...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Portrait of My Father as a Young Man

While Dad was cleaning out the attic a few months ago, he found the journal he kept when he traveled to Czechoslovakia with his mom and aunt in 1980. For one month, they criss-crossed the country, or at least the Czech regions of what was then Czechoslovakia, seeing the sights and staying with our relatives, especially the Princs, Markvats, and Jobáneks. As he drove me back up to Portland, I read through it, through the 48 front-to-back pages of blue ball point writing in a hand that only vaguely resembles my dad's current writing. "You should read it," he told me a few days ago. "It'll give you a sense of what I was like when I was 26."

It did. It was a great journal, one that only my dad could have written. There were pages filled with all the different bird calls he heard while walking in a Bohemian wood, notes about the different breeds of dogs that he saw, lists of the little villages they visited and the relatives they met, his attempts to refuse the pívo (beer) and liquor they pushed on him and, failing that, his creative methods of disposing of it (when they weren't looking, he poured some plum brandy down the toilet). Most interesting--and most touching-- to me where his feelings about learning Czech and watching his mom experience the village of her own mother. "Ma said it really gave her a thrill," he wrote, "to see where Bah went to school." Bah's short for Babicka, Czech for "grandmother," his mother's mother. I felt a tug when I read that part--his mother, my own Bah, died two before I was born, when my dad was just 29.

It was a little strange to read this journal from 24 years ago, knowing that so many of the relatives that Dad, my Bah, and Aunt Lillian met have since died. There's one part I love: when Dad had just arrived in the airport, he saw two vaguely-familiar people staring at him and whispering. Hesitantly, he said to them, "Jobánek?" and they grabbed him and shook his hand heartily. Later, Zdenka told Dad that when she and her husband, Josef, first saw Dad, Josef said to her, "He looks like a Jobánek!" Thinking of that in the car, I asked Dad how old Josef and Zdenka were.

"Oh, probably late-forties, mid-fifties," he replied.

"Oh! So they might still be around, when we go back to the Czech Republic," I said.

"Well...no. Zdenka died after we got back to the US. They sent us her black-lined obituary that they had cut out of the newspaper. Four or five years after we got back."

My favorite part of the journal was the account of his first night in Dolní Loucky, the village in Moravia where the Jobáneks lived. Dad wrote, "Regrettably, our entertainment for the evening was planned as a result of the infamous letter I wrote a couple weeks before leaving the US, in which I joked that I might meet a Czechoslovakian girl while I was there." The humor didn't translate so well, apparently, and to my dad's mortification, they escorted him to a village dance for teen-agers. "There were some good-looking girls there," he wrote, "but they were all probably at least ten years younger than me." Dad, who is very shy, spent the evening talking with Josef, who kept asking him why he wasn't dancing.

There were constant reminders of the Soviet presence as they traveled, from long lines in the butcher's shop, to shortages, to the propaganda on the radio that told the Czechs it cost five hundred dollars to mail a letter from the US to Canada. "It actually just costs fifteen cents," Lillian corrected one of our relatives. "Oh, I thought that that was probably false," he replied. "You can't trust everything they say on the radio." One relative, the patriarch of the Princ (pronounced "prints") family, told Dad his memories of the Soviet invasion of 1968, how as he walked to work through a wheat field, he ran across several small tanks that kept their guns trained on him. As they were traveling through the countryside, Dad mentioned a Czech legend that giant knights slept under the rolling hills. "When the Czech people are in danger, the knights will awaken and save the nation from its enemies," he wrote. "As I looked at the hills I kept thinking that it seemed about time for the knights to wake up."

It was a great journal, and I feel as though now I have a much greater idea of what my dad was like when he was a young man. I thank him for keeping the journal in 1980, and I thank him again for letting me read it in 2004.