Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




    Was this large party's successful crossing of the Caucausus Mountains in December a miracle?  Or was it just the way things happened to go?
    At the least, you would have to say that Dad was uniquely fortunate in having guides who knew the way testing the footing for him at every step and taking turns breaking trail, not to mention having eighty people walking ahead of him trampling down the snow.  Add the contrast between the week-long blizzard in which they began and the bright, clear and calm weather they found at the pass.  You can begin to appreciate their extraordinary luck when you realize that theirs was the only party which was successful in making it across the mountains after new snow began to fall.  They may have been the last organized party out of Russia.

    But how in the world had my father ever gotten to this point?
    Of all the eager young students who'd flocked to enlist at the same time as Dad when the White Army came to Voronezh, he was the only one still on his feet and moving -- the sole one among them who'd managed to survive and to escape from Russia.
    Yet, on the face of things, my father had done nothing for himself.  One way or another, everything had been done for him.
    He'd been on his own only for the briefest of moments.  The rest of the time he had just done what he was told to do -- mainly by Ivan Kashirin, but also by the White Army, by the nurses and doctors at Ekaterinodar, by Sister Nina, by the Kuban Cossacks, by General Savin, and by the Cherkessi guides who'd led them on tiptoe over Kluhorskii Pass.
    All too often, the result of putting himself in other people's hands had proven to be disaster, futility and retreat.  Except that somehow in the midst of all that was going wrong, miraculous things had just happened to happen which had made it possible for him to continue and to make it over the mountains.
    After this, the miracles would never again come along in clusters and bunches the way they had during the thirteen-and-a-half months it took Dad to travel the six hundred miles from Voronezh to Georgia, walking most of the distance.  Nevertheless, until my father's life finally stabilized again with him studying at a university in Syracuse, New York, and he no longer had the same need for miracles, his unbelievable good fortune would continue to operate whenever it was necessary.
    The most blatant example of this would be Dad finding money in the streets of Constantinople when he had to have it.  This was something that never happened to him before, and neither would it ever happen again.
    In the spring of 1923, my father had just been getting by in Turkey for a period of more than two years.  First, Ivan had turned into a moody and belligerent drunk in idleness and exile; then his application to join a monastery in the Balkans had been accepted, and he'd departed for Serbia.  Now Dad was sharing one large room with five other men, collecting, washing and delivering laundry, and doing odd jobs when he could find them, but otherwise just marking time.
    That spring, the U.S. Congress passed a special immigration bill making places for former Russian university students and graduates.  My father knew nothing more about America than that it was the place for which his ancestor's brother had set sail from the heart of Russia, and the impressions he'd picked up reading books like The Last of the Mohicans and Huckleberry Finn.  But no other countries were offering special opportunities to refugees from the Russian Revolution.
    Dad would be successful in passing an oral screening given by a board of three Russian and two American professors designed to identify real students and to weed out opportunists.  He was accepted to go to America.
    But for him to reach the United States, he had to be able to pay half the passage money in advance, and riding in steerage from Constantinople to New York cost $90.
    Forty-five dollars may not seem like very much, especially if you have forty-five dollars.  However, at a time when my father was barely earning enough money to pay for the food to keep him alive and his part of the room rent, it was an overwhelming amount.
    Then, one morning that spring, Dad was making a little extra money by helping to carry another Russian's luggage two miles to the train station.  As they were crossing a busy intersection in the heart of the city, my father spied a small roll of paper held together with a rubber band lying against the curb.  Without pausing to look at it, he picked it up and put it in his pocket.
    After delivering his burden to the station and receiving his payment -- "the equivalent of ten American cents," Dad says -- he checked to see exactly what he'd found.  And inside the rubber band were several hundred Turkish piasters.
    This money wasn't enough in itself to pay for my father's passage, but it was almost half of what he needed.  And a few of the piasters bought him a rare decent meal.
    For the rest of the money, Dad appealed to his sister Katya, who was now living in Poland.
    She'd had adventures, too.  Katya was a nurse who'd fled Voronezh after being denounced as a counter-revolutionary and an enemy of the proletariat by the wife of a Red official to whom she'd refused admission to the hospital with a trivial complaint.  She'd then attached herself to the field hospital of a Polish army unit stranded in southern Russia by Russia's withdrawal from World War I.  She had come down with typhoid fever, and later married her doctor, Josef Szulc.
    Polish money wasn't worth very much in 1923.  But Dr. Szulc cashed in his life insurance policy for its current value and sent the proceeds to his young brother-in-law, whom he would never meet.  And thousands of zlotys turned into the $25 my father still lacked.
    So there you have it -- one more time the good will of others and a happy accident were able to do for Dad what he would have been completely incapable of doing for himself.  And in June he sailed for America on the Greek steamer King Alexander.


Border courtesy of FDZ Graphics
Bullet courtesy of Dreamcatcher Graphics