A Raffle to Adventure
by Henry Sakaida

"You can't take it with you, so have fun with it!" That pretty well summarizes my collecting philosophy. Isn't it interesting that an individual will spend a fortune and a lifetime, hunting down pieces for their collection, only to have it broken up once they pass away? My wife and daughter have jokingly threatened to sell my few remaining Soviet medals at a garage sale when I kick the bucket!
Back in the summer of 1996, I was at the Great Western Military and Collector Show at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona, California. I came across a dealer who was selling items from the former Soviet Union. On the table was a large cardboard box full of official looking documents with small black and white photographs of individuals and their home addresses. The price was $1.00 each.Valentina's trade union card
After carefully looking them over and having little idea of what they were, I decided to start my adventure. I threw the cards back into the box, mixed them up like a raffle, dug down deep, and pulled out two. "And the big winners are…!!!" I paid the dealer $2.00.
"What are these things?" I asked the dealer. "They are trade union membership records" came the bored response. I told him that I was going to write to the individuals as a lark. He rolled his eyes and told me I was just wasting my time. "Look at the date! 1987! The Soviet Union is no more. These people, if they are still living, probably have moved. They wouldn't understand English, and if they did receive your letter, why would they write back to you? Forget it! Don't waste your time."
I took the documents home and studied them. The two individuals were Valentina Pavlova and Lubov Brakalova. They both lived in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. "I wonder where they are today and how their lives must be?" I pondered. My curiosity took over. I wrote in Russian: "How is life in Kiev?" I typed out a short letter in English and mailed them off. I never expected a response.
Two months later, I received two letters from Ukraine, almost a week apart! They were both handwritten in Russian. I found a local woman who taught Russian at a nearby junior college, and she translated the letters for a small fee.
Valentina Pavlova sent greetings, then asked how I came to write her. In answer to my questions about life in Kiev, she wrote that the economy was in shambles, many people were out of work, and life was very difficult. She stated that she received $26.00 a month as a pensioner, lives with her husband who was unemployed, and has two children. Her adult son Nikolay was having health problems due to his participation in the cleanup work at Kiev chemical factoryChernobyl. He worked there to get a higher pension, but when he became ill, he was dismissed and given $18.00 a month pension. Her adult daughter Natasha was recovering from an operation.
"I spent my childhood in an orphanage," recounted Valentina. "My father died during the Great Patriotic War, and my mother died in 1944. I had no brother or sisters. I remember very well in 1947, the mass starvation where many people died. Relatives of the children in the orphanage brought them butter, some sausages, sweets and so on. But I had no relatives and so, no one ever came to see me. I will never forget the hardship I had in my childhood." The other woman, Lubov Brakalova, also sent greetings. She too described the poor economy. She was also a pensioner, now living on a collective farm with her husband far from Kiev. My letter, which was addressed to her, went to her old apartment now occupied by her married daughter Irina, her husband Sergey, and their daughter, aged 12. Irina worked at a restaurant and her husband was an auto mechanic. By Ukrainian standards, they were well off.
After the letters were translated, I went to the local supermarket. I filled the shopping cart with Spam, honey, evaporated milk, instant coffee, tea, rice, sugar, cookies, pudding snak packs, instant noodles, flour, jam and jellies, etc. I assembled the CARE packages and mailed them off. (continued)

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