Chapter Twenty Eight: Discharge

I arrived at the base at night.  My friends were waiting for me.  We sat on our beds.  I opened up my suitcase, took out the apples bought in Chimkent, and distributed them to my friends and neighbors.  Naturally, in my youthful trust, I told my friends about my grief.  They tried to comfort me the best they could.

The last year of my tour of duty passed without special incident.  The year passed as if I had served for 5 years as each day came closer to the day of discharge.  As it is well known, minutes of anticipation are longer than hours.  I no longer had any desire to go out on leave and spent all my free time reading books.  My whole tour of duty took place in the forming of all kinds of boards and schematics, some in the headquarters, some in the hangar, some in the Lenin Room, where I became an artist.  They even relieved me of my duties as a weapons mechanic for this job.

When Josef Vissarionovich Stalin fell ill, at the request of the political officer, I drew a chart on a large board that tracked the condition of his health.  On a daily or sometimes even an hourly basis, I noted the condition of his health, his heartbeat, temperature, blood pressure, etc.  Soldiers who walked through the Lenin Room read the latest information on the bulletin board.  Stalin’s health and the deterioration of his heart were tracked by the entire large country and perhaps even the whole world.

 

When one time the political officer stopped by, I asked him what news he brought.  He answered, “That’s it.  You don’t have to write anything down anymore.  Stalin died.”

For an entire week, radio and television broadcasts were canceled.  The only programs heard were dour, funeral music.  On the airbase pilots sat under red alert in their warplanes nonstop and rotated for one another.  Officers’ wives constantly cried.

So, one man who had unlimited power could influence the fates of millions of people.  Many who heard only good things about him sincerely cried and worried about the future of the country.  Only this man could be at the helm of this country for so many years.  But if people had only known how much sorrow he and his henchmen had wrought, then they would have rejoiced.

But life does not stand still.  In his place came another leader.  For me, soon the expected day arrived.  The order for my honorable discharge arrived.  Several of us men were summoned to the headquarters.  They read our order and made us a proposal.  Since they did not expect to form a divisional train to ship discharged men home, they wanted us to repair the hangar and the headquarters building and clean them.  In exchange, they would let us leave independently on the passenger train home.

In those years, enlisted men and discharged soldiers were transported in freight cars.  Of course, with pleasure we accepted their offer.  We bought with our own money the necessary supplies: paint, brushes, etc.  We went to work.  It took us all of 10 days to conduct a full renovation.  The commanding officers were pleased with us.  They expressed their gratitude, bought us tickets, and gave us our personal military documents.  Farewell Primorye!  Farewell military service!  Had it not been for Arsenyev’s book, I could have served my tour of duty in China or Germany like many of my classmates, but “such was my fate,” as one song says.

Again 10 days on the road, again through the window “Glorious sea – holy Baikal”, again wonderful smoked omul, again passing by swamp, towns, villages – and finally we survivors were pulled under the sun of the Kazakh steppe.

I arrived in my native city Chimkent on October 1944, having served 4 years in the military.  The familiar train station, familiar Kreger Street, familiar house number 138 – the only unfamiliar thing was my heartbeat.  I knocked on the door, and on the porch appeared my sister Pasha.  Hugs, questions, stories.  My sister told me that Valya had come by to say goodbye.  She finished medical school with honors and asked to be sent to work in the Karaganda district on one of the collective farms.  She thanked us for all the good things she had experienced in that home and asked not to hold any grudge against her.  Then she left.

I went to her father.  He answered the doorbell.  When he saw me, he rudely answered that Valya was not home, that she was gone.  Everything was over.  I had to get a grip on myself and start life all over again.  Inside of me everything overheated.  The only thing that remained was the unpleasant remnant of my own guilt.

But youth demanded to live for oneself!  I was almost 24 years old.  I completely admitted to my error.  I did not blame anyone.  With my own hand I myself broke the tie between Valya and me which was called true “first love.”  I knew that I was incapable of loving anyone else on earth the same way, but I had to live and start from the beginning.  I was full of health and creative energy.  Everything within me demanded one thing: life!

I got a hold of myself and tried no longer to think about the past.  I promised myself never to repeat the same tragic mistake.

During that time, a group of Christian young people often visited me.  They talked with me and invited me to their worship services.  I knew many girls from my prior visits before my army service.  I attended church services, heard sermons summoning me to repent, and heard wonderful singing.

All this somehow mortified my heart, but I could never admit that I was a sinner.  I went through too much in my childhood.  I could not understand how an all-powerful God could permit such sorrow for my entire family.  How was this punishment deserved by my father, mother, brother, sisters, and us three?  This and many other things were incomprehensible to me.  So despite the fact that I went to church, sang hymns with everyone else, and read the Bible, I remained self-sufficient and far from the love of God.

I respected in their teaching purity of relationships, kindness, honesty, and order.  I saw a great difference in the behavior, living, and works of the young men and women from church versus those whom I knew from my past.  I no longer traveled in such circles, although my old friends still invited me to their meetings.  But to admit I was a Christian and to repent, I could not do.

I even defended the moral principles of Christianity when I was in the military as well as here in talking with people.  When they told me that Christians would offer children as sacrifices and carry out all kinds of perversions, I challenged them to visit church services and see for themselves before spreading out such rumors.

Once again, I found work in the same expedition.  They received me with pleasure, and I once again went out on business.  This time, our work brigade had to conduct a survey of the depth and banks of the Kirov Grand Canal, beginning at the head of the canal starting in Uzbekistan at the Varkhatges Dam until the mouth of the canal which went up to the very sands of Kara-Kum.  When we conducted our work in the Jetisay region, I saw the very village, the very house, the same canal bank where my first love so quickly took place.

The Hungry Steppe was beyond recognition.  During my four year absence, in place of a bare steppe, everywhere stood cotton fields, irrigation canals, planted young trees, and numerous settlements in which lived hired people from all over Kazakhstan.  But the picture of these settlements brought despair.  The settlements were half empty.  They did not pay people their salaries for years.  They gave up everything and returned to their old homes.  They abandoned their old homes for robbery.  There was no coal neither firewood to buy.  The people who remained at night broke into vacant houses, broke windows and doors, took off the roof tiles, and used it for heating fuel.  It was an awful picture.  Students brought from the cities conducted cotton picking.  It served as free labor.  One must conclude that such help caused more loss than gain.

 

 

Seeing all this chaos, I lost interest in my work and thought about quitting.  When my business trip ended, I arrived in Chimkent again for the winter.  Loneliness troubled me, so I decided no matter what to find myself a girlfriend for life.  There were many women both among my old acquaintances and those at church.  Choices abounded.  Naturally, not every girl would have married me since they knew my past.  Regardless, I felt compelled to search.

So I started to examine the Christian ladies.  I even chose not to look for a girlfriend outside.

So one time, a girl came to our home.  She was a cousin of my brother-in-law.  She was of short height, plump, a girl pleasant to look at.  Her name was Nina Chepurina.  I knew her before my military service when she was an annoying girl who often irritated me.  Now she was different.  She was more mature and a completely formed lady.

From first sight, I liked her and thought for some reason that she would become my wife, my destiny.  That is how it turned out.  We started to meet.  She was also studying her final year at the medical school.  She was raised in a Christian family.  I completely appreciated that fact about her.  Her father was also repressed and served a prison sentence of 10 years for his faith in God.  At that time, her mother was forced to raise 4 children by herself.  I attentively watched Nina and recognized that she would become a good wife.  She did everything at home neatly, cleanly, and very quickly.

Once we came from the street which got hit by a heavy downpour.  We were soaked from head to foot.  Our shoes were dirty.  Not expecting any help, she quickly took off the foam inside the boots and washed them out.  Then she washed our boots and put them on the oven to dry.  I liked this very much.  I was convinced that she would be a meticulous wife.  Of course, the love that I had for Valya was not the same, but I was satisfied that I liked Nina.  She knew literally everything about me.

Gradually I came to know Nina.  It turned out that when she was still a girl, when she bothered me, she got the idea in her head that I would eventually belong to her.  During school she had a suitor whom she dated.  They expressed their love for one another, but then they had a falling out.  He left for the Army and still wrote her letters.  She also loved him.  When I proposed friendship to Nina, she did not hesitate and gave her consent.  She wrote her guy in the Army so that he would no longer have hopes for her.

Of course, I understood that there was no true, pure, first love.  Not, but we were united as one.  We both wanted to raise a strong Christian family.  After she finished school, they sent her to work in the collective farm “Lenin-zhol” located 30 kilometers from the city.  Dating became more complicated.  I had to buy a bicycle to meet Nina for dates.  Once I had to carry my bicycle 20 kilometers on returning to Chimkent.  One of the tires had a hole in it.  I did not have a spare tire nor something to patch the hole.  But what does not happen in one’s youth?!  So for 20 kilometers I looked like a fool, but afterward I always took with me a spare.

The time came to seriously consider marriage.  When I proposed marriage to her, she gave her consent.  I went courting, a custom of our people, by myself.  I had no friends, and I always made decisions on my own.  Her parents gave their blessing, and we named a wedding date for the fall of 1956.  They married us in the Evangelical Christian Baptist Church of which Nina was a member and I was a regular visitor.  The church’s pastor, Grigory Semyonovich, read us exhortations from the Bible.  They asked us if we agreed to merge our lives in love.  Of course, we answered in the affirmative as everyone does.

But then we had a little confusion take place.  Before the wedding ceremony, we realized that we had left the actual document attesting to our marriage at the home of her parents.  I had to run home. Her house was under construction.  Since the door was locked, I had to enter through the chimney of the furnace, take the document, and go outside through the same way.  This operation took nearly an hour of time.  I ended up getting my wedding outfit a little dirty.

After the wedding, her parents, relatives, and girlfriends congratulated us.  My best man was Gena Ivanchenko, the future choir director of our church.  In the future we would work together in the same work brigade of carpenters.

The wedding banquet took place in the garden of my sister’s home.  Two long tables were set up.  The time was postwar, thus the meal was rather modest.  Nothing to boast about.  But tea with sugar abounded without limit.

We invited about 50-60 people.  My mother came from Karaganda, and my brother Sasha came from Tashkent.  As if they all made a deal, they brought us the same gifts.  Single glass pitchers, 30 by our count.  For many years, we preserved them without ever using them once.  It is true that when they invited us to other weddings, we would grab a glass pitcher and give it to other young couples.

At the height of the feast, a strong wind blew and knocked out the electricity.  We had to finish the meal with lighting a single candle.  Of course, this was not particularly pleasant, but we were not very upset.

That is how our wedding went and then our troubled marriage, in which we took vows of happiness, turned into various arguments and even dramas.  We lived with Nina’s parents in their new house where they gave us one room.  In the spring they sent me on a business trip to field work.  But since I was separated from my young wife at home, I could no longer work.  I gave notice that I was quitting.

In those times to quit, you had to give one month’s notice.  However, they released me earlier, and I went home having been surprised at how quick things transpired.  So I departed from my beloved profession, and now I had to seek new work.  I did not have other skills, so I went to a factory that made clay bricks.  The work was hard, but it generated income.  Then I changed professions like gloves.  I had to work as a gravedigger, then a simple construction worker in a work team building a cotton factory.

Then I worked in repairing textile molds at the Chimkent textile factory.  Finally, out of utter luck, I became a carpenter in the builders’ guild.

I met an elderly man with whom I had worked in the construction brigade.  He invited me to work for him in the brigade.  He recommended me to the foreman for a position as a carpenter, even though I understood little about carpentry.  They accepted me into the team without suspecting that I had no experience whatsoever.

At our wedding, no one gave us anything besides glassware.  So we had to build our nest ourselves.  Nina could sew well on the sewing machine.  Out of any rag she could sew curtains, shades, and all kinds of napkins.  Out of swamp grass I made excellent pillows and feather bed.  I assembled a double bunk.  Using wooden cigarette boxes, I constructed closets and a kitchen table.  We were completely satisfied with our clever arrangement.

Our generation lived in difficult postwar circumstances.  The stores did not sell furniture.  Many years, we had to wait in line for a loaf of bread.  But we were satisfied with everything.  Now, in the 1990’s, young people are completely different.  At their weddings, you have to donate an apartment, imported furniture, a car, china, in other words, anything and everything.

In our time, everything was different.  So when they accepted me into the work brigade, I could do almost anything.  I just had to watch the carpenters and how they did their work.  Then I quickly picked up on all the subtleties of the carpentry profession.  After a month, Lyusya, the director of our collective, looked at my labor book and realized that I had no carpentry experience.  She asked the foreman, Nikolay Ivanovich, about my work.  He answered with satisfaction that my work was no worse than anyone else’s and even better than some.  I tried with all my might to build up my credibility before others.  Then they decided to formally register my profession.  They gave me a quiz that I passed with flying colors.  They registered me as a fourth level carpenter.  This was the lowest position in the brigade.

So I worked in this organization until my retirement.  The work was difficult.  I had to haul heavy boards in the heat.  In the winter, I had to work on the machines at the workshop with broken glass.  But the members of the brigade, aside from a few people, were all young.  Not sparing our energies, we “applied ourselves” under the compelling command of the foreman to “keep going!”

It was a strange system.  Building materials were plenty.  Boards and planks were scattered about the yard and the adjoining street.  But finished product was forgotten in storage. Because of its poor quality, no one could use it.  Everyone built things out of raw material.  Almost every year, they increased the work quotas, yet our wages remained the same.  To our harm, they gave us daily ration coupons for half a liter of milk.  Yet we never saw milk.  And when we began to complain about these poor conditions, they took away the harm.  Complaining was futile.  People dragged out what they could.  The accounting department juggled all kinds of false papers, lists of dead people, and etc. in an effort to turn a profit for itself.  Management stole large packets of finished goods, for which they were often caught and punished.  But some of them, particularly the “distinguished ones”, actually received promotions.  Workers took away wood, boards, planks, nails – anything they could get their hands on.

The brigade used to utter an Uzbek proverb in jest: “Do not go home with hand empty.”  And no one went home with an empty hand.  You could take whatever you wanted in your bag.  Breaks as a rule went overtime.  During breaks, we would wrestle right in the break area.  After we got paid, we gathered together and stayed in the main building until we got drunk.  Sometimes I participated in such episodes and arrived home drunk.  Logically, it all ended in an argument.

Two years after the wedding, we had a son, Seryozha.  Our happiness knew no limits.  Amazing!  A son!  A father’s pride!  I walked about all the stores in search of a baby carriage for him to sleep in, but I could not find one.  Finally, I discovered one in another region and bought it.  He slept in it while we took him for walks.  I was so happy and became quite attached to him.  How much joy his childish babble gave us!  How much we laughed when he began to crawl.  He could only crawl backwards, and we nearly fell down laughing because of it.

When our son was born, we decide to show him to my mother who happened to be with my sister Pasha.  Recently, she was working in light trade and shuttled back and forth between Karaganda and Chimkent.  On her last trip, she became quite sick and was lying in serious condition at Pasha’s.

Our wife and I brought our son and showed him to her.  She lied in the bed and then lifted herself up.  When she looked at our son through her tears, she smiled.  Then she pulled out 300 rubles from beneath a pillow.  This was her entire savings from her trade.  She extended it out and gave it to us.  She explained it should be savings for us, as she knew we were building our own home.  Deep in her heart she was hoping to spend her old age with her youngest son.

I do not know how long it took her to save this money.  So now, perceiving her death was at hand, she gave the money to us.  I deeply appreciated her behavior, for I knew it was hard for her to save up this money, which equated to two months of my salary.  In fact, we bought with this money tiles to complete the roof.

But Mother did not live long enough to be with us.  Ailing for 2 months, she died relatively young at the age of 56 years.  They buried her in a local cemetery.  That was the end to her life full of much suffering.

One time they told me that my sister urgently wanted to see me.  I woke up at 6 in the morning hoping that I could stop at my sister’s and find out what was happening before going to work at 8.  When I came to my sister’s, she led me into her home.  She gazed at me deeply and told me to enter the room where I used to live with Valya.  I opened the door…

I saw lying in the bed under the covers Valya.  Everything inside of me exploded!  But I immediately got a hold of myself.  Our gazes met each other.  I read in her eyes an inexpressible emotional wound and somewhere in the depth of her heart a desperate hope.

I asked her how she came here.  With tears and a muted voice, she told me about herself, starting with the day she left our home.  Her father was rough with her.  She was happy when she had finished medical school to be sent off to work in the Karaganda region.  There she lived in a dormitory on a collective farm and worked in the local hospital as a nurse.  In the evenings, she frequented a club, where she became active in the Komsomol working with youth and was even chosen to be its leader.  Guys from the collective farm began to take an interest in Valya.  Soon she married a handsome guy from the collective farm who played the harmonica.  She moved to his house.

His parents loved her.  She gave birth to a daughter.  It had appeared that destiny was smiling on her.  But then that young husband started to drink and cheat on her.  Life became unbearable for her.  He criticized her that he took her as an older lady.  Often, when he was drunk, he beat her.  He forced her to take off his boots.  Then he beat her with his boots.

And so, running out of strength to endure any more humiliation and beatings, she ran away from him and came to her father.  Late at night, she visited my sister and spent the night there.

That is how our meeting went.  I imagined her entire family tragedy which to some extent I was at fault.  No, she did not ask me for anything.  Yet, I realized that deep down in her heart, she was hoping that I also had family problems and would come back to her.

Right before me showed my entire childhood, my bitter orphan days.  In front of my eyes arose my firstborn, my beloved son.  How could I dare even consider abandoning my family and making my son an orphan?  What would he say to me if he were to grow up an orphan and meet me again?  No!  Not for the world would I even consider doing such a thing.  Never in my life!

I sympathized with her and advised her for the sake of her daughter to return to her husband and courageously endure whatever fate sent her.  What else could I have told her?  I was very sorry for her, but there was nothing I could do to help her.  That is our difficult conversation concluded.  I had to go to work, and she expressed her desire to visit my mother’s grave with my sister.  The cemetery fortunately was located near my guild.  After visiting the cemetery, we and Valya said goodbye and would never see each other again.  It was impossible to return what was already lost.

Several years later, Galyockha, our second daughter, was born.  When I had lived in the boarding school, I liked one girl named Galyochka.  Although our daughter was blond, we still named her Galyochka.

Once, when I came to Pasha, she told me that she had met Valya’s sister.  She told Pasha that Valya had died.  She returned to her husband and after giving birth to a second child, she died from hemorrhaging.  None of the techniques the doctors attempted could prevent the bleeding, and she died right in the hospital ward.  Fortune in life is unpredictable: for one, it can turn its smiling face, but for another, it can turn its back.

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