Yugoslavia Forever

President Tito in the foreground, his wife Jovanka on the left. I am descending the stairs with camera; my father is just behind me, to the left.
President Tito in the foreground, his wife Jovanka on the left. I am descending the stairs with camera; my father is just behind me, to the left.

October, 1962. Russia threatens to send missiles to Cuba, to fend off a pending US overthrow of Fidel Castro’s government.  The situation worsens; global nuclear war is imminent. As an American teenager, this Cuban Missile Crisis gives free rein to my adolescent angst. Should I continue my literary fascination with Russian authors–Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gorky–or should I turn against them? Should I suppress my budding socialist and anti-war sentiments and align myself with the anti-communist hardliners? As the lurid tv images of mushroom clouds loomed, I thought: nothing I do, or don’t do, matters now. I can live for the moment, since any one of them could be my last.

Fortunately for all of us, the Missile Crisis passed into history, and the Cold War shifted from military confrontation to intense commercial competition. Nikita Khruschov’s infamous threat “we will bury you” still resonated, but that threat was no longer military, it was economic. Russian and American leaders were both hell-bent on proving to the world their system was best. In 1964, just out of high school, I had a first-hand glimpse of that global competition, in the city of Zagreb, in the former Yugoslavia. 

A brief, multi-ethnic country, Yugoslavia came into being in 1946, uniting seven different ethnic enclaves: Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro.  Zagreb, the ancient and current capital of Croatia, is a crossroads city, strategically located on a major tributary of the Danube. It is a gateway between the ports on the Adriatic, and the countries of eastern Europe. As early as the Middle Ages the city had become a favored location for trade, with merchants bringing goods from near and far. In the 1850’s Zagreb’s mercantile tradition formalized into an annual, month-long Trade Fair, on a site next to the River Sava. Over time, various foreign governments built pavilions on the fairgrounds, to help promote their domestic businesses that engaged in international trade. The newer pavilions all bore the stamp of futuristic 1950’s architecture, in garish contrast to Zagreb’s elegant and traditional European building designs.

As an eighteen-year old American, before I became a Canadian, I joined my father in Zagreb. An engineer, Dad was part of a US Government contingent helping American manufacturers  demonstrate their wares at the Fair. I got to help him with various tasks, and occasionally I put on my suit coat to attend official events at the US pavilion. Nobody seemed to care that I had zero qualifications and no command of the Serbo-Croatian language. 

This was a significant summer, in our profoundly difficult father-son relationship. As a fully-formed albeit confused adult, I was no longer subject to his military-style childhood discipline. Our painful rupture over the Vietnam War, draft resistance and my move to Canada were still in the future. I was able to complete the tasks he assigned to me at the Fair, and I got to see him in action as an engineer and project manager. For an unprecedented few months we actually enjoyed each other’s company.

A major theme of Zagreb’s 1964 Fair was heavy equipment, since Yugoslavia’s President, Josip Brosz Tito, had started a major upgrade of his country’s road network. Accordingly Caterpillar, America’s premier heavy equipment manufacturer, sent over one of their massive D-9 crawler bulldozers, weighing in at 50 tonnes, to the Fair. The freighter carrying the dozer arrived at Rijeka, Yugoslavia’s port on the northern Adriatic, and Dad and I went to help with the unloading. The D-9 was nestled in the bottom of the freighter’s hold, surrounded by thousands of cases of that capitalist icon, Coca Cola. Dad pointed out that the dock’s crane was obviously too small to lift the dozer, but the dockworkers decided to give it a try anyhow. Appropriate cables were attached and after much shouting, the signal went up to the crane operator to start the lift. Slowly the D-9 inched upward, as cases of Coca Cola tumbled and slid into the newly vacated space underneath. At about a meter off the bottom of the ship’s hold, the crane’s main cable snapped and the D-9 crashed back down. A collective moment of stunned silence ensued. The cushioning effect of thousands of crushed Coca Cola bottles had prevented the bulldozer from coming to rest at the bottom of Rijeka’s harbor. 

After replacing the cable and bringing in three more portable cranes to help, the D-9 was finally lifted, dripping with Coca-Cola, and loaded on to a flatbed rail car for the 150 kilometer trip to Zagreb. Like a fat man in an airplane seat, the massive dozer hung over both sides of the narrow-gauge rail car. By then it was getting dark, and right away another problem emerged: the overwidth dozer would knock down every road crossing sign between Rijeka and Zagreb. Dad and I then became part of a small, impromptu train crew: we jumped out ahead of every road intersection, unbolted the crossing signs, signaled the train through, and then replaced the signs. In spite of darkness and a language barrier, our little crew developed an immediate esprit-de-corps, and we became highly efficient at sign removal and replacement. 

That nighttime trip was not only the first time I drank with my father, it was also my first exposure to Slivovitz, Yugoslavia’s national drink. I had no idea that the mild-mannered plum could produce such an explosive liquor. Explosive not only to the palate, but also in the dictionary sense, as I was to find out. Hunting was one of the few passions my Dad and I shared, and later that summer we went on a guided hunt in the Croatian Alps. Standing around the evening campfire, our guide tossed a shot of Slivovitz into the flames, just to show its inflammatory potency. A shot of gasoline would have had a lesser effect.

As soon as the American bulldozer was unloaded at the Fair site, an informal competition was set up with the equivalent Russian machine. Hundreds of spectators converged on an empty lot next to the Fairgrounds to watch the two machines lumber and snort about. The dozers raised and lowered their buckets, passed dangerously close to each other, and viciously tore up Zagreb soil. The event was terrifying and childish at the same time—a monster version of little boys playing with toy trucks in a sandbox. Or perhaps a diesel-infused parody of the larger conflict between the US and Russia. After an hour of ear-splitting action, the Caterpillar dozer emerged as the clear winner over the Russian entry in every category–size, speed, noise and particularly, in the volume of belching black exhaust. 

Midway through month-long Fair, President Tito made an official visit. A bundle of contradictions, this diminutive man had literally created Yugoslavia by sheer force of personal will. Neither the Russians nor the Americans trusted him, but he was a master at playing those two superpowers against each other, to his new country’s benefit. A communist revolutionary and anti-Nazi guerrilla fighter, his political instincts ranged from democratic to paternalistic to authoritarian. 

During his visit to the Fair Tito and his stunning fourth wife Jovanka came to the American pavilion. We stood in a line in front of the pavilion, and Tito shook hands with all of us. That is as close as I have ever come to greatness, or perhaps to force of personality. Tito then moved on, but was curious about a long, narrow glass-domed display building just outside the pavilion. His interpreter explained that it was a single bowling lane, fitted out with a brand new AMF automatic pinsetter, the latest in mid-Sixties American technology. Tito told the interpreter he wanted to try it out. The President was promptly ushered into the glassed-in dome, and handed a standard American bowling ball. Meanwhile a large entourage, including myself, gathered around the dome to watch. 

Looking back on this event many decades later, I am convinced that I know what went through Tito’s mind at that precise moment. He would have said to himself “I am Josip Brosz Tito, the creator of Yugoslavia. Those are my people outside, watching me. I must master this Yankee technology, and I must not fail.”

Straightening up to his full height of five feet, six inches, Tito cradled the big American ball in his hand, ignored the finger holes, and in a single sweeping gesture, bowled a strike. Then he turned and bowed to the watching entourage. They erupted in cheers. It was at that moment that I fully understood the nature of political charisma.

Tito held the new country of Yugoslavia together through the sheer force of his own will. Soon after his death it began to break apart, and the brief dream that was Yugoslavia dissolved in 1990, followed by horrendous interethnic violence.

I do hold tight to the memory of my token brush with a world leader, while at the same time acknowledging Tito’s KGB-style crimes. The man was truly Shakespearean; a tragically flawed hero. But memories of the vanished and multi-ethnic Yugoslavia, and of that cloudless summer with my father, are forever.

3 thoughts on “Yugoslavia Forever

  1. Wow! Great story! I don’t recall that you ever mentioned this adventure when we were in the Peace Corps.
    I had a similar brush with a historic figure at the 1955 4th of July reception at the American Ambassador’s residence in Moscow. Through a distant and foggy lens, I think that I shook hands with Khrushchev, though upon serious reflection, it seems unlikely that an 11 year old American boy would have been in the line of Embassy officials that greeted the Premier of the Soviet Union.

  2. So vividly written! I admired the precision of the details too. And, to a 5 ft woman, 5 ft 6 is TALL.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Don. I enjoyed getting a glimpse into a time before my time, when the early days of socialism still gave some hope for poor Yugoslavia.

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