Not everything went as planned -- no one, after all, knew the tornado was coming -- but Jiri and Marta Hnizda still moved their five children into the dream house in time for Christmas. Now there is wood in the stove, a Christmas tree by the front window, and the children run from room to room and dance on the floors, ecstatic to have so much space. It is a big, happy house, high on an old farm hill in Carroll County.
Still, the journey to this place and this joyous day was so difficult you can hardly believe a family survived, dream intact.
The odyssey began 11 years ago, in Czechoslovakia, when Jiri and Marta, both from Krnov, in Moravia, were married. All their lives, they'd been ridiculed for being Catholics, scorned for not enlisting in Communist youth groups. They were anxious to leave.
"We wanted to go to the West," Marta said the other day. "But only one of us could leave the country at a time. That's how the government made sure a married person would always come back."
Yet, even with those forces against them, the Hnizdas thought they saw a path to freedom. Two years after their first child, Vaclav, was born, they planned to leave Czechoslovakia for good. They stashed all the money they had, about $250 U.S., in a tube of toothpaste and boarded a train to Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
From Belgrade, they tried to enter Austria, but when their train stopped at the border, Yugoslav troops prevented them from leaving. Passports were confiscated. Troops ordered the Hnizdas back to Belgrade.
"But we got off the train at Ljubljana," Marta remembered. "We called a friend, who arranged for us to go to the United Nations office in Belgrade. I was three months' pregnant. We were accepted for asylum. Our friend in Ljubljana gave us a medal of Mary to help us. . . . We got a visa to Austria, and a release from Yugoslavia. Later, when our train passed the same border where the troops had stopped us -- well, that was quite a feeling."
That was freedom.
It was August 1984. The Hnizdas and their little boy went to a refugee camp. While there, Marta gave birth to another boy, Marek. In March, the family traveled to the United States, sponsored by a Catholic agency. They arrived in Baltimore and took an apartment on Frederick Road. Jiri got a job as a tile setter.
"I got up at 4 o'clock every morning and delivered The Baltimore Sun," he said. "Then, from 7 o'clock, I lay tile for a contractor. I get home, sometime 2 o'clock, sometime 5 o'clock. Then, from 6 o'clock to midnight, I delivered pizza."
And on top of that, Jiri, a good carpenter with strong, calloused hands, renovated a house in Catonsville, a handyman special the couple bought with 5 percent down. "The mortgage was $850 per month!" Jiri says now with a laugh. "I like, at settlement, where they say, 'Oh, don't worry, the mortgage always looks big at first, but you get used to it.' "
The family grew. Another child, Barbora, was born in 1986. Another, Kristyna, was born in 1988.
"Marta had dream," Jiri said. "To have big house, on a nice piece of land, with woods and a little stream going by, and a little field for a garden." And, of course, lots of room for their children, who by spring 1990 numbered five, with the addition of baby Martin.
By the end of last year, the Hnizdas were making new plans. A Czech friend who lived in Seattle had suggested it as a good place for a family. The Hnizdas had visited. They liked it. They decided to move.
So, last March, Jiri built a trailer, packed it, drove it across the country, deposited most of his family's belongings in his friend's garage, then he drove back to Maryland. Later, in June, he planned to move his family to Seattle.
But something happened.
The Hnizdas fell in love with a four-acre plot in the sprawling farmland west of Hampstead, in Carroll County. They made a down payment immediately. Instead of going to Seattle, the Hnizdas would construct their dream house in Carroll County. And Jiri would build it himself!
So the Hnizdas left their children with Jiri's parents -- they were visiting from Czechoslovakia -- and towed the trailer back to Seattle. "I had to be back to work here in five days," Jiri said. "So we drove straight to Seattle, loaded the trailer with everything -- including a freezer -- had a cup of coffee and drove back to Maryland."
But something happened.
A tornado struck on a lonely stretch of highway in South Dakota. It tore the cap off Jiri's pickup and ripped the trailer in half. Almost everything the Hnizdas owned was gone with the wind. "Luckily, we had the freezer to weigh us down," Marta said. "It might have saved us. All we could do was sit in the truck and cry and pray."
Next day, the Hnizdas salvaged what they could, which was not much, and drove back to Baltimore.