Protocol Pioneers

During the second grade they “made us pioneers”. First the best students, but ultimately everybody, even the repeaters.

That meant we had to wear at all times a small, triangular red scarf, edged with a ribbon in the country’s colors: red, yellow and blue, and caught in a small, plastic, translucent ring. For most of us this soon became a red threadbare rag loosely hanging around our necks.  And because small plastic rings tend to be lost by very active, nine years old people the rags usually were knotted under our chins. Those whose parents took more care always had a new, freshly ironed “pioneer tie” on Mondays. By Saturday though, invariably, they turned too in red knotted little rags.

At festive days we were to wear a white shirt the “pioneer tie” slid under its military style shoulder straps.  The dark blue shirt or trousers got fixed by a thick plastic belt ended in one of the most uncomfortable claps I’ve ever seen. It was about one and a half inches in diameter, metallic, representing the country coat of arms. We didn’t mind any symbolism only so it happened that this particular coat of arms included oil rigs and fir trees whose pointed tips stick into your belly whenever you didn’t stand quite straight. By the end of a festive day every classroom and lavatory must have gained a number of such belts whose ownership nobody wanted. During breaks however they made a great weapon for boys fights. I tend to think the belts and their awkward clasps were responsible for many dark eyes and broken skulls.

Those of us who had decent musical hearing were recruited to sing in the class chorus. We loved our music classes and we really liked our music teacher. She was a very well dressed middle aged lady who often came to the class carrying a technical miracle: a Czechoslovakian portable turntable. She had us listen to opera arias, then try to remember what opera it was coming from and who composed it. In my mind even today every opera is linguistically linked to its author name. I cannot say “Aida” without adding mentally “by Verdi”, or Carmen without my brain adding in a rush “ by Bizet”. She made an attempt to teach us to solmizate too but I think she gave up after realizing what discrepancies this induced between pupils who had music tutors at home and the rest.

She seemed to enjoy most conducting the chorus. We loved it too. Looking back now I cannot make me remember any “civil” song though. Maybe there were some, but all the names my memory can reproduce are “patriotic” songs like “The Party, Ceausescu, Romania”, or “I have my tie, I’m a pioneer”, or “Republic, my great home”, and so on, and so on. We didn’t feel compelled to sing them, we loved the march music, the clear, optimist rhythms, and we didn’t give a single thoughts to what the words might mean.

Not even me. My family was by now completely moved to Bucharest and my grandfather had lost his attic privacy. Now he was listening to Radio Free Europe crouched on his bed every evening. They never prohibited me from listening but they didn’t encourage me to either. I was almost ten but for some weird reason they trusted me even if at times someone mentioned it to me: make sure you don’t have a slip of the tongue at school. My grandmother’s sister served time for political reasons, some of the visiting friends also were coming from the country prisons, still it didn’t feel dramatic to me to go on the podium and sing with all lung power “The Party, Ceausescu, Romania”. I genuinely enjoyed it and we even won some prizes with our chorus.

Our school was considered “a protocol school” which meant basically that we had few Roma pupils and generally that we had parents ready to wash and iron uniforms often enough. Also at times some of us were called for official happenings like comrade Ceausescu and his wife receiving foreign heads of state, while white properly pioneer dressed children were to sing for them, wave little flags and offer flowers.

I couldn’t understand why some of my colleagues, usually good standing pupils, and their parents were so crazy about going to airport to do this. At least 5-6 pairs of parents of a class of about twenty were fighting over this kind of honor. Surely enough going to the airport was fun. We were going there many Sundays me and mom. The main international airport was quite new and connected to the heart of the city by a large, old trees lined boulevard. To the left and right you could admire the houses of the richest people in Romania before the war, now most dead in prisons, a few immigrated. Some of these mansions were transformed in museums or cultural institutions, most were used by foreign embassies. A bus line was connecting the center to the new airport all across the long boulevard. When tired of walking we would take this bus and go have lunch at the airport where we could admire planes landing and taking off while mom was proudly explaining me what a new modern tower they built there. That’s what I imagined going to an official event would mean: going to the airport and say “hi” to the first secretary and his wife, fun of course but maybe overrated a little.

Anyway when comrade Ceausescu came back from some African country I was called too to take part in a group of pioneers supposed to greet him. To my surprise mom asked me if I want her to talk to our doctor so I be excused from the event. I looked at her as if she just landed from a different planet. Of course I knew that grandpa thought that “the Americans will come” someday and Ceausescu, the Party and all these will disappear like a nightmare, but I didn’t totally trust him on that one. Going to greet the First Secretary in a happy summer day sounded so much more appealing. Mom didn’t insist on the matter.

The bus left us somewhere mid distance between the airport and the center of the city and I soon realized that the entire boulevard had been lined with thousands of children, all dressed in the festive pioneer suit, flags in hands and shouting slogans. Apart from our teachers, policemen were stationed at distances of some 30ft between them, police cars were hidden around each corner, and invisible segments of the route were patrolled by civil dressed, short haired men wearing important faces.  The sun was bright and we were joking, pushing each other, tickling, laughing, overall doing our best to annoy our teachers who didn’t seem so happy being there. After a while some civil agent came with little flags and explained to our teachers what we were supposed to do. So, for another hour or so we practiced that: waving the flags, and yelling “Ceausescu and the People” preferably all at the same time. Some of the stronger boys were trusted with big poles on top of which there were the portraits of Ceausescu and his wife. Of course the portraits were used to all the friends over the head much like in the recently viewed Jungle Book. In about an hour most everybody was able to shout at the same time the same thing, flags were recovered and put in order and the portrait boys disciplined. Still there was nothing happening. Only the civil agents were moving back and forth, nervously talking on their radios.

At the beginning of summer in Bucharest there are always big differences in temperature between morning and noon. You could shiver in the morning at 44F then sweat by noon at 70F under the shiny sun. Our parents had dressed us at 6 am so we all had pullovers and some girls were in tights. By noon we were all sweating in the dust, legs started to ache and most of us were terribly thirsty after all the shouting. Across the boulevard a drinking fountain was glimmering. But when one or two boys tried to cross the civil agent jumped after them and turned them back. Not even when our teacher tried to reason with him and promise we’ll go in orderly fashion 3 at a time he didn’t agree. We were to remain “in formation”. Our teacher selected some girls to go to the back of the “formation” and sit down a while on their jackets.

Around four a clock in the afternoon the First Secretary cars convoy passed us at around 60 miles per hour. I doubt anyone inside noticed the children not so happy to greet them.