This I Believe: Prague 1969
I become the place where I am. Because I was nomadic as a child, I learned to adapt, to become a part of different places and times, becoming a piece of the mosaic making up life.
Life goes on in its usual way, and suddenly something happens in the midst of it, signaling changes. History swells, then crests. This vignette is about what I think was a change in history. I was a traveler and a witness. It happened in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in August of 1969.
I had planned that at the end of a long trip circling “the Continent,” I would fly with student-rate tickets from Helsinki to Prague, passing through Copenhagen and East Berlin. I was going to celebrate an anniversary of sorts, the sad, one year birthday of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.
I remember the gleeming airport in Copenhagen, it contrasted sharply with the grey, bunker-style facilities of East Berlin where passenger passports were confiscated, stacked and taken away by serious looking officials. They took us through one and then another cement block building, on a gloomy night reminiscent of movies known for hopeless tomorrows.
No one talked. All we could do was wonder nervously what was to become of our identities: in the grey fog, it seemed that anything could happen, perhaps to anybody. I had just turned seventeen, and was an American in cold war, enemy territory.
During the flight to Prague I was introduced to communist hard candy (red stars on cellophane), and I kept a souvenir of the little packet of slippery, waxy product which passed for toilet paper. I thought my chances of getting into Prague were improved by a small Lenin button displayed on my jacket lapel.
When we arrived at Prague hundreds awaited entry, held up by Czechoslovak immigration: mostly journalists, young people, and fellow travelers. They were so disgruntled that they had come all that way, only to be urged to find a return flight home.
I was whisked to the front of a line, so I guess that my Lenin pin had clout. Who knows, in their book I might one day become the commissar of the United States of the United Soviet Empire, or something. I got onto a cold bus, dutifully joining few others as if I were embarking on a brave new, unknown adventure. I met an American fellow who helped orient me and took me to a dorm-hostel, as drab as the night is long.
The next morning I ventured toward the site of protest, the central square known as Wenceslas, presided over by the “Good King” who is its namesake. Soon a woman accompanied by her male companion walked gingerly to the steps, and there placed a rose in memory of the fallen of the past year. It was high drama; everything appeared to be choreographed, and there were high stakes in its denouement. If enough people placed flowers and got away with it, there would be thousands encouraged to take the statue, then the square and the city and (who knows?) maybe the country.
All stood with baited breath, our toes pointed at the very edges of the curb. A beribboned army man had the couple pick up their flower and take their place in the wings. Whistles of derision and booing rained down on the officials. You could hear tanks roaring into action in the background, which soon would take center stage and clear the area. Before they arrived, men in army trucks sprayed the assembled office workers, tradesmen, and others at face level with tear gas.
The rest of the day was downhill from there, a valiant but losing battle of the streets. To survive I read crowd moods and vehicle movements. I had to not engage in any activity which would have spelled my doom. Indelible impressions included the rumbling beneath my feet (treads of sixty-foot tanks); trolleys rerouted by activists; the use of gases banned by the Geneva Convention; and a little street in which a vehicle had been run over and squashed flat as a pancake— it was rumored that someone died there.
In the evening I made my way over crushed debris, and with a small group was allowed into a cathedral by its priest, to take refuge, because there was a street fight going on nearby. Soon after I had taken my seat on a wobbly pew, I heard gas canisters thudding against the roof. (“Was this what the Germans did, twenty-five or thirty years ago, here?” I asked myself.)
In the silence we heard a knock on the towering main door, then the crisp, marked time of military officers’ boot heels. They came three abreast down the central aisle’s stone floor, looking to one side and the other for any culprits who might have merged with the faithful. There was no difference between those who worshiped, and those who sought refuge— we were all one. No one so much as squeaked. I felt that never before had I looked so angelic, so like unto a faithful Catholic churchgoer: there was no way that I wanted to be entangled in spy charges or caught in bureaucratic traps. When the men left, those of us who had other things to do were ushered out as discreetly as we’d been let in, and the services resumed.
In the States, when I came back two weeks later, nobody seemed to know or care about what had happened in Prague in August of 1969. There was no one at school who understood. I don’t believe the event was covered much at all by the mainstream media.
What do I believe, because I saw history being made? Who was I, a seventeen-year-old with mere conscience and eyes for credentials, to tell what happened? I believe that there are times when a struggling movement can plant seeds for huge change— a movement can get things moving. (Soon Solidarnoszc in Poland would arise; the USSR would split apart; the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia would fall apart in 1989, and a poet would take leadership of the Czech Republic.)
I believe that what we see with our own eyes is important, and that the decision to witness becomes part of history, or at least may take part in how it is written and remembered. What governments and empires do has to be seen and, even more so, looked into.