Street Smarts in Prague

November/December 2000

Reading time min

Street Smarts in Prague

Courtesy Tod Tolan

A reconnection that began a year ago with a few classmates swapping memories has turned into an ambitious publishing project. Reisen mit Rico/ Travels with Rico: An Anthology of Memories from Landgut Burg, Stanford-in-Germany, 1968-1970 is a work-in-progress, loosely woven around the eponymous 1953 Volkswagen Beetle that gamely took successive groups on their junkets around Western Europe. Editors Barbara Rust Berring and Tod Tolan, both '71, hope many more Landgutburgers will weigh in before publication, slated to precede the 2001 Reunion Homecoming. Here is an abridged version of "Moon Landing in Prague" by Tim Gillespie, '71.

Some days during those six months at Stanford-in-Germany, the world seemed to be coming apart at the seams, the geopolitical gyroscope was spinning so wildly. However, until I found myself running down a street in Prague, Czechoslovakia, ears cocked for gunfire, I hadn't fully realized the torque that world events could apply to one life.

During that eventful Woodstock summer and the subsequent fall of 1969, the trial of the Chicago Eight began; the war in Vietnam droned on; reports of the My Lai massacre surfaced; the largest antiwar demonstration in U.S. history took place; and "America: Love It or Leave It" bumper stickers first appeared.

Oh, and humans walked on the moon for the first time.

On July 20, 1969, I was watching TV from the doorway of a crowded room in an old student hotel in Prague as Neil Armstrong plopped his foot into the moondust. The throng of young Czechs cheered. My reaction was closer to disdain. Why were we spending billions of dollars on a chest-thumping space competition with the Russians when there were so many more pressing human needs here on terra firma?

My contrary viewpoint had been reinforced three days earlier by a letter from my draft board. Long before I headed off to Germany, I'd written asking the required permission to leave the country, and expressing my opposition to the Vietnam War. Receiving no reply, I figured everything was in order and joined our group's charter flight, arriving in Beutelsbach in time to celebrate the Fourth of July.

On July 17, my draft board finally denied my request but gave no reason. My father read me the letter over the phone. Angered by the board's sluggishness and by what I figured was punishment for my political beliefs, I resolved to finish my stay in Germany. I thought briefly about not going back to the United States at all.

Those exultant Czech students had a different perspective. Less than a year earlier, the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia to crush Alexander Dubcek's inspiring experiment in liberalization, the "Prague Spring." These students were cheering because our lunar achievement was a pie in the face of their oppressors. I'd come to Prague with three other Stanford-in-Germany students--Skip Stiver, '71, JD '74, Nancy Barry, '71 and Jan Giske, '70--for a three-day visit with Stanford friends spending the summer in Czechoslovakia as part of a Ford Foundation-sponsored study group. They found themselves in an absorbing, heartbreaking situation: meeting with journalists, trade unionists, writers, filmmakers, professors and students, some of whom put themselves in danger by showing home movies of the invasion and criticizing the occupation.

We took the overnight train from Stuttgart to Prague, the four of us sharing a sweltering sleeping compartment. I had an upper berth above Jan, and all night she worried that my socks would catch fire from glowing smokestack cinders flying by the open window.

Those three days in Prague were a blur of activity. I slept on the floor in the room of Dave Schaffarzick, '71 and Carter Newton, '68, and plunged into the intensely political world of the young Czechs they knew. We walked the city all day and talked late into the night, rehashing the invasion that had squelched the Czechs' unique third way, their democratic "socialism with a human face." Though everyday life seemed to proceed normally, there were enough greatcoated, rifle-bearing soldiers on corners to remind us of the occupation. Flowers were piled daily on the spot where, seven months earlier, a Prague University student set himself on fire to protest the invasion.

On our second day in Prague, I was sitting with Dave and some of his Czech friends in a café. He was showing me some colorful paper money a friend had brought back from Biafra. As I examined Dave's 5-pound note, the well-dressed maitre d' came over and asked if I would trade it. Dave nodded approval.

While the man left us to seat another customer, our Czech companions urged Dave to get the best rate he could. This man, they explained, was the unscrupulous owner of the restaurant, an apparatchik—whose only ideology was money—in cahoots with the hated new authorities.

"How much is this money worth?" asked the owner when he returned. In complete ignorance, I replied, "The same as English pounds." After a bit more discussion, Dave ended up with a fistful of 450 Czech krona. Later, he told us that five Biafran pounds might buy half a pineapple at best in Biafra. For the Czech students, this was hilarious, one more small insult to a corrupt system.

I don't know what mix of obliviousness, hubris and foolishness compelled us, but the next day we returned to the café. We ate and drank and talked awhile; then the owner came up to me and in a soft but angry voice demanded his money back. Clearly, he'd discovered that he'd paid too much.

Everyone around me agreed that I should refuse him, that he was bluffing and had no recourse. With great reluctance I said, with a gulp, "No, you can't have it back, you made a deal."

"Then I will have a policeman here waiting to arrest you when you leave," the owner said, and he stalked off.

My heart was pounding. I wasn't sure I wanted to be the guinea pig for this experiment in defiance. I could make a principled stand in my own culture about the conduct of a war, but I didn't know what I was getting myself into here. Because money was at its root, the cause seemed less than noble. But perhaps it was a justifiable act of resistance.

Suddenly we saw a policeman outside talking to the owner. The Czechs decided to spirit me out of the place, and I was too frightened to protest. When the owner was preoccupied and the policeman looking away, we got up in a big clump and casually shuffled out the nearest door. Walking down the street in an amoebalike throng seemed ridiculous, but when the students yelled for us all to split up and everyone started to run, I really began to sweat. This is crazy, I thought. Dave and I ran down streets and alleys imagining the zing of a bullet or a cell in some Prague dungeon. But nothing happened. We eventually made it back to the student hotel.

I missed meeting my three worried companions and had to make my own way back to Beutelsbach. Sitting alone in a rumbling train compartment, I thought hard about this whole experience.

Clearly, the bubble of my comfortable middle-class life was a fragile thing outside my own country. Running from that restaurant in Prague felt a bit like walking on the moon, treading on some alien territory without fully knowing what the composition of the ground might be. Angry though I was at my own country, maybe I didn't have it so bad back in the United States; the draft board could forbid me from traveling but not from speaking. If forced to choose between political models, I knew I'd side with the democracy of my home country, even if flawed.

But maybe I needed to embrace the Czech habit of thinking a third way. "Love it or leave it" offered two choices, but weren't there more? Couldn't one be a patriot and an objector at the same time? The experience in Prague helped me decide that no matter how angry I was with my country, I still loved it deeply. I needed to go back, raise my voice and work to make it better.

The train chugged through the night slowly westward to Stuttgart. The sparks have been blowing by my windows ever since.

Tim Gillespie,'71, and his wife, Jan Giske, '70, are educators in Portland, Ore. Contact project editors at (503) 650-2440 or (925) 254-1511.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.