Saturday, March 6, 2010

Purim story - - Part II

When Haman became our commanding officer, he reminded us that anyone who had forgotten he was a soldier whose body and soul belong to the Czar would very quickly find himself “vacationing” in Siberia where, before long, they might get the chance to do some real soldiering against a race of yellow vermin laboring under the illusion that Asia belonged to them. And in particular, he advised the Jews in his company to cease conducting themselves as though they were still in some synagogue of theirs.

This final observation did not go down too well with the boys in my platoon. Partly thanks to Mikhailoff's easygoing policies, our company had walked away the previous summer, and the summer before that, with the highest score in the Novocherkassky's annual marksmanship competition. Not only because we'd had so much more opportunity to practice, but because, unlike some other companies, we had truly wanted to make a good showing on our Captain's behalf. And since a fair number of the Jewish soldiers also happened to be among the best shots in the regiment, it seemed to us that this new katzap was starting off with some degree of prejudice.

Our committee, therefore, took it as a direct challenge that, at a time when czarism itself, with its incurably corrupt, brutal, and ignorant bureaucracy and army, already seemed on the verge of crumbling, this Haman should come along and try to give us, as they say, a taste of pepper. In short, we determined to settle this dog before he could settle us.

We had our opportunity at the annual regimental marksmanship competitions. Each company commander was desperately anxious for his men to make a good showing. These contests, in fact, were one of the few ways in which an officer in garrison could make a name for himself. That was because if a company did really well, its commanding officer got the sole credit, and if it did badly, that, too, was blamed on him. Since there was just about nothing in it for the winning marksmen themselves, these annual competitions, as far as the soldiers were concerned, had only one practical purpose: to demonstrate to the world how the men felt about their company commander.

We could all tell Haman was a little bit worried because for some weeks now, he had been handling us as gently as a mother putting a dressing over an abscess. All our time in the field was devoted totally to marksmanship (although only with the rifle, not the machine gun, which was still too much of a novelty, as well as wasteful of ammunition. Also, I think our officers didn't quite trust its reliability - - especially in the hands of future revolutionaries).

Haman, of course, already knew that our company was blessed with some of the most expert sharpshooters in the regiment, and he was determined for us to do him proud. We, for our part, had every intention in the world of burying him.

Since Russian infantry tactics had changed very little from the days when soldiers carried muskets and fired in volleys, the way these competitions worked was as follows. Ten men at a time went up to the firing line. A hundred yards away were ten wooden targets painted to resemble enemy soldiers. After each man had fired his allotted number of bullets, a cease-fire was called and some soldiers who'd been hidden in trenches behind the target signaled each man's score with a red flag.

We all knew that, based on past performance, our regimental commander expected the Fourteenth Company to walk away with the first prize, and had placed his bets accordingly. So the night before, our revolutionary committee voted that tomorrow not one of us, all day, was to dare hit his target even once. Somebody wondered whether this wouldn't be a little too obvious. But of course we wanted it to be obvious.

Came morning and we took up our positions, fired off our volleys, and with a good deal of careful concentration succeeded in leaving every one of our targets absolutely untouched. I could tell how deeply this pained some of our better marksmen, and how they tried to console themselves by neatly shooting off branches four times as far away as the target.

I glanced over my shoulder and saw Haman's face white as chalk and his teeth biting furiously into his lips. Before long, the colonel, faced with the loss of a rather large bet, summoned him over and, in front of all the visiting dignitaries, raked Haman over the coals for having inspired such blatant disloyalty in his men.

However, we, too, were warned. The results of the first round were declared null and void, and every company was given a fresh chance. Haman watched us in silence, but there was murder in his eye. Nevertheless, once again not one of us inflicted so much as a scratch on a single target.

The colonel, now clearly aware of what sort of a mutiny he had on his hands, also voided the results of the second round, and announced that the contest would continue, all day and all night if necessary, until "certain elements" showed themselves prepared to act like true children of the Czar.

We remained unmoved. By nine in the evening, our com¬pany's score still stood at zero, and the other companies, too, had long ceased to take the whole business seriously. The colonel, with barely restrained rage, again nullified all scores, but called a break until the following morning, when the contest would begin afresh.

An hour or two later, the door to our barracks flew open, and Haman entered, alone. We leaped to attention. He told us, in a gentle, almost broken voice, to stand at ease and gather around him.

And he said, "Dear children, I fully understand your grievances against me. I know that, on more than one occasion, I have allowed my vile temper to get the upper hand. And for this now all of you, to a man, are determined to humiliate me. But what am I to do? This is my nature. I've treated my own children no better than I've treated you. All I can do is beg you to forgive my past misdeeds. And let you know that, if you will not help me tomorrow, I am ruined. They will not even send me to an honorable death at the fighting front, but will reduce me in rank and discharge me from the service. And if that happens, there is nothing left for me to do but drown myself or put a bullet through my head."

We listened, but I for one couldn't say I felt particularly moved. Not only didn't I believe what he said, but it seemed to me that if he did kill himself, the world would be well able to survive the loss.

(To be continued)

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