A Czech Family Lands on Its Feet in the U.S. 19 Months After Ballooning Daringly to Freedom

UPDATED 04/01/1985 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 04/01/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

It all started in 1979, when Robert Hutyra first saw an Austrian TV show—and later a bootleg copy of Reader's Digest—about an East German family that escaped to freedom in a hot-air balloon in 1978. Hutyra's hopes soared with thoughts of ballooning out of Communist Czechoslovakia. The local library had a total of three pages on ballooning. Hutyra memorized them. The 1982 movie of the earlier escape, Night Crossing, was still in the future, but the movie Bobby Deerfield had a 20-second segment with a hot-air balloon. "I watched it 10 times," says Hutyra, "to learn about the [propane] burner." His wife, Jana, now 37, said he was crazy. Nevertheless she sewed together 65 strips of sateen fabric for a trial balloon that split along the seams in 1982. A year later, by then as committed as her husband, she put in 480 hours stitching together sheets of raincoat material, bought, so not to arouse suspicion, at 50 different stores. Finally, in September 1983, the whole family—including little Jana, now 16, and Richard, 13—was aloft. Flares and spotlights flooded the nighttime sky, but Robert knew they'd made it, especially when the clouds parted and he could see the barbed wire of the border below. "We landed in a grape orchard," he says of the 55-minute, 11-mile flight. "We heard voices coming toward us. I told them I had just escaped from Czechoslovakia, and they said, 'Welcome to Austria.' "

Welcomes are again in order. For the Hutyra family has, in effect, kited once more—this time coming down in Colorado. The Hutyras lived their first year of freedom in Dornbirn, Austria, where the family cared for a Lutheran church in exchange for room and board. Robert, 40, decided they should leave Europe when he got word that the Czech secret police were scheming to kidnap him. Plugging into the network of Czech expatriates in the U.S., Robert and his family landed in Longmont, a city of 45,000 with picture-postcard vistas in the foothills of the Rockies that reminded him of his homeland. He was out of work no more than a week. Vladimir Smetana, who fled Czechoslovakia in 1957 and now is proprietor of the town's Old Prague Inn, hired three members of the family: Robert to do carpentry, Jana to make desserts and young Jana to bus the tables. Robert, who used to be a contractor in Czechoslovakia, has since found a more lucrative job with a Boulder construction company. Jana continues to work 30 hours at the Old Prague but is doing double duty as a salad chef at another restaurant. Young Jana also has a second job at a Boulder restaurant and has already saved close to $2,000, which, her father observes, would be a lifetime's savings at home.

The family is making progress in learning English, and Jana hopes that one day she'll be able to resume her career as a draftsman.

Meanwhile, all who know them see the American dream brought to life. "Robert Hutyra is in the right place in the right country," says Smetana. "He is very ambitious." Adds contractor Allen Kenney, Robert's new boss: "You don't find many like Robert. He's a real good worker. He has a lot of knowledge, fast hands, and if he doesn't know something, he figures it out."

Robert actually got his first taste of free enterprise years ago. In the 1960s he had been one of the stars of the Czech national bicycle team and had occasion to pedal through the capitalist world. Then, in 1972, he was deemed insufficiently enthusiastic about the Communist regime and lost his top priority on the Czech housing list. With the capitalist greenbacks he had earned during seven months racing in Canada in 1970, he was able to build his own home in Bratislava on the Czech border, where he felt the gravitational pull of free society daily.

Nowadays the Hutyras live in a two-bedroom apartment furnished in Salvation Army chic. Ever resourceful, Robert recently bought three broken-down Honda autos, out of which he built two good ones. A friend gave the family a TV. Strangers phone them or even drop by to shake the hand of the man who ballooned his family to freedom, taking only one suitcase and his treasured bicycle in case of an emergency landing. The Hutyras can't seem to believe their luck and the freedom to practice their Catholic religion without reprisal. "In Czechoslovakia, no matter what your abilities," says Robert, "there is no way to better yourself. We expected it to be harder," he says of his new life. "It is better than we thought."

This said, Robert wanders off for a moment, then returns with a cowboy hat. Son Richard gave it to him for Christmas, knowing that he was already a devotee of country and Western music. Robert produces another prized possession—a photograph signed and dedicated to the Hutyra family by Robert and Jana's all-time favorite buckaroo: Ronald Reagan. "It's not easy for people to understand how thankful we feel," says Robert, "unless they have lived on the other side."

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