Interview with István Domonkos Sr. regarding his book ‘Life Out of Bounds – Hungary, Alaska, Seattle’

by István Domonkos Sr & Kinga Bíbor Nagy

I interviewed István Domonkos Sr. about his book ‘Life Out of Bounds – Hungary, Alaska, Seattle’. The book, which is written in English and was published privately in 2015, consists of 20 captivating, anecdote-like stories. We can follow an incredibly exciting life journey with plenty of challenges through the humorous stories. The book is available for purchase; please send an email to communications.haaw@gmail.com. The author generously offered the income to WAMSz.

You can say that I was born into a very educated family, six of my family members had doctorates. My father was the first director of the Civil School in Dunapataj and worked there until his death. He died young at the age of 42. On the other hand, I struggled with dyslexia, which was not recognized at the time. My writing went well, my dexterity was also good, and I excelled in sports. However, due to my dyslexia, I was not a good student, and this caused an inhibition in me and, as a result, I instinctively ran away from all academic training which was counter to the expectation in the family.

Still, I had a teacher who embraced me. He sent me to the bulb factory for a course where I was trained to measure radiation with technical devices. I was sent on assignment in the Czech Republic, where I was distinguished, and upon my return I became a staff member of the Central Physical Research Institute (currently the Energy Research Center of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences).

I joined the revolution in 1956 and never went back to the institute. The events covering this period were published in the previous issue of Hírek. Maybe I would just add a few things to that article. I was caught in the middle of the battles in Széna Square but I did not take part in the fight, except for one occasion when everyone was firing their guns. A Russian armored military vehicle drove in with soldiers. We opened fire on the truck. One soldier died, the others fled into a building, where the Hungarians living there were taken hostage. The Russian soldiers demanded to be able to send a message to their commander-in-chief to come and rescue them. A ceasefire was ordered at Moszkva and Széna Square and a Russian tank came to rescue the soldiers. János Szabó, our leader – who was later executed – gave me a small pistol and for a short time I became his messenger between the Hospital in the Rock, at Castle Hill and Széna tér. Finally, the four of us were sent up to the Viennese Gate. They put us on the balcony of the house opposite the gate to be lookouts and if we saw Russians, to fire. We were there for two days. It was very scary that as children we were responsible for the northern entrance to the castle. If the enemy had come, we would have been in trouble. One of the boys cried, and the girl with us peed from fear. The people living there provided us food.

What sealed my fate was that I was included in the official list of those who fought on Széna Square, which already fell into the hands of the Ávós during the revolution. We were young and naive, we gave our names, we didn’t count on the consequences.

Next to the Vérmező was a multi-story building of AVO which we occupied. By that time, everyone had already fled from it, even the prison at the bottom of the building was empty. On the contrary, we found a lot of food, equipment and weapons in it. I immediately went to the radios upstairs.

I remember going home from here to Logodi Street. I was wearing a large shepherd’s fur coat found there. My family didn’t even want to let me in when they saw me. They said that I could only enter the apartment without the gun and ammunition.

Two days after the occupation of the building of AVO, the news came that the Russians had launched an all-out attack. We knew we couldn’t stay there. There was a truck in the yard that was equipped with communication equipment. We loaded the car with weapons and radios and four of us went up to the János-hegy lookout tower. I was 19 years old, the driver was much younger than me, I was surprised that he could drive a truck at that age. The area was full of already retreating, intoxicated warriors. As we drove the truck up the mountain, they thought we belonged to AVO and fired warning shots to tell us not to go any closer. We jumped off the car, into the ditch and shouted: “Don’t shoot, we’re coming from Széna Square!” We gave them everything from the car, except the radios.

The Korányi Pulmonary Institute was nearby, where they boldly allowed us to park the car in their garden. They also provided us with electricity and food. We dug the wheels of the car into a ditch and camouflaged it with tree branches. On the radio, we mainly listened to Vienna on shortwave. Vienna radio knew everything that happened in Budapest, maybe they were so well informed by the refugees. Unfortunately, the news came that the Russians had already completely surrounded Budapest and warned us that the loitering, dirty children would be captured, because it could be guessed that they had taken part in the fighting. Upon hearing this news, we dismantled the car’s radios and covered the weapons and other equipment with a tarp and buried them. (Twenty years later, my cousin took me to the site, but the institute was no longer functioning, and the caretaker received us very hostilely.)

I headed back to town. On the way, they called me in in a house and warned me that what I was doing was suicide. They suggested that I wash myself and shave. I was given a clean shirt and a jug of milk as a disguise. That’s how I managed to get back to the city. I saw the Russians, but it wasn’t hard to sneak past them. Everyone at home thought I was dead. It was a great joy when I got home, but when I told them that I only came for my documents, there was a big fight. They wanted to keep me at home by all means.

Before leaving, I wanted to say goodbye to my friends. At that time, there were already fights all over the city, public transport was stopped, if a truck came, we climbed onto the end of it, so we could get around. A tarp covered truck came and I climbed onto it. I went with it for a while and then, driven by a sudden idea, I pulled the tarp away and saw a bunch of people with luggage. It turned out that this car took the refugees to Vienna regularly. I left the country within four hours. At that time there was a rumor that it was not worth fleeing, because the border was closed and everyone who tried to escape would be shot. In the meantime, this car glided straight across the border without any difficulty, there was not even a border guard nearby.

I told myself that it was too easy and went back to Budapest with a meat delivery truck. I had a friend, Nati, during high school who really wanted to go to Switzerland with her family. I called and offered for her to come with me as I knew the way and the border was open. We arranged a meeting for the next day. When I got there, to my great surprise, I was greeted by a whole group who all trusted me to take them to Austria. We boarded the train and got off at Mosonszentjános. Four of us stayed together: Nati, her mother, her cousin and me. We heard that there was a peasant who took people to Austria for money. There was already snow, we were stumbling with our suitcases in our street shoes. At one point our guide pointed to the distance, claiming that those lights were already Austria and left us. It turned out that the lights were still from Hungary and emanated from a peat factory. Luckily, however, we caught sight of the river, which we knew was the border river. We also found a boat, which we used to cross it. On the other side there was an Austrian flag. I heard earlier that the Austrians put up flags for the refugees to gather around and they come to collect people by vans. I sat down at the flag completely exhausted, waiting for them to come for us. However, the other half of the group had a different view about this. They believed that the Hungarian border guards put up the Austrian flags and if they found us there, they would take us back to Budapest. I was so tired that I didn’t care about anything anymore and I stayed there. Nati and her cousin set off on foot towards Andau. Finally, a truck came, picked me up with the suitcases and on the way we found Nati and went to Andau together.

I met a lot of my high school friends there. An Austrian count who had a Hungarian wife and owned a lot of land on the border asked the students to contact him because there were thousands of refugees already in Andau and he wanted to take us to his hunting house. The count also brought us a deer, which we ate. There were about thirteen of us. We spent a few days there, and then slowly he took us in smaller groups to Vienna. After a lunch, the count’s son took us to the cinema with the car he was driving to see the English movie, “Gone with the Wind”.

I had a distant relative in Vienna who was a church glass maker and made samples for factories. They took me in for a while but I wanted to go to America because I had an uncle there who emigrated there after fighting in World War II. He was a practicing physician in Spirit Lake, Iowa. The family of Nati, however, were preparing to go to Switzerland. There was a lot of crying when we said goodbye.

In Vienna, there was a large building near the train station, and each table in the large hall represented a country: Australia, Canada, USA, Sweden, Norway, etc. People shouted to each other from one line to another: “Don’t go to Canada, come to Australia!” It’s amazing how fates were decided by who stood in which line.

I took the train to Bremenhaven. There was an American troop transport ship there, on which Hungarian boys were loaded in large number (there were no women). There were many American Hungarians with us who interpreted and helped. The Hungarian boys were accommodated in the upper part of the ship. The bottom of the ship was occupied by people of Jewish origin. The poor people in the bottom of the ship became very seasick because there was a terrible storm on the ocean. The US military has already started recruiting on the ship. They promised to give a job, teach English and give American citizenship. The tragic thing is that these boys would eventually be sent to Vietnam. This was not known at the time, but the war broke out a few years later.

I didn’t join the Army because my plan was to stay with my uncle. When I arrived at his place, he told me that he already had five children, so it would be good if I found a job as soon as possible. I met a lady who really liked Hungarians and enrolled my cousin and I at the University of Dubuque to study English. We didn’t know a single word of English, but we really enjoyed the university life, and the university was also happy with the two foolish Hungarian boys. Only our knowledge of English did not improve.

In the corridor of the university, I came across an ad. They promised to pay the travel expenses for those who agreed to work a summer in Sitka, Alaska. To save money, I hitchhiked to Seattle and flew from Seattle to Juneau and from there to Sitka on a military plane.

On the flight from Seattle to Juneau, I got into a conversation with the flight attendant. I told her with a horrible Hungarian accent that I am Hungarian. She jumped up and brought me a big plate of meal and then a whole bowl of shrimp cocktails. Then I realized the misunderstanding and explained to her that ‘I am Hungarian, not hungry’. She replied that it’s okay if we misunderstand each other, and that I should eat well! Upon landing in Juneau, I also received the leftover shrimp cocktails.

At home I read many books about Native Americans and when I arrived in Alaska I realized that my life had become similar to the Cooper novels.

Above Sitka is an interesting high mountain, Mt. Arrowhead. Soon after my arrival I decided that I had to climb this. I knew that there were bears in the area and that I had better carry a rifle. The ascent was difficult, the top of the peak proved to be a test of strength. I didn’t even want to look forward, I focused on the beautiful landscape, I took pictures of the 20 small islands around Sitka. Finally, when I turned around, I noticed that it was possible to walk up on stairs built on the other side. Interestingly, no one mentioned this to me in Sitka. In Alaska, no one tells you what to do, they just silently watch. Especially Native Americans.

I stayed in Sitka for two years. The Sheldon Jackson Boarding School was funded by the Presbyterian Mission from New York. They established a large radio station there and I worked on constructing the related buildings. I was accepted at school, I became a real all-rounder; I even worked as a night watchman. I really enjoyed being in Sitka, I was surrounded by Native Americans and Inuits, but my earnings were quite modest.

Sitka was the old Russian capital of Alaska before America bought it from Russia. Even now, the church is Orthodox and mass is held in Russian. During WW II, Sitka served as a fortress against the Japanese. During my stay there, they built a huge sawdust factory and exported the sawdust to Japan. The interesting thing is that the fort, which was originally built against the Japanese, now welcomed huge Japanese ships to be loaded with wood pulp and shipped to Japan. I managed to get a job at this company. We worked a lot, but they paid very well. Then finally I got what my whole family wanted: I had enough money to enroll in university. That’s how I ended up in Fairbanks, because I was accepted there, with the stipulation that I start an English course in the meantime. Therefore, at the beginning, I mainly took subjects that did not require too much English, such as mathematics, chemistry and drawing, and I was good at them.

At the school in Sitka, I met a Native American woman who was just graduating. There was great love between us. After I started college, I went to Metlakatla in Southeast Alaska to bring her to Fairbanks. Between the huge mountains, 8-10 feet of snow ran along the side of the road, it looked like a snow alley. It took two days to travel from Haines to Fairbanks. We got her a job at the university in Fairbanks and I started my studies. Shortly after that, we got married and were able to move into the area reserved for married students. We bought a small trailer and lived there. We had three children in three years.

Five years later, when I finished university, we had to move out. I bought two acres of land and -now, I have no idea how I was able to do it – built a house on the hillside in one summer. My wife and the children went home to the Metlakatla Reservation in spring and when they came back in fall, the warm cottage was ready for them, where our children could crawl barefoot while it was -40 C outside. Alaska is a brutal place for families. It’s good for single men because the salary is high, but it’s very difficult for families, since it’s completely dark from September to May. In return, the summer is beautiful.

Life in Alaska was very difficult, we barely survived. If we had stayed there, we wouldn’t have had enough money to survive. On my way home from work I would always bring home two 5 gallon containers of water, one cold and the other hot. We didn’t have a well in the beginning but, after we got one, we would always bring drinking water when visiting friends.

When Florence was pregnant with my youngest child and her labor pain started, we needed to rush to the hospital but the car wouldn’t start in the December cold. My wife and I had to push the car to get the engine started.

While we lived there, I hunted a lot. We only ate deer, in all variations, and the children didn’t even know beef. Hunting is not an easy thing, it does not happen by going out into the forest and the animal coming immediately. You have to drive to the right place, sometimes even hundreds of miles, you have to walk a lot in the forest and sometimes sit for hours on top of a tree, waiting to find the prey.

I was very lucky on one occasion. I was working on my car in the yard which was open to the south. A truck sped down the driveway and the driver yelled that there was a deer behind the house. The poor animal got stuck in the fence. We managed to get it and split it between each other. Afterwards, I bragged to my colleagues that you don’t have to drive hundreds of miles to hunt, it can be done at home.

Another time we hunted in Mount McKinley Park with colleagues. The company truck was loaded with 4-5 reindeer and a deer. We were almost freezing in the car by the time we got back to Fairbanks, which was about 200 miles away. A reindeer belonged to me among the spoils. It was thrown from the car to front of my house and the others continued on. I dragged the animal into the living room, laid it on plastic and stripped down to underpants because it was very hot in the house. My wife went into the bedroom with the kids and I tried to cut the meat. Suddenly there was a knock on the door, I opened it and saw a policeman who wanted to ask for directions. I stood there covered in blood, in my underpants, with a knife in my hand. All he could ask was, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ My wife laughed at what a great timing.

In Alaska, it is believed that in order to be considered a true local – a “Sourdough” (an Alaskan term that refers to someone who has lived in Alaska for several winters) you have to fulfill five conditions. I could already tick four things off the list: I washed gold, made friends with the Native Americans, climbed a high mountain and shot a deer. I only missed one: I haven’t peed in the Yukon River yet. When I told this to a couple of Hungarian guys who served in the US Air Force in Fairbanks one night in a pub, I found supporters to fulfill the last condition. As pilots, they had access to military planes and one of them offered to take me up to Fort Yukon the next morning. And so it happened, the next morning we took off in the dark and the bone-chilling cold quickly sobered us up. We had to try to get back on time because of the short days.

I was proud of myself for fulfilling the requirements perfectly and advanced to become a real Alaskan, which I also wrote for the people at home. Soon I received a letter from a friend from Vienna warning me to immediately stop correspondence with my family and that I will receive a package soon. It did happen and in the box there was a small book with the title, “Where are you boys?”. To my greatest surprise, it was a collection of letters sent home by emigrant Hungarian boys who served in the American army. In communist Hungary, they feared that these boys were trained so that they could later be sent back to their country as paratroopers and carry out guerilla attacks. This happened in 1962, and Hungary did not know at that time that those guys would fight in the Vietnam War three years later. Because I was in the ROTC at the University of Alaska for a short time and had many friends from Fort Wainwright, it was assumed that I had served in the military. The book contained my letter, in which I told how I became an Alaskan, but the scary part was that they mentioned my mother’s name and exact address. At home, the whole family was completely horrified by this. The following comment was pointedly added in the book: ‘How shameful and disgusting that this is the way for someone to become a citizen of a country!’

Fortunately, a professor at the Institute of Geophysics at the University of Alaska offered me a job in northern lights research. The University of Alaska is famous for conducting all the northern lights research in America. They wanted to investigate the horizontal stratification of the northern lights. I built rocket instrumentation that looked sideways and monitored what colors it saw and sent the data back to earth. These went up to a height of 150 miles and fell back in thousand pieces. So the lifetime of my works lasted about 200 seconds and then I could start over. I built a total of seven rocket packs. For launch, we had to take all the rockets to Washington DC, to the Goddard Spaceflight Center, where they were tested in various ways (shaken, looked at from an electronic point of view), and then sent up to Fort Churchill in Hudson Bay, because that’s where the northern lights are best seen and where it’s the easiest to shoot in the middle of the northern lights.

We used the Nike Tomahawk missiles from the military because all missiles have an expiration date. The rockets that could not be used in time were offered for research purposes. We shot these to analyze the color composition of the northern lights. There was a great military interest in northern lights research because the northern lights interfere with radar and radio waves.

I have fond memories of Washington missions. There was a Hungarian restaurant, Old Budapest. It was a very elegant place, with a Gypsy band. On the menu, I came across an interesting dish: ‘Fried Chicken a la Dunapataj’. When I asked the waiter where the name came from, it turned out that the owner and the kitchen staff were also from my home town, and moreover, they were my father’s students. After that, whenever we were in the capital, we always went to the Hungarian restaurant and the Gypsy band played the song ‘Befutta az utat a hó, céltalanul fut a fakó’ for our Alaska team

I really enjoyed this job, but the downside was that my wife often stayed at home alone in -40 C for 1.5 – 2 months with the three children. After all, the northern lights could not be ordered by appointment. Many times, we sat there for days and just waited, and when the northern lights appeared, we launched the rocket and rushed home.

I was looking for an opportunity to make life easier for my wife and family, so I contacted the University of Washington. I was interested in an open position and received a positive response. That’s why we sold our house in Alaska and moved to Seattle with the whole family. After my arrival, I immediately showed up at the university. That’s when it turned out that they could only hire me in a year. Unfortunately, I couldn’t wait that long without job. Luckily, there was a tectonics professor from South Africa in Seattle who was recruiting people and I immediately applied. The Pacific Ocean, North and South America have one-one plate each and these three collide near the Galapagos Islands. The goal of our research was to find exactly where this collision point is.

Unfortunately, my wife did not feel comfortable in Seattle and wanted to move back to Alaska. I offered her that I would take care of the children, at that time I didn’t know yet what kind of responsibility this entailed. She went back to Alaska and, at the beginning, my mother came out to help. At the university, I indicated that I did not want to go to the sea again and be away from my family for so long. I was always seasick anyway.

I applied to the Atmospheric Research Department. The university bought a B-23 plane from a multi-millionaire and converted it for research purposes. What I am perhaps most proud of is that they did not have an aircraft engineer and I was asked to somehow attach research sensors to the wings of the plane and equip them with instruments from the inside. It was a huge responsibility because these are very heavy. We used this plane to record the eruption of the Mt. St. Helen volcano in 1980, and we were the only ones allowed to fly close to the volcano. Later, one of the wheels of this plane got stuck and we had to land with one wheel. This plane was broken up and bought by the Air Force. It was restored and is now on display at the McChord Aircraft Museum. I worked on the outfitting of a total of three aircraft.

Our other memorable research was conducted in Eastern Canada. An area of 5 square miles near Timmins was burned only for us. Flying into the big smoke tower, we examined the particle composition of the smoke. Our plane almost turned over a couple of times, everything was scattered, and I was also clinging to the plane for my life, the picture of this can be seen on the cover of my book.

I can say that my whole life has been about my work, and I was always given such problems that I felt I had no choice but to solve them. I was called the ‘Magician’. Fortunately, my bosses always stood by me and there was always a sponsor for the research. When I retired, many people came to my farewell party. I thanked them for letting me do what I wanted for 40 years. However, to be honest, almost everything happened against my will. Fate always pushed me in one direction, and I always found people who trusted me. For me, the presence of God manifests itself when unexpected things happen completely independently of me. That is when I experience events for which there is no explanation.

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