Prague 1968: Memory #4

This is the fourth piece in a series that will, I hope, cover the entire year of 1968 through my own experiences.  In this segment, I recount how I finally made it over the Czech/German border, a couple of weeks before the arrival of the Russian troops who displaced the power of the Dubcek regime.  I hope I am, finally, beginning to discover how to make at least a little personal sense of that most peculiar incident in that most peculiar year, and I hope I am doing it for others in these “memories.”  The first piece can be found here.  The second here, the third here.

We waited, there on the bench, and waited.  After a time, I began to imagine that this fellow was right, that the Czechs were searching the entire area before letting us go.

We talked.  I smoked the last of those Russian cigarettes.  My companion refused to share in them–a non-smoker.  Not only that, but he was a Republican, a supporter of George Romney.  Though he knew that Nixon would likely win the nomination, he wanted to be listening.  Said we could, on Armed Forces Radio.  

“You have a radio?”

“Yes.  I listen to it all the time.”  He pulled a small transistor receiver out of his coat pocket.  “I would turn it on now, but I don’t want to insult the Czechs with our politics.”

“I doubt it would bother them.  Turn it on.”

He did.  It was already tuned to the American network.  A lot of noise and speeches.  He listened, rapt.  I didn’t.  There was no way I was going to support the Republican candidate, or even the likely Democratic one, Hubert Humphrey.  My family had lived in Thailand a few years before, during the time of the first major escalation of American involvement in Vietnam, LBJ’s ‘Christmas bomdings.’  My school had doubled in size from an influx of American dependents pulled out soon after.  I’d learned a lot about the war and, even as an eighth-grader, had turned completely against it–and against the administration that included Humphrey as Vice President.

Instead of listening with him, I deliberately pulled the second of the two books I’d traded for from my pack.  Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society.  I liked what I found there, so was quickly immersed–or pretended to be.

Looking back, I love the image: Two young Americans, one neat, combed, and looking like he could have come from any of the last decades, and the other in ragged jeans with hair heading down his back, part of a new (and fleeting) American phenomenon, sitting at a border station in country struggling against a communist ideology which, coupled with a Russian nationalism, had already failed them, one of them listening with keen attention to the self-congratulations of a political system itself under siege, the other seeking an alternative vision out of a book instead of in what he was seeing around him, both of them under serious eventual threat from the Selective Service System and the war it enabled.  Both of them, therefore, much more attentive to politics than they would have been a decade earlier or than they probably were, a decade later.

We sat there a long time.  As long as we were still, we were ignored.  If we got up and walked around, uniformed eyes followed us.

Were this not a blog post, where some bow to brevity is necessary, I would write in detail about that waiting, about the exhaustion brought on by hectic movement and hectic sitting, about the fear that lay close under the surface in each of us, sitting so close to the salvation on the other side of the border, yet so far from attaining it.  I would write about the resilience and stupidity of being sixteen, about the protection it throws around one’s mind and the fears that, also, it packs in.   All of that, as Eliot might put it, and so much more.

As it is, I’ll just say that they finally let us go, of course.

It must have been about four in the morning.  No light of dawn in the east, but it couldn’t have been far away.

Suddenly, a man walked to us, our passports carelessly help to his side in one hand.  He tossed them at us: “Go.”  He turned away.  Startled, we hardly knew what to do, but did manage to get to our feet and hustle towards Germany.

At the painted line marking the division of the countries, my companion stopped.  I turned and looked at him from the other side, puzzled and wanting to hurry away.  He stepped over the line with an exaggerated stride, bent down, kissed the ground and, as he was standing again, shouted, “Frei!”

The German border guards looked up, startled.  The Czechs just ignored him.

It wasn’t hard to find the train station in the little German town nestled there against the border–but it was locked.  As we sat down outside to wait, light was beginning to appear in the east, and a man walked towards us from a side street.

He nodded to us, took out a key, and unlocked the station.  Shedding his coat, we saw he wore a railroad uniform.  Asking us a question once we were inside, he quickly learned, from our fuddled attempts at German, that we were Americans.

“So, where’re you going?”  He asked in perfect English.  We looked at him in surprise.  “Oh, I spent a couple of years in your country, during the war.”

After selling us tickets to Nuremburg–the train would appear shortly, he said–he sat with us in the waiting room and told us his story.  A low-level SS soldier, he’d been captured by the Americans in North Africa (I think he said) and had spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in South Carolina.  He told us stories about the camp and how much he’d enjoyed it, actually, until the train came.

When it did, my companion switched on his radio once more.  The balloting had just begun, and he wanted to listen.  In the train car, however, there was no reception to speak of.  He even tried holding the radio out the window, but could get nothing.

When we arrived in Nuremburg, he immediately switched it on again, almost before we’d stepped to the platform.  Nixon had just reached his magic number; he would be the Republican candidate that fall.

We split up, there at the station.  Me in search of the local youth hostel, he–well, I don’t know where.

The hostel was closed.  German hostels were resolute in keeping ‘guests’ out during the day, believing they should be seeing the sights.  I would have to wait until evening to shower and to sleep.  So, I wandered around a bit, looking for others with long hair and backpacks.

The two I found were an Italian and an Englishman.  We pooled our ready cash and bought a liter bottle of vodka or gin (I don’t remember which) and a small bottle of Canada Dry mixer (and I can’t tell you why I remember the brand).  Sitting in the open park at the center of Nuremburg’s castle, we proceeded to get plastered.