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In 1978, when our kids were 14 and 16, we were on vacation in Austria. While staying in Vienna for a few days, I decided to give the kids a taste of life behind the Iron Curtain by booking a trip up the Danube River to Bratislava, Yugoslavia, with a tour group, then heading upriver on a fast boat for a day trip to a Communist country.

As we approached the frontier, I pointed out the fortifications, primarily the machine gun nests in Yugoslavia, and said, "The machine guns are to keep the people in, and not for keeping people out."

The kids knew enough about history and communism to understand, but as we docked and got ready for our city tour, their eyes were opened a little wider as we entered a grim-looking building, which was our starting point for the city tour.

Heavily armed guards were present everywhere, and our stone-faced tour guide looked right out of a bad war movie. Since we were the only Americans in the group, she was especially haughty as she introduced herself to us. I could tell our two teenagers weren't too keen about spending any time with this woman, and as the tour started we let the group get ahead of us.

When they stopped at a municipal building where the tour guide proceeded to go on and on about how wonderful the city government was, we slipped off to tour the city. I figured all we had to do was be back when the boat was scheduled to leave.

We spent several hours walking the city center, which turned out to be very interesting, but in a different way than expected. As we passed store after store with attractive window displays, I decided I might want to buy something at a store that carried men's clothing.

I tried to open the door, but it was locked, and when I managed to peek around the paper on the door windows, I could see the store was empty. As we continued down the street, the kids would run to the door or windows of a store, then would run back saying, "Another empty store."

As we walked into the downtown area, I started paying attention to the people on the street. They were uniformly dressed in the simplest clothing you could imagine, and there were very few cars on the street.

We had been staying in Vienna for several days, and the difference was unbelievable. It was a lesson in government for our kids. The black market money changers on the street stopped us frequently, offering to change money for two or three times the going rate. With nothing worth buying, we weren't tempted.

We arrived back at the dock about an hour ahead of when our tour boat was to leave. As we headed toward the assembly point, we were met by the government tour guide and two heavily armed guards.

"You are under arrest!" she shouted as the two guards moved forward until they were almost beside me.

"What?" I was shocked, but when I managed to say, "I haven't broken any laws ..." she stopped me in mid-sentence.

"You have been under surveillance, and you were seen changing money on the street. That is the charge, and it is punishable by a fine and a prison sentence!"

As I looked at the armed guards and considered my situation, I knew I was very close to being hauled away to what I could imagine was a dingy jail. I had to do or say something.

"Wait a minute," I said as I reached in my pocket and pulled out my billfold. "Here, look at my wallet, and look at my pockets," showing her I had no local money.

The woman examined my billfold and glanced at my empty pockets, and then said, "You left the tour group, and were seen talking to known money changers. Why did you do that?"

"Oh," I stammered, and then it occurred to me what to say.

"I wanted to see your wonderful city and look at all the beautiful buildings. Everywhere we went the people were so friendly. This is a wonderful town! You must be very proud of such a great city."

Vertis and the kids were looking at me with "I can't believe you are saying that" faces, but the tour guide suddenly began to nod and a faint smile crossed her face.

"You like our city?" she quizzed.

"Yes, it is great, and the next time we come, I want to stay at least a week. There seems to be so much to do."

A few more comments and the guide was telling me where I should stay and what we should do. She handed my billfold back and said, "I'm sorry to inconvenience you, but we must be sure everyone obeys the laws."

"Oh, that's not a problem. You were just doing your job, and you are certainly very efficient. Thank you so much for being so attentive to us."

A handshake and a smile, and we rejoined the stone-faced tour group for another 30 minutes. Later, as the boat passed the frontier, there was a flood of conversation.

"Dad, that was the worst place we have ever been," echoed both kids. "Why did you say it was so great?"

Then everybody tried to speak at once, but I said, "What if I had told the woman the truth?"

That slowed down the comments, and then I said, "There are times in life where the truth will cause you grief, and a lie will solve a problem." That pretty much stopped the conversation.

The trip was a lesson in government for two teenagers that was more revealing than a year of studying in school. That night when Vertis and I were alone, she just shook her head.

"Richard, when you started talking with that woman, I thought you were out of your mind, but as you talked, I even believed you were being honest. How do you lie so sincerely?"

"Vertis, it's like this: A lot of folks can play baseball, but some people are really good at it ..."

"Are you saying you're not just a good liar? I mean, what you are saying is, 'I have a natural born gift that makes me a good liar'?"

"Maybe. Back when I was a boy my dad would give me list of stuff to do, and when he asked later if I had done them, I would have barely hit a lick, but I would nod and say yes. I'm a geologist, and while I don't just tell an out-and-out lie, I embellish the positive and barely mention things such as a dry hole. I think I would have made a very good weatherman."

Vertis, shrewd as ever, asked, "Are you lying now?"

Email Richard Mason at

Editorial on 12/01/2019

Print Headline: Behind the Iron Curtain


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