- Personal Essay
Ernie, Harry, Gordon, and I commuted for years together in the 1980s—two hours a day, five days a week in a faded-blue 1976 Honda Civic with a few hundred thousand miles on it. We figure we spent well over 2,000 hours nestled together.
We listened to National Public Radio news and the traffic report and then turned off the radio, all of us preferring silence. Gordon always slept next to me in the back. Our legs were the shortest. Ernie drove and Harry and I read, worked, or studied. None of us worked at the same place, so we could freely vent our frustrations at the end of the day—15 minutes each, and then we were home. We learned a lot from each other, too, as each of us had an entirely different profession. Eventually, Ernie, Harry and Gordon talked about their wives and grown kids. We all talked about ourselves and our pasts.
Ernie, we found out, spoke Czech before he spoke English and still spoke it, but he had never set foot outside North America. He and his brothers and sisters grew up in the Czech-speaking Valach family in Montana, his father having immigrated to the States in 1910.
I excitedly called Ernie when I found out the Peace Corps was assigning me to what was then Czechoslovakia. He supplied me with a list of his Czech first cousins, none of whom he had ever met or spoken too. He also gave me the name of a Moravian village where his father was born in 1892.
One cool sunny day during my third summer in the Peace Corps, I went to that village, Rostín, near Kromeríz. The list of cousins I had from Ernie showed only Antonín Konecny in Rostín, with no address or telephone number. So I had prepared myself for finding no one, or for Antonín, if he were alive, not comprehending who in the world I was.
When I got off the bus, I spotted the town hall across from the bus stop. In Czech, I explained to the competent-looking, wide-eyed woman and young man in jeans in the office that I had a friend in Oregon whose father was born in Rostín in 1892 and had left for the United States as a young man. I timidly added that I was looking for my friend's cousin, Antonín.
It turned out that the man in jeans was the mayor; he knew cousin Antonín and everyone else in town. The woman opened a small card file and pulled out one of 800 tattered index cards—one per resident—and read off Antonín's date of birth and other vital statistics. I asked for directions to his house and, still a little worried about what the reception would be like, started out the door.
However, the mayor insisted on driving me in his own car. We pulled up in front of Antonín's house. No one was home but the dog was in the yard, a sign, according to the mayor, that they weren't far away.
Undaunted, the mayor continued to the family cottage on the outskirts of the village, where he found not Antonín, but instead cousins Bozena and Liduöka. They were a bit surprised to see the mayor and even more surprised when he explained I was from Oregon and knew Ernie. They were confused until I figured out that Ernie was Arnoöt in Czech.
Once they made the connection, they all literally grabbed me, stroked my arms, wiped tears from their eyes, and hustled me into the cottage where Ernie's father was born. The mayor drove off.
I had planned to spend two hours in Rostín, which proved to be impossible. They sent out word somehow that I was there, and from 11 a.m. that day until noon the next I saw cousins from four cities and a good number of Ernie's nieces, grand-nieces, nephews, and grand-nephews. In my letter to Ernie I wrote, "Then we went to the 14th-century chapel on the top of a hill just outside the village. Next to the chapel is the cemetery where your aunts, uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents are buried. After coffee and Czech cookies at the cottage, we went to Antonín's house. His wife gave me a beautiful lace tablecloth she had made. I was a bit embarrassed and confused. I said I would take it to your family. She said, 'No, it's for you; they get one when they come.'"
After loading my day bag with canned and fresh fruit from the garden, cousin Liduöka saw me off on the train with Kolac, a crystal vas,e and tears in her eyes, which she explained by saying that only one other time had someone from "America" come.
Ernie can speak Czech, but he can't read or write it. His relatives speak only Czech. They've never, ever communicated with each other in writing or by telephone—distance, elapsed time, and the language barriers were too great.
Now, however, if all goes as planned, Ernie and part of his Oregon family will be visiting the Czech Republic in the near future.