June 14th, 2012

Gil Marsh cover

Snow, vodka, and the nature of stories

My great-uncle Muniu was a barrel of a man. He was the kind of person who filled a room just by walking into it—maybe because he spoke so loud; maybe because he was such a storyteller; maybe because he was rock solid, in all the ways you want someone to be. He lived in Poland until the Germans invaded and shipped his family and village off to Sorbibor.

Muniu managed to avoid the transport. I don’t know how. But his escape from the Germans only landed him in the Soviet army. He was press-ganged, along with any hale young Pole the Russians could capture, and put into service driving a truck.

I was a kid when Muniu died, but I still can recall the description of the hardships. At one point, stationed at a siege, all they had to eat was shoe leather—that, and snow.

Years later my aunt told me a story. Apparently, while in the Soviet army, Muniu got a raging toothache. In agony, he stole a pair of plyers, took a swig of alcohol, and yanked his own tooth out.

When the officer in charge found out, he threatened to court-martial him. “This is treason! First, you engaged in a medical procedure without getting the permission of the Committee. And second, worse, you hid from the Committee the fact that you have medical training!” Of course, Muniu had never had any medical training.

Rather than punish him, the commander handed him a pair of plyers and a bottle of vodka, and assigned him to the position of troop dentist. Muniu spent the remainder of the war pulling Soviet soldiers’ teeth, when not manning the truck.

Fast forward to the 1950s in Montreal, Quebec. My aunt, a girl, had a toothache. It was Sunday and everything in Montreal had shut down, as it always did. But Muniu took my aunt in his car and went in search of a dentist. As he drove around and around on this thankless errand, my aunt, in pain, heard him mutter, “All I need is a pair of plyers.”

A couple of years ago, I told these two related stories to a dear friend. Katherine's family hails from Russia, and she is fluent in Russian. As any storyteller would, I took what I knew of Muniu, and what I had heard in childhood and from my aunt, and embellished. I placed his toothache at the time of the siege—Leningrad, I said, although I acknowledged it could have been Stalingrad. The rest I kept more or less as I remembered.

Katherine's eyes danced. “It should be the Leningrad siege,” she told me. “Because that was St. Petersburg, named after Peter the Great. And you know that Peter the Great was an amateur dentist, and a patron of dentistry for the Russian army." Where else should my uncle have been assigned the job?

Tickled, in my next letter to my aunt I relayed what Katherine had told me. My aunt was thoroughly amused, not only by Katherine’s take on it, but in how the story had mutated in my telling.

You see, she did not recollect any siege: she thought the episode had been “in the middle of the vast Russian nowhere.” And Muniu didn’t have a bottle of vodka, since none was to be had at the time—he had numbed his mouth with snow. The officer gave him his own pair of plyers and told him to take care of the soldiers’ teeth. “You can use as much snow as you like!”

The storyteller in me is thrilled. The punch line is much better with snow than with vodka. The Leningrad/Peter the Great connection, however, has to stay at least in some way---it's too wonderful to ignore.

I think my uncle Muniu would approve.