Father Ivan
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My  Hero,  Father  Ivan

By  W.  T.  Block

{This episode actually happened in Russia, but since I have lost my written record, I have since rewritten it from memory, which now places it in the category of fiction}

I suppose I should start my hero story by telling you I am an 11-year-old Russian girl named Valija Strowkowski, who lives with her grandmother in the town of Kimry, on the Volga River north of Moscow. This story was assigned to me by my headmaster at St. Mikhails Church school. I so wanted to write about my father, who was an army officer under Czar Alexander, but father died 2 years ago in 1878; and my loss and grief for him is still so great that I simply cannot write about him and decided instead to write about some one else. Hence, I chose Father Ivan Strolov, a Russian Orthodox priest, who a year ago was my headmaster as St. Boris Parish school in the nearby village of Kaminsk, about 7 kilometers east of my grandmotherís home.

St. Mikhail's Church and School

St. Mikhail's Church and School

It is so cold here in Kimry. I was born in Yalta, in the Crimea, and lived there for 9 years with my parents and older brother until they died in the small pox epidemic of 1878. My only other kin is Grandmother Nanashka Strowkowski, who lives in this cold city of Kimry. And when I arrived here in September, 1878, Grandmother, who is a devout Orthodox Christian, wanted me to attend the church schools here, but they had no vacancy for me. Grandmother, having been a staunch friend of Father Ivan Strolov, sent me to Father Ivan to attend St. Boris Church school, which could teach and board me  during the fall semester. Luckily I found 8 other students from Kimry also attending there, all of them about my own age, and we soon became fast friends.

We enjoyed school under Father Ivan and Sister Lublinka for more than 3 months until the semester was over, and it was almost time for the Christmas holy observances in Kimry. It was always so cold, though, at St. Borisí School. We had only 1 fireplace to warm the large room; so to compensate, we always wore our heaviest woolen clothing during classes, and I took off my mittens only to write something on my slate board.

On our last day of school, Father Ivan fed us a tasteful dinner of baked goose; we were prepared to spend the night, but Vasili, the 14-year-old boy who sat in front of me, was also from Kimry, and he was anxious to return home. So Father Ivan hitched his 2 big horses, Josef and Yuri, to his large sleigh. All 9 of us from Kimry sat 4 abreast on the 2 large seats, and Vasili sat on the driverís seat next to Father Ivan.

In December the days in Russia become quite short, and we started for home near dusk. The snow was about 20 centimeters deep, and occasionally Father Ivan had to lash the horsesí backs with his sleigh whip to make them go faster or keep them trotting. Luckily there was a full moon, and the trail through the fir tree forest remained moonlit all the way.

He had ridden only a kilometer or 2 before we heard the most dreaded sound in the Russian forests - the savage snarls and growls of a wolf pack that was tracking us through the forest. The horses recognized the sounds too, and their backs needed no whip as their hooves pounded the snow beneath with all the strength a team of horses can muster.

Father Ivan had made black bread sandwiches out of the goose leftovers for us to eat along the trail; he told us he would have to throw out the sandwiches for the wolves to eat, which he did. But the small morsels delayed the wolves only briefly while they devoured the sandwiches, and soon the wolves resumed tracking the sleigh in search of a tastier diet.

After traveling perhaps 4 kilometers, the wolf pack had reached a point only 20 meters in back of the sleigh, still snarling and growling profusely, as they contemplated a meal of human or horse flesh. And the hooves of old Yuri and Josef pounded the snow even harder, trotting as fast as circumstances permitted, almost reaching a gallop at times. Finally Father Ivan handed the reins to Vasili; he moved to the back of the sleigh, fired 6 shots from the pistol he carried in his pocket. But only 2 wolves died from the shots, and the five remaining wolves continued to race after us, even gaining on us by a meter or two.

Father Ivan returned to the driverís seat to tell something to Vasili, but we could understand nothing that he said, due to the wolf packís snarls and growls, and the sound of the wind whipping past our faces was also so loud. Then Father Ivan returned to the back of the sleigh, and for the moment we expected him to fire some more shots from his pistol. Suddenly he disappeared, and we thought he had fallen off the sleigh. Equally as sudden, the growls and yaps of the wolf pack ceased and they left us alone as we rode the last 2 kilometers; and soon we were once more safe among the houses of Kimry, and I in my grandmotherís kitchen.

The next morning the Kimry burgomaster and Vasili knocked on Grandmotherís front door, and they asked me about Father Ivanís final moments on the sleigh. I could only tell them that I thought the priest lost his footing and had fallen off the sleigh. Later that morning the burgomaster and some other men retraced part of our route on the trail through the forest toward Kaminsk, but all they could find of Father Ivan were lots of bloody trails through the snow, and some bloody bones scattered about everywhere. After the party returned with whatever remains of Father Ivan they could gather up, the burgomaster ruled that Father Ivan had purposely jumped off the sleigh in order that I and the other 8 children could live.

I hope when I am grown that I can move back to the Crimea where I was born; where it is so much warmer; and where I rightfully belong. But wherever I am, I will always remember the beloved priest who sacrificed his life so that I and 8 others of his children could live.

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