by Edward Moran
As I watch the heartbreaking scenes from Ukraine, my thoughts go back to August of 1968, when I was one-and-twenty, a college student from the coal regions caught up in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Although my experience was as nothing compared to the horrendous events now unfolding, I can say with certainty that it is no fun dealing with a Russian invasion–indeed, my story had a humorous, almost Monty Pythonesque twist. The experience was both laughable and frightening, ending in a climactic scene of bloodshed (mine) at the Berlin Wall, which I recount below.
I lived to tell this tale because I’d fortuitously secured a transit visa out of the country, issued on August 19 and good until August 21. Thanks to this stroke of good timing, I was able to flee Prague on the last train out to East Berlin, just as the tanks were rolling into town. This page from my passport documents my good fortune.
But first, you’ll want to know how I ended up trading the lazy, hazy days of Wilkes-Barre for the crazier days of Prague that August? Simply put, I was young and idealistic, eager to imbibe history, not just read about it. Inspired by the exploits of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Rudi Dutschke, and Alexander Dubček, I vowed to hitchhike and bicycle across Europe to inhale the pure oxygen of revolutionary fervor that was sweeping the continent. It sure beat sitting around in coal-weary Wilkes-Barre watching Dan Flood twirl his mustache and give hell to Hanoi.
That’s why this fledgling soixante-huitard set off on his European Wanderjahr that summer of ’68. I left New York on a transatlantic charter ship on the 8th of June, after paying my respects to the slain Bobby Kennedy lying in state at St Patrick’s Cathedral. In England, I was jailed overnight for vagrancy in Dartford, Kent when my bicycle chain snapped. Later, I dodged tear-gas canisters in Paris during the Sorbonne riots, I had an audience with Pope Paul VI the day he announced his birth control encyclical. As the poet put it, “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.”
By August I knew I had to visit Prague to experience the “Dubček spring” as it flowered into summer. Now without a bike, I hitchhiked from Austria into Czechoslovakia. When my chauffeurs (a young French woman and her German husband driving a Citroen 2CV) stopped for lunch in České Budějovice, I set off to find some chewing gum, the quintessential American thank-you gift, or so I thought. Shelves were mostly bare, but in a pharmacy a countertop display caught my eye: foil-wrapped packets with a sign reading “GUMMI.” I naively asked for a dozen, much to the amusement of the clerks, who ceremoniously tossed them out to me one at a time. It was not until I offered my treasures to my hosts that I realized I had inadvertently bought a dozen condoms, “gummi” being the German word for rubber.
Fast forward: two days later the Soviets invaded and I was lucky enough to have that transit visa allowing me to take the last train out of Prague, headed for East Berlin. At the Wall, trying to cross over to the American sector at Checkpoint Charlie, I was brought into a windowless room and grilled by the grim, Putinesque border guards as to my reasons for being in Prague. They seized my camera and film and newspapers, and told me I could be charged with smuggling the condoms out of the country without an export license. I could escape this fate only by paying customs duty in cash, in American dollars. My Czech zloty, of course, were worthless since the government had just collapsed.
Rummaging around in my backpack for any stray dollars or coins, I accidentally cut my wrist on a razor blade among my toiletries. When I withdrew my bloody hand from the bag, the border guards called in the International Red Cross because, they said, I was in the “no-man’s’-land” between East and West. Thank God I’d stepped two feet ahead, or I would have remained in East German territory and this story might have ended differently.
When the Red Cross nurse bandaged me up, I was permitted to cross over into West Berlin as a medical casualty.
“Smart move on your part,” the nurse whispered to me. “They thought you were making a suicide attempt to protest the Soviet invasion.”
When I went through my pack safely on the Western side, I saw that my condoms were missing. They had indeed been seized. I hope the border guards put them to good use. They were, like many other Eastern bloc products of that era, quite shoddy, so I can’t imagine the results.
Yes, I can laugh about this half a century later, but my travails are as nothing compared to what the Ukrainian people are suffering today. And to think that the former President of the United States has praised the invasion as an “act of genius.” May God help us all!
I cannot conceal my anguish that we, the groovy hippies of the Summer of Love, ended up advancing the likes of Vladimir Putin (b. 1952) and Donald Trump (b. 1946) to the wintry seats of power. What happened? Weren’t we all about giving peace a chance? Weren’t we the generation that would expand our frontiers, not close our borders? Didn’t we believe, deep in our Strontium-90’d-and-Salk-vaccinated bones, that we would teach the world to sing in perfect harmony?
The under-30 generation of the 1960s is now four-five times the age of consent. Truth be told, some of us have sold out, but I like to think that most of us, at least, do not–will not–consent to autocracy, whether of the Putinesque or Trumpsterish variety. La lutte continue.
Postscript: I returned to visit a now-unified Berlin a few years ago. At the old Checkpoint Charlie I found no more barbed wire or border guards–just an Indian fast-food restaurant named Checkpoint Curry. Next to a very unshoddy-looking condominium.
Born in Wilkes-Barre, Edward Moran grew up in a working-class family and graduated from the former St Leo’s High School in Ashley.
Also by Edward Moran: On Suffocation; Coal and Its Discontents; A Child’s Christmas in Coaldamp
Excellent read. I too will have to stop by Check Point Curry for a bite for old-time sakes.
We are experiencing the backlash of the children of our opposition. Gen Z is much better and smarter. There is hope for a better future
Terrific story! Iwas a few years behind you, out of uni and to Europe. We are fellow travelers! Great story.
May the force be with all of us. La lutte continue! ❤️🙏🏼