Border crossings were never routine, but the Czech border on the way out was special. There was always a checkpoint about ten klicks from the border itself and the last ten klicks between the check point and the border was a no travel zone accessible only to the people who lived in that area or by special permit. Western tourists were required to stay on the road directly to the border and make no stops.
Vehicles were searched once at the checkpoint then again at the border so it wasn’t easy to get even a small package out of or into the CSSR.
We had over 700 pages of documents. Still, I wasn’t anticipating any problems, if they had any knowledge of the mission they would have grabbed us in Prague, no one wanted the press generated by busting us at the border.
My Enemy — We met him at the first checkpoint on the road from Brno to the Rozvadov frontier crossing; a Czech Sergeant in his mid-twenties. His cap, a brighter green than the common Czech Soldier, indicated he was a member of the elite border unit who secured CSSR’s western borders.
As a rule, it was better to avoid conversation with these guys because they were smart. They routinely wove you into conversation to probe for anything that would indicate you were carrying contraband.
We entered the checkpoint at about 1030 hrs; the Sergeant came out of his shack, took our passports and immediately ordered us both to dismount from the vehicle while a second Soldier stood guard. I took this as an indication he intended to do an extremely thorough search of the vehicle.
Werner was the very best when it came to building compartments into a camper so I had confidence that, short of drilling, there wasn’t any way he could find it. We stood at the front of the camper as the guard opened every drawer and cabinet, lifted carpets and used an oversized caliper-looking device made of wood to measure the walls and floor making sure they were a consistent thickness.
The only thing he didn’t do was put the camper on a scale verifying the weight against the published weight. I noticed he spent an inordinate amount of time in our small refrigerator and gave an unopened carton of Mango Juice more than just the once over. It was clear he was interested in trying the exotic juice.
My Brother — This guard had something different about him. He was as professional as any other border guard I’d encountered up to that point, but there was a different attitude about him. After several minutes of trying, I finally figured it out.
He didn’t have that cold look to him. Most Border guards were void of emotion and were hard to read, this guy had, for lack of a better description, a “human” look. He still took a full twenty minutes to inspect the camper before he allowed us to get back in the vehicle.
I watched him as he made a perfectly choreographed sweep starting at the driver’s door following an invisible path from one section of the camper to the next neglecting nothing inside or out. He completed his inspection then instructed us to get back in the camper.
As we waited for him to return our papers, I couldn’t resist the temptation, so I grabbed the unopened carton of Mango Nectar and a handful of small chocolate bars then headed for the shack where I was met by the second guard with his AK-47 at “Port Arms”.
I was thinking this might not have been the best idea until the Sergeant stepped to the door and asked me if he could help me. The gun-toting private stood down and I handed the young Sergeant the juice and chocolates.
He smiled and took the crest from his “Pile Cap” hanging near the door and pressed it into my palm. It was the kind of thing two Soldiers from allied armies would do as a sign of friendship. I wished I had more to give him than a couple of chocolates and some juice.
I made my way back to the camper and took my place in the driver’s seat. We were waiting for one of them to bring our papers back and to allow us to proceed when the phone in the guard shack rang with a loud schoolhouse-like electric bell. Heiney and I both jumped when it rang. A few moments later, he returned and informed us that we would be held at this checkpoint for an hour or so longer.
He went back into the shack and I could see through the window that he poured some of the juice into a glass and admired it like a fine jewel. He drank it with purpose, as if it was a ritual or some religious act. Rarely have I ever seen anyone enjoy the flavor of anything as this young Czech Sergeant did that Mango Nectar. Within ten or fifteen minutes, the Sergeant came back out to the camper and told us that his Private wanted to thank us for the chocolate bar.
The Sergeant had shared with his subordinate. I was surprised; Western chocolate was as good as cash on the black market in communist countries. It said something about the man’s character for him to give some of the chocolate and exotic juice to his subordinate.
I looked toward the shack door where I saw the younger solder holding a “Ritter Sport” Marzipan and milk chocolate bar to his lips, nibbling small bites and taking the time to prolong the taste of each. He smiled and nodded to me in thanks. It looked like I made a friend.
The Sergeant stood at my window as I searched for something to say and the silence became more awkward. My instinct to avoid conversation with the Soldier was giving me a bad case of fumble mouth.
Heiney and I automatically became uncomfortable with the situation, we were trained to limit conversation and contact with the “enemy” while we were on the border, but I’d put us in a position where we were under the close scrutiny of an exceptionally well-trained adversary. If he got even half a whiff of something being amiss, we’d be in for a hard time. It wasn’t unheard of for the Czechs to completely dismantle a vehicle at the border.
It didn’t look like the situation was going to improve on its own, so we had to make the best of it and hope the guard didn’t see or hear anything that made him suspicious. I broke the ice by asking him where he was from. I was on a German passport, so I spoke German to the guard.
He was from Brno, a city about half way between Prague and the Russian border. He told me that his family were farmers on a collective and the extra pay and rations he received for “volunteering” for border service went home to help provide for his two younger sisters. I remember that it bothered me that I was beginning to identify with him, to think of him as a Soldier — just like me.