'Yankee, Come Out!' _ Local Hungarians Seek GIs
Mar. 09, 1996
TASZAR, Hungary (AP) _ American troops don't usually drop in on Hungarians here, unless you count the time a U.S. helicopter made an emergency landing in the Kurucz family's backyard.
``I thought it was the end of the world when the noise woke us up,'' said Zsolt Kurucz, 23, who lives in the family house with his parents and grandmother. Once they realized what had happened, the family scrambled outside to offer hospitality to the pilot.
U.S. troops have been in the area since December to organize logistics for American forces in Bosnia. But other than a few surprize appearances, they've been practically invisible in this town of 2,000.
Only this weekend do the first GIs have permission to visit the restaurants, shops and movies in town _ and even then they have to go in groups.
When 20,000 American soldiers en route to nearby Bosnia started passing through sleepy southern Hungary, area merchants had high hopes for a mini gold rush.
``Many businessmen came from all over the country, only to leave disappointed,'' said Taszar mayor Jozsef Kovacs.
So far, the only local institution to benefit from American greenbacks is the Roman Catholic church, where the parish priest finds dollar bills in his Sunday collection plate.
``While the locals would put in 20 or 30 forints (less than 25 cents), the soldiers contribute like they do at home, I suppose,'' the mayor said.
Until now, church and musical events have been about the only reasons American officers have allowed their soldiers to come to town.
Kovacs, who also is the local doctor, said his small town was utterly unprepared for the influx _ and especially for the up to 1,000 trucks a night rumbling past with equipment for U.S. troops.
The vehicles have left their mark in torn asphalt, underground water pipes that burst because of the heavy load, and walls that cracked after flatbed trucks _ some carrying two battle tanks _ lumbered through.
Yet Kovacs gives the Americans top marks for community relations.
He has regular meetings with camp commanders to discuss anything from traffic problems to the school choir performing for the soldiers.
Every fortnight, there is an open village meeting to ask questions of U.S. officers, who are accompanied by interpreters.
On Saturdays, a busload of local residents is allowed on base for a guided tour.
``Our aim is to make people comfortable, to have them know we're here to help,'' said Lt. Col. Bill Kazdoba, of Denville, New Jersey, one officer in charge of community relations.
American soldiers in full combat uniform _ minus weapons, Kazdoba stressed _ visit schools throughout a wide area with slide shows and videos of training exercises, and a video of the building of a pontoon bridge over the Sava River in neighboring Croatia to get equipment and men into Bosnia.
In Taszar, soldiers dressed in camouflage fatigues regularly take part in the English-language class at the local school.
Capt. Robert Levalley, 31, a reservist who normally teaches in Kingston, R.I., said the Hungarian kids now have pen pals back in his small community. The exchange involves 70 of the Taszar school's 300 pupils, aged nine to 14.
``It is really great for the children,'' said Ildiko Schwind, the school's English teacher. ``It gets them to open up in English, and it is a totally new experience for them to hear a native speaker.''
A few miles away, the locals say, there are Ukrainian girls waiting in trailers behind the Blue Angel restaurant for their own glimpse of the GIs.
Kazdoba said it was decided Wednesday to let the first GIs into town _ in groups. R and R at Lake Balaton, Hungary's magnificent resort lake just 40 miles to the north, is also a possibility, he said.
``I hope they come down this street,'' said Tamas Niklai, a news vendor in nearby Kaposzvar. His store window already sports a U.S. flag and a sign in English saying, ``American newspapers available here!''
When he heard about the GIs' arrival, Niklai immediately ordered USA Today, the International Herald Tribune, Time and Newsweek. The copies have been gathering dust _ but now there's hope for some buyers.