Friday, September 20, 2002

What they did on their summer vacation

As the summer of 2002 comes to a close, here's the best story I heard this year about a summer adventure. It's an old fashioned American story, and it starts on the Fourth of July. And it's all true...

What could be more American than watching fireworks on the Mississippi River on Independence Day? But for Bara Dockolova, a twenty-five year old student from the Czech Republic, a different kind of American experience was a few days away---an unexpected afternoon speaking the Czech language with residents of a tiny town in South Dakota founded by Czech immigrants more than a hundred and thirty years ago.

Bara is a student at Charles University in Prague, which was the first university founded in the Holy Roman Empire in the 14th century, and is perhaps the oldest university in continental Europe. Though she spent last year studying drama at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, she didn't see much of America. So she returned for a seven week visit this summer.

At the top of her wish list for what she wanted to see was the Mississippi River. "I read Mark Twain when I was eight or nine," she said. The Misssissippi figures in much of Twain's writing, including the novels Bara read as a child, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. "And I knew it is a really big river, bigger than any we have in the Czech Republic. So I wanted to see it."

John Heckel, Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre, Film and Dance at Humboldt State, was Bara's sponsor for her academic year in America. Since he was going to be in Iowa when Bara was scheduled to arrive in the United States, he volunteered to take her to the Mississippi. John had gone to college in Iowa, and knew the area well.

John met Bara's plane at the O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, and drove through Illinois, arriving on the banks of the Mississippi in the evening, just in time to watch fireworks erupt all up and down the river. It was the Fourth of July, America's Independence Day, and all the river towns were celebrating by sending rockets of light into the night.

They spent the next day on the Iowa side of the river, at a state park near Dubuque where the Mississippi is widest. "It's farther north than Huckleberry Finn went," Bara said, "but the smell of the river, the heat and the feel of the air-it was one of my favorite days, that day on the Mississippi."

But Bara's adventure was just beginning. John's plan was to drive the 3,400 miles to California in seven days, staying off the major highways as much as possible so they could see more of the American landscape. They would be traveling through the long heartland in the middle of the continent, from flat farmland and prairie in Iowa, north to the high plains and mountains of South Dakota and Wyoming.

Taking backroads requires planning, and it was while Bara was studying a roadmap that she came upon the name of a very small town in southeastern South Dakota that sounded familiar. "I saw this little spot on the map that said 'Tabor,' and I thought, 'this sounds Czech-this is a Czech word," Bara said. "'Tabor' means 'camp' in Czech, and it's also the name of a town in the south of the Czech Republic, a very old town. I told John and he said 'do you want to check it out?' and I said 'yes,' so we went there."

"'Do you want to check it out' became an ongoing, continuous joke," John Heckel added, "especially when we got to the outskirts of Tabor and saw the billboard sign: 'Czech it out.'" It was obvious then that the name of the town was more than a coincidence, or something from a forgotten past.

Many cities and towns in America have names that refer to places in Europe that immigrant settlers once called home, but as these towns grew and people of different ancestries arrived, the connection to these origins was largely broken. That's not true of Tabor, South Dakota, as Bara and John quickly learned.

Tabor is a very small town-its official population is 403-located in Bon Homme County, in an isolated corner just over the eastern South Dakota border, about 62 miles south of Sioux Falls and 144 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska.

The first place they saw in town was the "combination gas station, ice cream parlor and grocery store" (as John described it) called "The Czech Stop." The 17 year old girl behind the counter confirmed that "Everybody here is Czech," and directed them to the home of Mildred Cimpl for information on the town's history. (Though the name would be pronounced "Chimp-el" in Czech, Bara said, everyone in Tabor pronounced it as the Americanized "Simple.")

John and Bara were greeted at the door by Leonard Cimpl, who waved away their explanations and invited them to come inside out of the heat. "He didn't seem surprised, " Bara said. "It was as if he was expecting us."

Bara and Leonard immediately began speaking in Czech. "He apologized for his accent," Bara said, "but he spoke Czech very well. His vocabulary was excellent." In his 70s, Leonard Cimpl was born in the United States, and learned his Czech in Tabor. Some Tabor citizens visit the Czech Republic often, but others who learned the language from parents and grandparents and in local Czech language classes have never been there.

After meeting Mildred Cimpl, the treasurer of the Czech Historical Preservation Society, Bara and John followed Leonard Cimpl to see Vancura Memorial Park in the center of town, which contains several of the original buildings from Tabor's early years in the 19th century.

Czech pioneers settled here in 1869. Among the buildings preserved in the park is the original 1873 log schoolhouse, believed to be the oldest surviving public building in South Dakota. Also reconstructed was the first church built in the Dakota Territory by Czech pioneers, and an early Czech log house which Bara recognized as a "chalupa"---a house commonly found in rural areas that sheltered a farm family and livestock separately but in the same structure.

Leonard Cimpl and another man in his seventies conducted a private tour for Bara and John, and the two Tabor men delighted in speaking Czech with Bara as they did so. One highlight both John and Bara remember was viewing the interior of the log home, and a living area furnished as it would have been in the 1870s. This area was roped off, and they stood for a moment silently appreciating it. "It was like looking at a picture of how people used to live," John said. "But then one of the men suddenly crossed the rope, stepped into the picture, and pulled out a book that had been sitting on the desk there, and handed it to Bara."

John was startled by this museum piece suddenly taken out of this picture of the past and placed in the real world, but when Bara saw what the book was, she was even more surprised.

"It was an old Czech prayer book," she said. "At Charles University, we study books like this in our language classes, to see how grammar has changed, how the language has changed over time. But to study them we have to go to the archive, fill out a special form and have the book brought to you. You can't have any food or drink, and you must turn the pages very carefully. Now someone had just handed me a book like that, and I was holding it. It was amazing for me to imagine that long ago a woman carried this book with her in a ship from Europe and then in a wagon across the prairie-she didn't know what was in front of her, and the only thing she had, her only hope, was this book, and she looked in it every day to pray-it was very strange to be holding it now."

If they thought the surprises and coincidences were over at that point, Bara and John were in for at least one more. They were escorted into another room where photographs lined all the walls. The photos were of actors in the annual Czech play, done in Czech by Tabor's townspeople.

"That was amazing-to walk around that room and see pictures from plays in 1905, 1908, 1892," John said, "and to see these people from the town all dressed up in costumes, and the sets they made."

"They told us that the play always includes young people, so even if they haven't learned to speak Czech fluently, they can at least learn a few words by being in the play," Bara said.

Did the men from Tabor react to the information that their visitors happened to be involved in theatre, and that one of them performed in plays in the Czech Republic?

"Not really," John said. "I think for them the plays they do-19th century Czech melodramas-are still more of a community event, rather than theatre pieces."

Still, "I might send them some new scripts," Bara said.

The annual play is not the only Tabor heritage event. Every June for the past 54 years, the community has hosted "Czech Days." This year the weekend program featured band concerts, the Tabor Beseda Dancers, a Czech Polka Mass at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, the crowning of a festival king and queen, and of course plenty of food-especially the Czech pastries called "kolaches." The event typically begins with a big parade, which has attracted as many as 5,000 people to Tabor.

They missed the parade and the play, but for Bara Dockolova, the accidental visit to Tabor was a unique experience in a week of wonders. "It was one of the best weeks of my life," she said, a day before she was scheduled to fly back to Prague.

For John Heckel, the best part of the afternoon was seeing how pleased the two Tabor men were that Bara was so interested, especially when Tabor is starting to change, and its identity is endangered by growth from a larger nearby town. "I was really neat," John said, "to see these two older guys enjoy the fact that somebody Bara's age would appreciate what they had spent their whole lives keeping alive."

No comments: