Many people weren’t around or don’t remember the Cold War, but Witold and I do and talk about how it was.
Both of us were young in our military careers when the Soviet Union was still alive. Massive amounts of military forces were arrayed on opposite sides of the iron curtain. Practicing war, missiles and artillery aimed at each other, the threat of nuclear war hanging over us like a dirty cloud.
Witold was very much a part of this. He was on the wall, but on the Soviet side. Having come to know Witold, its strange to think that our countries were adversaries during that era.
His stories tell a different sort of reality though. He talks about a time when the Soviet Union was starved for goods. Poland was ripe for transferring many of the hard to find items that Russian soldiers prized. Highest in demand were women’s stockings, cosmetics and condoms (by now we were laughing hysterically). The Russians would smuggle color TV’s and gold to use as currency. The checkpoints would search for this contraband, but they would hide the goods inside of the missile tubes of the mobile launchers.
Witold laughed at the notion of the “Warsaw pact.” It had nothing to do with Poland as they were a lukewarm participant at best in the Russian grand scheme. Warsaw certainly had no hand in scripting this.
He recalled a running joke among his fellow Polish troops at the time, that Poland would declare war on the United States. Once they were completely surrounded by the American forces, they would ask to become the 51st state.
While the stories are funny, it still chills me to think of what could have happened.
I’m honored to have been side by side with Polish troops in Afghanistan. We fought together, bled together, and some paid the ultimate price. Now we are walking together on the Camino de Santiago. Fellow Veterans and Peregrinos. Friends.
It’s good to talk about these things. It’s good to have bonded as we have over the course of 400 km so far. It’s good to recognize that nothing is as simple as it seems when you step back to look at the big picture.