Saturday, July 5, 2014

One Year After the West, TX Fertilizer Plant Explosion, Looking Back on How the Czechs Found Out About Their Cousins in Texas

In April of 2013, I was living in a small town in the Czech Republic. One morning I got up at my usual crack of dawn, got on to Facebook and quickly learned that there had been a catastrophic fertilizer plant explosion in the town of West, Texas. Being from Dallas, I quickly got in touch with a couple of my coffeehouse buddies who had not yet gone to bed and were still on Facebook and got them to tell me the details of what had happened. As I was doing this, I noticed that one of my Czech buddies, a local radio reporter, was also on Facebook as he was doing his morning show.

We started chatting and I told him what had happened in West. He said he'd heard about it but didn't see why it was of any interest to anyone there in the Czech Republic. I explained to him that West was an entirely Czech town, that it was for almost everyone in Texas among their favorite places. And that Texans loved West precisely for its Czech-ness and that they considered it the heart of "real" Texas. This stoked his curiosity.

After that, I told him about the Czech Stop, the famous roadside bakery that sells authentic kolaches on the highway between Dallas and Austin and that everybody traveling between the two cities will stop there. I told him that my guess was that the explosion was something Texans took extremely personally, akin to having their hearts ripped out. My buddy said it was very interesting and that he was going to place a couple of phone calls to Prague to see if anyone was interested in covering the story there for the Czech media.

About twenty minutes later, the first of more than a dozen phone calls started coming in. Since I don't speak Czech, I was asked to get my wife out of bed to tell the nation how Czech the town of West really is. She was on, live, for about ten minutes, talking about the Czechs of Texas and how they love their heritage, her memory of chatting with some of the older residents, who'd grown up speaking the language and still did from time to time.

Then a TV station called and told us they were sending down a crew to film us looking at the news from West and our friends' reactions on Facebook. We met them in a cafe off Masaryk Square. Later in the afternoon, another TV crew came down and they shot us in the square, buying kolaches at a farmer's market and explaining to the viewers what real kolaches mean to Texans and the lengths that they will drive to get them.

That night, West, Texas was the main topic of news in the Czech republic. Viewers all watched clips of the explosion and the Czech Stop and its kolaches and, in the process, something changed in the Czech psyche.

I don't know how it happened, but somewhere in the mid-20th century, the Czechs lost any sense of connectivity with the Czech diaspora in the outside world. In this regard, they are completely unlike the Poles, who have always seen the Polish world as being global in breadth. Maybe it was the Nazi occupation or the four decades of communist rule that followed. But to the Czechs, when you go, you're gone. This goes even more for the Czechs who left in the nineteenth century. They may understand that they are out there but they feel absolutely no connectivity to them, which is something I'm not sure the Czech-Americans every really grasped.

But now, they realized that those people in that town in central Texas that got flattened by a huge explosion were Czechs, just like themselves, even though most of them drove pick-up trucks and watched high school football games on Friday nights.

One thing that had happened was the Czech Rotary Club had immediately started organizing a charity drive to raise money for the victims of West, Texas. As Waco Tribune recently reported, Rotary Clubs around the world have since raised over $100,000 to help them.

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