Saturday, April 12, 2008

Forty Years Ago, This Summer

Prague, August 6 or 7, 1968 (two weeks before the Russian tanks rolled in). Three o’clock or so, and I was in the gigantic central train station. The little tour with my erstwhile traveling companion was over (we’d finally found an official willing to extend our expired visas—mine to midnight only) and I needed a ticket, nothing more, to West Germany. Or, at least, close to West Germany. No trains, I knew, crossed that border. And no one at a ticket window seemed to speak any language I remotely found familiar. “Allemande?” Shaken heads. “Deutschland?” Same thing. Finally, someone sold me a ticket to somewhere, a track number and a train number on it.


So, I found it and boarded. Entered an empty compartment. Took off my cheap grey trench coat, bought in Munich, and folded it over my cheap grey backpack, also from Munich, and shoved them both onto the rack above, extracting the London Times I had somehow managed to buy somewhere in Prague. The air was stuffy, so I shoved down the top part of the window as far as it would go, sat, and closed my eyes.


Train moved, rhythm soothing, and I slept. A thump or a bump sometime later, and I awoke, running my hand over my hair—gritty, strange. I looked at my palm: streaked with black, with black speckles behind it, covering the newspaper on my lap. At a turn, I could see the train ahead out the window: we were pulled by a coal locomotive.


Wow. But where was it taking me? Due east, I imagined, Russia and the disappearance of a stupid American kid.


There was, at least, a name on the ticket, along with the numbers, and I watched the stations, hoping to see it.


An hour or so later, I did, and hopped down onto the platform of a tiny station in the midst of a number of tracks, many with electric lines over them. I walked inside—and here, oh such favor!, was a map with a you-are-here star. I was, I saw, on the German border, but the wrong one… I had no visa for East Germany.


There was a town near what was clearly the West German border: “Cheb,” I shouted to the man behind the little window.


He frowned, then motioned me toward him, then kept motioning. Understanding, I started shoving money towards him. He took some of it, shoved the rest back along with a ticket, then ran outside. I followed, dubious.


A little electric train was heading past the station on one of the farther tracks. He flagged it down and motioned me aboard.


This time, there were no compartments, just bench seats in an open car, occupied by what were clearly multiple generations of one family, what I knew then as “gypsies,” what I would now refer to as “Roma.”


The oldest woman talked to me, got nothing out of me, finally asking me a question. I understood, I thought, one word, sounded like “Rouski.” She was asking if I were a Russian. I said, “No, American.”


Everyone laughed. She rubbed thumb and forefinger together and said, “American? Gelt? Gelt!” Now, I laughed, too. “Keine gelt.” She clearly didn’t believe me, but was mollified by the Marlboro cigarettes I gave her and returned to where she had been sitting. One of the younger men came over on her instruction, and handed me a number of curious cigarettes with long tubes and not much tobacco. Strong stuff: he showed me to pinch the tube so I wouldn’t draw to much and continue the choking that had been nearly doubling me forward.


Cheb arrived about dusk, or we to it. At another window, I asked which way the border was. A curious look preceded a reluctant finger, and I turned to walk that direction in a light rain.


The road did take me out of town (I remembered from that map that Cheb wasn’t on the border, simply near it), down a road that got smaller, then became a path, then ended at a gate with a not-so-friendly German Shepherd eyeing me from the other side.


Across a field, maybe a mile away, I could see a road, a lighted road heading to buildings. A road with cars on it.


The wet crop, whatever it was, soaked what little of me wasn’t already by the time I had crossed through it. Cars passing by, some with German plates. Good. Likely heading to or from the border. But which way? One dark, into woods. The other towards those buildings.


I chose the buildings. Near them was a little sign.


“Cheb.”


Two hours or so, and I had made a circle.


Logic said, “Other way.”


So I walked. And tried to hitch-hike. And walked.


At one point, a huge noise came from the woods to my right, and a dog as big as a Mack truck came bounding towards me, attached to a uniformed giant with a weapon larger than he. I stopped. Petrified.


He motioned for my papers. I handed them over, shaking, along with a few more of my Marlboros. He grunted, took the cigarettes, handed my back my passport, and motioned for me to go on.


Now I knew, at least, that I was likely headed in the right direction.


Walking on, no cars stopped. Walking on, and a different sound came from behind—a tractor. I didn’t bother to thumb, but it stopped. The driver, perhaps my age (I was sixteen), motioned me up behind him.


The noise of the engine was too loud for conversation, but he talked to me anyway, keeping up a steady monologue until we came to one of those guard stations straight out of a spy movie, moveable barrier and phone-booth sized station—with an actual phone. My driver turned his tractor around and stopped. I climbed down, thanking him for going the extra mile, but I am sure he understood as little as that as I had of his tales. He chugged off and I walked over to the man in the booth.


In the distance, about 100 meters away, I could see the lights of the real border. Might just make it out.


The guard took my passport and made a call. He raised his voice and gestured (as best he could, in that confined space), and waited. Then talked again, raised his voice again.


Finally, someone gave him satisfaction. He handed back my passport and motioned me towards the border.


Walking up, I handed my passport to the first guard I saw. He took it, told me to wait. I asked where I could change my Czech currency. He dismissed the need, said “souvenir,” and disappeared into a building. Cars came and went, both directions, but he did not return for me, though I got the feeling that all of the other guards were watching me surreptitiously as they checked papers and passports.


There was something of a gift shop, and I was cold and wet and it looked dry, maybe even warm. So I went inside.


Some guy, a little older than me, perhaps college age and with a fresh college look that was already somewhat out of style but with hair long enough to make it clear to me that he wasn’t military, was talking to a German couple, trying to change money with them. What struck me was that his German was worse than mine—and I could only speak a few phrases. What struck me, too, was his accent—certainly American.


“I know they say you can’t take the money out, but they just told me to keep mine.”


He looked over at me, in astonishment.


But I had expected that.


What I had not been prepared for was that everything at the whole crossing stopped. Even outside. Every guard in sight was watching us.


The German couple sidled away. The other American looked around, nonplussed.


We stood looking at each other for a moment, as still as the tableaux we centered. He spoke first.


“You’re an American, too.”


I nodded.


“They seem to be interested that you spoke to me.”


I nodded again.


“Well, got any idea why?”


I shook my head.


“Look,” he said, “let’s go over there and sit down, get out of the limelight.”


We did.


He, I discovered, was 21, from Florida, a Romney Republican. “Did you know that the balloting is going on tonight in Miami?” No, I did not. “Nixon will get it, but maybe he’ll pick Romney for VP.” I didn’t really care. McCarthy was my man—but I didn’t say that, simply that I had walked from Cheb and needed to be out of the country by midnight—or so my visa said.


He, it turned out, had walked from Cheb as well, and had been waiting there at the border for some hours. “Don’t know what they’re doing. Don’t know why they won’t let me through. Though, I suspect, that with two of us they are going to do it for even longer.”


And they did.


I don’t know how long it was before they finally gave us our passports and told us to walk on into West Germany. And I have no idea what they were doing, all the time they kept us there. There had been reports, I know, from Russia of caches of American arms found in the area. Maybe they thought we were soldiers, sneaking things across. Maybe they searched the whole area. I don't know.


There was a line across the road, marking the actual border. Jumping across it, my companion bent down and kissed the ground, yelling “frei, frei.”


He got a few dirty looks from the Czechs. The German guards remained poker-faced and simply reached out hands for our passports.


The train station in the little town there was locked, but at dawn a man came and, in perfect English, told us there would be a train for Nuremberg along soon. He told us he had been in the SS, but had been captured early on in the war and had spent most of it in a camp in South Carolina.


The Floridian had a small radio he constantly tinkered with. A few minutes before the train arrived, he finally found an Armed Forces station broadcasting the Republican convention. The voting was going on. “The great state of Alabama casts however many votes for the next President of the United States, Richard Nixon.” That sort of thing. Lots of cheers and noise-makers.


On the train, though, reception died. But Nuremberg wasn’t really that far away. Just as we got off, they were announcing that Nixon was over the top, that he had the nomination.


As soon as I could, I ditched the Floridian, found a couple of guys who looked more like me (scruffy, hair to their shoulders--one Italian one Canadian), pooled ready cash with them, bought a liter of gin and a bottle of mixer, and climbed to the castle, where we sat, passing the two bottles back and forth until…


Well, I don’t really remember until what.

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