How I passed the final mathematical exam…
Letter to my offspring #1
In September 1966 I was nineteen years old, finished my military duties, started my university education and all the girls were wearing miniskirts. What else I could have asked for? The world was my oyster.
At the first class in one of the many university buildings, we went into a lecture hall which could house hundreds of hundreds of students. I applied for mechanical engineering with the other 350 or so other young men & women. It must be mentioned that we were almost half and half but surely 40% were girls. Just as a side note, here in Canada even in the early 2000 these percentages in mechanical engineering were not even at the 15% mark. What I want to say there were a lot of beautiful girls all around me.
I was always an easy speaking person to the other gender so it did not take too long that I started to be friends with one of the girls. She was called Mary. Mary was as tall as I was or may be even taller; she had blondish-brown hair and smiling blue eyes. I was attracted to her.
There were the lectures of mathematics, physics, material analyses, descriptive geometry, thermal dynamics, heavy subjects. We all were going to those lectures together and for two years or four semesters we learned all that we needed to continue after final examinations to our selected field of mechanical engineering. So we had to make written and oral exams to pass these tests. They are very demanding tests, I could compare them to the master degree test in Canada.
If some one did not pass these tests they had one chance to repeat them before the next semester started, otherwise they could study no further.
It was in May 1968 when we had to write the mathematics test. By that time the original 350 students withered down to approximately 200, including a few who joined our year from previous years. They were those who could not manage the load of studying.
Our written test was set up in the largest lecture hall of the university so all of us could write the test at the same time. It was a mathematical test, I was not too concerned but a test is a test. There were 8 to 10 empty seats between students so we could not cheat by looking on the other student’s paper. Mary and I were sitting in the middle of the lecture hall. She was wearing a miniskirt and under her nylon stocking she had her cheat sheet. I did not have any because I was confident that I would make it.
The test was two hours long and you could not go out even for the washroom. That is how strict this exam was. There were a few assistant teachers walking up and down to ensure that nobody would cheat.
During the course of the test Mary had to use her cheat sheet so she was pulling up her skirt revealing her beautiful thigh. I have to admit that during that year and a half we were just friends. I tried to get more intimate but she was brought up in a very strict family. I could not resist the temptation, so I was turning my head toward to her … when one of the assistants pointed to me from the bottom of the lecture hall “You… Yes, you, in the red shirt…” which I was wearing… “if you turn your head once more I will throw you out of the test”.
I do not know how it happened but maybe ten minutes later I was thrown out of the most important test of my university education.
It was not a pretty outlook for me.
All that summer I was preparing for the oral test where I could reverse my misfortune. Just to complete the picture, I also failed in political science which was one of the compulsory subjects. By then I had difficulty to BS, so I was more concerned about that exam than the mathematical test.
That summer my mother got a company ticket to spend two weeks in a company-run resort. If one worked hard this was a way of thanking one’s effort. These places were like all-inclusive spas, if I may use this comparison, but definitely were not five star establishments in our Canadian terms. Mom took me with her so I could study for the upcoming oral tests in early September. We were there from the 15th of August and a few days later we saw a lot of military movements as this place was at Sopron, a border city to Czechoslovakia. The Warsaw Pact armies on the night of 20th of August occupied Czechoslovakia. So my quiet study time was up and everybody was sent home on a short notice. I was lucky that it did not happen during my service time in 1965-66 because then I would have been one of the invading soldiers.
Early in September there was a list placed on the bulletin board at the mathematical department with the day and time I had to show up to make the ‘correcting’ oral exam. It was an alphabetical list and I was the first on it.
When I went to the class room I found ten or so colleagues also waiting for their chance to overcome their misfortune of the written test.
The door opened and to my shock the same assistant teacher swung into the room who threw me out of the written exam. After a few words when he expressed that no talking or movement is expected during one’s oral exam, he looked up the list called me out to start.
We had thirty plus subject from high level mathematics which I am not delving into and he just started to ask one of them. I was prepared so it was going quite well. We were maybe fifteen minutes into the exam when he asked what mark I would like to get. I just wanted to pass—I was not aiming anything else, so I said “I would be happy to get a passing mark of two (2)”. One should know the marks were going from one, the failing mark, to five, the best. He said “Come on, Keszei. Answer one more question and that will be for the mark five”. I had heard from this assistant that many times if someone failed to have the proper answer regardless what had been achieved beforehand, he just failed the student. So I almost begged, asking him, “Please just give me a passing mark and I will be satisfied.” But he insisted, and posed the last question. I knew the answer so I started to chalk up on the board the derivation of the questioned mathematical formula… and that was the time he opened his dossier and pulled out my written exam.
He looked up, raising his eyebrow. “You are the one I threw out of the exam?” I quietly said “Yes, sir”. I saw him get agitated. I was in trouble. “Why did you cheat at the exam?” was his next question. “I did not cheat sir, but you were correct. I turned my head toward the student sitting ten chairs away against your order.” “And why did you do that?” Now I could not tell the truth, so I responded with a half truth, “She was a very attractive girl who was sitting over there and I could not resist looking at her from time to time.” And then I added, “You know, she was wearing a miniskirt.” He looked at me for a long time nodding his head disapprovingly, turned to the chalkboard then he said, “OK you get the passing mark”.
I was happy to get out of the class room. I made it! Later on, when I went to see my mark on the bulletin board I saw that he gave me three (3) and unfortunately the rest of the students were all failed.
A few days later when I went home I told my parents that I had passed the tests, and I was going to the third year and there were no more difficulties to get over to complete my engineering studies.
My dear father, step-father, who was already retired by that time did not say a word. He just walked out of the kitchen into the garden. I did not understand his reaction so I went after him and that was the time I really understood how much he loved me. He was wiping tears of happiness from his eyes. His adopted son, I, would be an engineer. I did not go to him—I just looked at him from behind, walked back to the kitchen where mother hugged and kissed me to express her happiness.
Those few moments are still with me after forty-seven years, and I felt somewhat the same way when my sons got their university diploma.
How I got into a dormitory…
Letter to my offspring #2
After finishing my high school education, I applied to two places to further my future work opportunities. My mathematics teacher suggested applying to the Technical University of Budapest because he saw that I was very good in mathematic and physics. “Keszei you should apply to the University, they will take you”. So I did. Also, I wanted to make some financial contribution to my parents, though we did OK considering the situations behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ but some money would have helped. Consequently I also applied to a trade school of electronics, as by then the new thing “TV” was spreading into almost all homes. I am talking about 1964. It was a good business to be a TV repairman. Changing some tubes or adjusting some knobs brought in quite a bit of money. But it was so good of a business that to be able to get into this trade school you needed some connections. I did not have any, so I had to be content to go to the University.
I made the mandatory entrance examination, which I passed with flying marks, so much so that in the first semester of the five years’ educational program I got some government supplied stipend. Everybody who made the entrance exam perfectly got this money. Now I have to admit that this first semester was the only one in which I got this ‘distinction’. From then on I was an average student. And average was not awarded a stipend.
Coming home from the army, serving my military duty, I was back in my parents’ two room home. It was a kitchen and a room. This room was the living room and the bed room at the same time. We had a sofa-bed, so every evening I opened it out and slept on it. My parents slept on the other side of the room. It was perfection if you didn’t know another kind of life.
The load of basic science was shoveled down on us at the University like there was no tomorrow. I had to study from many subject books, which were also given to me free due to my excellent performance in the entrance exam.
I clearly recall how I was studying into the late nights just to keep up with the flow of knowledge. I was sitting right against the coal-fired cooking stove to keep my back warm as our kitchen had a stone floor and single glass windows on the door and the window. In an hour or so the temperature dropped below comfort level. Then I took on my winter coat and pulled my hands back into the sleeves so I felt comfortable and kept reading. Those days I went to bed well after midnight. At some point on, in the winter it got so cold that we had to have the water tap slowly dripping otherwise the water would have frozen in the tap. It happened a few times, and we would have to heat water on the stove and pour hot water on the frozen faucet to start the flow.
Yes, we had running water which was coming into the kitchen through an outside stone wall. It was only cold water but it was good drinkable water. We did not have a washroom in the home; we had to go outside around the kitchen walls to get to our water closet. But do not think that I was in an underprivileged situation. All of our neighbors had the same.
I was not in an idyllic situation to study, but I did my best. At the end of the semester I did not make the top ranking, thus no more government stipend, but I passed all exams. I was getting into the second semester of the first year.
As I was struggling along, I met with one fellow student who was living in the dormitory although he had residency in Budapest. He had a somewhat similar situation; he had applied and got in. Now, one needs to know the dormitory was for students coming from the country side. Residents of Budapest did not get the luxury to be in the dormitory. But Andrew Szanto, the fellow student got in. One day early in the second semester I asked him. He advised me to write a letter of application in which I had to explain my situation to the principal of the dormitory. After some weeks and a home visit by some official from the University I got the OK to move in. I think that two of us were the only students with Budapest residency in that one thousand bed dormitory.
I became good friends with Andrew, and, many years later when my wife and I were already in Canada, returned the gesture when he and his wife arrived to the country and stayed with us for a few weeks at our apartment in 1976.
The Unpaid Service …
Letter to my offspring #3
I have been in church for religious reasons only twice in my life. The first time was in January 1947, days after being born, I was baptised as a Roman Catholic. The second and last time was when I was eleven.
I was born behind the Iron Curtain in a small mud-house with a clay-packed floor and thatched roof in a little village in Hungary. Not long after my birth, the Communist party came into power with help from the occupying Russian army, and Hungary became a “single party” country, terminating all the other ones. Attending church wasn’t prohibited, but if anyone attended a sermon, it somehow got known by the authorities. So, it should be no surprise that I grew up without having to pray to an unknown entity.
It was summer, at dusk on Friday, when I and my friends were chasing the soccer ball. During my youth, we played with the barest essential: the ball. You were lucky if you had running shoes to wear. We played beside the local church’s park as it was not attended by the few parishioners. As we were playing and the dust and sweat congealed on our faces like grey cement, we have noticed an old lady, the parish-clerk, was waving to us.
“Who wants to make a forint?” she asked. “I need someone to come and be an altar boy for this evening, because one of the regular boys didn’t show up.” Knowing that a forint could buy a lot of hard candy, we all offered our services. For some reason, she chose me.
She took me inside the church through the sacristy and with a wet rag began the arduous task of cleaning this dirty boy before her. While I was being cleaned, it dawned on me that I didn’t know what to do as an altar boy, and I told her so. She looked up at the clock and as she continued cleaning me she told me not to worry just copy the other boy, I would be doing the service with. I was dirty all over, my knees were black, my neck was like a coal miner’s, but through her efforts my hands and face became clean and red from the scrubbing.
From an old wooden dresser, she pulled out a deep red skirt. She threw it over my shoulders and tightened it along my scrawny chest because it was too big for me. It was still hanging down to the floor, which was good because it covered my tattered running shoes and dirty ankles. Then she pulled out a white, starchy shirt with beautiful delicate lacing around the neck and arms. After putting it on, she pushed a large, dusty mirror before me and I couldn’t recognise myself. I was transformed from a “third-world kid” into an angel. The priest entered, judged my appearance to be decent, and bustled me into the service.
I stood before half a dozen old women on a raised platform and began imitating the younger boy who was also dressed like me. I don’t remember much of the service but I remember one of our old neighbours being there and the approval of my appearance in her warm eyes. I also remember that I had some difficulty finding the holy water and the priest had to send the younger boy to help me out. It was a bucket of water at the back of the alter and the aspergillum was dipped into it and was given to the priest who splashed it on the parishioners.
After the service, as we were taking off the “holy” overly-large garments, the priest came to me with a smile on his face, and stroked the top of my head, saying I did an excellent service and then he asked me my name. I told him my name as I began folding the clothes, he reached into this pocket and pulled out the forint I had worked so hard for.
“And tell me Jozsef” he said, “What religion do you belong to?”
One should know that Hungary was about eighty-seven percent Roman Catholic, ten percent Protestant, and the rest were Baptist, Jewish or Muslim. To be honest, religion was never discussed at home, so I wasn’t prepared for such a question. Also, not long before at school, all the variations of religion and belief had been discussed and the one I most sympathised with was Humanism.
So, after a long second of thinking, I innocently said, “I am a Humanist.”
The hand that had been stroking my hair suddenly pulled back, and the smiling face became red and angry. He gripped the forint in his fist and screamed at the parish-clerk “Get him out of here!”
That evening when I went home, my mother was astonished to see how clean my face was, and she hugged me tight, kissed my face and whispered into my ear, “My angel.”
I did not tell my mother what had happened at the church, but a few weeks later the neighbour who had seen me at the service gave my mother praise for having such a good child, and …I received a lot of hard candies from her as the years went by.
My hygiene behind the Iron Curtain…
Letter to my offspring #4
Back in the fifties and sixties in Hungary it was a rare circumstance that someone had a four-piece bathroom like we have two of them at home here in Canada now. Living in Hungary after the Second World War we did not use that much water for our personal hygiene.
My step father was working for the government owned Hungarian Railroad Company. We got a small, two room official quarters which we did not pay too much for. One thing though that this dwelling did not have running toilet. The bungalow type dwelling was sub-divided to four units for four families and each unit had a water closet which was only approachable from the yard.
But who cared. We had running water of our own in the kitchen. Although we had to keep running the tap during the winter just to make sure that the water pipe did not freeze-up in the thick stone walls.
So the personal hygiene was conducted on a much different way than we have it here in Canada today.
I remember that once a week mother boiled some water and pulled out a large washbasin that I was washed down. The kitchen floor was stone so it did not matter if some water was lending on the floor.
It was no problem until I was a young boy but when the hair started to grow on places when one gets into puberty, it did not felt comfortable to have the wash down in the middle of the kitchen. I demanded that when I have the wash down time I left alone. I did my best and not always get off all the dirt from all my body and some times mother had to rub off my neck or behind my ears.
It was my father who recommended that I start to do some sport activity because in this way I could have an excess to showers.
Father was a soccer player at national team level in the 1930-es representing Hungary on international games. So at age fifty he became a trainer of a young men soccer teem and he took me with him. It did not last too long because I had, as he said it, “two left lags”. The trainer’s son was an awful soccer player and it just did not work out. So that was it.
But having a shower once or twice a week was a good feeling. I searched and finally I have sighed up with a sport club to play water-polo. Twice a week I traveled an hour and half each way to that sport facility, to swim and build up my strength for this very demanding water sport. The problem of personal hygiene was solved and not only that but I started to get some muscles on my body.
All winter and early spring religiously traveled to the pool and practiced balancing the ball in my hand as I was trampling with my feet to keep myself buoyant and all the other intricacies of the game of water polo.
Finally in the spring the games started and after the first few games I was told to find another sport because I did not have necessary aggressiveness to be an effective player of this game.
After some searching I went to become a kayak racer. It better suited my timid nature, it was only me and the boat. It again took almost two hours to get to the bout house on the Danube but there were showers. After turning over at one early days of April, when I almost did not make it to the shore, due to the cold of the water that like a steal vise squashed my chest, I did not feel anymore the closeness to the water sports.
By then I was sixteen years old and I needed some place where I could have my hygiene done.
One of my friends started to do judo, so I thought it would not hurt if I do some manly sport. As I mentioned before I was a very agreeable, I would venture, nice boy, I never started a fight and I always was the one who try to cool the tensions among us in any situation. So I took up judo.
It was a major sport club just five minutes walking from my home and when I show up and talk to the trainer he saw that I had the body, due to the kayak and water polo experiences.
It was good, because I could have hot shower two or even three times a week. I have also learned a few important marshal art moves during this time which came very handy when I was in the army. I cannot boast about my achievement in this sport either. I went to a few tournaments and I do not think that I won any of the matches. I managed through the next two years with the judo until I got eighteen and applied for the Technical University of Budapest.
Being a good listener I always memorized the lecture of the teachers so I was a good student. Though I failed in Russian and English almost every mid terms, but form mathematics and physics I was one of the best in the school so that I was representing my school at local science tournaments. I got into the university program with flying marks.
In September 1960 I had to go to the army to do my service before entering the higher education and from then on I had almost daily access to shower.
The breaded chicken drumstick…
Letter to my offspring #5
Behind the iron curtain in the early sixties and certainly before, not every day we get meat in our diet. Chicken or pork sometimes beef were usually the weekend treats. Usually the Sunday meal was the one when get these treats.
Please do not take it as complain, it was rather a fact.
At a very few occasions there was a breaded chicken drumstick that remained from the Sunday meal and mother made sure that I will have it.
That was a case in one early day in my high school life.
Mother put into my paper lunch bag a slice of bread and the breaded chicken drumstick. It was a surprise since I thought that we consumed all the chicken during our Sunday late afternoon lunch. But somehow that chicken had more than two drumsticks. Or as I had found out mother got some extra drumsticks to please and surprise me.
It was a specialty when I got this type of treats to take to school.
I remember it was in early April and the weather was already nice so the windows of the class room were open. When the class break came up I took out my lunch bag and that was the time I noticed mom’s surprise, I had a whole drumstick. I took the nice golden-brown drumstick out of the bag I smelled it and the saliva already started to flow into my mouth. I felt good I was happy and I wanted to shear my happiness with the whole world. I have lifted it up like a sword and had my eyes eating it as I was looking up to it.
But that was a mistake.
As I was sitting in my school-bench one of the boys grabbed the delicacy out of my hand. And now, it was in his hand and he was running away with it. For a split second I could not move, I was violated. Then I jumped out of my bench and the chase was on. He jumped on top of the benches and imitated that he would bite into my delicious chicken drumstick. The hole class was up in arms everybody was laughed about the new events, just I was really angry.
It was unthinkable for me to take anything from anybody. How someone come to touch my food. How someone take my mom’s hard work away and make fun of it.
I cut up with him as he was on top of the bench and he could see that I was very serious about this situation. Though he was a stronger boy then me but I had my reputation that I could fly-the-top-off very easily.
I just extended my hand and said “give back my drumstick”. After some hesitation he bent down and handed over the chicken.
I do not know even today what has happened with me at that moment, but I just turned around and through the meat out, through the open window. The all class was frozen, they could not believe to their eyes. They run to the window and look for the chicken dram stick down in the grass below the window.
I turned around go back to my bench and started to eat the empty bread.
Nobody touched my food anymore after this event.
My Winter Coat
Letter to my offspring #6
My friends and I grew up behind the Iron Curtain in poor families. Everyone was poor, and when that’s the case, you don’t feel needy because you don’t have a point of comparison—everyone’s in the same boat. We didn’t understand our parents’ sombre faces when they listened to the news, and didn’t pay too much attention to the lowering of their voices when we entered the room. We didn’t understand the hardship they had to go through to keep their jobs and ensure the basics for their families.
I was a single child, so I got all my parents’ attention. My mother and stepfather made sure I never went hungry, was never cold, and never felt unloved. I have fond memories of my youth, and one them involves a particular winter coat.
I went to an all-boys high school which was approximately three kilometers away from my house. My mother gave me money to take the trolleybus, but I saved the money to spend it on something more rewarding, so I had to walk about forty minutes to get to school.
The winters in Budapest are somewhat similar to those in Toronto. It can be just as cold, but the cold does not last as long. After a day or two, the snow melts and the mercury hovers at freezing point.
My mom knew that I didn’t use the trolleybus because she could see the white salt marks engulfing my shoes. Since she knew she couldn’t change my mind, she wanted to make sure I had a good coat, and so we looked around the house for a good warm one.
Years before, to make sure my mom didn’t get cold during winter, my stepfather bought a fairly expensive coat for her. It had big white buttons, a large collar that folded up to protect the ears, and extra insulation behind the silk lining. It was a stunning coat, but as the years went by it became increasingly heavy for mom to wear on her slender frame. So, after much deliberation, it was decided that this was the coat I was to wear on my walks to school.
I was proud to have such a beautiful coat to wear. The first day when I arrived to school in my new coat, many students laughed at me. I didn’t know the reason, whether it was envy of such a good coat or the fact that it was a women’s coat. Even some of the teachers looked at me with a question in their eyes. I didn’t care about anybody’s opinion—I was pleased to have something really valuable.
I hung my coat on the coat hanger and sat down to begin class. The comments my classmates hollered in my direction hardly bothered me, and class began without further incident. It wasn’t until recess that I couldn’t find my coat on the hanger. I looked around and saw that one of my classmates had my coat in his arms and was running outside with it as if it was a flag. I, who would never touch anyone else’s possession, couldn’t believe my eyes. How dare he take my coat and play with it.
As I ran after him with fury in my eyes, he threw it to someone else, and so I was chasing my coat back and forth, landing punches to anyone holding it. Pretty soon, as I chased my coat, the other boys I had punched began chasing me.
Finally, I caught up with one of the boys who was holding my coat and I jumped on him. I can’t tell you all the swear words flying out of my mouth, but I’ll tell you that the fresh snow got some red mixed in from his busted nose. The other boys caught up with us, but nobody had the guts to come close because they could see that I’d hurt anyone who came near, even though I wasn’t the biggest in the class.
The supervising teacher had noticed the crowd of students and broke the circle up. He saw the blood on the snow and my classmate’s broken nose. The other students showed him the bruises I had caused and shouted that I had started the fight. Both of us were taken to the principal’s office.
My coat was a mess. The lining was ripped open and it was wrinkled and wet. I could’ve exploded from anger, and I was on the verge of crying at the sense of futility. The principal, an older lady who had seen better days before the communist takeover, sent the bloody faced boy away to be looked after by one of the teachers. She turned to me and asked, “What happened? You are not a bad boy at heart. How could you act like that?”
The tears started to roll down my face. All the stress and anger was leaving me through my eyes. I couldn’t talk. I just stood there with my torn coat. She came closer and took it from my hands. “It’s a beautiful coat, is it your mom’s coat?” she asked. Her soothing voice calmed me down and I told her it was my mom’s coat, but I got it as a present to keep me warm as I walked to school. I told her what had happened, and after listening, she pulled out a drawer, checked some files and sent me back to class.
That evening, when my mom got home from the factory where she worked, she gave me a big hug. After dinner, she unexpectedly asked me to bring her the coat, which I had cleaned up and stitched as well as I could. From her purse, she pulled out some new black buttons and whispered, “I think these buttons will suit you better.”
A few weeks later, the boy whose nose I had punched came up to me. “You know, I got a beating at home after the principal called my parents to explain the bloody nose,” he told me. “I shouldn’t have made fun of you and your coat.” We became close friends during the rest of high school.
I finished school with that coat and never felt cold in it. At times, when I used the trolleybus, some people would look at me and my coat, but I didn’t care. I was proud of my coat.
The burial of my new cloths…
Letter to my offspring #7
At lot of countries there are proverbs regarding someone becoming or wished to become lucky.
In the Hungarian language there is an expression that refers to this situation; if someone steps in shit, he/she will become lucky. I don’t think that there is any substantiating evidence to verify that, but proverbs are proverbs. The story I will tell you should confirm that in my case it has worked.
I think I was four and a half years old when my divorced mother met with my future stepfather who’s name I am gladly ware even today. He was twenty-one years older than mother but from his physical appearance he did not look older than ten. He was a sports man, soccer player in the main national league and was part of the Hungarian national soccer team between 1930 to 1935. But mother did not know that at the beginning. He never smoked, drunk or chased women, his life was the sport.
When my future stepfather started to court mother he was not put-off by the fact that I have been already around. Mother’s other persuaders were not pleased with this fact. But he actually wanted to see me. Mother was working in the big city of Budapest and rented a small flat so she did not need to come home to my grandparents’ house every day. Only in the weekend she came to spend time with me. I was living with my mother’s parents’, bringing some ‘sun-shine’ into their life, being the first grandchildren.
It happened at one of those early spring day visit that mother brought his persuader to introduce him to her parents. As a present, from my would be stepfather, was a new dress and a new sandals. He really liked me a lot from the first look. His warm honest eyes draw me close to him immediately and after a few minutes we were playing in the backyard like we know each other sine my birth. I must have missed a father figure. Seeing us hitting-up so well, I think was the major reason that mother married dad. She finally find a man who would be a real father to me.
As usually, I am getting a bit convoluted with my story, but memories just popup continuously. So let’s get back to my new close… I must looked good in that new outfit.
I was dressed nicely after lunch into the new cloths and sandals and after playing enough with the new visiting man at the house I was let to go outside to the street to play with the other same aged kids.
Why I know the season so well is that it was spring time? Because the neighboring peasant families collected all the animal manure accumulating during the winter and pilled-up into a foot and a half high and ten feet by ten feet square puddle. They were taking this very important manure to the fields to reenergize the growing power of the land. This manure re-distribution was a type of recycling before the 3R.
The boy living with his grandmother, like I did, was a few years older then I and he invited me and the other kids to go into their backyard so we could play on the horse-carriage, stationed right beside the pull of shit. I think you are getting ahead of the story but I cannot blame you. Yes, I do not know how and why but that was the only time I fall from a carriage. There were few of us kids on the platform of the carriage and it could be my exuberance or may be the mischievousness of one of the kids coming from the envy toward to my nice new cloths, I landed right middle of that pull of earth rejuvenating shit.
I know that suddenly all kids have disappeared except the kid who’s property the ‘baptizing of me’ happened, so he guided me home across the street.
I know the comfortable after lunch chit-chat was interrupted for good. I looked like a moving heap of pigs hit. Smelled like …you know.
After fifty plus years I still could recall in my mined my mother’s beautiful big eyes open even bigger. “Oh, my God… Oh my God…” these were mother’s and grandmother’s only words “what happened… what to do?”
Grandpa was the one who know what was needed to be done. He made me stand on a few bricks beside water tub where we used to hold the water we churned up from the chain-well. That concrete tub could hold maybe two cubic-yard of water and it was for grandma to water the plants in the backyard. Grandpa got the watering-can and hosed me down with a few bucket of water. Meantime grandma put up some water to warm on the kitchen stove so I could be washed and bathed. My mom was looking for the best smelling soap in the house but it did not work.
At first I was washed with warm water in a big aluminum basin so I got somewhat clean. But the smell did not go. Then next grandma got inside the house and brought out a few bottle of home made tomato juice. So she could wash me down with the tomato juice. That did some of the trick but my hair did not want to let the smell go. So the only thing that they could do was to cut my somewhat curly long ‘beautiful’ blond hair. Now that really ‘killed‘ my mother. From her angelic little son a character from Dickens book jumped out. She was crying as she finally could hold me in her arms. I was not sure she cried because she was thinking that some thing more horrible could have happened or just the transformation of me, from angel to pocket-snatch, made the effect on her. But finally I was in her lap and I felt safe.
The mood was a bit morose until my would be father come up with an idea ”let bury the cloths and the sander”. Grandpa latched to the idea… “we will make a proper burial…” he took off into shed to bring a shovel. He went to the farthest point of the backyard and dug a sizable hole. Then with a poker he maneuvered all the clothes, pants, shirt, underwear, socks and the sandals into a small wooden box he had in the shed and we were ready for the funeral march.
The absurdness of the event made mother sad face slowly changed. And by the time mother and would be father left in the evening we were all laughing on the event. As they were leaving my would be father turned and crouched down to my level and sad “you will be a lucky man … my son… “
And looking back he was right. I was lucky because mother married this twenty-one years older man and I got a father who really loved me. His nurturing and care formed me who I am today…
God, make him rest in peace…
A week later I got the exactly same outfit and sandal.
So there is something to the proverb…
I was born with a handicap…
Letter to my offspring #8
I was born with a handicap. It was not a noticeable deformity—I was a cute little baby (or so I’ve been told), having all the parts needed to conquer the world, but there, deep in my brain, not all the wires were properly developed and connected. My handicap did not surface until I started school.
My mom became pregnant right after the Second World War, most probably around early May, 1946. The economical situation was not the best, to put it mildly. It was even difficult to get the basic food staples. Anything that was stored had been used up during the spring and summer of 1945, right after the war. The majority of men who could till the earth were either dead or taken to do ‘small work’ by the retreating Russian army, and only returned five or so years later if they were lucky enough to live through the rotten conditions of labor camps.
So, there was not any variety in the food that was available. My mom got through her pregnancy without having enough folic-acid in her diet as a result. Nowadays, it is known that folic-acid is very important for the development of the fetus. The result of this dietary shortcoming was that I had difficulty in learning to read.
It most probably did not help either that I was born as a left handed individual. Back during that time in society, a child whose dominant hand was the left was forced to do everything with his other, ‘nice hand.’ For instance, the spoon was moved from my left and placed into my right hand in order to comply, or rather, to blend in with a right-handed society. When I started to scribble with a pencil, I was forced to use my right hand to write and draw and at the elementary school.
My mother’s father, the only grandfather I ever knew, was the only one who did not care that I held the small hammer that he made for me in my left hand. He was a tinsmith by trade, and he made all his tools. He did not consider being left-handed as a problem, and I vaguely remember he was not happy with the ‘nice hand’ business. He and I were very close, and thanks to his love, I gained the dexterity for using both as he encouraged me to use the tools any which I way I wanted.
As a result of these forced changes by society and my parents, and the initial lack of proper development in my mom’s belly, when the time came to learn to read, I had a difficult time. I do not know what happens in the brain, but I remember that during first and second grade, the teachers were very surprised that I frequently read words backwards, coming up with all sorts of unpronounceable new words. I had a real struggle, and thanks to my father’s mother who spent countless hours, week after week, helping me to learn, or rewire the missing connections in my brain, I finally somewhat mastered the art of reading. It was not easy and even today, my reading is slower than I would like it to be.
Now at age sixty-plus, I could say that this handicap resulted in a major turning in my life in a positive way. This reading problem, when it surfaced, had created an anxiety between my father and I, which culminated in altering my life forever. But that is another story.
Finally, after more then a decade of marriage, when my wife and I decided that would have children, one of the most importation preoccupations of mine was to ensure that her diet was balanced. We read the relevant literature regarding the necessary ingredients for a pregnant woman’s diet because I wanted to make sure that my boys would not have the same problem that I had.
Not only that, at a very early age when they were two or three years old I convinced my wife to make an exception. Though they had to go to bed by 8:30 PM the boys could stay up in bed as long as they wanted if they were reading. Books with pictures were their pillows very often at that early age. And when we had found out that one of our sons was left handed we encouraged him in the use of his ‘bad hand.’
Now all three of them have passed twenty and growing up, they never had any problem with their ability to read.
I was eight when I ran away …
Letter to my offspring #9
As I said before I had born with a handicap. It was not a visible handicap and so neither I nor even my parents had known about it. I just realized this when my wife was pregnant with our first offspring. We were reading up on all the information what a pregnant woman needs in her diet. From these literatures become clear to me that having deficiency in the mother’s diet, it had create a problem in the development of me.
This handicap of mine contributed to my action of running away from my father’s house when I was eight years old. I mean literally ran away and never returned. It, as everything in life, has its own story.
My parents, whom married a few years earlier, for one reason or another, divorced when I was a year or so old. It happened most probably because of the harsh circumstances of the time, after the Second World War, and being behind the Iron Curtain did not help either. The other contributing factor was that my father, – who is not like me, was and still is even now at age 83 more business oriented than I ever was, – somehow always had some foreign currency in his possession during the that time when nobody were allowed possessing it.
As an intelligent young man, my father obtained a job as a crime detective at the newly organized police. Right at the start, after the war, the police was shorthanded, so it was not difficult to join them. At the beginning of the country’s renewed political life, there were four or more parties that made up the parliament and the Communists party was only a marginal faction. At that time, the communist party membership was not a necessity to join the police force, yet. Father was investigating the usual cases of thefts and murders, mankind’s violent heritage from Cain. Using his good commonsense and excellent vocabulary he was able to prove himself worthy in this field.
He was then, and still is, a poet of some sort whose poems were published time-to-time in the local papers. With his friends, he started the ‘Geniuses’ Club,’ a literary-art group. There was a great deal of pretentiousness in the name of the club, but like everywhere, those young men wanted to be different. There were a few young writers-poets and some artists like painters and sculptors in the club. They came together a few time a week in the evening at one’s or the other’s house and talked about everything: how the world should be changed, which party was worthy of support during the elections, what to do as a group in the future, and critiqued each other’s poems and paintings.
What they did not know was that one of their colleagues kept a daily diary and in it he recorded some of the ideas that surfaced during the meetings and what were their take on those issues. It turned out that it was a grave blunder. That friend of theirs became suspicious to the communist party members by making critical comments of the daily events of politics and one day in mid-December 1946, he was taken into custody. One thing led to another, and finally the police, whom by that time had been infiltrated by communist party members, went and made a house search. The diary, which concentrated on the young men’s ramblings, became the ‘serious document of conspiracy of overthrowing the Hungarian Workers’ Democratic system.’ This unfortunate friend of my father resisted the interrogations, never gave any names so he was beaten so badly that his life was shortened by a few decades due to the injuries he suffered; he died in his early forties.
Due to the notes in the diary my father’s name came up and so he was called in to the police station one afternoon in early January 1947. He was promptly disarmed, body searched, and the few American dollars they found on him did not help the situation either.
Father was taken to the central detention centre for interrogation. It was a feared place because many people who entered this building never were seen after. I have over heard when he talked to some of his old friends visiting how frightening it was to see his detained friend beaten up, bloodied, dragged through the room where father was interrogated. That single episode made him realize that it is no point to play a martyr. I don’t think he acted bravely but rather very practically. He had instantly realized that it was better to talk than become a punching bag for some sadistic interrogator. Being a police man himself he new how to talk to the interrogator. He talked, talked and talked and finally he was able to convince the interrogators that the ‘Geniuses’ Club’ was a collection of ‘crazy-artist-daydreamers’ and that it was not a political group, that they never ever considered to undermine the “Workers’ Proletariat Dictator’. His cowardliness and his good working record at the police station on one hand and his ability to talk himself and the others out of this very serious situation on the other, resulted in that shortly after his detention all of them were sent away from the detention centre to a concentration-work-camp. To get out of the detention centre was a good development because at the work-camps the life expectancy was much longer.
So, due to the fact that I was born on the 8th of January 1947, my father first saw me when I was about six months old, through a barbwire fence of the camp when my mother took me with her on one of the very few visitations she was allowed to make.
I am sorry about this detour, rambling of the past, but I think the insight into my father’s psyche will give you an understanding of why I ran away. Also, just to continue with this, I think it needs to be known what background my parents were coming from.
Father was coming mainly from a straight Hungarian stock on his mother’s side and from his father’s side, my fatherly grandfather who was born in 1867, was a mixed race. I heard on a few occasions from my father that grandfather was born out of wedlock from a Catholic chambermaid and a rich Jewish merchant. Is there truth to it? I do not know. But I was told that my big nose and my name—Klein or Kiss as it was changed to sound more Hungarian—came from that branch of the family tree.
My mother on the other hand came from a very straight German family line. Her parents’ were descendent of the sixteen century Schwaben migrant people, her parents’ family names were Volksinger and Finster. In the 1930s mother’s father changed his name from Finster to Faskerti to blend in more into the Hungarian society. It was interesting that after the Second World War my motherly grandfather’s two brothers, who did not change their names, were displaced back to, what was then called, West Germany.
Mother’s parents, mainly grandma, did like my father. She thought that mother should have gotten a ‘better part,’ meaning some well to do businessman or a rich peasant instead of this very Jewish looking young poet. But love does not know any boundaries and that is how my parents got married.
When my father was taken to the work-camp and he became a ‘marked man’, mother’s mother persuaded my mother to move back to their house and get a job to support herself and me. By the time my father was released from the camp after a year or so, my parents’ marriage was on the rocks where it never recovered from. I become divorced parents’ kid at age two.
To fully comprehend the situation, one should know that the Hungarian law stipulates that a boy child should stay with his mother until he is six years old and the father must pay child support. At age six when the schooling start, the boy had to be returned to his father. Not like here in Canada, child support was and is a serious business over there. 25% of the man’s salary was taken and sent to the mother automatically. There were no ifs or buts.
So, when I became six years old and started my schooling, I was moved to my father’s place in one of the suburbs of Budapest. By that time, father got married again, so I had a stepmother and my father’s mother, my fatherly grand mother, who lived with us too. It was a different life at my father’s house. Not only that I had to go to school, which was a new thing to me, but the affection towards me was not the same as it was when I lived with my mother and her family. I was fortunate that my father’s mother loved me just as much as my mother did, I was ‘the apple of grandmother’s eye.’ I shared a small room with grandmother and as a result we got very close. She taught me to pray as she was a very religious person and so every evening I kneeled down in front of my bed and prayed for an unknown being, God. This was not practiced at my mother’s parents’ house at all.
The school was okay, but it was there that my handicap surfaced. I was a bright kid, but I had difficulty to read. I managed through the first year because the young lady teacher liked my friendly and polite disposition, so she did not push too hard when she saw that I had difficulty piecing the letters together.
In the second year though I got a much stricter, older lady teacher and as she did not see any improvements in my ability to read, she failed me. She wrote a note in my report book for my father that I was meant to show him. I was afraid to show father the report book because he had an easily raising temper. A few days later when the teacher realized that I did not deliver her message to my parents, she asked one of the boys living in the neighborhood to deliver the report book to my father.
I knew that I was in trouble.
I still remember very vividly how father was eating slowly a bowl of bean soup at the kitchen table as I had to stand right beside him. He was reading the teacher’s note, eating and turning the pages. Then he put the book down, finished his soup, tapping his lips with a napkin and then without a word or any warning, he slapped me on the face.
I cannot remember how painful the slap was but from the unexpected sudden violent move, I got so scared that I started to pee into my pants. I stood there as a wet mark ran down my pants. I started to cry and after a few seconds I ran out of the house back of the garden where the outhouse was. I stood there for a long time before grandmother came out kneeled beside me and hugged me. We were crying together. I was still under the effect of the slap, the only one I ever got in my life and she was crying because she loved me so much that she felt the pain I had. After a while she affectionately took me back to the house into our bedroom.
I think that this one violent, abrupt slap was the seed of reasoning why I ran away the next summer.
From then on, grandmother spent countless hours with me as she helped me to learn to read. My reading proficiency slowly improved, thanks to grandmother’s hard work, and at the end of the school year I got a passing mark in reading.
The Hungarian divorce laws also stipulated that during the summer break, the other parent shall have the offspring for an extended period. So, I spent the bulk of the following summer at my mothers’ parents’ home. Grandfather, whom I loved very much, taught me to play chess and let me toil in his tool shed. I got a little present almost every evening when mother came home from work. I received more hugs and kisses than any other kids during that summer. Mother’s love and affection were like honey. I loved to be loved.
When the time came for my mother’s mother to take me back to my father’s house, I did not want to go. I said to my mother that I would not go back to live at my father’s house ever again. I did not tell mother of my poor reading ability nor did I tell her the incident of wetting, peeing into my pants.
“Yes, yes, you will stay with me,” mother said, but it was not what the law stipulated. She could not keep me without father’s consent.
Grandmother told me that we needed to go back to my father’s home to collect my belongings. It took almost half a day to go there by using three buses and a streetcar, so we started early. Because it was a workday my father and stepmother were not home. When we arrived to father’s home, the two grandmothers happily greeted each other. I told my father’s mother that I would not stay, that we just came for my belongings. They were smiling understandingly, and to divert my attention, they dressed me down and sent me out to play with the neighboring kids whom I had not seen for a long time.
Something did not feel right, but I did not think that my grandmothers had an alternative plan on their mind. I was going back frequently to see how much longer it would take until we left back for my mother’s parents’ house, but the two grandmothers were always just talking and sending me back to play with a cookie. They were waiting until I was out in the sand dunes playing with my friends hoping that I would loose track of the time before they could make their move.
Most everyone has a mysterious sense that sends a signal when it is needed, the only thing is; do we notice this signal or not, that is what had happened to me. Although I kept my eyes on the house, I did not see when my mother’s mother left. After a while I when home to check what was going on and saw that mother’s mother had gone without me. I did not ask anything, I turned around without wavering and started to run to the bus stop which was a good mile away. I did not have anything on me but a swimming-trunk. I ran through the dirty, sand streets and got to the paved road. I saw the bus coming in the distance behind me. Also from that distance I saw grandmother standing at the bus stop with other people. I ran across the road and put all my might into the run. The bus had passed me in the main time and it seemed that I might not be able to make it to the bus stop in time. I ran and ran, and I felt my heart in my throat and as the door of the bus was closing, I jumped through the closing blades.
Grandmother did not notice me until I pressed myself through the standing people and stood beside her. She looked at me and for a second or so, she could not register the situation then she asked “how did you get here?” I did not answer, I just looked ahead. She panicked, pulled the string to indicate that she wanted to get off at the next bus stop and grabbed my hand.
When we got off the bus, we were three to four miles from father’s home. Though it was a long walk back and grandmother was asking all kind of questions I did not respond. I was deeply hurt. I felt cheated by her.
When we got back to father’s home, my father’s mother was already in the door with tears in her eyes. She had been terrified that I might be hit by traffic on the road.
I stand front of the two grandmothers and said “I am not staying here,” … “and if you do not want to take me back, I will go into the world alone.” That was all I said, want inside the house grabbed my small bag which had my clothes and walked outside and stand front of them.
Now the two grandmothers truly started to cry because they did not know what to do with me. I was a different kid, I was defiant and determined, they have newer saw me like this before.
My mother’s mother was undecided, but my father’s mother pulled me close to herself. Without her kind and loving heart most probably my plan would not have be materialize. But because she lost her husband when my father was only three years old and newer got married again, she knew the bond between mother and son. She kissed my somber face, looked into my eyes with her watery blue eyes and softly asked, “Do you want to live with your mother?” And when I said “yes,” she turned to the other grandmother and said, “Take him back to his mother.”
She was the only one who knew exactly why I wanted to get away from my father’s house.
After some more moaning, grandmothers collected more clothes for me and then we headed back to my mother’s parents’ house.
Following this incident, I did not go to see my biological father close to twenty years.
Just before I left Hungary for good, at the age of twenty-seven I went to see my biological father to let him know that I was going forever. That was the first time that we talk to man-to-man. After some long pause in our conversation he put his hand on my shoulder and he told me “You know my son, you were fortunate that you grew up with your mother and your stepfather …because…because… from my household you would never had the chance to go and study at the university and become a professional engineer…”
Folic acid is a very important part in a pregnant woman’s diet. The lack of it could create a problem to the fetus, in such a way that the child will have difficulty in learning to read. So my mom’s diet, right after the war, was not the best for a fetus – to me. Also, the fact that I born as a left handed individual and was forced to eat, draw and write with my “nice-right” hand, the right hand, as a small kid, did not help my unseen problem either.
When my wife was pregnant with our boys we made sure that her diet would not jeopardize the future our children.
My high school Hungarian exam…
Letter to my offspring #10
I do not even know where to start. So I’ll just sputter it out… I was cheating on my final exams at the end of my time at high school.
I was never a top student in my high school years. As I mentioned before, I had born with some handicaps. After the WWII there wasn’t too much choice for what one could eat, and my mother did not have enough folic acid in her diet. So I had difficulty learning to read. If I needed to read something out loud, whether Russian, English or even Hungarian, I was in trouble. Oh yes, we had to learn two other languages and one of them had to be Russian. You may think, ‘did you learn English back in high school and you still can’t speak this language properly’, and the answer is; yes. But at the other side of learning of the more ‘difficult’ subjects like mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, three dimensional geometry, I was one of the best in the entire school. I had represented my gymnasium for mathematical competitions on a few occasions, and not with much success I have to admit, but anyway I always had the best marks in those subjects. One more thing I have to mention is that each half term I got failing marks in English and Russian. But at the end of the school years my mathematics/physics and chemistry/biology teachers fought for me to get the passing marks in those two language subjects.
So that is how I got through the four years of high school education.
At the end of the fourth year we had only four subjects as the final exams to get our high school diploma. From mathematics, physics and Hungarian literature there were written exams and from world/Hungarian history and Hungarian literature there were oral exams. I had written my mathematics and physics tests, and I got the top marks from those. But my Hungarian written test was a failure. Not because of the contents, but because of my poor, I mean very poor, Hungarian spelling. I will not explain what the problem was but I had a failing mark to enter the final oral exam of Hungarian literature in front of a five body examination board. I was dead. I thought that I would not pass my final exam and will not be able to study further. There were thirty different subjects from our four years study of the Hungarian literature. I knew that I would not be able to learn all those poems, poets, writers etc., so I was in a panic. And now here I have to divert a bit from my final exams.
Five of us boys we were very good friends. So much so, that after fifty plus years we, whom are still around, can continue where we left off after high school. Each of us went into different fields of science and made our contributions at our jobs. But bet back to the high school at early May 1964. The custom over there was, and still is, that the finishing class had a final walk through the school, and was given a little satchel with some ‘hamuban sult pogacsa’: unsweetened hard cake baked in ashes to carry us through the journey we had in front of us to get through life. The day of this celebration we five of us got together very early in the morning at my parents’ home and ordered a cab to take us to our home class teacher’s parent’s home. Our principal/class teacher was divorced and lived with her parents. Also, the previous night we went out and collected, one would say stole, as many flowers as we could in the neighborhood, so that we could take all those flowers to her. It was close to 6 AM when we knocked at the flat door with all the flowers. There wasn’t an immediate answer because it was too early. But when the door opened and her mother saw us with all the flowers she let us in. The bathtub got packed with them. Our dear teacher was so surprised and moved that tears came to her eyes. Later on we got to know that she told others that we were the best class she ever had…
Back to my Hungarian oral test. One of us suggested that we learn only five of the thirty subjects/theses, arguing that in this case if we get one of those we will shine. I went along with this idea as I already failed my written exam. Only a miracle could save me.
The day of the ‘reckoning’ was finally on. I was a mess; I could not think straight, I was just saying ‘I failed my written exam… I am done…’ But just before I entered the exam room one of my closest friends came to me and said “Joe, – as my middle name is Jozsef – when you get in, take the very right subject on the table…” I looked at him and asked “What did you say?” “Do not think; just take very right thesis”. The door already opened and I was called to enter when I turned around and asked “Right to me or right to the board?” “To you… you idiot”. That was the last word before the door closed behind me.
You’ve most probably guessed, I pulled the very last sheet on the right and yes it was one of the subjects we were prepared for.
My oral exam went like a hot knife in butter … until the head examiner opened my file and saw that I had failed my written test. He looked my file for a while and then he said “I see you have difficulty with spelling” and I responded “yes sir, it is not my strong side”. He looked further into my file and everybody on the board knew the trouble would start now. The board consisted of our class-teacher who was actually our Hungarian teacher and the one we took all the flowers a week or so earlier, the principal of the gymnasium and two other teachers and the man looking into my file. He was sent by the Board of Education to chair the exam board. I felt my heart pumping in my stomach; I sensed the end of the world had arrived, when he said “OK would you please write this word on the chalkboard”, and he said the word. I went to the chalkboard took the chalk and started to write the word down. I knew some letter, actually the letter “T”, needed to be doubled in the word but I was not sure which place in the word the doubling had to be done.
The chalkboard was behind the examination board so as I started to write the word on the board I turned back to the examiners. I knew everything was in the balance of the next few turns of the chalk on the board. I turned around hoping to get some help from I do not know where… and when my eyes fell on our principal’s face I noticed that she was looking at me and two of her fingers were covering her lips. Then I knew the doubling of the letter should come now. When the head examiner turned to look at the word he approvingly nodded, and so I passed my Hungarian exam with a middle mark.
The rest is ‘history’: I easily passed the entrance exams of the Technical University of Budapest due to my good knowledge of mathematics and physics and got my engineering degree in 1971.
So yes, I cheated…
Would I redo it again if I would be transferred back to that exam room… yes, I would do it!
Many years later at one of our class reunions I approached our then retired principal and thanked her for her help she gave me at my Hungarian exam. By then she was a small but distinguished lady with beautiful water blue eyes. She just smiled at me and said.
“I knew Keszei that there was more in you… look at you… you are an engineer now… and because life is not about spelling”.