You were very cautious about everything you did. With my mother’s first cousin, Oliver, he was probably about 60, we were in our 20s. And I can remember crossing the Austrian border and there was a border patrol, one gentleman at the Austrian border in a shack and he saluted us and he said, ‘Good luck.’ We go into the bridge into Bratislava, and everything there is machine guns, soldiers. There’s not a tree, there’s watchtowers every thirty feet. It was so frightening. They’re looking under your car with mirrors, they’re opening your car – frightening, frightening.
In eighth grade we started a rock and roll band, of which I was the lead singer and guitarist. And of course we played The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. That was seen like not only blasphemy but an anti-communist gesture, you know. So… we always had a lot of troubles, because of the long hair and everything else… But somehow it all sort of worked out, we squeezed by, you know.
Now, there was a long line of people, and there was an old lady there, who was carrying a little suitcase with all her belongings there. And one of our neighbors in the same building where we lived, a big guy, he ran to this lady and grabbed her suitcase. He took it away and said ‘You are not going to need that.’ So this patriot later became a leading figure in the Communist Party in the neighborhood.
They had machine guns, but my mother kept yelling ‘Italiano!’ She thought they were Italians, she was hoping they were Italians. They were not, unfortunately. They took us back to that little house, and on the other side of the road they had caught a man who was Polish, trying to escape. And these soldiers were young kids; they were 18 to 21, they were kicking this man, they were beating him on the floor.
We went to the streets, we talked to them [the soldiers], and it essentially was pretty much hopeless. There were some guys who would throw the Molotov cocktails at the tanks, but it was pretty much useless. You cannot fight the tanks and an armed army with bare hands and with stones. And if you do, they will shoot you. So then I went home.
I remember this unique experience that people would actually go to the stores and buy socks. They were woolen socks and you would actually take the socks apart and you would recycle the yarn, and so they would knit or crochet a sweater, and then, when I would grow, they would take the sweater apart and add more yarn, but they were still using these socks.
There was no need to learn the Czech language. Of course, growing up in Czechoslovakia, there is mutual understanding, so I could understand everything. I just kept speaking Slovak because I would rather speak normal Slovak than broken Czech if they can understand me, and there was no problem.
The whole town went down in the fire. I remember that very well. I was eight years old and some kids were playing with matches and making… and there was a haystack. The firefighters from the beginning refused to – they said ‘Let it burn to the ground.’ Okay, then a strong wind came and the haystack [blew] from one place to another place. In no time the whole town was on fire, many families were unable to rebuild.
They had to stay with us, in our home, and never move out, never even open the window when mother and I were gone to the office in the morning. They knew they cannot move because you can hear on the lower floor that somebody is walking up there. My first thing here in America, anywhere I went, I would always listen – can I hear the people from above?
And yet at the same time, I think that there was also a sense of sadness of leaving your homeland, with the idea that we would never be able to return. We thought that this was a step where we would never return to Czechoslovakia because we never thought that communism would ever not be there.