Saturday, February 15, 2014

Chapter 15

1970s are a peculiar decade. It starts with massive strikes and demonstrations in December, in the seaside cities of northern Poland, prompted by price increases of meat products and other foods.  These protests initially barely register in the state-controlled media, but those with access to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America pass on the news about the unrest to the rest of Poland. The workers' revolt is brutally put down by combined forces of police (milicja) and army, leaving dozens dead.

The five of us (father, stepmother, my sister, my baby half-sister, and I) are spending two weeks in the mountains. Perhaps pure coincidence, or perhaps my father knew that the unrest began to spread to other cities of Poland, including Warsaw, and wanted to get us out of harms way. (And avoid being dragged into it himself.) One day the evening news brings some obscure references to the "tragic happenings in the North", and a speech by the newly installed Secretary of the communist party, Edward Gierek. That, at least, is a positive, even exciting, development; nobody will miss his gnome-like predecessor, Władysław Gomułka, whose long, impenetrable speeches could put any insomniac to sleep. (In all of human history no one holds a candle to the communists when it comes to excruciatingly long talks completely devoid of substance.)

I half-register the winds of change, unable to ignore the TV news my father watches religiously, but I feel  that this is just window dressing - the communists are still firmly in power, Soviet Union is still the puppet master, so who cares which puppet pops onto the scene. Comrade Gierek promises reforms and higher living standards, but promises are cheap, and what else is he supposed to say - "You will learn to dance to our tune, or else"?

I am preoccupied with the beauty of the mountains in wintertime. Deep, white snow is everywhere, nighttime temperatures  close to 0 degrees F. Our host's son and I go to into the mountains to cut a Christmas tree. We walk for an hour in snow that is sometimes waist-deep, but find the right tree, cut it down, and drag it back home. I'm drenched in sweat and exhausted beyond belief.

That night they slaughter a calf for the Christmas feast. I watch from the second story window as they drag a young bull out of the barn. It  is visibly terrified. It has a rope tied around its neck, by which one of the men is dragging it, while the other is holding its tail. The man in front ties the rope to a post and then picks up an ax. The calf is pulling on the rope with all its might, trying to break free, but it is hopeless. It is a young animal, not a baby, more of a teenager, and thus bigger than a pig and with a thicker skull, so it takes multiple blows with the blunt end to bring it to its knees. At this point I stop watching, my eyes welled with tears of sorrow for the young bull, and anger for the brutes killing it. The next night, when I step into the kitchen, there is meat everywhere: cut, ground, fried, cooked. The bull's absurdly long penis is hanging on the wall as a conversation piece, and the boys are tossing its testicles across the room. I'm offered a plate of freshly-made kaszanka (blood sausage), but refuse to eat it, violent images from the night before still filling my head.

There is a bit of mystery surrounding our stay with this particular family. I know this woman from Warsaw - I saw her visit our apartment and converse with our father behind closed doors. She comes to the capital to sell stuff on the street: smoked cheese, knitted wool sweaters, leather slippers - things made in those highlands. For some reason these small-time peddlers are harassed by police, stopped, arrested, their merchandise confiscated.  My father is an officer in the unit charged with "economic crimes", so that is his purview. Perhaps they are running some sort of protection racket, with some cops from his unit arresting the poor merchants, and my father benevolently releasing them. In exchange for what - money?Undying gratitude? Lifetime supply of cheese? Free vacations in the mountains? Or, perhaps, he is just moved by their plight and helps them out of the goodness of his heart, doing his small part in making life in "workers' paradise" a bit less punishing and absurd. That latter explanation is what I choose to believe.

When I return to school after winter vacations (fifth grade), Warsaw is abuzz with stories about the uprising in December, and its aftermath. Gossip circulates about Gomułka losing his marbles after being removed from power and shouting, "My folk, oh my folk, what have I done to you?" I regal selected classmates with stories I overheard from my father talking on the phone or to our stepmother: of street fights, tanks crushing people, cracked heads, tear gas, live ammunition used against unarmed workers.  (Yes, every now and then I give in to the temptation of embellishing or inventing some of those stories, if the originals don't seem moving enough.)

By the time I am in high school, comrade Gierek seems to be making good on his promises. There is noticeable awakening in the political and economic life of Poland. More foreign films are being shown in movie theaters, even films previously banned by the censors. Plays with subversive messages, like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", are staged in prominent theaters, with tickets sold out weeks in advance. World literature is being translated at a fast clip, with the Latin American authors quickly becoming my favorites: Cortazar, Fuentes, Garcia-Marquez,  Carpentier, Vargas Llosa. There are more western-made goods in stores, including American cigarettes, which are absurdly expensive but so much better then the lung-shredding Polish brands with names like "Sport" (who the hell came up with that??) or "Extra Strong" - both very popular and cheap.

One can now buy things one previously could only find in books: Pepsi and Coca Cola, grapes, pineapples, corn flakes, spray deodorants. The state-run industry appears to be waking up from its slumber and producing more consumer-oriented goods, many licensed from the West: cars (licensed from Italian Fiat), tape and cassette players (licensed from Germany's Grundig), new buses (licensed from French Berliot), cosmetics, washing machines, refrigerators. Most of those are still very difficult to obtain; cars are not only obscenely expensive, with a tiny Fiat 126p running into multiples of annual salary of a worker, but have long waiting lists. (By long I mean years...) But at least they can be had - with a lot of patience, money, and right connections.

Those with access to hard currency are especially lucky. There is now a chain of state-owned stores called "Pewex", which sell Western consumer goods for any Western currency. Initially, one has to have a foreign passport to get in, but eventually that rule gets rescinded, and anybody with dollars, francs, or pounds sterling is welcome to purchase. Thanks to a booming black market of currency exchange, that means anybody in Poland.

Like any other entrepreneurial activity, this market threatens the state monopoly and is therefore fought vigorously, with the men engaged in it (they are almost exclusively men) vilified, harassed, arrested, their profits confiscated. Yet it persists, because the demand for it and the profits are enormous. The "official" exchange rate is artificially low, and so the street entrepreneurs can offer a much higher rate to the sellers, and then turn around and sell at a huge markup to the insatiable Poles hungry for Western goods or a way to protect their savings from inflation.

Our teenage hearts are aching for music and jeans. It's a time of creative explosion in "symphonic rock", and we can't get enough of it. We trade tapes of recorded radio programs - sometimes playing full new albums of bands like Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Yes - and crowd apartments of the few friends who can inexplicably afford the original LPs. (The only vinyl record of Western music I will ever own will be "Wind and Wuthering" by Genesis - still one of my favorite albums.)

Jeans are another lustful desire with the power to drive us mad. Those among us who can afford a pair of Levi's, Lee's, or Wranglers, are teenage aristocracy.  We envy them the way Russian proletariat must have envied the lives of the tsar, the princes, and the rich industrialists in 1917 - with the only difference being that we wouldn't kill out of that envy. There are Polish-made jeans, but those are a poor substitute; not even knockoffs of the real thing - their color is the wrong kind of blue, and they will never fade, no matter how long you wear them.

Thankfully, I have a grandmother who knows her way with a sewing machine. She also loves me dearly and will do whatever crazy fashion project I throw at her, like the bell-bottom pants that will become the object of envy for my classmates without costing me a fortune I don't have.

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