The fight was over. In a way, that was too bad, for it had given me cover for edging into the shadows by the row of dark booths. but  not quite enough.

“American, aren’t you?” A voice from a seat below, in English, from a man alone, behind me. The excitement having dissipated, people were returning to their previous drinking and the noise level was rising. “Buy you a drink?” Relieved but hesitant, I turned and slid onto the opposite bench, landing catty-corner from him as deep as I could get and away from the light. I didn’t like being there, but could think of no alternative. He signaled and two steins of beer arrived.

As we sipped them, he told me—in perfect English—that he had spent time in Wisconsin but was from Munich. He wanted to know about me, asking my age and then telling me he had known other sixteen-year-olds in Milwaukee. We sat there, drinking and talking, for what seemed like hours. I was not particularly happy, more than a bit uncomfortable, for I knew there was risk in what I was doing. Still, it was better than walking aimlessly in the night–and the buzz was pleasant.

He taught me a trick with a box of wooden matches. Put a small hole in the top of the box, then take out one match and stand it in the hole, doing so with one hand only while also holding the box in that hand. Then take out another match and light it—still all with one hand. Next, use that match to light the other one, one handed, the match heads touching so that they fuse, leaving the matchsticks stuck together at right angles. For years, I would show off this trick.

Maybe it was some sort of reminder.

But I never, ever told anyone where I learned it or what had happened later that night. Some things… well, let’s just leave it at that. Imagine what you will when we get to that.

He showed me a wallet full of money—he’d gotten paid that day—and he learned, after some prodding, that I had no place to go. He invited me back to his room, where I could sleep. The second or third time, on his promise that we would sleep only, I agreed. Young fool. I knew of the risk, from prior knowledge and talk at the youth hostels, though my experience was absolute zero.

His was a tiny single room with a single bed up eight floors in a dreary elevator building where the bathrooms were down the hall. He told me we would have to share his single bed and that I should undress—but he wouldn’t touch me, he said.

That, of course, did not prove to be true.

Again…  no details.

Perhaps I had little choice in the matter; I knew enough, at least, not to resist.

It could have gotten worse; he outweighed me by a good fifty pounds, probably more. And I knew nothing about fighting.

I only wanted it to be over and me anywhere else in the world.

When he finally fell to sleep, I crept into my clothes, moving quietly, scared of waking him. Slowly, I opened the door. The light from the hallway fell on his wallet which had dropped from his pants onto the floor in his hurry to undress, bills spilling from it. I was tempted to sweep them up and take all, but closed the door instead.

I wanted to be out of there and away from him. Far away. Taking the money would have tied me to him in some way, imposing a level of responsibility I did not want. I think I realized that much even then, standing in the doorway.

I don’t think I could have spent the money if I had taken it; handling it would have made me shake.

I closed his door softly and waited down the hall toward the elevator, scared his door would open before it arrived but unwilling to cast about for the stair. I left the building, stepping into the early morning chill and started walking.

The light was that dimness that comes just before dawn and the streets were empty. I would have run, for now I was suddenly quite frightened, but was also scared of breaking the silence around me, as though it would bring him after me. I headed for the youth hostel where, I knew, a small park nearby had a bench where I probably could sit and wait without anyone bothering me, not that early in the day, at least.

The gate of the youth hostel swung open precisely at seven. I couldn’t register until later, I was aware, not until after twelve, but all I wanted was a shower stall and I knew where those were and that they weren’t guarded.

It cost money for hot water and I had none of the necessary 10-phennig coins, but I didn’t mind. But all I wanted to do was wash the man and the night away, which I did.

Over and over again.

I have never in my life showered so long.

The stall was little but private, with a small antechamber for changing. After a time, I also washed the clothes I’d been wearing, scrubbing them as best I could with my bar of soap. Once I was finally outside again, in the courtyard, I spread the wet garments out on a bench to dry and looked around for someone to talk to.

I didn’t feel like being alone; I needed distractions.

It would be years before I let myself think about that night—and more after that before I told anyone. Pushing it back and as out of my mind as possible started right away, but I couldn’t do it alone.

The quiet conversations in the courtyard that I could overhear most immediately weren’t in English and I couldn’t really speak any other language. But newcomers were appearing as quickly as people left and I kept alert for English. The manager, who liked to scatter people to tourist sites, telling them they should be seeking beauty and history and not hanging around, appeared from time to time. In fact, people had just been dispersing, flying before his flapping arms, as I had arrived with my laundry. Fortunately, he had turned and was heading back to his office as I sat down, which is why I had found room to set my shirt and pants and things to dry.

Eventually, as I knew I would, I heard English conversations, including one about trading books. That seemed a good opening, so I joined in. I don’t remember what I had with me at that point, but I swapped for two I was unfamiliar with, Anthem by Ayn Rand and Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society. I knew who Rand was but had read none of her books, though I had looked at The Virtue of Selfishness earlier that year. This book was small, so I figured I could put up with what I already knew as her frightful narcissism for at least the short time the book would take to read. The other looked interesting, if unlikely.

One woman a few seats away, I overheard after a time, was explaining to someone—in English—how she had somehow lost her travelling companion. She had wanted to go one way, I guess, and he another. I continued listening, turning around to make it clear I was following the conversation.

No one ever minded that. Nothing was private among us (except… well… ); we encouraged each other to join in.

She trying to find someone to hitch with to Prague but was not having much luck. That made me pause: I now wanted desperately to get as far away from Munich as fast as I possibly could. And, from the news reports, Czechoslovakia was welcoming people like me—for the moment. If the papers could be believed, the Russians and the Czechs were reaching compromise; the likelihood of Russian military action was receding and young westerners were flocking in.

Pretty soon, I was able to jump into the talk, probably with something banal about the politics of Alexander Dubček and what was already coming to be called the “Prague Spring.” A little later, after more words, I offered to accompany the woman, but told her I was worried about visas. She explained that we could now get visas at the border and that Prague, from what she had heard, was absolutely the place to be, the happening spot of the moment. I knew that, had been told that even before leaving the States. But I had felt too ignorant of the world to even think of going there.

Things had been changing in Czechoslovakia, as everybody knew, for months, their pace increasing over the spring and into the summer. Some of us Americans of the baby-boomer generation were actually getting our first glimpse of life behind the Iron Curtain where, we had thought, only gloom prevailed.

What we were hearing was among the few bits of brightness in an eastern world that, from what we’d been told our whole lives, otherwise seemed headed for disaster. Few of us Americans had any idea of what existed on the eastern side of Europe and a number of us were tempted by the possibility that we might be able to find out. I certainly was.

This trip could certainly be more interesting, I told myself, than wandering around Germany, close to broke, for the next few weeks.

It would be a long trip, 275 kilometers to Linz in Austria and then another 250 to Prague. The woman thought we could get there in one day—today—but I disagreed, thinking even Linz would be pushing it–it was already late. “Well, then we’ll just get as far as we can today and head on, tomorrow.”

Before noon, I had folded and stowed my now-dry clothes, had cashed one of my precious traveler’s checks and we had taken that same tram line I’d come in on the night before back out to where we could walk to the autobahn.

The woman I was with, whose name I’ve completely forgotten, told me a little about herself. She was, I think, a college student, some years older that I. Twenty-six, if I remember correctly, but that seems a little old for a student of those times. She had a great deal of confidence in herself—something I was lacking, just then—and told me a car would stop for us quickly. I laughed and told her how long I’d often had to wait. She shook her head and said it never happened to her.

Our luck getting rides was good—it generally was, I was discovering, when hitching with a woman, this being my first experience of it—and we made it to Linz while there was still plenty of daylight.

On the way, I started reading Rand, appalled, but unable to tear my eyes away. I tried to share what I was feeling with the woman, but she wasn’t interested.

The book starts off: “It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see.” That, of course, reminded me of the night before, of something I already planned never to write of, to speak of or, if possible, to think on. No, I thought to Rand and her narrator, you don’t know what sin is, or what it means to be sinned against. Or why certain things need to be private and forgotten. You are fools.

Or I felt that. I don’t think I had the capacity to put it into words.

In the context of a novel, something meant for reading, something pleading for people to see, the passage seemed ludicrous. They were so ridiculous, given what had happened the night before, that I could not stop reading, so astonished was I. The arrogance of the narrator, and of Rand behind him, struck me hard.

Belief in oneself, I was starting to learn, can’t be maintained simply through perseverance, though perseverance, I was also discovering, is a necessary condition for belief—whether in oneself or in anything else.

So is a certain degree of humility, something Rand didn’t seem to appreciate at all. And a recognition that, varied talents notwithstanding, one’s own abilities never alone make for a superior person.

Even the best can be torn down in an instant. I remembered from my English class, “all our knowledge is, ourselves to know.” You can’t know yourself when you believe you are special, better than anyone else.

If I hadn’t know that before, I certainly was starting to, now. I felt like a newborn, but I kept it to myself. I would be keeping a lot to myself.

Outside of Linz, someone offered to give us a ride the few kilometers up to the Czech border and we gratefully accepted. Seeing us, the driver had figured where we were headed and, like everyone else in the West, was interested. So, he gladly went a few kilometers out of his way to hear what we were attempting and what we hoped to find.

Given our luck so far, we decided we could easily get at least as far as Budějovice that evening where we figured we could find someplace to stay, so we cheerfully walked from the Austrian border station to the much smaller and plainer one a distance away on the Czech side. No one there spoke any language we knew but it was clear we needed visas. We gave a bit of currency, receiving stamps in our passports and a bit of Czech money in return. Showing a few more German marks and pushing them forward, we got more korunas back, giving us enough, we hoped, for the next few days.

Before we knew it, then, and without fanfare, we had crossed into Eastern Europe.

We were soon walking across a wide open space and then along the road we had seen in the distance, one that headed to the north, fully expecting to find traffic on it.

This had been a charmed afternoon and early evening, so far. A difference after the night before. A ride would certainly soon come by, we told each other, optimistic and for the first time (at least, I was), feeling that the world didn’t have to be a disaster. That one could move on.

Of course, I wasn’t in Munich anymore.

That, by itself, was a relief; I now hated that city.

No ride appeared. Little did, almost no traffic and no people. We walked and were passed by a horse cart and a bus or two, nothing more. Pretty quickly, we both were starting to realize we had entered into someplace where our assumptions would not correlate with experience. We were on what looked like a major road but, I think, maybe one car did go by. And it did not even slow.

I like to imagine it was a Trabant.

The idea: We had actually believed we could hitchhike in Eastern Europe simply by virtue of crossing the border. My, but we were naive… and stupid.

I was, of course, used to the frustrations of hitchhiking by that point so was willing to just keep trudging along. My companion, however, was not, so we stopped. It had been clear almost all day that she was in charge on this trip, and that I had better just do what she said. I was along only because she wasn’t foolish enough to travel alone, her looks told me, and I should count my blessings.

She had also told me she was starting to have stomach cramps but I had no clue what she was talking about. Menstruation and its side effects were not things discussed with sixteen-year-old boys, certainly not in those days. She said she was going to flag down any bus that might come by, and we would take that. She said she had to.

OK, sure, I shrugged. I didn’t mind. We probably had enough korunas to pay for whatever we might need. Everything was supposed to be cheap here. Or so we had been told.

A bus finally came. It stopped at her waving arms and we were beckoned aboard.

The passengers started speaking to us, almost all at once. When we did not respond to what was, to us, only noise, they started trying other languages, finally settling on English, which two of them spoke, after a fashion.

As we started up the road toward Budějovice, they told us they were exchange students from Yugoslavia returning from a day trip. There would be no charge, they also told us, for the bus cost them nothing. In fact, would we like to join them for dinner? They would treat us.

Why not?

We felt, once we arrived at the complex where they were staying, that we had fallen into splendor, though the food was not much more than passable. The beer, though, the beer…. Admittedly, I hadn’t yet had much experience with beer, though I had already learned to love it, but this, I could tell, was something special. I drank as much as they gave me, and smoked cigarettes from the pack one of them slid over to me when my Marlboros ran out.

Later, they gave us a room—together. It had two bunk bed sets on opposite walls and the common bathroom was down the hall. She climbed to the top on one side and motioned for me to stay on the bottom of the other. That was fine with me. She was way too old for me, clearly, and I was far too inexperienced for her. I was completely inexperienced, except…. But I wasn’t going to think about that.

Though now, again drunk and once more very tired, I wanted to shower. After that, I put on clean clothes, returned to the room, and went to sleep, fully dressed. As she was.


One thought on “August 4, 1968: The Worst of It, and Moving On

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