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A Sobering Anecdote

It’s the dead of night in my Soviet Army Academy, senior year. I am on duty in the dormitory, which for the seniors is actually quite a decent building in the center of Moscow. A long corridor goes left and right at an angle with doors leading to many two- and three-person rooms. The walls are a light blue hue, and the smell of floor wax permeates the air. Everyone is sleeping.

I am at a table in the middle corner of the corridor, reading a book (Papillion), directly across from the entrance door. Near my book is a large glass of Gorilka, a type of Ukrainian self-made vodka that is about 60 proof. On top of the glass, a piece of rye bread and a pickled cucumber are resting. I am relaxed and sleepy. My mind is far away in French Guinea.

The entrance door opens with a slow, deliberate creak. I raise my eyes from the book and freeze. The top officer in charge of our class is staring at me from within the door frame. He’s new here, and so, just like Margaret Hamilton in The Moon’s Our Home, he lives between nervous breakdowns. He slowly moves his gaze to my cozy Gorilka display. I realize I am in more trouble than I’ve ever been.

“Do you see what I see?” he whispers.

I snap to action and jump up. “Comrade Captain, the company is without incidents! Cadet Sokolov reporting!”

He steps in and closes the door behind him. “Can you name me one thing you’re doing wrong?” he inquires, polite as an executioner before pressing the lethal shot into my arm.

“Absolutely not, sir!”

He moves to specifics. “What is that on the table before you, Cadet Sokolov?”

For a few seconds, my brain goes blank. Drinking on duty is a criminal offense, punishable by 15 days in the military jail, followed by two years of active duty as a common soldier. “Kerosene for my lamp, sir!” I scream in the silence of the dormitory corridor. I am desperate for others to hear me. In my mind, I slam all the doors open for them to wake up and save me.

He walks up to the table, removes the bread and the cucumber and lifts the glass up for a sniff. “This is vodka,” he says with a knowing nod.

“Absolutely not, sir! Kerosene for my lamp, sir!” I am eating him with my eyes, displaying my full devotion to his higher rank. My stomach is full of butterflies. Perspiration is streaming down my neck like a million flowing rivers.

He walks into the nearest sleeping room and pulls a lethargic cadet out of it. My heart misses two beats – it’s my old enemy. He had stolen and sold my high school Golden Medal diploma on the black market, using his privileged position as the company records keeper. I hate him. He knows I hate him. He knows that I know that he profited from my documents. Disposing of me would be good for him.

“Smell that glass,” the captain orders him. “Tell me what’s in it.”

The illegal diploma trader looks dead scared. His hand shakes as he picks up the glass, and a few drops of the precious liquid splash onto the floor. He takes a sniff and his head recoils like a cannon after a salvo. It is strong stuff that I have there. He clears his throat. “Kerosene, sir!” he yells. “For a lamp, sir!” His high-pitched voice makes our ears ring in the silence of the building.

The captain gestures the now not-at-all-sleepy cadet back into his room. Just before closing the door behind him, the cadet steals a quick glance at me – “Do you still hate me?” his eyes ask. Even though my knees are dancing Kazachok, I manage to stare him down – “Whatever you do, I will hate you forever, bastard”, my eyes answer back.

The captain, meanwhile, takes the bread and the cucumber. “A bottle of this . . . kerosene tomorrow in my office,” he orders. “For . . . an inspection.” Then he leaves the dorm.

I disintegrate back into my chair as two thoughts hit me at once. The captain is Ukrainian, just like my Gorilka. And we have not had kerosene lamps since the late ’50s.