I've had the wanderlust as long as I can remember. In the fifties and sixties, one of my relatives worked for an international (meaning western) airline, and, as a kid, I'd go to the airline's office on Vaclavske Namesti (Wenceslas Square), in the center of Prague, and gaze in the window, gaping at the exotic posters and the little models of sleek aircraft. I hoped that he'd come out and invite me in, and sometimes he did, but not often enough. When I reached 16, it was a time to find a vacation job for a month or two and earn some extra cash. Since going out of the country was impossible, I went for the next best thing; I applied at Prague Ruzyne Airport for a temporary job. I wanted a bit of glamor, to work in a place where, as I told my parents, was a scent of faraway places. The reality was somewhat different as I was assigned to the Aircraft Washing Crew.
Ruzyne in those days was a small airport with a single story terminal, a small apron, and instead of jetways, these curious little paddocks for the herding of passengers. There was an old DC-3 Dakota taildragger parked in front of the terminal that was converted into a high-end restaurant. I was inside once, but I never saw it open to the public. Adjacent to the terminal was the staff entrance gate and, at that time, there were three maintenance hangars and assorted workshops and offices. There were a few housing units on the airport grounds and, the icing on the cake for a teenager, an outdoor swimming pool. The CSA, OK, airline had a small fleet of mostly turbo-props, and a couple of Tupolev jets, but this was more than enough to service the routes CSA had in those days. With Montreal (via Gander, Canada and Shannon, Ireland), Havana, Cuba, New York, I think, and a selection of European destinations, it was not much.
On my first day, I was issued a metal bucket, some soapy substance and a 20-foot long mop. My supervisor then took me up a step ladder and onto the wing of Ilyushin IL-18 turbo-prop. I was to mop the upper side of the wing. I had no idea how filthy planes could get. Apart from the usual dirt, there were trails from leaking hydraulic fluids, some oily stains and brown, gooey stuff of indeterminate origin. Washing the wings was tricky. There were not too many places where one could stand and the wing's curved. Add soapy water to that and you have a one hell of slippery surface. Still, this was preferable to doing the underside of the wing, or, heaven forbid, the underside of the tail. Imagine waving a 20-foot long mop, drenched with soapy water and slapping it on the underside of a tail. Invariably, the soap pours down on your face, gets in your eyes, and the mop is top-heavy and unwieldy. It was not pleasant, but after a while I got the hang of it. We were not that busy, so we also cleaned the ball bearings of the undercarriage wheels. This was done by drowning the bearings, about the size of a fist, in a bath of pure kerosene, slosh them around a bit and then blow the remaining crap out with compressed air hose. All in all it was a dirty job, but I liked the planes and I could swim at lunchtime in the pool (and ogle a dark-haired girl called Tamara!) or lie in the grass by the runway and watch the planes take-off and land. And I was getting paid for this.
The following year, in the summer of 1968, I decided to go back for about six weeks. That would give me enough time to have a short break and then go to pick hops in Hredle at the end of August with my college. It did not quite work out that way.
It was customary, in those days, to attend dancing classes. As soon as I was 16, my mother enrolled me at Zofin with Dusan Konecny as the Dance Master. I enjoyed the dance classes. It was a social occasion, most of my friends were there and we met girls. Subtly, through the dance decorum, we also learned manners. During one of the sessions, Konecny asked me to join his "Circle", which consisted of about 10 couples who met twice a week and rehearsed under Konecny's direction. I thought it was a remedial class, but it was quite the opposite. Gradually, the Circle became a closely knit group and we started meeting for other activities not related to dancing, like camping and climbing sandstone rocks at Prihrazy in Cesky Raj.
Konecny usually took summers off, but our group still had access to the rehearsal hall (a truly stunning ballroom today!) and the group met there frequently, half-heartedly practicing and hanging out as only teenagers can. One day a stranger appeared and started asking a lot of questions about our abilities and if we were interested in being a part of a television show. We didn't really take it seriously, but we went along when he started teaching us new moves - jazz-type dance. He worked us so hard for 10 days, we could barely walk. Then he told us to set aside the following week as we would start shooting in various locations in Prague. I turned up at the first location, Ledeburske Zahrady, the terraced gardens under the Castle, and could not believe my eyes. There were Marta Kubisova, Vaclav Neckar and Helena Vondrackova, popular entertainers of the day, with Jaromir Vasta, the well known director. We were the backup dancers. The next day, Charles Bridge closed for most of the day because we were shooting there with The Moody Blues. I bought some beer from "U Tri Pstrosu" and shared it with the band, communicating in broken English, between takes. I was having a ball. Then it was off to some palace or other with a German chanteuse Manuela and later on to another location with Peggy Lee. On one glorious occassion, someone asked me for an autograph. For a 17-year old that was über-important.
The program was to be broadcast in the evening of August 21 1968. That did not happen, the Warsaw Pact armies who arrived that morning, unanounced and uninvited, put a stop to that, and when it was broadcast a year or two later, I was in England. I never saw it. Later I heard that Jaromir Vasta eventually became a "non-person", languished for twenty five years and died in 1996.
I spent rest of that summer working at the airport, but I no longer had to wrestle with the wet, soapy mop. I was promoted to a "Driver's Mate". The new terminal and new runway at Ruzyne opened, but since plane maintenance was still done at the old airport, the planes had to be towed back and forth using powerful "Tatra 141 Tahac" trucks. It was not that far, but the trip between the airports took about 40 minutes because there was a strict speed limit. My job was to attach the plane to the truck with a special coupler and make sure that driver did not get lost while towing it. The drivers were all, without exception, lazy drunks, who preferred to spend their time drinking beer in the employee bar at the airport. Yes, they had their own putyka, a bar, close to the swimming pool, right on the airport grounds. Often, I had to drag my driver from the bar and coax him into the cab when we got a call that a plane needed moving. Sometimes, I ended up driving the huge truck as he sat next to me mumbling incoherent directions and useful safety tips.
But I enjoyed the job. I started to bring white cotton gloves to work (from my dancing lessonssee!). I liked the contrast of my oil-stained overalls with pure white cotton gloves. I'd put them on specially in front of the new terminal, hoping that everyone would see me as I expertly secured a huge plane to the tow truck, waved to the semi-conscious, drunk driver and then nimbly jumped on the truck's running boards as it was lurching ahead.
...ten months later, I was on the same plane as a passenger, flying to London, England and determined to return... never.
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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions