To sneak out of Czechoslovakia in 1966, we had booked a late fall bus tour to Romania and Hungary, with a one-day stop in Vienna, outside the Iron Curtain. Stepping out of the bus was being free – but what now?
Before leaving Prague, I had cashed in my savings and bought my wife Vera a beautiful fur coat with a polar fox fur hat. She looked like Lara in the movie Doctor Zhivago. It came in handy in Vienna where we were living in a freezing, half-underground room that also reminded me of their icy Siberian house. We were stranded in Vienna because Germany and Switzerland, where I had job offers, had rejected our applications for an entry visa. I guess that it was probably because I had turned down a proposal to work for the Czechoslovak Army’s Secret Service. They had called me to their offices. A good-looking man in black tried to recruit me: “You are an engineer, and you have lived in the West – just what we need. You could travel, and we know you just got married and you do not have an apartment….”
The proposition sounded good, but I just could not work for the communists, I thought. In revenge, their secret service must have spread the rumor that I was their agent.
Because of our effort to catch up with the Soviets in the space race, we give preferential quotas to engineers among the refugees.
While not really wanting to leave Europe, just in case, I had applied for immigration at the American consulate. One day they called us to come in. The consul said: “Because of our effort to catch up with the Soviets in the space race, we give preferential quotas to engineers among the refugees.” He paused, and, looking at Vera’s bulging stomach (we expected our son David), he continued: “You do not have any time to waste. Although it is normally a 6-month minimum affair, we may swing this by fax in 2 or 3 weeks.” I shook his broad hand and said: “It’s a deal.”
There was a hitch: The United States did not admit anyone who did not have a passport from a country to which he could be returned in case he violated any laws. But the Austrian authorities (happy to get rid of us) issued us a passport valid for 1 month. I still have it as a souvenir.
With the last German marks I had smuggled out, I bought tickets to New York, where Vera had relatives. On March 3, we were on board the plane. We had a three-hour stopover in Paris.
We sat in the international terminal of Orly, not allowed to leave. But, we had made it all the way to Paris. Couldn’t we at least see it? So we took a chance. We slipped under the chain fence, hopped onto a bus into the city and got off at the Champs-Élysées.
We ran through la Cité, the Arc de Triomphe, by quaint cafés, imbibing what views we could absorb on the run. Then we hurried back to the bus to Orly, under the fence again, unnoticed and just in time. Out of breath, we boarded our plane heading across the Atlantic.
In New York, Vera’s cousin found us an inexpensive apartment. I looked in the papers and found an engineering firm named Singmaster & Breyer. I went for an interview. They went out to deliberate in an adjacent room and I could overhear one say: “This guy knows more than we do!” So, I was hired.
Walking with Vera through the drab streets of the Bronx, a chilly cold wind was chasing scraps of paper and debris over the soiled asphalt. So I was glad to receive a call from a relative of Vera.
He said he had a house in Los Angeles, California, near the beach and that he was retiring. He had motor home for a yearlong trip around the country, and we could use the house, and a car, too. I Thought: California – palm trees, tropical sun, white beaches, Hollywood – what a dream after cold Vienna and dirty, windy New York City. But I was broke. So, I called Cousin Willie. I had last seen him in 1948 before he made it to Canada He sent me $400 for the plane tickets. That was a month’s salary in those days.
That was the beginnings in my beloved California where I have lived ever since then.
Arriving at Los Angeles airport, some of Vera’s relatives were standing at the landing bridge, expecting to see destitute immigrants from Eastern Europe. Behold, down the gangplank walked a tall, elegant woman in an expensive fur coat, her long legs and slim body crowned by a movie star face. Behind her, a fashionably dressed handsome man. Must have been quite a shock for them! That was the beginnings in my beloved California where I have lived ever since then.
Stephen Gaertner (89) spent fifty years designing control systems for chemical plants, fossil and nuclear power plants and oil refineries. He has been a supervising engineer for one of the world’s largest design and construction companies: Bechtel Corporation. His plants have been built in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Romania, the USA, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. He has lectured at San Francisco State University and at the Marine Academy. He lives in Rio Vista nearby.