There we were, at Prague Ruzyne Airport, at 11 am on a cloudy Tuesday morning, in June 1969, drinking beer and trying to act cool, sophisticated and worldly. We were anything but, Michal and I. It was our first trip out of the country and only the second time on a plane. Even then, this was a moment of calm after a few whirlwind days and a six tense months.
We'd gone to our school in Karlin the day before, and, with one exception, we were the only ones who knew that it was our last visit. The day before that, we celebrated my 18th birthday. We'd spent the evening in that famous brewery/pub U Fleku and drank dark, rich, silky beer with Gaston, the only one who knew about our plan, and we resolved to meet at that same place in exactly ten years time. None of us suspected that 33 years would pass before the three of us would sit there again. These last days were a mix of excitement and a sense of vague regret, a kind of determined sadness. We were on a runaway train but we did not want to use the brakes. I was acutely aware that we were actually experiencing for the last time, those mundane and familiar things. Jumping on a tram, walking through the Holesovice neighborhood, eating fatty sausages with yellow mustard and stale bread on Wenceslas Square.
We were leaving our country of birth, our families, our friends, our collectively pre-determined future, and we knew there was no going back anytime soon. Failure was not an option to consider, equal parts teenage bravado and personal credo.
It all began just over a year earlier. After a 20-year Communist rule, there were dramatic changes on the political and social landscape in our little central European country. The Prague Spring of 1968, as this brief period of heady renaissance was called, curiously did not evolve from popular dissent. There were changes at the top tiers of the government and the ruling Communist Party. Laws were being relaxed, there was something resembling freedom of speech and the possibility of conducting a business on a small scale. Communism with a Human Face was the oxymoron-ish slogan. The changes were modest and there was no talk of a complete change of regime, ostensibly, communism and "the shared wealth" concept was tweaked a bit here and there. But it was immensely exciting to two 17-year old students. We knew a bit about the recent history, the parts that were simply omitted in our schoolbooks. Second World War ended only 6 years before I was born and the Communists grabbed power three years later, in 1948. The period between 1918 and 1939, called the First Republic, was the first time that Czechs were free from outside influences and the young country flourished economically and culturally. In 1968, it seemed that the whole country was waking up again from a long stupor. We engaged in peaceful demonstrations, debated the suddenly accessible party leaders, and could see the way out of the communist drabness and conformity. But this national euphoria lasted a few short months. Early in the morning of August 21, Soviet and other Warsaw Pact countries' armed forces crossed the Czechoslovak national borders. Our great social experiment was over. After a week of ineffective street skirmishes and futile attempts to persuade the soldiers to go home, the Soviets solidified their power, installed their own puppet political leaders and the dark period of normalization began.
As the warmth and hope of the Prague Spring turned into deep disappointment, the rainy, bleak autumn came. Even though the Soviet intervention was widely denounced in the West, predictably, there was no meaningful action. No one was inclined to start a major conflict over a tiny, perennially troubled country in the middle of Europe. The low point came in January 1969 when Jan Palach, a student at the Charles University immolated himself in protest in the center of Prague. Michal and I, along with thousands of others, attended his funeral, but his desperate action was ignored by the Soviets and the government. People started to leave the country for good; disillusioned, prodded by the fear of future persecution and a basic desire for a better life. Suddenly, my friend Robert, along with his family has vanished. Rumor was that they had gone to Australia. That was the beginning of a tiny thought; a preposterous, insane, subversive whisper.
It was not that easy. Czechoslovakia was a big prison and leaving it was not exactly applicant-friendly process and traveling out of the country in 1969 was a bureaucratic nightmare. Numerous endorsements and documents were required to secure both the exit visa (from the Czechs) and to obtain the necessary entry visa into the destination country. Most important was the invitation, a letter from someone abroad clearly stating that the Czech person is invited to visit for a specified period and that all expenses associated with that persons' stay will be paid by the sponsor. Lodging, food, travel, theatre tickets...everything.
The Czechs were unwillingly turned into a nation of freeloaders. My problem was; I did not have the invitation letter.
Then along came Audrey from faraway Scotland.
Audrey Clarke was Michal's pen pal in Glasgow, Scotland and somehow he convinced her to send the required official invitation for both of us. We took the invitation Audrey had sent to the British Embassy, along with our visa application. We were told that this was not enough, but if we could get the invitation endorsed by Audrey's parents, a visa may be issued. Miraculously, her working class parents came through for us and it was only later that I fully appreciated this gesture. At that point, Audrey was the only person we knew in the UK.
The evening before our departure, I took a walk past my old elementary school where I had spent nine years. I knew every crack in the sidewalk, every doorway in that street. It was a calm, balmy evening, strangely quiet. And there, right in front of the school door, was Blanka. A slender, dark haired girl, whom I had a major crush on when I was fifteen. My very first love. She'd rejected my clumsy advances and we never really hit it off. But that evening, we started to talk again, perched on that steel railing in front of the school. We talked for a long time and for the first time ever we found our balance. The awkwardness was gone, and instead there was a comfortable rhythm to our conversation. There was a connection and an opening. All for nothing. In few hours I was going to be thousands of miles away in another world, but I could not tell her.
In the morning, with both of my parents at work and my sister at school, I packed my suitcase, left a sealed envelope on the table - "Open it, it's for you" - and on my way out, I dropped my keys through the letterbox. That simple gesture hammered home the gravity of that moment; a point of no return. I took a tram to Kotva, the city terminal for CSA - Czechoslovak Airlines, where I was to meet my co-conspirator Michal and our friend Gaston who wanted to say goodbye. Gaston gave us 50 West German marks and Michal and I had the equivalent of five dollars each. I don't remember the conversion rate for German marks in those days, but what we had between us amounted to very little. All of our preparations were focused on getting on the plane - we had no plans of what to do when we would land on London in few hours. As a last minute's thought, Gaston gave us an address of two Czechs he knew in the London suburb of Croydon. Perhaps they would help in some undefined way.
And we were off. On the airport bus. It was a familiar ride for me. For two years I spent a part of my summer vacation working at the airport, first as an aircraft washer (yes, a long mop and soap was used to clean the planes) and later as a driver's mate helping to tow the planes from the maintenance hangar to the new airport apron. "You can smell the faraway places there", I used to say. Now I was a passenger on one of those planes, a traveler, a jet setter, suave and sophisticated. We were leaving behind our childhood, families and a dim prospect of living under a communist regime. Granted, that was all we knew, but the Prague Spring opened a tiny window offering a glimpse of how things could be. That window was firmly shut by the Soviet Union takeover some ten months before. Euphoria was followed by disbelief and then depression.
I was a third year student at Prumyslovka, a Light Industrial and Optical School in Karlin. I was not doing that well there. Chances were that I'd end up as a lower to mid-level supervisor in some oily factory. Spending a few weeks each year as an intern, I knew what to expect. I also knew that I'd rebel eventually and probably find myself in some serious trouble.
I have only hazy memories about the short flight. The plane was a Soviet Ilyushin, less then half full. Michal I and we sat next to the emergency exit that emitted a cold stream of outside air. We laughed a lot...at everything. It was an adventure, but I think we were quite scared.
Cold ham and potato salad finished, juice and beer duly drunk, safety belts fastened. Descending through fluffy clouds into England....
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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions