It was 24 years ago today that my mom, my sister, and I arrived in the United States. Yes, on Independence Day of 1982. I called my father today (who I normally don’t communicate with—more on that later) to talk with him about how he came to America. Previously I had never asked him the details. I knew a few things from my mom’s perspective, but I wanted to hear my dad’s also. My family has had quite the life experience, and were I to get all the information together (from both my mom and my dad), I’d have quite the story to tell.
I have very mixed feelings about my father. On the one hand, he is my father. I am from him. He’s done a lot, made a lot of sacrifices in order to raise me, (or so he continues to claim). As a Christian, and a Mormon, I need to honor my father as well as my mother. Can I honor my father if I don’t keep in contact with him? Can I honor him if I still have a hard time forgiving him for abusing me as a kid? On this matter, I have forgiven him, and told him too. No sense anymore to keep those feelings in.
On the other hand, he has been unfaithful to his wife (more on that later), abused both me and Silvia, my sister, and made his wife work two jobs before she finally left him.
So since Ava was born, I’ve now called my father twice, and we’ve had pretty good conversations. Today I asked him about his experience in leaving Romania. He was willing to tell me the details.
What I previously told people when asked about my life experience, I mentioned that my dad escaped Romania because he wanted something better for his family. It makes a great story. But this is what happened.
“I cheated on your mother,” he begins. We did not have a television in our place in Medias so what he did when he wanted to watch television was go to a neighbor’s house. One time he went to watch a particular movie, he didn’t remember which, and he just happens to have slept with the man’s wife. He didn’t think much of this at the time, but nine months later, his neighbor’s wife comes saying that her baby belongs to him. Today he does not remember her name, but he felt so shocked about this accusation that in three days time he fled the country.
I didn’t press him on why he felt leaving the country was the best option. He had actually said at the beginning that he was against those that fled the country, calling himself a patriot. Nor did I ask him about what his wife thought first of all about breaking the marriage with her, only a few years after their marriage, nor about what she would have thought of him fleeing the country. What would that do to the children? What would it do to his wife? He probably did not realize that one of the consequences of his fleeing the country would be that his wife, my mom, would be put in prison by the Securitate (the secret police) for several months, leaving us children to be at our grandparents’s home during that time.
“Am fugit din tara de rusine”, he confessed. (I fled the country of embarrassment).
One thing he did not want to do, in fleeing, is get caught. He knew of others who got caught, got their legs beaten, got thrown in jail for a while before released back into society. In fact one of my uncles, Tarfin, who my dad convinced to flee with him, had previously attempted to flee the country and got caught. My father noted that my mom’s brothers had attempted several times to escape, and I know the youngest, Valer, had attempted even after communist times. So how do you flee a country like Romania without getting caught? Very carefully. My dad mentioned that when getting caught, soldiers would ask the attempted escapist just how he was planning to escape, in order for them to figure out all the methods and close all holes.
Both my mom and dad worked for the Căile_Ferate_Române (CFR), Romania’s railroad. He knew the train schedules and such, and he figured the best way was to lock himself under the boards in a cargo wagon, under the boxes. You bring along pepper that you spray all over your area to ward off the sniffing dogs at the borders, you bring a 20 gallon container of water and some food, and prepare for a journey that might take up to a week.
After the neighbor’s wife came over to accuse him of being the father of her baby, my dad went to Tarfin, one of my mom’s brothers who had previously attempted to flee Romania and said, “let’s go.” They locked themselves in a train that was headed for Italy. At the border with Hungary, soldiers entered the wagon with sniffing dogs, checking every normal place they could think of, but they could not find my dad and uncle. The stay at that border was not long, but when they got to the border to Austria, the train remained at the station for over a day. The two got out of their hiding place and sat on the boxes to eat some food. Soon though, a train pulled up along side theirs. My dad peeked out and saw soldiers streaming out, entering his train to search. They panicked and rushed back into the hiding place. Not two seconds after he pulled the box over their hiding place, a soldier entered the wagon. The soldier looked around and sat down on the very box that my dad pulled over his hiding place. My dad’s heart was beating so strongly that if only the soldier was listening for heartbeats, he would have been caught. All the effort to get away. They feared the beatings and my father feared the return to his troubles. He didn’t flee for a better life, per se, though technically his life would have been hell if he remained, accused of impregnating a neighbor’s wife and all. He said he wrote down what he felt at the time, the doubts about actually fleeing, about going through the effort. I’m still trying to convince him to show me what he wrote then.
The soldier did not hear his heartbeats and soon left the wagon. The next morning, as the train was moving, my dad looked out and saw mountains. What a sight mountains are for anyone who is leaving Hungary. If you are on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Hungary has no mountains, only Austria does, on that route. If you see mountains, you know you’ve made it. They had escaped Romania and were now in Austria. The problems they had to deal with now were with their appareance and their….smell. They had been in that wagon for six days, stuck for the most part under wooden planks. When they had reached a stop in Austria (my dad could not remember what it was, but it was before reaching Vienna), they could not get out the normal doors as they had been sealed, so they broke a window in the wagon and got out that way. They looked at each other and saw just how dirty they were. They did not dare urinate much at all in the wagon (the dogs would have sniffed that easily), and defacating was a chore also (some of things you do have to inevitably think about if you are trying to escape a totalitarian country). My uncle had not defacated in the six days in the wagon, while my dad had gone once. If they would have gone too much, the smell would have definitely brought the dogs on them.
They cleaned up at the station and with 270 lei attempted to do something, find some work while they attempted to get assylum with the United States embassy.
In Austria, my dad had made some attempts to bring his family over, even writing a letter to Ceausescu, which according to my mom was not helpful (but I still have to get more details from my mom’s side of the story). During his time in Austria is when my mom was in prison with the Securitate and we were with my grandparents. He spent ten months in Austria, finally making it to the United States on February 6, 1980.
So that’s why he fled Romania. Because he could not deal with a neighbor’s wife, who he slept with one night, accusing him of being the father of her baby. He doesn’t think it is his. It was a one night stand basically. What are the chances, he thinks. I don’t know the neighbor or his wife or their side of the story, or even their names. I think my mom knows them, and I could ask. I might have a half-brother in Romania right now. My mom’s side of the story on this is obviously not very kind to my dad or to the woman he slept with, (calling her a tiganca, a coarse word to describe Gypsies, who get a bad rap in Romania).
He was sorry he did it. He kept repeating that. He didn’t go to the churches in Romania to ask for forgiveness, but he did in Austria. He was sorry. The thing is that he was sorry only after the woman came to him accusing him of being the father. He did not say how sorry he was when the incident actually took place. He didn’t flee three days after he had slept with her. He continued on in his life thinking it was done, and would remain a secret. It didn’t and he fled. The Lord used this opportunity, though, to get us out of Romania. I think that if we hadn’t left Romania, I might never have found the Gospel. I’ve thought about what life would have been like for me if I remained in Romania. What kind of man would I have become? Would I have been like my father? Would my mother have ever left him?
My dad has been concerned all his life if my sister and I would ever be thankful to him for leaving Romania. He’s been afraid that in our disassociating with him, of removing him from our lives after his excessive abusive actions that we would not thank him for the positive things he’s done, including this, fleeing Romania and then convincing his wife to bring the rest of the family. This is one of the things he does not need to worry about. We are thankful. We’ve thanked him. He thinks though that I will one day thank him for beating me up. He thinks that he would rather hear from his children, “thanks for beating me up,” rather than “why didn’t you beat me?”
One day I will share with him this story I wrote feverishly one day in high school. I had to let this out somehow. It flowed out like no other story of mine. I’ve forgiven him for what he had done, but it cannot be forgotten, nor thought as something positive.
As you can see, my feelings about my father are still quite mixed. But we had a good conversation today, on the 24th anniversary of our arrival in America. We talked positively one with another. And I feel better when thinking back on that day, arriving at the Houston airport with a little American flag in my hand, walking through the big crowd waiting for their loved ones. I see a man with a beard whose eyes look familiar. I do not recognize the beard, but I do recognize the eyes. It is my father. He’s happy to see me. Am I happy to see him? I don’t know. But it’s getting better.