On October 23, 1956, I celebrated my tenth birthday. There was cake, ice cream and a small party with balloons and crepe paper streamers. On that same day, in a world utterly removed from my cozy Iowa neighborhood, other children watched as friends, parents and neighbors celebrated an occasion first known as the Hungarian Uprising and later as the Hungarian Revolution.
As I headed toward our kitchen for my post-birthday breakfast on October 24, or perhaps the 25th, the Des Moines Register was lying in its accustomed place on the dining room table where my father always laid it before going upstairs to shave. A huge photograph filled the space above the fold, with the words REVOLUTION IN HUNGARY splashed across the top.
At that point in my life I never had met a Hungarian and had little idea what a revolution might entail. But I could read, and I liked to look at photographs. Curious to see what required such large print and such a big picture, I paused to look at the paper, only to have my mind wiped as clean of thought as our classroom blackboards at day’s end. Gripped by a strange, vertiginous feeling, I realized I was holding my breath as my first, visceral understanding of a world far larger than my own and far less pleasant began to envelop me.
When the Budapest uprising began, there was no 24-hour news cycle, no CNN, no internet or embedded reporters with videophones. There was only a newspaper lying motionless and mute in its accustomed place while my father readied for work and my mother drank coffee in the kitchen. As I stood at the table, my air of concentrated astonishment caught my dad’s attention. Passing behind me he stopped and asked, “What’s happening?” I pointed to the photograph. He picked up the front page and scanned it, then brought it to the table. We talked about the events through breakfast. “Maybe you should tell them about it at school,” he said. And so I did.
Lucky enough to be schooled at a time when teachers were left more-or-less free to teach children as they saw fit, I benefited from my teacher’s willingness to set aside her lesson plans in order to talk with us about events in Europe. She astonished us by finding the 1848 Hungarian National Poem – with the assistance of a librarian rather than Google – and it was made into a poster.
Stand up, Hungarians, your country calls.
The time for now or never falls.
Are we to live as slaves or free?
Choose one. This is our destiny!
By the God of all the Magyars, we swear.
We swear never again the chains to bear.
Even as a child, I was moved by the straightforwardness of the poetry, its breathless assertion that chains could fall. More recently, turning over events of the time in a somewhat different context, I found myself pondering Karoly Nagy’s The Legacy of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution:
Liberty, democracy, human rights are like health. Servitude, oppression, discrimination are like sickness. Totalitarian tyranny is death. A revolution that overthrows tyranny and achieves liberty is a resurrection. During the last week of October and the first few days of November, 1956, most of us in Hungary felt as if we were risen from the dead…
It was euphoria. We sang our long-forbidden national anthem, embraced each other on the streets, laughed and cried with joy. We felt redeemed. We were intoxicated by hearing and saying words of truth. We learned the truth and demonstrated it to the World, that what defines a country, what qualifies a society is not any ideology, but the presence or absence of freedom.
As the days passed, it was freedom we talked about at the dinner table – freedom, with all of its consequences and responsibilities. On November 4, when Russian tanks swarmed into Budapest to put an end to the uprising, I asked my parents, “Is that going to happen here?” “Of course not,” said my mother. My father said not a word, not that night and not the morning after. But on the evening of November 5 he broke his silence to say,”When you get up in the morning, put on a good dress. You’re going to be a little late for school.” “Why?” I asked. My Dad looked at my mother, and then at me. ” We’re going to go vote.”
In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower was running for a second term against Adlai Stevenson, whom he previously had defeated. To that point, my political involvement had been limited to wearing red,white and blue “I Like Ike” metal stickpins, not because I supported his candidacy, but because I liked the sound of the words. My mother and dad were regular voters. I knew they’d be voting on November 6 and I imagined them voting for “Ike”, but I hardly expected to take part in the occasion myself.
Clearly it was an “occasion”, because I’d been told to “dress up”. In small Midwestern towns of the 1950s, you dressed for every occasion: Easter and Christmas, of course, but also weekly Sunday worship, trips to town, visits to the grandparents and travel in general. No one stepped aboard a bus or train without being starched and pressed to within an inch of their life, even if they only were traveling to Des Moines or Omaha. And if, by chance, someone were to board an airplane, nothing would do but the best suit, the prettiest dress, well-shined shoes and a matching purse.
So it was that on election day I donned my best dress, patent-leather Mary Janes and the pearl-drop necklace my Aunt T had sent for my birthday. As I settled into the car, trying to avoid wrinkling my dress with the coat I’d needed to ward off the early morning chill, my dad looked at me and said, “Do you know why I’m taking you along?” I shook my head. “It’s important for you to start paying attention to these things. Even though you’re too young to vote,when the day comes that you can vote, you’ll be ready.”
And so I was. For years we continued the routine. When election day arrived, I got up early, dressed and went with my dad to the polls where I watched, waited and grew ever more eager for the day when I, too, could participate. After he voted, he’d take me back home so I could change clothes and get ready for school while my mom dressed up for her own election day activities.
Sometimes, when he was taking me back to school with my “excused absence” note clutched in my hand, Dad would remind me that voting is only part of the story of citizenship. “What we do day after day is important, too,” he’d say. “If the candidates we like win the election, we have to work to be sure they keep their promises. If our candidates don’t win, we need to work even harder to help elect them next time. But right now, I’m going to work, and you’re going to school, because those are our jobs -they’re important for the country, too.”
A lesson like that may fade, but it never is forgotten. Working on the docks one sunny afternoon in late October, a radio appeal for early voting in Houston caught my attention. Harris County had lost most of their voting machines in a warehouse fire, and though replacements had been found, officials were eager for as many people as possible to vote early in order to help prevent complications in the process. Though not in Harris County, I felt a sudden urge to vote. My choices had been made for some time, so there was no reason to delay.
As I stood up and brushed off the sanding dust, the dusty habits of childhood suddenly pushed into consciousness. Feeling perfectly silly but unable to stop myself, I drove home, showered, and “dressed up” before heading to the polls – even though dressing up in this case meant resort casual with a pair of “good” boat shoes. Still, it was enough to release a flood of memory. Driving to the school, I thought about my dad, the lessons he taught and the passionate love of country that enlivened him. I thought of him as I voted, and I thanked him as I drove home.
Hanging my good clothes back into the closet and changing into a work tee and shorts, I found myself thinking, “There. I’m ready. My candidates may win, or my candidates may lose, but no matter the result, there’s a lot of work still waiting to be done. It’s the price of freedom.”