If Not Ashamed to Walk with Dirty Hands

After the police search, my father chopped up the antenna into small pieces and drowned the transmitter in the toilet. My mother forbade me to approach the radio and hid the record discs; the father unscrewed the fuse for reliability. Sometimes, in the absence of my parents, I went up to the radio and stroked it on the varnished sides. She seemed to me a living being, injured through my fault. I felt sorry for her; I felt guilty in front of her.

But life went on. Goga promised me to make a new transmitter; Sasha and Alik promised to twist and pull the antenna. In the eyes of the boys, I looked like a hero.

The summer holidays had begun.

A new fashion had appeared among teenagers: scooters. No, not those: factory-made, for children and adolescents, with large wheels, rubberized by the rim, and worth a lot of crazy money in the amount of 10-15 rubles. There weren’t such things in our time, but they were home-made, with wheels made of bearings, a steering device from a block of wood, and, in fact, the steering wheel itself with handles covered in black insulating tape. At the most witty scooters, the steering wheel was constructed from a decommissioned steering wheel of a truck or passenger car. The height of fashion was a bicycle seat and brakes.

The happy owners of scooters rode them on the sidewalks and even the highway, making a terrible roar. Usually fathers made scooters, older brothers less often. My friends and I had no one to help us, and we decided to make scooters ourselves.

My friends came to me almost immediately after my mother left for work. My father was not there—he left for work even earlier—I had no one to ask for help. We went in a fun crowd to the mine. Where to get the bearings, we knew. One thing remained: to take these bearings. We entered the mine yard and began to go around it in circles, looking for decommissioned bearings.

During coal mining, the rollers were part of the conveyor, a rubber band with coal rolled on it. In the mine they were looked after, cleaned, lubricated, but the difficult operating conditions did their job, the rollers wore out; they were written off, replaced with new ones. Spent rollers were piled in the backyard and then turned into scrap metal. We went to the locksmith and asked which rollers we could knock bearings out of. The fitter waved a hand at the nearest pile. We asked him for a chisel, hammer, sledgehammer, and pliers. He threw them at us and warned that he would not help us.

Knocking bearings out of the rollers was something outrageous. Rust and coal dust glued the outer rim of the bearing to the inner surface of the roller. Pressed tightly, the bearings did not want to budge.

To knock the bearing out of the roller, the bearing had to be rocked first. For this purpose, the bearing was placed “on the butt,” one of the guys took a railway crutch with ticks and rested it on a bearing, and the other boy took a sledgehammer and struck it. In the case of a miss and a hit on ticks, the hands of the tick holder became numb, giving in to pain in the body. We very quickly learned what adults say in such cases, and did not take it literally. The main thing is that the bearing does not crack during the impact. This made it unsuitable for further exploitation.

After two or three successful blows, the bearing left its place, allowing to us to unhook the ticks and bend the edge of the rolling. Then a simple affair began: with the help of a chisel and a hammer, we cut the rolling so as to completely release the bearing and push it out of the roller with a thin pipe or reinforcing bar.

For a scooter, we needed three rollers: one large one for the front wheel and two small ones for the rear wheels. There were four of us: me, the Zastava brothers (Sashka and Serge), and Alik Sirotenko. So we needed four large bearings and eight small ones. The work began to boil.

How much time was spent on the “production” of bearings, I do not remember. But when I returned home, my mother was already waiting for me. Her intent gaze did not bode well:

“Where are you hanging around, long fool?” she said in an ominous whisper. “Who allowed you to leave home?”

Mother’s face began to redden, and her warts began to fill with blood. My attempts to justify myself and explain that I went to knock out bearings only infuriated my parent.

“So you want to rush along the sidewalk? On a scooter? Do you want to disgrace your mother?” I did not have time to say a word, as she jumped up, grabbed my bag full of bearings, and walked quickly to the toilet with wide, sweeping steps.

A few seconds passed, and the fetid slurry swallowed the results of my work. Mother came back. I stood with my head bowed. A burning resentment tore my soul. But Mother continued the process of education:

“Undress and swim! Wash your hands; look, they are like a chimney sweep!” I do not know where she saw the chimney sweeps, but my hands were really dirty. Coal dust, black and corrosive; mine mud in Donetsk was not considered shameful, but my mother brought a huge basin, poured water into it, and made me strip naked. To my protests, she categorically declared: “Since you are not ashamed to walk with dirty hands, then you should not be ashamed to walk naked!”

Suddenly, a gate creaked and a girl Ira entered the yard. She was our distant relative, a year older than me, and often went to her mother to gossip about Ira’s girlfriends. Mother treated her kindly, treated to tea and sweets, and during conversations, she tried to give her face an interested expression. After her departure, Mother discussed with Father the negative news received from the young gossip: which of the girls smoked, who stole, and who was too close with boys. The latter was of particular interest.

Irka walked along the path and approached us. The basin was high; I crouched behind it so that my nakedness was not visible.

“Hello, Aunt Zina!” Irka came up and stopped next to her mother. “Hello, Serge!”

I answered her greeting, but she was carried away by the conversation with her mother and did not pay any attention to me anymore. Time passed; the water in the basin cooled. The gossips stopped their tattling.

“Serge, will you go for a walk?” asked Irka.

“No,” my mother answered instead of me. “He’s punished.”

Mother went to Irka and whispered something in her ear. The girl’s eyes flashed with eerie curiosity. She approached the basin in small steps. I had nowhere to hide from her, and I appeared before her in all my glory. Irka giggled, turned, and galloped to the gate. Burning tears spilled from my eyes; I did not expect such vileness from my mother. But the sadist found an excuse and repeated again: “Since you are not ashamed to walk with dirty hands, then you should not be ashamed to walk naked!”

My friends sympathized with my grief and generously shared with me the opportunity to ride their scooters. This lasted until my mother caught the sight of me with someone else’s scooter. This was followed by an accusation of my desire to dishonor her, imprisonment in the house, and flogging “until you get smarter!” I didn’t ride scooters anymore.

Street children, especially those with whom I was in conflict, recalled this until we changed our place of residence and left this village: “Serge, tell us how your mother bathed you!!!”

Mishka Flogged Again

Parents did not pay much attention to the study and pastime of their son Mishka. The boy, languishing in his spare time from idleness, got into the habit of walking on the railway and throwing gravel and stones at the trains passing by. He did not cause much harm to the freight trains and, most likely, the drivers of these trains either did not notice it or did not pay attention, but the passenger diesel got damaged. Mishka might have been lying, but he repeatedly and boastfully told us how he broke the windows of a train passing by.

We felt bad for this little passenger train. The boys and I sometimes rode on it, as it traveled from our Staromikhailovka station to the nearest stop: Mine No. 29. I rode less often with my parents “to the city,” as they called trips to the Donetsk railway station.

We warned Mishka that he should stop throwing stones at the diesel engine, that this would not end well, but Mishka did not heed our words. Many village boys had fun throwing stones at the cars of passing trains, but no one did it with such anger and frenzy as Mishka.

It ended when the cops ambushed Mishka when, losing his vigilance, he again attacked the passenger train. The invoice issued by Mishka’s parents for the repair of a diesel train exceeded 500 rubles. For Mishka’s father, an ordinary worker on a regular site, this was more than a two-month salary. When my mother and I once again came to visit my grandmother, and I looked at a friend, he again showed me his blue-black back and ass. He stopped throwing stones at the trains after this flogging.

The Bosses Flogged the Children, Too

The longer we lived in the quarter called Old Colony, the more friends I made. Among them were children of the chief engineer, and then the head of the mine: the brothers Vovka and Sashka Meteyko. Vovka was two years younger than me, but two years older than Sasha. The elder brother took part in almost all of our games, but the younger, by virtue of his small age, was a spectator at best, but, as a rule, he was taken to kindergarten, from where he returned accompanied by his mother, and he did not have access to street games. Sometimes, Sasha was sent to his grandmother, where he could stay for a week or two.

So it was that time. When Vovka came, I was swinging on a swing. The mysterious expression on the face of the older brother indicated that he brought some news. And I was not mistaken. Vovka came up to me and, looking around, whispered:

“Serge, Dad gave me a gun!”

“Oh, wow.” I did not believe him. “Real?”

“The real one,” Vovka confirmed. “Only sports. We shot yesterday.”

“Will you show me?” I fired up with curiosity.

“Let’s go,” he answered.

We ran to Vovka’s home. He went into the apartment, and a few minutes later, he brought out a wooden box. We opened it, and I saw a real gun. Then I did not know its brand, but now, even after many decades, I recall that it was a Margolin’s sports pistol. In addition to the pistol, there were also various devices, including a ramrod and an oiler.

“We shot here.” Vovka led me to a thick poplar. I saw many small holes in its crust.

“And are there any cartridges?” I asked. The desire to shoot started to overwhelm me.

“I will find them.” Vovka darted into the house. “There is still a pack left.”

There were 25 rounds of ammunition in a small, gray cardboard box. In addition to a pack of cartridges, Vovka took out several notebook sheets, a pencil, and a handful of small nails. We painted targets on the sheets and pinned the first of them to the tree. It was very easy to load a gun and aim. Vovka showed me how to do it. The pistol held five rounds.

Shooting was interesting and fun; we burned through the ammo in a few minutes. Shaking his head, Vovka put the gun in the box and carried it home. We took the perforated targets with us to show the boys, and went to ride on a swing. How much time passed, I do not remember. Father came for Vovka, which in itself was unusual. He called his son, and when my friend approached to father, he said something abruptly and slammed him. Vovka ran home; his father followed.

Saturday night continued. It was dusk. The boys began to go home. The clearing under the poplars was empty, and I went home.

Sunday began as usual, except that Alik Sirotenko, along with his grandfather and grandmother, went to the bazaar. I went to the Zastava brothers’ place, but the boys were still asleep; their parents allowed them to play board games late on Saturdays, which they had an incredible amount of. The brothers loved them from the bottom of their hearts.

Then I, without losing my presence of mind, went to the Meteyko’s. A large barn lock hung on the door of the house. I turned and went home, but at that time, there was a knock on the window from inside the house. I looked around, saw Vovka’s pale face, and realized that my friend was in trouble. He waved to me, inviting me to enter his home through the window, and I squeezed through the window into his room.

The conversation did not stick. Vovka lay upside down on the bed and tried not to move.

“Flogged for a gun?” I remembered yesterday’s head slap, weighing Vovka’s father. He nodded his head in the affirmative. “Strong?”

Vovka got out of bed, turned his back to me, lifted his shirt, and lowered his underpants. His ass and lower back were covered with dark red, dark blue, and blue-black stripes, well familiar to me as the marks from a belt whipping. Of course, they were not like Mishka’s, and they didn’t fit on the buttocks in one solid bruise, but they were also eloquent evidence of the methods of punishment preferred by most hot-tempered parents.

Where Did the Money Go?

With the beginning of late autumn, when the need for ice cream came and the boys had the opportunity to save money, we decided to save up for a soccer ball. My friends treated me with respect and decided that the money would be kept with me. Knowing that my mother liked to rummage around my pockets and desk, I took a round tin can with spare parts from a gas mask, threw out the contents, and put the money there.

We put in as much as we could. The children of the head of the mine, Sashka and Vovka Meteyko, immediately brought an unheard-of sum of three rubles. The Zastava brothers brought in one ruble, I handed over 50 kopecks, and Alik Sirotenko brought 20 kopecks. But Alik and I continued to replenish the thrift box, putting in it sometimes three kopecks, sometimes five, and the Zastavas’ and Meteyko’s contributions somewhat cooled down.

The bank was lying in a secret place in a coal shed and everything was fine until May 9, until Alik Sirotenko came running and yelled joyfully: “Grandfather promised to get the ball!” Alik’s grandfather was a front-line soldier; he fought in aviation on Il-2, the Germans shot him down twice. But he returned home alive, and on Victory Day, he always gave generous gifts to his grandson.

“Let’s buy the ball now,” the boys suggested.

I darted into the barn, but the treasured jar was not in place. I began to look for her in all the nooks and crannies, turning everything upside down. The damned jar fell through the earth. Feeling something was amiss, my friends approached me. My disheveled view said everything without words, I spread my arms and said: “The money is gone.”

My friends did not believe me. Although, before that, I had never been caught stealing, but how could this happen if I didn’t really steal?! But distrust slipped through their faces, and the senior Zastava told me in person that I had stolen the money. With tears in my eyes, I rushed to my parents, but they only looked at each other and started a heartbreaking conversation. At that time, thieves didn’t prowl the streets; everything of value could be calmly taken in the mine yard. I was sure then, and sure now; the money was found and taken away by my mother or father. Most likely my mother. She followed me back then, and continued to follow me down even when I was on vacation as an officer.

I never took away money from my son. One day, as an 11-year-old child, he found 20 Ukrainian hryvnias and gave them to me, saying: “Dad, it’s difficult for us with money now. Come on, I will give them to you, and you will return them to me in Russia in rubles.”

At that time, I already received a pension, which was “dropping” at the place of registration, and such a “gentleman’s” contract suited me. If my son came running to me in a situation where he had lost common money, I would certainly give him the required amount to ward off suspicions from his friends. My parents did otherwise.

My friendship with the boys then began to fall apart. Alik Sirotenko stopped appearing. Even when he came to visit his grandfather, he did not come to me. My friendship with the Zastavas and Meteyko ceased. The boys began to go to the bath without me, and the place of their games went to the next street. Mother once wondered where my friends had gone, to which I replied to her: “They consider me a thief.” Mother grunted and went about her business.


For all installments from In the Shadow of the Belt, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Introduction
  2. Chapter 1: Early Childhood
  3. Chapter 2: School? This is Just the Beginning, Baby…
  4. Chapter 3: Cognizing Life
  5. Chapter 4: Football as it Is
  6. Chapter 5: My Friend Sasha Bichukov
  7. Chapter 6: Score
  8. Chapter 7: Again, the Transience of Being, Part 1
  9. Chapter 7: Again, the Transience of Being, Part 2
  10. Chapter 8: Old Colony, Part 1
  11. Chapter 8: Old Colony, Part 2
  12. Chapter 8: Old Colony, Part 3