Peter Vodenka (born Petr Vodenka), 1955
Peter Vodenka was born in Prague in August 1955, but raised in Mníšek pod Brdy where his father, Stanislav, worked as an industrial designer at an iron ore processing plant. Peter’s mother, Jarmila, worked in the same processing factory. In 1970, Peter moved to Prague to attend trade school, where he trained to become a plumber. He graduated in 1973 and remained in Prague, living in the city’s Vinohrady district. Unhappy with his job three years later, Peter moved back to Mníšek pod Brdy and quit plumbing to become a lumberjack. It was at this time that he met his future wife, Ludmila – the sister-in-law of one of his colleagues. The couple were married at Karlštejn Castle in 1978. A lover of nature and an avid ‘tramp,’ Peter moved to rural southern Bohemia to work on a collective farm. It was there, in Hrejkovice, that he and Ludmila started raising their two children. Peter says he moved to southern Bohemia, among other reasons, so that he could have his own horse; he bought a mare and called it Nelly Gray, after an American song he had heard.
Peter says that he has always been fascinated by America: while still living in Czechoslovakia he and his brother Stanislav owned a U.S. military Jeep dating from WWII, set their watches to reflect American Eastern Time and formed a horse-riding, tramping group called the Corral OK. In 1983, Peter decided to immigrate to America with his family. He drove with his wife and two children first to Hungary and then to Yugoslavia, where they left their car at the border and made their way into Austria by foot in the middle of the night. According to Peter, the crossing attracted the attention of patrolling Yugoslav border guards and the family was pursued. They made it, however, into Austria where one of Peter’s cousins, who had emigrated some months previously, picked them up and escorted them to Traiskirchen refugee camp. Peter and his family were there for three days until they were moved to Ramsau. In September 1983, the Vodenkas arrived in America. Peter and his family were sponsored by the First Lutheran Church in Beach, North Dakota, where they settled for a couple of years. Today, the Vodenkas live in Scandia, Minnesota. Peter regularly speaks publicly about coming to America and, in 2007, he wrote a book about his experiences called Journey for Freedom. Today, he runs a construction company and still enjoys outdoor pursuits, such as hunting in the Black Hills.
Peter says he was fascinated by America growing up
“I was always dreaming about being a cowboy. And I wanted to be in America, because my dad was always talking about being in America and he was singing songs… My dad played guitar and he was singing songs and we used to go out camping, sleeping under the sky and we’d go camping for a vacation and so I was always dreaming of America, and of course the romantic parts about cowboys and Indians, which we read about in the books of Karl May and others, about Winnetou and others – this was really intriguing me. I always wanted to be a cowboy. But because we were living in the town, there was no place to have a horse, and eventually when I got married and had children, we moved to southern Bohemia and I started working on a government farm (JZD) and that gave me a chance to actually purchase a horse, so we had a horse over there and for two years prior to my defection I was living my dream; I was riding a horse across the countryside.”
Peter founded a group called the ‘Corral OK’ with his brother
“Tramping to us was really special, of course you know I was thinking about that when I came to America because the name ‘tramp’ in Czech was somebody who was noble, it was a noble name; it was somebody who was good, a right person, a true patriot, a person who knows nature and loves nature. Of course, in America, tramp is a degrading word, and I didn’t know that until we came over here but the tramping movement was very strong and very big, and like I said, my dad was involved in it, you know, since WWII pretty much. And then of course he lead us that way also.
“The OK Corral was a group which was my brother, myself and a friend of ours. Of course, we read about the battle of the OK Corral and the shoot out at the OK Corral – again that was a part of American history which we really ate up, which we admired and thought was very interesting. So, we named our group the OK Corral, of course we didn’t do it right, we named our group Corral OK, but that was all that we knew at the time. We didn’t speak English.”
Peter says working herding cattle at the collective farm was not as he expected
“No actually it didn’t. It was totally different. The cattle – I was feeling sorry for the animals – because they were chained to the troughs all the time. They were not grazing outside. They grew up chained to the trough until they died. But of course when the calves were young and little, they were separated from their mothers and put in the one building, and when they came to a certain age they moved into different buildings, and when the cows became another age, when they were impregnated for the first time and started having milk, then they were moved to a different place where they were milked. So it wasn’t really the way I was picturing it – the romantic way. There was one time, there was one occasion, when some calves, actually some steer – it was steer – broke out and they ran out. And now somebody has to go and find them. That was my chance, I jumped on my horse and I ran across the countryside until I found them. And I was trying to push them back in, and it didn’t work because they were scared themselves, because they had never been outside. I was trying to push them back in and soon I realized that they were actually trying to follow me. When I was trying to push them they were trying to get behind me, so I ended up just trying to ride my horse back to the village and they actually came with me, they were actually following me all the way to the building. But it was the one occasion when I actually did some cattle herding.”
When Peter and his family emigrated, they left his parents a note which was intercepted
“We left that letter in our living room on the coffee table. And we were thinking that if we do defect, if we find a way, we’re going to call them and tell them to go to our apartment, because we gave them keys, and that way they’re going to find more. We didn’t want the government to hear our conversation, so we just told them ‘Go to our apartment and you’re going to find more.’ And if we don’t find a way across the border, we’re going to come back, burn the letter and it’s going to be done and over with. Well, unfortunately what happened is my wife – she had plants, and she was afraid the plants were going to die. So she put the plants in the bathtub and talked to our neighbor, because the apartment was set up that when you open the front door, you walk into the hallway, and when you are in the hallway, you can go into the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room and a bedroom. So, she put all the plants in the bathtub, and we locked all the other inside doors and we told her ‘Can you water the plants twice a week’ or whatever they needed. She [my wife] said ‘You don’t need to go anywhere else, I put everything in the bathtub, and all the other doors are locked, so you don’t need to go anywhere else.’
“Well, the nosy neighbor came in, and she tried the inside keys from her apartment on our apartment doors and of course, they opened. So she walked in the living room and she saw the letter. And she had the news that nobody else had. She felt like a big shot – we were living in a small village – so now she’s walking through the village telling everybody ‘Don’t say anything, but the Vodenkas defected, they are going to America.’ Well, we hadn’t, we were probably just barely across the border. Of course, it came to our employer and our employer had to report it to the police. They immediately called the border crossing and said ‘Arrest these people, stop these people with this license plate, with these passports and with these names.’ Well, luckily for us, we were across the border in Hungary by then, so it didn’t stop us but, again, if we didn’t find our way and we just came back acting like nothing happened, we would have been arrested and sent to prison immediately, so…”
Peter says he did not want to settle into a predominantly Czech community in America
“We were not really seeking Czech people, and we also heard in the refugee camp, there were some people who had friends who had actually been sponsored to come to Boston, and they were telling – they were sending letters back to their friends back in Austria and they were saying ‘There’s a Czech community, you don’t even need to speak English over here. There are stores, owners of stores speak Czech, and in the church they speak Czech and in the houses and everywhere, they speak Czech.’ I was actually afraid that we were going to get sent to a place like that, because I wanted to be in America. Because I want to learn English, and the sooner, the better. I knew the sooner we spoke the language, the sooner we could get on with our lives.”
Peter remembers arriving in New York City in 1983
“Everybody’s changing their watch to the local time, everybody takes their watch and changes it to the local time. And I took my watch and I want to change it to the local time and I realize, I have the time on my watch already. For the last eight years, my brother one time figured out that in America (of course in America there are a different four zones, time zones, but we didn’t know it then) in America – because America to people who don’t know too much is New York City and pretty much the East Coast – so in America the time is six hours behind our homeland. So he and I changed our watches to the American time. For eight years we had that time on our watches. It kind of helped us get closer to America, because if you look at your watch and know that in America it is 7:00 in the morning, you kind of can picture what people are doing at that time. And if you know that it is 5:00 in the evening, you kind of know that people are coming home, eating dinner and you get a little bit closer a feeling. There were times actually when we celebrated our new years, and then we would wait until 6:00 in the morning in Czech time to celebrate the new year in America, New York City. And we’d celebrate a second new year coming six hours later. So while I was standing over there with those people I just automatically grabbed my watch and I wanted to change it to the time, and I had had that time on it for eight years. And again, I became really emotional because I realized that with my life I had finally caught… I had finally arrived at that right time in which I wanted to be all my life.”
Peter explains why he wrote a book about coming to America
“Our American friends for 20 years were telling me ‘You need to write a book, you need to write a book. This is an interesting story, people in America need to hear that, they need to know how some people come over here.’ And this is recent also, this is not 100 years ago. People picture this stuff like it was happening decades or maybe even centuries ago. But it’s not, it’s 1983 and people go ‘Oh yeah! My second son was born’ or ‘I got my new job’ or ‘I graduated from high school then.’ So people can relate to it because it’s not a long time ago. And so people were telling me ‘You need to write a book.’ And for 20 years I was saying sure, sure, you know… how am I going to write a book when I don’t even speak proper English? So I was just ignoring it. I didn’t even want to talk about that, I was even getting tired when someone asked me where I was from. Because it was asking too much because of our accent. But then 9/11 came, and suddenly I felt and I was told it was my obligation to talk to people and tell this story. And the idea of the book was brewing in my head. And of course people were pushing us all the time, telling us that. It took 20 years before it actually crystallized, but about two and a half years ago, in the middle of 2007, I started writing that book. I had a helper with me – a lady friend of ours who was doing the grammatical corrections – and I started the book and finished it, so the book is written.”
Category: Oral History