Archive for the ‘Special Events’ Category
Many of you know that I speak Hungarian. I spent two years living in Budapest beginning when I was 19, learned to love the country and the people, and to speak the language fluently. Natively, almost. I still follow Hungarian politics and (especially) sports, which means that my heart swells with joy to note that Videoton (Fehervar) is leading NB1 with 9 points from the first 3 games played this year.
But enough of that. I want to tell you about one of my heroes. His name is Bella Arpad (Hungarians reverse the given and family names, like the Chinese, so you’d call him Arpad if you were his friend, and Lt. Colonel Bella if you weren’t), and you’ve never heard of him.
August 20 is St. Istvan Napja (St. Stephen’s Day) in Hungary, also once called Felszabadulas Napja (Liberation Day) when the country was a Soviet satellite, the day, Hungarians joked in that fatalistic way of theirs, that Hungary was liberated from its freedom. Twenty years ago today, on the eve of the biggest holiday on the Hungarian calendar, the Hungarian anti-communist opposition decided to hold a picnic.
The idea was that after the picnic the Hungarians would cross the border into Austria at Sopronpuszta, a crossing that had been closed since 1948, go to some historic sites – most of Austria at that crossing was once a part of Hungary – and come home. Hungarians could, and did, cross the border into Austria fairly simply, though doing it often was not recommended, and of course some couldn’t do it at all, but as a symbolic gesture it was to have been a demonstration of growing power on the part of the opposition.
Then something wonderful happened. Well, it’s wonderful now. Then, it was mostly brave, and scary.
Some East Germans came to the picnic. “Some” means 600 or so.
Now, as Hungary was definitely the most liberal, most West-leaning of the Soviet Bloc countries, so East Germany was the most conservative, the most East-leaning of them. Getting out of East Germany to West Germany was next to impossible without a bullet in the back. But the East Germans could go from Soviet Bloc country to Soviet Bloc country with only minor paperwork, so they came to Hungary for a picnic. And when the time came for the Hungarians to cross the border, a whole bunch of the East Germans said they were going, too.
Here’s where my hero comes in.
Lt. Colonel Bella Arpad was on duty that day, guarding a border crossing that no one had crossed for over 40 years. Up the road came about 150 East Germans, leaving their cars, their possessions, everything they had behind them. They had no permission to cross, no visas, nothing but determination.
Now, to you and me, this sounds rather simple. What’s the problem? Just let the people go. But you have to understand that to Arpad, this was not simple at all. He was in charge there. His superiors were, interestingly, on vacation or suddenly unavailable. One of his 5 men was almost certainly an informant of the secret police. He had no orders about any East Germans. These were people from another country trying to use him as a bridge to get to the West, and as refusing them might lead to trouble, so letting them go could precipitate an international incident. There were 80,000 Russian troops stationed in Hungary. If the Soviets decided that Hungary was losing commitment to the Glorious Revolution, it would take them all of a day and a half to go through and kill everyone insufficiently committed. There was precedent.
In 1956, Hungarians staged a great uprising against the Soviets. Led by Prime Minister Nagy Imre and others, Hungarian students and protesters took over Budapest and had a brief – one week – festival of liberation. Then the Soviets came back with their tanks, and crushed the rebellion. 25,000 Hungarians died. Even owning newspapers from that event was enough to get one arrested. I know. I saw some of these papers, showed to me in the strictest confidence, with whispers and gestures, papers buried in storage, hidden under other, more innocuous paraphernalia. The Hungarians didn’t forget 1956. Hungarians still remember Mohacs, for crying out loud. They’re still bitter about World War I.
The BEST that was likely to happen was that Lt. Col. Bella would lose his job. And never get another one. He could end up in prison (very likely). His family could end up in prison, because communist governments resemble the Mafia – they take out everyone that might be contaminated by you, just as a precaution. So here he is, at the end of a gravel road, and coming toward him is the Seventh Circle of Hell.
His weapon was loaded. All his men were armed. He only had to give the order.
So he didn’t.
In fact, he waved them through. He gave directions, for crying out loud. East Germans were running around, screaming, crying, unable to believe that they were, for the first time in most of their lives, free. To do whatever they wanted. Shop, work, travel, anything. And it became obvious right away that this wasn’t some sort of aberration, a lucky break for this group that wouldn’t be tolerated again. The East German people heard about this in about .4 seconds, and they started coming in droves. You remember the amazing pictures of the Berlin Wall coming down? That was three months later. All dams eventually burst, and this one came down like all the others, but it was at Sopronpuszta that was the first serious leak. Lt. Colonel Bella Arpad was there, and he could have plugged it.
He’s one of my heroes because he didn’t.
P.S. Here’s the AP story on this, and it has this great passage in it:
Laszlo Nagy, one of the organizers of the picnic, was startled by the East Germans’ actions, who left behind hundreds of cars and other possessions near the border for the chance to make the short walk to a new life in the West.
“Some of them were waiting for this moment for 20 or 30 years,” Nagy said. “They left behind everything … because freedom has the greatest value.”
I met Steve about 15 years ago, when he and I were working the overnight shift cleaning the Provo Temple. Yes, wise guy, the temples get cleaned by humans. Our shift started at 10 and ended about 3am. Not for the faint of heart, but it paid pretty well and there’s no better work environment.
It’s also fairly slow-paced, so Steve and I got to talk a bit. I liked him, he liked me, we were interested in many similar things, were about the same age, so we struck up a friendship that has lasted, in one form or another, for a decade and a half.
I’ve hired Steve now, let’s see, at WMA, at the Dark Realm, and the Chris Jones Group. I could be forgetting one or two other times. He’s a crappy employee. I’m one, too, so this is not a slam. Neither of us are very good at doing the “yessir” thing, especially with people that are incompetent as bosses. This leads us to get fired a lot, if we ever take jobs, which means that I never take them anymore and Steve only takes them when he can work with me. I guess he thinks I’m not incompetent, which is high praise coming from him.
In lots of ways, Steve has problems. He’s a magnet for trouble, especially money trouble. He’s never gotten married, though that remains a priority. He can be hard to get along with. He’s had his share of physical problems (he was hit by a car) that have made his favorite pastime (skiing) more difficult.
He is also the most loyal of friends, one of the hardest-working and most honest men I know. He keeps himself fit, has attained a skill level at skiing that is hard to appreciate until you see it in action, and he’s one of the best friends a kid can have. He is exceptionally frugal, and simultaneously very generous. He’s my friend, and I’m grateful to him.
I am especially grateful to him for one afternoon in the car, when he told me that I was a pompous ass and I needed to knock it off. In my life, I’ve had three, maybe four friends that were willing to take that kind of risk on my behalf. Make no mistake, he did it because I needed it, not to make himself feel better. It didn’t make him feel good at all, mostly because I roundly denied it and told him he was delusional, but he was right. He was absolutely right. If you’re a long-timer here, you know that I haven’t ever completely vanquished that personality trait, and yet because he was willing to call me on it, I’ve been able to make some changes. Changes for the better, I hope.
As we get older, and my family takes up more and more time, it’s harder for us to do a lot of the things we like to do together. Steve taught me to play golf (though he is NOT to be blamed for the way I play it), but we don’t get to go golfing much. He taught me to shoot, and we don’t get to do that all that much, either. We haven’t played ball in a while (his defense drove me crazy). But we still see each other at work, and he comes over for BYU football and basketball. For salsa and chips, and barbecues. Chats about politics and life. Hauling horse manure. Good things like that.
I love him like a brother. I pray for him, and hope like crazy that he gets all the things he wants out of life. On his birthday, I pray God blesses and watches out for him, and I hope he knows that he’ll always be welcome by our fire.
Happy Birthday, my excellent friend.