In Vino Veritas 23

To see East Germany as a refuge after the previous encounters would be a folly indeed.

Border sign at Heldra 1952, from the German Federal Archive


This was the cold war alright, both psychologically and materially. Even the air seemed to be contaminated by the insidious power of the STASI.
We paused somewhere to check on directions. This involved the simple procedure of knocking on the door of an unremarkable house. The reception from the male occupant was a symbiosis of suspicion and palpable fear. GO AWAY. Maybe somebody had been informing and he dreaded the chilling rattle of an unknown visitor… An unnerving experience for both of us.


East German “Border scout” (Border recconnaissance platoon) of the GDR Border Troops, here taking a photograph of US Army activities across the inner German border.

The STASI or Ministry of Security was founded in 1950. At it’s height it was the largest and most feared state security outfit on the planet. The scale of ‘informing’ on your fellow citizens was staggering. One could simply disappear. Citizens turned informants became a vast network. It had strong links to the KGB and could infiltrate Western countries.


Preserved section of the inner German border wall at Mödlareuth, Bavaria/Thuringia.
Angelo D Alterio

Materially the traffic and roadside furniture were the embodiment of menace.The whole theatre was given dramatic emphasis by being enveloped in freezing fog. Troop carriers, half-tracks and tanks emerged from the misty depths and rumbled on their way. The roadside borders consisted of watch towers, barbed wire and search lights. The ‘Third Man’ was not in this league. It was the culmination of all the totalitarian literature and experience that one had ever read. One pathetic consolation, our German plates would not raise an eyebrow here.


West Berliners entering East Berlin at the border crossing Chausseestraße on 28 December 1963 . From the German Federal Archive

In the encircling gloom and darkness we got to West Berlin. The whole process of finding somewhere to stay, let alone pay for it, was beyond us. A cosy night in Esmeralda beckoned. Oh joy.
In the morning, through the fogged up windows, we could see the plump, well breakfasted inhabitants toddling off to work, chatting away, life on earth turned upside down. How could this be? What about the world we had just left?


Krüger postcard Berlin (former West Berlin area), Kurfürstendamm c.1965


Esmeralda had a freshen up and a pep talk. The fading clutch continued in fade mode. I pretended the gear box was full of newly hatched chickens, gently does it.
Off to the south through West Germany en route to Munich, progressing through an agreeable landscape. Ahead, a signpost, a rather flimsy affair, almost an afterthought. One word. Dachau. We get there.

One abiding image; a grainy 2 metre square photograph of a pile of children’s shoes.


A large pile of victims’ shoes piled up outside barracks in the Dachau concentration camp, May 1945. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 

How such an image of apparent innocence could have such unimaginable implications burns itself into your head. Forever.


Onward across the Western Alps and into northern Italy. By now a few green shoots of spring were starting to appear. As we descended around a sharp corner, a small bank of lovely wildflowers presented themselves. A moment’s inattention. Keep your eyes on the road David! Too late.

https://ryderwalker.com/destinations/switzerland-italy/


Two motorcycle policemen were dead ahead as I drifted to the left. They were impressive and would not disgrace an Italian rugby team, their whole physicality set off by their splendid tan uniforms, Sam Brown belts and the shiniest of black boots imaginable. Even their bikes were Concours standard. Black shades glared.
They passed by. I counted to ten. By the time I got to six they had re-appeared, one at the front of the car, one at the rear. God they were menacing. The German plates screamed at them. A notebook was produced as we were ordered out of the car.
Ronda was quite blonde and could pass for German, I was close enough.
A fine of horrendous proportions was mentioned. We would pay for this, and how.

‘PASSPORTS’ one of them snapped. Ronda produced said document. He read the two words on the cover and handed it back, unopened. The world then spun 180 degrees on it’s axis.
Our man gazed into space in some kind of reverie. As he crunched the dangerous driving violation into waste paper , he breathed three words…..Orsongna, Cassino, Faenza.
From late 1943 to mid 1945, New Zealand regiments fought alongside the Italians in a series of brutal battles. Silence.
‘Where are you going?’, he asked ‘Firenze?’
‘The Uffizi’, came the reply.
Moments later, Esmeralda had a police escort, front and rear, to take us to the gallery. They helped us find a car park and bade us farewell in the most generous terms.

Wars cast a long shadow, not all of it bad.

In Vino Veritas 21

We have a problem…. you are persona non grata…

The Polish border was dead ahead.

This Russian exit border post resembled Dodge City when all the saloons were at full tilt. Loosely attired officials were all paralytic or pretty close to it. Bonhomie abounded, as did litres of vodka, the pervasive odour of which drifted through the airwaves.
Would we bother trying to show these jolly elbow benders that, as agreed, a copy of Dr Zhivago was about to leave the USSR… or just decline the offer of a rinse or two and be on our way? The good doctor stayed put. Off we went. Goodwill prevailed.

I am certain that the Polish border was on the lovely sounding river Bug or one of it’s tributaries. When we arrived, the air splintered with the cold, and if there was a river, it would have been a metre below, buried under solid ice. Getting out of the car, we saw our reception committee, a load of bored squaddies armed to the teeth and dying for something to do. If for some reason I had panicked and made a run for it, my metamorphosis to cat food would have been instantaneous.

We were ushered into the border building. A fire crackled in the grate, comfy surroundings, no sign of booze, only two pale blue eyes greeted us, eyes that weighed up the new arrivals with measured calculation. They belonged to an officer of no mean rank, captain, major? He spoke fluent English and,  settling in his creaky but cosy chair, asked about our travels. As by way of mere formality, he asked for our passports and travel documents. ‘This won’t take long’…
A measured pause in his examination of the documents. His chair creaked as he his finger tapped on the desk top. Calculated silence. A card was about to be played…
‘We have a problem, a rather big one’, our man intoned in a gravitas sort of way. He was enjoying this, his chair creaking again in anticipation. He went on, ‘Your Russian visas have expired as of now, and your Polish visas don’t start until tomorrow. Oh Dear. You are persona non grata, you can’t go anywhere, you can’t stay here, but you have to. What are we going to do?’ 
He knew bloody well what we were going to do. We would find out. The next tangential musings from him told me exactly where this train was going.
‘Australia eh? Big country, isn’t it?’ A few more anodyne questions. Come on sweetie, I thought, time to play your big card. He did.
‘Is the Australian dollar a hard currency, a la Sterling, US Dollar?’ He wondered. So that way goes the game. ‘Yes, it is,’ I replied. ‘What do they look like?, old blue eyes moved his Queen to the pre-checkmate position. By chance I had about 80 bucks of varying denominations in my wallet.

The next exchange approached the speed of light.
In a wonderful ambidextrous display he pocketed the money and stamped the passports with a resounding. ‘CHING! CHING!’ in the same swift movement.

‘Enjoy your stay in Poland’ he said as he indicated the door.
The chair chortled rather than creaked.

We set off. WHAT? … The premonition was still there…more so than ever….

Previous episode

The journey begins

In Vino Veritas 1

In Vino Veritas 20

Moscow was drab. The Italian sparkle of Rastrelli’s Leningrad architecture had not caught this bus. Worse, historical degradation of some earlier wonderful buildings was wholesale, with post industrial projects or raze and rebuild carrying all before it.
But, one thought, the pride and joy of contemporary Russian space achievement (aka VDNKh… the All Russian Exhibition Centre) would be a jewel in the crown. God it was tired. Should I have been a space explorer and this kind of technical skill was the best on offer I would get the hell out of it. If one had a sneezing fit, the whole theme park would have flattened, domino like, before your eyes. A Tupelov rocket seemed to lean against a wall, totally unloved. Even Yuri Gagarin, in effigy, was covered up, as he could not bear to look.


A kind of wide -eyed ‘wow/hate’ spectacle replaced all this. No peeing about here, this took the form of good old fashioned social realist sculpture. Muscles the size of barracudas, breasts you could throw a hen party in, these heroic defenders were a mile high and the set of their jaws would discourage any kind of opposition. Their muscled legs and arms would get you to Vladivostok in one bound. Should spurs be needed to hasten the journey, loads of hammers and sickles were to hand to help things along.
They induced a morbid fascination, imagining that some starving Stalinist peasant would see this and, so deluded, die a happy man.

Worker and Kolkhoz woman – wikipedia


I once gazed at a Brancusi sculpture which you could hold in the palm of your hand, it would dwarf all of this.

The Pushkin museum was wonderful.

One abiding memory. In many hotels, at the end of the corridor, a little babushka sat (for eternity it would seem) in order to monitor the comings and goings of the guests.
Were we under surveillance? I doubt it. I once whispered to Ronda (Sotto
voce) that Esmeralda was stuffed full of Western codes and detailed drawings of prototype Exocet rockets.
Rosa Klebb wasn’t listening, or if she was, she was still thinking about the time she saw me on the dance floor in Leningrad.

The next stop was the city of Minsk, the capital of today’s Belarus. Until 1991 Belarus was part of the Soviet Union but now has become an independent state. It suffered terribly in WW2, a huge local museum testifies to this. It also has a rich tradition of Russian Orthodoxy and this was demonstrated to me by our charming guide. At one point we gazed at some stunning early ceiling frescoes which had additional sparkle provided but the cluster of icicles which refracted the light. How had they survived? All of this splendour sat cheek by jowl with hectares of Stalinist architecture.

This image from archdaily.com shows the contrasting architecture of modern Minsk

However, Poland beckoned. The temperature dropped alarmingly, but the wind speed increased in the same ratio. On a dead straight road the snow cascaded across the road . Dead ahead an intrepid babushka was sweeping off the roadside blizzard. WHY?
I will never know. I could not understand.

Much later than this, I read Colin Thubron’s splendid book ‘In Siberia’, a masterpiece of travel writing. I wish I had this to hand as we traversed this country. His account of the gulags in Eastern Siberia has no equal.

‘At Oimyakon the temperature has been recorded at -97.8 F. In far lesser cold, steel splits, tyres explode and larch trees shower sparks at the touch of an axe. As the thermometer drops, your breath freezes into crystals, and tinkles to the ground with a noise they call ‘the whispering of the stars.’ ‘This country of Kolyma was fed every year by sea with tens of thousands of prisoners, mostly innocent. Where they landed, they built a port, then the city of Magadan,then the road inland to the mines where thy perished. At first the convicts were peasant kulaks and criminals, then as Stalin’s paranoia heightened – imagined saboteurs, and counter revolutionaries from every class: Party officials, soldiers, scientists, doctors, teachers, artists. They died in miners tunnels from falling rocks and snapped lift cables, from ammonal fumes and silicosis, scurvy and high blood pressure, spitting up blood and lung tissue.
A prisoner had no name, no self. He could be addressed only by his number.’

From In Siberia by  Colin Thubron

We approached the Polish border. Premonitions were not unknown to me, I think they were pretending to hide, although not very well, in the frozen air.


Previous Episode In Vino Veritas 19

Next Episode coming soon… follow my blog for more adventures, memoirs and to see my artwork, inspired by a life well traveled!

In Vino Veritas 19

The crowd surrounding Esmeralda was impressive. The main attraction was the car with an engine in the boot. Not a lot of those around. The interest in the mechanic was rather more desultory, perhaps fueled by a sense that he was pretty clueless. Unfair. The VW engine was and is a very clever bit of Teutonic engineering. A flat four boxer engine, air cooled, it neither freezes nor boils.


So far so good. As a kid, this mechanic had a bit of experience with car engines, at least enough to know the basics. The culprit was usually fuel or electrics. Petrol no problem, now, where was the distributor? Take that to bits and where the hell would I get a set of points, let alone install them? What I could try, following the advice of the previous owner, was to see if the plugs were oiling up. The only item in the ‘tool kit’ was a socket spanner for exactly that purpose. A search began for the plugs. My exploration was not helped by a load of interested heads peering into he engine bay and following every move.
My air of quiet confidence did not fool anybody.
Heavy snow was falling, the air temperature well below zero. Freezing.

EUREKA! I found the plugs and a couple of skinned knuckles later I got them out. They looked as though they had been dipped in oil. As I had no emery paper or feeler gauges, all they got was a basic drying off.
She started at first crank. The audience was most impressed, more importantly, my sense of relief was palpable. What if this had happened on a lonely road, in the dark, about 100 kilometres from anywhere, with heavy snow drifts and the wind chill temperature around minus 20C. No heating whatsoever. Hmmmm…

Off to Moscow. This is a journey of about 710 km, driving time about 9 hours. By Russian standards this is rather like popping down to see Aunt Anastasia, a mere scratch on the map. Progress was good, and in due course, we decided to stop for lunch. Before that, I nipped off the roadside for a slash, and stepped softly into space. Well, snow space. It was rather like going down in a faulty lift, there was no resistance whatsoever. Eventually I got to the ground floor, with the top of my head just showing above the snow line. Panic receded, climbing commenced.


Ah, lunch. Our cooker was a little Gaz burner with a single flame and bottle. Pretty basic. The unit was placed in the footwell and coaxed into life, hoping all the while that a waft of petrol fumes had not insinuated themselves into the car. That would have livened things up no end. To have attempted this exercise outside would involve heating the whole of Russian air space. The food was edible, pre-packed anodyne anything. A food writer would have placed it somewhere between early and middle nothing. However, it was better than the alternative. Veg and Vegan hadn’t been invented. [This blog editor would surely have perished]


Our route to Moscow took us quite close to the town of Zagorsk, north of the city. Some years later, I revisited this town as part of a Russian package holiday. Our guide was an epitome of Komsomol, a Soviet youth whose brief was to show a load of capitalist tourists the neutered dinosaur of Russian Orthodoxy. His indifference to this task matched that of his tailor… couldn’t care less. He showed us to a splendid church where a service was in progress. He stayed put and relaxed into the arms of an evil cigar.

Another Matisse moment. As the door closed behind us, the darkened scene slowly materialised. Bathed in the heady aroma of incense the glorious iconostasis glowed, the little babushkas sang like angels and the service proceeded. Glory again. How far back in time would this have been played out? Deep involvement was immediate in this other sublime magical world. One did not have to be a born again anything, or even not born at all to be transported to this kitsch free place of deep devotion. Like Bach’s B minor mass, an indelible memory.

Another ‘cordon zero’ meal was prepared and soon after that Moscow hoved into view. I hoped there were more people here than greeted Napoleon and there might be the odd PECTOPAH making an appearance. Esmeralda purred. Deo gratias…

Previous Chapter

In Vino Veritas 18

Suitably attired, we wnt off to the restaurant. And what a restaurant! Loads of chandeliers, plenty of rich brocade… the whole was redolent of a glorious imperial past.

Episode 18

As part of the ‘post Matisse’ calming down, the prospect of a good dinner was a fine distraction. Esmeralda WAS sulking, she needed the help of some very willing and good natured Russians to give her a push start. We eventually got our petrol but the notion of sauntering down to Moscow the following day was cause for anxiety.

Anyway, suitably attired, (including my old friend, the linen suit) we went off to the restaurant. AND what a restaurant!

Here was our ageing dowager incarnate. Loads of chandeliers, plenty of rich brocade, furniture not quite right, but pretty ornate as were the table settings. The whole was redolent of a glorious imperial past. As we sat down, we would not be surprised if Prince Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostova stepped out of the pages of War and Peace and wondered if they could join us for a couple of aperitifs. Our company was more mundane but agreeable enough and slightly bemused by their antipodean table sharers. A combination of fractured words and descriptive gestures sort of communicated. Somewhere between the main course and the sturdy Russian pudding the world changed.

Sadly I don’t have my own photograph, but this shows the Palkin, one of the oldest restaurants in St Petersburg.

Some ten years earlier, at the dreaded secondary school, we were lucky enough to have dancing lessons. One would keep this fact Sub Rosa, in that, if you bumped into a bunch of your well built rustic contemporaries, you would not announce how well your Scottish Country Dancing was coming along. Added to that, for some reason, I was quite stoked on the big band American music of the twenties and thirties. That fascination is no longer with me but it did crop up with our dancing teacher.
One day she happened to be playing this stuff at full tilt and I said how much I loved it. ‘Why don’t we dance to this stuff?’ I asked. ‘People do,’ came the reply, ‘let me show you the Charleston.’  Five minutes later, I was hooked. Her comment was ‘whether you like it or not, you are a natural with this dance. Be a devil, you clearly love it’. I did and I was good. Amazing turn of events.

Back to our restaurant…

Out of nowhere, a splendid big band roared into life. They had it all, classy trumpet, tenor and alto sax and clarinet soloists, a rhythm section that drove things along at a pace which would have given any American band a run for their money.
I got on the dance floor and re- entered this magic world, oblivious of time or space.


This was my own Russian Sputnik, a self-contained satellite that had its bum on fire and put on such a show. Poor Ronda was a bit upstaged by all this, the dining audience couldn’t get enough of it. Eat your hearts out, Fred and Ginger. I was in the grip of something else, transposed and transported. Talk about dancing all night…but after the third set, the band took a breather, and so did I. Magic, will live forever. My linen suit creaked at the seams but held together.

Later, normal life abruptly returned with my new best Russian friends. This took the form of a little chat between a Ukrainian and Georgian, conducted along pugilistic lines. It seems one of our heavily henna’d darlings had been playing both ends against the middle and the boys would settle the matter as to who would prevail. The bouncers determined the resolution would be decided somewhere along the Nevsky Prospect.

Next day, the drain of ballroom euphoria was accelerated by Esmeralda and her mega-sulk. No amount of cajoling or push starting or even the threat of Siberian exile had the slightest effect. Suddenly Moscow seemed a hell of a long way away. There would be more chance in Leningrad of finding a capitalist advice centre than there would be of coming across a VW garage.
We needed the services of a highly skilled mechanic, or there was me.

Dropped in mid-story? Read the beginning of our road trip here, or start from the beginning of my memoirs, way back in Tasmania…

In Vino Veritas 17

Episode 17

So, onwards to the town of Vyborg. After our adventures it was quite late before we fetched up at our ‘restaurant’. With a bit of transliteration it comes out in Russian as PECTOPAH, pretty easy to recognise. Good old St. Cyril, his alphabet (particularly when almost hand written on road signs) is pretty tricky, it became even trickier in the dead of night.

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The menu, at first glance, seemed impressive. In our subsequent meetings with stray westerners, (mostly stringers for western media), they pointed out that the menu was the same whether one was eating in Vyborg or Vladivostok, or any point in between.
The correlation of what was writ and what was in fact available, was very slight, if it existed at all.
In the event, food was provided and then we set off for Leningrad, as it then was. The journey was only 140 kilometres, a mere crossing the road by Russian standards, but the driving conditions were treacherous…AND….was Esmeralda sulking the teensiest bit?

In 1949, ‘The Third Man’ movie was produced. It was set in post war Vienna, an exhausted, cynical and wholly joyless city. This was compounded by the stunning cinematography and the musical score. Anton Karas’s ‘Harry Lime’ theme was a perfect fit. It all came flooding back. Did it ever.

I could hear the zither playing as we descended the hill into Leningrad. Darkened streets, everything either black or in shadow, or somewhere on the grey scale. Lifeless, eerie and almost menacing. We were the only thing that moved. Freezing. Dead.

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Leningrad USSR 1979 Photo Credit: Masha Ivashintsova / Masha Galleries

 

Things brightened up at the hotel. A good welcome and a good room. The whole building was a relic of an imperial and extravagant past. Like the city itself it exuded a faded grandeur, rather like an ageing dowager who had seen much better days.
As we checked in, our receptionist turned away from us and opened two huge cupboard doors in order to find something. Over his shoulder one could see an enormous stack of banded US dollars, these were juxtaposed with cases of top class Bordeaux reds and more bottles of single malt than you could shake a stick at.
Finally, the piles of western cigarettes would not disgrace a large tobacconists.
Somebody was doing alright.
The history of the city, from its decimated construction peasant workforce in 1703 to the unimaginable siege from 1941 to 1944 ( both involving the death of at least a million people ) is awesome. Not forgetting 1917 of course.

RIAN_archive_324_In_besieged_Leningrad
RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Architecturally, a baroque Italianate style abounds, the river Neva winding its way through this faded grandeur. For my part Leningrad meant, most of all, the Hermitage museum and its art collection. At college I came across an article about the Russian collector Schukin, whose collection ranged from Monet to Picasso. How was his judgement? Not bad it would seem. I wondered.

What happened next could have happened yesterday, the memory burns so bright.

The jewels in Schukin’s crown were as magnificent as they were unexpected. Two huge galleries of the great painter and colourist Henri Matisse reduced me to a quivering mass as I contemplated the scale of his achievement. God help us. These were all great works, no bad days, glory upon glory. Deepest joy.

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Images from the Hermitage Museum

But Leningrad had two more tricks up her sleeve, one even more unexpected than the last…

In Vino Veritas 16

 

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At primary school I used to gaze at the big world map in the classroom. For some reason, perhaps sheer scale, the image of Russia never failed to impress. Later this was reinforced by reading the great Russian writers, researching the history and climate, and, of course, the rich musical tradition.
As there was some speculation in the air about when we might return to the antipodes to meet respective families, it seemed like a good idea to pop over to Russia, then have a jolly little scenic journey down to Athens in order to get a ride home on a Boeing 707.
No problem. I had a little chat to our newly acquired Esmeralda of the advertisement about all this and I found her re-assurances comforting. BUT… Her clutch WAS fading.

Bookings were made with the Russian ‘Intourist’, and other more rudimentary preparations put in hand.
At this stage Brezhnev was in charge of that vast country and the Cold War was colder than ever. Speaking of which, the start of our journey was January/February, coinciding neatly with the Russian winter. I know why the French and the Germans failed.

First off to the Hook of Holland, then north to Hamburg, thence to Copenhagen, a ferry to Gothenburg in Sweden. Then a goodly drive through a rather bleak countryside to Stockholm. ‘Headlights’ was a misnomer for Esmeralda’s night driving kit, a warm glow would have covered it. Some of the villages seemed terribly isolated, and being shrouded in freezing fog didn’t help. A winter spent here would not appear in one of those ‘Best winter breaks’ that regularly appear in the Sunday comics.
From Stockholm we got the ice- breaker ferry (hmm …a warning) to Helsinki.
Finland’s relationship with its huge neighbour has always been uneasy, war between them breaking out in the 1940’s. By the time we got there Finland was independent but had to cede territory to the Russians in the process. A warm welcome was not part of the Helsinki Hotel package. It sort of had a police state feel to it, the booking procedure seemed almost clandestine, as though big brother was not far away. Bloody cold all round.
But not for the first, or the last time, a clue for the metaphorical chill could have been to do with the car. She had German transit number plates, this was not good.

Off to Russia! A quick spin along the Gulf of Finland coast road, (Sibelian memory music playing in my head) and, at last, the Russian border blocked our path.
We stopped abruptly. We had to. In a trice, the car was surrounded. We were ordered out.
With a flurry of strobe-like activity, door panels were removed, the petrol tank plumbed, under car mirrors produced, and ‘open the boot and the bonnet!’
The latter occasioned some mirth…’where was the bloody engine?’ (my translation).
The guards were obviously not familiar with Beetle engineering.
We were bundled into the reception area… a sort of college educated cow shed.
Documents were produced and given a thorough going over by the minions. Their grasp of English was slender, Ronda had thoughtfully brought a stack of her mothers letters, which were being read upside down. I kept my humour well concealed.
THEN! BINGO! Rather in the manner of the massive peroration that closes Sibelius 2, our rummage squad hit the jackpot. A COPY OF DR. ZHIVAGO! no less. OH JOY.
The commandant was summoned. After an eternity, a sworn document was produced that would make sure we would take the book home with us. Off we we went to Vyborg.

By now the encircling gloom had given way to a freezing fog which obscured the craters lurking in the Russian road. It was as though the Luftwaffe had just left.

Pitch black. We drove into a claustrophobic menacing forest. Then…

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The distress flare blaze of an intense light screamed into the car. We stopped. More lights appeared, bobbing about, rather like torches. A crash of gears. An army truck pulled in front of us. WHAT WAS THIS?
A load of squaddies spilled out of the truck and opened the car doors. Were they clutching fully loaded AK47’s? NO? They had handfuls of crisp rouble notes and they wanted to do a bit of late night shopping. Would one believe it?
The list was the usual….pens, chewing gum, cigarettes, booze, chocolates. American dollars. Even my jeans! We traded as best we could. It was all good natured and they left.

They could have just as easily dumped the car in a ravine in the forest, throttled the life out of the occupants and taken anything they wanted. Who would know?

A salutary thought.