Vladimir Imprisoned

In 1948 Tito broke ranks with Stalin which created some instability within the government.  In an effort to ferret out any dissension, the secret police anonymously distributed anti-government flyers to monitor the response of the recipients.  One of my cousins passed several of these flyers on to me.  He was arrested and beaten until he confessed to having distributed the flyers and to whom.  The police then proceeded to arrest anyone who had received a flyer from him and had not reported it to the government.  While I had not distributed the flyers, I certainly had not turned my cousin in to the authorities either, so in April 1949, I was arrested and questioned. I was handcuffed so tightly that the circulation to my hands was cut off.  The cuffs were left on overnight and I suffered some nerve damage that made the tops of my hands tingle for several months They slapped me around a bit to intimidate me then asked me what I had done with the flyers I had received.  Though I had shown one to a friend, I dared not reveal his identity for fear he would be arrested too.  So I told them I had torn them into small squares and tossed them into the latrine.  At that time toilet paper was a nonexistent commodity so my story was entirely plausible, but I was convicted of the crime anyway.

During the first three months of my sentence my mother was allowed to bring parcels to the jail for me.  She was permitted to see me only once.  We were allowed one hour of daily exercise in the courtyard.  After the first three months of my six and a half month incarceration, security was tightened.  I was confined to a cell designed for one, with four other fellows.  We were allowed no books, no paper, and no contact with the outside world.  The barrel that served as our latrine was emptied by other more fortunate inmates.  I was not allowed the luxury of a job.  As to food, bread was the staple; everything else was poor and not enough of it.  There was a thin tepid liquid in the morning, a tin of coffee or tea, a watery vegetable soup at noon, and runny corn mush in the evening.  Wednesday was the best day: A few bites of meat, and beans infested with some kind of corn borers that crackled between your teeth.

My fellow prisoners in that filthy place were a broad cross section of society.  Some were political prisoners like me, others were thieves or real criminals.

My father and uncle worked tirelessly to obtain my release through the influence of their highly placed friends and relatives.  One relative, who shared my name, was a diplomat and later an ambassador to the United States. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Popovi%C4%87_(diplomat) Eventually, they were able to obtain my release. I came out an embittered young man.  My mother came to pick me up in a taxi and I told her I was going to leave the country by any means possible.  She was brokenhearted and cried knowing the danger I faced and that I would not be dissuaded.

Vladimir’s Story Continued –

Allied Bombers over Yugoslavia

The second wave of bombers attacked and we huddled under an outside staircase that remained standing as bombs exploded all around us.  I grabbed one of the chickens that was sheltered under the stairs with us and held it to my face, using its feathers as a dust filter. When the dust finally cleared, we could see that there was nothing left of our home.  We joined the exodus from the city to seek shelter with relatives who lived about a mile and a half away.  We slept on the floor with about thirty other people who had lost their homes.  Out of a population of 16,000 people, an estimated 600 lost their lives in the assault by the allied bombers.  They called it collateral damage but if you have ever suffered the effects of it you know it means utter devastation to the people who survive.

My mother salvaged what clothing, linens, bedding and household items had not been destroyed and loaded them onto a hired truck.  We moved in with my aunt and uncle and two younger cousins who had a small house about 50 miles south of our town.  We slept on mattresses on the kitchen floor that we picked up during the day.  We stayed with them until November when we moved to a beach town to the south where I joined the army.           

In July of 1941 the Communist Partisan forces staged a rebellion and beat the shit out of the Italians.  They were no soldiers.  The German troops had been pulled out to fight in the Soviet Union.  The Italian Army was comprised of two types.  The regular conscripted soldiers wore green uniforms and the elite storm troopers wore black. 

Fifty of these Black Shirts were captured by the Partisan forces led by a former artist named Lekovic.  Having barely enough food for themselves, the Partisans took the captured leader, by ferry, to Albania where they convinced the Italians to load their boat with food to feed the prisoners.  The prisoners were held in a school until they were brought before a tribunal and convicted of war crimes.  Whereupon, they were marched to the top of a cliff and summarily executed.  Their bodies were dropped into caves below.  Later their decomposing bodies had to be roped out for burial.  It was terrible!

The Italians regrouped and returned, captured Lekovic, and brought him before their tribunal.  He was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to life in prison.  He was freed by allied forces two years later to return to power in Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavian Communist Partisan forces had taken control of the area as the Italians and Germans lost ground to the allied forces.  My uncle Tomas held an influential position with the new government.  He was a district leader in the Frontal Organization which was made up of people who were not Communist Party members but followed the party line.  He was able to secure a position for me as a courier, which kept me in the rear while most men my age (almost 14) were on the front fighting the Germans. 

In March of 1945 I was sent to Belgrade with a column of trucks that came from the Adriatic port city of Dubrovnik.  They were delivering aid and ammunition to the front west of Belgrade.  Mixed in with the military personnel were refugees returning to now liberated areas to the north including some Jews who had fled the Germans.  My mother, who accompanied me, and I endured five very cold days of travel before arriving at our new home in Belgrade.

We were given a tiny furnished apartment that had been confiscated from the Germans.  Belgrade was a bustling city with all the amenities including a movie theater.  We settled into a comfortable routine.

It had been more than a year since we had heard anything from my father.  My cousin worked at the railway station providing refreshments to the troop transports that were returning refugees and POWs to Yugoslavia.  One day as she stood on the platform serving juice, she was stunned to recognize my emaciated father among the throng.  He had no idea that we were living in Belgrade (or still living at all for that matter) and had she not spotted him, he might have passed right through Belgrade in his search for us.

He had been imprisoned in a POW camp in Munster, Germany, just south of the Netherlands, with American and Canadian soldiers.  While he had not been treated too badly for the most part of the war, as the Germans began to lose the war, their resources dwindled to the point that they couldn’t feed their prisoners.  By the time the allied forces stormed the prison, my father was so starved he was unable to stand.  Machine gun fire pierced the wall above his cot as he lay there too weak to move.  The Canadian soldiers, with whom he had made friends, carried him downstairs where he was hooked up to an IV and given clear broth.  After being fed liquids for a week, he was finally able to start eating solid food again.

In the summer of 1945 a Yugoslavian Partisan delegation visited the camp recruiting Yugoslavian prisoners to return to help the army.  When the infrastructure was restored my father returned.  Our joy knew no bounds.  At last it looked like we could resume our life as a family. My father, who was a socialist, was not a member of the Communist Party so he was barred from holding public office.  He was given a position as legal advisor to the Minister of Materiel.  In 1946, I enrolled at the University of Belgrade on an army stipend majoring in mechanical engineering.  One of my minor fields of study was English.  We were given a somewhat larger apartment where life regained a sense of normalcy. (author’s note: Though Vladimir spoke at least seven different languages, his English was so accented that transcribing the video was labor intensive. As his Parkinson’s disease progressed, he grew increasingly difficult to understand.)

In 1947 we moved to Zagreb so that I could transfer to the University of Zagreb and switch my major to shipbuilding.

University of Zagreb

A Bit of History

Many years ago, I was between jobs and occupied my time with doing interviews with veterans for the Veterans History Project for the Library of Congress, as a volunteer at the local senior center. At that time there were still several WW II vets around with stories to tell, and some Korean conflict and Vietnam vets as well. Having lived through the Vietnam never-declared war, I had too many opinions to be a really good interviewer, but I could talk with the older vets more dispassionately. To my lasting regret, I turned in all of my video interviews when I resigned my position, without keeping copies.

However, I stumbled upon the transcript of an interview I conducted, over the course of several months, with the father of a friend, that might be of interest to any history buff. While he narrowly escaped being a victim of the Korean conflict, his story is nonetheless engaging. The following is the first chapter of my interview with Vladimir Popovitch, a most remarkable man.

The King’s Palace of Montenegro By Damjan Damjanovic – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5663691

I was born in the King’s Palace of Montenegro on November 4, 1927, in Podgorica, Yugoslavia.  (Podgorica was renamed Titograd from 1946 to 1991) Not that I was of noble birth; the king had been deposed in 1918 and kindly left the palace so it could be converted to a hospital.  My uncle on my mother’s side now reigned as head of the hospital.

I was my parent’s only child, perhaps due to my prodigious size at birth.  I weighed nearly twelve pounds.  The first two weeks of my life were reportedly uncomfortable.  I vocalized my discomfort all night every night until my grandmother came to give my mother a much needed rest.  She was a pragmatic peasant woman from a small village and, seeing that my mother was thoroughly exhausted, poured a pint of good red wine for her.  When Mother had relaxed, Grandmother brought me to her for my evening breast-feeding.  That night we both slept through the night in comfort.

My early childhood was one of relative privilege.  My father, a graduate of the renowned Montpelier Law School in France, was a State Supreme Court judge.  He and my Uncle Tomas had a friendly relationship with the President of Montenegro.  My mother’s family was also well educated and prosperous. Our home was one of only three or four houses in the city with running water. 

Our water was supplied by a cistern on the roof that collected rainwater.  There was a public well with a hand pump to serve the needs of neighbors who had no plumbing of their own.                  

Our electrical power was supplied by a generator donated by Austria as part of WWI reparations.  It ran, more or less reliably, from dusk to dawn and when it failed, the generator operator could be heard shouting “The same to you!”  When someone asked why he stood around shouting instead of repairing the generator he responded “Because I know they (the electrical customers) are out there cursing at me.”

Since there was no electricity during daylight hours, there was no refrigeration.  Wood was the only fuel used for heating and cooking.  On Mondays the farmers from the area around the city would bring their products to the city.  Vegetables, fruit, cheese and live fowl made for a colorful sight.  Meat was purchased for immediate consumption.  Fish was either consumed fresh or smoked for preservation.  We kept some chickens and, in the less affluent neighborhoods across the river, each household would keep a pig, but on our side of the river that was not a practice.  Later, during the war, my uncle built a small pen in our yard so my mother could keep a pig but that was in a different lifetime.

In our home my parents spoke only French.  My father, having gone to school in France, spoke the language fluently, and my mother had spent five or six years in a convent in Nice, France during WWI. 

My maternal grandmother had died of natural causes (perhaps childbirth) when my mother was only six years old.  Her father, seeing the war descending upon his country, sent her and her brother to live with his younger brother, wife and three cousins in Italy.  My mother’s uncle was a successful merchant and the additional dependents posed no financial hardship.  Later the family moved to France for reasons unknown to me.  Perhaps it had to do with the fact that the government of Montenegro was set up in exile in France.  However, when the Germans overran France in 1916 the King moved to Italy where his daughter was the Queen.

My childhood essentially ended in April of 1941.  German bombs exploded in our city heralding the arrival of WWII.  At 13 years of age I saw the horrors of war in the streets where I had played with my friends only days earlier.  I watched in shock as mangled, bleeding neighbors and friends were loaded into commandeered taxis.  The Yugoslavian army collapsed and the government went into exile in England.  Ten days later, posters appeared that announced that Yugoslavia was no more.  We were allowed to be governed by Italy as a protectorate.

My father resigned his position though some of his associates remained to cooperate with the new powers.  He was arrested a couple of times and held for as much as two weeks in an attempt to coerce him to fall into line but he remained resolute.  In 1942 the Organization of Collaborators tried to enlist my father and when he still refused, a party was sent to our house in the middle of the night to arrest him.  This time he was sent to a prison camp in Albania and then to Italy.

We received a postcard from him every three or four months via the Red Cross, and even a letter once, until the allied forces advanced on Italy.  He was then transferred to Germany where he was not allowed any communication with us.

To be fair, I would have to say that the Italian government was benign in comparison with the Germans.  They took no Royal Yugoslavian Army troops prisoner; they were simply disarmed and sent home.  Similarly, a civilian who loudly vocalized dissent in the public square was hauled off to jail, yelling anti-government sentiments all the way.  The Germans would have shot him on the spot.

My mother and I were left to survive on our own.  She kept food on the table by selling her jewelry.  Her brother and cousins helped when they could.  One of my uncles was a merchant who traveled to the villages in the North where they made cheese.  He would bring wooden barrels of cheese to our house.  Other relatives from the villages provided us with fresh vegetables.  While we never went hungry, the poor families on the other side of the river suffered to a greater degree.

Under Italian occupation we were required to study Italian in school.  I didn’t consider it a hardship since I had already mastered French and Yugoslavian and had learned some German in school.

Life fell into a pattern even as we lived under constant threat.  Allied bombers droned overhead daily on their way to Belgrade and the oil fields in Rumania (Romania is maybe a more common spelling).  We eventually learned to ignore the air raid signals just as we adapted to other war-induced hardships.  One sunny afternoon in May of 1944, I was outside when I saw a formation of bombers thunder across the sky so low the ground seemed to shake.  With horror I watched as bombs exploded around me damaging our home and the homes of our immediate neighbors.  The bright sun was obliterated as dust darkened the sky.  When the deafening noise abated I heard my mother calling me frantically from the rubble that had been our home.  The breeze wafted in and out clearing the air until I could see clearly enough to look for her.  Miraculously, she was uninjured except for a bump on her head.  I had been struck in the face by some flying debris and was bleeding profusely but was not seriously hurt.

Still Good Advice

The only reason this poster remains on the pole this long after the election must be because it’s over the heads of most of my neighbors. I never noticed it before so I’m guessing the flag-whipping, 4X4 truck drivers that roar through town never look up either.

Keeping me waiting…

I’ve heard that when you keep someone waiting, they’re counting your faults. I’m a pretty patient waiter which makes Sally, my cycling companion, and me compatible, because she can find more reasons to make a person wait than one can imagine. It’s not just that she can’t keep up on the climb (which she can because she has an e-bike, but she doesn’t like to exert herself), and she’s inclined to take her time on the descent, but she also has to stop frequently to check her heart rate monitor, apply chap stick, answer her text messages, apply sun screen, eat a snack, take a snapshot or twenty of a beautiful leaf, add a layer of clothing, take off a layer, etc. And the worst of it is, she doesn’t have enough faults for me to entertain myself by counting them.

While her dawdling can be aggravating, I’m not sure it can even be called a fault; it’s just her nature. When she perseverates about whether she will need a windbreaker or not, I suggest that, since it weighs nothing, she stuff it in the pack instead of dithering about it.

Sally with her well-stocked pack

She always carries a pack that looks like she’s doing a through hike of the Appalachian Trail, so space isn’t an issue. I never have to worry about packing food because she always has a smorgasbord of tasty snacks and generously shares them with me. Stuffed into her oversized hydration pack are jackets, shirts, leg guards, dry sports bras, extra gloves, piano bench and monkey wrench. When we stop so she can apply sun screen, everything comes out. It looks like we’re holding a trail-side garage sale.

Saturday, riding with Sally, my back was giving me fits and my patience wore a bit thin, especially as the day wore on and I got hungry. So today, I decided to ride with the guys. Guys generally aren’t inclined to dally and they certainly don’t make me wait on the descents. But, oh my Dog, their conversation is so boring! How they can carry on about the length of their cranks, how quickly their seat post rises, how much travel their fork has, gear ratios, etc! I can tell you’re bored just reading about it. So, I think I’ll go back to waiting for Sally. At least we talk about interesting things…like work, our dogs, and people who dump trash.

Found miles from any road. Size 36/32. Message me if you want them.

R.I.P.

The anniversary of my mom’s death is coming up and, while I don’t dwell on such things, certain events do bring her to mind on a pretty regular basis. For instance, our nectarine trees bore a bountiful crop this year, so my freezer is full of luscious fruit. It’s easy and delicious to pop a few into the Bullet blender to whip up a simple smoothie. All that roughage makes for entertaining sneak attacks on one’s mate or dog-startling audible eruptions, especially if you “push a little” as Mum used to say.

Now, my mom was a world class farter, though she rarely used the word. Her “whiffers” have been remarked upon by neighbors whose jaded senses never even register their own dog’s barking. So, this morning, when I pushed out a particularly melodic burst, I thought of Mum. R.I.P.

Photo by Jacob Boavista on Unsplash

Too Many Hurdles

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

What’s up with the new tedious sign-in procedure every time I want to comment on one of my subscription’s posts? Is it just me, or is everyone jumping through hoops to weigh in? That coupled with the fact that my computer seems to have contracted a bug that makes my mouse uncooperative, is severely dampening my ability to leave cheery, witty, positive comments when I’m snarling inside.

So, I apologize to my many clever and interesting blogger friends for simply hitting the “like” button on their posts. Anything more is just too labor intensive until I get my computer fixed or replaced.

So Many Books…

Photo by noah eleazar on Unsplash

Don’t you just love seeing the package delivery truck pull up in front of your house? One of the unspoken pleasures of a porous memory is that, in the time it takes for the “free delivery” purchase to arrive, I can completely forget what I ordered. It’s like a surprise birthday present (the present, not the birthday; I still remember my birthday).

My favorite add-to-cart therapy comes from ordering books from ABE.com (American Book Exchange). Place an order today, for say four books, and you can receive four packages over the next four weeks, for about $20.

Out of consideration for the livelihood of my favorite authors, I usually buy new releases when they come out in soft cover. But when I want to binge read Wallace Stegner, Graham Greene, Edward Abbey, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ernest Hemingway, or any of my favorite now deceased writers, I buy used books. If I’m perfectly honest, I’ll admit to buying used books of living authors whom I have only recently discovered. It would not be affordable for my budget to order all of Kazuo Ishiguro’s earlier novels when I ordered his latest Klara and the Sun.

But once I’ve discovered a writer who captures my attention, I’m hooked for life. Someone loaned me Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible and I’ve purchased every new novel she’s released (hard cover, no less) since I read it and every previously published novel, used from ABE.com.

My niece, who works for a pest control service is horrified to think of me bringing used books into my home for fear of bed bugs, yet she shops second hand stores for her clothes. I have a feeling that libraries would be infested with the critters if that were really a problem.

The biggest danger of cheap books is over-burdening my book shelves. It’s too easy to order books I never get around to reading, which I store for years. You know the kind: Moby Dick (started it three times), Don Quixote, or any of those classics that I thought would look good on my shelves. There they sit, nestled between the oft read and lovingly remembered volumes: Desert Solitaire, A Walk in the Woods, Black Beauty, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, The Lacuna, Bonk, and the list goes on and on.

Weekend Travels

I found this post gathering digital dust in my drafts file, having composed it sometime last winter. Since this is the time of year I grumble about triple digit temperatures, it was refreshing to read the following:

This is the time of year I brag about Southern California weather in equal proportion to how much I complain about it in the summertime. January and February are the halcyon days of sunshine, cool temperatures, and green hills. Optimistic nectarine trees burst into blossom and wild flowers rush to spread their offspring before the scorching June sun withers them.

A Desert Delight nectarine tree, cultivated expressly for this climate, needs about 200 hours below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mill Creek, once a perennial flow, now intermittently gurgles through rock-strewn channels carved by previous torrents, and lingers in clear pools to the delight of our thirsty dogs.

Friday, Sally was recovering from a bout of Covid and wanted to do something of low intensity, so we loaded bikes and dogs into our cars and drove to the upper wash trails. In the uphill direction, the dogs bound ahead, following their noses and giving happy but futile chase to birds that take flight. When the trail turns downhill, they run ahead until they hear the zzzzzzt of our coasting hubs on their tails and pull over to let us pass. The long-legged ones (Sadie and Bella, Sally’s dog) lope easily behind, while the chunkier Molly and Zena (also Sally’s dog) bring up the rear, ears flapping happily.

By Saturday, Sally was feeling stronger so we decided to hike up Morton Peak Trail again. This trail warrants repetition as it has many lovely attributes, despite there being no water. It affords several panoramic views of the valley below, and after climbing roughly four miles, the trail rounds the ridge to provide a breathtaking view of Mill Creek canyon.

The naked south-facing slope is part of the burn area of the wildfire that drove our friends from their home in 2020. Mt. San Bernardino, behind it, is also charred. The dark green in the center of the image is where the fire fighters were able to hold the fire at bay, protecting Loch Levin Christian Camp behind the fire break.
Judy, the dog whisperer, who also has treats in her pack.
Molly takes a break
Sadie at the end of the day

By the end of the day, we humans had traveled about 13 miles and the dogs probably twice that.

“Not a single one of us is safe.”

I read that the government is funding more IRS agents to ferret out tax evaders and more FBI agents to pursue miscreants of every stripe. Some folks are quaking in their boots over this news fearing “persecution” because Ted Cruz has warned that these law enforcement agents will render us vulnerable. Color me naive, but I’m not too concerned.

I’m pretty careful about filing my taxes and my CPA is a Mormon whom I trust is not going to advise me to cheat our government out of their due. (it’s that whole “render unto Caesar” thing.) So, I’m thinking that maybe those who are opposing this new spending law are not confident that their tax returns would bear scrutiny.

Similarly, I can’t visualize the occasion where the FBI would knock on my door with a warrant. And, if they did, the worst they would discover is that I’m a lousy housekeeper and my desk is a mess.

So, I can’t help but wonder about those who oppose supporting our tax collectors and law enforcement. Do they have something to worry about? If so, I advise them to clean house.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash