Life's journey of an uninteresting man - By Milan Lorman

English version.    Slovak version.

Family background
Early Childhood
Boyhood in Lazy
Student years
Leaving the nest
Eastern front
Six Days Behind Enemy Lines
A Little Light Relief at the Front
A Close Brush With Disaster
The Story of the Lifesaving Grapes
Prisoner of War
My French and American experience / One year in Austria
Four years in England
To the end of the Earth

Early Childhood

Life's journey of an uninteresting man
By Milan Lorman

It is commonly believed that no one has first-hand recollections dating from the first one or two years of his or her life. About those first wobbly steps on our journey through life we know only what our parents told us in later life. And only very rarely anything happens which does not equally apply to every other baby. Perhaps that's why I recall very little that would relate to my birthplace, Kračunovce, in eastern Slovakia.

One thing that very likely happened before we have left Kračunovce is that a photograph was taken, the earliest worth mentioning. It shows five people, my parents and fathers brother František (Frank), standing and in front, seated, my grandmother, on my mothers side holding me on her lap. She was at that time already domiciled in the United States with her other daughter, Mitzi, and in Slovakia was only for a brief visit. I like to think that my arrival in this world was the main reason for that visit. I was after all her first grandson. The dear lady did not live to a ripe old age and, before she could make another ocean voyage, died in America.

Before I say good-by to Kračunovce I shall mention my godfather Mr Tomečko (to my great shame I have forgotten his first name), teacher, like my father, in another small village, named Brezová not far from the district town of Giraltovce, only in another direction. Later on, when I have reached the age of eighteen I have wound up my high school studies in the same class with two of his, I believe, eight sons and - to mention one more coincidence, - recently I have learned that one of his grandsons Paul, with his family have settled in Adelaide. Sometimes this world appears to be very small.

Soon after my arrival in this world my father took up a position in a different part of the country, in southern Slovakia, in the district of Nové Zámky. At first in a place called Semerovo and a couple of years later in Horný Ďúrad. It may have been the other way around, because in my memories somehow these two places blend into one. Maybe because they were not all that far from one another and also because in later life I have never visited either of them. The vaguely defined landscapes in my mind relating to those two villages are very much like the landscapes, which a reader of a storybook without illustrations, creates in his minds eye, because, after all, the story has to take place somewhere. And so the stage on which I have acted out my first two years is also now just a misty wonderful place full of magic, of little people, wood elves and water sprites, of dark forests of acacia trees and fields of tobacco poppies and sunflowers and wondrous things like that. I have no desire to go and see the places now, after three quarters of a century of progress and harsh reality. I am quite happy with the fairy tale.

My first memories from Semerovo (- Horný Ďúrad) are just a few disconnected flashes, holding no interest for anyone else and yet happenings that made deep impression on a three- or four-year-old little boy. Like, for instance, the day when a young man from the village, having delivered a load of firewood on a horse-drawn cart to the schoolyard decided to unhitch the horse, put me on its back and lead it three or four times around the yard, while my mother watched from the kitchen door. I have no idea whether I was sitting in a saddle, on a blanket, or just on the horses naked back. It didn't matter. For a long while nothing existed, except that horse and I.
Baby Milan
Baby Milan

I was only about four when my father entrusted me with a responsibility. I had to feed our approximately forty rabbits and see to it that their cages were kept clean. Just as well that there was such a large number of them. I could not remember them all by name and so did not notice the sad fact that from time to time one or the other of them appeared (briefly, unrecognised) on our dinner table. Then one night some vicious predator, probably a fox, gained entry to their cages and caused a terrible massacre. In the morning those which were not dead, were so horribly wounded that my father had to kill them in order to end their suffering. Of course, I was not a witness to that and I am certain that it was a traumatic day for my father also.

That time, the late twenties, was only some ten years removed from the end of the First World War and so it was nothing extraordinary for a few friends, ex-soldiers, to meet from time to time, enjoy a drink or ten and reminisce over their wartime experiences. Sometime my father would be hosting such a gathering. I remember still one of his buddies, a big fellow, strong, not fat. He had on top of his clean-shaven head a deep scar testifying to a savage blow with a sabre. The man not only survived but fully recovered from a wound that would have sufficed to kill a horse. No wonder that he didn't want to cover his "decoration" with hair.

And now, perhaps just one more memory from Semerovo (or was it Ďúrad). One pleasant, sunny Sunday afternoon. Top end of the town square filled with people in their Sunday best, and uniforms, lots of uniforms. All eyes turned toward a ceremonial platform and a figure in black including a wide-brimmed black hat, delivering a flowery speech. Member of parliament of then just ten-years-old Czecho-Slovak republic, Mr. Antonín Kolísek, all the way from Prague, was dedicating a memorial to honour the victims of the Great War. Of course, at the time I could not appreciate the significance of the occasion, but I was very much impressed by the uniforms. All the more because my father was also wearing his Legionaire's outfit, as far as I can recall, for the last time.

Mr. Kolísek was an impressive figure and I can still picture the shoulder-length grey hair cascading from under his hat, then curling upwards. My Slovak readers are no-doubt familiar with the portraits of a number of our notables shown with a similar hair style, like Father Hlinka or the poet Andrej Sládkovič, but even non-Slovaks will have on occasions seen the portraits of the composer and pianist Franz Liszt. I am mentioning the hair only because I want to point to the contrasting fashion sense of my father. As my mother told me, during the time leading up to their eventual wedding, he was sporting both a nice head of hair and a neat moustache. When the hour arrived though, he turned up at the church without either. Mother said that she almost fainted and asked "What have you done?!" He answered:" I've got you now. I don't need that fancy stuff anymore." And for the rest of his life no hair above his neck grew to much more than the size of five-o-clock shadow. Ironically, it fell to my mother to keep the head clean shaved, he could not do the job satisfactorily himself.

By the time I was five years old I had two sisters, Božena, two years my junior and Viktoria, another year and some months younger still. In the family Vicky was never called by that name. She was Baby, in Slovak – Bábika. At least, until the time when I became separated from the rest of the family during the war. When I met my mother and siblings 46-years later after the fall of the Iron Curtain, all of us that much older, Vicky did not want me to call her Baby. Apparently long time before she got the whole family to stop using the nickname. I must admit that I felt a bit saddened by that, although I can understand her feelings. Something nice, warm, intimate Father Time has killed off. But, just quietly, behind her back in conversations with my mum and Boženka she became Baby again, even though she has long now been a granny. (I love you, Baby !)
Milan with Mother 1936
Milan with Mother 1936

Inevitably the time has come to say good-bye to the place that I just barely got to know and move to another town. This time father was transferred to a larger village, (population at the time was about 2000), with a long name Lazy pod Makytou (Lazy under Makyta). Makyta is the name of one of the more prominent mountains framing the place. Only about one half, or at best two thirds of the village is situated along the ribbon of a stream running down the valley, the rest of the largely farming population live in small settlements scattered through the hillsides on either side. The western border of Lazy these days coincides with the international border between Slovakia and the Czech republic. I must cover one little thing here. It did not come up in the original Slovak version of my story because the word Lazy in Slovak language relates to a rather strenuous activity, namely climbing or crawling through a difficult terrain (think of the scattered little settlements). In English, however, unkind readers may be tempted to speculate along the lines: - hey, no wonder, the man spent his formative years in a place called Lazy! – Well, now you know. So, stop it. Don't blame the village. It is still my favourite place in the whole world.

Both of my sisters also have formed a fond attachment to Lazy. Both now own a little cottage each in the village and use every opportunity to spend a few days there with their families and get some clean mountain air into their lungs.

It was in Lazy that I finally started attending school. A roman-catholic primary school. Of course, my father was also my teacher. Mother helped with some subjects like for instance home economics and handicrafts for girls. I have often joined her handicrafts class instead of struggling with wood, saw, hammer and nails. But, the less said about that the better. Let us just put it on record that it did not damage me in any permanent way. After all, I do have a wife and eight children…

Pupils attending all the various grades were sharing the same large classroom. I cannot imagine any unionised teacher of today being able, or willing to cope with such situation. But my father did and so did many other teachers in those days. In the class among us sat also several children of our roman catholic priest. Yes, reverend Šulgan was honest enough man to acknowledge and look after his children and their mother under his name and in the presbytery and his parishioners respected, even loved him for it.

Even the Church authorities left him alone, because his flock defended him every time some bishop tried to "deal with the situation". Only long after I have left Lazy I heard that father Šulgan was transferred into some monastery. His family was by that time already grown up, so no great harm was done to anyone. I suppose that in the monastic cell he was expected to seek forgiveness for his "sins". If you ask me, the Devil in hell is wasting his time, if he is waiting for the soul of father Šulgan.

The social life in the thirties of the last century in the circles of what was known as the "village intelligentsia", the teachers, priests, both catholic and lutheran, notary public (a kind of solicitor), forestry engineer and so on, gathered regularly and quite often, organised hiking trips into the nearby countryside, picnics, in winter skiing outings, sometimes bus trips to the district city of Púchov to see a film or spend the evening dancing. One very popular spot, both in winter and in summer, was a tourist chalet "Kohútka", right on top of the mountain range of Javorník. It stands there even now, just a few metres west of the Slovak-Czech border. It was built and owned by an academic painter Mr. Kohoutek (his first name I don't remember). In those days Mr. Kohoutek used to display many of his artworks throughout the beautiful timber building and his guests often went home with one or two of his oils or watercolours in their backpacks. I remember one Sunday on the occasion of the local annual festival, when the villagers dress up in their best traditional finery, Mr. Kohoutek was painting a portrait of a young local beauty in my fathers office. And I was allowed to sit close to him and follow every stroke of the masters brush.

Sometime in the mid-thirties not far from the chalet "Kohútka", going north-east along the watershed of the Javorník range some enterprising group built a really large, three-storey all-timber hotel "Portáš". That attracted even more tourists, holiday makers and other visitors from both sides of the border and on several occasions each year both Czechs, or more often Moravians and from our side Slovaks constructed and set alight a huge bonfire some thirty or more metres high. By the light and warmth of the bonfire there was at first a little speechmaking, but mainly singing and a good deal of drinking long into the night. The theme for all these gatherings was always the same: assimilation of Czechs and Slovaks, the creation of a new nation to be called Czechoslovaks. Needless to say, it was a waste of effort. The speeches were wasted even if the drinks weren't. That kind of grand plan cannot come to fruition in one or two generations and it is even doubtful whether it is desirable. Let us allow history to take its slow, deliberate, unplanned course as it always has done in the past.

© 2006 Milan Lorman