Behind the Iron Curtain with Woody Allen

To prepare for a tour in Bucharest, where unauthorized contact with a foreigner breached the country’s espionage laws, the text of which was posted on public buildings, my wife and I took a post graduate course in counter surveillance.  We learned Romanian, and studied the culture; an island of Latins in a sea of Slavs as the Romanians liked to portray themselves.

We were also warned to bring cigarettes; Kent Longs were the preferred currency next to dollars.  All accurate and useful.  Although non-smokers, we always had a carton of Kent-Longs in the car and detecting police surveillance kept my agents safe.  But no one told us about earthquakes.

The streets of Bucharest

One evening we hosted an American family who brought the Nigerian Ambassador’s two  kids, schoolmates of our children as well. Our apartment was on the first floor of a seven-story building near the U.S. Embassy in downtown Bucharest.

We started to watch the Woody Allen movie “Play it Again, Sam” on a borrowed and noisy 35 mm projector when what sounded like a giant wave approaching with the intensity of a tsunami drowned out the movie sound track. I stood to fix the projector thinking that’s where the strange noise came from when all the lights went out. My wife, whose Catholic education apparently included Crisis Management, hustled the children under the archway that separated the living from the dining room and the adults followed.

The wooden floor undulated under our feet and children clung to my legs.  One of them shouted, “I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!”  In the darkness something crashed to the floor.

I’m not sure how long we stood there. It was probably only a minute or so but it seemed longer. We then made sure the kids were all right, lit some candles and took stock.  And belatedly turned off the gas to prevent an explosion.  Our “portable” Romanian TV set, a 50 pound monster, had been knocked off its stand and rolled across the floor pulling its power cord and taking the wooden moulding with it.  There was a diagonal crack across one wall and several lamps had been knocked to the floor.  “It felt like a 747 flew under the floor,” our friends’ son said later.

One of the embassy Marine guards showed up at our door to tell us to go to the embassy for a headcount. As we walked down the moonlit street my wife turned around and pointed to the changed skyline. The apartment building in back of ours was now a pile of rubble and we could distinguish people trying to crawl out.  We learned later that two hundred people had died inside.  The wave had spared us but not our neighbors.

The Romanian government went into default mode; deny, deny, deny.  Ceausescu was not in the country and admitting there had been an earthquake could have blemished the communist system and the country’s national pride.  Admitting to anything negative would have been a career or even a life breaker.   You can’t take the Fifth under Communism.

Ceausescu returned and, using the block informant and militia system, cleaned up the rubble. Matchstick type structures supporting outside walls appeared all over town and closed off several streets.  Initial reports claimed that 4000 people had died. The 7.4 earthquake was felt as far as Moscow and Athens.

Teams of structural engineers declared buildings unsafe and a huge tent city mushroomed outside of Bucharest to house those suddenly homeless, creating another problem.  About two weeks later, a new set of engineers declared the buildings safe and everyone moved back in; problem solved.

A report from the National Earthquake Center in Golden, Colorado, alerted us that major secondary quakes had been the regional pattern.  Nevertheless, the ambassador resisted the evacuation of dependents, concerned that it would show lack of confidence in the Romanian government.

In the meantime, it took three days to convince the elusive Nigerian Ambassador that adoption of his daughters was not in the cards and he grudgingly accepted their return.

Not only did we survive the quake, the Romanian Securitate failed to detect my intelligence activities; luck and good tradecraft combined for a good tour. Plus, our third child was born.

Needless to say, I have avoided Woody Allen movies ever since.


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  • Jeffcox

    But you can see Midnight in Paris, given your background. At worst someone will burn a crepe.

  • Jim Doane

    It was my family that were invited to Kathy and Andre’s to watch a movie that fateful Friday night in Bucharest. Little did I know at that moment was that my job was about to get very busy, I was the post GSO. Official Americans were living all over the city, and destruction was the name of the game. Somehow no one in the official family was injured, however we did lose over 15 apartments/residences due to the earthquake. Both of our families ended up “camping out” in the PAO’s residence for the next several days. I never did see the end of “Play it again, Sam.”

  • Ann Gubser

    I’ve always wanted to know more about Cathy and the family in Romania. This is a start. And yes, Catholic women’s colleges do prepare you for life.

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