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But so what. I was just a Soviet kid. What did I know?
I remember that August of 1968 well. I went on a couple of successful mushroom hunts; swam (and, on one occasion, nearly drowned: I was a pretty bad swimmer, and still am) in the placid Roshchino lake; exchanged several progressively more soulful and maudlin pieces of correspondence with the lovely girl from my middle-to-high school that I had a crush on at the time; played for hours on end with the impossibly cute, bear-like little Caucasian Shepherd puppy my parents gave me as a birthday gift the month before (in fairly short order, growing in leaps and bounds, he would turn into a veritable Hound of the Baskervilles: much too large and mean a creature, in other words, for our cramped, three-room apartment in a concrete-block building in one of the less picturesque Upper Kupchino “Khrushcheville” micro-districts on the outskirts of Leningrad; but that, of course, is a whole different story); raised my personal record for consecutive two-arm chin-ups to an impressive thirty-five (these days, I wouldn’t be able to pull off just one even if my life depended on it — which it occasionally does, incidentally, in one of my recurrent nightmares … well, not really); met one afternoon, randomly, over at the local park (where he was trying to keep an eye on his rambunctious toddler of a grandchild), and proceeded gushingly to introduce myself to, the famous Soviet children’s and young-adult writer, Lev Kassil, author of my favorite novels “Conduit and Schwambrania” and “The Great Opposition” — who subsequently, smiling wryly, presented me with an autographed bookmark bearing his sagacious Semitic likeness and imprinted at bottom with one of his hallmark pithy sayings: “If only children thought more frequently about what they will be like when they grow up, and the grown-ups recollected more frequently with regards to what they were like as children, old age would never be in any hurry to come to people, and wisdom would never visit them too late.”
As the summer of 1968 wore on and drew to a close — in a development that had little to do with my own tiny little thirteen year-old existence — the heroic Soviet Army occupied brotherly Czechoslovakia, in order to save the latter from sliding irrevocably into the nightmarish cesspool of Capitalism and International Imperialism. My old Bolshevik grandfather rejoiced at the news, seated in an easy chair out on the porch of our rented dacha with the Pravda newspaper (all aglow with the black fury of its ruthless headlines) unfurled across his lap: “Well done! Way to go! We should’ve done this earlier!” In my book — as far as I was concerned, at the time, that is to say — he never was and never could be wrong. However, from my parents’ whispered conversations behind half-closed doors, their meaningful sidelong glances and eye-rolls at the Pravda-reading Grandfather — and from the certain sotto voce exchanges between the stern-looking, poorly shaven city strangers milling around the Roshchino park in the dark — I began to gather the uneasy notion that the truth of the world as it had been known to me thus far might not, in point of fact, be such a clear-cut proposition. Something stirred inside me, darkly exciting, like a flock of blackbirds.
Also around that time, my grand-uncle — my father’s de facto adoptive father — died: one of the leading Soviet experts in the field of cellulose industry and owner of a very large library of old books in several languages in his rambling, spacious apartment in midtown Leningrad, just around the corner from the Dostoyevskean apartment building where I was born and spent the first eight years of my life. An inveterate long-distance swimmer, he nonetheless, somehow, managed to drown during a routine morning exercise, while crossing some narrow northern river, while attending a cellulose-themed symposium. A sudden muscle spasm, apparently.
Everyone in my family was crushed … I loved him a lot.
Jim, John, and Jack. Three unemployed American workers. If it were up to me now, I would’ve had those three bums up and hired by a Red Lobster somewhere in the vicinity of Coxsacke, NY, say — provided there is one up there, which there must be — and be done with them.
But for better or worse, I won’t be able to do anything with them, or about them, now — not now and not ever — even if I wanted to, because back in 1993, when I was relocating to New York from Minneapolis (where I had completed my two-year stint as a visiting assistant professor), the large cardboard box containing that old standard-issue school notebook in cornflower-blue oilcloth cover (among sundry other sentimental mementoes, such as scores of childhood photographs, a few slim stacks of adolescent love letters, drafts of unfinished youthful stories, that Lev Kassil-autographed bookmark, the oil painting of an oversized and idiosyncratically angled crawfish on a wet pub table next to a massive half-empty mug of Zhigulevskoe beer which my late father had bought for me on the occasion of my departure for America; et al.) — the only truly irreplaceable box out of the twenty-four comprising the sum total of my earthly possessions that I had shipped off to a friend’s address in the Bronx — got lost without a trace in transit.