Meet Dima. Preserved like an acutely hypochondriac mosquito in a block of amber, he sits here in my memories in his perpetually sniveling 8-year-old self.
Somewhere out there in the world lurks Dima, definitely older, hopefully wiser – and a complete stranger to this grown up Eugene. But I’m not talking about that Dima… THIS story is about the Dima I remember, and how he forever shaped my perception of my fellow human beings.
Winter. Usilova Street. Snowbanks everywhere. We’re not talking inches here – we’re talking FEET. Or, in this rather European case, METERS. Take that, you lousy Imperial System! Three shuba-clad whippersnappers – Matvey, Tishka, and myself – are out building snowmen, snow-women, snow-children, snow-dogs, and various other frosty bitches. We were pioneers, taking snow architecture to new heights – digging tunnels through snowbanks without a single thought of the possibility of being buried alive under a collapse, and making tall snow slides. Let me say again – SNOW SLIDES. How many of you ever got to play with those, huh? 2, 3, 4 meter inclines, a set of snow-stairs on the back, poured over with water to create a slippery layer of ice down which to slide – it was the shiznit, kids, believe you me.
What we had in creativity and effort, we lacked in resources – a single rusty wood-and-iron sled cobbled together between the three of us. No problem – our ingenuity did us well that year. Hooray for cardboard! If there was one natural resource we had plenty of on Usilova Street (besides the massive military-grade deposits of solid-state dihydrogen monoxide) it had to be cardboard. Oh, cardboard, whatever are you NOT good for? Making sleds out of cardboard is trivial, quick, effective. The end-result moves fast, has no handling to speak of, is easily replaceable (for those times you collide with a sleeping hobo and have to make a quick getaway) and is barrels of fun.
Dima, lucky bastard, was not down with the cardboard program. Oh no, he had one-upped the entire kid population of Usilova Street. Dima’s parents, you see, were fortunate enough to procure a SNOWMOBILE. Well, it was not really a snowmobile – it had no engine, no treads, no roof-mounted miniguns or rocket launches (yes, we had some very specific requirements for our parents, had they decided to ask us what we wanted for Christmas – and so they wisely did not). What it had were three skis. And a seat. And a steering wheel. And some kind of rudimentary braking system. Imagine a tricycle for the Siberian prisoner set. That’s what it would look like. It was called “Chuk i Gek” – tribute to the book of the same name, by Arkady Gaidar, about two unfortunately named kids – Chuk and Gek – having a naive and optimistic adventure through the tundra. It was truly inspirational to the Siberian prisoner set. To our 8-year-old selves, it was a friggin’ snowmobile. And we were jealous.
Dima sneers. Looking down his nose at the three philistines before him – Matvey, Tishka, and myself – still grounded by earthly laws of nature, bound to a mundane existance by our low-tech cardboard-based snow racing gear. It was clear who the winner was in this contest – Dima’s snowmobile was the monster truck crushing our cardboard dreams like a… monster truck… of dream-crushing.
“There’s no way I’m gonna let you ride on it, Zhenka” he tells me. “You go play with your cardboard. Leave the road to the professionals and the well-equipped.”
He sits down atop his mobile throne. Gazes down the hill before him. And kicks off into the sunset. Like an geriatric shopper on one of those motorized shopping carts, he whizzes along the isles of the snowbank, as we look at him go, sighing. Man, if only we could look like such an ass… er I mean ‘ace’! What we wouldn’t give such a vehicle – if we had known about kidneys back then, we’d probably offer one. Or two.
But our jealousy was misplaced, as we (and Dima) soon learned. Did I mention the subject of our avarice had a steering wheel? Yes, indeed! It made the front ski rotate. Unfortunately the creators of the Chuk i Gek (no, as far as I know, Arkady Gaidar is blameless here) failed to take into account the center of gravity – you see, despite being a ‘snowmobile’ in our minds, this was basically a stool on skis. With a steering wheel. There was only so much it could do, it terms of turning, before Dima’s respectable girth got the better of it. And so it did – leaning over like the Tower of Dima, it began it’s tragic decline into the nearest snowbank, taking its greedy rider along with it.
Not to say that Dima was hurt – he was going rather slowly when he took a sideways nosedive. Our shamefully inferior cardboard sleds (much less our somewhat less inferior wooden sled) would pick up way more speed down that hill, and let us bring home much more spectacular injuries (yes, the dumpster and the sleeping hobo are another story for another day). But Dima, sensitive soul that he was, started crying – oh how he wailed. And despite being shunned by him, relegated to drooling after his toy from afar, we rallied to his rescue, and checked to see if he was ok, whether anything was broken, and whether we could have a go on his Chuk i Gek now? Please? Pretty please? The answer, as were most things about Dima, was a negative.
I don’t think I ever got to properly ride a Chuk i Gek on that day, or any day since. But it left an imprint on all of us. There were more examples of Dima’s character to follow – his fancy double-bladed ice skates, his riveting theatrical performance as a suicidal celestial object, his rice-rocket bicycle… each a story, and each a critical view into the life of this influential person.
I do not know where Dima is today or what kind of person he became, but Dima, if you are reading this – I just have one question. Can I ride the Chuk i Gek now? Seriously? Please?