Our celebrations were to be held in the old drill hall and grain depot near the main railway station in Sofia. Comrade Leader ordered us Junior Pioneers to repaint the wood trim in the doorways and the mighty rafters that held up the roof. We had to stand atop a high wooden platform to reach the rafters, and as the platform was not sturdy, two girls soon fell to their deaths, one landing head-first in the giant vat of red enamel paint, which was the only color available at the Grand Socialist Department Store off the market square. We observed a moment of silence to commemorate their passing, and then got on with our work.
Far more enjoyable was building the main decoration in the hall. This was a papier–mâché bust of Premier Khrushchev, over eight feet high, and it took us a week to build. It was so large, it could accommodate as many as a dozen of us inside. You entered through the mouth, which was open in a big smile, and inside was a stepladder on which you could climb to a loft and look out through his eyes.
“Do not idle, Comrade girls!” shouted Comrade Leader when she learned we were lolling about inside Khrushchev’s head. “We must finish head today or there will be no supper!”
There was a paper shortage in Bulgaria just then, and we were barely able to find enough to paper to make the sculpture. We were forced to sacrifice all our schoolbooks, all our Girl Guide and Junior Pioneers handbooks and even archival copies of the Young Bulgar journal, for the good of this cause. Fatigued and famished, we were just completing the massive dome of the Premier’s lofty cranium when we looked into the wastepaper receptacle and found it was empty. After that, it was hurry-hurry to our lavatories and schooldesks, in a mad, furtive search for a last few scraps of paper or cardboard, anything that could be soaked in our tremendous tub of flour-and-water paste mixed with plaster-of-Paris.
And then, voilà, as we say in French, it was done! Comrade Khrushchev’s pate was now healed! All we needed to do was let it dry. Comrade Leader ordered some dinner brought in, and it was delicious: crusty, deep-fried doughnuts and tiny meat pies served up with heaping bowls of borscht.
Afterwards, satiated and refreshed, we repaired to the town square, where as ever the ancient bald peasant woman in a babushka was selling her painted trinkets and tchotchkes. This evening she had an extra cart beside her, full of small cakes and biscuits painted with colored sugar in the Bulgarian manner. “Try my sweetmeats,” she cackled, madly.
“That I cannot do, little grandmother,” I said, haltingly, in Bulgarian. “For the last time I buy sweets in the square and become very ill and the neighbor’s dog she is now dead.”
“Oh you buy sweetbreads, foolish girl!” cackled the crone. “Sweetbreads, fried and aged in Bulgarian manner, will kill even horse. Big draft horse. Sweetmeats here, oh something different!”
But I did not succumb to her enticements, as my parents warned me never to bring home food again from the town square.
When I reached my family’s home that evening I was met with a shock. The door was chained with a big padlock and a sign in Bulgarian, something about “Enemies of the Soviet and Bulgarian States.”
“They take them away,” shouted a little girl riding a homemade wooden scooter in the twilight. “To prison or camp, I know not which.”
My eyes filled with tears, and then I remembered there was a window ajar in the pantry. I worked it open with a broad stick, and in the darkness was able to find my way to my little bed, where I slept soundly, in all my clothes.
Next morning I decided to discover the American Embassy and find what had happened to my parents. A secretary there, it was actually a man, suggested that I take the next flight out of Sofia because the Bulgarians were rounding up Western foreigners. Then he made a joke about how I was very small, and maybe could be shipped out in a diplomatic pouch.
But I could not leave Sofia just now. Premier Khrushchev was coming, and I wanted him to see the papier-mâché head that we built.