Living On The Edge
by Vladimir Dubisskiy
Near the 9-storey apartment house where we lived in Kiev, just across the yard and behind a tall fence made of concrete blocks topped with barbed wire there was a restricted area belonged to some unknown military unit. Kids playing in the yard from the very childhood witnessed a routine garrison soldiering -- sluggish wrangling of armed guards boring on their watch-towers, undersized privates sneaking between the fence and neighboring grocery Gastronom with ugly bottles of cheapest liquor or fetid filterless cigarettes called Prima. Kids used to play under gazes of sentries, the whole life in the neighborhood passed as if in custody... And from our small balcony on the 9th floor one could see rather picturesque hills, with trees and bushes here and there, a bluish speck of Dnieper river in the distance and very tall striped red and white fixtures supporting the aerial cobweb of the broadcast-jamming station -- to block enemies' voices from the West -- ironically located on the so-called Witch's Hill.
When at 8 a.m. our son left the house going to school he first walked along the side of guarded perimeter avoiding smashed bottles, heaps of canine and sometimes human dung, rusty and dirty trash. On his return in the afternoon he might often behold the groups of local caretakers who used to have their lunch with inevitable vodka just next to the path, on the cast-iron lid of sewage shaft. During 20 minutes walk from our place to local public school kids have to pass by a huge gray hulk of public hospital (full of half-starved patients and nasty cockroaches), with always busy mortuary behind, then to go around the big open-air parking lot with mean watchdogs and enter a bad-smelled zone of regional sewage collector. And here we are... the school is only hundred meters further along the street!
When Chernobyl had blown up I was out of Kiev, on my vacation in Sochi -- a popular Soviet resort on the Black Sea coast. We were sitting in the restaurant of the rest home enjoying lunch when someone has loudly complained about his total failure to reach Kiev by telephone -- every time I was told that the line is out of order, it's simply outrageous!
I was not listen but then nearly fainted when my neighbor at the table, a sanguine railway engineer from Siberia, asked me whether I know the location in Ukraine of certain nuclear power station in Chernoball or Chornobay that was rumored exploding according to some Western radio-voices. Last evening I had also tried to phone parents in Kiev but failed and now this news about the accident... But Soviet officials and media kept total silence, (secretly cutting public long-distance telephone calls to Kiev and ordering to stop telegraph communication as well). I have hurried to the airport (in Adler) hoping to get any information there. When the flight from Kiev had landed the empty Arrivals filled with sobbing women, many with quiet kids and no luggage. Nobody could tell anything worthwhile. Although the registration for return flight (to Kiev) was already opened -- there were no passengers at all. The same occurred when I have decided to break my vacation off and return back to Kiev worrying about family and parents. The airplane was nearly empty -- I could occupy any seat, chat with busyless flight attendants and even pilots -- there were 4 passengers on board...
The big Borispol international airport was big, morose and hollow. We (no more than 8 passengers) silently boarded the empty shuttle outside and headed to Kiev. On the road to Kiev the highway was blocked by servicemen wearing plastic overalls and gas masks. They douched the lower part of our bus with pressured water and signaled to proceed. There were several such posts on the way to Kiev (three?) -- the uneasy silence reigned everywhere.
My wife and son were out of Kiev on the Crimean coast in the town of Sudak. The first telephone call (from my old pal Vadim) had reached me nearly when I entered our apartment. "You are here already, guy, that's great -- he shouted excitingly -- there is a lot of cheap red wine everywhere, and they say we all have to drink it as much as we can if you wanna keep all your male virtues with you."
The city was unusually clean and hollow. From time to time the watering trucks were passing here and there, pouring more water over already wet pavements and roadways. People were crowded mostly near the liquor stores -- vodka and red wines were bought by boxes. But then the shop assistants got orders to limit the number of bottles sold per person -- but customers had been already well trained and came with friends, grandparents, neighbors and bought as much lekarstvo (Russian medicine) as they could use i.e. drink.
At that time I was working as a custom officer at the Borispol International Airport. During the daytime shifts we did not have any passengers at all, international sector looked like being closed -- those foreigners who happened to be in Kiev had already left. But the representatives of foreign airlines (actually not very foreign yet at that time -- from Polish Lot, Bulgarian Balkan, Hungarian Malev) had to stay 'cause their chiefs, being properly instructed by Big Moscow Brother, issued the strict orders to all personnel to stay in Kiev "to prevent panic." The young Malev representative, intelligent and extremely courteous Dury suffered most -- his bosses did not permit him to evacuate his wife and two kids, just before the catastrophe they have come from Budapest to stay with their loving husband and daddy enjoying warm and beautiful Kiev spring. Later his youngest daughter who got the overdose of radioactivity was forced to pass a course of special medical treatment at Budapest hospital. But Ukrainian children were not so lucky -- in most cases they have neither means nor places to go...
The false Gorbachev's TV joyfully demonstrated with enviable constancy the smiling faces of Kievan moms dandling their kids under luxuriant chestnut trees in Kreschatik, the Kiev's main street. But a thoughtful viewer could easily notice the menacingly clean and desert sidewalks, usually crowded with discordant heterogeneous pedestrians. Many of those happy moms ended crying helplessly in parlors of radiological centers and hospitals.
During every night shift we have observed a long line of black Volgas with tinted glasses that passed one by one through special (for airport services) gates and headed for destined airplanes directly onto the airfield without any checking, ticket or baggage control. The big-shots were rescuing their kinsmen and themselves... despicably telling the no-danger lie to people in the daytime. They run away every night during several weeks, moving slowly in one direction (onto the airfield) like big silent black bugs, usually guarded by a couple of watchful KGB agents with trite and ordinary faces.
O. Henry Lover
My uncle Nick was a devoted fan of O. Henry's short stories. He collected the Russian translations and planned to read the author in original English. He knew from memory quite a number of passages and took a great pleasure in reciting the adventures of O. Henry's picturesque heroes on the Wild West. Nick was a bright young scientist, in his 40's he was known abroad as an author of several research publications on the application of latest electronic novelties in the field of thermophysics.
He refused to join the Communist Party and it was the only reason he was a deputy head of a research lab in the Kiev Institute of Technical Thermophysics - the lab was headed by a retired KGB general, the blockhead martinet with Party-membership and ideologically impeccable conduct. I know that several times Nick had been invited to participate in the international forums of specialists in his field but he could never leave the Motherland even for a short period of scientific discussions' time. He was lacking the inevitable accessory of those Soviet egg heads who voyaged abroad -- Party membership.
But Nick did not care -- he seemed to be satisfied with his overtly lower than he deserved salary, with the fact that his name always followed the name(s) of his dumb-headed bosses on his own research papers... he was invincible -- he did not ask for any privileges and posts, he liked O. Henry, American sci-fi novels, fantasy, fishing and hiking. He did not like politics, red banners, stupid Soviet administrators and Party bosses, continuously rejecting their tempting proposals to join the ranks of legalized vultures.
Hey, readers, at present days you can often hear the revelations of repented commies regarding those terrible times when everybody there had to be in the Party in the name of family safety, kids' future, etc. But ask those guys whether they tore up their red membership cards when the Soviet Union snapped... silence. My Dad, a retired air force colonel with two academic degrees in air motors was really forced to join the Party (every Soviet officer must be a communist) but when retired he gave up his membership card to local party committee publicly summing up that he could not stay with thugs any longer. But this is the other story I probably tell sometime.
It was Nick, not his general-chief of the research lab -- actually that guy would be totally useless there, who was suggested by the Institute management to join the united team of thermophysicists (and some other scientists) established to provide the continuous on-site exploration and observation of exploded reactor's unit and its environs. They worked there quietly in two-week shifts, without big fuss in the media, because the data they have obtained were 98% classified. Formally (even for their colleagues and neighbors) all of these scientists were considered to be on the long-term business trip -- but for the most of them this Chernobyl assignment had turned to be final, including my beloved uncle Nick.
At that time Nick lived alone, because his small daughter and wife were stayed with wife's parents (it simply was more convenient in order to permit the young mom to go to work leaving small Katya with grandmother). Actually several final years of his short life he lived in shifts, coming home for the fortnight (usually less) and then returning back to the field lab near the dead nuke station unit. When he appeared, he usually called me first saying quietly "Hey, student, I'm here." It was he who nicknamed me "A Student" - and I was always waiting to hear his tired, slightly cracked voice, I was ready to sit opposite him in his small kitchen looking impatiently as he inhaled deeply a bluish cigarette smoke and raised a small glass of vodka or brandy saying "Nu, davai, Student, budem zdorovy!" (Let's drink, Student, cheers!). And with him I had always been a student indeed, I gained knowledge of life from him till his death. Between sipping brandy and smoking we talked. About Chernobyl, about present and future, about the everyday life and the Life Eternal.
In time he began to feel himself as if more and more tired, worn out. His strong organism of former boxer and scuba diver had to endure inhuman stresses and loads, multiplied by higher radiation level on the working site. Later I have understood that Nick deliberately forced his spouse and kid out of the house, out of direct and long-time contact with him, -- he knew that he was already marked by mainly unknown and definitely dangerous Chernobyl evils. Once he confessed that from time to time he had started to experience sudden momentary blackouts -- they lasted for seconds and nobody around could notice it -- however, in the course of time the periods of total unconsciousness became longer and longer. Nick did not complain, never, -- he had chosen a Path of a Warrior long ago. He just described to me his own new states as a thoughtful researcher and scientist, exploring, observing, comprehending. I know, that he had suffered from strong radioactive burns several times during two years -- when it happened Nick simply disappeared just after his returning from routine Chernobyl shift -- like his colleagues after similar accidents he flew for the Black Sea coast where the medical specialists had repaired him treating among other remedies with black caviar (according to Nick -- they had never eaten this expensive delicacy in such scandalous amounts.
Nick told me that they have met in Chernobyl with a lot of unknown phenomena that modern science could hardly explain without careful study. Day after day these young and talented egg-head kamikazes entered the collapsed reactor's premises trying to curb the unleashed demons. They entered the nuke hell like martyrs -- being stripped off their everyday clothes and clad into immaculately white cotton robes. This clothing had to be burned after each shift as being infested with radioactive particles. Nick -- and the other guys as well -- saw a lot of strange things and experienced odd sensations there, in the Zone. He had never expanded on the subject, saying with his usual quiet smile -- "Hey, student, you'd better not ask, who needs your bad dreams afterward... ". But once he mentioned some weird growth they had discovered just under the reactor's hall -- this thing was so hard that even Kalashnikov's bullets jumped its surface off like rubber balls. Any close examining was hardly possible -- even robots failed even to approach the enigmatic formation due to the fantastic radiation levels nearby.
More he worked there, more his face was changing -- some negative inner transformations and enormous stress deepened shadows under his vivid bright eyes, long tragic vertical wrinkles cut through his cheeks, which became sunken. At that time I did not know anything about this fatal sign -- only later it became known as the Chernobyl's Mask, sort of a death mark wearing by all liquidators. First you can hardly notice any difference -- especially if you meet such person somewhere on Kiev streets or in common crowd, but more than two of them together, especially clad in their white cottons -- and I bet you'd never forget these abandoned eyes, hollow cheeks, mournfully tightened mouths and that overwhelming feeling of both tremendous strain and sadness they emanate.
They looked as becoming estranged from mundane bustle, as preparing to leave this world in the nearest future -- but to execute this transition calmly and consciously as if taking the prearranged flight somewhere. Actually most of them passed away soon, and Nick led again, he could never admit lagging behind...
At the end of January he called me from their Zone lab and we have had a small talk. It was not unusual, he warned me long before that he choose me to be his contact -- all such calls from Zone were certainly monitored by secret services -- and from time to time he made such night calls simply to relax a little from his night labors, to chat with somebody close and at the same time far from that dead, poisonous, disfigured and totally irreal world he was in. We have talked a little and Nick told me that he looks forward to come from Zone several days earlier in order to come to my birthday on February 4th. I have always missed his company and it was marvelous to have him at the birthday party, it was a really valuable present and I highly appreciated that. But I never got it.
Next day there was another call from the village around 40 kilometers away from Chernobyl. We were told that Nick's body was there, in small local morgue and we'd better take it from there, "cause the temperature in there was not low enough to keep the body intact." The voice from the telephone was hoarse and sounded so routinely... but the message was unbelievable -- first we thought that it was some mistake, dirty joke -- what could Nick do in this small village, far from his work site?! But, no, no mistake -- becoming slightly annoyed the irreal voice told us that your body had been brought by emergency car- the guys had taken it from the station. But why? What happened? No answer.
All our family was in despair. My other uncle Volodia, Nick's younger brother, took a car from his job and we rushed for the village. We all were shocked but the news was so lightning-fast that nobody lost his temper -- simply there were no time for that. The road was covered with dirty semi-melted snow, the old battered van nearly drifted in some places, we were cold and silent, -- I became numb as if I was burned inside; no thoughts, nothing -- only total incomprehension... My living uncle felt the same.
At last we reached the place. A disheveled vodka-smelled guy in former-white gown and murky glasses was tired and laconic: -- Show me your IDs... OK, here's your death certificate... Who's his closest relative? You?
My pale uncle simply nodded. Then you guys better sniff some nashatyr (liquid ammonia) first, we are out of power for several days and it is smelled in the morgue, you know. By the way, do you have some plastic bags in the car? No? I need it badly; everybody who's coming actually should bring some bags, here in the village you can't find them at all, damn that place... He sniffed nashatyr, began to cough and spit with a curse on the dirty floor. What a life... Stink, no power, no bags... shit ... where I'll keep organs... Well, take a sniff and let's find your Chernobyl-guy.
I hold my breath and entered the hell. Dark, stuffy room, and immovable white-covered silhouettes on the tables. Somewhere you can see protruding leg or drooping hand. No fear at all -- sort of a stupor -- only a passive complicity and waiting for the next life episode to come. And it came.
Nick's body was there. But there was no O. Henry lover laying on the crooked table in the fetid room of small village mortuary. I did not feel even a smallest portion of his presence there, thank God! However when a cloth cover was out I could not help but scream. My living uncle gasped: What's that? What happened with him?
The corps looked like being disemboweled and carelessly mended -- chest and abdomen were crossed with rough black-and-blue scars. His high brow was also severely scarred. -- Why?
Our semi-drunk guide mumbled only: What can I do... I am a small fry... there are orders, he died there -- I had to do this to him... but they always only give orders and not even one damn bag...
We tried to clear up any details -- who ordered him to eviscerate perished Chernobyl victims, where he had to transfer the organs, why the Nick's body was transported into this village from Zone, but the guy only said: "Don't ask, you'd better not ask. This knowledge can only harm you, guys, and me too if I tell. Take him and go away."
And we did. We drove Nick directly to the old cemetery in Puscha-Voditsa, a resort suburb of Kiev. There were graves of his mother Varvara and stepfather Ivan, my babousia and did (my grandparents). The solemn pines around stood quietly, everything was covered with snow. The ground was stone-frozen and gravedigger begged for help. We've uncorked a bottle of vodka and sipped generously, my living uncle Volodia and I. Actually, it was a digger's tip, but he agreed, he honored Chernobyl liquidators as he said, and welcomed us to remove the stress. Then we finished digging the grave and buried the body of O. Henry lover.
My dad, a retired air force colonel and Chernobyl volunteer as well, was not able to approach the grave, he stood for several hours near the cemetery gate and cried, looking hunched and very aged. I have embraced him and led to the car but he only shiffled and repeated: "Why he, not me... why he, not me."
I have escaped and left the edge, giving a new life here in Canada to my wife and our son. Nick did not succeed, only his pipe and an old black-and-white picture traveled with me to Vancouver. On this picture all three of us stand smiling in each other's embrace -- my beloved uncles Nick and Volodia and I. Volodia, a soccer player and cross-country skier, a former member of Ukraine all-star ski team, several months ago suffered through the kidney-removal operation and became disabled at 45.
Nick died at his 45. He worked in his Chernobyl lab late at night (probably trying to finish next research faster in order to be on time for my birthday). Then he supposedly went into the hall for a smoke break and never came back. He was found there sitting on the floor dead. According to his death certificate he died from heart attack in that small village far from Chernobyl and his lab.
This is my tribute to him.
Vancouver - Canada
(A work in progress)
HTML by Chris Cochems. Last updated 11/25/98.