March 31, 2020
If you ask I’ll probably tell you that my upbringing was a normal one, considering the times and surroundings. Though many people I meet now seem to think my life was anything but ordinary, I beg to differ. Granted, I was not born or raised in the States. However, being the father of two boys myself and living here for over 20 years now, I can draw parallels and comparisons. I feel the differences in everyday life are minimal. All the talk about how hard it was when we were kids and how kids now have it made is ignorant to say the least. Today’s youth face just as many challenges as we did back in the day. The size and color of television sets may have changed along with the quality and complexity of toys, but the basic everyday life of a young person is just as challenging and complicated as it ever was. Kids today still need strong role models and mentors to guide and teach them. Remember, the biggest and most important influence on these young lives remains the adults around them. Unfortunately too many adults abdicate that role to the TV and internet.
The individual who most influenced my life serving as a role model and mentor was my Father. An exceptionally honest man, my Dad held a very high position within the regional Government. He was in charge of all civil construction within a region the size of the State of New York, yet our family of four huddled in a Khrushchev designed two-room concrete block apartment. While some of his deputies lived in veritable palaces his home was humble, due to his honesty and integrity. This was my first and probably the most important life lesson to date. Brutal honesty, for better or for worse.
While holding a high ranking ‘white collar’ office job, my father wasn’t an ‘office worker’. A talented engineer, he was always designing and making things in our house. My homework desk substituted for a work bench. It had a vise permanently attached to it and its drawers were full of screwdrivers, pliers, soldering irons and other tools and hardware. Growing up in war-torn North Western Russia, my Dad had to fish and hunt for food from age 5 through his adolescence. These difficult conditions instilled in him a determination to pass the essential skills he’d learned on to my brother and me.
At an early age he’d take us to a market every free weekend for the purpose of visiting an air rifle range. Here my father taught us the basics of marksmanship and the differences between open and aperture sights. He also took us on many ‘adventures’ to teach and harden us. By the age 10 I had already experienced an unexpected white water rafting in a rubber dingy, overturned a boat in the ice cold river, spent a night in the open during a storm, ate raw fish, dug for worms, collected wasp larva and caught frogs for bait, spent several days stuck in the snowy desert and fought a desert fox for our catch. All of these are now distant memories.
All of the adventures my dad took me on were coupled with lessons on life and survival that at the time I thought nothing of. I simply took my Dad’s word for it. If he said that we’d catch a fish, we caught it. If he said the storm will last for X number of hours, it did. If he built a shelter to keep us warm and dry, warm and dry we were. I took it as an axiom, a postulate of natural being. And if I would find myself in the same situation later I already knew what to do because my father had taught me.
I grew up in a large regional and industrial center in the Ural region of the Soviet Union. The city of Orenburg was a modern metropolis of 700,000 with all that modern Socialist society had to offer. My childhood home was a typical Socialist ant farm apartment complex. Although, through school and sports I had hundreds of friends and acquaintances, my immediate circle of friends included 12-15 kids of roughly the same age who lived in my building. They were a very colorful bunch socially and ethnically. Our group had your everyday trouble makers, ‘A’ students, barely ‘C’ stragglers, kids who took piano lessons, a few athletes and some who just did not do anything. Diversity was the theme of our cohort. Ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars and Bashkirs were represented. Though to us we were just Yurka, Sashka, Andrey, Vovka, etc. We still got in trouble all the same, played the same games and chased the same girls.
And just like any group of kids there were some who came from single parent homes. Soviet society was not immune to divorces, separations and death. When it came down to our group, we had our share of boys whose fathers were not ‘present’ physically or socially. Don’t get me wrong those kids did OK and single mothers did everything they could to make sure their children had food on the table and clothes on their backs. What was missing though was a strong, knowledgeable adult role model. This is where my Dad’s greatest achievement comes in.
Though living in a multi-story ant farm of an apartment building in the center of a modern city my childhood was not of the typical city slicker, but rather that of an outdoorsy kid. Our neighborhood was within a 20 minute walk from the wild banks of the Ural River. This had sandy banks that doubled as beaches in the summer, thick woods where we would pick wild mushrooms in the fall, a giant ice rink in the winter and great camping sites in the spring. It was here that my friends and I spent every free moment of our time year round learning swimming, fishing, ice fishing, camping, skating, cross country skiing and many other skills that are so essential to the development of a young person.
It all started with my Dad taking my brother and me to the river when we were very young. Then one day one of my friends asked if he could come. Later it grew to 3 or 4 kids with their parent’s permission tagging along. Before we knew it we would have up to 10 kids with their poles and bread bags sitting by the entrance to my apartment stack waiting for ‘Uncle Gene’ (what my Dad was known as) to get home from work so they could go to the river with him. My Dad was very patient with this ever growing group, teaching them how to rig their poles, bait their hooks and how and where to cast. It was amazing to watch my father sitting there with a bunch of kids huddling around him just to watch him tie a hook on the line or make a bobber out of a feather and piece of pine bark. I’ve always taken tremendous pride in the fact that it was my Dad who taught those kids these skills.
Another habit my father instilled in me, and later into my friends, was to carry and correctly use a pocket knife. It was not just an item to have, but rather an essential tool which would help you out of many situations. A master whittler, he was always carving something out of wood or bark. The pocket knife he carried everywhere he went was always razor sharp. My Dad ensured this by constantly honing it. He also made sure that I had a decent knife and taught me how to keep it sharp.
Meanwhile, my friends would assemble their ‘kits’ trying to copy as close as possible what my father had. Tackle boxes containing all sorts of jigs or anything fishing or outdoors related became the favorite birthday gift among our group. Now the regulars who would gather at my door waiting for Uncle Gene would all have their poles, fishing kit and their basic sustenance for the trip. The usual rations would contain: a hunk of bread, 2-3 tomatoes, 2-3 fresh cucumbers, fresh scallions, 2-3 hardboiled eggs and a match box full of coarse salt.
One more thing that was absolutely mandatory if you wanted to come with us was raw uncooked potatoes. Everyone had at least 4 or 5. If you have not eaten potato freshly baked in the open coals of a camp fire you have not lived. Baking potatoes in the coals of our camp fire was the apex, the main event, the grand celebration of our outing. Shoving a spud into the coals, making sure it is fully covered with embers and minutes later pulling it out of the inferno using some stick that you’ve just cut from the bush was the moment you could give up your new bike for. Properly burnt all the way around with a steamy softness on the inside, that is the baked potato of my childhood. After two or three of those the picture of a successful trip was painted on our jet black fingers and soot smeared smiling faces.
As we got older the food for our regular trips became more ‘sophisticated.’ In addition to the standard fare, the rations now included canned meats and fish, pickled veggies and marinated meat that we would skewer and cook over the coals. Again, to some readers the idea of eating canned fish and burnt bake potato does not sound appealing, but back then in the fresh air, by the fire it was a special feast. The ability to prepare a sumptuous hot meal outdoors was something that my father was especially proud of. If he had a bucket or canteen, some potatoes, a handful of some grain with fresh catch he could make the most delicious fish soup right there on the river bank.
Slowly but surely my friends and I grew up. We developed different interests. I got heavily into sports and pretty much moved out of my parent’s home at the age of 14. Traveling between tournaments, working out at various sport centers throughout the Soviet Union and studying at different sport schools became my everyday life. But every time I came home there would be yet another group of youngsters clutching their fishing rods sitting patiently waiting for Uncle Gene to get home and take them to the river. Yet another generation of kids that my father would influence and teach the skills they would carry through life as he’d taught us before them.
If I had to highlight one thing looking back at time spent with my Dad it would be his readiness, his steadfastness. Presented with a dilemma, he never hesitated. He always knew what to do and how to do it. He was always ready and prepared to tackle whatever life threw at him. To this day some of my friends still ask if I remember that one time or the other when Uncle Gene took us to the river. I always say, “Oh, yes of course.” In reality though, it is hard to remember one particular time. To me all of our outings were great, no matter the weather or difficulties encountered.
Now that I am a Dad myself with two rapidly growing boys, I try to pass on to them as much useful knowledge and as many essential skills as I can. My main goal is simply to raise them as reliable citizens who in the face of adversity can provide for themselves, their families and are able to lend a helping hand to those in need. If I can teach them half of what my father passed on to me I will have succeeded.
The skills of being ready and knowing what to do in any situation are important for everyone. The ability to survive and help others is in my opinion a must for everyone, especially a developing youngster. I owe this to my father as do many other grown-up kids who were mentored by him. He gave the most valuable things he had, his time, knowledge and himself. In doing so he touched and influenced many lives in a positive manner. What about you, are you sharing your knowledge with anyone, and if not should you be?
This article is dedicated to Evgeniy Victorovich Vorobiev, Thank you Dad.