In memory of my Grandma Danka
I was in the first grade when the First World War began. The good thing is that the military action came to an end by the next morning.
There was nothing imaginary and it was all as it was – the war was the first and it was worldwide, as I hadn’t taken part in the boys’ war games until then, and even if I had, their battles were of a regional and local nature, so it was a completely different matter to venture into world war – with a gas mask and rifle at that. Real ones.
These were brought by our military education teacher Comrade Valov. I can’t clearly say now whether he entered the wrong door or his coming to our class was part of the compulsory propaganda regime, but on that particular day he came in fully equipped for battle with a gas mask and a rifle. The boys were impressed by the rifle and gathered around it. I observed the gas mask – it looked both like Yuri Gagarin in space and like an alien to me. I would guess that at the same time, the other children were also busy interpreting the military symbols with peaceful associations. And then the teacher stood up in front of us and demanded silence. He had a very important message to relay.
Now please imagine this very important message in two ways: an extra lesson on the correct course of action during an enemy attack, on the one hand, and on the other – the message I had understood. And which I recount here after so many years.
I am on my way home from school with all the anxiety inside me, recalling Comrade Valov’s words – what does each siren signal mean, how to use a gas mask, which are the basic necessities, where are the bomb shelters? How, if we can’t manage to reach the shelters, we should remain at home, but with the lights out, how we should seal the windows and the doors. And wait for the Soviet planes to fly over, as they also bring world peace with them.
I walk home and my anxiety gradually turns into joy – with this new knowledge I will save my whole family, all the neighbors on our street. My joy is doubled – I have this new pen friend – Svetlana from Harkov – which means that they know my address in the Soviet Union and there will be a special plane sent over to our house – as special as a rare postage stamp. And the grandchildren of General Gurko and all the Russians who liberated Bulgaria from the Turks will come out of this plane. The victory over the enemy seemed that easy to me.
Suddenly, I shudder – Comrade Valov explained how to survive the attack but I don’t remember the exact date. I am sure there was one. Otherwise, what’s the point in preparing us so thoroughly? Maybe I should go back to school and ask? But what if the war begins in the meantime? And how can I ask such a question with all my excellent grades – it’ll be embarrassing. I stand in the middle of the street. Hesitating between my duty to the fatherland and my shame before humanity. So, I make the decision to go back to school. I hurry back. The school is empty. The war will begin any minute, that’s that. I am scared. Granny is probably looking for me already and she won’t go to the shelter without me. I run. I can’t see people on the streets. I stumble and fall. My knee hurts, oh, it’s bad – I am injured and the war hasn’t even begun yet. I wail and I can’t see a thing. And then suddenly “Why are you crying girl? Hey, Danche is that you” A militiaman! It’s Uncle Stoyan, who is a member of the People’s Militia! He teases me (“the boys aren’t pulling your braids, are they”) and I am now convinced that the war has either ended (there was so much peace in Uncle Stoyan’s smile) or they have postponed it. I decide not to ask. And to go home.
My childish logic assumes that if they trained us in how to use a gas mask and a rifle today, then the war must be today. Or tomorrow, at the latest. But if I say that the war will start today or tomorrow at latest, we might miss the crucial resistance to the enemy’s forces. That’s why, when Granny asks me how it was at school, I announce – there will be a war tonight.
For me back then, “tonight” meant both today and tomorrow. And a full mobilization of the population at home.
My Granny Danka, who survived the Second World War, seemed unwilling to believe my First. She insisted that I tell her where I knew this from. I had to carry out intensive military training and above all – to insist on the immediate purchase of food supplies for a few days and on checking the availability of gas masks at the store. Granny, though, refused to believe me and in the end I burst our crying in frustration.
I just knew we would die in the bombing. Back then I saw bombing in my mind as something similar to rain that simply erases people and towns, just like a splash of paint on a watercolor picture. The thought of the empty sheets from my drawing pad, upon which nobody would ever draw again, has made me imagine apocalypse, even today, as sudden, white and permanent.
I remember crying a lot that day. Granny hugged me and comforted me the whole time – there would be no war, she had gone to the store and the people there knew nothing about it, there were no gas masks on sale, since there would be no war. The fact that there were no gas masks at the store made me wail even more – to me, it was a clear sign that there were no masks because they were sold out, and people had bought them, because war was on the way…
And then, things got even worse. Somebody suggested that we turn on the TV, since they would announce it on the news if there was to be a war. But I had been instructed at school that the lights should not be turned on, as they would show our enemies where we lived. I was ready to stand in front of the Vihren TV set as though in front of a tank, in order to save my hometown.
And this was the moment when the allied forces interfered. And by allied forces I mean that Granny and a neighbor of ours suddenly started to prepare loudly for the attack – loudly enough for me to hear that they would gather up some blankets and they discussed what kind of food they would take for our stay at the shelter.
And they kept reporting to each other until I was sure that we were fully prepared to meet the first missiles.
We didn’t turn on a single light that night. I waited for a long time to hear either sirens or airplanes. Then, I suddenly felt very sleepy. I allowed myself to fall asleep only after I made Granny promise a few times that she would wake me up when the war started.
After so many years now, I can’t help being moved that I had such an incredible Granny. And I keep wondering how she pretended to prepare for something really terrifying only to calm me down.
In the morning the warm and colorful peace came. Just like the blanket covering the window in my room.