|Jul/Aug 2019 Nonfiction|
Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman
I was transferred to our embassy in Prague in November 1971, after we had spent five good years at Embassy Rome. Both the Prague embassy offices and almost all the apartments for embassy Americans were located in the baroque, 100-room Schoenborn Palace the State Department had acquired in the 1920s for just over 100 thousand dollars.
In this palace, First Secretary Bridges and family were assigned a sizable L-shaped apartment. On one side of our L were two sitting rooms and the dining room, facing the street. On the other side, after the kitchen, came two bathrooms and three bedrooms. On the far side of our bedroom walls was the local police station. I did not doubt that the walls had ears. Sometimes when we went to bed, I would tell my wife tall stories to make the day for the cops listening in. Perhaps they began to realize it was lies they were overhearing. There is no mention of any "intelligence" they gleaned from microphones in my 100-page StB (Státní bezpecnost, the secret police) file, of which I obtained a copy some years after the fall of Communism, but the file makes clear how closely they followed us.
We went to Prague just three years after Soviet tanks in August 1968 had put down Alexander Dubček's increasingly liberal government. Now the regime was cruel again, and Czechs were sad. As our first Czech winter came on, so did cloudy weather, and Bohemia was made even gloomier by smoke from the soft coal universally used for heating homes as well as for powering industry. Gloom or not, Czechs were as friendly to us as they dared to be, the country was fascinating... and we wanted a dog, after our dear Seumas had died in Italy.
One of the embassy's Czech drivers was a courteous man named Jiŕí Frýd, who came from a family that had been prosperous before the Communists took over in 1948. He was as helpful as could be, although no doubt he had to report on us to the StB.
After discussing canine breeds with my wife, I asked pan Frýd one day if he could possibly ascertain whether anyone either in Prague or outside the city had Newfoundland puppies for sale.
He reported back to me in perhaps three weeks. He had somehow ascertained there were no Newfoundlands in Prague. There was, he said, a man in Moravia who had four Newfoundlands, but he wanted to keep them all for breeding.
I told Mary Jane that evening.
"No!" she said. "It's not Newfoundlands we agreed on, it was Labradors!"
"Oh. You're right. Sorry. I guess my Canadian geography's not very good."
And so we failed to acquire one of the friendly black giants—and we still wanted a dog, if one of more modest size.
Eventually green spring came to Prague and the Bohemian countryside. There was no more coal smoke. Soon it was fine summer. Enjoyable, but we decided to go vacation in Italy. There, we joined our Rome friends the Raders and drove south to spend two weeks swimming in a clear sea at Maratea in Basilicata, the "pearl of the Tyrrhenian." Then I had to go back to Prague. Herb Rader had been unable to join us; he and his Rome partners in architecture were working in the Near East. Mary Jane, Lee Rader, and children moved north from salt to fresh water, to the Lago di Bracciano beyond Rome.
At the lake the two mothers and children moved into a place that Lee had rented. The kids named it Alice's Restaurant, after Arlo Guthrie's protest song about the US military draft for Vietnam. Guthrie's song had come out in 1967. It was now 1972. The war in Vietnam, and the draft, continued. We had lost more than 50 thousand men in Vietnam, and we still had tens of thousands of troops there. David, our oldest child, who had just entered St. Stephen's School in Rome, would reach draft age in three more years. There were also hundreds of my Foreign Service colleagues in Vietnam, not drafted but pressured to go there. I had lately been pressured, but declined to go.
The Bracciano "Alice's" was a former lakeside restaurant, now closed. There were no beds, but there were lots of lounge chairs for use on the beach, and they served our group for sleeping at night. The days were hot and sunny, but the cool lake was near at hand. And then one day a small visitor arrived.
I had been back in Prague for several weeks and had gone to bed on a Saturday night, nicely tired from a long hike in the countryside, when I was awakened at two a.m. by a dog standing at my bedside and barking at me loudly. It was our new dog, who had arrived in Prague with the other Bridges, quickly taken possession of his new home, and discovered in it a stranger—me.
Mary Jane introduced us to one another, and we were immediately friends. His name was Dingo. In the morning I heard his story. He had walked into Alice's Restaurant bedraggled and starving. He was not a feral dog; he had with little doubt been the pet of some human who abandoned him, as all too many Italians used to do.
Dingo was a handsome fellow, a smallish dog with long black fur, softer than the tight curls of a Hungarian puli. Later we found he was amazingly good at turning up game in the woods. My guess was the owner had been a hunter, but a small circus was playing down the lake at Anguillara and Mary Jane thought he might have come from there. If he had been trained to perform, we never knew, but certainly he was well behaved.
In any case the dog had done well to come to Alice's. The two mothers and the children doted on him, fed him well, combed him—and the young people named him Dingo, although he was nothing at all like the Australian canid. His name was moreover, the kids specified, to be spelled "Dingeaux," and it did no good to note to them that this made the "g" soft instead of hard. He flourished, and all were happy.
Then came the approach of September and the new school term. It was time for Bridges to go back to Prague and Raders to Rome.
Mary Jane asked Lee if she would take the dog. Best not; they already had a cat. So as summer neared its close, Dingo drove 800 miles north in our VW hatchback with my happy family. Mary Jane had the wheel as they coursed north for 16 hours through Lazio and Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and the Veneto, the Dolomites and much of Austria, and then into Czechoslovakia for the last 100 miles on the old, curving, two-lane highway to Prague. (In 2019 the Czechs are completing a modern high-speed motorway on this route.)
Our Prague embassy palace is located on a side street called Tržiště, Marketplace; in the old days there had been a market there. The street ran uphill from a bigger street, Karmelitská, that had a tram line. The passing trams were noisy and frightened the dog for his first couple of weeks with us. Perhaps, I thought, if his first owner had been an Italian hunter, he had found the dog gun-shy and cast him off for that.
Eventually Dingo got used to the Prague trams. Karmelitská, though, had not just a tram line but a cobblestone pavement that caused vibration in our car as we drove along it. The rumbling didn't scare the dog, but it excited him. The vibration meant he was nearing home, where dinner or at least a treat awaited.
There were other towns and cities in Czechoslovakia with cobbled streets. We would drive, rumbling, through Ceské Budějovice in southern Bohemia, and the excited Dingo could not be convinced Prague and home were still two hours away. We would try to assuage his hunger with a biscuit or two, but he stayed a little frantic until he reached our kitchen.
Whether or not Dingo had belonged to a hunter we never knew, but we soon discovered he was himself a master hunter, though never in our experience a killer.
The Czech countryside is glorious from spring onward. Every Sunday we would with Dingo do six or eight miles along the best system of hiking trails in Europe. If we were, as most often, out of sight of other humans as we walked through the woods and fields, we left the dog unleashed. It was only later that I learned a Czech forest guard was permitted to shoot a dog running free more than 100 meters from a village. Fortunately we never saw a forest guard; clearly they didn't work on weekends.
Hunting has long been controlled in the Czech lands, whatever the regime, and in the 1970s there was an abundance of deer, hares, and pheasants. We would walk into the woods, and Dingo would take off, running ahead of us, barking, on a zig-zag course that invariably flushed out a deer or hare. The wild creature would run and Dingo would pursue, his bark now a high-pitched yelping. I wanted to think he did it for pure sport, the fun of the chase, like Seumas once chasing two sheep down a mountainside in the Dolomites. We did not try to keep up with Dingo, and we were not hunters. We would yell, and after some time he would obediently return to us, with a look that I thought meant he wanted approbation. Well, he got the approbation, and a dog biscuit. We didn't want him to think we'd cast him off, as his previous owner must have done.
Fortunately he never came upon a wild boar. Boars were not so common then in the Czech woods. Today, without natural predators, their numbers are soaring in Europe. They are damaging ecosystems, they can be vicious, and Czech hunters currently kill over 100 thousand of them each year.
One Sunday we visited the Prague Zoo. It was and is a good zoo, perhaps best known as a breeding station for Przewalski's horse, which the zoo helped reintroduce into the wild in Mongolia.
We were driving away from the zoo's parking lot when we saw a small group of riders (on domestic horses, not Przewalski's) heading toward a stable in the grounds of Troja, a Baroque palace once owned by the Counts Sternberg and now state-owned and decrepit. The riders must have belonged to some sort of club...
"Stop!" said my quick-thinking wife, and I stopped the car. Lizzie, now 13, had been a devoted rider in Rome and had just come back from two weeks at a riding camp in Surrey. We had found no place for her to ride in Prague.
One of the riders was a woman in her early 30s, who stopped when Mary Jane ran up to her and explained, in a mixture of some German and less Czech, that we were American diplomats with a daughter who liked to ride. Was it at all possible...?
"Yes," said the kind lady, who introduced herself as Radka. And Lizzie started riding the next week with her and other club members. (I'll get back to dogs, but this is a nice story.)
Radka's father, the president of the club, had been a Czechoslovak cavalry officer before World War II. The members looked to be a cultured group, white-collar rather than proletarian, but in this police state they had good ideological cover, being officially part of the workers' recreation group of some factory. Lizzie rode happily with them for several months.
And then the StB moved in. One morning I received in the mail a kind of third-person diplomatic note from the riding club, which presented its compliments to the First Secretary of the American Embassy and had the honor to request that his daughter Elizabeth no longer visit the club; there were facilities for foreigners—i.e., cops on the sidelines—in the riding club at Prague Castle. We were distressed, but then Radka phoned me, with the StB no doubt listening in.
"I believe you received a note from the club."
"I did, and all I can say is we're sorry..."
"Listen. My father and I don't like that club. We have left it and are organizing another club. Once that's done, I'll call you."
Sure you will, I thought; I just hope you won't get into trouble for contacting us.
Wonder of wonders, in a couple of weeks she called. Soon Lizzie was riding out with them again. The new club was housed in a stable at some other decrepit ex-manor, this one in the countryside near the Prague airport. Mary Jane would drive Lizzie out there after school, a couple of afternoons a week. The riders would head into a fine beech forest nearby, and Mary Jane—with Dingo, of course—would follow them to walk in the woods where, as usual, Dingo would stir up pheasants or rabbits.
One afternoon I went along. There was an open field near the stable. Dingo was there, off the leash, when a jet flew low over us, landing at the airport—and Dingo saw it as prey, even if it was a rather large and loud sort of creature. The dog chased the plane across the field for some distance. A disappointment, in the end, but then we walked him into the beeches where there'd be no shortage of living things to chase.
A sign was nailed to a tree at the edge of the woods.
"I've been wondering what that says," said my wife.
"Státní Bažantnice—state pheasant reserve," I said, clipping the leash quickly onto the dog's collar. It was about that time that I had learned about the law permitting forest guards to shoot unleashed dogs. Well, we were lucky.
Another time we were lucky with the dog was a Thanksgiving Day morning. We were to have dinner with embassy friends in late afternoon, so in the morning drove out to Lány, 25 miles west of Prague. There, a big old chateau of the Fürstenberg family, Germanic nobles, had been purchased by the new Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 to become the country residence of Presidents, beginning with the great President-Liberator, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.
Lány was grandiose, and Masaryk was a modest man, son of an illiterate Slovak coachman, but the place was peaceful and he spent much time there, reading and writing and, until he was in his 80s, riding his horse along the forest paths beyond the chateau. At the age of 85 Masaryk finally resigned the Presidency, and two years later he died at Lány, in 1937. It was the year before Hitler grabbed the Sudetenland and then destroyed Masaryk's republic. And it was to walk Masaryk's old forest paths that we went to Lány.
It was late autumn in Bohemia. Most of the bright leaves had fallen, but it was a fine sunny day. A few minutes into the forest we came on a pond a couple hundred yards across. The nights had already been cold enough that there was ice on much of the pond, though not at the pond center—where two ducks were paddling.
Dingo had shown at Lake Bracciano he had no fear of water, and now he jumped into the pond, aiming for the ducks. He thrashed through the ice for some distance, slower and slower. I called at him to turn back, but Mary Jane had run to the far side of the pond and was calling to him to come to her instead. I think he was both confused and exhausted. I was about to jump in after him—but then my wife ran back to me, we both called, and he turned and managed to make his way back to us. The ducks of course had flown away. I don't think he ever went after waterfowl again. There were lots of creatures to chase on land. One smaller sort he even learned to catch, though not to harm.
Behind our embassy's big old palace on Tržiště street rose a hillside, up which one of the Counts Schoenborn had long ago laid out a series of three ascending gardens. A flight of shallow, broad steps rose from the palace courtyard to the first garden, and a similar flight from the first to the second. The steps were shallow and broad so that the counts could do a short uphill ride on horseback from the palace stable.
At the far side of the second courtyard, though, was a door into what looked like a little house but was in fact housing for a steeper, wooden stairway, at the top of which another door opened onto the third garden: five acres crowned by a big belvedere, the Glorietta. This third garden had, no doubt, been carefully tended in Schoenborn days but it was now, given the State Department's stingy funding, left unkempt and rather wild. It was a great place for embassy kids to play, and a peaceful refuge for a diplomat who wanted to get away from a police state for a few minutes. We soon found it was also a refuge for pheasants, hares, and the small and cute but not cuddly Erinaceus europaeus, the European hedgehog.
Often, at twilight on a warm evening, we would walk with Dingo up to the third garden. When I opened the upper door, he would burst out, yelping, and within a minute had found his prey, a hedgehog. He would bark at the little creature, but a hedgehog has several thousand spines and it would simply curl up, impregnable. Then Dingo found he could roll it a few yards down the slope. It looked like great fun for the dog. Whether the hedgehog enjoyed the roll seemed doubtful.
In 1974, after a total of eight years abroad, the last three in Czechoslovakia, we returned to America and bought a house we could almost afford in Arlington County, Virginia. We were not quite eight miles from the State Department, not a bad commute for me. The Arlington schools were good. And just 100 yards beyond us was the Fairfax County line and an area called Franklin Park which then had few houses and many fine tulip trees, Liriodendron tulipfera, the tallest Eastern hardwood. Today in Franklin Park there are still good trees, but too many oversized houses and too many white-tailed deer—perhap a million altogether in Virginia, twice as many as when Jamestown was settled four centuries ago. Like Czech boars, the Virginia deer have no predators but hunters, and there's no hunting in Washington suburbs. True, many deer are hit by cars in Virginia, but more on highways than on quiet streets.
Often, in Arlington, we'd walk out after dinner into peaceful Franklin Park, of course with Dingo. Deer were far fewer then, and there were no hedgehogs. One evening, though, walking up Kensington Street we came on a dead opossum on the edge of the pavement. It had not been hit by a car. Was it "playing possum," just pretending to be dead? Dingo examined it and declared it defunct, and we went on our way. Half an hour later, as we returned home, it was gone. It had picked itself up and vanished. Not very sporting; hedgehogs were more fun.
Some months later, I was wakened in the middle of the night by a chirping noise coming from the crawl space above our bedroom. Baby rats?
No. A female raccoon had pushed her way through a metal ventilating louver at the end of the house and had given birth above us to her young. Several afternoons later, sitting outside on our deck with Dingo, we looked up and saw the raccoon family walking along the roof of the house, four kits and the mama. Female raccoons are stout and strong; in fact they're called sows. This sow was a couple of feet long and probably weighed as much as Dingo. I didn't want him tangling with her, and when I looked at the dog I didn't think he felt any urge to engage.
Raccoons are mainly nocturnal, and we didn't see her again. Then came an early morning in spring when I took Dingo to run a mile or two in Franklin Park. When we neared home I took him off the leash and he trotted on in front of me, thinking no doubt of the treat that awaited him in the kitchen. We passed the end of our neighbors' driveway—and there came the sow and her kits down the driveway. She saw the dog, but Dingo the great hunter, thinking of dog biscuits, didn't notice her. I literally tackled him and lugged him into the house. Why, he must have wondered, had I done that? To save him from a fight he might well have lost.
We had good years with Dingo, but not enough. He died when, at a guess, he was eight or ten years old. If I could reform the natural world, I'd certainly give longer lives to dogs. Humans, too, I think; I just turned eighty-seven.