says more quietly as his son again translates, “Every single person on this train is connected to the war; either a grandparent or parent was killed, or less likely, survived. Everyone on this train is fortunate to be alive because of citizens of Leningrad under the most horrific conditions. I played a very small part, but I am glad I survived to be able to raise my own family.” He smiles at his son, who places his own hand on his father’s sleeve.
Today, war monuments dot the landscape. Most of them honor veterans of the two World Wars, but many as well for those who served in Afghanistan, the most notable being the Black Tulip memorial in Yekaterinburg, named for the ship which carried home the Soviet deceased. The monuments to the Siege of Leningrad, or the “Blockade” as Russians refer to those dark nine-hundred days, are numerous in St. Petersburg, of course, but they also spread surprising far to the east, following the tracks taken by those souls who managed to get out of the city under cover of a cold, dark winter. The same chance Sergei turned down, as his medal clearly shows.
I grew up during the age of the Evil Empire, the Red Menace. Siberia and Irkutsk might as well have been on the moon—I was never going. All I knew of this land when I was young was from playing RISK with my older brother. He usually won but I had fun moving my armies around the board, sometimes skipping from Alaska to Kamchatka, proving to me capture of the Russian coast was key in controlling the outcome. When Michael was growing up we did the same thing. But it wasn’t until I was much older that I learned something valuable: that miserable game screwed up my sense of geography. Siberia is not a country or a state, it is a region, like the American West or heading out to the Plains. Ian Frazier wrote Siberia is more of an idea than a place. Irkutsk is not a country but a city, and Yakutsk is not east of Siberia it is in Siberia. The Ukraine does not take up most of map, doesn’t run from the Arctic to the Med, and doesn’t replace Russia, which that Soviet era game completely left off the planet. Still, those faraway places in beautiful colors with brightly colored armies became mythical. In the end, I didn’t have to move armies to travel to Siberia; no opponents waited across Parker Brother’s boundaries. I didn’t roll doubles. I didn’t pick the wild cards. I just came, and in doing so I wiped out decades of ignorance about these people over a cup of tea and some salmon slices.
The old man looks out the window into the dark evening, and I can sense his mind has recessed into some sharp and tortured memories. His son leaves his hand on his father’s and nods to me, indicating he sees I understand. We sit quietly like this for a long time, drinking tea, as the train rolls forward through history.
When my son was young, he liked to dig. He was convinced somewhere on our property, which sits uphill from the Rappahannock River near where Civil War troops marched, and for centuries before them the Powhatan people hunted, is spent ammunition. He may be right. There are mounds along the perimeter that resemble casements, and a few seem too much like burial hills. So he would dig. Once, when I knew I brought back too much crap from Russia, including Khokloma bowls, trays, and small lacquer boxes, he came up with the notion that if we buried a few dozen broken Khokloma bowls, a few spent bottles of vodka, and perhaps a torn up book written in Cyrillic along with some beets in an old campfire, a thousand years from now archaeologists will rope off the area and attempt to figure out why the hell the trade route brought Russians from Western Europe to central Virginia. Future Phds might note these ancient people most likely couldn’t survive due to a fondness of bad alcohol, or even just bad oysters one warm summer day.
I like screwing with future historians that way.
A few years ago, a horde of Bronze Age weapons was unearthed in England. From this very cool discovery of what resembles small shovels, pickaxes, and what can best be described as head-cracking-open thingys, researchers and other people who know determined the Bronze Age inhabitants of that part of England were violent nomads who couldn’t organize enough to conquer each other. Okay, on the surface I can see where it appears that way, but perhaps they liked each other just fine. Maybe those small Bronze Age tools were gifts, or their so-called weapons were their version of our cold war stockpiles of nuclear threats so they wouldn’t attack each other. They may, in fact, have meant to defend themselves against aliens, but when the otherworlders arrived, they all got along simply divinely and they buried their hatchets in celebration of intergalactic accords, and from that time we gained the expression, “Let’s bury the hatchet.” Really, who the hell knows? Maybe those rudimentary objects were the Bronze Age equivalent of ashtrays from seventh grade shop. The shovel and head-cracking-open thingys were all they could figure out how to make. “It was supposed to be a lamp, Ma!” little Zorr might have whined. “Oh honey it looks lovely,” his mom answered in a pre-British accent as she tossed it on the neighborhood pile of trash with other discarded tool-looking things.
They didn’t recycle. Time passes.
So in my attempts to clean out this house of twenty-five years of accumulated crap (clearly to make room for more soon-to-accumulate crap), I’ve decided to make an archaeological compost pile. This one mostly Russian, though some broken Czech glass would be humorous to include. I might even toss in some torn and tattered strips of bark with nonsensical language and send the diggers searching for a new Rosetta Stone to break the code of these Slavic people speaking Old English in America.
Yes, I am the benevolent supporter of scientists from a different era, ready to guarantee future funding of necessary research projects and ensure jobs to graduate students a thousand years from now. I am doing my part. Open some vodka.
But first I need to unearth something closer to my own surface, some relics from my recent past. I’ve gathered mental artifacts through the times and places of my life, and often it is difficult for anyone else to see how they match up. Each of them as separate events seem clear enough—I enjoyed those car rides to Canada, the quiet moments at the Wachusett Reservoir, the dust of the Mexican desert—but the big picture is awash with non-sequiturs. Did the farmhouse in Pennsylvania where I spent some intensely happy days in ’86 leave a mark in my narrative which appears unrelated to Mexican blankets? Because to me it makes perfect sense how they’re connected. And those stories an old friend of mine told me while driving to Niagara Falls on random weekends more than forty years ago; are they related to my trip across Siberia or Spain ten years ago? Because on a quick glance, of course not; but when I’m standing at the river at dusk, and in the east Venus is rising like a cloud of gnats from 1974 on the Connetquot River, a close scrutiny of my life reveals a narrative which makes perfect sense. While Robert Browning believed, “The past is in its grave,” Jackson Browne said, “I’m looking back carefully. There’s still something there for me.” Yeah, me too. My life is a vibrating screen, and the dirt of a half-dozen decades is sifting through, exposing treasures I thought I’d left on the banks of the river, well upstream by now.
So I like to walk carefully through the woods near home; it is where I leave my thoughts, and I do not want them trampled upon. In fact, if I am not paying attention I might think I’m walking through Heckscher State Park on Long Island’s South Shore where I grew up; or it could be the Berkshires, or the Enchanted Mountains of Western New York. Or the Sonoran Desert. The Lynnhaven River. The Neva River. The Vltava. The Congo. The Rappahannock. I believe when I look at my life many years from now to trace my journey on this earth, what on the surface seemed decisions as random as the ricochet of a pinball, were all connected by passion and desire and some quixotic need to keep digging, perhaps in search of love. Certainly in search of myself.
I pray my son never stops digging, never ceases his attempts to find the connections in his life. At this very moment he is somewhere in Connemara with another artist—I hope he understands how directly related that is to the small cherry tree at the apartment complex where we lived when he was two and he’d stand perfectly still under the branches while I shook the tree until cherries rained down on his head.
And we’d laugh. My God, we’d laugh until we rolled on the ground.
Here’s your chance: I have copies of my new book (with a gallery of Michael’s amazing photos inside), for $20, includes shipping. Inscribed copies make gifts–especially for father’s or sons or anyone moving on in life (graduation).
PLEASE CLICK BELOW AND PURCHASE COPIES FOR COMING GIFTS: MOTHER’S AND FATHER’S DAY.
READ A COUPLE OF REVIEWS:
“The Iron Scar: A Father and Son in Siberia is a vivid and often poetic exploration of the personal and the historical, from poignant to hilarious.”
–The Virginian Pilot
“I wish every book I’ve read over the past two months had been as moving, gripping, and loaded with fascinating information. The journey becomes an emotional and thematic whole that transcends the standard “look what I saw” travel book.”
“The book’s everything I hoped for. It’s rich and vivid, full of humor, heart, and a passion for life. I can’t recommend it enough”
–AB (Amazon reader)
“The Iron Scar brought me on a journey that unexpectedly and artfully had me thinking about my own father and my sons throughout the book, as well as introducing me to the wild, warm, and colorful world of Siberia.”
–Martin Sheen, actor and author of Along the Way: The Journey of a Father and Son
Click the cover below to order copies today. Thanks so much for your support.