First, let me offer some travel hints for those of you planning a trip from Belarus to Utah. Don’t count on a direct flight. Air Belarus probably doesn’t get farther than Vilna. At some point, you will miss a connecting flight. A relative of a friend made it up all the way to Chicago before she found herself taking up residency at O’Hare Airport. Until the next available flight, the lady had twelve hours of airport food and CNN overheads. Since she doesn’t speak English, she might have thought that Wolfe Blitzer was intelligible.
When told this story, some sympathy was expected. Nah…I have heard worse. I have survived worse…
Out of college and with no prospects of a career, what could be a better time to take the Grand Tour of Europe. I might “find myself”; if not, I was in a wonderful place to be lost. From February to December of 1975, the shabby, shaggy younger me ranged throughout the continent. It would be quicker to tell you the countries that I didn’t visit: Ireland, Albania, Romania and Poland. Yes, I even got to Russia, although that required joining an organized tour. (You just didn’t show up at the border of the USSR and smile your way through.)
I generally traveled by train and, to avoid the cost of a hotel, I would travel by night. That was my planned itinerary for my last day in Prague. I would see a Smetana opera that evening, get to the railroad station and board the night train to West Germany. Seven hours later I would be in Munich. So, what could go wrong?
At the last Czech train station before the German border, all the passengers were roused from the train. The secret police no doubt was searching for aspiring defectors. There were only a few passengers; we took our bags and were prodded into a fairly large, utilitarian room that served all the purposes of a train station. At some point, the police search concluded; I didn’t hear screams or gunshots, so the inspection must have been uneventful. No doubt in some Slavic language, there was an announcement that the passengers could return to the train. But I don’t speak any Slavic language, and I didn’t notice the other passengers leaving the room. I only realized at the last minute that my train was leaving. I rushed out to the platform; the train was slowly moving and there was a possibility of jumping abroad. However, I was somewhat deterred by the sight of guards with machine guns. Here was my dilemma: I could live to regret missing the train…or not live at all.
I decided to wait for the next train. There certainly would be one. The station master made use of his fingers and a schedule to tell me when that next train would be. Unfortunately, I learned that there would be a slight wait of 18 hours. Being stranded at a Czech border town at 2 in the morning does not have much allure. My predicament made me a slight celebrity–and anecdote–at the station, and a cab driver offered in pidgin German and English to come to my rescue. HE could drive me to the German border. That certainly seemed preferable to 18 hours in stasis. Of course, I agreed.
However, what he couldn’t explain–or didn’t wish to–was the exact nature of that Czech-German border. So, when I left his cab and approached the Czech border crossing, I learned that the German crossing was just seven kilometers away. A mere four-miles of no-man’s land at 3 in the morning; yes, I was also in the dark but there was a paved road for my convenience. I certainly kept on it, since I didn’t wish to stray into any minefields that landscaped either side. I imagine that there were a few sniperscopes on me as well; had one of the guards been in a grouchy mood, this story would be an incident rather than an anecdote. To further assure the guards that I was an imbecile rather than a spy, I sang as loudly as I could. Fortunately, I do have a good voice; so there would have been no aesthetic justification for shooting me.
At approximately 4:30 a.m., I reached the German crossing. Yes, its guards looked at me with amazement; but as long as passport was in order, my sanity didn’t need to be.
And now you know my tale.