Border crossings were never routine but the Czech border on the way out was special; there was always a checkpoint about ten klicks from the border itself. The last ten klicks between the check point and the actual border was a no travel zone only accessible to the people who lived in that area or by special permit. Western tourists were required to stay on the road directly to the border and make no stops. Vehicles were searched once at the checkpoint then again at the border so it wasn’t easy to get even a small package out of the CSSR. Still, I wasn’t anticipating any problems, if they had any knowledge the mission they would have grabbed us in Prague, no one would want the press generated by busting us at the border if they had an alternative.
We met him at the first checkpoint on the road from Brno to the Rozvadov frontier crossing; a Czech sergeant in his mid-twenties. His cap was a brighter green than the common Czech solder indicating he was a member of the elite border unit who secured CSSR’s western borders. As a general rule, it was better to avoid any real conversation with these guys because they were required to speak two western languages and they would routinely attempt to weave you into conversation and probe for anything that would indicate you were carrying contraband. They were also the ones who manned the towers on the border.
We entered the border control area at about 1000hrs; the Sergeant came out of his shack, took our passports and immediately ordered us both to dismount from the vehicle while a second soldier stood guard. I took this as an indication he intended to do an extremely thorough search of the vehicle. Werner was the very best when it came to building compartments into a vehicle so I had confidence that, short of drilling, there wasn’t any way he could find the compartment. We stood at the front of the van as the guard opened every drawer and cabinet, lifted carpets and used an oversized caliper looking device made of wood to measure the walls and floor making sure they were a consistent thickness. The only thing he didn’t do was put the camper on a scale verifying the weight against the published weight. I noticed that he spent an inordinate amount of time in our small refrigerator and gave an unopened carton of Mango Juice more than just the once over. It was clear he was interested in trying the exotic juice.
This guard had something different about him. He was as professional as any other border guard I had encountered up to that point but there was a different attitude about him. After several minutes of trying, I finally figured it out. He didn’t have that cold look to him. Most Border guards were void of emotion and were hard to read, this guy had, for lack of a better description, a “human” look. He took a full twenty minutes to inspect the van before he allowed us to get back in the vehicle.
I watched him as he made a perfectly choreographed sweep over the van, starting at the driver’s door following an invisible path from one section of the van to the next neglecting nothing inside or out. He completed his inspection then instructed us to get back in the van, as we waited for him to return our papers. I couldn’t resist the temptation so I grabbed the unopened carton of Mango Nectar and a handful of small chocolate bars then headed for the shack where I was met by the second guard with his AK-47 at “Port Arms”.
I was thinking this might not have been the best idea when the sergeant stepped to the door and asked me if he could help me. The gun-toting private stood down and I handed the young sergeant the juice and chocolates. He smiled and took an emblem from an overcoat hanging near the door and pressed it into my palm. It was the kind of thing two soldiers from allied armies would do as a sign of friendship. I wished I had more to give him than a couple of chocolates and some juice.
I made my way back to the van and took my place in the driver’s seat. We were waiting for one of them to bring our papers back and allow us to proceed when the phone in the guard shack rang with a loud schoolhouse like electric bell. Heiney and I both jumped when it rang. The sergeant quickly went to his shack and answered. A few moments later, he returned and informed us that we would be held at this checkpoint for an hour or so longer. He went back into the shack and I could see through the window that he poured some of the juice into a glass and was admiring it like a fine jewel. He drank it with purpose, as if it was a ritual or some religious act, rarely have I ever seen anyone enjoy the flavor of anything as this young Czech sergeant did that Mango Nectar. Within ten or fifteen minutes, the sergeant came back out to the van and told us that his private wanted to thank us for the Chocolate bar.
The sergeant had shared with his subordinate. I was surprised; western chocolate was as good as cash on the black market in most Eastern European countries. It said something about the man’s character for him to give some of the chocolate and exotic Juice to his subordinate. I looked toward the shack door where I saw the younger solder holding a “Ritter Sport”87 Marzipan and milk chocolate bar to his lips, nibbling small bites and taking the time to prolong the taste of each bite. He smiled and nodded to me in thanks. It looked like I made a friend.
The sergeant stood at my window as I searched for something to say and the silence became more awkward. My instinct to avoid conversation with the soldier was giving me a bad case of fumble mouth. Heiney and I automatically became uncomfortable with the situation, we were trained to limit conversation and contact with the “enemy” while we were on the border but I had put us in a position where we were under the close scrutiny of an exceptionally well trained adversary.
If he got even a whiff of something being amiss, we would be in for a hard time. It wasn’t unheard of for the Czechs to completely dismantle a vehicle at the border. It didn’t look like the situation was going to improve on its own so we had do make the best of it and hope the guard didn’t see or hear anything that made him suspicious. I broke the ice by asking him where he was from. I was on a German passport so I spoke German to the guard.
I learned. He was from Brno, a city about half way between Prague and the Russian border. He was selected for the elite border unit as a teen while still in school. His academic accomplishments and physical stature made him a perfect candidate for this unit. He told me that his family were farmers on a collective and the extra pay and rations he received for “volunteering” for border service went home to help provide for his two younger sisters. I remember that it bothered me that I was beginning to identify with him, to think of him as a soldier, just like me.
Heiney made some comment half in English and the sergeant immediately shifted to English, damn good English too. Heinrich toyed with the guard a little by shifting to French (I don’t speak a word of French) to which the guard responded by following into French without missing a beat. Heinrich laughed and addressed the soldier in Russian and received a response in perfect Russian. Heiney went back to German telling the soldier that they needed to try to keep it in a language his “less educated friend” could understand; it was obvious who he was referring to. They both had a good laugh on that thought. I complimented him on his language skills and I asked if all the “Green hats” were as educated as he. He told me most of them spoke two or three western languages and all of them were required to speak Russian and English fluently.
He told us he spent three days of every week working the trains entering CSSR from the west, his job was to check papers and inspect western tourist’s bags. In short, he had more contact with westerners in one month than most Czechs would have their entire lives. He described me what London looked like in the fog and what San Francisco smelled like after a hard rain. I was astounded at how much knowledge he had about places he had never been and more than likely would never go. I let on that I had spent a lot of time in the United States and tried to describe Lake Tahoe to him. He mentioned skiing earlier and it was a good safe topic of conversation. He told me he was an avid cross-country skier and was disappointed that the snow melted so early that year. The phone rang again and the private came out indicating that whoever was on the phone wanted to talk to the sergeant.
When he came back out to the van he told us it would be a while longer and we could get out and walk around if we wanted to and pointed out the latrine, it might be an hour or two longer. I would normally have gotten agitated at being held at the border, but this was somehow a little different.
Heiney retrieved four Coca-Cola cans from the fridge offering two to the sergeant, one for him and his private. They both accepted and wasted no time opening the drinks. In between sips, the sergeant continued telling us about how he worked the trains for 3 days then had 24-hours to rest before being sent on a three-day foot patrol in the border area.
Duty at the checkpoint, where we were waiting, was part of a four-day rest period before he was sent back to the trains. I asked if he ever saw his family and he told that it was rare because the communists preferred to keep members of the border units isolated and therefore less vulnerable to political corruption or subversive influences. He eventually told me the reason for our wait. There had been an escape attempt.
The ten kilometer buffer zone (we were stuck at the entry to this zone) was followed by an area we called “Deadman’s land” it was a half kilometer strip of land void of anything that a person could hide behind. The last 100 meters was soft dirt, raked to show footprints and laced with what was believed to be a band of anti-personnel mines followed by a series of two to three Concertina wire fences garnished with a machine gun tower every 100 meters or so. There were also reports that the Czechs had installed automatic, trip wire operated, machine guns in certain areas of the border. It looked as foreboding as it sounds but every year there were people desperate enough to try to make it. The majority never made it passed the first barrier. We were being held at the first checkpoint because the patrol unit was moving the bodies and didn’t want any tourists to see the procession.
The sergeant told us that a young East German couple tried to make a run for it. The man made it as far as the concertina wire before being felled by a tower gunner. His companion was apparently felled while still in the band of raked dirt. He didn’t say it, but I suspected it was a trip wire operated machine gun that got her. The Czech government vehemently denied the existence of such booby traps on the border but it was accepted as fact that the Czech border had an abundance of antipersonnel devices.
As he finished telling me what was going on I could see he was drifting away in his mind, he got that thousand-yard stare that I had seen in so many of my buddies fresh back from Viet Nam. He quietly spoke again; it was almost a whisper. “They didn’t know the border or the forest… without knowing the border and the forest they don’t have a chance… they never have a chance… if DON’T know the border and the forest they DON’T have a chance.” The sadness in his voice was only surpassed by the sadness in his eyes.
A group of cars arrived at the checkpoint and the sergeant and his private scurried off to process and inspect the newcomers. I glanced at my watch to discover we had been at the checkpoint for almost five hours. Before they had completed processing the new vehicles the phone rang again and we were allowed to proceed to the actual frontier crossing.
We arrived at the main border control area and were again subjected to a thorough search of the vehicle and our personal belongings. The documents were well hidden in one of Werner’s creations so I wasn’t worried about getting caught. I was mentally comparing my life as a sergeant in the US Army to my new friend’s life as a sergeant in the Czech Army. Just a few hours before I considered this guy my mortal enemy but at that moment I only thought of him as a fellow soldier.
The time we spent with the Czech sergeant left me with an odd feeling. As if I made a personal truce with him. I felt he was no longer my enemy but somehow my brother and in another place and time, we might have been good friends, maybe even skied together, shot bad Tequila, howled at the moon and chased hairy legged European women together. It reminded me of stories Werner told me about meeting British 1st Airborne troopers in Arnhem. He held them in high esteem. I was feeling the same respect for this Czech.
I was watching three guards go over our van, feeling indifferent to what they were doing when the epiphany hit me. What the sergeant said “…without knowing the border and the forest no one has a chance” and I suddenly heard what he didn’t say. “If you DO know the border and you DO know the forest there is a chance!”
I asked myself: What if you walk that forest for days on end and know every inch of it. What if it is your job to know the border, and where every barrier and booby trap is? I started to grin like a possum in a coop. Heiney stepped over to me and asked, “What’s with the shit-eating grin? Did you fart before you got out?” I just shook my head, “later, I’ll tell you later”. The sergeant DID know the border and the forest and the barriers, he probably walked the border and forest so many times he knew them like his own back yard.
Even now, over thirty years later, I still catch myself looking at the car next to me in traffic, or searching the crowd at a mall trying to imagine what he would look like today. I wonder if he made it, I have no doubt that he tried. Heinrich never asked about the grin again and I never told him what I thought about the young sergeant. That was one that I held for myself. I still have the overcoat emblem he gave me in my Jewelry box.
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