When I was three, my father had to put down a sick cow. He had a shotgun and a sledgehammer to choose from for the job. Years later he explained to me why he chose as he did; he knew that the instrument he used was one he would likely never have the heart to pick up again.
My father built things. He occasionally also built the tools that allowed him to build other things. Twice that I can recall he sat and designed and then built a tool fit for a single, specific job, and once that discrete objective had been met, he greased and wrapped it in cloth and put it in a lower drawer on his bench, perhaps never to be used again. He was a right-tool-for-the-right-job man.
A man who thought with a pencil, he would sit and sketch with a carpenter’s pencil on little yellow lined pads and then stare at them, his glasses—he called them his “cheaters”—perched on the end of his nose. Wood, metal, glass, masonry—these were his domain.
When we ventured out into the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, he taught us the Latin binomials for the fish, the trees, and the mushrooms we encountered. He taught me to tie flies and to land a 25-pound silver salmon from a boat without a net, just in case.
One day he told me that he enjoyed my stories and asked would I like to learn how stories were built. If I would, he said, I needed to learn to read slowly. He gave me books that left me no choice but to slow down. The first book my father handed me to read was Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment; I was nine-and-a-half.
That autumn, the Soviet Union and the United States signed a trade agreement, and the first Soviet ship to reach American shores in 40 years docked in our town to unload feed grain and beet pellets. Richard Nixon, whatever else might be said, had managed to sell beets to the people who had invented borscht.
And so, against the wishes of his mother, who had no love for Russians, her family having lost their land to Communist collectivization policies, dad snuck me down on an October Saturday morning to Commencement Bay where we took out a friend’s Bayliner from the Foss sheds to get a look at that Soviet ship, the Korolenko, from up close. And for a good 10 minutes from boat to ship my father bantered with sailors who reminded me of my uncles in a language that I would later learn was Russian. “Those are your cousins,” he told me.
My father never attended college. He was a railroad engineer—a hogger, in the vernacular. He was union—Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers—and would not cross any picket line. He marched, square haircut and steel-toed shoes and railroad overalls, against the war in Vietnam. I sat with him at a union local meeting where some of the brothers wanted to support George Wallace—seemingly friendly to labor—for president of the United States. My painfully shy, taciturn father told the room that he could not support a candidate whose heart was filled with hatred.
His hours were productive hours—his hands engaged in skilled work, his brain engaged in creative design. He had Latin from school and personal study, Slovak from his parents, and Russian from god-knows-where. He listened to “the Greek Hour” and “the Scandinavian Hour” on public radio when in his workshop.
About every other month, we would go over to our grandmother’s house where my father would help her make a regular call to Czechoslovakia. When our grandmother would hang up after the call, he would sit with her in the kitchen as she wept. In 1968, after the Soviet tanks entered Prague, we sat with her long after the call had ended—until it grew dark, and then dad left my brother Paul and I to stay at grandma’s overnight and keep watch. Paul was eight; I was six.
In 1979, my father died suddenly as he and I fished the Russian River in the Kenai wilderness, Alaska. A massive stroke sent him back into the water and I waded out and lifted and carried him to shore where I started resuscitation, but he was gone.
He never got to see Soviet Communism fail, the Wall crumble, or Czechoslovakia free. Could he have imagined the changes? Could he have expected that I would break bread with our cousins—Molitoris, Červeňák, and Rákoš? Could he have hoped to drop his line and wait for a fish in the fast water in eastern Slovakia? Could he have suspected that Russia, unchecked, would always be Russia, red in tooth and claw?
In the years before his death, we spent countless hours in the garage of our North Tacoma home, futzing with the timing on his ’59 Chevy Biscayne—the one with the big fins on the back. His work car.
Once as we worked, a man drove up in a big LTD, parked on our gravel, and came into the garage to sit and talk with my father. Dad called him Hank and Hank called dad Abs. Dad spoke little and it was no different with Hank who did most of the talking.
Hank talked about nuclear energy, on which they agreed, and about Vietnam, on which they didn’t. After Hank left, I asked my dad who he was, and he said that he worked in Washington D.C. and that I should not tell our mother he had come by. My first lesson in the compassionate deception of the women we love.
My father, most at ease in his private thoughts, most at home in the complexities of the art of creative destruction, knew he would need his sledgehammer again and chose the shotgun.
Mariupol, a month ago a city of 440,000 by the sea, is gone. The city flattened by Russian ordnance, the dead uncounted, the living fled or forced south, and as reports are confirmed—those herded out are conscripted into the Russian military or Russian military support. Four hundred thousand: that’s Minneapolis.
Kharkiv, a city of 1.2 million, as important to Ukraine as Dallas is to America, is shattered. And Kyiv, once four million-plus, empties out more with each day. That’s Los Angeles. The count of those of us now living as refugees passed three million midweek last week. That’s Atlanta, Las Vegas, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Cleveland, Ohio, all fled in three weeks of bombing.
And now I am back in what we once called Czechoslovakia, and here for a while, it would seem. Again, the Russians are involved. Again, emotions run high as the West argues about what it could or should be doing about this war. Again, a woman I love gets off the phone with her family left behind and I sit with her in the dark as she weeps.
Peace from the Czech Republic.
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part One
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Two
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Three
Slava Ukraini! Dispatches from Kyiv: Part Four
Go Home While You Can Still Draw Breath: Dispatches from Ukraine
The Flame of Hope: Dispatches from Ukraine
How Shakespeare Can Help Us Understand the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
Welcome to Putin’s World
We Start Over but We Are Safe