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A rude welcome behind the Iron Curtain

It was a dark and very rainy night when we broke through the Iron Curtain and entered what was then Yugoslavia at what is now the Slovenian border.

But to backtrack.

I had begun the adventure of my lifetime in Geneva, Switzerland. I was assigned to work/teach in Sofia, Bulgaria, by the I.L.O., the International Labor Organization, a special fund of the U.N. There were 12 skill sets in our group (mine was management information systems) from eight different countries. We were going to several different locations, but all of us were to spend two weeks of orientation in Geneva.

After Geneva, my wife and I, followed by George, a Londoner, set out driving for Bulgaria. George had never seen Venice, and I agreed to go. We had a tight schedule, and we were already a few days late. And being late we somehow badly planned to cross the Yugoslav border at night — a very wet night.

I remember the queasy feeling arriving at the border post. I felt we were leaving a western safety net behind, going into a risky unknown. The border guards simply glowered, the black brims of their caps were wet, they seemed cold, they took a long time. Finally we set off on a black, slick road of individually set bricks.

George drove behind me in a Ford sedan; I was driving a VW Variant packed with 500 pounds of stuff. Visibility was almost nil — no light except for headlights that did not cut through much of the gloom and downpour. Very scary stuff. I tried to go slower than 40.

We motored along on this narrow road with almost no shoulders pretty well for a while. No signs, no buildings, no nuthin’.

Suddenly, no warning, two loud booms. Two good-sized holes appeared in the windshield, one in front of me, the other in front of my wife. A large black sedan roared by us, a white curtain covering the whole back window. With glass in our eyes, I truly believed we had been shot. I could not see at all for a moment but somehow managed to keep control of the car and stay out of the ditch by the roadside.

I called to my wife; she did not get much glass in her eyes, but I could actually feel it in mine. Miraculously, blinking a lot, water pouring on my face, I sensed the glass gone and tried to think of what happened and what next.

George drove up. Flying glass had blown back to his car. Together we knocked all the remaining glass out of the windshield. I bundled my wife in a blanket, she got down low, I put a scarf over my head, drove hours to Belgrade VW, where they replaced the glass the next day. I was told later smashed windows were a common occurrence. The car that passed me was a “party” car (i.e. Communist) and had thrown up stones with their big snow tires. The curtain in the back of the car was a giveaway, for all V.I.P. party members apparently had this decoration.

It was rude welcome to my Iron Curtain adventure which, however, proved to be very safe and truly amazing.

Harvey Rupp lives in Ashland.

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