Jan 132024

In 1981-82, I served as a conscript in what was then called the Hungarian People’s Army.

As an engineering student, I was trained as a radar operator, which is several notches above cannon fodder I suppose. Still, I do not have fond memories of the time.

Nonetheless, I have to admit that there were some educational moments.

Having once lived in a resort hotel that my stepfather was managing, in the spectacular, historic small town of Visegrád at the bend of the Danube, I learned how a commercial-grade kitchen, serving 100+ people, operates. Standards in Hungary were quite strict at the time, and managing such a kitchen entailed both enforcing food safety and hygiene standards and tasks such as managing and recycling meal samples, which would be used by health authorities in case of a suspected case of food-borne illness.

The military base where I spent most of my time as a conscript was an active air defense installation, part of the country’s peacetime air defense network. Nonetheless, they had a chronic shortage of officers, which meant that many tasks that would normally have been assigned to commissioned or non-commissioned officers were instead handed to us conscripts. Once they learned that I had some knowledge of how a kitchen is run, I was frequently assigned kitchen duty: No, not washing dishes (though I did that, too, in the early months of my service) but as kitchen supervisor, responsible for everything including obtaining the needed ingredients from our food storage (run by a civilian employee) and taking samples. It was a surprisingly educational experience.

Or how about the time when I was tasked with ordering… a freight train? Not just any train, mind you, but a specialized train (and route) to carry oversize equipment (our large Ural trucks that carried radar equipment and electronics) with a larger-than-standard cross-section to the USSR border, to participate in some international war games exercise. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go myself, my participation was limited to a journey to the regional headquarters of Hungary’s national railway company, where I had to patiently, and correctly, explain to the person responsible what kind of train we needed and why.

I also did minor tasks such as keeping the base’s one and only television set (an aging color set, a Videoton Color Star television, a mostly Soviet design I was told) alive. I was also responsible for the base’s movie projector, and I took weekly trips to Budapest to get a fresh movie on film, for movie night Mondays (back in the early 1980s, there was no television broadcast in Hungary on Mondays.)

The base where I served no longer exists. First, the military abandoned it. The municipality that inherited it tried to sell without much success, even as the facility was stripped, e.g., of nearly all metal bits by (I presume) metal thieves. Someone took a walk around the base in the early 2000s and put the resulting video on YouTube; it looked almost like parts of the city of Pripyat, near Chernobyl, except that in this case, I was looking at a building that I remembered very well personally, having spent some nine months of my life there.

In the end, the entire facility was demolished, to make way for a solar energy farm, if memory serves me correctly.

All that is to say that I was quite surprised, pleasantly I might add, when I discovered the other day that back in 2022, the local municipality decided to install a small memorial plaque thanking all those who served there in defense of Hungary’s airspace. The cynic in me was wondering if there was any profit in this act (it was, after all, partially financed by the EU, it says so on the plaque itself) even as I actually felt a bit of gratitude that our service was not completely unnoticed after all.

What can I say? The plaque is actually quite nice. I might even visit the spot some day.

 Posted by at 4:34 pm