IN A SMALL EASTERN UKRAINIAN VILLAGE MERE KILOMETERS AWAY FROM THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE FRONTIER…
Without wasting a moment, he looked over to me and you could cut the fear in the spirit’s stone etched face, then I knew, old lady luck was stranded in Paris, Texas on a broken down greyhound bus.
“So…it’s on us?” I said with a smile.
The spirit nodded and then there was a crash at the rear of the parrot bar and the pressure of the blast knocked us from our feet and backwards across the floor. I ended up tangled in the barstools and was slow in wanting to get up.
Already the spirit was tugging on my jacket sleeve and in not so kind words, was encouraging me to stop laying-about and get my butt to the still visible door.
Smoke was filling the bar quickly and mingled with the shouts and cries of wounded, seeking or pleading help or salvation. I was struck by the smell of gun powder mixed with fresh blood and the distasteful smell of roasting pork. For whatever reason, burning flesh smell all of barbecue or roasting pork.
Another nudge on my arm got me up and swiftly towards the assumed safety of the light. Breaking through the struggling crowd that had the same idea about the safety of the door, he made it out into the blinding light of the mid-day light of what was already a very sunny day.
A command in Ukrainian filtered through my daze and the general confusion of a mass of coughing stragglers to make it out of the parrot bar, at least under their own power.
The distinct sound of a cocking AK-47 brought me to me senses. I had learned at an early age that I need to do whatever the guy with the AK-47 drawn on me wanted me to do…and that this point, it wasn’t worth the argument.
The spirit had faded into the mingling crowd and was for all purposes gone. My thought has to his desertion cannot be put into proper words – at least not that can be repeated in nice company…so, I will just leave it there!
More commands were being barked at me by the kid with the AK-47 but, since my Ukrainian was somewhat limited to my ability to order a drink or pick up some boozy chick, I nodded and as I started to explain that fact that his commands were lost on a guy who doesn’t speak the language.
It would have been cool to the story if I could have sprung up and in fluent Ukrainian, made a pal of this kid and we would have drifted off with a couple of boozy, Ukrainian chicks. That would be a better story that would have sold many more copies of this story…
But, my Ukrainian was totally of no help here as he didn’t seem to want to go have a drink and with the parrot bar engulfed into a ragging collapse, he had other things on mind other than boozy chicks with pretty smiles.
Trucks had arrived and it was very clear that I would not be walking away from this little adventure so easily. Being unable to communicate in Ukrainian was becoming a big regret and one of those “I should have…could…have…had” moments when the universe repeats in a roaring chorus “What were you thinking?”
Every language that I could have used to communicate (Russian, German or English) was a terrible handicap when dealing with young, frightened children in military uniforms and old, battered AK-47 – all of whom were looking for foreign devils that had leveled the town’s most popular parrot bar and killed many of their friends or families. It would have been like being able to only able to speak Arabic as the World Trade Towers were collapsing…you just know it wouldn’t have ended good. So, the smart thing was to play mute…it was an explosion and hurriedly started pointing to my ears.
After a few minutes of my best Forest Gump gone deaf, the young solider motioned me into the back of the waiting army trucks and then, moved on to find the evil ones that had brought such pain to this little Ukrainian Village…
The process of gathering up the survivors dragged on but, that gave me more time to get my wits back and the time I needed to survey the situation. There were 50-70 people that walked out of the bar before the fire made further rescue impossible and the screams of the dying made the situation much more dire for anyone that these kid soldiers didn’t know from the village to find out who had did this terrible deed. Was it Russian trying to provoke a fight? Was it some crazed German or American that lusted to force Ukraine into a shooting war with Russia? This was becoming a very hairy situation and I decided the best way not to get shot was to remain deaf – this was the best way to play this, at least until another opportunity presented itself.
A quick look around the back of the truck was an assembly of a motley collection of scary faces and nationalities. There were about 20 of us in the back of the truck and each was doing the same thing that I was in surveying the scene and looking for an opportunity to make a break.
There were several exceptions to my observations. There was the one still drunk German guy in the middle of the pack who was talking a mile-a-minute, filtering in and phrasing out in several different languages while trying to get someone to talk to. I had already dismissed him as he was way past drunk and no one on a mission would be that sloppy and his nerves were frayed beyond what would have been an act…
There were a couple of big, moody Russian guys who just sat there and stared at the others from the back of the truck. They had to be thinking that it was going to be a short ride for each once the soldier kids discovered that they were Russian and not just strangers here in the village.
Then, there was me and some old fat guy who was pleading that his mom was Ukrainian and that he had just stopped in to get a beer. At least there was a chance that his Ukrainian was much better than mine and in the end, the unit commander would cut him loose.
Then, there was me. Ya! Me?
What in the hell was I doing in this Eastern Ukrainian village not that far away from the Russian Frontier? What a piece of luck? On the eve of a massive Russian invasion and reclaiming of their breadbasket and securing their warm water ports, I am sitting in the biggest target for any Russian Militias trying to create an incident to spur the Russian war machine to attack, as they lay in wait just a few kilometers away from this village. I know why I was here but, it is not in my interest to share the details of the whys or even the how with you.
Seems that everyone was spoiling to start this scrap with the Russian except these poor, scared kid soldiers that surrounded us and they had no illusion as to their fate against the military might of the Russian Empire. In the coming shooting war, these kids playing soldier will be swept aside with as much easy as an elephant swipes away a biting fly.
Each of these kids understood that they were already written off and most of them would be dead by the dawn after the invasion. I wondered how many of these green, children of the short-lived democracy of a free Ukraine would actual stand and fight the entire military might of the Russian Empire knowing that it was a death sentence. I wondered if I would.
Just in the middle of this thought, the truck rumbled to life and pulled out into the main road of the village heading to some point west. Over my shoulder, I caught a fleeting glimpse of that shadowy spirit that had pulled me out of the bar, he was hanging back in the tree line of the village’s little park and my thought cannot be printed and even if they were, all I knew was that I was screwed and the truck rumbled on.
IN A SMALL EASTERN UKRAINIAN VILLAGE MERE KILOMETERS AWAY FROM THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE FRONTIER… (PART #2)
“WOKE UP IN THE MIDDLE OF A UKRANIAN FOREST…”
Woke up and I was in the in the middle of the forest, face down in the leaves of a low ditch and for more than a few moments, I didn’t move. Was I dead? Was this a trick? What the hell had happened?
Last thing that I clearly remember was the truck headed west where (I assumed) these kid soldiers were stationed and I remember the long thought process of “how and the hell was I gonna talk my way out of this mess…”
Luckily, I still had that American passport and the blessing of a tourist visa. Then, I looked over to the chatty but, still very drunk German and I figured that once we got off the truck, I would become his old drinking buddy. He wouldn’t remember his own self as drunk as he was. Seemed like a good plan as not even these kid soldiers would think that he was anything other another drunk tourist with the extremely bad luck to stumble into the parrot bar about to be wiped off the face of the earth.
Then there was the fat American who claimed to have heritage of Ukraine blood in that his mother was Ukrainian. The plus side of befriending this guy is that he might feel some kinship to a fellow American. The downside is that he is awful scared and at this point, to save his skin, he would sell out his own mother. So, in retrospect of my decision, I decided that I would be better to hang in there with the drunk German.
I remember that the ride was taking us through the back roads that didn’t feel right. Maybe, all of my planning was for not and we were being taken out to some forest pit where the locals dumped the bodies of what they called the anti-social and the disgruntled – which was local slang for Ethnic Russian Militias or bullyboys. The further that we went into the forest, the more reasonable my paranoia was becoming.
“Shit!?” that’s all that I could bring myself to mumble and the truck jumped up and down on the ruts in the road from the recent rains. There was something strange about those two Russian guys at the front of the truck. There was something just off key and something was troubling me about these two. Their moody, angry stares were normal if you spent any time with the Ethic Russians in this part of the Ukraine.
Having spent more than my share of recent visit in the company of such men, these two were off. I was having a hard time figuring out what was a miss.
They seemed to be angered at each other and that was strange. The main and most heated part of their conversation was amongst themselves. They were occasionally loud enough for me to catch a word here and there. It must have been that which drew me into their conversation and the more I listened, the odder it was becoming. The conversation made no sense and the closest that I could recall, that I could relate it to the sad lament of men knowing that they were about to die. I had heard a similar conversation in Kandahar between two suicide bombers, from our friends in the Northern Alliance, who were waiting for some local Afghan Official that was really an agent for the Taliban to show up for the meeting that we had hastily arranged…money talks…even with Taliban Agents. Maybe that is why I tuned in and tried to listen closer to what they were chatting about.
The truck hit a rather nasty rut and we all went flying about in the back of the truck. All I hear was a strained but fatalistic “NET!” and then, there was a bright flash…
Finally, old lady luck had showed up and I leaped backwards out of the truck and I felt myself being tossed and rolling over into the roadside ditch. That is that last I remember before waking up face down in the sea of leaves.
Still face down and to tell you the truth, I am in no hurry to get up and see what had happened. The leaves were a safety blanket and I was not in any hurry to get up.
Getting blown up twice in one day was a new record outside of several rather nasty firefights in the mountains up near the Pakistan Boarder but, that is another story and I was rather surprise to find myself no worse from the tear than to numerous aches and extremely brushed ego.
A hundred yards farther up the rutted, forest road was the burning wreckage of the truck. It was a real mess as those Russian guys were sitting up against the petro tank when the explosion came. They had seemed strange and I was happy that they had caught my attention and that I had enough sense (my trainers in their later report would attribute it to my advanced training) to leap backwards out of the truck. The truth was that it was blind luck and just that.
I was extremely slow in getting to my feet and even slower in trying to stagger forwards to get a better look at what I had missed.
There was not much left of the others than pieces scattered about in a radius of 20 yards of the burning truck. As far as I could tell, I was the only one who had survived. Then I heard a scream over to the left of the road and a muted, tired plea for help from the tall grass on the other side of the road.
There was not much that I could do for either as they were too far gone for what little first aid that I had learned in the service. It was pointless and I understood that the longer that I stood around befriending these, already, dead man was dangerous to my own health. It was just a matter of time before a patrol would be sent and if I wanted to live, then, I needed to be moving out into the woods.
The question now is which way, do I go? Can’t go back unless I had some death wish and remember what little Ukrainian that I spoke would ensure and seal my faith. Having survived twice, I was in no mood to want to test fate any more than I had stretched the envelop, already, today.
Over at the tree line, I saw a shadow and I immediately hit the ground but, then I heard a familiar voice, the voice of the spirit that had pulled me out of the burning parrot bar. The voice called for me to quit laying-about and get the hell out of the road as there was a patrol about a half-of-a-kilometer down the road and that we had to leave now.
IN A SMALL EASTERN UKRAINIAN VILLAGE MERE KILOMETERS AWAY FROM THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE FRONTIER… (PART #3)
This forest is full of, it is overrun by ghosts of many wars and to its distinction, the ghosts are stacked layer deeps from the time of Napoleon onwards through the World War to the bloody revolution where the Reds fought violently off a surprise attack by contingent of the White, loyalist Army marching up from the Crimea. World War Two added the greatest body count and the forest is overflowing with the demon spirits of SS Shock Troops that used the forest as a killing field for the undesirables to the new world order. Since then the Soviets and now the Ukrainians have used it as a dumping ground – why not a few new spirits to liven up the forest.
So it may be fitting that I found myself with a traveling spirit, a low rent cousin to old lady luck who has the nasty habit of showing up almost after the fact. But, here we were in the twilight of the day trying to put some distance between ourselves and the burning wreckage of the truck.
I am not sure that they will track us out into the dark forest this late in the day because Ukrainians of all sorts believe in the ghosts that haunt the moonless nights of the forest’s thick canapé. Hopefully, they will not try to count bodies and will return to their base with the sad news of the driver and guards, those young, kid soldiers who won’t be returning home tonight.
“But, it is getting dark…” I told the spirit who looked angry to be wasting so much time with me. Truly, this is not a forest that one want’s to transverse late into a moonless night, as this forest is also haunted by live militia or packs of bullyboys playing militia, which, in either case I could do without. So it was important to find a safe refugee to hold up in until tomorrow’s dawn. With tomorrow’s dawn, we would be more rested and able to figure out a way across the frontier without having to trouble with paranoia of war that was eating people (on both sided) alive with anxiety and itchy trigger fingers towards strangers.
My mission was to find one of the many caves that would give us some protection from the evening mist and it did smell like rain again. The whole region was entrenched with fortified bunkers and dug caves by the German SS troops that had been ordered to hold this region to the last man and those SS Boys were just crazy enough to have done that. Dig into the forest’s soil to any depth and you will find their plentiful artifacts and the almost still moist bones that served testament to their craziness.
Just the other day, I had meet two brothers who made a good living in military antiques and E-Bay (REALLY!) selling what they dug up out here in this forest. They had shown me their expanded warehouse and it was, indeed, very impressive and complete. They were a little crazy themselves and livid with tales of ghosts and demons that haunted these woods.
I am starting to wonder if I am not already a ghost myself as how could I have survived two such close calls and maybe, I am now just another crazy spirit who doesn’t have the smarts to realize that I am already dead?
“Up ahead!” the spirit called over his shoulder with turning his head to see if I was still trailing him up the path and towards a series of manmade caves.
They looked like they had been used by neither animal nor human in the recent presence. This was a good thing as the last thing that I needed was to stumble in on a group of sleeping bears or worse yet, sleeping militias.
The caves were far enough off the path that they gave us some cover and line-of-sight protection because they were elevated up into the cliff at the bend of the trail. They appeared old and battered so I assumed that these were caves of good picking for the two brothers. Nice guys, it would have be good to have them along on this adventure but, they were back in town looking at the ruined remains of their favorite watering hole and I could just see them cursing that evil American or whoever burn the place to the ground. Knowing the brothers and many of the likeminded people of the village, they would have set up a roaring wake of a party that would put even the best New Orleans’ wake to shame as they wished the dead souls a safe trip to heaven. I knew that it would be a party of the decade, maybe the century as Ukrainians like their Russian cousins understood the deep, inner meanings of the human need to party and this is what makes them fun to be around.
Back to my cave in the forest overrun by mean, foul SS Ghosts who fought to the last man to defend this cave that I now set. Even when they were alive they were never any fun and I believe that part of the reason for their failure was that Jesuit-like, single minded approach to their cause and mission that had been engrained in them but the NAZI War Machine.
My immediate need was to be water as dehydration was overcoming me and with it the powers of rational thought was fading fast as was presented by my over occupation with the ghost stores of this forest.
The bad thing about an unoccupied cave is the lack of materials that could be used to collect the rain waters as the sky opened up with a gully making downpour.
My first instinct (due to my lack of rational thoughts) was to use my jacket as a basin to collect the water before the rain stopped. Luckily, I still had the spirit to shack his head and to remind me about how cold it would be after the rains stopped.
After a further rethinking, I took my wool undershirt (as it had been chilly when I left for the parrot bar) and rigged it to collect enough water to help me regain my senses as I knew that I would strain them to the extreme in my effort to get back to the safety of any international airport and a flight back home.
No fire as the last thing that I really wanted right now was visitors.
So, we huddled back in the cave away from the splattering of rain and the chilly licks of the evening mist that replaced the rains after midnight. I assume it was after midnight has my watch had been lost to war booty before I got on the truck earlier today. The cruel joke on that kid soldier, who was seeking a payday or a souvenir when he hanged the Rolex off my wrist, was that it was a fake. Now, it was a good fake as there are three stages of fakes with Rolex watches. The Hong Kong and Taiwan version were very clearly cheap Timex watches with a Rolex faceplate. They were easy to spot as the second hand ticked instead of sweeping like a real Rolex. Now, mine you that what I had was a Japanese Rolex and the story was that some very enterprising young Japanese bought the blue prints for the Rolex and had set up a factory in Thailand (quality labor at a bargain price and better still, no questions ask by local authorities) where they manufactured a product that even fooled people who repaired Rolex watches for a living.
I know that this is true because, I tested this by taking my watch into a jeweler’s to get it serviced and cleaned. Rolex is a very high end and expensive watch. The places that sell and service them are very high end also. As I do not dress nor look like a guy who should be wearing a $10K watch, there were a lot of questioning as to where I got the watch as many are stolen because of their high value. I told the jeweler that it was my grandfather’s and I wanted to resize it to fit me and to get it serviced. The jeweler left it at that. He was very much still treating it as the real thing until he popped the back case and looked closer and then he got the joke and started to laugh even though the joke had been on him. The difference was that a real Rolex has serial numbers embedded on each little part within the movement and mine had none.
Now, I thought that was a good story and a suitable way to pass the time until the dawn but, I lost the spirit to sleep rather early on into the story. I continued the story for my own benefit as I knew that telling the story was keeping me awake and it was much better to be thinking about my lost, fake Rolex than to be sitting around looking for ghosts.
Late into the night, I humored myself with grand tales of adventure to avoid having to worry about how I was going to get across the frontier and the safety of a flight home.
About 2-3 AM, I drifted off to sleep and I sleep hardily into the next morning only to get rousted by the sound of the spirit suggesting that I wake up…but, he didn’t use those words nor in such a gentile way…