Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Rescuing the lady's dog...


There we were, Dad's oldest son (me) and two grandsons, Jim and Steve, plus my wife Birgitta, sitting at dinner in a Brazilian restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Tuesday, May 19, 2009. This was near the train station where we three had met Jim who had taken the Railrunner down from Santa Fe. The restaurant is on the main street [now Central Avenue] that was near the scene of the first event of Dad's life in the American west, circa 1924.

Out of the blue Steve asked, "Hey, Dad, isn't this where Grandpa rescued that lady's dog?"

Surprised he had remembered that long ago story, I replied with pleasure, "Why, maybe so!"

From there the questions continued, which jogged memories for the stories Dad (born Nikolai Nikolayevich Kovalenko in Ukraine in 1903) had told me about becoming a cowboy after coming west after escaping Boston circa 1924. Arriving on the train in Albuquerque, he had been immediately arrested by local police as a vagrant with others who had also got off the train. This is because he had used all his money for and on the trip, besides having no job prospects to offer the police to prove he was not an undesirable, to say nothing about having a strange accent and having no identity papers.

As these unlucky men were being led down the road to the jailhouse, a runaway horse and buggy came barreling down the dusty street from the opposite direction about to run over a dog running loose. Dad instinctively broke ranks to rescue the small beast before returning to the "chain gang". The grateful owner, having watched the rescue of her beloved pet, followed the men to the jailhouse and enquired why they had been arrested. Learning it was because they had no apparent means of livelihood, she persuaded her husband to give Dad a job, thereby springing him from custody.

This gave Dad opportunity to find the job he wanted as a cowboy. [A separate story]

In trying to integrate the fragmented memories of stories Dad told my brother and me as we grew up, I now wondered when and where he had conjured up the name, "Kregg", which my brother Virgil and I were born with. We knew he left the east with the Polish name "Krijanowski in getting on that train from Boston to Albuquerque. He had assumed that Polish name change after jumping ship in Boston in 1922, not wanting to be known as Russian. [This could have become a Jay Leno gag!] I now wondered if he had assumed his next name that had an American sound while traveling on the train west. (This was the name "Kregg" that my brother and I, as well as my son Jim, were born with. By the time Steve was born in 1963, the family had recovered the original "Kovalenko".) I say American sounding name (note he couldn't let go of the original initial K) because he must have thought that such a name would better enable him to become a cowboy. Dad had learned English in the east largely by reading Zane Grey Westerns, notably Riders of the Purple Sage and consequently falling in love with the West--especially the area around Flagstaff. This was Zane Grey territory and Dad's original destination.

My wonder comes from only recently (2003) learning of the existence of an older sister, born Dorothy Etta Kregg, now living in Southern California, but who was born in Tahoka, Texas, in August 1926 with Dad's name on her birth certificate. Dad couldn't have been in Albuquerque for very long after arriving in 1924, since he had indeed become a cowboy in New Mexico. But soon thereafter he became a drifter with other cowboys who eventually moved on from Roswell, in southern New Mexico to Texas, where Dad was robbed and left stranded in Tahoka. Always resourceful, he nevertheless survived, made friends, began a business (photography) and began a new life with "wife" Ruby and daughter Dorothy.

Back to the Brazilian restaurant: Brazil and food.

As I thought more about the coincidence of some of Dad's posterity (us three) sitting near the place he began his life in the American west, I recalled another of his stories in a setting just four years earlier in eastern Europe after he had been a boy soldier for three years during the Russian Revolution and become a war refugee. He had crossed the Black Sea to Istanbul with other starving refugees in an engine-less ship pulled by a small tug boat, which was immediately quarantined in Istanbul's harbor. Since the refugees on board were desperate, Dad was sent with other young men at night in a small skiff on a surrupticious task to steal food and return to the stricken, isolated ship. While in the city, Dad happened upon Andrei Lenkevich, of all people!, his only brother-in-law who was also a war refugee!

Dad and Andrei stayed together for a day or so after Andrei had informed Dad that BRAZIL was then accepting Russian refugees. Opportunistically, they began planning to head that direction together after finding food for themselves by searching in different directions.

While on this diversion, Dad came across a bar-restaurant from which he heard loud Russian singing. He stopped at the entrance to see three drunk Russian sailors inside, who then saw him and invited him in to get acquainted. After feeding him they asked where he was going and then coaxed him to join them aboard their ship. Obviously forgetting all about his sister Katya's husband Andrei, as well as the other starving people he had abandoned, he went with the sailors to be smuggled aboard. Thus, in the chaos and uncertainty of war and its aftermath, he became a stowaway. Eventually he would become a galley hand on this polyglot Greek registered ship of merchant marines. Two years later he would jump that ship with his three Russian buddies in Boston harbor and begin a new life in the USA. [More later...]

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