This column appeared in the Herald in October 2007.
When Marina Strong moved to the Tri-Valley from Russia ten years ago, she couldn’t understand a certain habit of Americans.
“Everyone was always smiling,” said Strong, her accent and blue eyes reflecting her Russian heritage. “I wasn’t used to this. It’s not that we weren’t happy in Russia. We were. Eventually I came to enjoy the smiles of Americans.”
Strong, who lives in Pleasanton with her American husband and son, recently reminisced about growing up in a beautiful region of Moscow. Among her memories is a visit from Fidel Castro to her elementary school , and the fear she shared with fellow students that Ronald Reagan might start a nuclear war.
“We made posters at school begging Mr. Reagan not to push the button,” she said. “We were all afraid.”
Another memory—one she will never forget—involves an evening when Strong was 12. She and her friends, Galina and Angelica, got up the courage to ride their bikes to secretly harvest a few ears of corn from a field just behind a forest, near the Moscow River, a place forbidden to young girls.
“Boys went there all the time,” Strong said. “So we three, we gallant three, decided to go.”
It was the last day of a summer vacation spent flying kites and riding bikes.
“That summer we three were the whole world,” she said. “We were the three princesses in The Firebird, the three who battled the witch Baba Yaga, the Troika.”
Strong described her friend Galina as “a smart and brutally honest preteen, tall with a boyish haircut and hot temper who liked to argue about little things.”
Angelica was “a romantic girl with wavy black hair and blue eyes who made the boys quiet when she walked into a room.”
And Strong? She was “the glue that held our trio together whenever misunderstanding or jealousy lurked,” she said.
The cornfield was large and the stalks were high, with a grassy-fresh smell. The corn was irregular, grown as cattle feed, so the girls would have to search for the larger, ripe ears.
They left their bikes near the road and moved deeper into the field, chatting nervously.
“I remember asking Angelica if she’d gotten a call from an older boy we’d recently met from Denmark who was going to start at our school the next day,” Strong said. “He had bubblegum—which was rare in Russia—and all girls were already dreaming about him.”
Galina was suspicious that the boy’s gum was just a lure, and told Angelica he was just leading her on.
Angelica disagreed, saying he was kind and tall, wore knit shirts, and was not rude like other boys.
“I remember dusk had fallen and I was dreaming about that handsome boy,” said Strong, “wondering why he hadn’t thought of me when, suddenly, a scream broke my fantasy.” She looked to see Galina’s hand pointing, her mouth open, the color leaving her face.
It was a body, and the girls could see his boots in the dirt.
“We gave a quick look at each other, then at the boots,” Strong said. “They were black and dirty, in an odd position.”
Without speaking, the girls knew he'd been dead for days. They dropped the corn, forgot about their bikes, and ran.
Strong’s thoughts raced along with her legs. “I thought he must have been killed for stealing the corn. It was a prohibited place, and I thought if I survived this, I’d be grounded forever.”
When she got home, she said nothing to her parents and couldn’t sleep that night. The next day, Strong met her friends at recess.
“We secretly discussed the murder scene,” she said, “and whether to notify the police.”
The girls decided to go back, and if the bikes were gone, they’d report the stolen bikes and the dead body. If they found the bikes, they'd then decide what to do next.
“After school, we took a bus to the field,” Strong said. “It was quiet. The bikes were where we left them. But what about the body?”
Strong and her friends wanted to do the right thing, to be brave, so they began to search. But they couldn’t remember where the body was. So they searched all afternoon.
“And then we saw them,” she said. “The old black boots.” But the boots were not in the dirt. They were on a full-grown man, weightless, hovering a few inches from the ground.
“We started to laugh,” said Strong, her face breaking into one of those smiles she now enjoys. “The man was just a scarecrow.”