Time marches unrelentingly on and my old friend and neighbour Victor the “Baltic baron” lately has been feeling its bite. He is now in his mid-eighties and his spine is slowly and painfully disintegrating. He was recently confined to bed in the seniors’ institution where he has lived for the last year or so. Constant pain and the indignities associated with being bed-ridden unless somebody helps him up have caused a noticeable change in his temperament and outlook.
I have limited my visits with him to less than half an hour, but even then I had difficulty finding things to talk about until I hit upon the idea of having him tell me about what happened in his youth. There was little point in attempting to converse about other things. For most of his career Victor was a dedicated cold war warrior formerly employed by Canada’s armed forces and later the security branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. His speciality was Russian language communications. Other than mentioning who he worked for, he was understandably silent about this aspect of his life.
Victor was born the eldest son of Baltic German parents at his family’s manor house located in the western part of Saaremaa, Estonia. His family left for northern Saskatchewan shortly after their estate was expropriated by the new government after Estonia’s war of independence. Although the family spoke Baltic German at home, my friend recalled that whenever his parents didn’t want the children to understand, they would switch over to Estonian. Life as homesteaders in Saskatchewan was trying as conditions at the time can only be described as primitive and the Depression hit western Canada very hard. Signing up for the army provided a welcome escape.
Not all was easy in the Canadian army as he found himself slogging through the mud of war torn Italy until the day his jeep went over a mine. His souvenirs of the Italian campaign later made themselves known in no uncertain way every time he went through an airport metal detector. As with many things in life, a chance discussion with a colleague led to his life’s vocation. The colleague mentioned that the signals corps was looking for people with linguistic skills. He transferred over and found himself in a special school which honed his Russian language skills. Rather than return to the dreary existence of the family’s dirt poor farm at war’s end, he chose to become a career soldier.
Victor has always grumbled about the fact that most of the workers at the extended care facility spoke little or no English. One day, however, I happened to be in the room visiting when a woman came in. I suspected from her heavy accent that she might be Russian. Sure enough, that was the case and shortly another Russian speaking woman joined the staff.
Victor of course was delighted and these two quickly became his favourite caregivers. However, he still finds things to grumble about, albeit mildly. Apparently one of the women — to his way of thinking, anyway, confuses wine with vodka given the “thimbleful” she grudgingly pours into his daily “happy hour” glass. Also, he is unhappy that his wife only occasionally brings him a lox and rye sandwich, smoked pork chop and sauerkraut or other such soul food. It seems that one simply can’t escape those Saaremaa genes.
Anyway, by some quirk of fate and time, yesteryear’s language of the primary enemy and evil empire has morphed into the welcome friendly language of the dedicated caregiver.