This ia a story of a wonderful encounter I had with an orphaned Hungarian kid. I was in the Army at the time and he left a deep impression on me. Unfortunately, I never found out what happened to him after I left Hungary.
THE COLOR OF FRIENDSHIP
By Cora Ann Metz
US Army (Retired)
In 1997, I deployed to Taszar, Hungary, as an Equal Opportunity Advisor for V Corps, United States Army, Europe (USAREUR). Taszar was once a Soviet airfield during the Cold War. In December 1995, it became the main staging post for peacekeeping forces in the Balkans. The structure below housed the command staff and administrative offices along with command staffs of participating NATO units supporting the peacekeeping mission.
My first week proved to be extremely stressful and depressing as setting up shop was my first key task. The outdated buildings revealed years of neglect. Whitewash paint did little to mask the exterior’s embedded mold and mildew. I did my best to organize my work area in a building on a former training site. My cramped office was slightly bigger than a jail cell with cement floors.
The storage area behind my office was a previous shower area, which still had exposed pipes and faucets left over from the Cold War era. The air always reeked of stagnant water, which had probably settled into rusty pipes beneath the shower floor. Signs still in the Hungarian language hung on the creaky wooden door, which had outgrown its frame. The gas-fueled heaters resembled a prop from an old 1950’s space movie.
After I spread the word of my presence and availability, Active Duty and Reservist soldiers contacted me for assistance via email, but most often they took time to pay me a personal visit for counseling and advice. I listened intently to a myriad of racial, discrimination or leadership issues, which belied the Army’s message touting equal opportunity for all. I was amazed and appalled at the number of internal EO and leadership issues, which commanders ignored and left unchecked. I wondered how the Army could conduct operations in a former war zone and preach détente to the Bosnians and Serbs when all was not well on its own home front.
My hands were full in taking care of the soldiers. My agenda consisted of writing weekly reports to my commander, conferring with officers representing the Judge Advocate General and Inspector General staffs, and setting up training sessions. I also traveled to Sarajevo, Bosnia, to visit military personnel to provide EO support there. I loved my job of interacting with the soldiers and counseling them about their issues. I felt a strong sense of accomplishment when they left my office in much better emotional shape than they came in with. Often I felt like a psychiatrist practicing without a degree. At times after listening to so many problems, I became overloaded and internalized what the soldiers shared with me, but the soldiers’ difficulties during this deployment far outweighed my own concerns. To maintain my slight distance ahead of the considerably increasing workload, I adhered to a self-imposed schedule of arriving to my tiny office at about 0800. To accommodate the soldiers’ long, erratic shifts, most days I worked 10 hours or more with ease. I usually headed for my barracks after my body and mind screamed enough already!
When Sundays rolled around, I thought of the most peaceful place to: the makeshift chapel in an office building a short distance away. I knew that the chapel’s serene atmosphere would help alleviate my recurring week’s worth of stress. Instead of attending services, I always chose to retreat to my office, because of my dedication to my job. However, one memorable Sunday would prove to be no ordinary one. Rather it would hold an unusual gift of encouragement.
Just before services, friends who had sensed my somber mood earlier in the week stopped by to invite me. Their gentle prodding wore me down, so I tagged along with them. Even after the chaplain’s uplifting sermon, my spirits remained low. Before dismissal, the chaplain announced a morale trip scheduled that afternoon to the local orphanage in Kaposvar. The orphanage housed children of various Slavic ethnicities, but in my depressing state of mind and dismal disposition, I didn't want to be around anyone, let alone orphaned kids. I felt I had nothing to contribute to them when I so badly needed uplifting myself. Declining the invitation, I headed back to my office for more solitude and to delve into the work that seemed to have no end.
Before their trip to the orphanage, my friends stopped by to try to convince me to go, countering my hesitation with their unwavering persistence. They promised me that it would do me some good to get away from my work for a while. Clearly outnumbered and out of excuses, I agreed to go. Two Hungarian translators accompanied us.
The trip there took about 20 minutes. The driver parked in front of a dilapidated, two-story building surrounded by an imposing seven-foot high, black wrought iron fence. Faded, peeling pink paint hung from the aged wood strips around the entire building. Sun-bleached newspaper filled in the gaps left by missing window panes. The resemblance of this building to the Munsters’ creepy abode at 1313 Mockingbird Lane made me smile. I thought to myself, what could I offer these kids who had to live under these conditions? As the group headed toward the building’s gate, I reluctantly followed, unsure of my purpose there. A caseworker appeared at the entrance door and escorted us through the building. Once inside, I noticed that the walls were a pukey tan color, which created a dark, somber atmosphere. I thought that lighter hues of pink and blue would brighten up the bleak interior and be more representative a place in which children lived.
The caseworker escorted us through another door, which led us to the recreation area to await the children. Some playground! The play area, though clean, resembled the ones located in abandoned stateside housing projects. Entertainment for the kids consisted of a swing set with rusty chains, an off-center merry-go-round and a dented metal slide centered in a sand pit. From my observation, all the equipment had seen much better days. The basketball court consisted of uneven cement squares with jagged cracks, through which blades of tough grass poked. Rusted hoops hung lopsided on the backboards as if the hoops would fall off with a well-aimed dunk.
As if the sight of the playground was not enough to dampen my spirit, I became a bit depressed when I found out that the kids spoke no English. I knew that my lack of Hungarian would put me at a communication disadvantage. Without giving me any instructions, my friends stuffed lots of candy in my field jacket pocket before they headed out to different areas of the playground to await the kids.
The sound of a creaky door caused me to turn toward the building. I noticed that a caseworker had opened a door of the orphanage. Kids of all ages and sizes streamed out. Their demeanors varied. A few seemed withdrawn and kept to themselves. Others who had made friends with military personnel from previous visits ran to the familiar faces they knew. Being new, I chose to observe the activity from a distance, waiting and watching, trying to determine what I should do. From a far corner of the yard, a few kids had gathered and stared at me curiously, arousing that awkward feeling, which took me back to my childhood days of my first day at a new school.
Sensing my apprehension, a group of the kids inched closer, suspiciously eyeing me as if I were newly captured prey. I smiled but quickly took it back when none returned my opening gesture. "Now what?" While whispering to each other, a few of the children pointed at me, which indicated that I was the topic of discussion. Since I could not understand their language, I got frustrated and wanted to leave, but could not leave, not just yet. I felt that God had put me there for a reason yet unknown to me.
Looking toward the playground, I focused my attention on the soldiers at play with the other kids. After giving the children friendly hugs, the soldiers handed out candy to them. Taking this cue, I remembered the candy in my pocket. I reached in and pulled out a handful of assorted sweets. A hush fell over my “observation group” as they eyed the colorful wrappers and bum-rushed me with their hands thrust out for their share of my sugary wealth. I stood up to dole it all out, making sure each child got at least one piece. Some begged for more, but I ran out. Turning my pockets inside out to show them that I had no more, I saw the deep disappointment in their faces.
Tired of standing, I moved over to a worn, wooden bench behind me. Not letting me escape that easily, my new little friends followed me closely, watching and waiting for me to do something else other than sit. They chatted amongst themselves again, and the language barrier increased my frustration.
Out of the group, I noticed one child in particular who focused intently on me. He was about six or seven, with a scrawny frame, a mop of thick blonde hair and beautiful, intense gray eyes. (I found out later that his name was Janos). He wore an ill-fitting, faded-green shirt and brown pants, which were much too short for his long, skinny legs. I believe that curiosity compelled this self-appointed leader to step from the group of kids towards me. Boldly, he hopped up on the bench next to me and folded his legs into a comfortable squat. He leaned in and began to scrutinize my face. I sat still, feeling that he was about to take me through some innocent, childlike rite of passage.
The others watched intently as Janos started his ritual. He reached out and gently rubbed my face with the back of his hand. Withdrawing it, he checked it carefully to see if any of my color had rubbed off on his hand. It didn't offend me, as I realized that this was only a child trying to satisfy his curiosity at our differences. Never experiencing anything like this in my life, I was immensely surprised that I was probably this child's first encounter with a person with black skin. I remained still as he moved on to my hair, cut in a high-and-tight flat top. He reached out and patted it gently all around. After completing his test, he tilted his head and looked at me, waiting for some kind of response. I turned my head towards him and smiled. He returned one--a signal that I had passed his litmus test. Contented with his test results, he hopped off the bench, grabbed my hand, and led me towards the merry-go-round.
Standing near this contraption, I felt the little leader grip my hand tighter as he began to speak to me in Hungarian. Since I could not converse with him, I resorted to the international gesture for "I don't know"--I shrugged my shoulders. Taking this gesture to mean I was hard of hearing, he repeated his words but only louder, hoping that talking louder would make me understand. Again, I produced shrug. He looked down toward the sand, disappointed that he could not convey his feelings to me in his language. I thought that whatever Janos expressed to me was valuable, so I summoned a translator to help me understand what he wanted to tell me. She asked him in Hungarian to repeat what he had told me. For whatever reason, little Janos clammed up, not wanting to share with her what he reserved only for me. After several attempts to get Janos to reveal his thoughts, she apologized and left. I had no choice but to leave it at that.
Janos grabbed my hand again and led me towards the slide. He climbed the stairs and zipped down the shiny chute, landing hard in the sand at the bottom and laughing with each thud. I was afraid he would hurt himself, but I felt that he wanted to impress and entertain me. After he launched himself down for the umpteenth time, he ran to me and gave me a hug. I hugged him back, lifted him off the ground and swung him around in the air. His delightful laugher made my soul sing. I realized that this child expressed a language which I understood perfectly---acceptance.
Later, one of the case workers came into the yard to let us know that play time was over. She then led us back to the building for a tour of the children’s rooms. Janos held my hand tightly again as he guided me to his room and sleep area. He showed me his bed, which was an old cot with worn, mismatched bedding. The other children had similar cots and all had storage areas for their personal items. I remember the dark floor tiles and walls painted a faded Pepto-Bismal pink. It depressed me to know that Janos had to live under these conditions, but there was nothing I could do for him. I turned my attention to him again as he showed me more of his personal area while continuing to speak to me in Hungarian as if I understood. Comfortable in spite of the language barrier, I went along with the program he had especially for me. Little Janos, a young foreigner who did not speak English, showed me a sincere expression of true friendship. And that touched me deeply. Unfortunately, I could not explain to him in his language how much comfort, encouragement and joy he had given to me that day.
Regrettably, it was time to leave, and Janos was not happy that I had to go. I could see the sadness on his face. But I was careful to avoid letting him see how heartbroken I was to have to leave him and not know if or when I could return for another visit. I tried to cheer Janos up before I left, but it was to no avail.
The caseworker escorted us to the front entrance of the building. The soldiers and I gave the kids hugs and said goodbye to them. As we boarded the bus, I could see sadness engulf the kids gathered at the door of the building as they waved goodbye to us. I saw Janos wave, and I felt this gesture was meant only for me. Sadly, I will probably never see little Janos again. I hope and pray that as he struggles through his situation and blossoms into manhood that he will maintain that childlike quality of fair play, a human quality, which has eluded far too many of us, regardless of whatever category we find ourselves in. Clearly, that quality is to judge others by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.
Janos should be about 22 now. I hope that he has been successful in making his way through that difficult situation in Taszar, Hungary, 1997.