“On the run. Leaving for Budapest tomorrow. Haven’t packed yet.”
So went less than a minute of conversation with one of my travel writing mentors, John Flinn, former Travel Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Like friends walking down the street in opposite directions, we had just enough time to wave and yell “Hey!” at each other as we sped off to different “destinations” in the Grand Ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel high atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill four weeks ago.
I don’t know where John was headed that day, but between 9:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. I had crisscrossed Canada on a virtual journey, making 15-minute stops in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, Alberta and Newfoundland, “riding” on two train lines, “stampeding” through Calgary, and “sailing” on the St. Lawrence Seaway. And I “crossed” a suspension bridge and “visited” the Yukon Territory, too. It was all part of a day of “speed-dating” between travel writers and Canadian tourist boards and travel companies at the 2012 Canada Media Marketplace.
The next time I run into John Flinn, maybe we’ll have time to chat about his Budapest trip over a couple of beers. But learning that he was headed there brought to mind my own three “encounters” with that Hungarian city long, long ago.
I don’t recall with certainty how I first “got to” Budapest or, more correctly, how it “got” to me. So it probably doesn’t really matter whether or not the stories of those “meetings” flow linearly, in strict chronological order, as they actually happened, nearly a half-century ago.”
When I was a junior high-school student growing up in Seattle, Budapest reached me by sending short-wave radio waves over to top of the Iron Curtain, bouncing them off the ionosphere and the earth’s surface until they struck the antenna attached to the Hallicrafters S-38E radio in my bedroom.
English language broadcasts from Radio Budapest often entered my brain through Bakelite headphones, worn to prevent ambient noise from drowning out sometimes weak and wavering transcontinental radio signals.
That was not my only contact with the Eastern Bloc of European nations dominated by the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. I regularly tuned into Radio Moscow and Radio Prague, as well.
At about the same time, I gained a different perspective on Budapest and its Soviet “protectors,” by reading one of James Michener’s lesser-known works, The Bridge at Andau, published in 1957, a year after the Russians strangled to death the Hungarian uprising against its hegemony.
Here’s how the inside flap of the book’s dust cover describes the the Soviet invasion:
“At four o’clock in the morning on a Sunday in November 1956, the city of Budapest was awakened by the shattering sound of Russian tanks tearing the city apart. The Hungarian revolution — five brief, glorious days of freedom that had yielded a glimpse at a different kind of future — was over.
“But there was a bridge at Andau, on the Austrian border, and if a Hungarian could reach that bridge, he was nearly free. It was about the most inconsequential bridge in Europe, but by an accident of history it became, for a few flaming weeks, one of the most important bridges in the world, for across its unsteady planks fled the soul of a nation….
“Here is James A. Michener at his most gripping, with a historic account of a people in desperate revolt, a true story as searing and unforgettable as any of his bestselling works of fiction. “
For me, The Bridge at Andau graphically revealed what price a people might have to pay in order to wrest the rule of their own country from Communist control. Ironically, my reading of it came not long after seeing Stalag 17 (1953), and a year or so before watching The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), two cinematic essays focusing on the Fascism of Nazi Germany.
Budapest Arrives in Ballard
Ballard, once a city unto itself in western Washington state, had been politically co-opted into the much larger City of Seattle by the the time I moved there with my parents in the fall of 1956, not long before the Russians “moved” to Budapest. Almost exactly a year later, the Soviet satellite “Sputnik” winked its way across the night skies over Seattle, an ominous sign that Russian power could eventually extend not merely to the eastern periphery of the NATO countries in Western Europe, but perhaps even across the known universe.
Tucked up against the shores of Puget Sound in the Northwest corner of Seattle, Ballard was home to both immigrants, fresh from Norway and Sweden, like some of my junior-high school classmates and their parents, or like my stepfather, sons and daughters of Nordic folk who had come to America a generation earlier.
Four years after Michener’s story of the Soviet suppression of the revolt in Hungary came out, I saw, from near, rather than afar, a former citizen of that Eastern European nation. Less than three months later, in November of 1961, he and I would both taste a bitter, though less bloody (at least for me) defeat in a battle different from that that had raged in the streets of Budapest during the same month, five years earlier.
“First and Ten, Do It Again!”
In June of 1961, I graduated from junior high. In September, I entered Ballard High School as a sophomore. Over the next two months I watched from the stands as the school’s football team went through the regular season undefeated, knocking off one opponent after another. And if it wasn’t for the Russians, that would have never happened.
Les Mueller was born in Hungary. He and his family fled the country when the Russians invaded in 1956. They knew the name of the U.S. capital, so they told immigration officials they wanted to go to “Washington”, but were mistakenly sent to Seattle. That snafu boded well for the Ballard Beavers football team.
As a young teenager, Mueller could not help his countryman thwart the Russian invasion of their country. Five years later, he could have become an unforgettable hero to high school classmates in his adopted country.
Mueller had played soccer, a game in which it is impermissible to pick up and carry the ball. But as a burly senior fullback for the Ballard High football team, he either brushed aside would-be tacklers like pesky mosquitoes or mashed their bodies into the turf as he headed to the end zone with the ball tucked against his big body.
During the 1961 Thanksgiving Day high school championship game versus West Seattle, all Les Mueller had to do was run a single yard on a muddy football field. But instead of crossing the goal line and experiencing “the thrill of victory,” he, and all of his Ballard compatriots and supporters sitting in the rain-dampened stands of Seattle’s Memorial Stadium, suffered “the agony of defeat.”
I’ve never set foot in Budapest. In a 2006 trip across Europe, I got as far east as Vienna, before riding westward to Salzburg, Austria, aboard a train whose journey had began earlier that morning in Budapest.
Three years later, I was in Prague, less than 300 miles away. But the train once again took me in the opposite direction, this time north to Dresden and Berlin.
Earlier this year I made another virtual trip to Budapest, taken there by actress Romy Schneider, playing the role of “Sissi,” the Hapsburg Kaiserin and Queen of Hungary, in the 1956 movie Sissi, The Young Empress. And, of course, I went directly there, in my mind, while “traversing” Canada four weeks ago.
(Les Mueller graduated from Ballard High School in June of 1962. He went on to become a junior college All-American at Columbia Basin College, was signed by the Denver Broncos of the NFL, and played in the Canadian Football League and for a semi-pro football team in Seattle. He died of a heart attack in 2005 at the age of 61. Purchasing The Sissi Collection, a trilogy of movies about the Austrian Empress, The Diary of Anne Frank, Stalag 17 , or James Michener’s The Bridge at Andau, through links on this page helps support Tales Told From The Road.)
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