Where's the Railroad?
by Glen Draeger
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Hello Everyone (everyone reading this anyway),
Among the many problems encountered owning a time-machine one of them is that everyone wants to borrow it. Fortunately, it's not like borrowing a car. When people borrow my car they have it for however long they use it—time that I can't use it. When someone borrows my time machine it's always back—well, right after it leaves. That's because I require those who borrow the H. G. Wells to set the return date to the exact time and date they left. But there are other problems.
One of the main ones is that I don't know what people are doing in the places they visit. If they change an event that changes the course of history—I'll never know it because to me, and to you I should add, things will just be what they have always been. Some of us might pop right of existence, but we'd never know it because we would have never existed in the first place. Another problem, though it may seem minor, is that time travelers tend to be messy. Watch any television program about time traveling and you'll see what I mean. I don't know why this is, but I think when they get back from their adventures they are so overwhelmed by the experience they forget to clean up after themselves. I do so much time traveling that arriving back in 2005 is rather like arriving back from a trip to the grocery store, so I always make sure I don't leave anything in H. G. which is why I keep a broom and dustpan right behind the handy cup holder. I like to be tidy.
Enough about my troubles. What about Chekhov? He had plenty of troubles of his own. I set H.G. for June 2, 1890 and Chekhov. This way the H. G. will take me physically to the approximate vicinity of where Chekhov was on that date. The H. G. looks like a big, granite rock. I designed it that way so that regardless of the time period it would not look out of place or at least too out of place. After I arrived I stood on a lonely, frozen road—inadequately dressed—waiting. As far as I could see in either direction there was nothing, but a flat, cold, barren land. I stomped my feet, blew my warm breathe into my hands and walked around to keep warm—too bad the H. G. doesn't have a heater. The road was frozen—frozen rock solid. Then, off in the distance, I could see a horse-drawn carriage slowly making its way toward me. I waved for it to stop. I got in and there across from me sat Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest short-story writers in the world, not to mention, though I will because, well, it's my job, one of the world's greatest playwrights. He was tall, over six feet, thin and distinguished looking.
The first thing I realized after I said hello was that I didn't speak Russian. So I had the driver stop. I walked back to the H.G., spent a year in Moscow (in 1888-89) learning Russian, returned to June 2, 1890 a few minutes later and a few hundred yards down the road.
"Where are we?" I asked Chekhov.
"Siberia," he said.
"Why?" I asked still trying to get warm.
"Who are you?" he asked. That is often my biggest problem with meeting these authors. What do I tell them? I'm from the future?
"No one of consequence," I said using a line from The Princess Bride, one of my favorite movies. "Where are you going?" I asked attempting to change the topic.
"Sakhalin. It's penal colony." He must have noticed my blank stare—I use that technique a lot when I'm in the past—so he continued. "It's a prison island. It's where Russia sends many of its criminals to live out the rest of their days."
"How far is it?"
"From here? We're about half-way, so it's another 3,000 miles or so."
"What?!" I screamed. "What about the Trans-Siberian railroad?"
"Oh, yeah," I muttered, "that's not completed until 1916."
I spent the next month riding in a small horse-drawn carriage, a troika as they say in Russia, with Chekhov. I asked him about his life and I watched him. We passed many peasants and prisoners on the road and this disturbed him. He felt that they had no life here, no future, nothing to make them happy. And to look at them I thought he was probably right. In Sakhalin it was even worse. The eastern coast of Russia in Siberia is not exactly where people go to spend their vacations. The island, Sakhalin, was a huge prison. I followed Chekhov around as he interviewed hundreds and hundreds of the people who lived there. In the evenings he would talk to me.
"They are less than human beings," he said. "The only thing that makes them happy is vodka. Vodka and more vodka. The women here have no choice but prostitution," he said sadly. "Sickness and disease. This place is a bureaucratic nightmare. Many of these people are here for very minor crimes, but they will die here in both soul and body—many already have." He slumped in his chair—I didn't know what to say.
He didn't seem to be a very happy person, but I don't suppose interviewing hundreds of prisoners would make anyone happy. I didn't feel happy either. It was hard to look at all those people living out a terrible existence. It's interesting to note that Chekhov started his writing career publishing humorous stories under the pen name, Antosha Chekhonte. He made a lot of money at it while attending medical school in Moscow. Even after he became a doctor he continued to write humorous stories. The stories are not what would be considered great literature. Here's something from "The Orator":
"I have come for you, old man!" began Poplavsky, finding him at home. "Put on your hat and coat this minute and come along. One of our fellows is dead, we are just sending him off to the other world, so you must do a bit of palavering by way of farewell to him. . . . You are our only hope. If it had been one of the smaller fry it would not have been worth troubling you, but you see it's the secretary . . . a pillar of the office, in a sense. It's awkward for such a whopper to be buried without a speech."
I like that last line: ". . . such a whopper . . ." And this is from "A Transgression":
"If only it does not begin screaming or wriggle out of the bundle," thought the collegiate assessor. "This is indeed a pleasant surprise! Here I am carrying a human being under my arm as though it were a portfolio. A human being, alive, with soul, with feelings like anyone else. . . . If by good luck the Myelkins adopt him, he may turn out to be somebody. . . . Maybe he will become a professor, a great general, an author. . . . Anything may happen! Now I am carrying him under my arm like a bundle of rubbish, and perhaps in thirty or forty years I may not dare to sit down in his presence. . . ."
I asked him about the change in his writing—hopefully you've read "The Bet" by now so you'll notice the difference between the above examples and it.
"What changed? Why did you start writing serious stories?"
"In 1886 I wrote a story called "Requiem" under my own name. After I wrote it I received a letter from Dmitri Grigorovitch." Again he noticed my blank stare—I've become quite good at blank stares. "He is an important Russian writer. Who are you anyway?"
"No one of consequence?" I wasn't sure if this line would keep working, but I intended to use until it didn't.
Chekhov sighed and continued. "In the letter Grigorovitch wrote, 'Stop doing hack work . . . save up your impressions for work that has been pondered, polished, written at several sittings.' This really impressed me. It hit me like a bolt of lightening. I've tried to write serious stories and plays ever since then—though I always put lots of humor in them, humor that sometimes I don't think people realize is there."
"What do you mean?"
"In my plays for example . . ."
"Now wait a minute," I said. "You haven't written some of those plays yet."
"Come on, Glen, they know this isn't real—just go with the flow, okay?" I nodded. "Anyway, my plays are not tragedies, they are comedies—I've even called them farces, but directors are always directing them like tragedies. I became so angry at the opening of The Seagull in 1896 I stormed out of the theater and vowed never to write a play again. I didn't keep that vow."
"I know—luckily for us—after that you went on to write The Cherry Orchard, your most famous play."
"The Cherry what? Wait, let me write that down."
We left Sakhalin on ship on October 13th, 1890 and arrived in Moscow on December 9th. It was hard convincing the crew that I wanted a granite rock shipped to Moscow but after I handed them a Gameboy® they said they'd ship any other rocks I might have. On the way Chekhov bought two mongooses. He loved animals. He had two dachshunds, Quinine and Bromine and once even had a pet, one-legged crane. Anyway, the mongooses tore up so much of his furniture he finally had to give them to the zoo. He took three years to write, The Island of Sakhalin, which chronicled his experiences .
In Moscow Chekhov lived with his entire family and not only that, he supported them financially. I never heard him complain about it—he never complained about my visits either. One day I said, "Your father must have been a great guy for you to support him like you do."
"I'd rather not talk about it," he said. The advantage of owning a time machine is that I don't have to talk about it—I can see it. So I traveled back to Taganrog, Russia in 1870. Chekhov would have been ten. When I arrived at their house I heard screaming. I thought someone was being beaten, so I burst in the door—someone was being beaten. A man slapped a small boy who was crying. The man, who was Pavel Chekhov, Anton's father, turned to me.
"Who are you?" he asked, his face red with anger.
"What are you doing to this boy?" I asked in astonishment. There were four other boys in the room and one girl who I later learned were Chekhov's brothers and sister, Aleksandr, Kolia, Vania, Misha and Masha. They all looked fearfully at their father.
"I am teaching him to be a man. I am teaching him what is right and what is wrong!"
"By beating him?" I asked incredulously.
"By disciplining him! I will not have disobedience in this house!"
We stared at one another for a few seconds.
Finally, the little girl spoke: "Daddy?"
"What!" he yelled.
"Will you play your fiddle and sing for us?"
There was a momentary pause, then he picked up a fiddle and began to play and sing. The children joined in. If I'd known the song I would have joined in too. Their faces changed as did that of their father—they became animated and jovial. When Pavel finished playing he said. "Don't forget we will be practicing for the church choir today at noon. Be on time! For now I want all of you to help tend the grocery store—and don't forget about your chores. Don't get distracted!" The children filed out of the house.
Later Chekhov told me that one of the greatest days of his life was the day he woke knowing that his father would never beat him again.
Chekhov won the Pushkin Prize (named after Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), considered by many to be Russia's greatest poet) for his collection of short stories, At Dusk. Chekhov wrote over 600 short stories and twelve plays.
During the time I was with Chekhov I noticed he coughed a lot This was because he had tuberculosis and being a doctor he knew that he probably wouldn't live to be an old man.
"Why do you drink so much milk?" I asked him one day.
"This is Koumiss, it's a fermented milk that comes from a mare."
"It's horse milk?"
"The bacilli in it help combat tuberculosis."
"It's horse milk?"
"It's the 19th century—so get over it!" he yelled at me.
Some people believe that this disease motivated Chekhov to do many of the good things he did. He built schools, treated patients who didn't have money, organized famine relief, served on councils and boards and even opened a post office.
At the end of his life he moved to Germany where it was thought he might be cured. I was in his room when a German doctor entered. He was carrying a bottle of champagne. I thought this was odd, because one of the things I noticed about Chekhov over the years I was with him (time travel is really cool) is that he didn't drink much alcohol.
The German doctor poured the champagne into a glass and offered it to Chekhov. "Great," I thought, "They must have found a cure or have good news or something."
Chekhov took the glass and said, "I'm dying." Then he drank it down. I looked at the doctor. "What's going on?" I asked.
"He's going to die."
"But—but—you just gave him a glass of champagne—what are we celebrating?"
"Who are you?" the doctor asked.
"No one of consequence—"
"In Germany when we doctors know that someone is going to die and we know that we can do nothing more to help them we offer them a glass of champagne."
That sounded like information I needed to remember if I ever travel to Germany. I looked over at Chekhov. Very quietly he said, "I haven't had champagne for a long time." Then, at the age of 44, he died.
Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian author of War and Peace, once attended the Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya. He hated it. Chekhov knew that Tolstoy was at the play and asked someone what he thought of it. The individual said that Tolstoy had not "really understood" it. Chekhov knew what that meant. Finally the truth came out. Tolstoy thought he was a terrible playwright, but not nearly as bad as Shakespeare. Chekhov thought that to be truly funny. I suppose he figured if he was considered better than Shakespeare by one of Russia's greatest authors—he didn't have anything to worry about.
I returned to 2005 and for some inexplicable reason I forgot to clean H. G.
Bartlett, Rosamund. "From Russia, with love." Guardian Unlimited, July 15, 2004. <http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/classics/story/0,6000,1261382,00.html#article_continue>
Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia: Third Edition. Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, 1987. pp. 179-180
Boyd, William."A Chekhov lexicon." Guardian Unlimited, July 15, 2004. <http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,1252154,00.html>
The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, Ill., 1988, 15th edition, Vol. 3, pp. 149-151
The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Margaret Drabble, editor. Oxford University Press, New York, 1985. p. 189
Reid, John."Chekhov, Anton (1860-1904)", The Literary Encyclopedia. <http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=843>
Stowe, Brook."a journey to sakhalin." theater2k.com. <http://www.theater2k.com/ChekhovAnnote3.html>
©2005-2013 Glen Draeger (all rights reserved)
Millstone Education: World Literature / http://www.millstoneeducation.com/worldLit