How Far to Pittsburg?

by

A couple of friends and I recently took a 4 day trip covering in the neighborhood of 2500 miles, involving stops at the Rock and Roll (or is it Rock’n Roll?) Hall of Fame in Cleveland, eating an embarrassing amount of food my friend Jonna (a saint) and her daughter Georgia (bakes wonderful cookies) cooked for us in Fairhaven, New York (a beautiful little village on the shores of Lake Ontario [or Superior or some large body of water–I’ve lived one hour from the lake for 4 years and have been there a handful of times, sailed on it with my friend Jonna, and can’t for the life of me remember which Great Lake it is]), eating Baked Steaks at a restaraunt in a town whose name starts with an “L” in Ohio named (the restaraunt, not the town) Restaraunt, listening to a jukebox full of burned cds in the bar/restaraunt of the Days Inn in Fredonia, NY, listening to a Yankees game in Cincinnati (how bad is your team, exactly, when the local sports radio station broadcasts the games from a team in another league from another city?) and most peculiarly, picking up the hood for a ’73 Charger in Pittsburg (I’m still not sure why we did this last thing, other than one of my friends asked at some point how far Pittsburg was and I said maybe an hour and he said, mind if we..).

We also hit a deer in my mom’s 3 week old Mountaineer and left my Explorer for at an honest looking repair shop in Fairhaven (it was suggested by one of my companions, not in jest, that we put a concrete block on the gas pedal and point it toward the lake — and I was all for it — but seeing as the gas pedal’s inability to propel the Explorer into any sort of motion was more or less the problem, we simply left the key in it and a note explaining that if they, like, wanted to take a gander at the thing at some point before snow starts falling this year, I’d reimburse them for their time and at some point try to remove it from their property), and I’ve never seen a grown man wet himself, but one of my friends ALMOST did it several times. He’d casually say something about how far the next exit might be and then within ten minutes his legs would be shaking and he’d begin moaning and rocking back and forth and yelling at me as if his bladder was my fault.

It was a tiring and emotionally painful trip and I hope I never take another one for any sort of similar reason. Even though it wasn’t taken for pleasure, we made the best of it. We diverted our attention as best we could in Ohio and NY and Tennessee and Pennsylvania and Kentucky. We were in air-conditioned cars the whole time listening to music or watching DVDs or reading — we had no lack of entertainment — and our only physical discomfort, other than my friend’s bladder, was lack of sleep. And the not at all pleasant numbness in the bum that inevitably occurs on long road trips.

2500 miles. In a brand new car. With a couple of friends I’d die for. Yet, I was done for when we got back. This is the closest experience in my life, I think, (and apologies for lack of details about the painful stuff, but there’s really no need if you’ll just trust me) to one of my favorite books: The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz.

The Long Walk is a war story, kind of. It’s a travel narrative, in a twisted sense. It would make a great preacher’s story — you know, the kind where everyone gasps and wipes tears from their eyes. It’s one of those Melville-ian / Hemingway-ian things where man must face the perils of nature. One of the blurbs on the book claims that it is a book that is hard to put down, and even though that is said of a lot of books, in this case, for me, it was. I read it in one day (something I never do, as I’m a slow reader). So, it’s a page turner. Quite a few things going for it, in other words. The book was written about 50 years ago, yet, a quick look at Amazon has it still selling well (was in the top 1,000 selling books when I looked a few minutes ago).

The story is the compelling part of the book, and I assume that is why it still sells well (Rawicz isn’t a great writer). Rawicz was a Polish officer in WWII when he was imprisoned by the Russian Army. He was held in a cell in Moscow (I think, the book ain’t in front of me, and if I can’t even remember the name of the Great Lake that Fairhaven NY borders, well, then) for a year without knowing why. He’s beaten and after a holding out for longer than any should have, he signed a document confessing whatever it is they wanted him to confess. He is then placed on a train and shipped 1000 miles into Siberia (in an unheated cattlecar with standing room only and wearing the equivalent of doctors’ scrubs). When the railway ends, they unload, are chained together, and begin marching. Five hundred miles or so later, they reach the prison camp.

That’s the believable part of the story. After only a short stay in that particular prison, Rawicz and a few of his new friends decide to escape. He manages to save a weeks worth of food, and late one night, in the middle of a snow storm, they make their escape. Mind you, they’re in Northern Siberia. There destination is India. 4000 miles in a generally southern direction.

There journey to India takes 15 months, so there are plenty of laughs and cries along the way. They cross the length of Siberia, the Gobi Desert, a mountain range. They survive by hunting and gathering (only once do they steal something — a pig, early on in their trip, and they pledge not to do that again, as they are afraid it would alert people to their whereabouts), and the few people they meet along the way help them out in various ways. Not everyone makes it to India, and when they die, it isn’t in pleasant ways. For a couple of them, they knew it was coming for a couple of days from the physical signs they were receiving while crossing the Gobi. One man dies while descending the last peak into India — slips off the mountain and into the fog after 15 months of surviving the unsurvivable.

I know it is the incredible story that keeps the book in circulation. It really is worth reading, but I do wonder if Rawicz is puzzled by the success of his story. It’s not like there aren’t a lot of other incredible journeys with improbable survivors or with excruciating but valiant s. And so, since I have lots of time of my hands, I sit around and ponder what it is about this book that continues to make it important to so many people.

Part of it is the romance of the trip. It is a modern day Odyssey. It is David overcoming, or at least escaping, Goliath. But I really don’t think that was Rawicz’s intention, and I think that if that is all people walk away with, they are missing something. I’m not exactly sure what, so no profound answers here. Rawicz, it seems, wrote this as a political book, not an adventure book. He wanted to tell the world about the Gulag prison system, yes, but I don’t think that’s all he had in mind. I admit that the story is so compelling, so improbable, that I lost sight of most things political while I was reading it.

It’s political in the obvious ways. Communist Russia was a bad place. The Gulag prison system was a bad place. It is also political in some not so obvious ways. For one, grand political visions don’t actually mean much to a large portion of people. Time and again, Rawicz and his companions came across villages and travellers who didn’t even know that the world was at war. To Rawicz himself, it didn’t really matter that the world was at war. He was actually an ally of Russia during the War, but he became lost within one of the many grand political visions of the day. For two, it is very easy for people to be brainwashed into believing certain political ideologies. Okay, so that’s nothing new, but still. The Russian soldiers were mean, yes, but Rawicz, oddly, doesn’t say just too much about them. They weren’t doing what they were doing just because they were mean. they were doing it because they believed that what they were doing was the best thing to do to achieve an ideal society. The triumphant ending to the book (they are rescued, they hug, they dance, they see each others faces for the first time in 15 months — they’d grown beards and long hair and didn’t actually know what each other looked like) can overshadow the idea that people can get so caught up in some political theory or other that they lose sight of individuals. It is easy, while reading the book, to forget about the people in the small villages of Russia and China and Tibet who were relatively unconcerned with world politics.

I guess I’ve been thinking about this book a lot lately a) because of my long trip that left me a bit disillusioned with some things I thought were very important and b) because, much as I like political discussions (I love to talk politics), I’m pondering more and more my own political beliefs and whether or not they are actually the best thing for other people.

A couple of notes: A) Happy Bloomsday (well, it’s tomorrow, but I don’t want to intrude on Coolhand) — I expect everyone to take a day off work and read Ulysses. B) Run — RUN, I say — to your nearest book store and buy Nicole Krauss’s new book, The History of Love. C) The R’nR HOF isn’t necessarily worth driving too far out of your way for, but if you happen to be near Cleveland, it’s definitely worth a detour. D) In case you somehow missed it, the new Harry Potter book comes out in precisely one month and one day.

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4 Responses to “How Far to Pittsburg?”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Mikey.

    I’m meaning to start “Man Walks Into a Room” any day now…

    Of course, now you tell me to buy her new book. Plus, being a preacher in need of good preacher stories, now I’m all interested in “The Long Walk.”

    Thanks for contributing to my general overwhelmed feeling.
    🙂

  2. Michael Lasley Says:

    Like to do what I can. No offense intended at the whole “preacher’s story” thing, either. And apologies for writing a novel-length post that kept you from starting “Man Walk Into a Room” or from buying this book by Rawicz. Mikey

  3. juvenal_urbino Says:

    “He was held in a cell in Moscow for a year without knowing why.”

    There’s something oddly familiar about that. Hmmmm…what is it?…what is it?

    Doggone it, it’s right on the tip of my tongue.

  4. Michael Lasley Says:

    Yeah, some of the parallels are a bit startling, at least in the first part of the story. But since Rawicz didn’t linger on that part, and since I’m not one of the political columnists, I decided not to dwell on it either. And I think that may have been part of Rawicz’s political critique — individuals get lost even in the grandest of political ideas (which, misguided as Communism was, it did have a grand idea somewhere behind it). I love the song by U2 called “Peace on Earth” where Bono reads off a list of names and then says “their lives are bigger than some big idea.” Mikey

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