In the summer of 2011 I conducted a series of interviews attempting to write a positive book about Romania, to put out there a message of courage and dignity, and perhaps curb the ongoing public bickering about how awful the economic and political situation continued to be 20 years after the fall of communism. I talked to various people whom I considered had had an extraordinary life. István Szuhányi was one of them. I hitchhiked to his farm at the outskirts of Jibou, a small town in Sălăj County. His cropped white hair and his suntanned face brings out his blue eyes. He has no arms. When he talks he gesticulates with his arms stubs.
Ella Veres: Mr. Szuhányi, could you tell me... What is your life like now, but also how it was when you were a little boy, when you were a young man and then of course when the accident happened as well.
István Szuhányi: Well... I’ll try my best. From childhood... I come from a peasant family that had no other income, but lived only from farming, four children and the parents. There was no other way to sustain our life. From tender age we have been taught to live on pure and honest work. My parents were very strict, we had to work hard and do what we were told, otherwise we had no place at the table. We didn’t partake in the dinner table. This was the strictness our parents held us under. [Coughs again] Once we grew older, our work load grew larger and we had to work harder and harder. We got ahead only thru work...
Ella: Where was this? Here in Jibou?
István: Yes. Well, I ended up in Kolozsvár at the Railway Maintenance and Construction Company. I first worked as an unskilled worker, then I got the tradesman certificate and I worked in the trade... I finished eighth grade, and I started working right away. [Child laughs] Then I was enlisted into the military service in Târgovişte... Then in Govora, in Râmnicu Vâlcea, then Cugir... I did my time doing labor service. Then I got back home after being discharged. I barely worked for a year and the accident occurred.
Ella: How old were you?
István: I was only 23. [Coughs] Well, it was a short circuit with the high voltage electric wires. I touched a two-phase wire, 9 KV high-voltage power....
Ella: But how... Where did this happen?
István: This happened in Szatmár/Satu Mare. I worked as a mechanic, casting concrete. We were building the airport. My task was to pour the diesel, oil and water in an engine. Someone took the pan with which I filled the machine. He didn’t bring it back from where he took it but threw it in a booth where at some point a transformer was operating there, but it was dismantled, so no one thought the power was still on. Whoever brought back my pan, threw it in there because it was closer to the water source, to avoid having to come all the way every time... Maybe, as I tried to figure it out, his engine radiator had a hole in it, it leaked. And I got the order to prepare the engine, and I went without paying attention and grabbed the pan with my unprotected hand... in that minute, as I was taking hold, I got electrocuted... Well, that 9 KV was such powerful magnetic energy, it grabbed me. I couldn’t move.
There I remained until someone noticed, but by then the short-circuit ignited and the clothes I was wearing... well, like mechanics wear, they were a bit greasy, and they burst into flames on me. [Child cries] I lost consciousness, and I burned until someone noticed the smoke, ‘Why is that smoke coming from there?’ and they found me. I was unconscious. I've lost my consciousness as I was immobilized, standing up on my feet... almost carbonized. The hands, the arms, up to the elbows, burned to coal. In that moment somehow the short-circuit must have broken down the electric power and the power reached only up to the elbows, otherwise...
Ella: That would have been the end of you.
István: Dead, finished. But even so, well, they admitted me to the hospital with the news that, “This one is finished. Kaput. He is too damaged.” Yes. Well, the doctors saw that I was still breathing, wheezing, still wheezing... they took me to the resuscitation room, there they tried, endeavoring this and that. Great amazement arose in them, “Oh, miracle, he’s still alive. How will he endure those many burn wounds..." It’s still visible on my body the percentage by which I was burned then... I was bedridden for half a year... I couldn’t stand up, walk, anything, just after six months.
Ella: And where was it?
István: This, in Kolozsvár/Cluj. Because the doctor in Szatmár/Satu Mare... Well, they said they were not authorized to cut off limbs, only in Kolozsvár/Cluj, and they brought me there. When they heard who came in today, “There is no chance at all that this one will live. He’ll die.” But the little flicker of life that was in me still kept me alive. Even so, they were of the opinion that, “Even if we manage to get him on his feet, well, this one won’t have more than five years of life. He is impaired, has lost his vitality, he’s just dragging his life, and of course the heart is damaged too...” Yes.
Do you understand, Miss?
Ella: I do, I do, only...
István: Yes, yes. So when they saw that I stood on my feet and the healing quickened and I felt better and better… As soon as I got home, in just days I regained my original form, how I used to be. Being six months in bed I couldn’t even straighten out, I barely walked, like old people... Yes.
Ella: But when you woke up and realized that you have no arms anymore. How was it then?
István: Well, that was there in Kolozsvár/Cluj... We were late with a few days, they said in Kolozsvár/Cluj, that when they took me in in Szatmár/Satu Mare promptly they should have cut them right then, they would have been able to stay even longer than the elbow. They had to take them off because they blackened, yellowed. The infection was very... If they would have postponed anymore, they would have had to take off the shoulder... The infection spread in the entire organism. Yes...
And after all that I got back home and I gained back my strength.
Ella: Weren’t you depressed? You never said, To hell with all this?
István: Well, when this happened to me I was in my 23rd year, and, as I mentioned, I loved work. To this day I still do, and I never let myself go. I got a special inspiration in spite of all those lots of people who thought my case was hopeless. Many people said, ‘If this would have happened to me, I would have killed myself.’ But I got a power and I struggled and fought. Little by little I recovered myself. I couldn’t work in any professional trade, to set up a small money-making resource... to be further able to get out of this box I was cornered in... Since then has passed, as they say in the... I’ll quote a verse, a line from the Holy Scripture, “A man suffering for 38 years came before Christ.” Well, myself I’ll have tomorrow, not as they said in Kolozsvár, or the doctors said in Szatmár, that I’d live only five years more, but already the 35th has passed, 36th and I’m still here...
Ella: So how old are you now?
István: Well, already sixty...
István: I entered it.
Ella: Sir, you don’t look it...
István: Well, I don’t.
Ella: You don’t look it. Sixty?!
István: Born in ‘51. I was sixty now in June.
Ella: Well, I never! I wouldn’t have thought that you were even fifty! Even fifty!
István: Well... I let myself go. I had problems with some teeth, they ached so badly I had to stuff cotton balls in my ears and I couldn’t stand up to shave. I’m scruffy, if you please. I’m a bit messy. I also took the cows to the pasture. The daily chores.
Ella: Well, I never! But let me ask you further on. So, you were 23 years old. Then, when you were in the hospital, the parents knew about it?
István: Well, yes.
Ella: ...your siblings... they came and helped you…
István: Yes. Yes. Well, always someone needed to be by my bed around the clock, since I was still completely helpless, immobilized. For a period of time they bandaged my burns from head to toe, the legs and my chest was burned, the ear here, see, was damaged. Only my back was unscathed by fire.
Ella: Oh, poor soul. And who took care of you? Everyone in the family? Where did you go back? To your parents?
István: Well, here... this is the parents’ house.
Ella: And who took care of you, mostly? Were you already married?
István: No, my parents, my mother. My father died soon after that and then I stayed with my mother, then she died too, and then... not the present one... So before the present one I found someone who came here as a help, but she wasn’t behaving properly, didn’t do things right. She was into unrighteous things and I then managed to get rid of her.
Then came another one. And only after that came the auntie I have now. She’s already been here for 12 years, and she helps me.
Ella: What do you mean by "auntie"?
Ella: What do you mean by "auntie"? I don't understand. Someone came to help you, like a nurse?
István: Yes. There was someone after the first, but that too wasn’t... she wanted to come here just out of self-interest, for material things, that I should quickly write off the house in her name. ‘Well, such a thing can’t be done,’ I said.
Ella: Okay. But when you say "auntie"... What do you mean... nurse?
István: The auntie? Well, this is how I call her... She's by now...
Ella: Your wife?
István: My wife. Yes. Yes.
Ella: Oh, okay.
István: Auntie. Well, she came, she burrowed her nest here for 12 years now. She said that, “Those who were here before didn’t have enough brain to appreciate a place like this.”
I don’t like wastefulness, I’m thrifty. I like to gather things so that I have what I need around the house. I don’t indulge in drinking in the least or in cigarette smoking. In fact I hate that very much. Even if someone would menace to shoot me, I'd prefer that to putting a cigarette in my mouth. In my family we didn’t do that, none of us. I’m glad if I have money for bread and not for wasteful things. This is my belief. Yes, and if I could always do, like it is said, and I shall quote, "I would like to serve progress." So that everything becomes better... Well, the "auntie" too... Her former husband had two little girls with her. That man didn’t give anything to his own children, disowned them and I took her in with two children and they grew up and they do well, and he’s shocked and surprised, and ashamed that, Look at you now... That man raised them while you, your own... The smaller, the middle one, the 10-years-old daughter is mine, and also the little boy, 5 years and 6 months. There are also two more. So consider that I keep this household and the farm running and everything shipshape.
There are difficulties and problems, but we pull and press forward. I want to set an example... In spite of these struggles, I raised animals, even before the "auntie" came here, and I sold some of them, that’s how many I had, and I bought the empty plot of land here in front of the house...
István: Then, as you kindly saw, we installed water, gas, so I’d keep up with the others as much as possible, so they won’t point their finger at me, Look how he fell behind. As much as possible. I lived frugally, I was thrifty, I saved and scrounged, and slowly I managed to do all this. Further on, I don’t give up, though unfortunately my health now… I’m under a lot of anxiety, because some diabetes from my family came into play. Now is rather high. It doesn’t seem to lower. It reached even 380, which is high. I almost colapsed. The thing is that I’m not allowed to work, but I can’t just sit around, I can do smaller tasks. But often times besides the small ones, bigger ones come along.
Ella: I heard that you make your own hay...
István: Yes. Yes.
Ella: How do you manage all this?
István: Well... when I got home from Kolozsvár, as I’ve explained to you, I slowly gained my strength back. I tried to do something, to work. But what? I grabbed a fork in the time of haymaking... But first I went to Bucharest to strengthen, desensitize... how should I say... to harden what remained of my arm stubs... At first it really hurt. I couldn’t do anything... Then thru physical therapy it strengthened and I could work in such a way that many, many people couldn’t believe what they saw with their eyes. Indeed. I can even mow, then spread the hay about the grass field in order to dry up. I also manage to turn it and then gather it.
Ella: But how do you do it? Do you use your feet more?
István: I'll show you right now.
Ella: You don’t need to. I don’t want to torture you.
István: You don’t. I do it every day. [Ella laughs.] I'm used to it. Jajajajaj. I’m telling you, I manage to take care of the hay... I also rake it up... I load it in the wagon. Now, someone borrowed and broke the scythe with which I mow the weeds among the corn rows. I’ve perfected such technique... [Ella laughs.] Yes. What else have I done? I hoe too, a little, but still I can hoe. I will nicely hold the hoe here between my neck and shoulder, then...
Ella: Wow. But let me ask you, sir: did you use prosthetics? [Fly humming]
István: When I was then in Bucharest, for strengthening, they tried to fix me up with various things. Esthetic... how does one say it?
István: Based on mechanical and electronic bio-currents. There was something that had an automat button, I’d put it on, just like a coat, and then the movement of the muscles gave the command, so that the palm opened and closed.
Yes... but I saw how delicate an instrument it was, as I tried to use it, at that time in '77. Well, it would stop working out of nothing, so then I had to go to the manufacturer so that again he’d tinker with it, see what's wrong, modify something. It was not appropriate to my kind of activities at home. So I used only the esthetic one. Merely so that the wind shouldn’t blow my jacket sleeves about... Then, even that one I didn’t use much when I was at home. Well, maybe once in awhile... There was a finger hook, so that I hooked it on the small cart when I went to replenish the propane tank/canister. There was no piped gas back then. People saw me carrying my gas cart but wouldn’t recognize me. ‘Well, how could he be pulling his cart?! It can’t be him, because he has no hands.’ [Laughs] They went past me, without recognizing me. They were bewildered.
But it gave me burns here on my shoulder if it was warm weather, so I could use it only during winter.
If I went on a travel, on a train, it would bend in. It slipped off so that if someone sat beside me, it slid down on them! What am I up to groping them? Well, people didn’t know. I had to put it back. When they saw that I do that then they’d start whispering to each other. Well, this is horrifying to many people.
Once the hand stuck out awkwardly from the wrist and fell out from its small safety lock, I didn’t realize it, it was dark on the train. And there was an auntie with a bag... Well, the hand fell out and then into her bag. The auntie got off, went home, she didn’t know that that had happened.
Ella: [Laughs] Oh, my God.
István: She went to some celebration...
I didn’t know her but the man sitting by my side knew her. Anyway: she went home with him and as my hand had fallen off it was stuck in her purse with its fingers upwards. And late that evening, she put her bag away from her kids, Christmas was approaching, and so she bought them gifts. She was about to take the kids’ gifts out from the bag, when well, she opened the bag she sees that someone... She believed that there is someone in her bag, stretches out his hand.
It’s exactly like a hand, made of rubber. She got scared, Who’s stretching his hand to shake hands with her?! [Laughs] She ran out, she screamed, she could not imagine what it was. [Both laugh] These kind of things happened to me if I wore it. So I stopped using it and I got used to handling things my way. Even my animals... I clean the cow. I can scrub her clean. There was no one else around to do it and then I tried this way, that way, that now I’m the Emperor, as they say. I have a scratcher to clean the cow. It has a longer handle so I can turn it from here to there, I can clean everything off the hide with it.
Nowadays I have two cows and a calf in my stable. Yes. Only it’s such high heat, I get tired. In the morning from 7 until 11 I’m in the field walking around after them, here, there, and then again in the afternoon, until deep darkness, I stay with them. I love milk very much. Yes. [A motorcycle goes by] I'm not really friends with cottage cheese, or butter. I eat cheese with bread, but mixed with pasta, or with polenta, or as crêpes filling I don’t like it. Only with bread. But milk is very, very... I drink a lot every day. I cannot get bored, or have enough of it. I really, really love it.
Ella: Thank God you don’t like plum brandy that much. [Laughs]
Ella: It’s good you love milk and not plum brandy.
István: No, no, jaj, jaj.
Ella: So let me go on asking. So people in general are surprised, bewildered?
István: Well, yes.
Ella: ...but there were such that had bad intentions and then you had to...
István: Unfortunately, like I said one man told me that he could not settle into this kind of life. He’d rather kill himself. And others went, "This is not life,” this and that. Many gave up on me in despair, and voiced it. But I made them understand they had no place to talk to me like that anymore. If you don’t have an encouraging word, better not open your mouth. There were so many like that.
On the other hand many predicted that, even when I was in the hospital in Cluj, some visitors there, ‘Look, you’ll see you'll get to the point you’ll walk again.’ I couldn’t believe it. They also told me that I’ll work one day. I couldn’t believe it. ‘Well, how?! How will that be possible?’ He says, "You’re going to do such things, learn to do such things that many people will be astounded." As the mayor said, the one that was before... I ended up knocking at his door. Some problems I had. We were talking how we can solve them, when someone who came from Zilah/Zalău interrupted us, I don’t know who he was. Well, the mayor says to him, ‘Have you heard about this man here?’ He says, ‘No.’ ‘Well,’ he says, ‘he's...’ how should I say it... ‘an exemplary man. He awakened many people who wanted to give up on doing their job. If they see what he does, that he can cope with this, then how could they give up without even trying?! Without doing anything?! This man raised in them a passion for...’ how can I express it... ‘an encouraging impetuosity that... ‘If he is able to do his work, then how could we not do it? Sit idly, without doing anything?’
And, to add just a small thing... So I worked with the animals, cows. They were above average. Three times now we were at fairs, expositions, so beautiful they are. Once there was a summer camp along the Szamos/Someş River and one evening when the cows come from the pastures the commission came out by car to choose which ones will be in the show. They waited for the herd at the summer stables there. Everyone was there in the line, but I had to go away. So the commission president asked, ‘Whose is this?’ looking at my three cows, all three were beautiful. The people, shrewd as they were, didn’t want at first to say they were mine. He stopped, looked, stared amazed. There were cows even from other counties, from Szatmár/Satu Mare County too... ‘That man has such three beauties?!’ ‘Yes,’ said everybody. ‘Well, if he has three, then your four or five are nothing! You should have thirty,’ he says ‘and all as beautiful as this man's!’
If I can keep such three cows, then he, with his two hands, how much more he should do. Yes. Now, at the exhibition, some of them couldn’t accept that I won First Prize. First Prize, since each of the three was so beautiful, so...
I love looking after them. When I come home, be it in the morning or at night, often times I don’t go in to see how the kids are, or what’s going on. I go first to see if all is okay in the stable, is there any problem with them? There were times when I was by myself and still wouldn’t give up. There were difficulties, I called one or another, because I can’t milk them, but I just didn’t give up, I just struggled along.
When the auntie came here I had two, three horses, all of them with foals. She was all shocked. ‘Is this true?! Are they yours?!’ Then when she saw how I whirl about, how I swiftly come and go, she was stunned. She saw with her eyes that there is definitely some hard work done here in the stables. Manure, and all. Watering, feeding them, a lot of work with them. I didn’t let myself give up. It’s that instinct, how should I say, the drive that you have to do, to keep at it.
I'll show you at once, there is a stick which ends with a tip like a spade, like a shovel, but in two small fingers. I push it into the ground and then here in the middle, there is a nail and if I need to go do my business, then I rub on it and I can pull down my pants, then up, wherever I am, and then I can go and work in the field.
I also keep a bottle of water in my bag. I drilled a hole in the top and stuck a cigarette holder in it [Dogs barking] and that’s how I drink water when I’m thirsty. And I go on. I don’t have to ask anyone, Please come, do this or do that for me.
I also have a bad habit, I shouldn’t talk about it, but I’m a collector. If I find a screw or... as I was a mechanic, then it’s always on my mind... I always like to fix or make something. When I bend down, if I cannot pick it up, I take it with my mouth and put it in a pocket or my bag. Only I get sores on my mouth. Bacteria... bacillus...
Ella: It's not a good idea.
István: No. No.
Ella: [Laughs] You just can’t stop doing it.
István: There was a time that my teeth were so strong that I could hold with them a sack of corn, carried it on my shoulder.
Ella: Oh, God.
István: Now I have trouble with them too. I must go to the dentist, they got very deteriorated. A few of them are loose even though they aren’t rotten. I can’t eat with them. I have to have them pulled out. Well, their time is up too. Sixty years, is understandable.
Ella: But let me ask two things... So, this situation brought you also friends? Do you move just in the family circle, only here around the farm, or do you have friends in town? Do you know other people who have similar problems?
István: Well, yes. There are many disabled people who cannot... they are in a wheelchair or are hardly able to walk on two crouches. Well... how to express myself... they also marvel, is shocking to them. But unfortunately, there still are, I have to say, jealous people.
Although now I can do less and less. I get tired very quickly because of diabetes. If I work a bit then soon, no matter how well I ate, in two hours I'm hungry again.
So I know of seven or eight as I am, they’re even worse cases, in the district. I used to visit them when time allowed. I knew some in other counties too. They were shocked when I showed them that still I can work. They couldn’t believe it. Well, of course, a lot of time, practice, dedication, ambition was needed, so this can be done.
One neighbor said, when he visited a relative uphill and he saw a man mowing there, ‘You must come to my place,’ he said, ‘I have a neighbor without arms. He’s much better than you at mowing.’ [Laughs] He didn’t come, he was ashamed. Yes. This is the result of long patience, so that you can do many things even better than others with two hands.
Take the bucket I water my cows with, when I had to remove it from here and fill it up, I hold it nicely under my knee and pulled it out so nicely, no water dropped back. Others still drip it. ‘Come check it out,’ I told them. They were stunned! ‘How can this be?’
Well, once I worked as a mechanic, and I don’t let myself go. Not only that I repaired the machinery when it was broken, but I also made many innovations. Even the foreman used to say, ‘How were you able to fix that? Let's see. I’ve been a master for 30 years. I wouldn’t have dreamed that this can be done.’
Constantly I thought about, How is this supposed to work? How can I make it work better? Could it be this way? that way, could it be? We should look for a different application for it. But lately I know little of the profession. The only reason I still think of it is because I always fix some things around the farm. I take it to another mechanic, even if he works slower, one day, one year.
Although the funds are low, I have such a large family to maintain, it’s not an easy thing, but if they would also do their bit... how to put it... if they’d handle things in the same frugal way like me, things would be a little better. They take things a little too easy. Well, everyone handles things the way they are used to, educated, and so forth. Not everyone likes to save, or to produce something. But I think this is how it should be.
Ella: I wanted to ask what is your part in raising the children? The parents were strict with you, but you are not as strict with yours?
István: Well, it was still good that they were strict. I say it now to my kids that my parents, if I committed the same mistakes they do, my parents would have beaten me with a stick till my skin would burst open. [Child laughter] Yes.
Well, nowadays the situation is different, but when I was serving as a soldier, we were three brothers and a girl, they ordered all three of us when we got home to the barracks headquarters to praise our father. They said it was clear we had ‘the seven year early home education’ as they say in Romanian.
I served in the engineer corps. In fact they wanted me to stay there because I was good at management. I was great at planning... But I got bored. And they missed me at home, to help on the farm. I didn’t like to stay there for good...
We were brought up here, but now I'm not so strong that I could give the children the same upbringing. The girl as she grows up, ten, eleven years old, is more intellectual, but I expect of her even a little more. I can’t expect that from the little boy because... Autism... We have a little trouble with this one. I don’t know why that is, this was also with the other girl, the older one. This too when she came here we had a little trouble, she was a bit... how to say it... was lagging behind. Six years old, we had a little trouble with her, but she was slightly more intelligent than the boy, who’s mine. How did this happen... Unfortunately, there are many others that also suffer from this.
Now in this matter we needed... There were many expenses, costs with him, they took him to here and there, they tried to help him start speaking, but he barely says a few words, every now and then... I don’t know what will happen to him. It’s difficult because they need time to deal with him. It’s good the older children are still here, otherwise the auntie couldn’t work much.
There’s always something to do on the farm here, there, here, there, a lot of work, but we can do only as much as we can, because this occupation with the animals generates very little income, very little... Well, we have very little possibilities. All we can do is just hand over the milk at the dairy center, and it pays very little... 80 bani only for one liter. So if I had to pay workers they won’t come out. I tried. I tried to find an apprentice to take in. The one I found was not right, he just messed up things, created confusion and chaos. Then I said, ‘Go back.’
It’s a bit hard. Hard, hard. As the proverb says, "It doesn’t flow, it only drips!" And if I were to buy the milk we consume in the family, then half of the pension would go on milk. Make hay, organize everything, bring it to the house, milk the cows. But, as I said, there is something at least. I have a little occupation. Time passes by easier. I don’t like to just sit about, without producing something. It’s in me, since I learned when I was small. I have to go do here, there, this and that way. This is how we lived—it was in us not to sit idle. Do you know, Miss? We have to produce something so we can sustain ourselves. [Flies humming]
Ella: I’m curious, since I see how good natured you are.
Ella: How happy you are... you are a good natured man.
István: Well... Yes. I like to encourage others. Here everyone says, ‘Your every third word is a joke.’ I like to insert a joke in my talk. Everyone has problems, but many times when one drops in a joke, they forget their difficulties. There are many people who if they have some problems, then they beat their mind with it until their head aches. They say, ‘You made me feel a bit lighter, you uplifted me. Now I forgot what the difficulty was.’ Well, as I said, there were many who said otherwise, but I kept my balance and I just keep on going. As they say, "Don’t look back, because you’ll plow the furrow crooked." You have to think ahead of time, think many times a matter before doing it and risk ruining it. Is this good? Could this be done? What are the consequences if you do that? Many of the neighbors say, ‘I love this man,’ often I helped them out, ‘because even if he cannot work, he always says a good word and can see things in advance and how they’ll end up.’ Although they argue with me, ‘This can’t be this way, but that way.’ ‘Well,’ I say, ‘what have I said? Was I right?’ ‘Yes. So right. You saw things in advance.’
And as the proverb says, "What you can do today, don’t leave it for tomorrow." Very often if one doesn’t act right away, then there is damage. Well, today is Sunday, but how many times even if it’s Sunday I have to cut the grass off right away, you've got to go on Sunday to gather it, bring it, make it, take it, because it happened so often that... ‘Well, today is Sunday, we should leave it.’ I could have gathered it, I could also have brought it home, but I left it in the field and rain came for a week and it rot. Then you have damage.
More over... [Coughs] To tell you one more thing...
I used to go to Nagybánya/Baia Mare, my auntie was not here then, it was hard... and someone said on the train, ‘Come to visit us in the village. There are a few girls that are suitable for you. I’ll send you to one, have a look. Maybe you like it. No pressure, see if it works out, what do you have to lose/Nem erőszak a disznótól as they say.’ [Strong voices of children] It was on a Sunday afternoon. Well, they were dressed up, if you please, being a holiday. They see the weather starts to get bad... Rain wants to fall... and say, ‘There is a lot of hay in the garden. Will it be damaged if it gets soaked?’ I say, ‘Do you know what? It says in the Scripture that If someone’s cattle falls into the manger... it is written so... on a Saturday or whatever day one keeps holy, you're not going to free it? That’s what it says! Well, it says, "Six days you shall work and the seventh you shall serve the Lord." But this can be interpreted this and that way. But if the hay gets wet, rots, then we left the cattle in the manger, to suffer torment, there will be nothing to feed them this winter. Yes. Please, don’t be offended, but I'm here sitting about and when it comes to such things I prefer to go to free the animal.’ Well, if you please, there they were seated, nailed on their chairs with such thoughts arousing in them, that they broke into a sweat. Such a man offers to take care of our hay. There was no power left in them. They looked at each other for a while astounded. Well, such a thing never...
Ella: What do you do when you astound people? Smile? You just look at them? How do you respond when they just stare?
István: Well, I looked blankly back at them. They turned yellow. One went whiter than the other. Did they understand me well? Well, I say, ‘It often happens to me too that someone comes to visit, and finds me in the garden. “Oooh, good of you to come!” I say, “Look, you even have a fork available stuck in the ground, getting rusty.”’ [Laughs] When they see that I have no time to idle—I just throw hay, one, two, I make a lot of hay, when they see me all alone in a big garden, they help in shock. ‘So, when I go to other people, I reciprocate. [Laughs] I help somebody else too...’
Well, before the accident, I went on the train towards Szatmár/Satu Mare and when the train stopped at a semaphore, what did I see there? Two old people and a young man gathering hay. Well, there was a soccer game in Szatmár/Satu Mare that day. When the young man saw that the train stopped, he said, ‘Come whatever may come with the hay!’ and jumped on the train, though the elders were his parents. They were both crying that he left them alone, two old people dealing with the hay. I... [Coughs] There were no mobile phones then, but somehow I informed them at work, ‘I’ll be late, work in my place until I arrive and I’ll work in your place later on.’ I got off the train and I took the fork from where that young man stabbed it, and I helped the two old people gather the rest of the hay. Well, those two old people, his mother and father, thought about many things but not about this one. In no time we were done, and then I went to the road and hitchhiked. I helped them for two hours. Well, they... oh... ‘We cannot say ever again that there is no God. Such things! A stranger helps us!’ and their own son left them with the hay. It was a very big thing.
Then when I worked in Borşa, as a young 23 year old, I went out about town in the afternoon. I got to know a nice girl, and I invited her to a pastry shop. She says that she can’t come, being in a hurry to go make hay. ‘Well,’ I say, ‘can I help?’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she says, ‘Most welcome! Jaj, jaj, I even beg you to help.’ ‘Good.’
We went up there on Pietroasa, a high mountain. Up there is snow even in summer. Pretty high up. Her parents were already working. They wanted to beat the girl. Why did she tarry? Why didn’t she come earlier? But when I took the fork and we made 28 haystacks with her father, well, he said he’d seen hardworking young men before but none who kept up with him like I was. He was forty-three or so, in his peak. He thought I’d make a couple of haystacks and then get bored. So when he saw that I never stopped the whole evening, only once for a bit of water, he told his daughter, ‘If you let go this boy from your hand, you won’t find another one like him. [Laughs] What a strong hand!’ I made them in no time, beautiful, like an egg. Her father, was open-mouthed. Well, I grew up making hay stacks...
Once someone said, because I was born in June, "No way your mother gave birth to you on a holiday, but on a working day for sure. You were not even born in the house, in a bed, but in a haystack!” [Laughs]
When I see that they don’t pick up the crop properly, I'm upset. Oh, how could they leave this behind... When I’d come home after work, and I’d see some women going to gather hay, and they could not put it together nicely, but pile it about, I’d say, ‘If rain comes down, there will be trouble here.’ ‘But we don’t know any better.’ I’d tell them, ‘If you want my help, I’m here.’ ‘Oh, it would be great!’ When they saw me one, two, how quickly I’d do it, even as I’m now, they almost couldn’t believe their eyes, so fast, one, two, and it was well done, the wind wouldn’t uncover it. I learned to do it well, I'm in this rhythm, I lived in it, I grew into it for so many years ago. For 35 years I worked with hay.
Ella: What do you do in winter when there is no hay?
István: Well, in winter I feed the cattle, I clean them. I always have something to work with them. I also go to the forest. I love to walk through the forest, not only to walk but if I find a piece or two of wood then I bind it with a string, a chain, and pull it down. Once, in a week, I pulled down as many trees as we needed for half a winter. I can take down a tree very quickly. Once I pick at it until it dried at the root, then I tumbled it down. Then up on my back, and I came with it home. Even from ravines if I found a good one, I took it down, put it on my shoulder and I came up the ravine and then down the hill home. I don’t like to sit by idly in the winter either. Jaj, jaj, jaj, jaj, jaj! there is very much to do. There is the field, in winter too, often times there is work to do. Deforestation, oh, is hellish... Other people do that. I just go with the fork and I put the wood in mounds. Then with so many animals there’s always, always something to work at. Jaj, jaj, jaj, jaj, jaj! Prepare this, make that, bring this. There are winters when nights are so long, that is already ten o'clock in the morning, and work for them is not finished yet. Watering…
I also looked for methods to make it easy for me to water them alone. I have this cart out here in the yard, like a cradle, a little kid wagon. I put on it a canister, I measured it, cut out a rectangular and my barrel is suspended in the stable, the water flows out of it, and there's a little tap I press to shut it down and I take my little wagon and I pull it and give water to the animals, all of them. I water them alone, I don’t have to wait for anybody. Feeding and watering animals is like for people, every day, not just now and then. I can do alone this very important task, so there we are. [Child's voice in the background] Well, the neighbors remained open-mouthed, ‘Look, he does all this alone...' realizing they agonize carrying water with the bucket. This is indeed a difficult task. Every day I’d say they drink 400 liters. But to me is not a difficult task anymore since I just push to them the small cart. That’s more than enough water, 40 buckets.
István: ‘...he solved it so easily.’ While they struggle with it. Well, I had to invest in it and give it thought, although... as I said I gather whatever I find, this is good for this, that might be good for that, this maybe for this, for that…
Ella: Thank you, thank you very much for your patience.
István: Please eat something at our table.
Ella: Well, no, thank you.
István: Sure you do. Coffee or something.
István: Well, if you please... We mercifully still get by, food comes our way, we keep on struggling so we get everything we like. [Door closes] I’ve always been used to have everything. She too doesn’t give up, always manages for the family. There is always plenty, no big complaints, or shortages of food, God forbid... I keep also pigs, we don’t keep poultry.
Maybe I should now finish talking. Have you come on foot or?...
Ella: Well, I came from Zilah/Zalău by car, I hitchhiked. I asked and everyone knows you...
István: Well, sure...
Ella: [Laughs] Really.
István: Well, yeah... Once an auntie came here [Child laughs in the background] from Felsőbányá/Baia Sprie, we just talked a tiny bit on the train about what I looked for and such, [Motorcycle noise in the background] and in two days she was here. She didn’t even know my name, or address. Only that this man is from around here and he’s like that. She asked across from the train station, if there is such a man here... ‘Of course there is!’ they said. ‘But he lives very far away, at the other end of the town.’ ‘Do you happen to know,’ she says, ‘since we’ve been talking, what kind of person he is?’ That’s how she readily inquired about me. [Kids laugh in the background] And the answer was, ‘I don’t know him closely, but I hear he makes wonders. I saw him even yesterday.’ I had land nearby the station, and I came by with the cart and the horse, all alone, of course. I took the manure out to my plot of land. I alone loaded it in the wagon and alone I unloaded it. ‘Oh, he says, ‘he works like someone who has two hands.’ [Child cries in the background] She was surprised. ‘Well, since you have come so far,’ he says, ‘go there, but it’s a bit of a trudge.’
She came with her daughter. We discussed matters, she saw what was involved here on the farm, she took the little girl back home, and she returned in two days alone. But she was not entirely suitable because she had a 27-year-old son who didn’t like work. He had some nervous illness and well, I said, alright, he needs a plate of food too. Somehow things settled. Slowly, slowly he started to help me. Then suddenly he turned his back on me saying that he’ll slap me good, he’ll beat me up. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I didn’t expect such behavior from you. You’ve been here for six months by now. I never said such things to you.’ I don’t know what the poor thing understood, what went wrong. And then the mother came... ‘What's wrong?! What's wrong?’ ‘Well, I don’t know what's wrong. Look what terms he used.’ But she took it that I offended her son with something.
I didn’t say anything, minded my business. We were then installing the water pipes, since she complained we should do that so they shouldn’t work that hard anymore. And I said, ‘Well, we’ll do it now because the welders have the oxygen tanks and they can do the work we need and we’ll have it installed.’ She snapped that she won’t do anything. ‘But you told me the day before yesterday, ‘Oh, when will the time come to put the water pipes in?’ Now, two days later, time has come and...’
She took her son and left.
Ella: How was it when you found out you’ll be a father?
István: Jaj, jaj, jaj! It was really shocking. I never thought that it might ever happen. I even sinned, having such disappointed thoughts that the baby wasn’t mine. But after I saw her born into the world, I realized that this is reality, this is my own... my own blood. [Smiles]
Ella: How old were you?
István: Well, I was born in ‘51 and I was 51 years old when I had my first child.
Ella: That’s a big thing. It’s a big deal, isn’t it?
Ella: Huge deal.
István: Huge. Huge. It raised amazement in me.
Ella: Thank you very much.
We went through his backyard to his garden, where he showed me how he deftly makes haystacks and mows the grass. Then we went to the stable. He scrubbed his cow clean, fed his horse corn stalks, watered the calf.
His wife entreated me to find some help for their boy. Medical care is sporadic for children with autism. She needed to bring him to a large city to see a psychotherapist. And without money, they can’t do it.
I left sad and upset that I came to America for freedom of expression, instead of fighting to become rich and famous. Were I not a bedraggled starving artist in New York, forever prone to volunteering for causes, I might have been able to give them the money.
Months passed. Finally I begged my way and paid to have the interview transcribed, since I can’t write in Hungarian properly. I emailed it to my media outlets in Romania and Hungary. No one was interested in publishing it. I searched the internet to see where I could do it in English. I found a website of a motivational speaker in California, Nick Vujicic, who doesn’t have any limbs. I thought István without knowing it, is a natural motivational speaker, but what a different situation!
Thanks go to my family for their quiet support, and to Len Vretholm and Larry Levine for their proofreading.
March 18, 2012
Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, witnessing democracy, amassing testimonies, and engineering social change thru art being one of them, I’d be grateful.