Fifty years ago

Some haunting anniversaries reminding you how time and tide wait for no one. Fifty years ago the Berlin Wall was begun and I was in Warsaw when I heard it announced on the news. Since it was broadcast from the Communist state we were told this was to protect people from the Capitalist west. We were on route to Berlin and so saw work in progress.
I was nineteen at the time and was on a coach trip which took in Prague, Warsaw, Minsk, Smolensk and Moscow. It should have included the Ukraine and cities of Kiev and Kharkov but an earlier trip had found a low bridge which had meant the coach deflating its tyres to pass under!
Czechoslavakia was my first penetration of the “Iron Curtain” and the first impression was dismal as the border area gave the impression of being abandoned. Here the coach was joined by an elderly American, Mr Winter Smith, with whom I became well acquainted since he was to share a room with me. He had a habit of getting lost in the large cities we stayed. In the middle of the night the phone would ring alarmingly and voice would ask “Does Mr Winter Smith live here?”
Prague is a beautiful city with a rich and brutal history. Dominating the scene from the Charles Bridge over the Vltava then was a huge monument of Joseph Stalin.
Instead of driving across Czechoslavakia directly into the USSR we headed north stopping in the town of Nachod. My memories of this place are confined to an evening in a bar, probably that of the hotel. The unscheduled stop meant we did not have a chance to see the place by day. We certainly talked to the locals but as the evening drew on it began to seem that the language barrier was something of a problem. An increasingly inebriated fellow began his interrogation of me. “Communist? Ni Communist?” which I understood to be asking if I was a Communist or not. The problem is I wasn’t sure what the answer was he required as he became more and more aggressive. The problem was resolved when we withdrew to our rooms ready for an early start to Wroclaw and the long road to Moscow across Byelorusse. It seemed to me that Napoleon and Hitler’s armies would have been defeated by the boredom of the flat featureless landscape.
Up through Warsaw, to where we would return, to our first experience of the Soviet Union. As I remember the border post was miles from nowhere. There was a wide court yard with the coach parked along one side. It was surrounded with trees. The wait was long and so we started to kick a ball around. Big Dave from Australia was a reporter for Reuters and then there was mischievous Tony, a fun loving New Zealander. Mike was from the UK, later to move to Ontario in Canada with wife Chris. We are still on touch. Two northern lads ( I think they were Geordies who liked Russianising everything like beer became “beerski”.!) Considering we were surrounded by armed guards I wasn’t sure what we were doing was wise. It was to be how we passed the time at such border crossings. While this was going on our coach was minutely scrutinised and photographed underneath. Finally we were off with Minsk our first stop.

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