In 1945, in the streets of newly liberated Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, Jarmila McMullen learned how to dance the jitterbug.
After American forces moved into the city in early May, in the final days of fighting in World War II’s European theater, the city celebrated the end of six years of German occupation.
“They came in and threw a party,” said McMullen, 85, who grew up in Pilsen and now lives in Raleigh.
She was 16 then, and as the music of Benny Goodman and George Gershwin drifted though the air, she learned dance crazes fresh from the United States – even with her mother by her side as a silent escort.
That year, on July 4, when the U.S. military held a parade that went through the city’s main square, McMullen and other girls and women lined the steps of a monument there. They wore traditional dresses trimmed in lace and stitched with embroidery and cheered as the soldiers paraded by.
In 1948, as communists took over the country’s government, McMullen left to study in the U.S. and couldn’t venture back often. By 1980, she and her late husband, William McMullen, had moved to Raleigh.
For years, she followed the news and heard stories from family and friends about life under the repressive government, then the Velvet Revolution in 1989, and eventually the splitting of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Amid all the changes, she never forgot those heady, joyous days from just after the war and all they had meant to her.
“We thought we were free again,” she said.
Last month, McMullen picked up a section of The News & Observer and saw a photograph of the square on the day of the parade, the women at the monument blurry behind an Army truck carrying U.S. soldiers.
“I would recognize that corner of the square anywhere, anytime,” she said.
The photograph accompanied a story about Allen D. Evans, a staff sergeant with the Army’s 76th Field Artillery Battalion during WWII. Last month, he was awarded the French Legion of Honor for his service in France during the war. In the photo, Evans holds an American flag on a pole.
McMullen knew right away that she and Evans, now 89, almost certainly had passed within feet of one another at the parade and that he likely shared memories of Pilsen immediately after the war.
She was able to contact him at his home in Chapel Hill, and the two recalled together what Pilsen was like in 1945.
He remembered how much he had loved kolache, a Czech pastry. She remembered how her mother baked it for the U.S. soldiers after the war.
“It was a lot of fun,” she said. “It brought back an awful lot of memories.”
In a written account of his experiences in the war, Evans remembers the parade as hours long and wonders whether the show of military might impressed the Russians.
He wrote about setting up a PX for the troops and how he headed into Pilsen each week to buy beer, a process that involved a drink with everyone in charge of different parts of the local brewery.
McMullen said she hesitated to contact Evans after seeing the photograph, not wanting to intrude on the celebration of his award or his remembrances of the war.
But she decided that a shared memory was worth recognizing, even decades later, for the story it told about a special summer day in Pilsen and the way connections can be found in the oddest of places.
“You never know what’s going to happen in your life,” she said.