Lifting the Iron Curtain (1) “Minefields at the Border “

Posted on March 22, 2014

Lifting the Iron Curtain

Part 1: Minefields at the border

The Cold War was still very hot in the late sixties.
Tensions simmered, and nobody really know how the future was going to play out. As a teenager, I read books on Karl Marx, Nikita Kruschev, and Stalin. I read about the Katyn massacre, and the Gulags. I was shocked at the barbarity of Stalin. The fact that he was busily murdering people long before Adolf Hitler got in on the act, made a big impression on my young, and probably rather serious mind. When I fully realized, in later life, that Stalin murdered more millions than Hitler, and that these ethnic butcherings were known to be going on, long before the ‘Insane Alliance’ of American President Franklin D.Roosevelt, I was totally bemused. I still am, especially when I see the Hollywood movies, that without exception portray the events of World War Two as a uniquely chivalrous, and perfectly successful crusade of the Good Guys against the Forces of Darkness… Perhaps the average American has no stomach for the truth. Or even less interest in History. I don’t know. But all the warnings from men much, much more learned than I, are totally valid; A Nation that neglects the painful truth of its History is doomed to repeat those very same mistakes.

“Boy! Minefields….! “
The Skull and Crossbones. Rows and rows of them, between acres and acres of barbed wire. The warning symbols were unmistakeable. I trembled with nervous excitement. I was merely puttering along, on my Triumph 750 motorcycle, carefully obeying the speed limit. There were speed bumps, and concrete barriers I had to slowly drive around. I wondered if, even now, there was a machine gun trained on me. I didn’t want to get shot at, and after all, this was “No Man’s Land ” between Free Western Europe and the Communist Empire. At age twenty two, this was an incredible adventure for me. I reflected on what lay behind, and what lay ahead.

Behind was the Western Europe I thought I knew. A Western Europe I had been raised in. Nothing was perfect, but nothing was too bad either. I could travel on my motorbike anywhere I liked. I could pretty well say anything I liked. I was free to chose to believe in God, or not. Nobody, apart from my poor Irish mother, really cared much. But I was also keenly aware of the military forces facing each other across the Iron Curtain. The Americans were everywhere. I had seen their fighters fly over, and their helicopters. I had seen their leaders on Televison. I remembered the assassination of John F.Kennedy. I remembered my mother’s passionate support for Richard Nixon. She wrote to him, and was incredibly proud of the ‘personal’ letter she received back.
I admired the Americans. To me they were heroes. And America the Land of Liberty. It was just a terrible pity about the agreements made at Yalta, and FDR’s blundering failures to secure a Free Eastern Europe…
I thought back to the Austrian border guards. Fat and jolly, they seemed to be very surprised at my intention to drive my motorcycle across the Iron Curtain to Hungary. It obviously wasn’t the done thing.
“You have visa?’
“No, no visa. “
“No visa? They not let you in! “
“Well, I’ll try anyway! “
They smiled, .laughed, stamped my passport, and waved me through. As I pulled out of the Austrian border post, there were several of them, in uniform, lying comfortably in folding deck chairs. Ready to defend Austria. Unarmed. Nobody had a gun. They all smiled and waved, at this strange young man all the way from Ireland, on his British motorcycle. Who said he wanted to go to Budapest, the capital of Communist Hungary…

And now I was crossing No Man’s land. Along the bumpy, potmarked road. Carefully. In case I upset the Communist Border guards. In the distance, I could make out what seemed like a major fortification. Concrete pillboxes. Machine gun emplacements. Wow…

I thought back to the Young Communist in Vienna. With whom I had stayed for a week. Arguing and debating until four o’clock in the morning. History, Economics, Politics… I remembered how he had talked about the Communist Workers’ Paradise. Praising Stalin, and Lenin. The walls of his apartment had been covered with revolutionary posters. Dramatic. Smiling working class peasants, standing united, shoulder-to-shoulder, with factory workers. All with arms raised, triumphantly saluting the glorious revolution of the proletariat.
The fact that he was permitted to freely hold his views, in Free Western Europe, seemed to mean little to him.

I was getting closer to the fortifications now. It was ugly. Barbed wire, concrete, and the unmistakeable barrells of guns protruding. And all that to defend against an attack from the unarmed, fat Austrians in their deck chairs back there? I wondered how many Communist soldiers were watching me at this moment…

Finally, late one night, I had asked my Communist host this question: “Here in Vienna, you live very closely to that Communist Workers’ Paradise. A few hours drive. You must visit often there? ” He had looked sheepish. Sensing weakness, I pounced: “So exactly HOW MANY times have you been there? ” He had to answer. He had never been there. Never. Ever. It was all a grandiose pie-in-the-sky. A trendy thing. How to shock your parents and friends. How to get notoriety amongst your peers. How to kick at the traces.
It was all a nonsense…. I told him as much, and promised him when I returned from the Communist Workers’ Paradise… I’d fill him in. He was embarrassed…

Some soldiers were coming out. With rifles. Carrying them at the ready. I drove up to them, smiling. They did not return the smiles. I stopped, and they advanced cautiously. I was impressed with the weaponry. It was hard to take your eyes off it. I wasn’t used to it, coming from the West.
Brusquely, they demanded my passport. Then, the expected: “Visa! ”
I looked stupid, with a look of “Hey! I’m from Ireland! “
“NO Visa??? ” He made an emphatic gesture with his hand.
“You GO BACK! ” He motioned in the general direction of where I knew, a few miles back along the potholes, the fat Austrians were lounging in their folding deck chairs.
I unzipped the pocket of my leather jacket.
I flashed a packet of American cigarettes. “Lucky Strike “. Their eyes lit up.
They shouldered their Kalashnikovs, and accepted the cigarettes. I put one between my lips too.
Soon there was a little troupe of us, all puffing away contentedly.
“Nice Motor Rad “, the one said.
Soon we were quite friendly, and I gave away the packet.
Then, again: “You have VISA? “
It was time to put my plan into action.
In answer, I kicked out the sidestand, and parked the bike. They eyed me carefully. I walked back to the luggage panniers, and slipped out an unopened carton of Lucky Strike packets. Their eyes lit up.
“Visa? ” I asked, with an expressive upward jerk of my eyebrows.

A few minutes later, ten dollars poorer, with some banging and stamping of my passport, I was in the possession of a visa. They opened the gate, and motioned me through. I kicked my bike into life.
“Gud luck! ” they said, in a strangely accented English.
I waved, and in a cloud of dust, I entered Communist Hungary.
I had made it. All the way from Dublin, Ireland, across the Irish Sea, the English Channel, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Austria. I was now on sacred soil, that I had read so much about it, but never touched…
The Hungary of past empires, past wars, forgotten massacres, and the untimely 1956 failed Hungarian uprising.
Next stop: Budapest, the ancient capital.

I wound open the throttle, and proceeded down the dilapidated, crumbling highway, carefully watching for the potholes. The adventure had begun. I was young, I had a great motorbike, a tent on the back, and a thirst to see new things, meet new people, and learn new things.

In the event, I was to succeed beyond my wildest hopes…

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 22, 2014, 11:01 am

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