The news being what it is, with tragic events again unfolding in the snows of Eastern Europe, this hardly rates as the beginning of the season of good tidings.
I am no expert on those lands, but these days I find myself almost obsessed with recollections of my brief experience there and of the pictures in my mind, to use Walter Lippmann's phrase, that keep flooding back. They are stronger and starker and produce deeper emotions than I would have believed.
As the reports come in from Poland, filter fashion, fragmentary, pictures in black and white giving them a properly antiquated look, censored to show that all is calm despite the lines of tanks in the streets, the portraits become at once familiar and inevitable.
They are replays of the same scenes we have been witnessing off and on for more than a generation, tides of human aspirations rising, cresting and crashing, rising, cresting and crashing in geometric cycles of time: Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1981. They form the most enduring drama of our times, one with the greatest stakes.
A student in Warsaw, who became a friend, said something I still remember: "If I were a journalist, I would begin every story by saying, 'My impression is that . . . .' " Style aside, she had a valid point, particularly when it came to the complexities of those volatile captured countries, pawns in the riskiest power game in the world, that unwillingly serve as a fragile buffer between East and West.
So I ask your indulgence to forgo the customary Christmas musings at this time for some personal impressions forged years before about the forces pulsing through Eastern Europe and the belief that they inevitably would produce further and greater conflict, and will again somewhere else in Eastern Europe.
Our car was hit in dead center, good, hard and smashing, and knocked through an intersection. It came to rest upside down on the cobblestone streets of Prague. After we climbed out, my driver/translator looked mournfully at the wreckage, shaking his head as if he had been ruined forever.
It wasn't a question of lack of insurance, he explained. He had some, although it would not pay much. Nor was it the long time, at least eight weeks, it would take to get the vehicle repaired. The real problem, he feared, was that he would need a new car.
To get a car, he said, one had to deposit 20,000 Czech crowns in a state bank, make a reservation, and then wait three to five years for delivery.
"We socialist countries," he said sadly, "we need so much the hard currency and so we keep everyone out so we can't get it."
Everywhere, that bleak winter of 1968-69, you could encounter the same sorts of glimpses into the problems of the people of Eastern Europe.
The hopes for dramatic reform and intoxicating freedom that had flowered in the fabled Czech spring had been crushed brutally when Soviet tanks swept through Czechoslovakia. But they had not been extinguished, as you also kept being reminded everywhere you traveled then in that troubled part of the world.
Later that morning, after the accident, we set out into the Czech countryside in a rented car, finally stopping in an isolated, rural village, a place of collective farms and geese and a courtyard square with farmers' carts standing on the cobblestones.
It was lunch time, and our conversation had begun quietly with only one citizen. Before long, more and more men kept joining the group. Two large wooden tables had to be put together to accommodate them.
They spoke freely, and sometimes heatedly, about their lives and their problems, these cooks and welders and mechanics and drivers. As the conversation continued, they spoke more emotionally about their hatred of the Soviet Union.
"If the Soviet Union wouldn't hold onto us by force, the whole socialist countries would fall out of their hands," one young man said.
The memory of that conversation, long ago in a remote Czech village, remains indelible. It was evidence, if any more were needed, of how powerfully the impulses for change coursed through Eastern Europe, and how threatening they were, and are, to the Russians. For there it was the common people, not just the students, writers and trade union leaders, who were voicing unyielding opposition to Soviet control of their lives and fate.
Weeks later, after having traveled throughout Czechoslovakia, Hungary and then Poland, it was another voice that sounded a message for the future now upon us.
He was a student in Krakow, in ancient days the capital of Poland, a way station for war through the centuries. The year before he had participated in student demonstrations against the communist, puppet government, and the experience taught bitter lessons. He would not do that again.
"We know we can't fight in the conventional way," he said. "We must change the policy of the government and change the political situation. And the only sensible way I know how to do that is to go into the party. Be a member. This way, we can change the policy. This way, we can take over in our time.
"That is why I am a member of the Polish Workers' Party."
I didn't know it then, of course, but his was the voice of Solidarity.
Of all the Eastern European nations, none is as crucial as Poland, and none as contradictory.
Since World War II, it has been a country where a militant Roman Catholicism and a doctrinaire socialism have coexisted, where pessimism and hope, freedom and fear, censorship and new expressions of liberty, secret police and industrious private entrepreneurs have been present, all at once, all the time.
Its problems have been the same as those of all Eastern European nations, and in multiples: poverty, critical scarcity of consumer goods, backward production methods, the most flourishing black market in Europe, a repressive, officious bureaucracy that makes the American version a model of efficiency, and a stagnant economic system that has been doomed to failure because it is, of necessity, forced to rely primarily on the Soviet market.
Considering their circumstances, especially when you think of the massive power arrayed against them, all the nations of Eastern Europe display an astonishing and unquenchable spirit of nationalism. But none exceeds Poland in exuding a fierce pride in country, a passionate state of patriotism.
"Cut me up and scatter me away," a Pole told me long years ago. "It doesn't matter. I'm still a Pole. I'll always be a Pole."
Obviously, the passage of time has only intensified those emotions. It has led Poles, like the Czechs and Hungarians before them, into breathtaking acts of boldness and courage.
A final memory. In a village back in the Carpathian Mountains, a Polish highlander with magnificently chiseled features told me of a conversation he had had with a communist party official. The official was praising progress being made, the benefits of the system and the perfection of communism, especially the Soviet variety.
The highlander listened quietly, and then replied:
"What do you think you are going to do? In 20 years do you think you can destroy what it has taken the best people and the best minds to create in the 2,000 years since Christ was born?"
Long after this latest act of barbarism has passed into history, I'm certain other Poles will be uttering similar timeless words to their oppressors.