The Meaning of Freedom, Courage and Living One’s Values


This is a true story of an adventure that changed my life during a hitch-hiking ‘walk-about’ many years ago.  In the hope this offers any inspiration or helps some one’s life be better in any way…

Working my way up the east coast during late fall it was raining that slow, soft steady drizzle for hours on end, the kind of rain that permeates all and soaks one to the bone.  Intermittent downpours brought sheets of rain that moved in waves across the landscape letting all reality know the real meaning of power.

I had been walking and standing all day, in and out of cars whose drivers were curious enough, bored enough or who lived towards discovery enough to pick up a hitch-hiker and his gear on the side of a highway. For those who explored beyond a glance, they would note the looks and ‘energy’ of a good person, “ a bit young to be travelling like this though…

I was somewhere in Delaware, having left Baltimore early that morning and working my way north hoping to get to Boston before nightfall. My outdoor gear was solid, but this kind of rain and dampness was hard to keep at bay for long. These were the days before ‘advanced fabrics’ – fleece and GoreTex, and we layered with wool, wore a 60/40 shell and then a rain poncho belted to keep the wind-blown rain at bay.  It worked well enough.  Standing just beyond a set of toll booths for well over an hour, I knew looking wet and my backpack looking wet wasn’t improving my odds of getting an easy ride. Sometimes we just have to move through rain to get to where we want to be.

Connecting with every approaching driver, letting them see my eyes and as much of ‘who I am’  as a passing glance might offer, I was thinking about the book, ‘The Lives of a Cell” by Lewis Thomas.   I was seeing all these people going past on their way to somewhere living their own stories, connected to all of their circles and their circles’ circles. There was a hidden ecology to it all. And once this came into view, I could see how every word, action and especially act of compassion spreads out in ripples. Sometimes a ripple can even become a wave and make life better somewhere for someone, or many.

A yellow Volkswagen Beetle approached.  As we saw each other, we both knew this ride was written to be.  Definite connection.   I watched him measure my presence and decide I was both an interesting and safe fellow to invite out of the rain.  He quickly veered off and stopped in the emergency lane about fifty yards ahead.  As I watched I saw boldness in decisive action… integrity, high competence.  I relaxed knowing that things were cool, a good life experience was likely waiting as I grabbed my pack and guitar and jogged to the car. We went through the usual ritual, he rolled down the passenger window to have a few words and make a final assessment as I was doing the same. Eye contact. Face. Voice. Tone. Hands (hands can teach a lot about someone). Body language. Gut feeling.

“Where are you going?”
“I’m heading to Boston”.
“Where in Boston”?
“Don’t know yet… anywhere in or near Boston is fine. Will probably work my way downtown, get to where the city’s culture lives… music, art galleries, colleges, parks… “.
“Come in, I’m going to Boston, would enjoy some company”.
“Great, Thank you”, I said appreciatively as I took off and quickly folded my poncho, wet side in and thought, “Yes!” (Things are safe, getting a ride all the way in this weather is a very good thing… and I’m intrigued, this guy exudes a lot of personal power…)

He was in his early thirties, black curly hair, in good physical shape, an eastern European accent and the hands of an office person.  His eyes conveyed a depth – a centered presence that was unusual – and I couldn’t help but notice that he was unique. He emanated the personal power of lessons hard earned. We both felt like we were meeting a co-journeyer and a new friend.

As we pulled back onto the highway we shared the usual chit chat, where we’re from, where we’re going, what music we liked, what we do for work, our favorite books. His name was Michael and he had recently moved to the US from Eastern Europe. I was intrigued right away. These were the days when the cold war was raging and the Berlin Wall still stood heavily guarded.  He was an engineer on his way to Boston for a job interview. I was on a walk-about, letting the adventure unfold, moment by moment.  Michael had more questions than answers, sharing in a reserved way about his life.  As our conversation cycled and went deeper it became apparent that I landed square into someone else’s incredible story unfolding moment by moment.

“Your accent is from… Hungary or Czechoslovakia?”

“Very good guess, must be being musician you have ear for accents… actually I’m from Ardeal”

“Ardeal? – where is Ardeal?”
“Is in Romania… you probably know as Transylvania…”  Michael paused for my reaction, then added, “…no, I’ve never seen vampires”
“Well that’s good… the world is a crazy enough place without them”

Michael smiled.  He was polite and seemed genuinely happy to have company.   He also seemed intellectually or emotionally preoccupied with something important.  There was a ‘weight’ to his presence.

“What’s the land like in Ardeal? Is it beautiful? Are the cities very large?” I asked. I loved to learn about different places, cultures… ways of life. This was why I traveled the way I did.  I was also curious to hear a great story that offered learning… discovery…

“the land is very beautiful… there are mountains and large, how do you say… plateaus that in spring and summer are full of color, the green touches the sky… yes, it is quite a beautiful place… but is difficult to get to see much of it because you need papers to travel.”

“You grew up in a city?”
“Yes, was crowded, big pollution in places and not much choice in way of work”
“Is that why you left?”
“Yes… and no. I left because I wanted to be free…”

“Is communist… the government tells you where to live, where to go to school, where to work, what music to listen to, art to make, where you can and cannot go… mostly cannot go…”  Michael become animated as his story took shape. “You live your life to all the rules, all of the time. If you have family in another town, it can take a long time to get permission to travel”. 

“Ardeal’s behind the Iron Curtain…” 
“Yes, very iron… very iron…  All the time growing up, I hated that we could do nothing without government telling us everything about how to live our life. When I got older I hated even more that I had to work where was told, live where was told, that I had to have papers to go anywhere to see something or visit people.  And many people were disappearing who said anything against government”.
“So you left?”
“Yes, I left”
“Not an easy decision I would think…” When I said this I could see a tear well up in Michael’s eyes. He was quiet for a moment; the windshield wipers flapped back and forth as the skies opened up and another heavy shower of rain started.  I remained quiet and fully present, letting Michael get his thoughts together and also stay focused on the road. As we got clear of a pod of moving trucks and things opened up a bit, he cleared his throat.

“Easy in one way” he finally said, “not so easy in other ways… I couldn’t stand living in so much control over everything in my life, I knew from inside of me I could not stay there, that I had to have different life no matter what it cost, even my life. That made it easy decision. But I left everyone I knew, everyone I grew up with, my family, my friends, people I went to school with. I don’t know if ever I’ll see them again in this life. I had fiance  but she wouldn’t come with me and I made decision that freedom was more important than living in this place, my insides crying all the time.”

When Michael shared this, I could feel a weight being lifted and somehow knew that I was the first person with who he had shared this much of his story. I let the moment rest sharing this moment in time, honoring silence as an important part of the flow as well.  In music, the rests are every bit as important (if not more) then the notes of a good melody.

After a moment, I asked, “How did you get out?”   I was thinking about the movies I had seen where machine gunners manned the Berlin Wall killing anyone who attempted to escape. The movie, ‘The Great Escape” came to mind, where few of the heroes made it out alive.

“I had to leave over mountains. I took just what I could carry, most important papers, some pictures,  few warm clothes, a little food and water. The hard part was that I couldn’t say goodbye to anyone, I couldn’t say goodbye to anyone I loved… I couldn’t even leave a letter because after I left I didn’t want anyone to be in danger. That was the hardest part, not saying goodbye…  I knew many would understand, but still was very difficult.” Another almost tear welled up in Michael’s eyes as I sensed him seeing the faces of all the people he loved that he left behind.  The emotional wave was deep… slow…  I could feel my own almost tears want to be part of the moment.

He continued, “Getting out of Romania over the mountains and into Hungary was a difficult journey. I ate little, walked at night and rested in the day, someplace hidden. Some people in the countryside would help me sometimes, but I had to be very careful so not to get caught. I knew the police would kill me if they caught me, or send me someplace where I would wish to be killed. I got good finding water, sometimes walking for days without food though.  I would sneak into field and get some corn and, when lucky, could find eggs or get a chicken if I could catch one quietly. I felt bad taking a chicken, but had no choice. I like to think the farmer would understand”.

“I bet they would understand, and probably give you more if they could” I said. “I find that people are generally good and we like to help each other”   Michael nodded and smiled.  He knew.

“It became very difficult after making it across Hungary into Austria. Even though Austria is not communist, if they caught me, they would send me back, so I had to make it across Austria in secret into Germany. The mountains in Austria made the mountains in Romania look like sandbox. But I had come this far and knew, if I could just make it to Germany everything would be O.K.”   He continued, “I took small foot trails into the mountains.  All I had was compass and map I drew after talking with old man. The higher I walked, the colder it became. I didn’t eat for days and was very weak. I was stumbling, couldn’t keep my balance. Breathing was hard and I was so tired. Every step felt like was the last one I could take. The last thing I remember on the mountain was falling down on side of trail, thinking this was it… I was really going to die here as my eyes closed”.  Michael started to cry.  Wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, he continued. “The next thing I remember was waking up in… I didn’t know where. I was in convent. Nuns found me on the trail and carried me back to convent.  They said I was almost dead and were giving me water and praying for me for three days unconscious.  They saved my life”.  His lips trembled as he uttered these last words again, “they saved my life”.

After a moment of regaining composure, he continued, “they nursed me back to strength over few weeks. I was very, very fearful they would report me, but they told me not worry, I was safe with them”.  Another flood of tears welled as I could feel the relief he experienced in that moment when his saviors let him know his secret would be safe.  “After few weeks, they packed me with food and water, a warm sweater and blanket and walked me to trails that led over the border. I will always remember saying goodbye to these angels who came to save me and give me a life”.   His tears were tears of gratitude as pure as rain.  So were mine.

We sat quietly for a while. The rain tapered back and we both sat in the glow of Michael’s story. It was a comfortable silence, like when a beautiful piece of music comes to a cadence or the play ends and everyone just sits in the glow of the moment. It took Michael six months to walk to freedom. It took him a few more to make it to the U.S.   To this point in my young life (I was 17) I had never really known what freedom was.  Now I knew.  And even though I thought I knew what courage was, I realized that all I knew was kid games and adrenaline.  Michael taught me what real courage was. And he showed me the faith in self and in the universe it takes to live life in one’s values and toward one’s dreams.

We made it to Boston. The rain slowed to a soft drizzle, soon to stop.  Michael bought me lunch and we shared company with small talk and jokes in the same comfort as one relaxes with family/friends we only get to see every so often. Then we said goodbye. To this day, thirty-six years later, I remain grateful that G.D put us in each other’s path.

Shem Cohen

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 13th, 2013 at 3:31 pm and is filed under Powerful Life Lessons, Shem Cohen Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 Responses to “The Meaning of Freedom, Courage and Living One’s Values”

  1. Lisa Kellogg says:

    Thank you Shem, such a moving story. Love those seemingly chance encounters that wind up so powerfully affecting you, life’s magical connections. What an amazing experience for you to have at 17. Compelling and beautifully written too!

  2. Shem Cohen says:

    Hi Lisa,
    thank you for taking the time to read the story and for your comments. At the time of Michael’s life in Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu was the infamous Dictator. “A 2006 Presidential Commission for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania estimated the number of direct victims of the communist repression at two million people. This number does not include civilians who died… as a result of their “treatment” and malnutrition in communist prisons, nor does it include those people who died because of the dire economic circumstances in which the country found itself. Those numbers remain unknown but could reach a few million” (Wikipedia). Michael refused to live life in fear any longer and his story taught me to have the faith to go where my heart/spirit said was the right way to go, and to really appreciate the blessings of being born here in the US.

    Between 16-24 I spent close to 5 years travelling both in and outside the US. The people I met, the stories I was honored to hear, the adventures had and the learning these years offered – and still offer today – has been one of the crown jewels in my life. I always wanted to be with Lewis and Clark, Columbus or Magellan and have learned that, when we stay profoundly open, great discoveries are always just around the corner.

  3. Lisa Kellogg says:

    Hi Shem, Missed your response for a bit haven’t quite got my brain around how the blog tracking works… Reading this again, I am envious of such an adventure and was struck thinking how great a thing for you as a young person, what an education! One that no university can teach. Makes me think that we should be encouraging young people to go travel as you did before all the responsibilities of midlife that for many folks make that more challenging. I could easily imagine a wonderful book coming out of these experiences… keep writing!