Tomato train

When Yolanda Renee and Denise Covey, the hosts of the WEP website, settled on the two themes for our October blog hop – Constellations or Halloween – at first I thought to opt out. I didn’t want to write anything obvious and didn’t have any original ideas. Then I remembered something that happened long ago, when I was a schoolgirl. By a strange coincidence, there is a constellation in this story, although it has nothing to do with stars or Greek myths. It is all about tomatoes.

When I was a child in the 1960s, my family lived in Moscow, Russia. Both my parents worked full time, so finding a good summer camp for their daughter was an ongoing concern. Most camps were in the Moscow suburbs, and every summer, when my parents did send me to a summer camp, I hated it. I’ve always disliked crowds, parties, and organized entertainment. I’ve never been a tin soldier, never fit well among my peers. Making friends has always been a chore for me. I usually preferred to stay home alone, snuggle on my sofa, and read a book – the activity not encouraged in a camp.

The year I turned 12 my dad worked for a prestigious government ministry, and the organization had an excellent summer camp for its employees’ children on the shore of the Black Sea. When my dad asked if I wanted to go, I agreed. It would be the first time for me on the Black Sea, and I was excited. I thought that a camp on a seashore would be different, that I’d like the adventure and the sea.

I was wrong. Despite the sea and the sun, I hated the camp, the same as any other camp I’d ever been to, with one serious difference. It was far away from Moscow, so my parents couldn’t visit on the weekends. And the term was longer, six weeks instead of the usual three.

I started sending teary letters to my parents on the first week of camp, begging them to get me back home. When they, upset by my letters, called the camp office and asked to speak to me (no cell phones or emails in those times) I cried on the phone and pleaded with them.

Eventually they folded. About three weeks into the camp, they bought me a train ticket to Moscow – air travels were too expensive then. The camp supervisor took me to the train station and watched me boarding the train. My parents would be meeting me in Moscow.

I was ecstatic to be going home and to travel by myself for the first time in my life. The trip to Moscow took two nights and one day. Fortunately, my ticket was for a good sleeper coach, with a row of closed compartments along a long corridor. I saw a similar one in the movie Murder on the Orient Express, based on Agatha Christie’s novel. Each compartment had four sleeping banks, two on the top level and two on the bottom; the latter serving as seats during the day.

tomatovine1My companions in the compartment were three middle-aged men, all traveling alone. Two of them didn’t pay me much attention. By comparison, the third one, a big swarthy fellow from Georgia, was very friendly. He was traveling to Moscow to sell his tomatoes in the Moscow markets. He told me that his tomatoes were of the most delicious sort, called Constellation, because they grew in big clusters. He had boxes of them stashed someplace on the train.

Whenever I settled on my lower bank during the day, to read or gaze out the window, he would be there too, chatting amicably, telling stories, making me laugh, and occasionally touching my bare knees or caressing my ankles. It was hot on the train, and I wore shorts. Both other men spent most of the day out of the stuffy compartment, but I had nowhere to go.

The Georgian tomato seller obviously liked my bare legs, and although I disliked his touch, I was a naive 12-year-old, very polite and timid, and I couldn’t say “No” to such an amusing man as old as my father. I squirmed, tried to conceal my revulsion, and endured his grabby hands. In the evening, the two other men came back, so nothing happened. I guess I was lucky.

When we arrived in Moscow in the morning of the second day, my parents came to my compartment to get me. The Georgian guy instantly made friends with my dad, and dad even helped him unload his Constellation tomatoes, boxes and boxes of them.

When we finally got home, I was happy. I also told my mother about the Georgian guy touching my knees. I wasn’t complaining exactly, it was more like a shameful question: was it normal? Should I have said anything? Done anything?

She was horrified, much more than I was, probably because she could well picture what could’ve been, while I couldn’t. She instantly shared her disgust with my dad. He went ballistic. “You should’ve told me right away,” he fumed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this furious, before or after. “I helped that scoundrel to unload his Constellations. I should’ve painted the constellations on his face. I should’ve smashed all his boxes and all his tomatoes, and his nose too. The cad! I should’ve beaten him bloody.”

I was scared of my father that day, even though he wasn’t angry with me. I think this tiny incident stuck in my memory not because of the guy touching my knees – I would’ve forgotten it in a few years – but because of my parents’ explosive reaction. I really understood it only years later.

By the mutual agreement between me and my parents, I’ve never gone to any summer camp again.

Word count: 900; FCA (Full Critique Acceptable)

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17 Responses to Tomato train

  1. Yes, you were lucky. It’s horrid that he touched you, but so much worse could’ve happened. I’m so glad it didn’t. I was very young when my mother told me, never let a man touch your leg. That was all she said, but somehow I knew it meant something ominous. Such a frightening tale, more so because it was true! An example that fits in the discussion that’s happening now. Misogyny is going through a new phase – maybe one that won’t be hidden in the shadows!
    Thanks, Olga, for the beautiful badges and the entry!

  2. How creepy of that tomatoe seller. It was good you were not alone at night with him. I think in those days people did not worry about kids traveling unchaperoned as much. The badges are great. Thanks, Olga. 🙂

  3. Hi Olga
    Your story filled me with so many memories and none of them disgusting. The first one was a story my grandmother told me. She was the youngest of five born in 1887. She was raised on a farm in Minnesota, USA. The train ran along side their property and wild tomatoes grew along the tracks. In those days people thought tomatoes were poisonous. But my grandmother would go down and eat them without telling her parents.

    Another memory I have was trying to befriend a young girl behind the iron curtain in the 1960’s. That didn’t work out though I remember her.

    I’m so glad that you weren’t molested. That is scary. I’m also glad that we can be friends.

    • Olga Godim says:

      Yes, I love my internet friends too, but then I don’t live in Russia anymore, haven’t for a long time and grateful for it. That poor country is going down the drain fast.

  4. Ann Best says:

    As you just commented on my post, it is indeed fascinating to look back at our younger self. First, I found it fascinating how you used the topic “constellations” in the story. Second, I can so relate to the groping hands as I had an experience when I was 11 that was even worse. So long ago. I’m so glad you told your parents, and yes, they of course could see what you couldn’t yet about such men. So sad and scary when innocent children are involved. You’re an excellent writer. I really enjoyed this well-told story.

  5. You were so very lucky.
    So much of this tale resonated with me. I don’t do crowds well. I am happy on my own with a book. And I was brought up to respect those who were older than I am, and would also have endured his touch.
    Great contribution to WEP. Again.

  6. DG Hudson says:

    You were very lucky. Who would have believed a young girl as opposed to a man at that time whether it was Russia or the US or Canada if anything worse had happened. He was a wily man to make instant friends with your parents, so you’d not think to complain. An excellent tale of your younger days and another use for the word ‘constellation’.BTW, I’ve always hated camps too, I went to a church camp with my cousins one summer – complete with cold showers and forced sports participation. I didn’t mind the campfires in the evening but I never went to another summer camp again, either.

  7. Denise Covey says:

    I was concerned right away when you said you shared a sleeper with 3 men! Not good! But what a terrifying experience for a 12 year old. So glad nothing worse happened than touching your bare legs. I’m sorry CONSTELLATIONS brought back such an horrific memory. No wonder your parents went ballistic!

    Thanks, Olga, for sharing your past experience. I’m just glad you escaped relatively unscathed.

    Denise 🙂

  8. A completely unique take on the prompt. Your story hooked me from the title onwards, I thought it was going to be a humorous tale, but the minute the middle aged men came into the picture I knew what was going to happen. Horrific scary, and what is even more disturbing is that with all the progress in women’s rights etc, attitudes don’t seem to have changed much from the sixties, many men still feel completely entitled to touch women whenever they please, clueless about the meaning of consent. Beyond unacceptable. Glad you came through it relatively unharmed.

  9. Pat Hatt says:

    Disturbing indeed of that tomato freak. Deserved to have his tomatoes shoved down his throat and choke on them. Could have been worse though indeed, glad it wasn’t.

  10. lauraclipson says:

    So glad nothing worse happened! Thanks for sharing your story.

  11. cheriereich says:

    That is indeed disturbing about the tomato seller. You were lucky. I didn’t care much for summer camp the couple times I went. I wanted to explore and do my own things, but they wouldn’t let you.

  12. cleemckenzie says:

    We’re all so naive at this age and so vulnerable. I can see why this story stayed with you for all for all of these years. As a parent I would have exploded just as yours did.

  13. ellis moore says:

    Some story’s should be told and never forget.
    Some should have been told a long time ago.

  14. artman413 says:

    True stories are often the scariest. It’s horrifying that something like that happened to you, but I’m glad it didn’t go anywhere worse.

    Plus, in a world where victims are often blamed for their actions, it was heartening to see that your parents fully took your side on that.

  15. A most interesting memoir. Isn’t it true that so often as children we are more scared by our parents reaction to a given situation than the situation itself. I suppose that helps to protect us from those things that may seem innocent to a child, but carry a more sinister significance to adults.

    I also find it interesting that you would have been booked in a sleep car with three older men. It seems today someone would have been more protective of a child and not allowed the potential for what you avoided, to even happen.

    So glad it turned out well. I personally will probably never think of tomatoes the same.

  16. Pingback: October report | Olga Godim writing

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