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 By Ondrej Franek

[dropcap1]R[/dropcap1]ussian soldiers made it first. They came to Czechoslovakia in August 1968. I came in August, too. I was born in Czechoslovakia in August, 1970.

Society Normalization – the government’s Newspeak for Russian occupation – was in full swing by that time and life was not much fun for anybody. Everyone’s career had been planned already by the Communist party planners who lacked any sense of adventure, let alone fun.

Almost blind children were no exception to that rule. The official name of the first school I attended was: “Nine-Year Special Boarding Elementary School for Almost Blind Children.” There was no room for sweet understatements while catching up with American imperialists in the nuclear arms race – as they used to tell us every day.

I escaped this world whenever I could. I would sit down, put on some music, and start wobbling back and forth from my waist up as if the upper part of my body was a plank swaying on a big pelvic hinge. Soon I was in a different world.

In this world, the sun shed light on my great deeds that everyone admired. I travelled around the world. I sacrificed my life for the common good in deep space many times. Big, merry famous women and boarding school teachers were fondling me, giving me long loving hugs for all the good I’d done.

I lived on those daydream love stories many good years before I became aware of sex per se. Those dreams felt so refreshing, so real. More real than my real life. There were so many things in the real life I resented.Image for Story

Boarding-school dining room air stayed unvaried throughout the years. The whiff of plastic table cloths freshly wiped up with a wet rag never so fresh, mixed with kitchen vapors and seventy more kids’ morning breaths worked like a chemical drum dividing our school days into four segments: classes, supervised leisure time, homework, and bed-time. I was eight years old when I completed the second year of this life, pondering, between the beats of the monotonous dining-room-chemical-drum, how I would survive nine years of this. Nine years was a time span I could not grasp having only lived eight.

Weekend stays at home with my family used to complete the rhythm. Each such weekend ended in a Sunday of Betrayal when I could not continue watching TV with my brother because of late-afternoon back-to-boarding-school “deportation proceedings.” No bag of home grown apples, which my mother never forgot to pack with my clothes for the week, was big enough to rectify the injustice.

This organized world possessed a sorcerer, who could turn whatever fun existed into an ugly farce for her own amusement. I remember my first masquerade ball being turned into a full-blown nightmare when my teacher evaluated my purchased costume as sloppy homework, and dressed me up as a girl making me listen to her comments on my parents’ negligence while she was working on me.

The same nasty spell was cast on painting classes at school. They were humiliating and wet. I never achieved good command of my watercolors set. They never formed the shape required on my drawing paper to represent my mom or whatever my teachers had asked for. Brushes were forbidden so that we could not poke our almost blind eyes by mistake. The only paint-distribution instrument allowed was our own fingers dipped in water.

It was in May when a painting teacher told me that my artistic expression matched that of a five-year-old. I did not respond well to this sort of encouragement. I gave up. I could hide from painting whenever it threatened. So I did Lack of artistic expression seemed utterly irrelevant to the small uptight grey-dressed creature with thick glasses I became at 12. I felt handicapped even among my handicapped peers. That was all that mattered – especially in May. It was this high-spring air of May, which smelled like a heavy perfume carrying the scents of impending summer that blended with my hopes for something better that I could not name.

But eventually my nine-year boarding school term ended. Russian soldiers, too, left long ago. There is no Czechoslovakia any more as we split peacefully in 1993, and American imperialists must have pulled their missiles back in a garage, for we did not hear any more about them. I kept dreaming. I still travelled around the world using the escape trick I’d found during my childhood. My dream deeds changed though my reward for doing them stayed the same. That’s how I first came across a Tantra-Yoga Meditation Center. I fell in love indeed with all that bodywork and mental challenge. Never mind that those guys often made us use painting as an emotional outlet to chill out after an intimacy-challenging experience. This was the first time in twenty years that I could not get out of painting. I still did not like it, yet I accepted it as a reasonable price for the inner peace I was able to achieve bit by bit.

Another ten years went by. I worked hard, travelled enough and tried to love as gently as I could. As I gradually acquired some financial freedom as an IT specialist, my bachelor-life’s defense grew stronger, more reliable. I kept dreaming. I kept avoiding painting whenever possible.

One day, though, I goofed badly by signing up for a retreat with an American mystic who visited my Tantra-Yoga Center. This mystic was a painter. I’m not sure how I missed that. His meditations were painting meditations.

Tantra rule #1: “Do you feel that something is not for you at all? Can you sense the resentment you feel in your stomach? Then you need it most of all.”

I discovered my error too late. Tantra rule #1 combined with an unfriendly cancellation fee to force me to attend.

I set off in an outfit of a professional painter with a portable easel hung over my shoulder, determined to make a good joke of myself. I was also engaged in a theatre group at that time. All theatre directors encourage embarrassment exercises.

It worked wonderfully. I felt really bad among all those serious artists who made long journeys to meet this famous painter. He liked the joke of a blind guy who spends most of his time setting up his equipment and then makes two smears of school-kid watercolors in his 12×20 inch sketchbook on an easel. I liked it, too, after all. We hit it off.

He revisited our eccentric yoga center one year later. That time, I truly wished to participate despite all the painting stuff required. I almost started liking it. His unconventional painting freestyle, in which you meet your canvas as a friend to talk to, or a lover, or a mirror. So different from the painting classes of my school years when I was never capable of painting my mummy.

This time he did not come alone, this famous American painter-mystic. He brought a group of artists with him, most of them from L.A.

The first painting I made I liked, or at least I did not consider it boring fatigue. This took me by surprise as did a woman who came up to comment on it. Though she was from the American group, and an ocean spread between our lives, it did not prevent her from seeing the trees, lights and dancing fairies right where I saw them, too, on my still-wet canvas.

The early symptoms of falling in love entered my heart without any applause the next day. Everyone faces the danger of misconstruction when it comes to saying “I love you” for the first time. Partial blindness does not make it easier. Nor did the bad reputation that American women have in Europe for sexual-harassment lawsuits. I had no intention of becoming a defendant in such a suit.

How likely would you consider the chances of an American independent entrepreneur woman falling in love with an almost blind Czech guy on a painting retreat? I hardly had enough time to contemplate this challenge when another came.

“If I had two hundred of such paintings you were making here at the retreat, I would organize an exhibition for you in L.A.,” the famous American painter-mystic said.

“Yikes, how the hell am I gonna do that? It was not a joke? And what about the girl? The girl from the group of visiting American artists?” A nagging voice in my head would not stop.

“Why not simply show how happy and grateful I am whenever she is around?”

My inner nag seemed to be happy with this and ceased. I liked the idea. Simple enough, lawful enough.

I did much better at showing her my happiness and gratitude than at painting two hundred canvasses. On the magic carpet of the Internet, tied together with a rope of trust when five thousand nine hundred and forty-one miles distance, an eighteen-year age difference, and U.S. immigration laws mustered to scare us, we enjoyed the ride.

It was by sheer fluke that we ended up swimming naked in an open air pool in one of the hot springs resorts scattered along the Slovakia-Hungary border right after the painting retreat had ended and as most of Europe was shivering cold under the flood waters of late spring 2013. Thank heavens we could both work from anywhere in the world, so she could come back to live with me for six weeks in the fall 2013 and see that Prague in autumn is the most seductive of all seasons. After a year and a half of taking turns crossing the Atlantic, writing a book’s worth of e-mails, my shirt almost caught fire from a ceremonial candle at Hollywood SRF Temple while we were exchanging the kiss that made us a married couple on Saturday, September 13, 2014. All this happened easier than sixteen canvasses could be painted. There are still one hundred eighty-four to go.

____

Ondrej Franek, a Czech citizen, recently married Susanna Whitmore, a native of Los Angeles, after an eighteen-month courtship traveling between L.A. and Prague. Almost blind since birth, Ondrej explores his inner world through painting. His intention is to communicate from the intuitive subconscious, rather than from the rational mind. In his spare time, he is an IT engineer and works for a geo-tech company based in Prague.
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By Louie Flores

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]n the summer of 1973, I was one of the kids who painted the mural in the Estrada Courts housing project in honor of the gang I belonged to, Varrio Nueva Estrada.

That was my last summer in the varrio before my enlistment.

Varrio Nueva Estrada had formed thirty years before by guys who lived in the project in the 1940s. By the 1970s, VNE was very large, one of the largest gangs in East L.A. It included several cliques. Mine was the Dukes. I was 18 years old and the first gang member in my family. I never knew my father. My oldest brother was my father figure. He painted furniture at a factory and was fifteen years older than I was. He was an alcoholic and a very prideful man. His pridefulness must have rubbed off on me. Anyway, my mother used to worry a lot about me. There was a lot to worry about. The gang was like my family. I felt I needed to protect my family at all costs. At the time, the varrio was something I would die for.

The mural that summer was funded by the county, which wanted to beautify the East L.A. area. The fire department donated the paint and the Kiwanis Club lent us the scaffolds. A mural was better than graffiti, they figured, and the neighborhood artist proposed a mural that no one would deface with graffiti. It turned out to be a mural showing how long VNE had been there and how long we were planning on staying. It was pride in the neighborhood, meaning the varrio, the gang.

People who didn’t belong to the neighborhood didn’t have any business in the projects – that’s how we felt. We viewed the mural as a statement to other gangs to stay out; that this is VNE headquarters – all of it funded by the county.

About a hundred homeboys worked on that summer youth program, and the VNE wall mural was the first one approved. After it was finished, other murals were painted. Murals went up in the Maravilla projects, the Hazard projects, in Primera Flats – all on county property with county funding. They all did the same thing we did, which was to glorify our neighborhood, our gang.

The mural takes me back to that summer of 1973. I was drinking a lot and I used to get high on reds and whites. I smoked marijuana a lot, too. I was a follower and I needed to fit in. I got picked at random to help out on a crew of five painters. None of us were artists, but it made a lot of us feel good for a change. The artist, Danny Martinez, directed us, telling us which colors to paint where. He had the whole mural outlined in chalk.

The mural is of two hands growing from a tree stump and holding up the letters V-N-E, atop which stands an eagle with a ribbon proclaiming “In memory of a Home Boy. 1973” – all against a royal blue background.

Back then, gang killings were much less common than they became a couple decades later, and we rarely used guns. One night in 1973, though, we got invited to a party in the Florencia area. One of our homeboys was a kid named Noely who lived a few blocks from Estrada Courts. His parents were Russian immigrants, but he spoke Spanish, grew up with us – a white guy and a member of our gang. He was shot and killed at the party. That set off big problems between us and Florencia for many years.

The mural was painted in Noely’s honor. There’s a banner below that reads, in Spanish: “Que Rifan Todo Las Cliqas del Varrio Nueva Estrada, Que Vivan.” (May the Cliques of Varrio Nueva Estrada Rule. Long May They Live.)

For a month I worked on the mural, painting its blue background and the ribbon across the top. I painted with great care, thinking that it had to be perfect so that the rest of the mural could look nice.

Many years later, I talked to Danny Martinez. He explained that the tree stump represented the years that the varrio had been in the projects. Like a tree, the varrio had grown. The hand represented how we were holding up the varrio to glorify it. The eagle was showing the Chicano struggles in the late 60’s and early 70’s. And the ribbon was dedicated to Noely.

Many younger homeboys were on crews that painted those murals. One who became infamous was Ernie “Chuco” Castro. He was about 13 years old at that time, getting high on reds and whites.

The year before the mural, I was arrested for possession and suspicion of sales, so I was on probation when I turned 18. That year, I was beating up a kid in a park and cops arrested me. I was facing my first felony and my probation officer recommended me to the military. So a few months after helping paint the VNE mural, I enlisted in the Army, which turned me around. When I came back in 1977 I was military minded. I moved out of the varrio with my wife.

Later, after I moved away, I remember meeting Chuco’s ex-wife, Jackie. She told me that Chuco was doing some time and they had kids already. He’d been doing heroin by then. Heroin was an epidemic in East L.A. at the time. A lot of guys into heroin were doing a lot of robberies. I think Chuco got caught up in that.

But I missed it. I was working, driving trucks in the 48 states. So I lost contact with many homeboys. I was no angel. I’d drink heavily for a while. I smoked PCP for a couple years, and gambled.

Then 27 years ago, I just stopped it all. The blackouts got to be too much. I’d come home from the racetrack with nothing. I lost a wife over it. Since then, I’ve been clean, driving trucks, and working on older cars. My second son is getting a PhD in English in New Mexico, so I’m happy about that.

I don’t get over to see the mural too much any more. But when I do, I feel lucky to have gone to serve in the 82nd Airborne Division. I could have ended in prison, or been killed at the rate that I was going. I was sly, sick and wicked and got away with a lot of crimes. I got shot at a couple times, but they missed.

I still run into a few of the homeboys from time to time. One guy, name of Ciclón, was a pretty bad dude then. Now he’s got a bad back. He told me about Chuco. Chuco, he said, had been doing some work for the carnales – the Mexican Mafia. He became a made member. Then, a few years later, he was arrested and, facing life, Chuco became an informant. He testified in a famous case that sent many of the carnales to prison for life.

I hear he’s now in witness protection.

____

Louie Flores was born in 1955 and grew up in East L.A. He went to Belvedere, Our Lady of Lourdes, Dolores Mission and Dacotah Street elementary schools. Then he attended Stevenson Junior High, followed by one day at Roosevelt High, one week at Garfield, about a year at Burroughs High in Burbank and a year at Glendale. His last high school was Lincoln. He started working when he was 17 and bought his first car. It was a 1960 Ford Comet.
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By Susanna (Whitmore) Franek

 My heart pounded as I walked into the fire circle. One hundred and fifty firewalkers were chanting and jumping in unison, trance-like, preparing to make the 10-second trek over the hot embers. I was not walking, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Ondrej had decided to go for it.

We had met the previous year at a painting retreat in the village of Lažánky, in the green rolling hills of Southern Moravia. I was there at the invitation of the Iranian Sufi painter, Rassouli, with whom I had studied in Los Angeles; he was taking a small group of students on an artist’s journey through Vienna and Prague. I was fully immersed in growing my company; my life had become reduced to my workload. I needed a break.

Ondrej and I spoke only briefly that first night in Lažánky, but his impeccable, British-accented English, and his warmth and humor swept me off my feet. I watched him paint the next day, his nose inches from the canvas. Over the next four days we chatted frequently, discussing the joys and frustrations of painting. There was a buzz in the air when we were near each other; his otherworldliness fascinated me. At the end of the retreat, he joined our group on the bus ride back to Prague. We exchanged phone numbers and said we’d keep in touch since I had planned an extra week in Prague on my own.

A few days later we met at an Azerbaijani restaurant for our first date. We feasted on lamb and mutton spiced with cinnamon and coriander, grilled eggplant and tomatoes, fresh herbs, smoked cheese, olives, yogurt, and beer. Ecstatic and full, we walked the streets of Prague engrossed in intimate conversation. Iconic statues of saints watched over us. We held hands, surrounded by centuries of history and architectural eye-candy at every corner.

He was leaving in a few days for his holiday to a hot springs resort in Slovakia along the Hungarian border, and asked if I’d join him. I hesitated. My dating woes had kept me comfortably single. He left, while I took my time to think it over. I had planned four more days in Prague, alone, to roam the streets, experience Kafka, hit some museums and cemeteries, and then return to Vienna for more of the same before leaving for L.A.Susanna Whitmore story photo

Instead, after two days of trekking in the rain through Prague on my own – in the worst storm of the century – letting my intuition guide me, I acquiesced, realizing I had fallen in love at first sight with a partially blind man.

Ondrej picked me up at the train station in Sturovo. The lovely mineral springs made up for the post-Soviet dreary architecture of this blue-collar resort town. We tested the waters over the next four days to see how we’d get along; floating in our birthday suits in warm bathing pools, making love, traveling to Budapešt, sitting on the Danube riverbank, and drinking wine with his friends, including a young woman who interpreted at the painting retreat.

Ondrej made the journey back to Vienna with me. We parted, promising we’d see each other again.

Once back in L.A., we communicated through daily emails and a couple of calls every week on Skype. We learned a lot about each other in ways not common to couples falling in love who can see each other whenever they want. There were no physical distractions; our conversations were deep, our emails voluminous. He was my Czech prince, and I became his American queen. Our future together was unfolding. High on love, we even spoke about purchasing a house together in Costa Rica. We started making plans to see each other again.

Four months later, with work in tow, I returned to Prague for six weeks where we’d try living together, but this time in his tiny studio apartment. The new bedroom city of Černy Most where he lived consisted of boxy, brightly colored apartments, a sparkling mall, a Costco-type store, Ikea, and thankfully a subway line where we could escape into Old Town in 15 minutes. While devoid of the magic and beauty known to Prague, it was still our haven; we got a taste of what it was like being together in close quarters.

We traveled to meet Ondrej’s family, and to get his mom’s blessing. Only seven years older than me, she was a retired accountant, a traditional woman having lived her adult life wedged between God and communist hardliners. She was concerned about our age difference, but was relieved once she and I met. I was immersing into Ondrej’s world, hell-bent on learning Czech, though my brain, mouth and tongue struggled to pronounce its alien sounds.

It seemed crazy, especially the 6,000-mile void between us. It was my nature to go against the grain with relationships, but the 18-year age difference was a generation apart. What would Freud say? My oldest son, Sergio, was Ondrej’s age. I also struggled with people constantly staring at us, especially the day a young group of kids snapped shots of us on a subway in Prague.

Ten days later Ondrej crossed the pond for a three-month stay in L.A. He was a world traveler, but the U.S. was never on his list. In communist Czechoslovakia, the grinding propaganda machine against the U.S. was ever-present. On our side of the globe, Soviet bombs were always a threat. I grew up learning to “duck and cover” to protect myself from the “Red under the bed” menace that always lurked in the dark. Luckily, neither of us carried any nation-state baggage into adulthood.

Adapting to a new environment takes great effort for a blind person. Unlike in Prague, if he wanted to venture off on his own, public transport was cumbersome. My older Craftsman house was cold compared to the warm central heating of his comfy studio apartment. The strain of speaking English non-stop with no one around to chat with in Czech took its toll. He missed the safety net of his close-knit group of friends that he’d spent years building, especially his personal assistant who helped him shop or with whom he could meet for a beer.

We spent time at the beach, hiking in the mountains, traveling to the desert, and dining with friends. But we also had to work. We comfortably shared my upstairs office. He continued earning his living virtually for a Prague Geo-tech engineering firm. My research business kept me computer-bound for a good portion of his visit. Even though our cyber work circumstances allowed us freedom to be together, we were stressed. My friends and family embraced Ondrej – they were genuinely happy for us. Everything on the surface appeared right, yet there was a nagging undercurrent.

We were both against the idea of marriage. Initially, it was not a consideration. He had been in a 10-year relationship, and deemed marriage unnecessary. I was twice divorced. Though the emotional strain was evident between us, he proposed at a friend’s Christmas party, on a balcony overlooking L.A. Live in downtown. Blinded by the glaring neon lights in the background, I had to think about it. Even with our doubts and difficulties, Ondrej insisted I purchase my plane ticket for another Prague Spring adventure.

Thirteen months into the relationship, the distance and expense was getting to us. This was my third trip to the Czech Republic. The tension escalated just as we arrived for the highly anticipated four-day tantric “Art of Being” festival, where the fire walk took place. The countryside setting seemed an idyllic place for us to reconnect and solidify our intentions. Instead, Ondrej suddenly decided he couldn’t leave his bachelor lifestyle; the sting of yet another failed relationship distressed me to no end.

But the fire walk tipped the scales; the prince slayed the dragon, the queen woke from her sleep.

Two months later we were married in L.A. Surrounded by close family, a sweet and peaceful ceremony took place at the Self Realization Fellowship, Hollywood Temple. A short honeymoon up to the Santa Ynez wine country, followed by a celebration with 60 close friends in our backyard, sealed the deal.

As a youth, there had been intermittent flashes of California Dreamin’ in the back of Ondrej’s mind. I was always in awe of a country that had a playwright for a president. L.A. is where we call home for the time being; Ondrej’s green card just came in the mail.

It couldn’t have been any other way. Even before meeting Ondrej, I was painting faces with one eye.

___

Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek is a native poblador descendent of the city of Los Angeles. She is a cultural anthropologist and has her own business conducting consumer research among mostly Latino immigrants and their second generation offspring. Passionate about writing her memoirs, she hopes to eventually publish these short stories in a book. She paints and plays Persian percussion when she isn’t writing.
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