You're in the Army Now - Fun & Games as a Military 'Scribe' in the Dobó István Barracks, Újpest
Tales of a Teenage Spy - Chapter 44. The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
Photo: a motley squad on duty in the Dobó István Barracks (not including Private Rimner). Compared to the average Magyar squaddie, I had it pretty good - until my 'ticket generosity' project led to it all unravelling. (Photo from the internet)
At the end of March '78, after Mezőtúr, we passed out supposedly as 'trained soldiers', and I was transferred to the Dobó István Laktanya, a garrison on Váci út, on the edge of the city limits in north Budapest. There I stood in line with some 80 others, while an officer, Major Bálint Oláh, asked if anyone knew how to type. Well of course, I stepped forward, and was promptly seconded to be his 'scribe' – a kind of personal assistant-cum secretary. Superficially, this appointment appeared to a 'natural' process, but in fact it may well have been fixed, because my old buddy from Medimpex, Ferenc Jármer, when doing his national service had served as the major's scribe, and I think he'd put the word in that I'd be good for the job. (However, this is conjecture: Major Oláh wasn't the type to make friends, and he never mentioned to me that he had spoken to Feri, who, sadly commited suicide not long afterwards, so I could never find out the truth.) Rather than traditional army work, our whole garrison was really an industrial unit. It comprised what was officially the 2nd and 4th Military Chief Architectural Regiments (the 2-es KAFÉV and 4es KAFÉV, or Katonai Főépítésvezetőség) - military construction brigades. Within the compound, units had the mundane, if militarily useful job of making concrete slabs designed to support tanks and heavy guns on soft and unstable ground. We were, in truth, the 'shovelling brigade'. Roughly speaking, only about 10% of the men were armed, and they were guarding the perimeter in the watchtowers. Everyone else was working on the maintenance of old buildings or the construction of new ones. Most of us only saw weapons in Mezőtúr, and I realised that the majority in our units were either viewed as politically untrustworthy or unreliable (like me - see chapter 30, https://www.perspectives-budapest.com/post/chapter-30-so-what-about-some-espionage), relatively 'old' (like me) or had families - or a combination of all three. It was only young conscripts, aged 18-19, who were sent to units that would be expected to do any real fighting, should conflict come our way. As the major's assistant, I had a privileged position, in an office, compared to the massed ranks, who had some back-breaking duties. I even had a pass that allowed me to leave the camp every evening from 6.00 pm to 6.00 am, so practically I could go home most nights, although it meant a very early start to get back on time. Well, I didn't go home every night: sometimes we had to work late, sometimes I went out with friends or chasing skirt, but mostly I was at home. I could even leave at 4.00 on Friday afternoons, and be free until the Monday morning, which meant, ironically, that I had more free time in the military than at a foreign trade company, where we had to work every second Saturday. Now my position in Hungarian – irnok – means, literally, scribe, one who can write. In the military, you might think a better translation might be aide-de-camp, which is, at least in part, what I was. But, it turned out that Major Oláh really did need a scribe: he had difficulty signing his name, let alone writing a coherent sentence. When he attempted such, it would be full of spelling mistakes and grammar errors. One of my tasks was to fill out a lot of forms that were needed by the regular squaddies ready for his signature, and one such important job every week was to prepare the vouchers for the squaddies' train travel home at weekends. In theory, the deal was that they could have one free return ticket per month: the remaining three weekends they were due a voucher for a 66% discount on the full fare ticket. Of course, every soldier wanted a freebie as often as possible, and since there were no real checks, most of the time I would give them free ticket vouchers instead of the 66% - although naturally, it was against the rules. Furthermore, these vouchers had to be signed by the major, but very often he didn't have time to wait around on a Friday, or he didn't sign enough. He had a very simple signature, because his name was Oláh, it all looked like nine or ten eggs next to one another. So at times when he'd not signed enough vouchers, I solved the problem by forging his signature, gave the voucher to the soldiers, and that was that! This went on for months, the soldiers were all happy with me and nobody was the wiser, until … One night I was in a bar, and another soldier came in who was a bit tipsy. The barwoman noticed this and refused to serve him. I don't know, perhaps she'd had trouble in the past, because it was all a bit excessive, but I was stupid enough to tell the guy to sit down, and I'd order for him. The bar woman didn't like this at all, and promptly called the military, complaining that she had two soldiers causing trouble. She was really over the top, but when the police came, they didn't mess about: we were placed under arrest, pushed into the car and driven to the barracks. The next morning we had to face the commanding officer. But there was no sympathy from him. Not only was my permanent pass withdrawn, but an order was issued to examine all my work. And that was when they discovered that instead of one free pass per month, practically everyone in the barracks got one every weekend! This then became an issue between the brigade commander and the company commander, that is Major Oláh. It turned out that one problem was my forged signatures were so good that the major himself couldn't tell the difference between his real signature and my fakes! Now the major, who was basically a kind-hearted if simple fellow, didn't really want to reprimand me, but he was told it was either me or him – if I was let off, he would be in a military court himself. As initial punishment, I was put into detention for one week, and allocated to a labour unit: this meant I had to hump scores of bags of cement from the stores to the concrete mixing unit. At the end of the day I could hardly stand. But it got worse: at after the first week, I was ordered to join a labour unit on a military construction site in Nagykanizsa, not too far from the Yugoslav border. Compared to the corruption going on all over in the military, my wheeze handing out free tickets was nothing, I mean, I didn't profit from it personally. It was clear I was only being made an example for show purposes.
But it had some very personal consequences. The rest of my military future – the better part of a year - looked, and indeed felt, very grim indeed. I desperately needed a miracle, or at least a get-out-of-jail-free card; and amazingly, one appeared from an unlikely source. (To be continued)