Cowboys, Czechs, and Communists
by Dean Muehlberg
Nellie Gray walked sure-footed along the trail. The cowboy on her back looked at the forest and the sights he loved. There were no Indians out here so he relaxed and enjoyed the pure pleasure of the ride. He was a cowboy, had always been one. That’s what was important. Even if the hat and chaps he wore, or the saddle he rode on, were not up to par with those of the cowboys he managed to read about in his youth, they made him sense what it was to be someone who rejoiced in the challenges of the frontier. He wasn’t someone to become immersed in the status quo. He was always pushing the envelope as far as possible, always seeing the possibilities around the corner. He liked “things” too, especially unique things that had motors in them, motorcycles and cars. He wanted more things, he wanted something better for his family, and he wanted to see what was around the corner. In a few days he would take steps to realize all of these things. He was a hard worker, and he knew if he had the opportunity all of his dreams could materialize, provided the Indians didn’t catch him first.
Nellie Gray was a funny name for a horse, but it suited him. He had always bucked the system in a setting where it wasn’t the best for his future to do that. He had always done his own thing where he could, perhaps a product of his family culture, perhaps just something that was a part of who he was. If others saw something different he didn’t care. So be it.
The mare accelerated to a trot the closer they came to the shack. She knew the place, knew her part of the trip was almost over, and maybe there was a treat at the end of it. The tack jingled with the rough, new pace, and made music. It wasn’t exactly The Tales of the Vienna Woods, but a more pressing, portent syncopation, one that would match his own heartbeat several times in the days just ahead.
He worked hard at the ranch and put in a lot of hours. They needed cowboys badly and his efforts were rewarded with extras because of it. He was good with the livestock and appreciated by management. He and his family had it fairly good as a result, but somehow it still wasn’t enough. There were limits put on him that weren’t fair or natural. The horse under him made him feel good but she couldn’t take him all the way to where he wanted to be. He owed it to his heritage to do something.
He and the mare reached the shack. He put her in the small corral and unburdened her of the things that weren’t natural to her. He gave her a carrot from his pocket and carried the things that made her a servant into the small building. The structure wasn’t much of a cabin. It had no heat or running water. If you came here you were basically camping, but it was a good place to get away, forget for a short time. It was one of those things that were allowed, if only to fool the people.
It was time for his wife to pick him up and take him back to the village, their apartment, and reality. Their vacation started tomorrow and there were a lot of things to get packed and ready. Equal parts of excitement and fear parlayed for dominance in his mind as they drove the few miles back. They had to pack not only for themselves, but for their two-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. They had to plan carefully and precisely. The need to not forget items but to take only what they needed preyed on both their minds.
Hrejkovice, Czechoslovakia was a strange place to find cowboys and horses. The ranch was a collective farm outside the small town. It and the land it occupied had been ripped from the hands of its owners in the early fifties, most families just told to leave their farms and plots and possessions behind. They were now the property of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that would make their lives better. If they wanted to eat, if they wanted to stay out of prison, they had to return as laborers on the collectives.
Hrejkovice was a town of only about 600 people in 1983, an hour or so south of Prague. Pisek was the district or county seat, where all official functions of the “party” and government began for this part of the land. Anything out of the daily routine required permission from the authorities, including going on a vacation outside of the country. One had to apply in advance for this privilege which, if allowed, only meant traveling to another communist country in the bloc.
Peter loved the outdoors. He had left his technical training as a plumber behind years before to take a job as a lumberjack for the Czech forest service. He had worked at this for three years, loving being out in the woods early in the morning, enjoying the fresh mountain air and working up a sweat in an atmosphere that almost felt free. He had stayed at that until his conscience made him leave. The communists were selling off the forest by the truckload to the Germans for easy money and no thought about the rape of their own country.
Of course, even in the forest, he wasn’t free, and no matter how hard he worked he couldn’t really make anything of himself. He hadn’t been a party member nor had his parents, and that meant he was only eligible for a technical school at the age of fifteen. He couldn’t go to a preparatory school for college. And it wasn’t in the bones of the Vodenkas to do anything exceptional to please the communists and the party. Unfortunately, ability meant nothing, only allegiance to the party.
Peter and a few friends had been walking through Wencelaus Square one day as teenagers. A foreigner in a new Porsche flashed up to the curb beside them, got jauntily out of the shiny vehicle and walked assuredly away from it in his overpriced clothes. They were left to stand in awe and admiration, ogling the auto inside and out. Peter told himself that someday he was going to be able to drive a car like that.
Peter Vodenka was now twenty-seven. He had been planning for years, perhaps even before the scene with the car, to get out of the communist cage he was in. It wouldn’t be quite so easy now. He had a twenty-four-year-old wife, and two children he needed to spirit across the border with him. They made it more difficult, but also gave him more incentive; he didn’t want his children to grow up like he had, required to address their instructors in school from the very first as “comrade.” He himself had fought that requirement from the beginning, earning himself ongoing trouble for his obstinacy. But he fought it so diligently they finally gave up trying to force him to do it.