Miles of Red Flags and a Black Tulle Evening Gown

WE got the news at 9 in the morning, and by 10 the parade had begun. From the balcony of the American Embassy in Warsaw we watched them pass - miles of red flags, each with the same outsize photograph of Stalin superimposed across the front. Where had they come from, I wondered, all those flags? Had they been sitting in some warehouse just waiting for Stalin's passing? And the men who were carrying them? They must have drained every factory and office in Warsaw to get them there on such short notice. Eight abreast they walked, anonymous gray figures in their drab overcoats, collars turned up against the raw March day. The silence was eerie. No bands, no automobiles - only the sound of shuffling feet and flags flapping in the wind.

It was my first Foreign Service assignment. I had thought being one of a tiny handful of Westerners to actually penetrate Stalin's Iron Curtain was the ultimate in adventure. Then, staring down at demented-caricature Uncle Sams from this very balcony on Poland's National Day the previous summer, I had wondered if I'd be able to handle the sense of outrage they ignited.

Standing next to me, the counselor of embassy had suggested I not take the caricature too seriously. ``Don't blame the messenger for the message,'' he said. Just then marchers holding a taloned Uncle Sam glanced up and grinned - rather sheepishly, I thought - as if to say: ``Look, we're not responsible for this foolishness.''

Today their faces were closed. If they felt any emotion, grief or relief, they weren't showing it.

In contrast, our embassy was crackling with speculation. What would Stalin's passing mean?

A young girl joined us on the balcony. It was Joanie, a nagging cause of tension between our embassy and the Polish Foreign Office. Two years before, her Polish-born parents had brought her with them when they'd come to Warsaw to claim an inheritance. When both were killed in a freak automobile accident, our embassy moved in quickly, making arrangements for the 16-year-old Joanie to return to relatives in Philadelphia. But she never got any farther than the Warsaw airport.

For two years the battle raged. Joanie was born in America, we said; that made her an American. She was born of Polish parents, said the Poles; that made her a Pole. And in the days of the Iron Curtain, Poles were not allowed to leave Poland.

So Joanie became a part-time telephone operator at the American Embassy. She lived in embassy quarters, studied by correspondence courses, and - being a most engaging girl and a pretty one, too - became a favorite with the entire Western diplomatic community.

She was 18 when I arrived. I was only a few years older, and we soon became friends. I helped her with her lessons, and, because we were both very much a part of the diplomatic colony's lively social life, we spent a lot of time talking about clothes, beaus, parties.

But we also hatched plans for Joanie's escape. Every so often we'd come up with one that seemed absolutely foolproof (it usually involved Joanie's ``stealing'' my passport and exiting disguised as me), only to have it shot down by embassy officers. ``Lay off,'' they'd say. ``Do you want her to end up in a Polish prison?''

Joanie and I were still on the balcony watching the parade when the counselor came to tell us the embassy was closing - in mourning for Stalin. The two of us were ecstatic. That meant we'd have plenty of time to dress for the ball that night at the Swedish Embassy.

``By the way,'' he said, ``the Swedish Embassy has canceled tonight's party.''

``Oh, no!'' I cried. ``Surely not because of Stalin!''

``Of course,'' he replied. ``They can't have a ball while the host country's in mourning.''

``But the host country isn't in mourning,'' I protested.

``Well, it's pretending to be in mourning.''

I looked at Joanie. She was fighting back the tears. She'd been looking forward to this particular ball for weeks. Her aunt in Philadelphia had sent her an evening gown - black tulle and very sophisticated - and tonight was the great occasion she'd been saving it for.

``We'll be in in just a second,'' I told the counselor. By this time Joanie was crying. I stood shielding her from the view of people within the embassy. The paraders in mourning for Stalin were beginning to glance up, puzzled, I suppose, to see someone in tears - at the United States Embassy of all places.

We couldn't know it then, but there was soon to be another ball - far more important than the one Stalin sabotaged. It was hosted by the British Embassy to celebrate the coronation of the young Elizabeth II. And with it came one of the first clear signs of a softening in Polish-Western relations. Officials from the Polish Foreign Office not only accepted invitations to the ball, they actually showed up for it. And we all held our breath when one of the top officials led Joanie, lovely in her black tulle, onto the dance floor.

Several weeks later our ambassador was called to the Foreign Office and told that she would be allowed to exit Poland on her American passport. The following week the diplomatic colony gathered at the airport to wave goodbye to her. As she waited to board the plane, a Polish messenger brought her a huge bouquet of white roses. ``Zycze szczescia,'' read the card that accompanied it. ``Someone's wishing you good luck,'' said our counselor of embassy.

``But who?'' asked Joanie.

The counselor hesitated a moment. ``You know I've a hunch - and rather a strong one at that - it's from the Polish Foreign Office.''

My thoughts flew back to last summer's parade. If it was from the Foreign Office, I decided, it would be one message we could happily attribute to the messenger!

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