My translator’s mother, who had a broken leg at the time, hops into the small Russian made car, which looks like a cheap ripoff of a 1970s Toyota Corolla. Her grown daughters also make their way in. We pull out of the parking lot and fifty yards down the narrow snow-packed road, the engine stops, and I know why.
At this point, the oldest daughter informs me, in her direct I-will-kill-you Russian way, to make the car “go.”
“Make it go American!” She motions with her arm to make the car go because one, we’re all hungry and two, her mom has limited walking ability. She can’t understand just why I let the car engine die in the first place.
It’s my fault, and I know it. This poor lady is going to have to wrestle her way out of this little car, shuffle across the very slippery snow and ice with crutches in sub-zero weather, and make it safely back to shelter before she either falls and breaks her other leg or smacks me over the head with her crutches.
Which I do not want.
It all started with a very bad assumption a day earlier.
The car had been parked in the garage for the winter, which lasts about 98 months out of the year in northern Russia. Below the floor of the garage is a small dirt basement. Which seems to me like a great place to hide from Commies, drink vodka, and listen to Radio Free America.
My translator and I quickly learn that the car was out of gas. A small set of stairs led down to the dirt basement hideout where there were some gasoline containers. They were also full.
My translator’s dad had filled the containers, but was out of the country and was, therefore, unavailable to confirm the exact contents of the containers.
I opened one and smelled. This, of course, can be dangerous. When I was little, one of my sisters tricked me into sniffing some smelling salts. I nearly passed out. No, died. I almost died. Also, I don’t have any idea why we had smelling salts. Maybe we were all prone to falling over like a wandering herd of fainting goats.
Anyway, because the containers smelled like gasoline, I made the tactical decision to fill up the car, and let’s get going, Comrade.
We were off, but only for about 50 yards. After the engine died, we pushed it back to the garage and determined that the liquid was not, in fact, gasoline, as it should have been, but water.
Let’s just stop here and contemplate that statement. To this day, I do not know why a grown, somewhat rational, man would store water in gasoline containers instead of, say, GASOLINE. I mean, there’s PLENTY of solid water everywhere so there’s no need to hoard water. But I digress.
I tried siphoning out the excess water, but much stayed in the tank. Too much. So, because I am really smart, once I got it to the gas station, I added lots of gas to dilute the water.
To my surprise, the little car would actually start and stay running, as long as I left the ignition on. Which is what I had done the morning in question, which eventually consumed all the gasoline in the tank and left only — water and a dead engine.
The subzero arctic temperatures didn’t make for a pleasant walk the two miles back through the polar bear lined streets to their home either.
Did you know polar bears, besides being cute, will kill and eat you?
Eventually (and by eventually I mean a week later), some nice Russian mechanics, in exchange for a few quarts of Vodka and the joy of ridiculing me, removed the gas tank and poured out the water that I had installed while floundering around in that dark KGB garage-hideout-basement days earlier.
Those several days were not pleasant. But they were certainly a few days of misery that I could have avoided by simply paying more attention and assuming less. Maybe I could have lit a match and checked for combustion.
Or maybe not…
What I do remember was the ridiculous price of Russian gasoline.