On Hallowed Ground

Robert J. Santholzer

© Copyright 2003 by Robert J. Santholzer

Photo of New Yok and the World Trade Towers before September 11, 2001.

A Czech Patriot’s Historical Perspective on Freedom’s Price in America and Abroad.

As the charter jet from Brussels arched gracefully on its final approach, the puffy mid-level clouds broke, and there it was - the most strikingly famous metropolitan panorama on the planet - Manhattan. My wide-eyed face filled the small window as I gazed over this vertical maze of steel, concrete, and glass surrounded by water. Central Park seemed like a trio of lost Cyclopes resting under a green quilt with their one eye open, scheming how to cut these ambitious, teeming humans with their cloud-reaching abodes down to size. The strong surface winds dispersed the typical haze. I could therefore, just before touch down, get a glimpse of the sheer scope of Greater NYC with its sprawling boroughs surrounding the island on three sides. More people live here than in my entire homeland. Even though I grew up in Prague in postwar Czechoslovakia and escaped the clutches of Communist Eastern Europe in 1970, spending a decade in Switzerland before arriving in America, I felt like a distant cousin from the sticks. I was finally coming to the place Dvorak wrote a symphony to - the New World, fulfilling my greatest dream and desire since childhood. It was difficult to contain my feelings. I could only repeat in my mind: “Thank you, Lord! I can’t believe this. To neni pravda! It isn’t true!”

First Impressions

It was 1982 when I took the express train from JFK to Times Square.  There were cool sprinkles in the air, so I put on my overcoat and hat. The steady hum of the incessant traffic was interrupted every few minutes by the piercing sound of sirens. After leaving the lobby, I walked into the Babylonian scene around me, heading toward downtown along Broadway. I could feel and sense freedom everywhere. I went along with most of the jaywalking locals through the honking and honey-like traffic. The afternoon was cloudy and breezy with scattered showers. As I continued on, Battery Park embraced me with its emptiness; the wind slapping briskly my chilled flushed face. I walked to its very tip when I first looked out across the water and beheld this tall, slender French beauty at the edge of the New World beckoning me, one of countless millions. Before I could sort out the wild palette of emotions, the sun’s rays burst forth as a spot light setting ablaze the graceful and upright Lady Liberty. Glittering reflections danced over the water, bouncing off my suddenly salt-stained cheeks. The short flash of September sun didn’t feel warm; nevertheless, my heart was filled with an expansive, gentle, and powerful fire of the still, small voice etching these words onto my eternal soul, “Robert, you belong here. Welcome home! You have always had written within your heart justice, law and liberty!”  Awe-struck and still, I was aware only of deep gratefulness wrapped in some heavenly air.  Several years later, a coastguardsman family invited me to Governor’s Island for dinner. Afterwards we retired to the porch by the water for dessert. There, we had a clear view of the lower East Side with the Brooklyn Bridge and downtown, dominated by the ubiquitous Twin Towers. Despite the safe and quiet distance from the buzzing megalopolis, we were all connected to it by the splendor in the air as the setting sun peacefully wove another golden-red tapestry of memories into our minds. Yet, we show our true colors under pressure: “fabricando faber fit...”

Freedom Now and Then

Twenty-one years have swept by, and now, two years after the Twin Towers tragedy in this post 9-11 autumn, we are still coping with the greatest national trauma since Pearl Harbor. Last Sunday I felt prompted to call a close friend, who is still dealing with severe injuries from active duty as a Marine. Over the last year, Dean Ledbetter dug up some old records in the military archives and on the internet about his fourth great-grandfather, William Fasbinder, who served during the Revolutionary War in the Third Pennsylvania Regiment at Fort Lee (NJ) and at Fort Washington, just north of the Washington Bridge (about 190th Street). William participated in the battles of Long Island and Fort Washington. He served at McGown Pass, then located in the northeast corner of what is today Central Park. He also served in the rear guard during the famous retreat of 1776, protecting General Washington, who left Long Island on the last boat - a type of valor and honor also shown by NY police and firemen on another fateful day not long ago. The retreat from Fort Washington in November that same year was not so blessed. More than 2,800 soldiers from the Continental army were captured by British troops, starved, brutally beaten, and suffered the harsh winter weather and illness without proper medical attention. The results were 2,000 dead in a mere three months. The British allowed the prisoners to bury the dead without ceremony in abandoned trenches only when the stench became unbearable. The bones of their comrades lie there still. Dean’s great-grandfather was among 800 survivors.

Czech Connection

In the summer of 1967, Dean traveled in the family station wagon across the Washington Bridge. Giving but a passing thought to his great-grandfather’s history below, Dean looked forward to the World Fair in Montreal. While his family waited in line for hours to enter the small, exquisite Czech pavilion, I was glued to the black and white Communist controlled TV station in Prague. Dean remembered how impressed they were with the Czech exhibit. I remember how sad I was that I couldn’t be there and tell the Westerners that we were not their enemies, but had always loved Americans since GI’s had liberated western Bohemia from Nazi forces at the end of the war. Those innovative Czech artists and engineers sent to the Expo caught the ever-contagious “Liberty bug” while on the American continent and brought it back home. One year later, glued to the tube, Dean watched in disbelief as Soviet tanks rolled in August through my city of a thousand spires during the blue Prague Spring of 1968. My brother and I threw Molotov cocktails at the tanks in our attempt to stand for freedom. My brother was caught, tortured, and with several of my friends died at the hands of the KGB. Liberty has its martyrs no matter the land or country.  Dean and I finally met in the early nineties during a large Scout jamboree in the western Rockies. I shared the story of my pro-American dissident family behind the Iron Curtain longing for freedom, while Dean was in the color guard during the closing ceremony, his face shining with the fire and dignity of a true patriot as he presented “Old Glory” to the attending crowd of respectful youth.

Hallowed Ground

Comparing the casualties on Manhattan during the Revolutionary war with those of the 9-11 attacks, we see that the numbers are similar. The invisible forces of evil, defeated more than 227 years ago, lashed out anew in our day to exact vengeance reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno! Not only Ground Zero but also Manhattan in its entirety is hallowed ground, made so by blood and sacrifice. The dream of liberty was written upon their hearts, and we shall not soon forget them. In Dean Ledbetter I gained yet another true friend with whom I share my passion for freedom and this still great country. Perhaps the merciful hand of Providence will afford both of us a future visit to the Big Apple, where an American with Bohemian roots and retired Marine might retrace the steps of history through the indomitable maze of Manhattan and thereby honor the fallen heroes of yesteryear. Indeed, we are standing on the shoulders of giants who passed to us the baton of American Legacy pointing firmly star-ward. Should we not teach this precious yet fragile heritage to our children, making sure they have a firm grip on the baton before we let them soar, while whispering in their ears, “be brave my little one, per aspera ad astram!” The way to the stars leads through the vicissitudes of the unpaved highway in the wilderness.

 Robert Santholzer, author of “Thorns of Joy” the story of growing up in postwar Communist Europe and his defection to the West now lives in Salt Lake City, writing and lecturing on excerpts from his journals and memoirs.

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