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 dared to cheer an occasion first known as the Hungarian Uprising and, somewhat later, as the Hungarian Revolution.
As I headed toward our kitchen for my post-birthday breakfast on October 24, or perhaps on the 25th, the Des Moines Register was lying 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.
I never had met a Hungarian, and had only the vaguest sense of what a revolution might entail. But I could read, and I liked to look at photographs. Curious about the large print and big pictures, I paused to look at the paper. Suddenly gripped by a strange, vertiginous feeling, I realized I was holding my breath as hints of a world far larger than my own, and far less pleasant, began to envelop me.
Photo republished by Daily News Hungary ~ October 23, 2013
During the Budapest uprising, there was no 24-hour news cycle; no CNN; no internet; no embedded reporters and videographers. There was only the 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. Stopping, he asked, “What’s happening?” I pointed to the photograph. He picked up the front page and scanned it, then brought it to the kitchen. We talked about the events through breakfast. “Maybe you should tell them about it at school,” he said. And so I did.
Educated 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 we made its words 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, particularly its breathless assertion that chains could fall. Years later, 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, we began to talk of freedom at the dinner table, as well as of freedom’s consequences and responsibilities. On November 4, as 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. “When you get up in the morning, put on a good dress.You’re going to be late for school.” “Why?” I asked. My father looked at my mother, and then at me. “You’re going with me to vote.”
In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower was running for a second term against Adlai Stevenson, the candidate he previously had defeated. During the campaign, 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, and I knew they’d be voting on November 6. I imagined them voting for President Eisenhower, 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 our small 1950s Iowa town, we dressed for every occasion: Easter and Christmas, weekly Sunday worship, trips to town, visits to 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 were traveling only 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 an aunt had sent for my birthday. As I settled into the car, trying to avoid wrinkling my dress, my dad looked at me and said, “Do you know why I’m taking you along?” I shook my head. “It’s time 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, I want you to be ready.”
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 mother dressed for her own election day activities.
Once, as he was taking me back to school with my excused absence note clutched in my hand, Dad reminded me that voting is only part of the story of citizenship. “What we do day after day is important, too,” he said. “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 I’m going to work and you’re going to school because those are our jobs right now, and they’re important for the country, too.”
A lesson like that may fade, but it never is forgotten. Working on the docks some years ago on a 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 even though replacements had been found, officials were encouraging early voting to ease complications brought on by the voting machine loss. Though not a Harris County resident, I felt a sudden urge to vote; my choices already had been made, so there was no reason to delay.
Brushing off a day’s worth of sanding dust, the habits of those early years reasserted themselves. I drove home, showered, and dressed before heading to the polls, even though ‘dressing up’ meant resort casual with a good pair of boat shoes. Still, it was enough to release a flood of memories. Driving to my polling place, I thought about my dad: about the lessons he taught and the passionate love of country that enlivened him. I thought of him as I voted, and thanked him as I drove home.
This year, early voting in Texas begins on October 22, and I’ll be ready. My candidates may win, or my candidates may lose, but no matter the result, I’ll continue to work in one way or another on behalf of my country. As my dad reminded me so often, that work is the price of freedom, and freedom’s benefits far outweigh its cost.
Comments always are welcome.