[I update and repost this story every couple of years on the 21st of August. This time I feel it especially poignantly, given the state of the planet and where I believe we're heading. Today wraps up a week I spent in contemplation of what activism means for me, what I think of carrying a U.S. Passport, how I feel about living in a world that not only seems to be sinking but everyone seems intent on taking everyone else down with them. But also, never never ever forgetting that it is at the same time a world of ineffable beauty, breathtaking heroism, mind-boggling wisdom and a soul-lifing capacity for love. Please, for me, remember that as you read.]
* * *
Forty-three years ago today my brother and I woke to a hushed cottage, way past when we should have been rousted out of bed. It being August, our family had joined the rest of Prague in taking ourselves into the country for a few weeks and it was there, in a rented cottage, in an old fashioned village with a central square and all, that we picked through the past few days' activities looking for something, anything, that we'd just been found out for. You know how it is. The whispering, recalling, suggesting, rejecting, all the while knowing that sooner or later one of us would have to go out into that kitchen and find out what was going on.
Brother was eleven and I was thirteen. Mother had been ill for a couple of years so we were pretty used to fending for ourselves. This vacation was something of a celebration that she had started to recover. She and our grandmother had gone there ahead of us by a couple of weeks while we were at summer camp swimming and basking and (some stuff omitted here because she reads this blog).
The day before I arrived at the cottage grandmother was taken to the hospital with a heart attack, and the day after, she was gone and then brother arrived and there was a funeral and that haunted look was back in mother's eyes.
Well this was two weeks later and dear gods she can't take much more, what in the world had we done that would cause this devastating tension, thick with fear and tragedy and which one of us would be the first to find out? We never did decide. Mother came in, pale and drawn and in shock, I just knew if I touched her, she would be cold as ice. "The army of the Soviet Union moved in during the night to occupy Czechoslovakia," she said.
It always amazes me how in a split second one's world can totally and irrevocably change forever.
There's a song by Ron Ireland, when he was still performing as Resonator Ghost, called In a Shallow River, goes
... I didn't see it coming
never gave it a thought
it was like a bolt of lightning
or a stray gun shot
it hit me like a hammer
right between the eyes
I guess that's why, why, why
they call it a surprise ...
It was a lot like that. There was the numb incomprehension at first as I tried to wrap my mind around that, my childhood had simply not prepared me for that eventuality. Yep, that's why they call it a surprise.
"The army of the Soviet Union moved in during the night to occupy Czechoslovakia," she said.
Back before everything was all flashy electronics I used to love playing pinball and now, thinking back on it, that's what happened in my mind, thoughts flying screaming ricocheting and with each hit another flash of illumination...
while we slept
and we thought it was us
glad she's here with us
she looks awful
why does she say occupy
put us in our place
the Russians did this
song of freedom too loud
so where are they
doesn't matter, everywhere
woods outside the village
is this the best place to be
no place is
a hundred thousand troops
what about Prague
oh that'll be a mess...
so what does it all mean
kah-pling! kah-pling! kah-pling!
She went away again while brother and I got our bearings the way we always did, by sharing and talking and yes in the end the only question that mattered was how can we do something useful, which really meant something important and heroic...
In the end the heroics looked vastly different than we imagined. Real heroes tell me it's usually like that. We stepped in taking care of mother. We took turns under the village loudspeaker while the other was the "news runner." Until the radio was finally silenced.
There is a marvelous book documenting those days, the maverick radio broadcasts continuing, being raided, picking up elsewhere ... Eternal gratitude to you if you can tell me what the book is. "... when you hear the national anthem coming from your radio you'll know it's all over ..."
There were the voices of our new leaders exhorting to passive resistance because the occupying forces were really hoping for violent confrontation. Brother and I argued that this must be a fake, or they were made to say that, of course we'll fight back...
There were the heartwarming stories of the Czechs fighting back with humor. My favorite was when road signs throughout the country were turned around to all point east, back to Moscow, actually causing several convoys to get lost...
At night when she worried about us going about we sat at the kitchen table and made little Czech flags which we then handed out with straight pins for people to wear as a silent shout of independence (guess what I think of the hoopla around which of our candidates will or won't wear the american flag on their lapel).
A few days later, when, chillingly, the anthem sounded, the noise started dying down, no radio broadcasts to monitor, leaders under house arrest and an air of waiting claiming the country, the roads started to open up a little bit, at least, for essential travel. I managed to talk somebody into arranging a spot for us on a bus that had clearance to go into Prague. We traveled aboard the national basketball team's rig and nobody boarded the bus to inspect all the occupants and we made it home.
Well from here on the story is no longer about today's anniversary, it evolves into one about surviving physically and mentally and emotionally during a prolonged military occupation of one's homeland, the choices and trade-offs, the explorations into integrity and the like. A story for another time.
But, if you're not too busy tonight, if the TV isn't totally compelling, google prague 1968 and peruse the articles. Think on what the people in 1968 were telling western journalists and tourists, "please don't forget Czechoslovakia."
Thanks for remembering with me.
Reactions to the arrival of the occupying forces. From the book and exhibition 'Invasion 68: Prague' (Aperature 2008). (Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos)