SPOTLIGHT: Things I Can Change (10 little steps) by Zary Fekete

Hungarian Childhood

When my father was teaching me how to ride a bike he also first told me about sin. We were living in Vienna, just having arrived from Minnesota. My parents were missionaries, hoping to move to Budapest, but that was tricky because Hungary was still behind the Iron Curtain. This was 1980.

The bike my father purchased for me was a second-hand Graf & Stift Austrian brand, sturdy with chipped green paint. I was still at the stage where I needed my father to run beside with his hand on my back.

He said, “Do you think you could live your whole life without sinning?”

I said, “What is sinning?”

“That’s when you do something that isn’t right. Like lying. Or drinking.”

I really thought about it. We made a few more bike runs. Then my father brought it up again, “Well, what do you think?”

I said, “Yes, I think I probably could.”

He paused before speaking again. Then he said, “Are you sure?”

I said, “What would happen if I sinned?”

He said, “You would go to hell.”

We went home for supper. The small apartment my parents were renting had only a kitchen and a bedroom. Before bed my mother read to me and my younger sister from the Little House on the Prairie series. In the story Laura’s family had just moved from Minnesota to Kansas, so I felt like I could understand her. In the book Ma said, “The Lord helps them that help themselves.”

My mother paused her reading and said to us, “No one can ever help themselves to do anything without God’s help.” This frightened us.

My family moved to Hungary two weeks later. We traveled there by train. We sat in a train compartment with one bench facing in the direction the train was traveling and the other bench facing backward. Because my sister and I were sitting on the bench facing backward my father later said that my sister and I were the first missionaries in our family to enter Hungary, because our bodies entered the country first.

My father rented us an apartment in one of the working-class districts of Budapest. The building was 15 stories high, constructed from stacked sections of pre-fabricated cement, every apartment identical. It had distance heating which was very inefficient. Hot water was piped in from massive factories on the outskirts of the city through pipes hung with torn sheets of asbestos insulation. The pipes occasionally sprung leaks and where this happened were gathered clumped piles of asbestos which my sister and I would gather and mold into makeshift snowballs…filling the air with poison as we played.

My parents began to take language lessons shortly after we moved from Vienna. The apartment had a tiny, black and white television, and my father would switch on the news every evening at 6. My parents sat, staring at the small screen, hungry for any word that they could recognize. One day they both recognized the word “no” at the same moment. They laughed and hugged, happy for a small victory.

My language skills began to develop after the first few months. I remember occasionally simply knowing what the neighborhood kids had just said to me. This realization did not feel like a success, merely a dawning of recognition. One day when the two kids from the neighboring building were preparing for a bike ride with their father I approached them confidently with my bike and asked if I could go with them. Their father did not allow it. I went home and told my father about what had happened. He seemed more interested in how I had asked them, what sentence I had used, rather than in understanding why I was sad being left at home. When I told him the sentence he pointed out a grammar mistake I made.

Initially my father attempted to maintain a business start-up visa which allowed our family to stay in the country for up to a year at a time before taking a trip back to Western Europe to renew the visa. He rented a small, one-room apartment a few blocks from the British embassy, a requirement for anyone with a business visa, and he called it “the office”. He spent a few hours there every week to uphold the cover that he was trying to set up business venture opportunities. Whenever he met anyone official who asked why we were in Hungary he told them that he was in the import/export business, preparing to ship farm equipment from Minnesota to Hungary. During some of those office visits he would bring me with him and we would watch football matches on TV while we ate Hungarian milk chocolate (5 cents a bar). I couldn’t understand the rules of football yet, but I pretended that I did. I felt important to be invited to the office with him.

I attended Hungarian school from grade 1 through 6.

The times in school when I felt the most like a foreigner were on Hungarian national holidays. These were vacation days, but there was always a school celebration held on the school day before vacation. Our class filed into the communal gymnasium with the other grades and sat on ankle-high wooden benches where we were told to sit still with no rocking.

The school principal led us in singing through a variety of Soviet era national songs, inherited from Russia, and designed to encourage Communist solidarity. We all sang together in unison, but in one important way I stood out from the crowd. All of the students wore an official uniform for the Little Drummer Society. I only wore a white shirt with blue jeans.

Every Hungarian student was automatically enrolled, from the age of 6, into the Little Drummer Society. This was a student’s first step on the road to Communist party membership. The Little Drummers would be followed by the Path Breakers, the league for the older students which began in the 7th grade. The Path Breakers eventually graduated into Communist party membership once school led into to a career.

The Little Drummer uniform was a white shirt with a blue kerchief. There was a whistle attached to an embroidered rope which hung from an shoulder epaulet and was stored in the pocket of the white shirt. There was also a belt, the buckle of which featured a drum beneath a red communist star with the Hungarian word “Előre!” (Forward!) written below.

I wanted a Little Drummer uniform. However, when my parents realized what it stood for they forbade it from me. One day, in an attempt to reason with my father, I explained that if I was going to someday be able to share the Gospel with these students I would need to fit in to their ranks. By now I understood how much my father’s mind operated around spreading the teachings of Christ, and I felt that if I appealed to this side of his thinking that he might allow me the uniform.

I was excited when he didn’t immediately say no. He spoke with my teacher one day after school and came home with a pamphlet that explained the purpose of the Little Drummer Society. Later that afternoon he sat me down by the kitchen table.

He said, “The Little Drummers follow six steps. Should you wear this uniform you must agree to these six steps.”

“What are they?” I said.

He read through the first five.

The Little Drummer is a faithful child of his country.

The Little Drummer loves and respects his parents, teachers.

The Little Drummer diligently studies and helps his partners.

The Little Drummer always says the truth.

The Little Drummer is clean, ordered, and punctual.

My father paused. I leaned forward, disbelieving that there could be any problem in agreeing to these points.

“I can do all those things,” I said.

My father looked me. Then he said, “The sixth point is: The Little Drummer lives in such a way as to be worthy to wear the red kerchief of the Path Breaker.”

Even though I didn’t know what Communism was, I knew the conversation was over.

It was during 2nd grade that my grandfather died back home in Minnesota. He had been dealing with heart murmurs and my parents wanted to make a phone call back to America to check on him. Most Hungarian households did not have telephones in 1980. The government wait-list to receive a phone was 10 years long. Payphones were plentiful, but if my parents wished to make or receive an international phone call they could only do so from a government office in downtown Budapest.

The phone center had bright yellow molded plastic chairs. My parents huddled together behind a wall of glass in the small telephone cubicle. My mother suddenly began to cry. My sister and I, desperate to calm her, asked her what was wrong. She told us he had died. We told my mother again and again, “But, we’ll surely see him again in Heaven.”

My mother said, “That will be such a long time from now.”

I later asked my mother why my father had not cried that night when he heard the news. She assured me that later in the evening, when we were in bed, that he had also cried.

After my grandfather’s death, my father talked about him more than he did in the past. When my father was a young boy he used to see his father drink shots of moonshine behind the barn with his uncles and cousins. My father watched him throw back the liquor into his mouth and exhale a hard snap of air each time he drank. Whenever his father caught my dad watching them he said, “When you get older, you’re not going to do this.”

My father nodded, knowing that was what was expected, but he snuck up afterwards and stuck his tongue into the glass to taste the drops at the bottom. It was shortly after this that my grandfather had a conversion experience and began to go to church. He also stopped drinking.

My father used this story when he taught young Hungarian men certain spiritual lessons. He ended the story by saying, “I never felt tempted to drink after my father stopped drinking.”

We went back to Minnesota for my grandfather’s funeral. We stayed with my grandmother in the big empty farm house. She asked my parents how the Hungarian mission was going. My father gestured to me and said, “He can speak Hungarian now.”


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