The last day
For summer vacation, some people go to the beach, some go to touristy places, but in 1968, I elected to take my little near-clapped-out Ford Anglia behind the Iron Curtain. Early in the morning of August 23, 1968, the day my Czech visa would expire, I left Praha and headed south. The day matched my mood: sombre and deflated. The heads were down; the protests were over. I had a small Czech flag tied to the aerial of my Anglia, and where before this had given me quite amazing support from the Czech people, now it was ignored by the very few people who were venturing out.
I had memories that would last forever: while driving at high speed in the dark, narrowly avoiding colliding with a tank parked in the middle of the road with camouflage netting; entering a Russian military base from the rear, which was unguarded because the road behind had been deemed impassable, then driving through, flag still flying; heading a procession of tanks into Praha and forcing them into continual graunching gear changes while hundreds of thousands cheered, and even threw flowers; the rattle of machine guns; people hugging the walls while I walked unconcerned (the noise was clearly in another street, and I favoured the gutter if necessary); a marriage where bride and groom emerged, looked around and burst into tears; protestors marching into Wenceslas Square to be confronted by a yellow line painted across the stones and about a hundred men with submachine guns on the other side; me leaving and shortly after, the rattle, the screams, the ambulances; talking to a Major on Charles Bridge while the soldiers below took off boots and I noticed they had rags wrapped around their feet rather than socks; the Major wanted to know why the people were removing the food. Then there was that which cheered the Czechs and annoyed the Russians more than anything else. One town only refused to protest and meekly did everything ordered by the Russians: Lidice.
Finally, a night in an apartment with the Heitlegnerovs (I apologize for the spelling if it is wrong.) The father was a Jew, who had spent the war in the forest resisting Hitler, he had helped organize the Communists come to power, then he was back into the forest in a hut with a dirt floor and no heating because he was a Jew. With Dubcek, he got this neat apartment, and now he feared, back to the forest. I was given one task in return for the bed: he had a daughter on holiday in England and I was to take her best belongings and carry the message that she should stay there.
About twenty minutes short of the border on the road to Linz I picked up two Czech hitchhikers, who were carrying a petition with about 250,000 signatures that they wanted sent to the UN. Would I smuggle them and it out? My problem was, I was involved. I had stopped knowing they wanted to get to the border, so I could hardly just up and leave them. There was no way I could conceal them, but I thought I could manage the petition, so I agreed to let them off 100 meters short of the border. I would wait on the other side for so long, assuming I got through. Then the decision: what to do with the flag? The guards were Czech, so I left the flag and hoped it would work. I wrapped the petition in a large plastic bag and put it in the bottom of a large box that I was using for storing waste.
At the border, the guards searched, and when they got to the rubbish box, they took out the rather dried rye bread I had not eaten, then over-ripe fruit, then smelly empty tins, and they asked me why was I carrying these? As I pointed out, there are no public rubbish receptacles behind the Iron Curtain, or if there were, I never found them, and I did not want to dump rubbish. They accepted that, and I was half through. All I had to do then was to enter Austria.
Then I saw the two triumphant Czech faces and a border guard who knew. I can still almost scream. They thought the Austrian authorities would support the Czechs: how stupid!
Those days in Czechoslovakia were days I shall never forget. It almost certainly strengthened my individualistic tendencies, and it certainly diluted my desire to be with a group of tourists. Now I have taken up writing fiction, there are perhaps three influences over all else. Big events, violence, etc tend to be very sudden, except to those planning them. The second is that groups do not necessarily behave the same as individuals, and that is an issue that literature tends to steer clear of. The third is that I want to explore why some people want power over others, how they get it, and why others let them have it. This makes my writing somewhat different from others.
Alenka received her belongings, stayed in England for about 6 months, then voluntarily returned home. I pray she lives long and has prospered.
Thanks Ian for sharing your Gutsy adventure back in the 60’s. As you mentioned, those days in Czechoslovakia influenced you and your writing. We look forward to reading your future novels. Please check out Ian Miller’s website, and join him on Facebook.
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