W is for Wheels of Circumstance

New Thoughts on Words


Aging & Attitude

In 1966, during college orientation, we were instructed to look to our left, then to our right, and told one of us would not graduate. The glaring statistic stimulated conversation. Vera, on my right, was from Long Island, and had an unfamiliar accent. She escaped from Hungary as a child and remembered running across the border grasping her mother’s hand. I was watching Betty Boop cartoons while she was chased by Russians. Her experience stayed with me and is incorporated in my fiction story, “Wheels of Circumstance”, published In Florida Writers Association Collection, Volume Four.

Wheels of Circumstance

   Mama and I press our bodies flat against the frigid ground and pray the wheels do not stop. A gloved finger to her lips tells me what I intuitively know: we are in danger, and a disturbance may reveal our presence.

   The day is crisp; the strong sun’s reflection on clean snow hinders our vision. I am a fawn watching a doe’s movement frozen by headlights, mirroring the behavior.  Mama’s fudge colored eyes wide and alert do not move while her lashes flitter. 

   The wheels stop not by choice, but by circumstance. They rotate in the mud clockwise many times. When the engine shifts gear, the wheels twirl counterclockwise so fast, the steel spokes blur together. The vehicle, encumbered in mud, stalls and several soldiers jump out. I tremble, and see only soldiers’ feet in heavy boots with metal toes from where I am lying. I close my eyes at the thought of a soldier lifting his leg to kick me.

    The engine restarts and the uniformed men study the wheels as they spin again. The puddle gets deeper, a chocolate cesspool, and goop splashes, dirtying my face.  I watch two soldiers shift metal guns slung on their backs, and ready themselves to shove the vehicle from behind as a driver yells in a foreign language that reeks of anger. The noise muffles the sounds I do not make.

    The soldiers rock the truck, making the ditch bigger, and the wheels more trapped. The engine cuts out leaving a quiet sound. The driver jumps out of the cab enraged, a semiautomatic gun raised above his head, and shoots into the air and around the tires. 

   Mama rolls her body on mine, secures my mouth shut with her hand to muffle any sound, and listens to an approaching noise, another vehicle.

   The soldiers, who were pushing the pick-up yell, punch the driver and point to a deflated tire, as the second truck comes to a halt.  

   With chains and shovels, the angry team of men release the truck from the muck, and afterwards shove and slap each other in good cheer at the success of their efforts.

   I start to cry when they drive off.

   It is November 4, 1956 and what started as a birthday lunch at the University with Papa is the Hungarian Revolution.

   In the morning, we sleep late and dress leisurely for the special day.  I wear my favorite navy blue taffeta dress. Mama insists I wear leggings with my green winter coat adorned by gold buttons and a velvet collar, a matching headscarf tied under my chin. The leggings have inside zippers.

   Mamma wears a camel wrap coat and a fake fur hat.

   My birthday gift is a white rabbit muff with a cord I loop around my neck making certain it is not lost. I skip to the 9:45AM train to Budapest and nestle my hands inside my birthday gift,  occasionally, fluffing the rabbit fur on the ride.

   We arrive an hour later, and when we step down from the train, the crowd is noisy and the station disorganized. People run in different directions and change course unexpectedly. Papa is at the exit gate not at the University. He whispers in Mama’s ear after their kiss and her eyes droop in disgust. Papa grabs me in a birthday hug that lifts me off the ground and smiles his million-dollar smile.

   There is a “change in plan” goes the conversation between tickles to my chin and behind my ears. Mama and I are to take the train to Austria; Aunt Marion will greet us for a Birthday Holiday. Papa will come on the weekend. Mama’s eyes continually question his prediction. I am happy with the promise.   

   We get back on the train. Papa hands us a bag lunch and an envelope with Aunt Marion’s address and spending money. We wave from the window not knowing it is for the last time.

   Mama reads a newspaper on the train, turning the pages quickly and with tears in her eyes. “Who is Aunt Marion? Do I know Aunt Marion?” I ask of her.

   “Aunt Marion is Papa’s relative, really a cousin. I have not met her either. It will be nice . . . I think. Yes, Trudy it will be nice. Now close your eyes and rest, we have a busy day.”

   Near the Austria-Hungary border, the train stops, empties, and people are rude and loud.

   “Is everyone on holiday, Mama?”

   “Well, it seems…” and Mama holds my hand with intensity.  “Let me ask for directions,” she says and approaches the conductor now standing on the platform. I cannot hear but watch heads nodding and shaking.  Mama continues walking tentatively and then with determination.

   “I am going to call Aunt Marion and see if she knows another way.”

    Mama deposits several coins in a pay phone, and engages in a speedy conversation.

   Smiling Mama says, “Sure enough, Trudy, we can follow the road and cut through the pasture. It will be fun and faster, maybe we’ll see a deer.”   

   Our walk is interrupted by the sound of Soviet tanks, trucks, and gunfire. Mama pulls us down behind tall grass brushed with snow. We listen, hidden until the sounds of people screaming and crying disappear.

   Mama explains. “Mean people are invading our country and we must leave, for now. Papa will talk with them. It will be fine. We will cut through the meadow, and cross the border to meet Aunt Marion. She told me the way.”

   That was before circumstance and the mud. Now Mama’s eyes close and there is blood on her coat. The fake fur hat sits crooked on her head surrounded by brunette hair curled for my celebration and I grow up fast within these seconds.

    “Trudy, run ahead and tell Aunt Marion I stopped to rest.” Her soft words linger as she hands me the envelope and struggles to say, “She will help us. Run like the wind and do not look back.”

   I kneel beside Mama. “Let me stay Mama, you need help, let me stay.” My words hang small and meaningless in the air.

   Mama opens her eyes, “Gertrude Zimmerman, stop your silliness, listen to your Mama, go find Aunt Marion.  Run… I’ll see you in. . . .

   I finish her sentence, “Heaven.”

   The sounds of wheels stay connected to the loss of Mama, her love buried in my memories.


….just saying


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