Southern boy that I am, I never dreamed of a White Thanksgiving. But then I never dreamed that I’d be wintering in the Jewish Autonomous Region of the Russian Far East, either. We were about two days west of Siberia, an interesting fact in itself.

Wife Sharon and I were teachers for the Peace Corps in 1996, and we were in mid-adjustment to this strange life. We’d had about 18 inches of white, with more falling. Winter started in mid-autumn — the first snow about October 15 –and would continue, we were told, until sometime in May. They would be driving cars across the Amur River soon and wouldn’t stop until March. “It’s exciting to drive to Xabarovsk!” the institute director said with that manic Russian gleam in his eye. “We like it because it’s exciting!”

I thought, count me out, Anatoly. I’d already had it with exciting Russian “machine” (car) rides. I rode shotgun with his second banana (I know it’s a mixed metaphor, but it’s a good one), Sergei, to Xabarovsk and felt the urge to cross myself even though I’m not a Catholic. Hitting frost heaves at an excessive rate of speed in deep twilight without the lights on while staying on the wrong side of the road around curves is what I call a cheap thrill.

The speedometer safety monitor kept beeping while I hyperventilated and Sharon’s eyes grew round as a loaf of rye bread. I wanted away from that kind of excitement, especially if it were to be crossing ice, with 33-degree water below. I guess Sergei didn’t turn on his lights because he figured that would run down the battery. I didn’t want to insult him by asking him why he didn’t turn them on, but I should have.

We survived and went on to other thrills, although not many. It was awfully quiet there in that rural hideaway when the snow descended, but there was usually some sensible fun to be had. Depends on your definition of “fun.” The backwaters of the Biro River are soon frozen harder than a Republican’s heart (it had already hit -4F one morning in mid-November), so skates, sleds and cross-country skis were brought out. Kids shot down banks on sleds and sheets of cardboard and out onto the ice. They hit a pretty good rate of speed as the track got slicker and slicker.

Older guys (other than me; I was trying to work up an interest in cross-country skiing) were ice fishing. A bunch of old boys in felt boots and fur hats with flaps down stood staring into little holes in the ice, punching them occasionally with picks on poles because they kept refreezing. I had envisioned neatly sawed circles with dark water in them, maybe three feet across, but these were small holes, maybe a foot wide, so I guess they weren’t expecting to pull up five-foot sturgeons.

I dunno. As a newspaper pal once wrote about Alaskan glaciers, an afternoon is a long time to stand around staring at ice unless it’s cubed in a cocktail glass. They didn’t have the comfy fishing shacks where the boys drink and play cards in Wisconsin or Minnesota. As I said, it was a quiet life those days.
(To be continued)