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  • Writer's pictureKevin O'Keefe

Crazy, like a “Pox”

Hi! I’m Alexi. And this is my grandmother Tamara (photo #1)

and my father Michael (photo #2).

We say his name Misha because we live in Myutishy (Me-te-she), Russia, just eleven kilometers outside Moscow.

You must pardon my english. I am still learning, now as I say this to you I am twelve years old. It is 1972.

I like to play game with my school mates. Maybe you have heard of this game? We call it Zarnitsa. But I think in your country you maybe call it Capture the Flag. One time all of my team was captured I am the only one left that can save them. The other boys they chase me around the playground for many minutes. I am tired, very tired but then I have an idea. I pretend to give up and say to them “OK, OK you win.” I stop, relax, they stop, relax then come close to capture me. At the last second I explode away from them and touch the big oak tree in order to free my whole team.

You know the phrase, “He couldn’t do something to save his life?” Well, my father did.

In Russia all kids play chess. It is the greatest game in the world and someday I hope to be a grandmaster. My father teacher me to play chess. He is very good. He had to be; to save his life. The mayor in my town, he says my father plays the best in all of Russia and could be a grand champion but my father who rarely talks, he just smiles and his eyes they crinkle, whenever Mayor says it. I think it makes him happy to know he can beat anybody at chess. My mother tells me that my father is a very brave man. He survive in World War Two. I think his story would make a great movie or a fairy tale or better yet a Russian novel.

Because I am young boy I will try to tell the story as best I can. I only heard it recently from my mother. Mother told me story so that I can understand why Father gets so paralyzed that he cannot speak. She tell me when he gets the look in his eye, this is where he is gone, in his mind, to the past, the war. This, she tell me: When my father was about 19 years old, only seven year older than me right now, he volunteer for the Russian army. So do his two older brothers, my uncle Alexi (for whom I am named) and my uncle Gregor.

The night before all three young men were to go to training camp, my grandmother—Tamara took them to her favorite spot in the woods behind our house. It is a small grove of white birch trees. Under a bright moonlit sky, the wind blow hard, and the white birch bark seem to shake and dance against the trunks of the trees. In the center of dis grove was a small clearing. In the center of the clearing—lay a flat circular stone. The four of them gather in a circle around the stone. My grandmother, she reach deep into her bosom and pull out a small midnight blue-velvet satchel. She open it and In her hand, she hold three golden acorns.This she say, “On the night after each your first Saints days I go to bed after a little party and dream the same dream. In the dream the Firebird passes over dis spot and leaves a gift for each of you. The next morning when I come here in three successive years I find these. Look closely at the acorns.”

The boys all peer closer and see that each of the golden acorns have one, two or three shiny black dots in a line on their equator. “My dear sons,” Tamara continue, “tomorrow you go to defend our Mother Russia from the Nazi storm troopers. While you are gone I will plant these golden acorns in your honor and they will grow into three strong mighty oak trees. No matter what you do, no matter how you suffer, these trees will be here for you, waiting for your safe return. You will always have a home here in Myutishy and I dearly want to sit with you under the shade of these trees and drink tea from our family’s samovar. Then she looked each of them in the eye and said, “You must promise to come back and see your dear old mother.” Each of the young men cry a little and promise that they would return.

The next day shortly after they left for the railroad station. Tamara plant the three acorns about fifty feet apart so that they would form a column as straight and strong as any Russian column of soldiers that was sent to protect the homeland. The trees would provide a break for when the winter winds came. For a time things went well for the three young men.

All three young trees made it through the first winter and in the spring when the ground thawed lime-green shoots emerge from the thin branches. Tamara, she put special bands of gold fabric on stakes around each of the saplings. She feed each of the trees a secret blend of folk herbs found only in our part of Russia. All her neighbors know that her three strong young sons were protecting the homeland, and that these three young mighty oak trees were planted in their honor. Later that first spring there was a snow and two trees died in the frost. The next day a telegram came from the Army—both Gregor and Alexi had died while valiantly defending Smolensk from a Nazi blitzkrieg. The third sapling survive the frost. It grew quite quickly for the next two years.

Then one day Tamara noticed it contained a blight. Something was eating the tree from the inside out. She couldn’t figure out what it was. She tried three or four different folk remedies to save the young oak. Nothing work. Each night she pray to God above and the mother earth below, “Save this tree, do no take my last remaining son away from me. I will do anything you ask.”

Meanwhile the family had not heard a thing from Misha since the day he left for the army. A few neighbors see that state his tree was in and start exchanging looks behind Tamara’s back, but nobody want to say what was in their minds. Why should they? If Tamara want to believe that her son is still alive, if that is what she need to get through the next day, who are they to bring her to the cold reality that he is probably dead. Every day we lost hundreds, sometimes thousands. By some miracle the young oak tree continue to fight off the blight.

It wasn’t until after the war that they heard from Misha. His story—all true. In the very same battle where his two brothers die, the one to defend Smolensk his regiment come up against wave upon wave of the mighty German .88 caliber guns. His entire regiment was wiped as the foolish major send them out of their foxholes to attack.

Somehow, my father Misha is blasted by bomb but only thrown through the air so far away that when he lands he lose conscious. When he wake up he is on a German train going west with two thousand other Russian prisoners. They are taken to a POW camp called Gross-Rosen near Warsaw, Poland. The conditions in the camp, very harsh. The men have to work in granite quarry all day. My father, he very strong so he able to survive the first year OK. But food Germans give, no good, many men die due to typhoid, dysentery or slow starvation. By the end of first year only one thousand men live.

The head of the POW camp was a Lieutenant Colonel, name Commandant Paul Klieger. When the men return from the granite quarry each evening they were given their rations. Maybe a piece of old bread and a cup of beet soup but calling it soup is too kind. It really just some beet skins or the stump of a carrot that is thrown into a huge pot of boiling water. The men would rotate who got to eat the boiled vegetables at the bottom of the pot. When my father’s turn he come he give his share to a comrade who was starving more than him.

After coming home from the quarry one cold winter’s day my father go to wash all the soot and dust off his face with a bucket of dirty water. The Commandant of the camp talk to my father, for first time. “You there, STOP, “ My father stop. The Commandant take off his black leather glove and dip two fat fingers into the fllthy bucket of water. He wipe some of the soot off my father’s face. “I know you. Yes, I know you. You are the Russian chess champion Michael Shelobolin.” My father say nothing. He look at ground. “You will come to my quarters tonight and play chess.”

So my father go. He play the Commandant. Commandant is very good player and my father lose the first two (very close) matches. Commandant now take interest in my father and next day he is reassigned to work in the kitchen washing dishes for the guards and officers. If a little of their food, scraps that they didn’t want or could not eat after stuffing themselves, if a little of that fall into the pocket of my father, no one notice or even care. His health improve and so did a few of the men who sleep near him in barracks.

Every Sunday at 4pm he go to Commandant’s quarters and although he play hard the Commandant win each of their matches. The Commandant was German grandmaster at chess and before the war he would come to small towns in Russia and play up to one hundred men at same time. Dis was big tournament in the center of our town. That is where he recognize my father from. For a time they no play chess, the Commandant has work, he say.

Then sometime in February, 1945 on a Sunday Commandant tell my father come to quarters—special match. “Tonight the game is a little more important. You see, Misha Shelobolin today I learn that Americans are just five miles west of here. Our position in this camp is untenable. We will abandon camp in morning and within a few days you will be liberated. But tonight you have the chance to play the game of your life. You see Misha we will play one last time and the winner will walk away with his life. The loser, eh,” with that he patted the holster which held his german luger. “I think it would be fascinating to see if you have been holding back and letting me win all this time. Each of our matches close but somehow I prevail, each extending my thought process just a little bit more, each more challenging than the last, yet somehow I am able to prevail. Don’t you think it rather odd? I can think maybe seven to ten moves ahead, but you Misha, you probably think what? Fifteen to sixteen moves ahead, I think. So tonight we raise the stakes, a little more daring, a little more Russian roulette, if you will, to our match."

Before they play chess the major pour a round of French brandy into a crystal glasses and salute—“To your health”. Both men drink. The brandy burn deep into my father’s belly and warm him. The men sit down and though my father is under great pressure it was Commandant who made the first mistake losing his bishop to my father’s rook. “Oh you nasty bitch,” Commandant said through his teeth as his bishop disappear into my father’s hand.

When My father took his queen Commandant know the end is near. Commandant Klieg could make a few more evasive maneuvers—the kind chess players know as only a delay of the inevitable. Instead he tip his king over, acknowledging defeat. Pour himself and my father a brandy. They drink.

Commandant Klieg take out his sidearm and while the brandy was still coating his throat and shoot one bullet. Bullet richochet off his three front teeth and blast through the hard palate, the roof of his mouth, then sever the brain stem, exploding the corpus collosum before shattering the skull and ripping hole through his hat.

The reason I describe this action so specifically and why time seem to slow down in this instant is, this is the moment that my father play or see in his mind over and over again, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of times in the years that lay ahead.

My father, is not just searing this moment in his memory. He acts too, he reaches across the table to stop the Commandant from pulling trigger but only managed to knock over the crystal bottle of brandy—an action that haunt him all his remaining days. The irony-that the only way he find to deal with the memory was to drown it in brandy-was not lost on him. It was his drink of choice for the remaining forty-three years of his life. Yes, so that is where my father go all the time, when he not here. He stare off into space for hours at a time at nearly any point in the day and become like zombie.

That is why that my mother have to tell me this whole story and help me understand why my father is so distant, unreachable and so drunk on brandy for so many of his days.

I know you must be curious to know about the tree, eh? So I will tell you what happen. Through her efforts my grandmother Tamara was able to save the tree. It wasn’t until my father return that the mysterious sickness is understood. After the liberation of POW camp my father return to our hometown of Myutishy. He slip into house during the darkest night and not even see that only one tree remain. Next morning he learn that his two brothers (and their trees) were dead.

We don’t live in that place anymore. The Soviet government, in infinite wisdom, bulldoze the house and put an apartment building there but my father’s regular Tuesday opponent in a friendly game of chess happen to be the mayor of our town. He save my father's tree and it is part of a school playground where I attend grade 8. Every day hundreds of kids play Zarnitsa in, on, and around my father’s mighty oak tree.


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