Kommunism: Living in the Shadow of Hammer and Sickle
Part 2 of 3

As kids we did not take the ever present slogans extolling the virtues of communism seriously, but for a brief period of time I was taken in by this charade. Like all eight year olds our instinct was to belong to a group. Here in the US, that meant the Boy Scouts, soccer teams, football teams and so on. In Czechoslovakia, we had the Young Pioneers, so when the time came to join them I was all for it. So was everyone else I knew. The whole class was going to join en-masse and we were all going to wear the red, white and blue uniform and salute each other in the streets for ever after. We bought into this charade - we did not know any different.

On the day of the invocation ceremony I was sick with a high fever. Even in my feverish state I attempted to crawl out of bed to attend the ceremony. Luckily my mother stopped me, but the deep disappointment lingered throughout my recovery. Eventually one of my teachers arranged for me to attend the ceremony with another school. I was now, like all of my classmates, a Young Pioneer. Except...now what? For about a week, we proudly wore the uniforms and absurdly saluted each other in the street. There was a Pioneer Club set up in an empty store so we checked that out. It was manned by two surly party members who were more interested in drinking beer than giving us something to do. Slowly it became apparent that we'd been had - Communism was a sham. We lost interest in the Young Pioneers and continued just be normal schoolkids.

My days were spent either at school, at home or on the streets. There were hardly any cars then and the streets belonged to us. Often we'd play "one-touch" (jednodotek), a kind of street soccer/football played with a tennis ball a couple of chalk lines on the curb as goal. Some kids played "the line" (cara), a kind of dirt curling; tossing coins to see who could get closest to a line drawn in the dirt. It was as close to gambling as we ever got.

Each day, at dusk I was on the lookout for the lamplighter who zig-zagged across the street lighting gas lamps with a long pole. He'd barely touch each lamp with the tip of his pole.. The lamps did not light instantly; there was a delay and the whole process had a bit of magic about it. As absorbed as we were in our street games, I'd seldom miss the lamplighter. That was the signal to go home.

Mid-European winters were harsh and keeping warm was a constant concern. Each of the two main rooms in our apartment was heated by a tall version of a coal-burning pot-bellied stove. Every fall my parents ordered coal to keep us warm. The coal was delivered on a truck with three blackened delivery men. One of them shoveled the coal into a steel container (putna) with shoulder straps and the other two physically hauled the coal on their backs into our cellar. It was our job to count every single container and make sure it was filled to the top as this was taking place. Of course, we always got cheated somehow and the coalmen sold the excess to someone around the corner.

Our cellar was a dank, dark and forbidding place and it was there that I learned to overcome basic fears. The cellar had a kind of lobby that was lit by a single light bulb, but then there were narrow passages leading to the individual cellars (cages of sorts) assigned to each tenant in the building. These passages were not lit. It was fucking dark in there. There I was a gangly 10-year old kid, juggling two steel buckets and a candle, filling the buckets with coal as fast as possible. Sometimes the candle would topple and die out and I'd be left in total darkness. I was always petrified to go to the cellar for coal but I did it summoning a kind of "do or die" resolve that served me well later on.

In early spring my family would often travel into the Giant Mountains (Krkonose) in Northern Bohemia for a week of skiing and playing in the snow. The accomodations were always pretty basic and there was never much snow, but we enjoyed it anyway. There were no chairlifts as we know them now, only a local farmer and his tractor who'd sometime pull a whole bunch of us to the top of the run. Mostly we had to plod to the top on foot and that made each thirty second run quite special.

We had a two month vacation in the summer and that was magical time. As far as I can remember summers were always spent at our cabin in the country. First to Jarov, very near Prague today, practically a suburb, but at that time it was a train journey away and completely cut off from the outside world. Our cabin was perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking a small ravine with a creek running through it. It was close to the woods and to the bitterly cold Moldau (Vltava) river. On Saturday nights the adults would build a campfire in the ravine and we'd roast sausages on sticks and sing camp songs. As the fire died down, I used to toss a few potatoes into the ashes and find them in the morning coated with a hard carbon shell, but perfectly baked inside. They were delicious just like that.

When I became older I spent three weeks in a summer camp somewhere in the country. Most kids' camps in those days were run by either unions or companies with a heavy emphasis on Communist propaganda. The camps were almost permanent with a cafeteria as a base building. I was sent to one of the camps and hated it so much that the following year my parents found an independent camp run by a local PE Instructor. This was much better; a real camp on green grass that we built and took care of ourselves. It was always by water, either a small river or a lake, and near a town so that we could get milk and mail. A couple of cooks would set up a kitchen tent but we had to help peel potatoes just about every day. There were games and sports to keep us busy, but there was also discipline, and ceremonial flag raising rituals in the morning and in the evening. The camps were co-ed and the highlight for me one year was during a no-holds-barred game of rugby when I felt a girl's breast for the first time in the middle of a scrum.

The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were outlawed in Czechoslovakia, replaced by the dreaded Young Pioneers, but the Scout concepts were retained at this camp making it very much like a Boy Scout camp. The highlight was a treasure hunt during the last two days of camp, overnighting in the wilds of the Bohemian countryside. The treasure at the end was usually a huge cake hidden in a cave and protected by billowing clouds of tear gas, of all things.