It was a very unusual start of the school year on September 1, 1948. Teachers told all students of 7-10 grades to go to the center of the schoolyard to listen to the speech of a colonel from the Tashkent garrison.
The colonel told us that our Motherland needed our help. He explained that Americans wanted to conquer the world and we needed to grow our economy very fast to become mightier country than America. He said: “We need to overrun America!”.
Then he explained that a part of the Hungry Steppes was recently irrigated and produced very good crop of cotton. Motherland needed our help in picking cotton by hands. The colonel added: “It will not take more than two weeks. The weather is terrific so there is no need to take warm clothing. You will get good meals so don’t take any food. Now go home and prepare to board a train at nine tomorrow morning”.
We were very excited. It was such an interesting adventure and a terrific opportunity to serve our country. Yuri said to Greg and me: “We’ll show those Americans how Soviet patriots work!”
Next day boys, girls and some teachers from Tashkent’s schools went by train and then by trucks to designated places in the Hungry Steppes. We settled in a wooden building which had one very large room with a wooden floor. Each class chose a part of the room and then we got tiny pillows and very thin mattresses and blankets.
Then each of us got a piece of black bread, mashed potatoes and a cup of tea. Bread looked and tasted like clay, mashed potatoes had very unpleasant taste and tea was very black without milk or sugar but with a lot of leaves in it.
After the long trip all of us (178 boys and two teachers) were very hungry and tired but nobody liked the food. We were very happy that our parents practically forced us to take a lot of food with us. Boys of each class shared food from home and drank tea. Very soon after it all of us fell asleep.
At five o’clock in the morning there were loud sounds of gong. Our teachers Boris and Nasir told us to get up fast, wash our faces and hands with water from a large barrel and prepare to go to a field. Nasir (he was our teacher of Uzbek language and he communicated with locals) explained to us that there was a pond near the building but water in it was not good for drinking or washing faces or hands. Locals boiled it and placed in large wooden barrels.
At 6.00 am we formed a column and with songs went to the nearest cotton field. At the field a local man gave each of us a special apron for placing cotton in it and a large sack. The upper part of the apron was around the neck and the lower part was around torso. Both hands were free to pick cotton and to put it in an apron.
Nasir told us that only women picked cotton in Uzbekistan and that majority of them did it with one hand. However, some were able to pick cotton with two hands and they earned more money.
He explained that after an apron is full the cotton placed in a sack. After a sack is full each of us should bring it to a mobile weighing station and a local man will write a name and how much was in the sack. At the end of the day anyone who will be able to pick 40 kg of cotton will get a teaspoon of butter, a teaspoon of sugar and a small pita.
Nasir showed us how to pick cotton and put it in an apron and where was the weighing station. He assigned a furrow to each of us and explained that we should pick cotton from both sides of the furrow until we reach the end of it. Then he’ll assign a new furrow.
Before we started to work a truck brought our breakfast. It was a copy of the previous day supper. We were so hungry that ate everything and added a bit from food that our parents gave to us.
Half an hour later we started to work. It was a gorgeous sunny day. The cotton field was beautiful. The air was fresh. The feel of ripe cotton was very nice and we enjoyed picking it from bushes. Greg, Yuri and I tried to pick cotton with both hands. We knew that nobody will get money but thoughts about butter, sugar and pita inspired us.
Actually, all boys were in a very high spirit and worked very fast.
Our teachers told us not be in a hurry, that two weeks of work was a marathon and not a sprint. However, we loved competition and we loved pita even more.
Several hours passed and everyone slowed down. The sun was high in the sky and it was very hot. All of us were thirsty. None of us had dark glasses and it was painful to look at the white cotton under sun. Sun was beating down mercilessly on our practically unprotected heads and bodies.
Our teachers Boris and Nasir directed our work and helped to pick cotton those boys who stayed behind others.
At 1.00 pm a truck brought our lunch. Each of us got a piece of bread, a bowl of potato soup, mashed potatoes and tea. Nasir talked with a local leader and the man explained that nobody expected that somebody from Tashkent will come to the area. They had very limited supplies of food and nothing was coming. There was only a lot of rotten potatoes and they used it for soup and mashed potatoes.
There were several trees near the road to the field and we were able to eat lunch and relax a bit in their shadows. An hour passed very fast and then we started pick cotton again.
Temperature continued to rise and those of us who were in hats without visors, in sleeveless shirts or in shirts from thin materials suffered very much.
By 5.00 pm we were absolutely exhausted. There was no pita in sight. The best result in picking cotton had a guy from the tenth grade who managed to use both hands. But he picked only 23 kg.
Teachers stopped our work and we went back to our building. We could not sing as we were very thirsty and tired. Happily, there was cool in our large room and there was a lot of cold and hot water in barrels.
At 6.00 we had the same supper as the first day but this time we ate everything and added some food we brought from home. However, many boys did not feel well. Some had high temperature and headache, almost everyone had painful red areas of skin. There were no doctors or nurses for many miles around so Nasir went to locals to find out how to prevent heat strokes and cure painful skin areas.
In the meantime Boris who was a war veteran told us about his war experience. He stressed that usually first days are the most difficult days and that we had only 13 more days before going home.
Nasir brought a very big jar with some substance made from goat milk. Local healer assured him that it was very effective in relieving skin redness, rash and pain. We immediately started gently apply this substance to painful skin areas helping each other.
Nasir also told us that Uzbek women picked cotton in dresses and shawls from thick materials that protected them from the sun. He added that he asked the local leader to give us several shawls just to try if our boys would be able to wear them during work.
In half an hour almost everyone was sleeping. However, our teachers stayed awake. They were doing whatever they could to help boys who had high temperature and headache. I am not sure if they slept even several hours during that night.
Next morning the local leader arrived with several shawls and many old newspapers. Boris gave shawls to boys who had the most painful red areas of skin. He said that all others should use whatever clothing they had to protect themselves. He also showed how to prepare a hat from a newspaper and told us that each of us must make such hat and wear it.
Teachers told boys who had headache or were dizzy to stay in the room and to help peel potatoes, clean the room and boil water.
Then we went to the field again. The morning was cool and we laughed that we were looking as pirates.
The second day was a copy of the first but we were better protected from the sun and we already knew what we were doing. At the end of the day all of us still got extra areas of painful red skin and we suffered from daily heat but our results were better. One guy from the eighth grade who used both hands picked 31 kg. On the way from the field everyone was talking that it is possible that next day somebody will pick 40 kg and will get butter, sugar and pita.
Next morning more boys stayed behind and everyone who worked in the field suffered very much from heat. All of us also suffered from reflection of sun rays from white cotton. However, there was nothing we could do and we worked diligently till the end of the day.
All of us were pleasantly surprised when we heard that 6 boys picked slightly over 40 kg. However, immediately after supper our teachers told us to gather in the middle of the room. We saw that they were very upset.
Boris told us that when one Uzbek started to empty our sacks in the area where cotton was kept before pressing it into huge 200 kg bales he found that there were heavy pieces of dried land in several sacks and yellow wet cotton in several others. Somebody peed on the cotton to make it heavier.
Boris told us that he never expected that anyone of us would be so stupid, unpatriotic and dishonorable. He also explained that such actions were criminal and could be punished by 10 or more years in jail. Than he added that the local guy warned him that if the same thing happens again he would have to report it to the local KGB representative and our teachers Nasir and Boris would be severely punished.