When Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, I was not around. The time I first learned of it, I was stricken by the beauty of that places name and the horrifying event that made it known worldwide. Many years later, I visited Pear Harbor Museum in Hawaii with my mother, and we were instantly wrapped in reverence and sadness for all those young men and women taken away so ruthlessly at the dawn of a December day on the Pacific shores of a dreamlike island in 1941.
Inevitably, and without openly speaking about it, we remembered my father, who at only twenty-eight ended his trip on earth, a victim of the same war, but in central Europe. It is amazing how quickly we people learn and how powerfully the selective memory holds to moments of fear weve experienced, even if they happened in the very early childhood.
It was the summer of 1944. The magic box with a big green eye, speaking loud, frightened my mother. She grabbed a small suitcase and threw a few things in it, mostly my brothers and mine. My heart started beating so hard that I felt it in my throat. Mom dashed out of the house and into the street. I followed her as close as my short two-year-old legs allowed, and once I reached her, my hand clasped her skirt as if my life depended on it. I heard her speaking quickly to a neighbor, who happened to be the local fire department engine driver. He ran somewhere and promised to be back soon. Mom returned to the house, and I followed closely.
My little brother was in Maias arms. Mom took him quickly and embraced Maia, my nanny, who had to return to her mountain village in the Western Transylvanian Mountains for a while, I was told. I could not understand why the magic box that fascinated me had scared everybody so badly that we all had to go. Where were we going? Why did we have to say goodbye to people and leave behind everything I ever knew?
Few words were repeated in the grownups quick exchange of words: German, Hungarian, Russian. Who were they? I saw the fear in the womens eyes. I got scared, too, and though I wanted to ask questions, I fell silent. I followed my Moms quick movements like a shadow. I clung to her skirt whenever she stopped for a minute and for as long as I could.
Suddenly we heard a long squeak in front of the house, and when we dashed into the street a frightfully big, red engine was waiting for us with the motor running. We were motioned to get on it in a hurry. The small wooden seat reserved for Mom and us was up on the side of the engine and was supposed to take the three of us and the small suitcase. Mom was balancing the two of us, my little brother and me, as well as the suitcase as the car jerked its way out of town and into the open country. I heard the driver telling my Mom that this was the last moving vehicle left in town.
People vanished in a hurry from the path of the incoming, retreating German and Hungarian armies, who were taking, burning and bombing everything in their way, so by the time the Russians, who were in pursuit, would reach those places, they would find nothing but death and cinders.
The red engine was fighting its way, puffing heavily, among dried fields of crops of wheat and tall corn. Here and there, trees along the road were displaying their still-green crowns. I enjoyed looking up from that open seat and watching them disappear behind us. I felt my Moms right arm around me. I could barely breathe, but I did not complain. I felt nauseous and wished that the trip would be over soon. Instinctively I was afraid of what was ahead of us. Everybody was looking intensely up the road. What were they afraid of?
Far away to the left, suddenly, I saw black smoke and red flames going up into the sky. The entire horizon was frightfully burning, and we were going toward it. I asked my Mom, What was that? She quietly said, They bombed the Razboieni railway station [a major railway hub in Transylvania]. All trains and buildings are on fire. Thats why we have to reach grandpas place as soon as possible.
I heard a scream. The car stopped abruptly, and people ran into the dried corn field on the right side of the road. Mom left the case on the seat, jumped with my brother in her arms, then put him down in the road and helped me off. As she was putting me down she said, Run, Monica. Run in the cornfield. Where was that? I wondered. I looked up at her and her eyes directed me. I could not really run, but I did my best to cut straight over the road and into the ditch and then up again into the cornfield. I do not recall how many times I fell, but I made it on twos or fours following my mother, who was carrying my brother in her arms.
Sit down; dont move! came my mothers quiet order. I was still as a rock. I sensed the danger but I had no idea where it was coming from. Mother pointed to me to sit on her spread jacket. The dirt around was as dry as bone and covered with big, rock-like chunks. I looked up at Mom and saw her lips moving in a silent prayer as she was covering us in her embrace.
For no reason, the bulky pieces of dirt began exploding in thousands of pieces around us, and loud noises above us froze my blood. I looked up from under my Moms shoulder and saw a silver-colored plane, much bigger than my brothers toy plane, hovering around the cornfield, and from it fire-red sparks were coming our way. I heard our neighbor screaming, The Hungarians are shooting women and children; how very brave of them! May the Lord take them out with his might! Then silence. My hands started shaking. Frightened like never before, I turned to Mother. Mom, what means shooting? I whispered. Moms eyes filled with tears. I got no answer, but I understood that it might be something very bad if I made her cry. I squeezed her fingers in apology. She hugged me tighter.
The planes left, and we rushed back to the car, that surprisingly was still there with the engine running, though new holes covered its shiny upper cover, and the windshield was in splinters. Another leg of our trip to grandpas house started, but not for long. We were back in the cornfields or under trees again and again as the planes returned to hunt us. Up and down that high seat became a constant exercise till we left the main road and entered into the hills on a dirt road, away from the main retreat path of the Germans and Hungarians. The red color of the engine made it an easy target from above, but when night came, the planes stopped flying, and we made some progress, even if there was just one headlight left functioning on that engine.
Was I happy when, late at night, we reached my grandpas house! The tall gates were opened, and the brave red engine entered in grandpas stables out of sight. My grandparents welcoming home became shelter for all the ones that took that trip with us. Mom smiled for the first time in days, though tears were on all the faces.
The warm cup of milk my grandma gave me was the best I ever tasted. I fell asleep on her lap before I finished my wonderful cup of milk.