Chapter 4 of the Gray Wolf of Carpathia

Chapter 4 of the Gray Wolf of Carpathia
Note to readers: Č is pronounced as a “ch,” as in “church.”

Petra burst through the door of their train car.
“Quickly, you must get off now!” Petra said, his voice straining to keep from yelling too loud. “We have been betrayed by the conductor in Car 1. If they find you here, they will arrest all of us!”
Vasili grabbed their only bag, and took Maria’s hand. He could only say “Thank you Petra” before Petra shoved them out of the opposite door from where the policemen entered the train.
“May God bless you,” was the last thing Petra could get out before closing the door.
As Vasili and Maria crept along towards the back of the train, they could hear the police yelling something at Petra. Petra’s calm voice said, “I do not understand you. I do not speak Hungarian.”
That seemed to enrage one of the policemen even more. Suddenly the door to the car from which Vasili and Maria had come was thrown open and Petra was tossed like a cheap toy to the ground. Vasili and Maria had made it to the back of the train by then and hid in the shadows.
Two gunshots broke the temporary silence, followed by a short scream by Petra. Maria let out a small squeak before Vasili placed his hand over her mouth. The policeman, with gun in hand, peered towards the back of the train.
Vasili and Maria ran as silently as they could into the surrounding forest, praying that they would not be followed. They did not emerge until they heard the train pulling away. Petra lay dead along the tracks.
Maria looked at Vasili and was nearly hysterical as she said, “What have we caused?”
Vasili, knowing that there was nothing to be done, simply said, “We can do nothing for poor Petra now. I think he knew the chance he was taking.”
Vasili looked at Petra in the dim light of the stars. “We only have our suitcase. We must try to find some food and water.”
Maria was scared and shivering. She said “Where will we find those things? We have no money.”
“We will steal what we need from the Hungarians,” replied Vasili.
“No, I cannot.”
“Do you wish to live long enough to get to the ship?”
Maria nodded.
“Then we must do whatever we must do.”
They walked along the edge of the forest for several hours, and just before dawn they spotted a farmhouse set within a cleared field. Smoke was billowing from the chimney, indicating the fire had just been lit, and lamp light glowed within.
As the approached the house, the door swung inward and a man in his nightshirt ran onto the porch. He held up his hand and yelled in a language that Vasili did not understand. He realized it was German. He dropped his bag and showed his hands to the farmer, then had Maria show her hands.
“I do not understand you,” said Vasili, “but we are hungry and thirsty,” whereupon he pointed to his mouth and his stomach.
The farmer seemed to understand what he meant. He looked from Vasili to the single bag to Maria and back. He hesitated a moment, then waved them in.
The farmer’s wife was just finishing cooking breakfast and the farmer indicated to Vasili and Maria to sit at the rough-hewn table. The fire felt good after they spent the night in the damp, cool forest. The wife put down plates and cups and served them some eggs and some sort of spicy meat. She filled their cups with water.
“I speak Hungarian,” said the farmer. He pointed to Vasili and said, “you speak Hungarian?”
Because the Hungarians had forced them to learn their language, Vasili did understand. “Yes,” he nodded.
The farmer smiled and said “Good. Now, my name is Karl and this is my wife Gertrude.”
Vasili introduced himself and Maria, and thanked them for being so kind.
Gertrude said, “What has brought you wandering through the forest like that?”
Maria began to cry, bringing the attention of Gertrude, who sat next to her and hugged her.
Vasili told their tale. When he was done, he was afraid Karl would turn them over to the authorities. Instead, Karl sat back in his chair and smiled warmly. “We understand. We have had others come through here that were trying to escape Hungary, though not many with so dramatic a tale!”
After breakfast, Karl insisted on giving them some food and water, and then on driving them in his wagon to town to catch the next Northbound train to go to Bremen. When they got to the train station, Karl went to the ticket window and bought two tickets to Bremen. He came back to the wagon and handed them to Vasili.
“This is too much,” insisted Vasili. “How can I ever repay such a debt.”
The farmer guffawed loudly and said, “There is no need to worry my new friend! I am happy to help such good people as you.”
The train had stopped, so Vasili and Maria had to say their goodbyes to Karl and Gertrude, then quickly boarded the train.
As the train got back underway. Maria and Vasili slept most of the way, exhausted from the tension of the last two days. Finally, in Bremen, they were able to use most of the rest of their money to buy their tickets to America on board the H.H. Meier.
Their money could only afford them a passage in steerage, and as they stepped down the final staircase to the lower deck, Maria could barely stand the smell and the darkness. “Please stay close to me,” she pleaded to Vasili, her eyes filling with tears. “I never knew it would be so horrid.”
“Do not worry, I am here and I will watch over you.”
The next twelve days were mostly miserable for both of them. The meals were poor, even by peasant standards. The boiled beef and salt pork often smelled rotten and were barely cooked. The black bread was soggy, the vegetables were unrecognizable. The breakfast, some kind of mushy grain, tasted like old wood. Like most of the passengers, Vasili and Maria threw a good many of their meals overboard. They were constantly hungry and thirsty, so when trays of leftover fruits were brought down from the cabin passengers, they cherished them like candy.
Five days into the voyage, Maria was seasick and homesick, and tired of chasing the rats that were constantly running over her as she tried to sleep. A large man, who had been drinking, was speaking a language she did not understand. He stumbled into her space then tried to steal her bag; the bag contained the only remaining money she had. When she resisted, the man pulled her close and ran his hands over her, whispering, in his language, “Well, then, I suppose we will have to settle this another way.” Although she did not understand his words, she knew what he intended.
As the last syllable left his wretched lips, a fist hurtled past Maria’s head and slammed into the man’s nose, which burst with blood as the man fell to the deck. Vasili grabbed Maria’s arm and pushed her behind him. The man tried to stand, but Vasili placed a kick to his head, knocking him unconscious. Vasili looked at Maria and said, “Sorry that took so long.” Maria could not speak, but clutched her mother’s rosary to her chest and prayed.
The compartment fell silent for the first time since Maria and Vasili had entered. The ship’s purser then burst out of the crowd with two sailors. He seemed about to grab Vasili when he saw Maria behind him. He looked into Vasili’s eyes, then down at the man on the deck, and he understood. At his direction, the sailors wordlessly dragged the worthless man away, and he was not seen again on the voyage.
Finally, seven days into the voyage, Vasili overheard someone speaking in Slovak. He and Maria went over and found a family that was from the same district, Stara Lubovna, as Vasili and Maria. They had relatives waiting for them in America, and because they knew that Vasili and Maria could use the help, they offered to help them get to Passaic, New Jersey where Vasili and Maria could both find jobs.
The father, Gregor Petrovich, a tall and broad man with a smile to match and a mustache that covered his mouth, grabbed Vasili by the shoulders and said, “We Rusyns are of the same stock, and we must help each other as we can.” His tiny wife Anya, who barely reached to Gregor’s chest, even offered some food from home that they had been saving.
After that meeting, they all stayed together and helped each other get through the dismal voyage by telling tales from home. Vasili knew all of the great folk tales, and kept the children entertained. Maria finally felt like this voyage might work out after all.

Chapter 3 of the Gray Wolf of Carpathia

Two days later, as the mountains began to cast shadows on the village, Vasili and Maria sat on the fence outside of their shed.
“I am scared,” said Maria as she looked at the ground. “Will I ever return do you think? Will we ever see Father again?”
“I do not have the answers you are looking for. I will miss our family and our friends. But I know that when we make enough money, we can maybe return and help Father and the family. And I am a little scared myself,” said Vasili reassuringly.
Vasili leaned over and hugged his little sister, gently kissed her on her head, and whispered, “I will always watch over you dear one. Always.”
Maria smiled, wiped away the tear that had trickled down her cheek, and said, “We need to get ready.”
Vasili’s brother Havel and his sister Nadya were still finishing up their chores. Inside they found Mikhal sitting at the table, staring into the crackling fire. Mikhal did not acknowledge their presence until Vasili spoke up. Mikhal turned his face and it was then that they could see the lines from his tears running down his cheeks.
“We know this is very hard for you,” whispered Vasili. He was the eldest son, so the hurt was more painful.
Maria stepped across the room and hugged her father from the back, her arms squeezing around his shoulders and across his chest.
“Father, we love you, but this is our chance to help more than if we stayed here and tended the farm.”
The firelight was sparkling in her green eyes, reminding Mikhal so much of her mother Anna.
“You are my bright one, Maria. You are my joy, and your mother would be proud of you. Now you two get your bags and go meet Alexey. The train will never wait for you.”
Vasili and Maria hugged Mikhal one last time, and as they separated, Mikhal pressed money into Vasili’s hand and pressed a rosary into Maria’s hand. “This rosary belonged to your mother. I want you to have it to remember where you have come from.”
“I could never forget my home, and I am sure that Mother’s spirit will protect me and keep me safe.”
Mikahly recited the blessing three times as was the custom, “I bless you both in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Vasili and Maria hugged Havel and Nadya, all four of them wishing each other love, and all four wondering if they would see each other again.

The three conspirators met on the road out of Circ a few hours later. There were no houses there, and no snooping eyes watching in the dark.
“Just follow my lead,” whispered Alexey. “There is a policeman at the station, but I think we can get around him. Petra always leaves a door open on the opposite side of the train for me.”
As the three of them approached the station, Vasili spotted a policeman looking towards them. They turned down the road away from the station, then cut into the woods when they were out of sight. Vasili peered through the brush, but the policeman seemed to have more interest in getting his pipe lit in the windy night. When they emerged from the woods on the opposite side of the train from the station, they ran to the train and climbed into the last passenger car available. The train began to move, giving the three of them a feeling of relief. Alexey seemed joyous as he smiled broadly at Vasili and Maria and said, “Well my friends, we have done well this night.”
The train came to a sudden halt, and they could hear voices outside. Petra appeared in their car. He looked at Alexey, and without speaking, shifting his eyes in a way to indicate something was wrong behind him. The police must be coming through. Alexey told Vasili and Maria to hide behind the last seats and he would take care of it.
From the car in front of theirs, they could hear the policeman shouting, “I will need to see your passports.”
Before the policeman could make it into their car, Alexey whispered to Vasili and Maria, “stay hidden behind the seat, you will make it my friends.”
Vasili wanted to shout, but knew he could not.
Alexey stood up, strode to the next car and yelled “I do not have a passport.”
The policeman eyed him suspiciously, but he knew that if he pulled in even one of these young men tonight, his lieutenant would be happy. He grabbed Alexey’s arm without looking farther into the car and pulled him forward in the train.
When he had gone, Petra came back to Vasili and Maria. “You can come out. He will not bother you now, he has done his day’s work.”
“But what will happen to Alexey?” sobbed Maria. “We cannot let him get arrested for us!”
“You have no choice. He knew what would happen. He must love you two dearly. When they find out his name and age, they will place him in the army after they make him sorry for crossing them.”
The train started back up, and they could see Alexey being pulled into the station. But as he looked their way he smiled a broad smile, in spite of the blood that had already stained his teeth. Maria opened her hand and realized she had been gripping her rosary so hard that she could see the impression of the three-barred cross in her palm. She looked up and when her eyes met Vasili’s, she could see that he understood.
They fell asleep as the train rounded the bend, following the Poprad through the mountains, then into the northern reaches of the Empire. It was late in the year, but the snows that often blocked the rails had not yet started to fall.

When they awoke, hazy sunlight was just starting to flow down the mountains to bathe the valley in golden hues. The trees were turning various shades of yellow and red. For Vasili and Maria it felt like it was the first time that they felt the beauty of their home mountains. Vasili had always loved the mountains. When he hunted, he had enjoyed the mountain air and the smell of the tall pines that grew up higher on the ridge. But those times were short-lived; something always needed tending at the farm.
He looked at Maria with a large smile and said, “Do you remember when we wandered off into the mountains. Mother was frantic.”
Maria smiled wistfully. “And you got the switch for taking me with you!”
“It was worth it. We explored the forests like we were in Tale of the Disobedient Children.”
“I was afraid Berstuk would grab me at any moment,” Maria laughed as she mentioned the old god of the forest.
They were so intent on their happy memories that they did not notice the train had stopped in Krakow.
Maria’s smile turned to anguish as two agents dressed in the gray uniforms of Hungarian police appeared in their car.

Chapter 2

“Maria is eighteen, she can decide for herself.” Vasili was angry that his father could not see it.
“She is still my daughter, and she will remain in Circ until she is married. Then she can do what her husband wants to do,” Mikhal said with finality.
“I will watch over her as well as any husband. I am her brother. She will find a good husband in America, and will have a better life there than she will find here.”
“And what is wrong with this life?” Mikhal asked indignantly.
“We barely have enough to eat. The Kovalyaks and Tomkivs have lost children because they could not feed them. We only eat bread on Sundays, and not many of them. I am tired of eating potatoes every day.
“The Hungarians tax us for more than we can afford, and put us in prison when we cannot pay.
“I have heard about the mills that make steel. They will take any workers, and I must make money to help our family. Maria can work in the clothing factory. We will send money back to you.”
“I told you, I have been there Vasili—”
Vasili cut him off, “Yes! I have heard this too many times.”
“It is the truth, and it will be the same for you. I dug coal for them and got sick from the mines. I came back as soon as I could with some extra money.”
“Where has that gotten you now?” sneered Vasili.
Ignoring his son’s bitter answer, Mikhal asked, “And what about the army? The Hungarians will be through here soon, looking for you and your friends. They will not give you a passport when you owe them three years’ service.”
“I owe them nothing!” shouted Vasili. “I do not need a passport if I stay away from the police at the train stations. When we get over the border, it will no longer matter.”
Mikhal asked, “And where will you get the money to travel, are you a Magyar now? Do you have secret money I cannot see?”
“Yes, I have been putting money aside every time I work on the Baron’s land. I have enough for both of us now.”
“It does not matter. I forbid it.”
Vasili turned and walked slowly to the door.
He turned and gave Mikhal a threatening gaze. “I am going, and I will take Maria with me. I have promised her that I would not leave without her.”
“Then do not leave.”
Vasili threw the door open and strode from the house, angry but more certain than ever that he was right. Maria met him a few feet from the front door.
“What did he say?” she asked, hopeful that this time her father would relent.
“It is always the same. “I was there, I know better than you!’” Vasily’s mocking tone was biting.
“Please do not do that Vasili!” Maria pleaded. “He means well but I think he does not realize that you are a man now and you can decide these things.”
“I may have to go alone. I do not know how to change his mind.”
“Let me try. Perhaps you are too much like him, and you two can never agree.”
“Fine, but this is the last chance. I am leaving for Munich next week. I want you to see America, but I will go alone if I have to.”
The next morning, after Maria had fed the pigs and chickens and let the sheep and cows out to pasture, she found Mikhal near the house, repairing the fencing.
As she approached, Mikhal, knowing why she wanted to see him, said, “You can stop right there and go back to the house. I have not changed my mind since yesterday.”
“I know, but did you not meet Mother there in America? Why can I not have the same chance?”
“Your mother and I knew each other from here. It was easy. You will know only Vasili. Do you think that a rich American is just going to come along for a poor Rusyn factory girl, marry you and take you to his giant house in the city?” Mikhal reproached Maria, but his voice was gentle.
Maria began to cry, quietly at first, but then sobbed uncontrollably, her shoulders shaking and her face red and wet with tears.
“I-am-tired of being-hungry. I want-to live-” she could barely whisper the words, yet they were a stinging rebuke to Mikhal. His Anna had died only last year, and he remembered how they had fallen in love in America, and how she had secretly sacrificed her own life so that he and the children could live.
He stood from the fencepost and stretched out his arms to her, taking her in an embrace.
“Do not cry, little one. Maybe Vasili can take care of you.”
She pulled slightly away, wiped her face with her sleeve, and smiled broadly, her eyes focused on Mikhal and full of love and happiness.
“Thank you Father. Thank you. You will be proud of me. You will be happy that you allowed me to go!”
Maria ran and gave Vasili the good news.
“I do not know how you did it, but I am proud of you.
“Next week we leave this Hungarian hole and we start off for America!”

In the morning, Vasili sought out the friend he knew would help him. He saw Alexey opening the gate to let the cows to pasture.
Alexey Borovsky was one of Vasili’s best and most trusted friends. They had known each other as long as they could remember. With Nicolos Petrovich, they were always together, and always getting into some kind of trouble. The babushkas all knew them and scolded them every time they crossed their paths.
“Nicolos Petrovich,” they would shout, “I see you behind the shed. If I catch you I will give you the switch to your behind!”
Of course, they could never catch the three young men, but the laughter would echo off the houses as they ran for the hills.
Vasili, Alexey, and Nicolos were inseparable. They had stayed together, learned to hunt together, and at times argued when they went after the same girl.
Alexey had helped several other men escape to Poland so they could journey to America.
Most of them, like Mikhal, had returned of course, having made money, but having paid the price with their health. Most of the men ended up in the coal mines, or in the steel mills. In any case, they were the bottom of the rung, and were given the worst and dirtiest jobs. But they needed to make money and come back home so they could feed their families. Very few of them intended to stay. It was extremely difficult to get an entire family out of Hungary without passports. And the Hungarians would never give a passport to a family with a man of military age.
But Alexey was the kind of person that knew how to get things done. He knew the right people to talk to, and had spoken before about getting fake passports that would be good enough to get Vasili out of the country.
“Do you not have chores, my friend,” inquired Alexey when he saw Vasili waiting by the fence.
“Are you going to stand there like a frozen hen or do you want something?”
“I need a favor,” said Vasili.
“Of course you do! And I am the man to grant you that favor, eh?”
“This time it is a big favor.”
“Bigger than showing you how to be a good farmer?” joked Alexey.
“I was a good farmer when you were still wetting your diapers.”
Both laughed, but then Vasili’s face took on a very serious look.
“What is it, my friend, what troubles you so much?”
“My father has finally given me permission to take Maria and go to America.”
“And why is that so bad? You have been trying for two years with your father.”
“Because you know I cannot get a passport, not a legal one anyway.”
“Ahh, so now I see why you need me now.” Alexey said with a large grin. “The problem is that no one is making the passports anymore. The Hungarians found out about Janos in Lubotin. He has disappeared and everyone is afraid now.”
“Even so, we need to leave as soon as we can, before they come for me, and before my father changes his mind.”
“Hah! I understand. As a matter of fact, I have decided to also leave. I will not join the Hungarian army. Besides, I know you need the help.”
“What I need is to get past the police guarding the train station.”
It was only a matter of two miles to the Polish border. Once in Poland, nobody cared about the Hungarian passports, and they would be free to head to Bremen, where most of the ships were docked that would take them to America. But the Hungarians were watching the trains and the border carefully. They knew that the Rusyns would rather flee than serve their three years, even though it was considered the patriotic thing to do.
“We can handle it. I am the sneakiest man in the Carpathians! My friend Petra is the conductor on the train that comes by in two days.”
“I need more time than that!” Vasili exclaimed.
“It is either that or you swim the Poprad. After this trip, my friend will not be on that train again until next month.”
“Fine then. When does the train come through?”
“The day after tomorrow at 10:30. The train only stops for 10 minutes and we have to get on from the other side so the police do not see us.”
“But what about tickets?”
“Do not trouble yourself about tickets. Petra collects the tickets, and he knows me. I’ve ridden that train many times for free.
“Meet me here at 10:15.”
“Thank you.” The simple statement was all that was required between friends.

The Gray Wolf of Carpathia

Chapter 1

The impenetrable Carpathian night consumed the day as Vasili lay shivering in the trench they had scraped out of the ice and snow—so frozen that it was nearly as hard as the rock below it. The army had issued him the wool clothing that barely kept out the cold. Humans were not meant to live in these conditions, but what choice did he have?

The screams of the wounded from the day’s battle echoed down the canyons until stifled by the gray wolves. It chilled Vasili as it did the other men to hear the final cries in the dark, knowing that any one of them could be next. Tomorrow they would see the streams of red, frozen so fast that they never soaked into the snow. The bright red ice would remind him that his time was soon. And when it came it would not be peaceful.

If they were attacked, he would never be able to fire a shot. Everything on his Steyr Monnlicher M1895 was frozen. It took him five minutes to defrost the gun enough to allow the bolt to operate and the trigger to move. Far too late as the flashing bayonets would come over the lip of his hole.

They could never surrender. Vasili knew what it meant to be captured by the Russians. The Russians hated the Hungarians, the Germans, and the Austrians. But they had a particular hatred for the Rusyns because of the Rusyns’ stubborn attempts at separation from Russian influence.

“Vasili, you dog! Wake up before I shoot you!” Vasili knew enough Hungarian to understand the sergeant’s order, and he was smart enough to know what happened to those who did not obey.

“I am awake. What is it?”

“We are hitting the Russian bastards now. Get up and get ready!”

The fear rose to a peak in Vasili as he heard the charge of the Tsarist army echoing through the hills.

“Vasili! Wake up, Vasili! You are screaming again in your sleep!”

“I am sorry Marja, I cannot help myself.”

“I know Vasili. Is it the war?”

“It does not matter. It is just a nightmare.”

“But why will you not tell me about it?”

“Just go back to sleep. I am fine.”

In the morning, Vasili sat at the small kitchen table, his palms pressing into his eyes, his fingers gripping his blonde-hair.

“Is it the headaches again?” asked Marja as she hugged him around his shoulders. In the two years since Vasili had returned, he had been plagued by these awful headaches and nightmares from which he awoke screaming in terror.

“Yes, of course,” replied Vasili. “They never stop.”

Marja’s hand inadvertently went to pat Vasili’s back, making him pull away from her and flash his angry blue eyes back at her.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I did not mean to touch there. It was an accident,” Marja apologized.

“I have told you,” Vasili spat out, “you do not touch there, ever.”

The scar on his back was a constant reminder of the scar on his soul. It was the scar that meant he could never be forgiven—not by the priest, not by God, and not by himself.

“Father Durisin keeps asking why you do not go to mass.” It was Sunday, and Marja was carefully changing the subject and trying delicately to prod Vasili to go to church with her.

“That is not Father’s business,” growled Vasili. “That is my business.”

The Byzantine religion was deeply rooted in all Rusyns. It was not just an obligation, it was a way of life, and it permeated everything a good Rusyn did.

Marja turned to finishing the breakfast dishes without another word. She knew better than to push Vasili too hard. There was a space within him that Marja could not fill. God could not fill. It was his alone to bear. They had known each other since childhood in Circ. They had spent many hours walking the mountain paths into the beautiful Carpathians. Marja often wondered why her father left in the first place. The farming work was hard but peaceful. They were far enough from the Hungarians that they rarely came around to torment them. There had been animosity between the Hungarians and Rusyns for longer than anyone could remember, and they had been subjects of the Hungarian Empire for a thousand years, but Franz Joseph was especially determined to eliminate their language and their culture, turning them into Hungarians.

“You go alone. I have nothing to say to God today.”

“Please, it is your soul I pray for.”

“My soul is black, and I will be in Hell.”

“I just want you to—”

“Enough!” Vasili was shouting now. This weekly conversation had taken place since he returned from the war that had taken his humanity and his soul. Every time they had this conversation, Vasili would stare at the wall, his thoughts kept securely to himself, reminding him of how this journey started.

Vasili had been a farmer like his ancestors for as many generations as the family could remember. They had just enough land to feed themselves and had lived in the same log home built by his grandfather. Their two oxen helped with the plowing, the one cow gave them milk, the six sheep gave them wool, and the two pigs would give them pork.

His village sat at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. The people of his village had no time to stare off at the mountains to appreciate the beauty and majesty. But Vasili knew those mountains. His father Mikhal had taken him hunting there since he was a small boy.

There were many rumors of a great country called America where many of their friends had gone. They knew only that the streets were gold, and a man could do whatever he wanted to do, and be whatever he wanted to be. When Vasili dreamed, he dreamed of such a place. Tall mountains, wheatfields as far as the eye could see, and cities, where so many people lived that they had to live in tall brick buildings. Often, his father would smack him in the back of the head when he caught young Vasili dreaming of that land.

His father would scold, “Vasili, do not dream of what you cannot have.”

“You and Mother were married there, why can we not return?”

“To that place, never,” Mikhal spat the words. “We could not stand the smell. The factories were the only places for people like us. I have told you this many times. All those people living on top of one another. The smoke and soot, we could never breathe properly. This is where we belong. This is our land.”

“It will never be our land so long as the Hungarians can come and take it. They have taken almost everything from us to pay for that Emperor to live in gold palaces. One of these days, we will not be able to pay the taxes, and they will take our land like the Kovalchiks.”

“No, one day we will have our own land. We will not live under the boot of the Magyars forever.”

“I will be long dead before that day comes, so why should I wait?”

When I’m 65

I turned 65 this year. I’ve actually lived through eight decades, from the 50s to the 2020s. But this is not about how my brain thinks I’m 21, or how 65 is the new 45, or how I can now get injured while sleeping.

This is about my first encounter with a Medicare checkup. Believe me, I get why they do what they do. I fully understand the ravages of dementia in older adults. But this is about how one can nearly blow something so easy simply because it’s so easy; and right there is why it can easily be a problem.

For one’s first Medicare checkup they need a baseline, so they do a hearing test and a vision test which are pretty standard, and all one has to do is listen and look. But then comes the cunningly devised memory test.

“I’m going to give you three words; I’ll ask you to repeat them, then in a little bit I’ll ask you to tell me what they are,” said the nurse.

“No problem,” I said in the “I’m confident because my brain is young” voice, nearly missing the first word because I was talking to myself.

“The three words are: ‘nation,’ ‘lake,’ and ‘finger.'” “Nation, lake, and finger,” I repeated. Now, in my head, I am repeating the words over and over and over because the last thing I need to do is blow such and easy test. I know my brain thinks these words are probably the least important thing it needs to remember today or ever, and it wants to place them in the “Who gives a crap” file. But no, I will not allow that to happen, so I begin the memorization by rote technique, repeating them in my head over and over and over.

“Ok brain, you got this,” as I await her request for the words, so I can spout them off like I can give out my name. But then something happens that completely jars me from my musing. The nurse says, “Here’s a piece of paper, I want you to draw a clock face, complete with all of the numbers, then I’m going to give you a time and I want you to draw the hands in the proper positions.”

“Holy…what? Did I hear her correctly? Nation, lake, finger, nation, lake, finger. Did she say a clock face with numbers? Nation, lake, finger. Now I have two completely useless things to remember.” As I draw a circle on the paper, my brain is now nearly in crisis mode. “When was the last time I had to draw clock hands to indicate the correct time? Wait, is it little hand hour, big hand minutes, or big hand hour, little hand minutes? Ummm, nation, lake, … Nation, lake, finger, phew. Nearly lost it there.

“OK, 12, 1, 2, nation, lake, finger, make sure the three is in the right position. I’m making this way harder than it needs to be. Yeah, but boy could you blow this and really look bad. Nation, …, lake, finger, 10, 11. There.”

“Ron, I want you to indicate 10 after 11.”

“Who the hell tells the time like that anymore? Why not 11:10? Cripes. So, small hand 10, big hand 11. No wait, it’s not 10:11, it’s 11:10. OK little hand 11, is that right? Yeah, that’s right, big hand 10.” I am satisfied that it is correct and hand her the paper.

“What was the first word? Don’t dwell on this or you’ll forget the other words. Nation, yeah, nation.”

Finally, the moment arises and I speak with the gravitas of a Shakespearean actor, “Nation, lake, finger!” Ok, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but then so is this entire story.

I passed the test, but wait, did I mention the shots? To start the appointment Carolyn and I had to get pneumonia vaccines. This is a vaccine only given at age 65 or above. There it is. So while we were there we figured why not get the flu vaccine at the same time? I know it’s dead viruses meant to active one’s immune system, so why not?

Why do people think these give them the flu? Simple. Your body thinks you are getting the flu, and it reacts appropriately. So my body now thinks it is simultaneously being attacked by the flu and pneumonia, and is reacting appropriately and without regard for my plans for today. You can draw you’re own conclusions.

I’m done being 65 for the time being, so I’m going to have some warm milk and a nap.

Spaced in Time

The fairies were dancing while the flowers sang the tune.

The inter-dimensional membrane was broken through at last.

The floor was on the ceiling while the ceiling yelled for mercy, but the door was always open and the fireplace did roar.

The pumpkins were all lined up and the butterflies were hungry, but the bees made nothing but trouble for the trees and all their friends.

The wind just kept blowing, and I thought I’d seen enough, but the stream was flowing past me and I didn’t want to miss the show.

While the clouds kept hiding the sunlight, the fish began to shout obscenities to the memory of the fire that killed them all.

I never drank from a silver cup so who will fill it with the wine that it deserves, to toast the toast that we deserve?

To frame our lives in the window panes and hang them on the walls. What button do I push to end this nightmare?

The walls are staying where they have always been. It’s the floor that I don’t trust. The table told me stories, and the chair and I believed every word.

When the ink dries on this contract, I suspect that it will turn to dust and blow away in that damned wind that never stops.

If I yell any louder I’m sure I’ll wake the bell, and we all know what happens next. I would have too.

A Word on the Awkward Years

My Junior High years (at that time, we had no kindergarten, only 1-6, 7-9, and 10-12) were not particularly distinguished in many ways. I made decent grades, made the honor roll, that sort of thing. But you know the good things we do are usually mundane and uninteresting. So…

In ninth grade, we had an art teacher named Mr. Snyder. He really was a nice guy, but he had this obsession with art (I know, obviously) and would force us to attempt art techniques that were way over our heads, and way past my interest, like wood block engraving and printing. Seriously? The only good thing was that there was a girls’ gym class at that time and the art classroom was on the side of the building overlooking the football field. I got busted every time for staring out the window.

So amid all of the attempts to make us the next generation Florentine artists, John and I had a contest. The contest was to see who could torment Mr. Snyder the most and get the most swats from his wooden pointer. Corporal punishment was quite encouraged at that time. The idea was to aggravate him to the point that he would call you up in front of the class, bend you over and give you two or three good swats to the backside. The only really bad hits were when he would miss and hit your calf muscles. No question, I asked for every one of those welts. The worst came when he asked me if I wanted backhand or forehand. I considered the offer, and being over-confident in my cleverness, thought that no one could have a backhand as powerful as a forehand shot with its extended backswing. I should have realized he had that smug little smirk on his face for a reason as I requested the backhand shot. It turned out that he was some kind of amateur tennis star. If you ever get that offer, think about why you got that offer before you decide on which to take. He gladly informed me of his status, after giving it his best shot, with a grin like the Grinch after he stole all of the Christmas gifts and decorations from the Whos.

The only time I got a serious paddling was from the principal, Mr. Ermelick. I was in the 8th grade and we had a band party. A kid brought in a baby aspirin bottle of liquor. Three of us were walking down the hall and he asked if we wanted to try it. Sure, why not? I barely got it to my lips when he ripped it out of my hands, and I do not believe I actually got a taste. A certain nerdy kid (that ended up being a General in the army, go figure) spied us doing it and for some reason ratted us out. Three swats with the paddle and a call to the parents. I am not sure which hurt more. Ok, the wooden paddle with the holes drilled through to reduce wind resistance definitely hurt more.

In Seventh Grade we had Miss Williams for English. She was tough as nails and was well known for teaching sentence diagramming. That was one of the most hated exercises of any class, in any grade, anywhere. But it was the best method for learning the parts of speech, their correct use, and their correct positioning in sentences. By the Ninth Grade, she picked a bunch of us for her creative writing class. It was an unstructured class meant to bring out our creativity by not repressing it with a lot of rules and strict classroom rigidity. For many of the assignments we were permitted to go anywhere on the school grounds we wanted to, and usually worked in teams. John and I positioned ourselves at the base of the back staircase. Subtlety is not a characteristic of 14-year-olds. Come on, I was in Ninth Grade. It worked pretty well until one of the teachers caught on, and berated us until we left. At least we didn’t get in any trouble. Even with our immaturity, the class actually did achieve its purpose. As a group, we produced some decent poetry, stories, and even put on a play written by one of the students. In all, it opened our minds to creativity. Miss Williams, wherever she is, should be proud of her accomplishments, only outdone by my high school English teacher, my nemesis, my mentor, and the only reason I am still writing sentences for a living. I will talk about her at another time.

A Poet’s Day

Today is the kind of day of which poets write. The sky is a deep azure blue without a hint of an atmospheric perturbation. The sun is the only thing in the sky, a welcome visitor to the morning coolness. The warmth washes over me as a slight breeze tickles my skin with coolness. I am glad to be alive to witness such a perfect day. I am glad to be able to enjoy this moment and each moment that passes, without regret for the past or worry for the future. It reminds me that I am alive right now.

The last one mile

Carolyn and I walked the path of the Pickett-Trimble-Pettigrew Charge of July 3, 1863 in Gettysburg. The path is about one mile of open farmland. There are a few swales where a man could find some respite if he were to lay down. Otherwise, there is a clear view of Little Round Top, from which Union artillery pounded the Confederate flanks, and straight ahead where the artillery belched fire and death right at them. And behind the low stone wall, men in blue with their heads down and their muskets primed, waited for the order to come up and fire into the faces of the butternut-uniformed men. I can feel it here, as I cross the Emmitsburg Road. I can feel that this land, this very piece of ground on which I stand, was trodden and bloodied, and horrors I cannot imagine took place here where now I walk in peace on this sunny Spring day. I cross the Angle, where the Virginians broke through, where General Armistead met his fate with his sword held high and his hat on the tip, shouting “on you Virginians!”

I walk to the cannons silently keeping vigil where the air turned pink from the point-blank double-cannister fire. I feel it here, too, the memories of those who came here in war and bloodlust, and never left this field. As I return on the path of the defeated army, back to West Confederate Avenue, I feel the bewilderment of those survivors who could still walk, not understanding how General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the invincible army, could have suffered this devastating defeat. I can almost hear General Lee, his hat in hand, peering at his men, saying, “It is all my fault.” I must respect the men who could have born such horrors and kept marching forward as hundreds fell around them in gruesome deaths. And finally I hear General Pickett, after General Lee told him to rally his division for defense from a counterattack, saying, “Sir, I have no division.”

Red Dog Days III

undefinedYes, we actually had those types of desks from the 1930s in our classrooms. Inkwell and all. I can’t discuss my early years without mentioning a few of my teachers. In second grade I had Miss Edgar, the quintessential leftover Victorian Era schoolmarm. She was second in age only to God. Her doctor was an paleontologist. Very old and very wrinkled. Her hair was dyed jet black, she had on copious amounts of blue eyeshadow, her cheeks looked like the rosy cheeks of a clown doll, her lips were fire-engine red, and, I am not lying, she had a silver incisor. I think she put her makeup on with a cement trowel. She hated boys. I don’t know why, but she hated boys. Unfortunately for me, I happen to be a boy. She loved the girls. She treated them with all the deference her shriveled heart could muster. My cousin Kathy was two years older than me, and they had a mutual love. But my friend John and I got paddled every other day. I remember well a rainy day recess. We couldn’t go out to the playground, but Miss Edgar allowed us to go out on the front porch of the school. The front porch was maybe 12 feet by 30 feet. A wide set of about six steps led up to the neo-classical porch with large columns on either side. Of course we got rowdy and two kids starting playing keepaway with my baseball cap. One of them tossed it and it landed on the first step down from the porch. The first step. So my right foot went on the first step as I bent down and retrieved my cap. I would guess within 30 seconds Miss DeGeorge appeared, throwing open the outer doors of the school, grabbing me by the arm, and paddling me all the way down the 30 foot entrance hallway, turning left, and all the way down the final 30 feet to her room. And of course yelling, “I told you not to go off the porch” fifty or so times. Not too traumatizing for a seven-year-old.

In third grade it was Mrs. McClellan. I can see her face plain as day. Older, rather plain, with the shorter permanent hairdo popular in the early 60s. The only problem with her was that she was a germophobe. Back then we used handkerchiefs. Granted, I wouldn’t be too fond of it now, but that is what everyone did. You kept a handkerchief in your back pocket. Well she caught me using it. She grabbed me by the arm, marched me down to the boys room, threw open the door, went to a toilet stall and forced me to flush the handkerchief down the toilet. Well, that’s not too traumatizing for an eight-year-old.

At least my first, fourth, and fifth grade teachers were rather normal. Mrs. Kline, Mrs. Laurman, and Mrs. Bedogne. In sixth grade we had someone that I swear looked like Granny Clampett. She had gray hair and kept it in a tight bun like a pioneer woman and wore those little round-framed metallic glasses popular in the 1920s. Mrs. McDowell was only there for about the three months or so of sixth grade, but in that short time she managed to make my life miserable.

I have decided to leave out the details of the sixth grade episode because it would come off as mean-spirited. The meditation must be doing me some good. Mrs. McDowell left suddenly and without an explanation. (Nothing to do with me, by the way)

After that we got our first male teacher, whose name escapes me. I’m guessing he was in the first wave of men to figure out that going to school for teaching gave them a deferment from the draft, the late 1960s being the height of the slaughter of the Vietnam War. I don’t begrudge anyone the opportunity to have avoided being cannon fodder for an ill-advised war. But there was an entire generation of male teaches who could have cared less about teaching or kids and only saw it as an opportunity to stay out of the Army. He would take us down to the TV room once a week to watch the Mr. Alder’s Science show on WQED, the first public broadcast station in the U.S. We would go in, watch the achingly boring show, and return to our class. We got nothing out of it, and I found it to be worthless. One day I couldn’t take it anymore, so I wrote up a petition to the teacher demanding that we stop watching it. At lunch, I took it around to the entire class and they all signed it. I placed it on the teacher’s desk. When he returned to the classroom, he sat down, picked up the petition, read each word, and looked over the signatures while peering menacingly over the top of the paper. Then he stood up, slowly eyed the entire class, and demanded to know who signed the petition. My friends John and Larry and I were the only ones to put up our hands. This was an early lesson in what it takes to intimidate a crowd.

We were punished by remaining in the room while the rest of the class went to watch Mr. Boring’s science show, and we had to write some science paper thing, I don’t remember what. But in my eyes, I won. I didn’t have to watch Mr. Alder’s Science show, and the trauma began to subside!

Note: I have changed the names of any teacher of whom I speak ill.

End of Part III