The Communist Who Peed His Pants and Other True Stories
I think any major life event involves an often far-fetched amount of conjunction, coincidence. This is especially true of war.
There is something about war that inspires double meanings, providence and twists of fate that are mythological in proportion. It is why true stories, when written under the auspices of fiction, sound too extraordinary to be real. Why I’ve chucked several scenes – even entire chapters – in my fictional endeavors because they were rooted too much in reality and therefore, somehow, didn’t ring true.
Just imagine the unfathomably harrowing story of Louis Zamperini in “Unbroken” and the skepticism a reader might feel if it was written as a work of fiction.
Italian immigrant and juvenile delinquent becomes Olympic runner alongside Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. He goes to war. His plane crashes into the ocean. He survives some 47 days on a life raft only to be rescued by the enemy and become a prisoner of war. He’s tortured, beaten, shuttled from camp to camp and followed by an effete, sadistic tormentor who is fixated on him and his Olympic career. He narrowly escapes execution when the war ends. He comes home with PTSD and starts drinking heavily. He goes broke, his wife almost leaves him, but then he happens to meet the Reverend Billy Graham, stops drinking, stays with his wife, turns his life around and ends up devoting his life to helping others. In his golden years, he carries the Olympic torch as his former tormentor looks on.
Can’t you just hear yourself saying, “Yeah, right”?
Then, there are the stories of coincidence, like my friend Sophia’s. The ones that make us wonder if there isn’t a repeat cycle in the universe. If genetics and history, seemingly unrelated, are actually intertwined – first cousins, if you will.
Sophia, back in the mid nineteen nineties, was reporting on the civil war in Yugoslavia. As luck would have it, she managed to miss the only bus that could take her to the other side of the country in order to catch her train back to Prague a couple of days later. There she was, a young woman in her early twenties, walking alone in a war zone with little hope of finding refuge. She figured she’d have to spend the night in a ditch somewhere, and hoped the wrong people wouldn’t come across her.
But lo and behold, as she trudged down the dusty, pitted road, a car of three young men pulled up alongside her. They expressed concern for her safety and offered her a place to stay for the night, promising to drive her the next day to catch yet another bus that would get her to her train on time.
Well, Sophia hopped right into their car, and was taken to a farm about an hour away, given a comfortable room and told to come down for dinner. As she ate hearty Yugoslavian fare with her hosts, the matriarch of this family said to her, “What was your name again?”
Sophia told her, and the woman shook her head in disbelief.
“Is your father ___?” she asked.
Sophia smiled kind of sheepishly. You see, she’s from this really fancy European family – the kind that just about everybody has heard of. “Um, yes,” Sophia acknowledged.
Turns out Sophia’s father, as a soldier at the end of World War II, had found himself on the same dusty, pitted road, missing the same bus as his daughter, and was picked up by the brothers of the mother who’s sons had picked up Sophia. Got that? Sophia’s father was taken to the same family farm, where he spent the night in the same room as his daughter, and ate dinner with the family. It’s unclear whether he ate the exact same meal, but at this point, let’s just say he did.
Needless to say, Sophia called her dad that night and exclaimed, “You’re not going to believe where I am right now!”
Sounds incredible, doesn’t it? Maybe your saying, “Yeah, right.”
My own first job after I moved to Prague was on Political Prisoner street – newly renamed in honor of the many who were held there in a labyrinthine monstrosity of a building where I went to work every morning. A building where my own mother was held, though I couldn’t say in which room. Perhaps it was my office.
One day, as I stood at my tram stop with a friend, I watched an older gentleman pee his pants as we waited. He was angry, humiliated. He kicked the tram post, hating himself for his frailty and hating us for having witnessed it. He swore under his breath, mumbling. Shooting dirty looks. It was summer, so he had no coat with which to cover the large wet stain on his crotch or mask the smell of his urine. I wanted to help him, but I didn’t know how.
“Do you know who he is?” my friend asked me.
I didn’t. But apparently he was a former hard line communist bastard with a long list of offenses for which he was never tried. He had, I was told, made many innocent people pee in their pants. Not out of frailty, but fear.
And if my friend knew who he was, there was a good chance that someone else in the vicinity knew him, too. Maybe someone who’d been made to walk home from the political prisoner building, with a big, wet oval on his pants, reeking of piss, shaking with fright and shame.
In these real life stories, parables bubble up without the help of a historian or Bible scholar. These are stories that make us believe in karma, in comeuppance, in God. They are a map of the human spirit, showing us the way, giving us the chance to break out of the loop and change our destinies. Or perhaps feel the sting of our past, giving some measure of justice to those who we’ve harmed.
And they are the inspiration for our fiction, which tames, takes apart and interprets these larger than life occurrences. It makes them accessible, personal and helps us walk in the footsteps of another human being, nodding our heads, saying, “Yeah.”