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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Military Exile in Nagykanizsa & Too Much Monkey Business

Tales of a Teenage Spy - Chapter 45. The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner

Photo: a plaque celebrating the poet Sándor Weöres on the wall of the Szent István Király Museum in Székesfehérvár. What on earth has this progressive 20th century poet got to do with my life in the Hungarian military, you might ask? Well, some of his poetry almost got me and a few comrades into very deep water - save for the dramatic intervention of a well educated officer.

​Continued from "Your'e in the Army Now - Fun and Games as a Military 'Scribe' in the Dobó István Barracks" - Chapter 44.

Nagykanizsa was hard, hard work. We were building hangars - roughly 20 by 60 metres, supported by concrete pillars, for trucks that were carrying rocket launchers. We had to use huge stick vibrators to compress the concrete that was brought there from another site by concrete mixers. As part of my punishment, I had no home leave at weekends. In fact, I was only allowed out once, for four hours, while there.

Fun it was not. Budapest seemed a long way away. Then, not for the first time in my life, fate took a hand.

While at my former posting under Major Oláh, I'd organised a band. True, it went by the rather unimaginative name of The Fourth KAFÉV Construction Regiment Band, but we were pretty popular. At full strength, we had a drummer, three guitars, an electric organ, a saxofone, a violin, a bass guitar and 3 of us were vocalists. We played a wide variety of music, from rock'n roll to Hungarian folk, and once or twice held concerts at the hallowed officers' club in Zrinyi utca. I'd been humping stuff around the site for three-four weeks when one lunchtime, who should I run into but the regiment's communist youth (KISZ) general secretary on an official visit to the camp. Now he knew me from my work with the band, plus being the Major's right-hand man. “Gábor! What are you doing here?” he said, astonished to see me out in the sticks. There was no point in pretending. I told him the story: Major Oláh, I said, had sent me away as punishment for doling out too many free weekend train tickets to my mates. He just said: “OK, no problem. Tomorrow you will get on the train and come back.” “But I've been ordered here, " I spluttered. “No matter. I'll write the order now,” he replied. You see, in the communist system, as set up, I suppose by Comrade Lenin, they didn't really trust any other power but the Party. So even – or perhaps, because it was the army (given the potential for trouble if things went wrong) – every unit of the military had a Party commissar, whose orders were above that of the equivalent military leader. For conscripts, KISZ represented the Party, so this secretary could overrule the commander of my own major. (Even at the brigade level, we had a commanding officer, who was colonel, and there was a second colonel, who represented the Party. The commanding officer's orders were only valid if countersigned by the commissar. ) Well, for once the communist system worked in my favour, and the next day, as instructed, I left Nagykanizsa and some hours later reported back to Major Oláh. What the hell was I doing back in Budapest, he wanted to know? I told him. He laughed. “OK, go and find yourself a bed,” he grunted. I think he felt peeved at having his orders so summarily overruled, and I therefore remained in internal exile for a couple of days. But pretty soon, he realised it was much better to have someone relieve him from the paper work, and he ordered me to his office. “OK, Rimner, come in! You can start again. But now we are going to count all the passes you hand out, and what kind of passes, so no more fooling around with the tickets!” He was trying to play the strict commander, but really, he couldn't be bothered with all the checking, and within a couple of weeks we had returned to the old games.

And that, of course, included playing in the band. I was going to end it here, but while we're on that subject, I must tell you about one more incident that occurred when doing a concert in the Officers' Club. As mentioned, we played all sorts, and of course, we talked a lot together, especially planning the songs and set lists. Just about everyone I ever met thought that their two years in the military felt like two years of their lives lost, and while discussing songs to play, someone came up with the idea of doing Majomország – Monkeyland.

This is a song by the popular (and talented) Zsuzsa Koncz, setting the poem Majomország, by Sandor Weores, to music. The poet is really asking people to stop being stupid apes, look at what's going on around them and think. But in particular, it ends with the lines: Majom bakák menetelnek, jobbra át és balra át - Rémületes majomarcot vágnak majomkatonák, Majomkézben majomfegyver, a majmoké a világ.

Which more or less translates as:

Monkey squaddies are marching, Wheeling left and wheeling right, Monkey weapons in monkeys' hands, It's a monkey's world all right. Of course, we meant it to be provocative, but given that Weöres and his wife had been decorated by the Kádár regime and honoured with state awards, we thought we were on safe ground. But the officer with whom we'd set up the concert clearly didn't know much about Hungarian literature or Zsuzsa Koncz: he thought this song was one of ours, and we had set out to make him look a fool in front of his peers. He was livid, and began shouting he would be giving us 10 days in solitary confinement, when a quick thinking – and far more literate - general saved us, by jumping up on the stage, shaking hands with everyone and loudly congratulating us on the "amazing performance". It was a close run thing, but we survived: but at least it proved life in the army, if you worked at it, did have its bright spots.

(To be continued).

You can listen to Zsuzsa Koncz's Majomország here

The original poem, with an English translation is available here:

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