Because of my “crime”, I was discharged from the army and my father was forced to resign from his position. I took a job in a tool and die factory and my father opened a law office. In 1950, I returned to the university, now at my own expense.
At this time many Yugoslavians who had fled the country during the war began returning from Australia and America. They regaled us with tales of making $200 – $300 per month working in the mines, a small fortune by our standards! I could only imagine how much an engineer might make in those countries.
Sometime in 1952 while staying in a student vacation home in the port town of Bakar near Rijeka I met Ernest Traina who was to become a life long friend. Our house was a sort of co-ed dorm where girls lived on one floor and boys lived on the other floor. We held loud parties with live bands that attracted the attention of the seamen who were in port. It was during the course of one of these parties that I struck up a conversation with Traina who was an American of Sicilian descent who spoke Italian. At that point my Italian was better than my English. He and his buddy Richard were in port for a couple of days so we rented a row boat the following day and took some girls out and had a good time. In the process of getting acquainted I confided to them my distaste for life under Communist Tito and the reasons for it. Traina and Richard were sympathetic to my plight. The next evening we hung out together drinking until about midnight. Then the three of us headed for their ship. As a disguise, they put a loud necktie on me that no Yugoslavian would have ever worn.
Emboldened by drink, we sauntered nonchalantly past the native guard who was standing near the bottom of the gangway, armed with an automatic rifle. My companions made small talk and as we passed the guard I said loudly, “Yeah” in my best American accent. As we approached the steeply pitched stairs, the guard took a step or two in our direction as if to demand ID but seemed to think better of it and turned away.
The merchant marine ship was named Tuskegee Victory from Alabama. She was floating high in the water as she had disgorged her contents and the top of her prop was showing above the water line. We clambered up the steps with our hearts pounding more from fear than exertion. If possession of anti-government flyers nets a prison sentence of 6 months and 15 days, one can imagine that the sentence for fleeing the country could be exponentially more severe.
At the top of the gangway there was an American guard who let us pass without comment. I was hustled to a four bunk cabin and stashed beneath one of the beds across from Traina. It was July and beastly hot under that bunk. The wine that had given me courage earlier, now begged to be set free. Sometime during the night, I felt I couldn’t stand another minute. They convinced me to tough it out and stay put, though my bladder was ready to burst. In the morning Richard came in with an empty champagne bottle saying, “Congratulations, we’re in Trieste!”. If I hadn’t perspired so much during the night I surely would have overflowed that bottle. My clothes were wringing wet.
During the course of the day, Traina managed to smuggle some chicken into the cabin where I remained hidden. I waited in the cabin until 5:00 P.M. when work on the ship finished. Traina gave me his identification card and I shaved my mustache off to more closely resemble him. Then Richard and I disembarked. The Italian guard at the gate on the dock made a cursory inspection of our ID and let us pass.
We caught a trolley car to the house of a distant relative whom I had never met. He was a wealthy merchant and a friend of my uncle Tomas. Our knock on his door was answered by his grown daughter who welcomed us warmly when I introduced myself. She called to her father who invited us in. Richard, being polite, declined to intrude and left. I told them my story over refreshments. My relative was sympathetic but explained that as a foreigner doing business in Italy, he could suffer if he were to take me in. He took me to the police station and asked them to grant me refuge. The police, all in civilian clothes, were cordial, and agreed to take me, along with four other people who had crossed the border on foot, to the refugee camp.