Czechoslovakia 1978

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Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, digital wristwatches, Polski Fiat, customs officers, Radio Free Europe, yellow soda, Moravia, Babička & Czech polkas.


 

Hidden in my suitcase, carefully wrapped in white tube socks and Fruit of the Loom underwear, was the capitalist contraband I was smuggling to my relatives behind the Iron Curtain: several dozen packets of Wrigley’s Spearmint chewing gum, a carton of Marlboro cigarettes and ten digital wristwatches.

I was eight years old the first time my parents sent me alone to the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, in the summer of 1978. I think it was an experiment on their part, a trial run. My mother and father wanted to see if the communist regime dared to keep their American son. I was sent as a Geiger counter. If I did not return, the air in their homeland was radioactive.

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As soon as the plane was airborne, I threw up into an airsickness bag. The elderly Czech woman seated next to me said everything was going to be OK. The long-legged stewardess who walked up and down the aisle said the same thing. But I knew better. My fifty-pound body was telling me I was already too far from home.

Eight hours later, I peered out the tiny oval window as the plane soared over the Bohemian countryside. From a bird’s-eye view, the surface of the Earth resembled a quilt sewn together from different-colored patches of farmland. We flew over the ancient, orange-tiled rooftops of whitewashed Czech villages. Up until then, Czechoslovakia was a mythical place that existed only in illustrated children’s books, black-and-white photographs and émigré stories.


I imagined suddenly breaking from the crowd—running across the vast concrete runway, only to fall to the ground thirty yards away, a four-foot corpse riddled with bullets.


After the plane landed at Prague’s Ruzyně Airport, I emerged from its belly and climbed down to the tarmac. Security funneled passengers from runway to terminal like prisoners of war. I walked past a column of green-uniformed soldiers armed with submachine guns; their presence scared me and inspired my fantasies of escape. I imagined suddenly breaking from the crowd—running across the vast concrete runway, only to fall to the ground thirty yards away, a four-foot corpse riddled with bullets.

On the terminal rooftop, I could see my grandmother waving to me with her short peasant arms. The movement of her hands was rapid and vigorous, as opposed to those long, sweeping waves reserved for adults and saying good-bye. Next to her were the silhouettes of relatives whom I had never met. The fact that my extended family was watching me made my imagined death at the hands of the Communists more real.

For the first time in my life, I had an audience.

The Czechoslovak customs officers inside the terminal were dry and humorless men in drab army uniforms with gold five-pointed socialist stars pinned in straight lines across broad shoulders.

“Do you have any digital watches?” one asked.
“No,” I said.

My mother and I had rehearsed this dialogue in Czech, so I was prepared. Nevertheless, my stomach dropped when he started opening my suitcase. The customs officer dug his hand around in my luggage, but his examination was cursory.
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When we were done, I found myself surrounded by strangers: Uncle Pepík, Aunt Zdena and Grandpa, all of them eager to meet this boy from America. But only Babička was familiar, so I hugged her for dear life. We piled into my grandfather’s white Polski Fiat, where I sat wedged between Babička and Aunt Zdena for a car ride that felt like a thousand years. Along the way, I tried to count the tall trees that flanked the highway, but the pine forest seemed infinite, so I gave up and fell asleep. When I awoke, we were in Rebešovice, a small village in southern Moravia.

I stood in the kitchen of my grandparents’ house, frantically digging through my suitcase, trying to find all the gifts that my mother had sent with me from America. My grandmother said that I should eat something first and worry about the gifts later. She obviously didn’t understand the great risks I had taken. I wanted to unload the contraband.

My grandfather sat in a wooden chair next to the tiled stove. His watery blue eyes had yet to see my mother, his eldest daughter, since she had defected in 1969. Now, almost ten years later, her eight-year-old son was standing in the kitchen, obsessed with finding digital watches in a suitcase.

I distributed the watches and chewing gum to my cousins, aunts and uncles. No doubt some of the watches were later sold in the village. (I repeated my covert smuggling operation the following summer.) Years later, everyone in the village wore a digital watch around their wrist like an electronic talisman, a precursor to the brave new world just around the corner.

My grandmother was a short, stout peasant woman with curly brown hair that refused to gray (she was far too practical to dye it, even if it had). She wore a plain, shapeless housedress. She spoke no English except for the words “ice cream,” which I taught her when she visited us in America in 1975, so we spoke in Czech.

From that first day, my grandmother’s kitchen was, for me, the epicenter of Moravia. It was there, in her kitchen, that I began the day’s adventures with a mug of hot chocolate and a buttered roll. I sat at a small table beneath a window that looked out into the courtyard, but the window was too high for me to see anything. I could hear the fluttering wings of cliff swallows as they built jug-like mud nests under the eaves. On the window ledge, a small black transistor radio played Czech polkas, interrupted every fifteen minutes by a news broadcast.

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I returned to my grandmother’s kitchen again at noon. Babi stood over the white stove, where she fried cutlets of breaded rabbit, chicken or veal that she served with glazed potatoes. Every now and then she’d open the stove door and prod the cherry coals with an iron poker.

She kept salt in a small cut-glass bowl. It took me a while to learn that a pinch of sůl was more than enough to season my plate. The rock salt, which felt sharp and hard between my tiny thumb and index finger, was briny and powerful.

Sometimes, she served vegetable soups with shredded beef or chicken floating on the surface. With an oversized spoon, I fished out the black peppercorns that sunk to the bottom of the bowl. To go with my soup, my grandmother cut me thick caveman slabs of bread by placing the enormous loaf between her breasts and slicing towards her. (It made me nervous every time she did this, but she seemed to know what she was doing.) The price—two crowns—was branded into the side of the bread.


My grandmother cut me thick caveman slabs of bread by placing the enormous loaf between her breasts and slicing towards her.


My grandmother told me to help myself to anything in the walk-in pantry, where the shelves were lined with mason jars of stewed fruit—apples, pears and peaches—along with jars of pickled cabbage, carrots and cucumbers. The mini-refrigerator was half the size of the one back home. Along the walls, green and brown bottles of beer—some empty, some full—sat in crates next to cases of orange and yellow soda. I was fascinated by the fact that none of the bottles was labeled. In years to come, I would understand that everything was state-owned, so there was little need for labels or brand names. Czechs called things by their common names: shoes were shoes, yellow soda was yellow soda and bread was bread, not Buster Brown, Mountain Dew and Wonder Bread.

One day, I got a bellyache. I told my grandmother that the only known cure was Coca-Cola. Right away, she sent one of my uncles to the local tavern to buy me a few bottles. Standing there in the kitchen, guzzling Coca-Cola from that shapely, familiar bottle, I felt something like nostalgia for America. But I also felt guilt when I noticed the price was four crowns, twice as much as communist soda.

It was a small miracle that my American clothes survived my grandmother’s galvanized washtub. She gave my Levis jeans such a drubbing that they appeared stonewashed long before it was fashionable. My T-shirts, socks and underwear felt stiff like papier-mâché. I worried that my clothes’ hardened quality would fetter my movements, limiting my ability to play. Of course, I never said a word about it to my grandmother, but one thing was clear: in the future, instead of digital wristwatches, I would smuggle fabric softener into Czechoslovakia.

Ježiš Maria! Krucifix! Herr Gott! My grandmother shouted whenever my grandfather misbehaved—too much drink, a silly comment or a poorly timed fart. Slightly ashamed, my grandfather would flash me a toothless grin and say, “Babička se zlobý!” (“Grandma is angry!”) I always felt a little sorry for him, but Babička was the boss.

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One morning, I awoke too early. When I didn’t find my grandmother in the kitchen, I went to see if she was in the courtyard. Pressing the crown of my head against the screen door, I watched my grandmother pull a white rabbit from the hutch. As she held it high in the air by its hind legs, it tried to wriggle free. She gave the rabbit several Bruce Lee karate chops to the nape of the neck. I wanted to cry out, but I didn’t. Like the rabbit, which now hung limp and motionless, something inside me went still. When my grandmother caught me watching, she told me to get away from the door. It was too late. I needed to see what happened next. She took a sharp knife and made a small incision behind the rabbit’s skull. Crimson blood dripped into a metal pail.

That summer, my cousin Zdenek and I ran wild in the rolling hills and vineyards of southern Moravia. As an American boy, I enjoyed a certain celebrity among the villagers, who were curious about that distant and forbidden land across the Atlantic Ocean. I did not deserve their special attention—I was not a hero—but I did not shy away from it, either.

In America, I was the only son of working-class émigré parents who lived in a desolate suburb on Long Island. In Czechoslovakia, I was the living symbol of something far greater—a freedom so vast that it could live only in the imagination. To the three hundred inhabitants of my mother’s Moravian village, I was the little boy from America—an avatar of the West far more real than any Radio Free Europe or Voice of America broadcast.

Some of my early adventures behind the Iron Curtain were odd and uncanny, the way childhood can often be. I remember, for example, playing soccer with villagers beneath a metallic sculpture depicting the crucifixion. Every once in a while, the soccer ball ricocheted off Christ’s thorn-crowned head, and we all cringed with a reverence we didn’t entirely understand. During one such pickup soccer game, a strange boy with a sinister smile stood next to Christ and watched me play from behind the goalpost. Then he ran out onto the field and punched me in the head for no apparent reason. I didn’t know who the boy was or why he hit me.


Every once in a while, the soccer ball ricocheted off Christ’s thorn-crowned head, and we all cringed with a reverence we didn’t entirely understand.


I was typically well protected by my teenage uncles and their friends, who watched over me like amateur bodyguards. At home, in America, I was a suburban latchkey kid who spent a lot of time alone, staring blankly out the window, but here I didn’t have time to be lonely. Zdenek and I climbed trees and handpicked sour crab apples and overripe cherries. With our slingshots, we shot pigs in the ass. My uncle Jírka took me canoeing on the village pond overgrown with cattails. My uncle Pepík let me drive his go-kart, which he had built himself, powered by an old motorcycle engine. My grandfather took me for rides on the tractor that he drove for JZD, the state farm collective. My grandmother baked delicious koláče—pastries stuffed with farmer’s cheese, egg yolk and raisins.

Bad things happened too. In the middle of the night, I suffered my first asthma attack. In a state of panic, my grandparents rushed me to a doctor in the Polski Fiat. Gasping for air, I fainted in the backseat of the car, only to awaken on the doctor’s examination table. Something in the air outside Brno did not agree with me. But the doctor didn’t know what it was.

Asthma or no asthma, I liked to run around the village bare-chested. On one shirtless summer day, I ran down a hill and fell into a tangle of stinging nettles and wild hemp. I emerged screaming in agony. Within a week, I was stung yet again when I stepped barefoot on a giant bumblebee. Poor Uncle Jírka had to endure my cries: “Ja umřů! Ja umřů!” (“I’m going to die! I’m going to die!”) But I didn’t die. And at the end of my first Moravian summer, in 1978, I didn’t want to go back to America.

When my parents picked me up at JFK Airport in their green 1972 Mercury Monterey, I was melancholy. I sat in the backseat, where through the rearview mirror I could see my father’s gray-blue eyes and his bushy brown sideburns. He always drove with a king-size Benson & Hedges cigarette in his mouth. My mother sat in the passenger seat and sometimes gave my father bad directions, which made him angry.

On this car ride, though, my father’s cold steel gaze was softer than usual. He concentrated on navigating traffic on the eastbound Long Island Expressway—a slithering snake of asphalt and steel that twisted its way toward the eastern horizon.

My mom’s long, brown hippie hair had recently been cut. It was now short and sassy, like Dorothy Hamill’s. She turned sideways in her seat and asked me questions about her relatives with the enthusiasm of a schoolgirl. I told stories in my much-improved kitchen Czech. They listened intently. I was happy to see my parents, but as I translated my Moravian experiences from memory to spoken word, I lapsed into silence. When we pulled into the driveway of our house, I burst into tears and cried, “I want to go back! Let me go back! Why did you ever leave?”


R.G. Vasicek, the son of Czech defectors, was born in Austria in 1969. He grew up in the pine barrens of Long Island and has lived in New York City since 1995. His writing has appeared in Barrelhouse, Camera Obscura, Gargoyle, Mid-American Review, Post Road, The Prague Revue, Uncanny Valley and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature. R.G. lives in Astoria, Queens, with his wife and two sons.

Photo by Toffee Maky

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