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Original Issue

The Good Times Roll

I wound up at the only bowling alley in Czechoslovakia. No plan was involved. The bowling alley was in the basement of my hotel in Prague. I was alone and bored, and the television set in my room spoke words I did not understand. I had seen an advertisement in the hotel lobby for Bowling and Beer. I went for a beer.

There were four modern lanes on one side of a large rathskeller. AMF pinspotters. The works. I sat at the bar in back. I am not a big bowler—I could not remember the last time I had bowled—but the atmosphere somehow seemed familiar and warm: The sound of the balls rolling across the wood. The sight of the pins dropping. The clitter-clatter of the machines. The whoops of the bowlers. I could have been somewhere in Indiana.

"English?" a voice suddenly asked.

"No, American," I said.

"American? From New York?"

"No, I live in Boston."

"Bos-ton? Boston? Where is Boston?"

The voice belonged to the manager of the alleys. He was Czechoslovakian but had worked for a time in Australia. He spoke a passable English and wanted to use it.

This was January. The grand "Velvet Revolution" of Vaclav Havel was only three months old. There was a giddiness in the streets. People still were going to Wenceslas Square to light candles and sing songs of freedom. I had seen long and patient lines waiting to buy copies of the new revolutionary newspapers that were being published daily. It was as if the heavy lead shoes that had been worn for so long by the inhabitants of an entire country had been removed, and now people could fly. Or, as it turned out, bowl.

"There has been no bowling under the Communists," the manager said. "There was, before World War II, a ninepin game that was very popular in Czechoslovakia, but the Communists banned it. It was considered a decadent, capitalist sport. These alleys are the first in our country since the war. They are less than a year old. They were built mostly for foreigners, for guests at the hotel and for people at the embassies, but now there are some Czechs who also are using them."

The lanes were constantly busy. They had to be reserved days in advance. On close inspection, the bowlers seemed better-dressed than most in the United States. These were couples out on important dates or families on high-priced outings. This was an adventure. Simply putting on the rented shoes seemed to be exciting.

What was missing in form was made up in interest. Everyone followed everyone else's shots. Everyone commented. Bowlers finished their strings, then sat in the restaurant to watch the new bowlers. There were no threats of 300 games.

"So what are you doing here," the manager asked, "in Prague?"

I explained that I was writing a story about Emil Zatopek, the famous Czech runner of the '50s. Zatopek had been an officer in the Czech Army that took part in the uprising for freedom that was squelched by Soviet tanks in 1968.

Like those of so many Czechs, his life had changed in an instant. He was dismissed from the army and forced to do menial work. He virtually disappeared from the world athletic scene for more than 20 years. Now, at last, he could talk again. I was going to talk to him about everything that had happened.

How did he survive? How did anyone survive? I said that I could not comprehend the changes that people had had to endure. Here was a man who had been his country's biggest athletic hero, a Czechoslovakian Jim Thorpe, and he was banished to a life of digging holes in the ground. Construction. This happened to hundreds of thousands of people. What could it have been like?

"You know who you should talk to?" the manager suddenly said. "You should talk to my father-in-law. He is an old man now, and he is not feeling well, but I will try and have him come here tomorrow. He can tell you all about this. Can you be here, say, at five o'clock? I will try to have him come."

The next day. Five o'clock. More bowling. The old man came. We sat in a corner and for two hours he told me about his life. He had been in my business. A journalist. He had worked for Rude Pravo, the state-run newspaper of Czechoslovakia. He had toured the world, covering stories. For five years he had lived in New York, mostly covering the United Nations. It was a narrow sort of journalism, perhaps, all stories edited down to a prescribed Communist view of world events, but there were little victories along the way. He tried to slip descriptive information into his work by the words he chose and the words he omitted. Reading the Communist newspapers, he said, was an exercise of the imagination, trying to decipher news by what wasn't said as much as by what was said.

"I was back in Prague in 1968," the old man said. "I'd had friends in New York. They wanted me to defect. They were worried about me going home. They'd had it all planned, down to where the car would pick me up and where I'd go and what I'd say. I just couldn't do it. I was Czech. I wanted to be here."

When the 1968 revolution came, he was one of the happy celebrants. He wrote the words he had always wanted to write. There was a month, the Prague Spring, of journalistic euphoria. The euphoria ended with the tanks. The journalists who had been faithful to the Communist Party were promoted. The journalists who had not been faithful were given a chance to recant the words they had written. Most refused.

He refused. He lost his Party card. He lost his job. He became a truck driver, big loads, driving through the night. From UN correspondent to truck driver. Just like that.

"It was a depressing time," he said. "You just did what you had to do. You went from outside to inside. You just lived your life inside. Inside the mind. That is how everyone in Czechoslovakia lived for so long."

He was retired now. This new revolution was a flat-out amazement to him. He wished that it had happened sooner. He wished that it had happened, for good, in 1968...but was satisfied that it had happened now.

He loved to read every new word he could find. He loved to hear the new speeches and the new plans. He loved everything that was happening. He loved life.

"To the future," I said, raising my beer glass in a toast.

"To the future," the old man said.

In the background, the bowlers in the only bowling alley in Czechoslovakia kept trying to pick up those elusive strikes and spares. The pins fell down and were cleared from the lanes and replaced. The pins fell down again. There was a lot of laughter. Wasn't this something? The good times had started to roll again for these people.