So, we were marching in the Blood Field. Up and down. Classes were cancelled. Blood Field in the morning for school, Blood Field in the afternoon, for football or ping-pong. Or just to inhale the grassy smell.
The Blood Field is a north-south valley between the Castle Hill and Christina Town. It got its gruesome name after some participants of a small Jacobin rising, seven men altogether, were executed there in May 1795. Martinovics Ignác, leader of the mutiny, was the offspring of an Albanian-Serbian family who became martyr of an anti-imperial, Magyar-nationalist, radical-democratic insurgency.
The sombre monument to Martinovics – a white stone slab of the size of two caskets – stood close to the northern edge of the Blood Field, visible from our classrooms. I passed in front of it every day, as our class practiced ‘small ball hurling’ – a thinly disguised exercise for pitching hand grenades, presumably toward the imperialists – as part of our patriotic defence practice in fourth grade, right next to the memorial.
But this time we were just marching, up and down. Nine-year-olds in the Blood Field.
During World War II, the Luftwaffe used to land small craft in that park.
One fine day, our teacher explained that all that marching was done in preparation for our induction into becoming Path Breakers. By then, everybody had already been a Little Drummer, and Path Breaker is what follows. White shirts, blue kerchiefs, a small whistle – we were required to wear the Little Drummer uniform a couple times a year, typically at school-year opening and closing ceremonies. This involved much adorability: a great occasion for parents to take embarrassing photographs of small kids in uniforms – cute, as long as you could take the military thing out of the equation.
So, the school asked parents to designate a distinguished member of the family, or a friend, who would perform the honour of tying the kerchief around the neck of the new Path Breaker at the public induction ceremony in Blood Field. There would be marching, music, singing, speeches, and kerchief-tying. In that order, more or less, one hoped.
My parents had seen a few things. War, mass murder, capture into and escape from POW marches. Escape from rape, a hospital train with bleeding war casualties, bombardment and liberation by gum-chewing GIs in south-central Germany. Stalinism, anti-Stalinist uprising.
They took the task of finding a friend or a family member who would do this favour, the tying of the kerchief, very seriously. And a ‘distinguished’ person, no less. My mother was very concerned about the ‘distinguished’ part.
My mother, daughter of a class enemy – a Protestant church singer, no less – lived in a perpetual state of concern and frustration. It’s a long story, and I knew not even the half of it. Suffice it to say that, of my parents, she was the one with the more questionable social background, to no fault of hers.
My induction into the honourable status of Path Breaker was taking place a mere nine years after what the Hungarian press would refer as ‘The Unfortunate Events of the Fall of 1956’. At this time, upon every interaction with the authorities you had to fill a small questionnaire with questions like ‘What were you doing in the fall of 1956?’ Into such forms, my mother would enter, in a pianist’s efficient handwriting, the words: ‘I was being afraid.’
My mother had another good reason to be afraid. During the Unfortunate Events of the Fall of 1956, my father had, in her later assessment, ‘talked too much’, leaving a little blemish on his resume. Specifically, a four-year blemish, featuring a layoff, blacklisting and total social isolation. The noise and intimate togetherness of the world-famed Budapest art scene had disappeared just like that. One snap of an official finger, and all friendships, camaraderie and togetherness: gone. His original career, as a choreographer, never really came back. But that’s a lot of other stories.
So, by the time I was preparing to be a Path Breaker, our very existence –certainly it appeared so to my mother – rested on the hope that the blemish would be considered small, tiny, almost invisible, a thing of the past, by the relevant authorities. Forgotten. There was nothing unique about this. Much of the country – many people with big mouths as well as the authorities with wrinkled foreheads, furry eyebrows and the ubiquitous piles of paper – were exercising their powers of forgetting at this time. Sealed by an imprecise, blunt anger and an equally dull, meaningless embarrassment on all sides.
Who would be my ‘Path Breaker Inaugurating Parent’? After some silence around the dinner table – very rare in my family – my father proposed Uncle Zoli.
For his entire career, Uncle Zoli had been a military officer. Eventually, of very high rank. A staff officer at national headquarters no less. At first, he served the right-wing authoritarian regime. Then he became one of the founders of the socialist People’s Army. For a brief period, he headed the Budapest Command. Married to one of my maternal great-aunts.
By the time I knew him, Uncle Zoli was a soft-spoken, concerned and taciturn old man. A lot was bottled up in him; even I, with my nine or ten-year-old powers of observation, felt that. Aunt Mária and he lived less than five minutes’ walk from us, in a ground-floor flat on the Buda ring. The flat had a mixture of smells, of drying flowers, dust and food, and it was very dark. They kept the shutters closed because Aunt Mária hated the noise from the street. We hardly ever saw them, although I do have a very lovely photograph of Aunt Mária, my mother and my mother’s sister, holding a couple-months-old me – in the Year of 1956 – sitting on a bench in Blood Field. Aunt Mária and my mother were quite close, so I’m sure we saw them so rarely because of whatever it was that had made Uncle Zoli taciturn and concerned.
So, the Blood Field. The ceremony took place as planned and rehearsed. We marched, there was some canned music – probably the usual mixture of the national anthem, the Internationale and something romantically patriotic by Brahms or something. Speeches, applause, and then the distinguished group of kerchief-tying adults set off towards the would-be Path Breakers, by then a bunch of kids who were tired, dehydrated, hungry and way past their maximum age-specific attention span.
At last, Uncle Zoli found me. He was a man who faced all challenges head-on. Manages to find my red kerchief in one of the many pockets of his spotless, English-design suit that he wears as a weak substitute for the officer’s uniform he is used to. Takes the kerchief, flips up the collar of my shirt. Places the kerchief under it and flips down the collar. Here comes the moment of tying. He learnt to tie a necktie in cadet school probably when he was even younger than me. And he ties it.
The wrong way.
It just doesn’t work. Unties it. Does it again. It doesn’t work. The kerchief is not a necktie. Different consistency, different shape. A whole different idea.
There is a vastly simplified way to tie the kerchief. A new, people’s democratic, red kerchief. Nothing so complicated as a bourgeois-military necktie. But Uncle Zoli doesn’t know this routine. By this time, all other kerchiefs have been tied. He looks around him, all the inaugurating parents are standing up, awkwardly, but at least having accomplished their job, next to “their” inductees. Uncle Zoli is in trouble. Sweat beads on his forehead.
Finally, he throws one end of the kerchief over the other. Tightens it and does the same again. Like putting the simplest knot on a thread. Magically, it works. Sort of.
Uncle Zoli, this living icon of military history, is standing next to me at last, perspiring and embarrassed, with downcast eyes, in the middle of Blood Field. I am inducted. He and I now have a secret.
The traffic noise in the Buda ring comes back. My mother announces that we are going to have cake in her favourite confectionary. We walk uphill. I am finally allowed to take the kerchief off.
Tamás Máhr is the pen-name of a Hungarian-born social scientist who teaches at a university in the United States. In addition to his research and analytical writing, he also works in literary and visual genres.