19 February 1980

Arrested in a Warsaw Pact military base. (This is not a joke.)

What happened on this day deserves special attention as it was one of the defining days of my life. It was not funny when it happened, though it made for countless hilarious conversation afterwards.

We left Vienna in the morning and crossed into Czechoslovakia with transit visa, with the goal of reaching Poland by the end of the day. We clear the border quickly, little more than ten minutes. Barbed wire as far as the eye can see.

Very few cars on the Czechslovak side, while many buses and trucks slows us down quite a bit. Almost all cars are withre FIAT 124 (Soviet made Lada) or Skoda. The road to Brno and beyond is dotted with hundreds of small monuments to Communism and red banners hailing socialism. One such banners reads: "Our union with Russia is a guarantee of peace". Small red stars are ubiquitous, even on lamp posts, street signs, everywhere.

The Iron Curtain at the border between Austria and Czechoslovakia


This episode was so shocking it deserved an article in the newspaper published by Georgetown University.

Roberta Oster and Pat Singer (HOYA Features Editors), interviewed Andrew and me for The Hoya, and the following article appeared in the 27 October 1981 issue.

Show ‘Em the Way to Go.

Marco: We were driving through Czechoslovakia to Poland where we were to study second semester last year. We had a transit visa through Czechoslovakia which allotted us only 24 hours to pass through, and we possessed a very bad AAA map which had all of Eastern Europe on it.

Andy: Driving along the highway that was delineated on the map, we suddenly reached its end. It did not end on the map, but in reality it ended in mud! There was a large sign in Czech that explained the detour, so we sat there for a little while trying to decipher it. At last, we thought we had a good idea of which way to go, so we moved on.

Marco: There were three options. We tried them all and we didn’t get anywhere. We tried to communicate with some old Czech ladies we met but we didn’t do much better. Finally we decided to try our last option, a very nice road with no traffic, nice asphalt, and a really beautiful landscape.

Andy: We were winding our way through the mountains of Czechoslovakia and the sun had gone down, so it was now evening. We figured we had to be going in the right direction because it was the only road.

After a little while we came to a small sign with no words, just a silhouette of a tank on a yellow background.

Marco: We looked at it and said, “Well, so what? It is the only road.” Ann wanted to go back, but we decided to keep going and came upon this little village. It was a nice village, kind of neat and tidy. Some soldiers were walking around, so we stopped one of them and asked him for directions to get back to the highway that goes to Poland, but the guy really didn’t understand what we were talking about. All he understood or knew how to say was, “Passport.”

We didn’t know why he wanted our passports, but we handed them to him and he took them away. He went into this little room and made a couple of phone calls. Meanwhile, we were trying to talk to him. Between the three of us, we speak about six different European languages: English, French, German, Italian, Russian and Polish. He didn’t understand any of them but Czech, however, so we couldn’t communicate. He called someone else who spoke German, who ordered us to slowly follow him to where he was going. We did, and found ourselves in this little compound. By now it was about 6:00 p.m. There was ice all over the place, and it was pretty cold. He just told us to wait out there for him. So we were out there waiting for about 45 minutes, and it was freezing cold.

Andy: There were people arriving at the building and entering, including a few officers (you can tell officers by the stripe on their hats). Basically they were just trying to figure out what to do. They just didn’t know what do with us. After a while they came out and they called Marco in. So we started to realize that something must be wrong. By this time we knew we were on a Warsaw Pact army base too because there were soldiers everywhere. We all tried to go in and they said, “No, Marco! No, Marco!”

Marco: They took me into this room in which there were a couple of officers with red bands around their hats as well as a few soldiers. One of them was an interpreter—he spoke German. He was the only one I could speak with because not one of them spoke English.

On the wall of the room they had medals from Lenin and a poster of him, as well as a picture of Felix Dzrezhinsky, the founder of  Russian Secret Police: I did not immediately recognize his face and asked who it was. Someone replied: "the founder of the Soviet secret police"- I replied: "Do you mean of the Czechoslovak decret police?". Answer: "No, the Soviet secret police". Silly me. Also on the wall, rather more understandably, was a picture of the president of Czechoslovakia.

And there was a guy sitting at a typewriter to record the session. They interrogated me for an hour and a half ...in German. That was the first time I utilized my German other than in class.

He said, “Did you see the sign of the tank?”

I said, “Yeah.”

“Did you realize that you could not get through because there was a no trespassing sign?” he continued.

“Yeah, but we had no choice because we tried all the other roads, and we could not get anywhere. We have to get to Poland within six hours.”

He said, “What if you had found such a sign in a military base in your country? What would you have done?”

“I would have turned back because I would have known where to go.”

Andrew: By now they were ready to shoot us, thanks to Marco.

Marco: Six times I had to show them on the map my itinerary through Czechoslovakia—which cities we were going through. And they kept asking me, “Who are you, Marco? What are you carrying? You are studying in America—why are you studying in America? Do you know of military bases in Italy so you can tell about military bases there?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been in the army yet.”

“Do you know about military bases in the United States?” he asked.

I responded, “Well, I know there is an air force base near Washington; it’s called Andrews Air Force Base. Maybe that would interest you.”

So he wrote that down. And he kept asking me why I had trespassed the line if I knew I could not get through.

And I kept saying, “Because I knew I didn’t have any other choice; I had to go to Poland, and I only had six hours left to get the hell out of there.”

Meanwhile, the others were freezing in the car.

Andrew: It was twenty below zero in February in Czechoslovakia so we were sitting there debating what we ought to do, when I remembered I had a frisbee and a football. So I took them out of the car and about this time Marco joined us. So we tried playing frisbee, but we couldn’t really grip it because it was too cold.

At this point they called Ann in because they had at long last found someone who spoke Russian, which was Ann’s second language. Then the guy who interpreted for Marco, who turned out to be a law student and really nice guy, came out and joined us. Another guy, one of the guards, came over and picked up the football. The interpreter thought it was rugby and said so. We told him it was a new American football, and another guard exclaimed, “Oh, Joe Namath!”

We showed them how to throw the football. Then a couple of other guards joined in. The big guard knew he was supposed to crash into the others (like Broadway Joe). He didn’t know exactly how, so I showed him how to assume a football stance and set the other guy up in one as well. Then I showed them that I would pretend to hike. I indicated they were supposed to hit each other. They said, “Okay.”

All of a sudden there was a group of twenty or thirty very drunk soldiers coming down the hill. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it seemed very coarse.

Marco: I asked about them, and was told, “Oh, don’t worry about them; they’re only Russians. They’re always this way.” So we started asking about the Russians at the base but they refused to answer any military-related questions.

Andrew: Marco asked to take a picture, but they responded that it would “not be a good idea.” They said they would take the camera away and jail us.

As we were playing football, the guy who had interrogated me picked up some drinks and went to his room. He returned with a little Statue of Liberty (about four inches tall) his uncle had taken from New York in 1931, or some time around then. He had kept that little statue and was always carrying it with him, even on a Warsaw Pact base!

Meanwhile Ann was being interrogated inside for an hour and a half. They accused her of being a spy because she did not know the exact itinerary. She had not been driving since she had been asleep most of the way. Because of this she had made mistakes describing the way we’d come.

Andrew: So they said, “Ah, ha! You stories do not match up. We think you are a spy.”

We said, “Yeah, right. Three unarmed kids in a bright yellow Volkswagen—perfect elements for a surprise attack!” It was not a very spy-looking car with an American flag, a Polish flag, an Italian flag and various decals as well.

Marco: At the end of the whole thing they had both Ann and me sign a six page report in Czech reporting everything we had been telling them. We really didn’t know what it said. We didn’t care either.

Marco: One nice thing: We didn’t have to worry about getting out now because they were going to kick us out of the country, anyway.

The guy who interrogated me was a lot nicer away from the officials. He asked, “Are you hungry?”

We said, “Yeah.” By now it was 9 p.m. and we were very hungry. The interpreter wanted to take us to this military restaurant, but the officers wouldn’t allow him. They said, “It’s now allowed to take foreigners to a military restaurant.”

Andrew: Finally the guys with whom we were playing football were instructed to escort us to the border … so that was really good … they were nice guys. The other officers got a jeep and said, “You are to follow these guys.”

Marco: When we got to the border, our custodian angels got out of their cars to shake our hands and take us with the customs official and passport control. We walked into a dimly lit booth and hand in our passports. Nothing to declare, we are going to Poland to study for a few months. We presented our papers, and the border guard said, “Ooooh, you have been assessed a fine.” “We said, “Yeah that’s right.” We don’t know if the soldiers escorting us said something, or what, but the border guard just chuckled and threw our papers into a drawer, and we didn’t pay anything.

Andrew: In the end, they just said, “You are going to be assessed a fine,” and escorted the few meters remaining to the Polish side of to the border.

We said, “Fine, show us the way!”


PS I am grateful to Eamon O'Connor, editor of The Hoya in 2011, and Shakti Nochur, layout editor, for providing a transcripton of this article 30 years after publication.

You can read a history of the Warsaw Pact here

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