Singer Alix Dobkin's ongoing series continues.
World Youth Festivals were a series of Communist-sponsored-and-run international cultural and sports spectaculars. Every other year, national Parties from all over the globe organized delegations, exhibitions, and performances for this massive event attracting tens of thousands. The Seventh Festival was to be held in August of 1959 in Vienna, and a representative from our Youth Section was to be selected by a vote. As an active member of the Section, a student official, and a musician who would add to the delegation's cultural contribution, it clearly fell to me. A chorus was scheduled to perform in Vienna made up of kids from the Bronx and Philadelphia, so I already knew most of the material.
Although they recognized a communist front when they smelled it, Mom and Pop had to agree that this was a great opportunity for me, and they trusted my good sense. It was an opportunity and a dubious honor that called for fundraising, and early in 1959 I began organizing parties where I plied the guests with Festival literature and explained why Philadelphia youth should be represented in Vienna. World peace being the issue of the day, and 'Peace & Friendship,' being the festival slogan, I found support among progressives. Besides the Festival, I'd come home with reports on special tours of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.
On April 9, 1959, I was issued passport number 1510122, a fact duly noted by the FBI in the 2' thick dossier I sent for and received three decades later. A ticket to Europe on a student ship cost $400 and $400 more for the tours, plus expenses on the continent and money for film, $1,200 in all. I would borrow a professional camera to take slides. During the ceremonial parade around the gigantic stadium on opening day, each of the 400 members of the official American delegation were to wear a uniform suit of blue-and-white seersucker. We'd march behind the American flag, but instead of The Star Spangled Banner, we'd be singing The World Youth Song: 'Everywhere the youth are singing freedom's song / freedom's song, freedom's song. / We rejoice to show the world that we are strong / we are strong, we are strong! / We are the Youth, and the world acclaims our song of truth ... .'
Meanwhile, back at FBI headquarters, word arrived from Colonel George T. Pitts Jr, ( Assistant Chief of staff, G-2 Headquarters, U.S. Army, Southern European Task Force ) that he would keep track of me from Verona, Italy, London, and Rome, as well as Vienna, and attempt to 'secure additional information regarding subject ... .' Was he successful? Blackened pages don't tell.
Just before dawn on a day in late June, I left Philadelphia, a red backpack slung across my shoulders, a slim, newly purchased canvas moneybelt fastened under my blouse, a suitcase and guitar in hand. Also in hand was a shopping bag filled with every popular 45 rpm record I'd collected since 1954. Unhappily, due to my haste to make the Montreal train, they stayed behind on a waiting room bench in Penn Station. I realized it that evening, crammed in with 1,200 students on a dark, rainy Montreal pier where we'd been waiting for hours to board our ship. So much for the gifts for Soviet and Eastern European youth. Well, at least I still had 75 peace and freedom lapel buttons to distribute.
The boarding process dragged on, taking even longer when the Italian ship's officials saw me. ( 'But Alix is a boy's name!' ) I said I didn't mind sharing a room with boys, but the stewards insisted on finding an empty bunk in a girls' cabin. Many hours later, a kindly purser took pity on me as I wandered into the empty dining room. He went to the kitchen and at length emerged with a wedge of dry provolone and two thick slices of equally dry Italian bread. Gratefully, I forced down my inadvertent introduction to European cuisine gathering barely enough saliva to swallow. I thanked my savior and chewed the arid mouthful. Help arrived moments later when he returned carrying a glass and a bottle of Chianti wine. It was a long way from Mogen David, but dehydration drove me to sip. It had never occurred to me that a liquid could actually DRY your mouth.
As the first of a summer's worth of unimaginable tastes started digesting beneath the uncomfortable, inconvenient money belt, I wired my parents that I was safe and stumbled back to my narrow bunk.