An aerial postcard of Liberators Square would have an X to mark me standing amidst four thousand forty-three second-graders in sky-blue shirts. I’d press the pen so hard the letter would show on the reverse.
Mamka tells a story of how I got lost in the Prior Department Store during a Christmas shopping trip. I searched for her among legs and coats and shelves and racks, bawling and confused. Surrounded by long rows of Sparks, at attention on a grid of yellow dots sprayed underfoot, I feel the opposite. My two best friends, Slavo Bojčík and Milan Dudrík are an arm’s length on either side of me. Comrade Teacher Polášková looks pretty in her blue skirt, white blouse, and new perm as she threads through my Class 2D making sure we’re all ready.
“The Song for Happy Children” ends with a crackle and a screech of feedback, and a girl’s voice says, “Attention, attention! The Young Pioneer Oath ceremony shall now commence.”
Silence ripples through the square like wind blowing over a corn field. On tiptoes I crane my neck to see what’s happening. A Number 6 tram arriving from the Košice train station rumbles past the gray block of Hotel Slovan, atop whose lobby wing red letters as tall as doors proclaim, “TAKING THE LENINIST WAY TO FURTHER THE DEVELOPMENT OF OUR SOCIALIST SOCIETY.” Closing my eyes in turn, I squint to align as many capitals as possible with men in suits and military uniforms, senior Young Pioneers, and members of the Socialist Union of Youth crowding the stage.
“Present the flags!” says the girl, an older Pioneer. Swinging to the right she salutes a file of embroidered flags marching from behind the Liberators Monument past the stage to where trumpets sound an attention call. The Square stirs and something hovers overhead like air that shimmers over roads on hot summer days.
An SUY member, a youth wearing a dark-red necktie instead of a kerchief, gives a welcome address. Though I ought to listen, I drift out of his speech until the end when he says the color of the Young Pioneer kerchiefs we’re about to receive symbolizes the struggle of our working class for progress. Then another Young Pioneer, perhaps a 7th grader, takes the microphone, holds up a sheet of paper, and informs us he will present the Young Pioneer Laws, which we all must hereafter dutifully follow.
“A Pioneer is dedicated to the socialist motherland and the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia,” enunciates the boy. All the Sparks had to learn the laws by heart before the Oath, so why does he need to read them?
“A Pioneer is a friend of the Soviet Union and advocates for progress and peace around the world—” Last summer, on the way back from a family road trip to Odessa in our brand-new Škoda 105L, I saw in Kishinev an old babushka, dressed in black like my great-grandmother, sitting on church steps with her head bowed deep toward the cracked pavement. Her outstretched hand held a single one-kopeck coin. What is she doing? I wondered, feeling sad all of a sudden, as I followed my parents in search of an appliance store. It felt wrong somehow, and impossible.
The laws all recited, the girl Pioneer approaches the microphone. No one moves.
“I pledge before my comrades—” When Ocko gets home from work and sees me outside our a partment building playing with friends he sometimes says, “What are you doing, Husák’s children?” referring to Comrade Gustáv Husák who has been our country’s president since before we were born. Now we repeat the Oath in unison.
“—that I will work, study, and live in accordance with these Young Pioneer Laws—” Like Professor Lidenbrock traveling to the center of the Earth, we’re in a world of our own.
“—in order to be a good citizen of my beloved motherland, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic—” The motto, “The Young Pioneer defends peace” flashes through my mind. I will be nine years old in December, weigh 25 kilograms, and stand 131 centimeters tall. How can I possibly stop a tank or an armored personnel carrier? And why must I keep some questions to myself?
“—and to defend the honor of the Young Pioneer Organization of the SUY.”
When she pauses to deliver the command, there is a small sound of masses taking a deep breath. “To build and defend the socialist motherland, be prepared.”
Four thousand two hundred forty-two children and I yell, “Always prepared!”
The words echo around the Square. When I remember they will always be inscribed on my Pioneer belt buckle, I exhale all the way with a sense of accomplishment. With the opening notes of “There Glows a Young Pioneer’s Kerchief” older Pioneers, SUY members, and several soldiers carrying bundles of kerchiefs and sacks of pins fan out through the files. I look away from the pimple on our Sparks Troupe leader Zuzka’s chin as she ties my kerchief, which is as red as my burning face must be. Glancing at the metal pin with Czechoslovakia’s flag fluttering against a blank book topped with three conjoined flames, I know I deserve this honor more than anyone: drawing margin lines in all my notebooks in advance, submitting in-class math assignments ahead of everyone, and getting only ones on my report cards, I’ve long been aiding the development of the socialist motherland according to a Young Pioneer law. But Zuzka hurries off to the next classmate, acting as if it didn’t matter.
The trumpets sound again. Arms rise in our first salute as Young Pioneers, elbows bent at right angle, hand diagonal across foreheads. As peace doves fly into a bright future, my hand casts a shadow across my eyes.
Peter Korchnak is a writer in Portland, Oregon, where he brews a decent Cascadian Dark Ale and enjoys retirement from guerrilla yardwork. His nonfiction may be found in Compass Cultura, Gravel, Narratively, THAT Magazine (Istanbul) and Týždeň (Bratislava). In 2014 he won Oregon Quarterly magazine’s Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest. He co-authors the travel website Where Is Your Toothbrush? and contemplates the wonders of life as an immigrant on the blog American Robotnik. PeterKorchnak.com and @peterkorchnak