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Nikolay Sergeevich Palchikoff 1924-2003
August 10, 2003
There was no funeral for my father Nikolay Sergeevich Palchikoff when he died at the age of 79 in a VA hospital in August 2003, fifty-eight years after America dropped an atomic bomb on his hometown of Hiroshima.
There was no obituary in the local newspaper, the Reno Gazette-Journal, no memorial service in a candle-lit room with speeches and poems about a man whose life and unique history had affected thousands around the globe. No relatives and friends showed up at our house with food and words about what a good man he was and other things people are supposed to say when someone dies.
There was just a silence.
Like the two hundred and some thousands of Japanese who perished in the atomic blast on August 6, 1945, at 8:15 a.m., and the moments, hours, months and years that followed, his cancer-ridden body was simply gone, reduced to ashes within hours of his death. The only tangible acknowledgment of his absence was the dozens of sympathy cards that began arriving at the house days later and then a toneless message on the answering machine from a man at the morgue: “Nikolay’s remains are ready to be picked up.”
The ashes came in a small wooden box, paid for by the VA. It was the least expensive one available from the mortuary, a cheap thank-you present from the American government for his twelve years of volunteer military service, three of which were spent fighting during World War Two. A folded up piece of paper accompanied the box, allowing the ashes to be transported. It looked like his death certificate, except for the color, which was pink. Name: Nikolay S. Palchikoff. Birthdate: June 10, 1924. Birthplace: Hiroshima, Japan. Citizenship: American.
Back in 1943, when he was a young, 19-year old newly naturalized American citizen, marching off to the South Pacific in his GI uniform, Nikolay, or Nick, as he was called, perhaps dreamed of a red, white and blue military funeral if he should die in combat, a coffin covered by an over-sized American flag, the twenty-one gun salute, and a speech with words such as “honor,” “glory” and “duty.”
But by the time he died, he wanted nothing of the sort. He had long since left the military, in 1955, to become an anti-nuclear activist instead. He let the buzz on his head grow into a ponytail. He began gathering signatures for a petition he sent to the United Nations Committee on Disarmament, calling for the complete abolition of all nuclear weapons. Over the years he gathered more than 100,000, if you counted Cesar Chávez, who signed on behalf of the entire United Farm Workers union.
The U.S. government, in turn, had long since reneged on the one benefit for WWII veterans he really cared about: free medical care for as long as he lived. In lieu of paying for costly cancer treatments, Washington offered him a booby prize: a free military burial or cremation, whichever he wished.
But when the end of his life came near, he told my mother he didn’t care what kind of ceremony, if any, she had after he was gone. That was up to her. He just didn’t want to be buried. And he didn’t want his ashes scattered in America. Even in death he could not forgive what President Truman had done to his Japanese friends decades before.
He had a favorite place in Mexico where he liked to go and fish, a tiny village called Puertocitos, situated on the Sea of Cortez, where over the years he would go and forget about his nightmares of the atom bomb.
And it was there he wished to rest in peace.
I grew up under the watchful eyes of three Russian icons that survived the atom bomb in Hiroshima. They originally belonged to my stepfather’s family who were quietly eating breakfast when the Enola Gay flew over their town in 1945, turning most of it into dust within minutes.
To everyone’s surprise, the icons, like the Palchikoff family, survived the nuclear holocaust unscathed. My stepfather Nick was somewhere in the South Pacific at the time when he heard about a strange bomb that had destroyed Hiroshima, his hometown. He wasn’t there because some missionaries had taken him to California five years earlier to finish his education. His knowledge of Japanese language and Slavic ethnicity landed him a job with the U.S. Army Intelligence during the war, and so he learned of the A-bomb while trying to crack Japanese radio codes.
About a month after the tragic August events, Nick went searching for his parents and siblings, becoming the first American soldier to see the city in its post A-bomb state. Miraculously, his family had survived and eventually joined Nick, who returned to California, taking the icons with them.
Somehow the icons wound up on our dining room wall, silently observing the world around them. No one knew much about them, what Russian city they had come from, or in what century they were painted. One was even enclosed in glass. All we knew was that they had once belonged to the Palchikoff family in Czarist Russia and now they were in our house in San Diego.
As a teenager in the 1980’s, I listened patiently to Nick’s stories, eating my vegetables, staring at these unique portraits of Mary and Jesus that had survived both the Russian Revolution and the first atom bomb. I often wondered if radiation were seeping out of the wooden frames and if one day I would die of cancer.
With the icons in view, Nick held court nightly, presiding over dinnertime conversations that usually involved him talking and us listening. He talked about everything — from his idyllic childhood spent swimming in Hiroshima’s rivers to flaming tirades blaming the American scientists for the monster they had created. Ironically, he hated religion with a passion, often referring to it as the “opiate of the masses.” He called himself a devout atheist. Still, he was proud of his icons and when visitors came for dinner, he showed them these relics with pride. To him they were more than a piece of his childhood; they were memories of the wars and continents that had changed his family’s life. Like his family, they were survivors.
One of his favorite childhood tales involved watching his father worship those icons daily in Hiroshima, lighting candles, praying for the return of monarchy and the Russian Empire. As Nick got older and left for America, the Japanese government advised foreigners living in Hiroshima to leave Japan as WWII loomed. Instead of packing bags, his family asked God what to do. His father, I was told, carefully wrote out the words “da” and “nyet” on pieces of paper, and put them in his hat. One of the words would decide their fate. God that day apparently wanted them to stay and they did, until his family saw a flash of light one August morning and their lives changed forever.
Nick was a complex man and frequently emotional, sometimes crying as he told his tales. He was bitter about the bombing of Hiroshima, never really getting over it, not just the death of his childhood friends, but the sheer wrongness of it all. Why not drop the bomb on an uninhabited island? he often asked rhetorically. Why drop it at all?
Other nights he talked about the day he got off the train and walked into Hiroshima, in search of his family, looking amongst the rubble. He often mixed in his anecdotes with his life’s lessons. “It’s OK to admit you’re wrong,” he’d often say, waiting for the year America would finally apologize to Japan for what they did. Sometimes he’d talk so much my mother would reach over and turn him “off,” which meant she stuck her index finger into his belly-button, a sign for him to let it go for a while. She got tired of the bomb talk.
Once in a while he took his icons to the elementary school where my mother worked, showing children a piece of Hiroshima and to talk about the need for peace. The icons were his past, his connection to a 19th century Russia he had never known. More importantly, they were something left over from the bombing that he could show the world. He asked the children to close their eyes, and imagine their entire city leveled, their parents dead, all their friends, pets, everything gone. He brought it down to their level, asking them to think about a time when they had gotten into a fight and ways they could solve the problem without violence.
After Nick died in 2003, my mother tried to see if the icons were worth anything, thinking she might sell them. But no one really seemed to know much about pricing something so historical so she let them hang where they were.
I got a phone call months ago from a curator at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. They were doing research on the lives of Russians who were living in Hiroshima when the bomb dropped. They wanted to know what had happened to Nick and his family. He was gone, I said. His sister, who survived the bomb, was the only family member still alive. I hope one day the icons make the journey back to Hiroshima. They belong in that museum, surrounded by other artifacts of the city’s nuclear history. I would be sad to see them go; they were an intricate part of my childhood and Nick’s life. But they remind me that Hiroshima belongs to us all.
Fluent in English and Russian, freelance writer Kim Palchikoff lives in Reno, Nevada. Visit her website: www.russia-editor.com
Second husband of:
Gail Susan Karon b: Jul 22, 1943 in Hennepin, Minnesota