Those Were the Days
Reflections on Isolation by Jerry Rosenfarb, Avoca Creative Writers
I was a conscientious gas boiler service man. I knew that this job was going to be a physically difficult service, but one that would not require a great deal of concentration, so as I donned my headlamp to peer into the dark corner of the kitchen press that housed the old floor mounted boiler I was happy enough to see the man of the house seat himself at the kitchen table to watch me. He looked at my headlamp and said, “That reminds me of the lamps that are worn in mines.”
He was an elegant and sophisticated looking man, and the house was in an upper middle class estate in Killiney. I gave his statement no more gravity than a mild observation. I told him that it illuminated the dark innards of the boiler for me, similar to the miner’s in a pit. I knelt and sprawled at the boiler, conscious of him behind me. I removed the burner and cleaned the heat exchanger straddling the components lying on my back. He reminisced “when I was in the uranium mines I was very lucky” How was that lucky I wondered, aware that the awkwardness of my work must have peered into another dark corner for him. “When I went to the mines,” he volunteered, “we were the first to have water in the drills, before that they were dry, and the miners mostly died of radiation disease caused by the dust.” I sat up. I had to listen to this story so I asked him how did he happen to be a miner in the uranium mines? The gentleman beckoned me to join him at the table with a cup and pot of tea.
“When I was a young man after the war I graduated as a design engineer specialising in Electricity Generation. I worked in a drawing office in Prague and I had contact with some of the biggest names in the East, mostly from Russia who worked on the generating plants that the Russians built in Czechoslovakia. In the sixties the Russians feared the liberalisation that was going on in my country and they tightened their grip. I was aware of this, and also that I was vulnerable. I was told by one of my Czech colleagues that I should be cautious.” He recounted this carefully, with the deliberation of a man who wished to reveal a story that he had rehearsed but needed to retell. “I knew that they meant business. The first thing I did was to divorce my wife. This was not easy but I did not want her implicated in anything that I might be accused of. I had worked with designers, who had worked with the designers that built Obninsk, the first nuclear electric generating plant. I knew of Seversk, the large plant near Tomsk, and I had heard of the plans to build a closed city to service a new plant to be built at Zarechny, but I knew nothing of their design, I had only worked on the design of hydro-electric generators. So the next thing I did was I went through all the papers that I had, and removed and destroyed any that had reference to security. I made a pact with my wife and with my daughter that if any two of us was out of the country at the same time, that the third would make an effort to leave and that we would reunite where and when we could. I continued to work and I waited. It wasn’t long until I was arrested. I was interrogated and charged with “Having the potential for espionage”.”
He poured the tea. “This meant that I was a threat to the state, and they could do what they liked with me. I was put in prison and everything that I had was taken from me. For eleven months I was in solitary confinement. It was dark, dismal and cold. Every day we would be forced to go out into the yard for one hour, whether it rained or snowed, and we were not allowed nearer than four meters from the next prisoner. It was a tiny yard and there were just four of us allowed out at a time. We walked around the yard in circles for one hour in silence without stop. This was called exercise. That was the only time that I would see anyone except for slopping out, or the eyes looking through the peephole when we would get our food. Of course there was the questioning and, oh yes, once every two weeks we were given a book from the library. We could not choose our book, we were given one. Most of them were Russian propaganda but I didn’t mind, in fact I was glad to get Russian ones. Do you know why?” “No why?” “Because I can’t read Russian and it would take me two weeks to figure out what the books were about. I went through them very slowly. It took my mind off my predicament and where I was. But that was not all I did to pass the time” “Oh” said I intrigued and being led, “What else did you do?” “I decided, very early on, that I must remain honest and truthful. I knew that they would ask me questions that I could not prepare for, so I decided that instead of concentrating on what might happen in the future, and what I might have done wrong in the past, and create a story about it, that I would concentrate on the good things that I could remember, and how I felt when these good things happened. I have an ear for music, so I tried to remember concerts that I had been to, who was playing, where I sat, what they played. Then I would try and recreate the occasion in my mind. Note for note, if I could, which I could for the Bach sonatas, and even some of the concertos. Bach is so structured I found him easiest. I would remember how moved I was, and even what I was wearing. Also, I remembered the day our baby was born, how I felt when I checked her tiny fingers and toes, how wrinkled they were and I would remind myself of the fine woman that she has grown to be. I brought the first kiss with my wife to mind, and relived that moment and the electricity that charged through my lips in that timorous embrace and how it kindled passion for life in me. Even those propaganda books, I would imagine the authors and wonder if they believed what they wrote, and why, what cruelties might they have been subjected to, to write such dry and blatantly false stories. Who were they written for and what did the words mean? I studied my wife’s letters, I nearly memorised then, and then I looked for hidden meanings and tried to gauge mood from her handwriting. We were only allowed a one page letter each month, so we had to get a lot into them. I also was allowed to send out one page a month, which was inspected and censored. Mostly I stayed with my Bach recitals, and if I had been questioned about them I think I would have come out of the interrogation having befuddled my inquisitors with note perfect transcripts. But even if one of them had been a music enthusiast, search and try as I might to lessen the distance, I could not connect with them. They were trained, I was other, and that was that. I was alone.
After eleven months of no companionship it was the mines. There we worked twelve hour shifts with a half an hour for lunch. They worked us to try to break us down. We never had the same comrades for more than a week, in this part of the mine we were all prisoners and we were under guard, not allowed to talk except through the guard. Drilling, tunnelling, filling trolleys and pushing trolleys twelve hours a day and sometimes longer, six days a week. Then we would come up; get fed a back to your cell. We slept on Sunday and then back for another round. Those four years went quickly. Not a friend, not a joy or pleasantry, just hard work, eat and sleep. I was consoled by the knowledge that the mud, grime labour and blood that went into mining that ore meant that thousands, maybe even millions, of people had their lives illuminated by electric light, and that electric machines were working to alleviate their poverty and labours. I was lucky, I was young and strong, and the only pain and physical suffering that I had were two raw hands, sore knees and backache. My joy was an undisturbed sleep”.
I was riveted by his story. All I could say was, “That must have been really difficult”. It sounded vacuous to my ear but he continued mining his past.
“In those emotionally desolate times I knew I had to stay in the present, no matter how difficult. If I dwelt in the past I knew I would break down, and doubt myself, yearning, I could be convinced that I was the author of my own demise and that they were justified in imprisoning me. Nor could I think of the future, because I had no idea of what was going on “outside” except through the letters which my wife wrote, and she was careful to avoid political comments. No outside contact other than madmen shouting in the corridors before they were silenced, not to be understood. So I stayed in the present cosseted by my fond memories without engaging with them. I constantly reminded myself that they were memories, to be explored like photographs, but not alive, but lived and relived like works of art. I needed all the love and connection I could muster, but I needed it to be in me and not in someone that I could not contact and whose safety could be used to threaten me. I was grateful for that love, and I embodied it rather than yearned for it. I prepared for my future by remaining strong in the present, in my body and in my heart. Many a cold night I shivered until I fell asleep, but as I shivered I focused on how that would bring warmth to my body, not the pain of stiff muscles. I was alone, but not without love, because I knew that if I succumbed to fear I would be lost, and I loved my life too much to desert it.”
I understood, and I wanted to get him out of these memories. He had guided me into this his time of isolation, but I wished him not to dwell there, and to bring me back with him. “How did you get out?”
“When Dubcek took over from the Russian puppet Novotny many of us were released and I was one. There was such a feeling of optimism, do you remember, the Prague Spring. “I said I did, and that I was in Vienna shortly after and in discussions there people described the events and pointed to the north and east saying “It’s not far, just across the Danube” He grinned a broad grin, leaned toward me with fraternal camaraderie and with a nostalgic tear in his eye spoke in confidence.
“I was released, but I had nothing. There was optimism in Prague but in my heart was loneliness. My wife had gone to Vienna to give a lecture and my daughter was in New York performing at a recital. I was alone. I had nowhere to go except to a hostel. I had very little money, but our vow to each other lived with me. I bought a ticket to Vienna. I took the train. It was the 20th of August 1968. I hadn’t any travel papers and just a small cardboard case with all my belongings. When we got to the border there was a long delay. As we sat I looked out the window of the train and I could see Czech Armed Border Police on the platform accompanied by Russian soldiers. I froze there. I knew if I did anything I would draw attention to myself, and if I stayed and was checked it would be prison or worse. The Russians did not take kindly to deserters, especially educated engineers. I sat where I was, mouth clamped shut as the soldiers and police worked their way up from the back carriages to the front checking papers, identity and pass. Others came from the front cars to the back. I was in the middle looking back. There was nowhere to go. Eventually the door at the back of the carriage opened and a policeman and a soldier came in and started checking those nearest. I was afraid they would hear me breathe, I was rigid with fear and I was trembling. They moved closer every second until I thought my heart would jump out of my chest and betray me. My mouth was so dry I would not be able to talk when they questioned me. I bit my lip in terror. Then someone blew a whistle, two blasts, I can hear them still, and the policeman looked at his watch, the soldier looked at the policeman, and the two exited reluctantly shrugging shoulders the same route they had come in, looking back and from side to side. There was a pause. Then the train began to roll! I could not believe it. When we arrived at the Hauptbanhof in Vienna an hour later my legs would not support me. I stumbled out onto the platform. As I clasped my wife whom I had not seen in five years I wasn’t the composed man that she had parted from, but an awkward child, knock kneed and in awe of the colour and vivacity of all that surrounded him. Mostly of her fragrance and her beauty and the easy way that she negotiated what to me was a wonderland of freedom and luxury and colourful advertisements of promise. That was just the station. Our daughter soon returned from New York, we applied for refugee status, and were given passage to England where I went to work for the Electricity Supply Board. I learned to speak English well, and after a few years I took a job with the Irish ESB. My story is not so interesting after that.”
I sat at the table speechless for a few moments, rose, brought my cup to the kitchen sink. Then I checked my work, gathered my tools and tidied up. I thanked him for his story and for the tea. Then I presented the man with the paperwork. Wishing not to let him go, and acknowledging the bond that had grown between us, I said that I hoped I would see him next year, when I anticipated that I would come to do the boiler service again. I said I would be very pleased if he asked for me. He said he didn’t think that he would need the boiler serviced next year. I asked him why not, he said “I don’t think I shall be around next year”. I looked quizzically. He said, “I’m old, my body has been through a lot, and it gives me pain now. One knows when one’s life is complete, and I have had a good life. I don’t think I will see another year.” He spoke with conviction and without remorse, and I did not contradict him. I wondered where his wife and daughter were but did not say anything. He bid me farewell and fondly dismissed me from his company with a handshake.
About six months later I returned to the same estate and noticed a “For Sale” sign at his address and sadly thought to myself; “There was a kindly man who had seen a full and adventurous past, looked into the future, but lived very much in the present with honesty and a desire for connection.”
I am sorry, but I cannot remember his surname, only his first, Tomas.
I wish to remember you Tomas. Rest in Peace.