Ever notice how really bad music somehow sounds pretty good on a really bad casette player?
That’s what was going through my mind as mile after mile of pastoral Russian countryside passed before my eyes through the light film of a dirty bus window and really trashy Russian pop was blaring loudly in my ears.
The ride from Moscows Sheremetyevo airport to our camp took about 2 hours as the 1960s era bus sputtered up and down the gentle hills using every gear at it’s disposal. I spent months teaching myself the Cyrillic alphabet and was desperately trying to read the signs on the side of the highway before they whizzed past. When we finally arrived it was already getting dark and the campus was bathed in soft dusk hues.
Holding my suitcase and battling the large hungry mosquitos I made my way to my building, showered and fell into a deep sleep.
I admit to harboring pre-conceived stereotypes of Russians and as I type this I can almost hear the accent each one of you readers hears in your heads right now. Well the next day those images seemed to be spot on. The greasy hair, tight spandex pants and barritone HELLOs.
I was finally introduced to the teen I’d be learning with. His name was Vlad and he intimidated me even though he was 2 years my junior. He carried himself like a gangster, always wearing a leather jacket and cap, the scent of cheap cigarettes hung around his tall bulky stooped frame like an August Moscow haze.
We learned every morning for an hour and a half and it was generally an icy affair. I just didn’t warm to him. He would sit there staring at me with lifeless eyes over his Russian pug nose when he wasn’t sharing nasty jokes in Russian with his compatriots. His favorite pastime seemed to be making fun of “stupid amerikan”. He’d come to visit my room almost every afternoon and had the annoying habit of touching everything in the room. With his head in all kind of weird angles like a goose as he craned his neck into every nook in the room finding curiosities like my camera and muttering ohh verry gooood. Then he’d suddenly say something like Amerikan people very stooopid..Michael Jorrdan very goood..O Genry verry gooood while I tried to concentrate on my book of O Henry short stories. I’d look up to see him chewing on a dried out fish that he just pulled out of his back pocket while laughing at my cans of pringles and peanut butter piled up 8 deep.
One day as I was sitting in the dining room, my back to an enormous mural of Lenin, eating bread and peanut butter with coffee and milk powder, Vlad came up to me and told me that his grandfather is coming to visit and he ran out to go greet him.
My first glimpse of Sasha Grinboim was of him carrying a months worth of belongings in a lurid shopping bag walking through the large cornfield that led from the road to the camp. He was shorter than average and looked absolutely tiny dwarfed by the large stalks of corn. Vlad was trailing a few steps behind. I approached him and offered my hand. He stopped and squinted up at me with sharp eyes. He asked “Die redst yiddish?” (do you speak Yiddish) in an unmistakable Galitzianer accent. I replied “avade”..(of course) with an impeccible mimicry of his accent that caught him off guard. My eyes automatically went to his enormous nose as I attempted to internalize this incredible appendage. The sun on my back suddenly made me exclaim “nu..lets’ move” in yiddish. It turns out he was indeed from a small town in pre-war Galitzia. My grandparents come from that region and so his accent was like music to my ears. Even more incredible, after the war he spent a year in the same town as my grandfather, the border town of Rava-Russka. The conversation flowed like a meandering river back in time, from place to place. His face was basking in the glow of this unexpected conversation from the past. Vlad was 2 steps behind making the kinds of impatient grunting sounds you might expect from someone thatfeels left out of a conversation.
I left them at the door to their building and I made my way to the small general store down the road to buy some round watermelon.
That night I found my new friend sitting by himself hungrily eating a thick hot soup with bread. He gesticulated wildly when he saw me and moved over to allow me to sit beside him on the bench. He continued our conversation as if we’d never stopped. Pieces of bread were flying in all directions from his mouth as he animatedly talked about the years after the war. He was living in Rava Russka and wanted to leave to the west and to America but he missed the last train out and the very next day the the Iron Curtain closed with a dull thud, trapping him behind, he explained with a sigh. “I was there...I was right there but the train was so packed I thought..I’d wait until tomorrow for the next train” he said in a frustrated tone.
But he managed to make a life for himself, immersing himself in Soviet society, slowly letting the past slip away. He shrugged as if to spite me and my imagined judging of his life. An awkward silence hung in the air between us. Suddenly his eyes became all wet and red as he remembered his childhood and the songs he’d sing in shul..and let a half tune escape his lips softly, terribly off tune, yet hauntingly familiar.
The next morning I woke up to the incessant sound of a fly buzzing against the window pane. My eyes stared blankly at the pale green peeling paint, my body immobile on the lumpy mattress as if held in place by the dusty sun rays. I was thinking about the miserable fly and about Vlad and the huge divide between us. I was beginning to feel trapped by him and unable to accomplish anything and I was really looking forward to a trip I was planning into the big city by train in a few days.
Somewhere in the haze of my thoughts I thought I heard a commotion outside. Pushing the sun rays off my chest I shuffled over to the floor to celing window and pulled the white curtain to the side, peering outside. In the distance I saw Vlad outside his building and the Camp Director running around with the camp interpreter, concerned looks all around. A small crowd had gathered and I had this bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I hurriedly got dressed and ran out the door.
Vlad stamped out a cigarette as he rolled his eyes and intoned “my grandfather not feeling well..again”. Suddenly in the distance I heard an approaching ambulance, the tone of its two key siren horribly off tune. I ran into the room and saw Sasha sitting up in bed pale and sweating profusely. He was terribly agitated and kept krechtzing oy oy..it’s over...its over... He didn’t seem to notice me and he didn’t seem to be able to focus on anything at all. I rode with him, Vlad and the camp director to the medical facility (if you can call it that) in town.
A few hours later I was sitting at his bedside and he kept muttering ”...oy oy..die 5:20..Ich darf chappen die 5:20...I have to get the 5:20..” I whispered to him “..What? What?” Do you want to say something? He looked at me and cried softly “oy..the 5:20...” Vlad yelled at me angrily in Russian and from the few words that I understood it seemed he didn’t like the fact that his Grandfather was agitated about the past, and he blamed me for that.
We hitched a ride back to camp in silence.
I had this sudden urge to speak to my Zeidie and I arranged to make an international phone call. I called Russian Telephone service and 2 hours later I was at the rotary phone for my alotted time to call. I dialed the fifteen or so numbers until my finger was numb, strained my ear, and after 2 faint rings my grandfather picked up and was quite surprised to hear me. Aware of the prohibitive cost of every minute I asked him about Rava Russka and if he remembered someone Yissucher Grinboim. The name did not ring a bell, but he proceeded to tell me all about how he escaped the army and made the last train out of the Soviet Union. The train was packed, but he and a few friends managed to squeeze on board. That train, the 5:20 from Rava Russka was the last train to freedom. I felt my throat go dry and hurriedly finished the conversation.
Suddenly it was all so clear. I was there..right there on the platform, in the jostling crowd..5 minutes is all that divided me and Vlad... The whistle was blowing shrill, the smoke filling the station...
I went out into the cool evening air and saw Vlads sillouhette walking down the path to his building. I ran after him and put my arm around his shoulder and looked deep into his dark eyes. He raised his eyebrows and I just said..come on “Vlad let’s go learn something..whatever you want”. He looked at me and asked "David..what is your rush?..it’s late..” I grabbed him by the shoulders and said...”don’t you you see?....we have a train to catch..!”
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