This was happening in Romania, in 1975, when, at the age of nineteen I was doing my military service.
After three months of basic training in a military unit, we all dreamed not of great acts of courage in battles, not of promotions, not of decorations, but of our kind and compassionate mothers who pampered us and cooked some wonderful cakes. The gentle kiss of the mother was better than the shouts of the brutal sergeant.
Once basic training ended, some of us started to get permissions for short leave, one or two days visit home. The order in which these were granted was, obviously, in direct relation to the political position of the parents. First, the sons of higherups in the Communist Party hierarchy, then sons of high rank military officers, then sons of high-level bureaucrats or industrial managers. I had little hope, as my father was a humble telephone exchange technician.
Still, I got lucky. My mother knew a lady in her church, who had a sister in the city where I was serving my military service. The sister was a tailor and she made nice dresses for officers’ wives. One of the these was the wife of an officer, a lieutenant colonel in our artillery regiment. The chain worked perfectly. My mother was very close to the lady in the church, who loved her sister far away, who was a good tailor much appreciated by her clients, and the officer’s wife obviously had some influence over him.
In spite of the perfect chain of influence, my leave did not go exactly smooth.
On a Friday morning, my team was in charge of cleaning the toilets. (I was a team leader, I do not know why.) We did a good job, considering that solders came to use the toilets, bringing in the mud from outside. We cleaned as they left and then one of our guys tried to prevent others from coming in. Around eight in the morning, we were lined up in formation in front of the building, when a major, whom we called Torquemada (as in the famous Inquisitor) came to inspect the premises. Suddenly, a soldier came running and called: “Soldier Oara, come to report.” I knew I was in trouble but did not yet know why.
Inside, Torquemada was surrounded by other lower rank officers, including our direct commanders, and looked angry. I saluted smartly, “Long live, comrade major!”
“Soldier Oara,” he started, with a low voice and with the appearance of a man struggling to control himself in the face of a great outrage. “What is this?” He pointed to some traces of mud in the showers area.
“I can explain it, comrade major,” I answered. I wanted to say that after we did a thoroughfull job of cleaning, some soldier must have run to the toilet and ruin our perfection.
He raised his voice and started to shout: “I do not want to hear excuses, I want to know why the floor is dirty!”
“Of course, comrade major,” I tried again. “This happened because..”
Now he was really furious. “Did I not tell you that I do not want excuses!!!” I want to know why you did not do your duty and why the floor is dirty.”
At that point, whatever was left of my faith in justice and reason collapsed. I gave up and decided to remain silent and frozen, like a deer caught in the headlights.
The major calmed down. “Good,” he said, “three days arrest. Lieutenant, make sure he goes there at the end of your day’s activities.”
I was not scared. I heard that arrest was not too bad. One time, an inspection found the guards sleeping in the cells while the arrested played cards in the main room. (It was obviously a scandal!)
At the end of the day, I was prepared to go to the guards’ building, to spend the next days under arrest. Just when I was about to go, the lieutenant colonel appeared and asked for me, by name. I presented myself in front of him and saluted.
“Oara,” he told me, “you have three days leave. You may go home and visit your parents.”
“Thank you, comrade lieutenant colonel,” I mumbled, “but it is impossible. Comrade major punished me with three days of arrest.”
“What?” he asked scandalized and uttered a curse. “I do not care about that. When I say you go, you go. Here are your papers.”
I knew I could catch a late-night train to go home. I dressed up and left, which was easy, as our building was outside of regiment’s guarded perimeter. I was only afraid that on my way to the railway station I would meet Torquemada or one of my commanding officers who knew of my punishment. For the first time in my life, I felt like a prey afraid of the predator, and had all my senses dialed to the maximum. I made it home, where I enjoyed the loving embrace of my mother and my father.
I returned in time at the end of my leave. To my surprise, Torquemada did not ask me anything about may failed punishment.