Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Mini-Biography: Walter

Now I'm going to tell you a little bit about Walter and his family. He may not like this, but tough cookies, Cookie. That's the price you pay when you start your woman up writing a blog.

***Note: This is a significantly revised version of the original post, and I'm breaking it up into smaller pieces too. Walter had a LOT of input after I hit that PUBLISH button. Usually I try to get all my facts straight before I post. This time? I figured if I could slide the post past him in the first place, then he'd accept it and I could repair any mislaid facts after the fact. It worked. :D ***


Let's go for a nice visit to post-WWII mittel Europe. Behind the Iron Curtain we go, into Czechoslovakia during the Cold War.

You have an old established family, big landowners, who had their holdings taken away - nationalized - then were *punished* for their capitalist past by being allowed to hold only low-level jobs. That's Walter's family.

His father was a masterful viola player. Little Walter had to play violin, every day for hours and hours. But never once did he play with anyone else. I always found that sad, myself. Music is a highly social activity. Playing music with others is wonderfully fulfilling.

Did he enjoy it? Sure. Perhaps he would have enjoyed it more if he weren't pushed so hard. Ultimately, he knew he could get way technically proficient - but there's a spark inside us for these things, and he knew he didn't have it. I don't either, although I played too, when young. Giving up playing music can hurt, but it's different when you know you don't have that spark, and you wish you did.

At the age of eight Walter went to the Gifted School, what I like to call the Wunderkind School. He calls it the Special School. When he was 14 the school moved farther from his home. To attend, he moved in with his big sister, Edith, who lived much closer to the new location than his parents did.

That was a good thing. There was some friction between Walter and his parents. He was the last child of three. Every kid was nine years apart. Each parent picked a favorite kid out of the first two. By the time Walter came along, they'd kind of lost interest in new kids. They maintained an emotional distance. Yet they spoiled him too: he never left the house without money, and he had his favorite pastries almost every single morning, fetched from down the block by his mother. Nice and fresh.

So sister Edith, who was 18 years his senior, raised him like a mother. She doted on him and loved him and taught him, and probably spoiled him rotten - in an emotionally available way, this time. Nurturing. He probably needed that, I think.

Walter's special school was a social experiment. As in, *What will we find out if we...?* They took a bunch of really smart kids, either genius-level or close to, and put them all together. When the school moved when Walter was 14, their teachers were now world-class university professors.

The kids were immersed in advanced education, and graduated with college degrees at the age of 18. Being a September baby, Walter reminds me, he was 17 years 8 months old when HE graduated.

He majored in liberal arts, especially linguistics. Where he lived, to get a BA you must have a double major. He studied four languages, each for the same amount of credit hours. He picked Hungarian and Slovak for his declared majors; the two *undeclared* languages were Russian and German. Not enough for you? Okay. He also majored in history and geography. That's four declared majors, plus two more that qualified as majors, if he'd chosen. He only admits to seven languages, although I got him to fess up to twice that many, one night.

Around graduation the school directors said, *We have our answer! Yes, some of you really are geniuses. The rest, including you, Walter? Are very very smart. But not geniuses. So we especially commend you for sticking this out!*


Of the 28 or so who started, about 24 students finished the program. The experiment was not repeated. A lot of what the school directors learned about education, though, was incorporated in teaching students that followed. Walter's own daughter Anne went to an accelerated language class when she was nine. She was bilingual, so they picked her up for the special class, and that class was modeled on the ones Walter was in.

These kids, of course, were being groomed to become the country's next batch of leaders. Today, in his early 50's, many of Walter's old schoolmates hold high positions in government and business in that small country.

If you don't know much about the history of Czechoslovakia - certainly I didn't - you may not understand that there were levels and degrees of adherence to the Soviet version of communism, or socialism, within the Soviet bloc. In Walter's country, in the spring of 1967, they decided to embark on a new program: Socialism with a Human Face.

This drew the ire of Soviet Russia, who invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, when Walter was 13.

He'd been up in the mountains vacationing with his sister and her family. Oh, it's a beautiful country. Beautiful mountains. He left a few days early, coming home with a family friend.

Late at night his grandfather woke him up. The whole house was shaking, the earth was rumbling, and nobody knew what was going on. They lived a couple blocks in from the main road in Bratislava, and they got dressed and walked down the street to see what was happening.

Tanks. Tanks were pouring in from all directions, rumbling the ancient buildings and new ones alike, over and over for hours, thousands upon thousands of tanks like it would never end.

Walter and his grandfather stood and watched the tanks going past. Nobody knew what was going on for a couple hours. Then everyone knew.

Their entire country was being invaded from all sides. Every country in the Soviet bloc except Romania took part. Russia parachuted a whole division into Prague.

His sister's family was still up in the mountains. All travel was disrupted, so they had to wait to come home, to return from the mountains on the train. Finally they headed home. When they pulled into the station and opened the windows to look out, they saw lines of tanks turned to face them, the huge tank guns pointed right at the train. Right at them.

Walter had been raised to view Russians as heroes. He changed his mind. From then on, he tried to never speak Russian again.

The invasion was in August, and school started back up in September. On the first day of school all the students collected the year's new books. After school, they had a big bonfire in the schoolyard. They threw their Russian language books on the bonfire and watched them burn. No one got in trouble for this. Nobody said a word.

That winter, in hockey season, the final match was between Russia and Czechoslovakia. When they played these hockey games, there was a little ceremony between the team captains before the puck was dropped. They skated out and traded little flags of their countries, and they shook hands.

This time the Russian captain extended his hand. The Czechoslovakian captain refused to take it. He turned around and skated off instead.

Russia lost the game. Russia never lost the game. The jubilation in Walter's home town, in his home country, was indescribable.

***to be continued...***


Cefenix said...

"They told him he was Not Politically Reliable any more."

Yikes...nuff said.

Joyce Ellen Davis said...

What an interesting man your Walter is!

k said...

Spooky, huh, seaphoenix? heh! More on that one later. I was getting a bit long-winded, so I moved that to the next installment.

Isn't he though, Pepek? I sure do like him.

Nancy said...

Well, I knew any man smart enough to be a part of your life would be interesting too, but WOW.

I'm looking forward to the rest of the story!

Cefenix said...

I'll pop the corn and get the sodas...I'll be waiting on the edge of my seat!

Joyce Ellen Davis said...

seaphoenix, I'll just sit here by you, Ok? I'll have one of those Diet Caramel Pepsi's, thanks. Do you think it's alright if we take our shoes off?

Desert Cat said...

"Not Politically Reliable"...

I'll probably be branded thus on the first day of the New Order.

Jan said...

Wow..I can hardly wait to hear the rest of the story! And what an amazing story it is!

I know that Walter must have a lot more insight into things, politically, and otherwise, than the average person.

I can't even imagine what it must have been like, standing there with all the tanks rumbling by, and not having a clue as to what was going on..and what betrayal he must have felt throughout it all.

k said...

Oh, you guys can always take your shoes off around here! k's place is all about being comfy.

DC, I heard some Words about that sort of thing at the workplace myself, back in the day. I never had any grace to fall from...I'd be told - by an uncomfortable person - that I just Didn't Fit In with the Corporate World. This often happened a year before the Big Old Respectable Firm went down flaming in a big nasty corruption or drug or incompetency scandal.

jan, yes. He certainly does. And betrayal is exactly right.

k said...

Walter informed me yesterday that nobody could be interested in hearing about his life because it was boring.

I said, No. Not boring, however.

He said, Well, maybe it's more that I was was exhausted all the time that I didn't have time to stop and think about things...

He also wants to be sure I don't praise him too much.

He isn't perfect. Of course not. But I have great respect for him, and I think I'd find his life story interesting whether I loved him, or simply knew who he was.

Granny J said...

Love to meet Walter the next time he drives that semi through Prescott (tell him NOT to take the White Spar). People with minds are all very, very interesting, no matter what they say!