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Published May 4, 2021

My mother’s final risk; Plane ride to new life

By John Toth / The Bulletin

The sun was shining bright in the sky on that brisk October day as we packed our suitcases. It was the last day my mother and I would spend in the room that we called our temporary home in Vienna, Austria.

The next night we would be sleeping in America. We didn’t know exactly where, but there would be someone at the airport in New York City to guide us through the confusion of being in a new country (again) and not understanding (again) what people around us were saying.

Austria would not grant us immigrant status. It was just a stop-over for refugees from behind the Iron Curtain. We arrived in Vienna a year and a half earlier with a forged passport and fake papers. The train ticket was real, though.

It was time again to leave it all behind and start over.

The plane from Schwechat Flughafen was leaving in the evening. We could only take two suitcases with us, so we gave the rest of our belongings away. We took one last look at the room, closed the door and handed the keys to our landlord, our good friend, who was in tears. U.S.A., here we come.

Dark rain clouds moved in.

The airplane looked like an old piece of chartered junk. It was a four-propeller grayish looking flying bucket that probably flew missions in WWII over Europe. Well, maybe not that old.

About 100 immigrants fit into it. Our seats were in the back, next to the bathrooms. We didn’t complain. We felt lucky to be on this plane. It was our ticket to a new life.

If my mother was excited about flying for the first time, I couldn’t tell. She had her poker face on, the same face that she sported when being questioned by border guards a year and a half earlier. But this time there was no need for the poker face. We were traveling with real documents, and there were no border guards, no train, no fear of getting caught.

We boarded on time, and the propellers started roaring as the plane taxied to the runway. Then we stopped. It was raining heavily. We waited over an hour on the tarmac for the rain to ease off. My mother and I were looking out the window, but we couldn’t see anything.

“I think we’re already in the air,” she guessed. We were not. Neither of us knew what to expect.

“I think we’re still on the ground,” I replied as I inhaled the smoke-filled air in the plane. It appeared that just about all the immigrant passengers on the charter were smokers, and they all lit up at the same time.

The plane finally began to roll down the runway and gained speed. We were on our way. Then it began to bounce. Someone must have forgotten to check its shock absorbers. Then we left the ground - for the first time ever for both of us - and were on our way to England to drop off some immigrants there.

We spent hours on the ground in London. How long would it take for a few passengers to get off? As it turned out, something had to be fixed on the plane before we could proceed.

Finally, we were back in the air. Then, over the Atlantic Ocean, we hit turbulence. Not just any turbulence, but the mother of storms. There was lightning all around us. It felt like the plane was being thrown around.
I found out that I don’t get motion sick in planes, just scared when they start bouncing in the air.

I fell asleep for a while, and I woke up to the feeling of being in free fall. But when I opened my eyes, the cabin was in order, and the passengers were in their seats. My mother stroked my forehead. “What woke you up,” she asked.

“The fall,” I replied.

“There was no fall. You must have had a nightmare,” she said.

One of the pilots passed us on his way to the bathroom. I noticed that his shirt on his back was drenched in sweat. “Are you sure the plane didn’t fall?” I asked her.

We landed in Greenland, I think, to fuel up, and then flew to Toronto. We left behind the storm in the middle of the Atlantic, and I started enjoying the ride.

My mother was mostly quiet, probably trying to imagine how all this is going to turn out - a single mom and her 11-year-old son immigrating to the U.S.

She had gone through worse during our escape from Hungary and during WWII and the Hungarian Revolution, but those chapters have been written. This one was just beginning.

The plane landed one last time - at Kennedy Airport in New York. The flying bucket fared well. It was glittering in the late afternoon sun after a good washing over the Atlantic. It now looked fearless, like the passengers who got out of it and stepped into a brand new world and life.

Fearless like my mother, the most fearless person I have ever known. She supported and comforted me when I was down and cheered me on when I was up. She even convinced me that the plane was never in free fall.

Together we landed halfway around the world that October day in 1967. We were ready to start our new lives. But not before getting some sleep in a bed that was not being bounced around or lit up by lightning. I was exhausted. The new world would have to wait for just a little while longer.

(John looks forward to hearing from you on this subject. Send me a note at john.bulletin@gmail.com. You can even send an old-fashioned letter to: The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516.)