Once back in the campground for dinner and the night, we began to plot the next step. We were all quite tense, because we knew that meant tackling the border proper.
The next subject on the agenda was money. The little we had left, plus the boon from Daruvar, simply had to last for another ten days. It wouldn’t be easy. My parents therefore set three priorities. The first was transportation – gas, tires, whatever the car needed to keep moving. The second was camping fees: as I mentioned before, we couldn’t afford the fines for camping outside authorized campgrounds, nor did we want the exposure to Yugoslav authorities that it would bring. The third was food, which was going to get more expensive now that nearly everything we had from home had been consumed. If anything was left over, it would be used for recreational or other purposes, but most likely more food. We were all losing weight.
The stress was taking its toll on all of us. Our parents were jumpy and intolerant, my sister a total witch. I felt like I was fair game for all three of them. I had never seen such easy anger and lack of tolerance in my parents, and I found it very depressing. Whatever fantasies and dreams I had of our future in America could not compensate for the feeling of helplessness I was now experiencing. But maybe, maybe tomorrow we would succeed and things would change.
In the morning, we packed up and left the campsite. We drove toward the nearest Yugoslav-Italian border crossing – it might have been the one on today’s Highway H5. Once there, we waited for an opportune moment when there were no cars passing, and parked the car behind some tall bushes on the right side on the road. We then crossed the road to the left side, turned to the right and began to walk toward the border. All we had with us was Mom’s purse with the documents and all the money and valuables we had brought along.
The left side of the road provided good cover: the tall shrubs or, if you will, stunted trees didn’t grow much higher than eight feet in the sandy soil. It was not a bad place to try something covert. But as soon as we began to approach what we thought was the border line itself, Mom began to sob and falter. Dad, who was up front, ran back and began to hiss with anger: there were words along the lines of ‘every time we have a chance, you chicken out.’ Mom gathered her strength and walked on, and Dad returned to the point of our little expedition.
In retrospect, it was a little silly to keep low and flit from bush to bush; not too far to the left was a watchtower which, based on the location, had to be Yugoslav. But we did it anyway: it seemed the right thing to do at the time.
At length, we crept up to a path that ran parallel to the border. Dad was convinced that we were practically through: he kept pointing to an Italian flag that flew at some distance ahead of us. But it was too late: he was in the open and had been spotted by a Yugoslav patrol who hustled up to us, AK-47s at the ready and a slavering German shepherd straining at its leash.
When Dad saw the border guards, he assumed his innocent look that featured a slightly dopey smile, hoping that he could explain away our presence in the border area. He even tried to pet the dog despite the fact that it clearly regarded him as dinner. Luckily, he fell upon a stratagem that I could help him with. When he began to mumble something like ‘the kid had to go to the bathroom and we got turned around out here,’ I emerged from behind the bush where I was hiding, pulling at my waistband and adjusting my zipper.
Whether that convinced anyone I don’t know, but my mother’s tears were genuine, and that most likely did the trick. In any case, the Yugoslavs cursed us out good-naturedly, seeking hard to explain the monumental extent of our stupidity in more than one South Slav lingo and possibly also Russian. Then they let us go. But before we left, we were cautioned to return exactly the way we came. When Dad asked why, one of the border guards took him near one of the shrubs and pointed out two small metal prongs sticking out of the ground, with a tripwire inbetween. We had blundered into a minefield.
We were extremely lucky that none of us got hurt or killed. That would have been an extremely costly way to learn that that particular rumor was false. We thanked the border guards for their guidance and staggered back to our car, there to get over the fright, ponder our situation and decide what to do next.