Chapter 47: Demobbed, Back into Civvy Street – and Straight into Hell's Hospital
Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
Photo: A very early image of Szent Janos Hospital, Budapest XII. The healthcare service in Hungary today is infamously understaffed, with the workforce on pitiful salaries. In my experience, it was no different in 1980.
Photo credit: http://www.janoskorhaz.hu/k%C3%A9pgal%C3%A9ria.html
It's kind of ironic that I, an American agent, was otherwise an exemplary soldier when doing my national service. My commanding officer had even tried to promote me not once, but twice! What he hadn't realised is that as his scribe, I obstructed both attempts simply by 'forgetting' to include my name in the list that was to be forwarded to the commanding officer of the brigade.
Of course, I had no issue with the Hungarian Army as such, even if so much of the supposed training was a total waste of time. My issue was with my country's subservience to Soviet domination and Soviet interests.
Whatever, in January 1980, aged 26, I was released from the military, and returned to work at Medimpex.
Which was all well and good, except I was flat broke, so I decided to go back to the hospitality business and earn some money, seeing as my real income when at the Hotel Budapest had been three times that from my foreign trade work.
But as a precondition for any such job, I had to have a medical, which included an X-ray at the pulmonology clinic. It was then that I learned of my final 'gift' from the military: I was not about to work anywhere, said the doctor. I had tuberculosis detected on both lungs, and it was infectious.
I was ordered home to pack my suitcase and go with pyjamas, toothbrush and slippers to St John's Hospital, in Buda, District XII. Treatment would take 3 months.
I must admit it all felt a little odd, because I felt as fit as a fiddle and full of energy. But the X- rays were clear, unequivocal and checked by several pulmonologists, all of whom said we were very lucky to have caught the infection at a very early stage. (I still have the original film and a number of others taken since.)
Reporting into the pulmonology department of St John's, I was ushered into a ward with 12 beds, 11 already with patients and an empty one for myself.
The place was a living petri dish disaster. The other patients were all between 70 and the cemetery, some disabled with one leg, or none, all coughing and moaning. The toilet was so dirty that I didn't dare go in, the shower had soapy water 2-3 inches deep on the floor and everything was sticky with thick grime. It looked like a badly neglected homeless shelter.
The head nurse was overjoyed, saying how good it was that a fit young man had arrived who could be of great help to her, since there was a lack of charwoman and nurses at the department.
It was not exactly the news I most appreciated. I was desperate to speak to the head doctor, only to be told that on Fridays he goes home at noon and comes back on Monday at 9.00 am.
At that, I put my suitcase on the bed, and telling the nurse that I wanted to have a stroll in the garden, I walked out, got on a tram, went home and had a shower. I went back to the hospital and my ward only in the evening, for the 7.00 pm medicine distribution, which included 13 pills and an injection of Streptomycin in my hips. The food was a bad joke, so I had some sandwiches in the buffet every day, and spent only the nights in the ward, praying that I wouldn't get somehow more badly infected.
On Monday, after three days in that concentration camp, I went to the doctor with my small suitcase to announce that I was not staying a minute longer unless he had the wards cleaned and disinfected.
The answer was that they had no money for cleaning ladies, that there were only 2 nurses where a staff of 6 was needed, and he himself was not about to demean himself by starting to clean up.
But all I had to do was to sign a document stating that I was released upon my own responsibility, and to promise that I would live in the solitary confinement of my flat and not get in touch personally with anyone, in order to avoid further infections. I also had to report for an injection of Streptomycin every day, for 90 days and take my 13 pills - daily. Of course, at the end of three months, my hips looked like a sieve, but at least I could go among people again, though I had to keep on taking my handful of pills daily for another year.
However, now out of the army, I re-established links with Washington. When I entered the military, we had suspended communications, for my protection, my controller said. My potential, long-term strategic value was obviously considered of greater value than any information I could get from my service experience. Perhaps they had all that from others in any case.
Nonetheless, I sent the thickest package of my espionage career, including the anti-aircraft SAM missile sites around Budapest that I could remember from the maps. To my disappointment, similar to my experience on the Soviet base when working for Elektroimpex, the boys in Washington were not at all happy about my being so "diligent", saying that my safety and value incognito was far more important than the info I could get.
Now I should tell you that while in the army my marriage had soured beyond repair. Andrea, my wife, had had enough of my philandering, and had moved from our home to her aunt's place.
Before my military service, I had met Edit, a country girl who was a waitress in a pub, the Aranyhíd Söröző, near where the Budapest Congress Centre stands today, and she would visit regularly after Andrea moved out and I was out of quarantine.
But despite my many liasons with the female of the species, I still had little appreciation of the mindset of the fairer sex.
For once Andrea and I had divorced, Edit began to make it clear she assumed I gone through all this in order to marry her.
For my part, nothing could have been further from the truth. The emotional stress for Edit when this hit home was to lead to a dramatic, nay disastrous, turning point in my life.