I Switch back to Foreign Trade - and an Official Letter is Delivered as my 24th Birthday Approaches
Updated: May 10
Tales of a Teenage Spy - Chapter 43 - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
Photo; The Medimpex building on fashionable Vörösmarty tér. It wasn't like this in 1977, although a worker could go into the Vörösmarty Café (that's Gerbeaud today) and get a milky coffee for about USD 10 cents.
<Editor's note - I must apologise for the huge gap between this and the last episode in Mr Rimner's tale of espionage and derring do, even if the derring do was mostly with ladies, rather than military secrets. KesterTesters and other such posts take far longer to prepare than you would imagine.>
In the summer of 1977, a friend tipped me off that they needed Arabic speakers at Medimpex, another of those state-owned import-export companies. I preferred trade to banking, and the money was better than at the bank.
We were selling generic medicines, made in Hungary, which were much cheaper than the propriatory products. The offices were on Vörősmarty tér, and I was one of about 80 or 100 sales people, responsible for the Arab and English speaking countries. But as I alone spoke Arabic, I hosted all the Arab representatives and delegations when they visited.
Luckily the company had no typewriters with an Arabic keyboard, so I could do the correspondence in English. At the same time, it meant my boss could supervise what I had written. In truth, it was fun. I remember we served Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, plus India.
There was one annoying incident, however. I won some competition organised by the union and Kisz, the communist youth organisation, and the prize was a four-day trip to Vienna, by boat on the Danube. But because I hadn't done my military service, the army refused to allow me a passport, despite all sorts of pleading.
It was a sharp reminder of the system's inflexibility. Annoyed, I passed on my prize to a good friend at work, a chap called Ferenc Jármer, and he went to Vienna instead of me. It was a move which was soon to pay off, because after the New Year celebrations to welcome 1978, and just before my 24th birthday, I received the kind of letter which every young Hungarian male dreaded – the call-up papers for military service.
It was a case of then or never, because the age of 24 was the cut-off point: if they had missed it, I'd have been free.
Of course, they didn't, and as everyone will tell you, the first three months of basic training were the worst. In fact, it was hell. I was sent to Mezőtúr, a town about 60 miles south-east of Budapest, a little beyond Szolnok.
I notice that today, the official Mezőtúr website hasn't got any pages in English or German: perhaps they don't want tourists. I can't say as I'd want to go back: certainly, in 1978 it was a horrible place. When it's raining, it's muddy, and in the winter it's freezing and the mud becomes as hard as concrete, and during the summer, it's like an oven.
But I was there for only three months, from January to the end of March. It was depressing, and dangerous.
I certainly learned a few basic 'facts of life', like how 'important' – or rather unimportant - life was in the communist military. Two guys commited suicide. We were made to dig ditches, in January, in the frozen ground. And when the corporal shouted "atomvillanás balról!” - “atomic attack from the left!” - we were told to lie on the ground.
This genius tactic was supposed to "protect us" if a tactical nuclear weapon were to explode nearby on the Italian battlefield.
(Italy, you understand, was Hungary's designated target if war broke out with Nato. Not such a problem, you know, just a 'quick trip' across Austria and then invade the South Tyrol, as we had tried in WW1. The Hungarian high command, it seemed, had forgotten the lessons of that war, and the folly of invading a country via mountains on its borders.)
Anyway, down in Mezőtúr, to show our determination to save ourselves from nuclear radiation and defend the Socialist Hungarian Peoples' Republic, we dived head first into the mixture of mud and snow on the fields of Great Plain while secretly wishing we were really in Toscana, and ideally prisoners of a platoon of Italian female soldiers.
I wished that even more after such madness meant I got such a cold that my voice disappeared.
Naturally, I went to the medical officer, to ask for help and medicine. And equally naturally, I greeted him politely, deferentially whispering "jó napot doktor úr" - “Good Day, Doctor, good Sir” - when I entered the surgery.
What followed would have been hilarious if I hadn't got a temperature of 102F and a throat feeling like a giant sandpit.
He started shouting, cursing me and screaming that I should address him as "Comrade Captain!" - all this, you understand while he was wearing a white medical gown over his uniform, so his rank was hidden.
"We are here in the army to make sure that there will never be such a title again in Hungary as 'úr', only comrades!” he barked.
He didn't even ask why I had gone to him, or why I was whispering. He just chased me out of the surgery and slammed the door.
The next day I wrote a report of what had happened to the commanding officer, who told me to get in a car. It took me to Budapest, to the military hospital, where I was given some medicine, a pair of new boots and three days sick leave.
So this was Mezőtúr, and the 'care' given to new recruits in the Hungarian army, who were supposed to be inspired and fight to the death to defend their beloved homeland from those evil, capitalist Italians.