We're a Smetana family of four people, a Jack Russell terrier,German Shorthair and two lofts full of birds...
Dušan Smetana: The Dreams Keep Coming
By Gene Yoes
In the movie “The Hunt for Red October,” Sam Neill plays Captain Vasily Borodin, the second in command to Sean Connery’s Capt. Marko Ramius. The story line involves Russian officers defecting and offering their state-of-the-art Russian submarine to America. Neill, dreaming of life in America says, “I will live in Montana. And I will marry a round American woman and raise rabbits, and she will cook them for me. And I will have a pickup truck... maybe even a recreational vehicle and drive from state to state. Do they let you do that?”
Switch to real life. Montana does indeed hold some romance to some reared in communist countries. Proof of this is Dušan Smetana, formerly of Czechoslovakia.
As a young boy in Europe, Dusan always dreamed of living in Montana. Dream Realized. He dreamed of being a magazine photographer of wildlife. Dream Realized. He also dreamed of racing pigeons. Dream Realized. His new dream is a regional long distance race, open to those west of the Rockies, similar to the New England Open, Midwest Classic and Southeastern Open. Dream Unrealized, at least at this time.
The Early Years
Smetana was from a small village of 300. “The only pastimes were soccer, pigeon racing, smoking and drinking,” he laughs. Later he adds that hunting and fishing were important pastimes, too, but they weren’t trophy hunters; they hunted for red deer, wild boar, rabbits and pheasants to supplement their diets.
“There was only one TV station, the government one, and it only broadcast in black and white from 3:00 in the afternoon till around 10:00 at night. In a communist society everyone is supposed to be working so no one should be at home to watch TV during the day. And you better be working; if you were walking down the street before 3:00 in the afternoon, the police would stop you and you had better have a permission slip from your government manager to not be at work.”
This was Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and ‘80s. Every third or fourth house in his small village had pigeons and many were racing pigeons. The village was so poor that it owned one racing clock that was passed around to a different flyer each season. “My father wouldn’t let me race pigeons. He thought that pigeons were too expensive to have because they ate as much as chickens but didn’t give you meat and eggs and they got lost on races,” remembers Dusan. “I was allowed to keep four pigeons but I was fascinated with racing pigeons, just like all the boys in my village. I would visit the racing men and offer to work in their lofts just to be around racing pigeons. On race day, my job was to stay at the loft, with my bicycle, and when a pigeon came in, I was given the metal countermark, which I put in my mouth, and was to ride as fast as I could to the home of the fancier with the clock.”
The emphasis in this small village was on long distance racing, with the longest race being 700 miles. There was little concentration on youngbird racing; this was just an education period for the young pigeons. “Each week, after the race, whoever was last on the race sheet had to take off his shirt and wear a shirt that said, ‘I am a Loser.’ It was always two sizes too small. He had to wear it in the village for a couple of days. It was a lot of fun!”
That was one form of entertainment, but his other was reading. Reading allowed him to travel to faraway places if only in his mind. “I used to read Zane Grey novels and James Fenimore Cooper. I read about Montana and cowboys, Indians and teepees. I would sneak the books into class and read instead of following the lesson. At night, I would pull the sheets over my head and read with a flashlight. When I was 11, I decided I wanted to live in Montana.”
“You went to school till you were 14 then you had to select your trade and start a three year trade school. There was no such thing as finishing college and then trying to decide what you wanted to do; you had to decide when you were 14,” he explains. He chose forestry.
His father reared Dušan. His parents had divorced and his mother married a West German and moved there. Dušan started making requests to government officials for a visa to visit his mother. These were ignored. He finished school and worked as a lumberjack, but never gave up on his dream of leaving Czechoslovakia. He kept applying for visas. Finally, the local managers told him that he would get one if he enlisted and served two years in the army. He enlisted. When he returned, he came back and said, “I served my two years, can I have my visa to visit my mother?” But there were new managers and they set up further conditions before he could get his visa.
Incensed, he began a letter writing campaign – to his manager’s manager, and his manager’s manager’s manager, continuing right up the chain-of-command. One of his letters fell on the desk of a higher-up, a former general. The ex-military man gave permission to the former soldier to visit his mother. The local managers were not happy, but they had no choice. But bribes were offered him. “They told me that when I came back, they were going to give me a new chainsaw and more schooling, and other things,” he laughs. The managers knew what happened when one escaped the bonds of communism and experienced the rewards of capitalism and got a taste of freedom.
There was one stumbling block. His mother had moved from West Germany to Sarasota, Florida. He had to apply again but eventually got his visa. “In 1989, when I landed in New York City, I couldn’t believe all the different kinds of people there. When I arrived in Florida, my mother took me to Wal-Mart. I was fascinated. There was more than one kind of shoe, different kinds of clothes, so many different kinds of tools. I stayed there the rest of the day, just walking up and down the aisles amazed at the variety and technology. The next day they asked me where I wanted to go and I said, ‘Wal-Mart!’ I even went back a third day. It was unbelievable!”
But the “unbelievables” kept coming. He had only been in America one month and there was a revolt in Czechoslovakia. After spending six years trying to escape communism, he found out that had he waited only one more month he would have been able to leave anyway. “I remember watching President Reagan saying, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ I watched CNN day and night watching what was going on back in Czechoslovakia.”
But his mother didn’t care for Florida and moved back to West Germany just three months after he arrived. Dušan decided to stay in the US. The young Slovak worked days on a garbage truck, attending English classes at night. “Life was good,” he exclaims. Dušan had told his teacher about reading about Montana. One day, she told him that her friend Millicent Hampton was moving to Montana with her two children and a Jack Russell terrier and could use help driving. He was off to this dream land.
Dušan landed in Bozeman, the fourth largest city in Montana, population 30,000. It is located one hundred miles northwest of Yellowstone National Park. His first job in Montana was working on a farm.
Dušan was renting a home that was for sale. The listing firm rented to him for a reduced rate if he kept up the property and agreed to get out if it sold. One day a couple came to look at the house. In conversation, the prospective buyer, Mike Barlow, told Dušan that he was a wildlife photographer and invited the young immigrant to his studio.
“I remember walking in and seeing all of these beautiful slides he had taken after a shoot in Alaska. Besides forestry, I had studied photography in Czechoslovakia. I decided I wanted to be a photographer. We became friends and would go fishing together and I’d borrow cameras and go on his shoots. I was able to buy a good camera when I was a student at Montana State and learned how easy it was for a college student to get a credit card. The first one I got, I used up all the $5000 line of credit on a good camera and lenses.
“I started shooting people because everyone shoots wildlife photos. They don’t want to take people photos because of the hassle of getting permission. I wish I had kept all my rejection letters.”
Dušan has now shot wildlife, hunting and fishing photos all over North and South America for such magazines as Field & Stream, Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, National Geographic, Smithsonian and Sports Illustrated; newspapers such as the New York Times and USA Today; catalogues such as Cabela’s, Patagonia, Orvis, and L. L. Bean; and for brochures for companies like Nissan, Browning, Remington and Budweiser. Today he has a contract with the State of Montana for a series of Montana life photos. The fishing and hunting magazines have sent him travelling over three continents just to produce photos for features written by others. For a man who loves the outdoors, what a life!
Though he has a great photographic eye, he plays it down. “As with anything in life, I think if you focus on one thing, you become good at it. It isn’t necessarily talent, it is just the ability to focus on one thing and doing it all the time allows you to become good at it. Talent is when you give a little 11-year-old gypsy boy in a small village a fiddle and after twenty minutes of fooling around with it, he can create a tune even though he never saw a fiddle before. He can hear the rhythm – that is talent.”
But Dušan is wrong; no matter how much you teach someone how to use a camera, they still must “see” the shoots worth taking. He has that eye. And that eye has transformed his dream into reality. Check out some of his photographs at http://www.DusanSmetana.com
Unlike Capt Borodin, Dušan did marry an American woman, just not a “round” one. Dušan met and married Lorca, a resident of Orcas Island in Washington State who had come to Montana to visit her sister.
One day, while driving home, he saw a flock of pigeons flying. He followed them to the home of Don Corcoran, a former WW II army pigeonier and friend of Charles Heitzman. Dušan introduced himself, visited the loft and offered to be the loft man, just as he had offered in the faraway village, just to be with the pigeons and learn. Corcoran already had a loft manager so Dušan was out of luck. There was no club in 1994; Corcoran sent his youngsters to futurities.
Lorca once asked Dušan what life was like in his small village. He told her, with glee, about pigeon racing and how his father wouldn’t let him race. Unbeknownst to him, she started searching the Internet and soon found out there was a club in Bozeman. She contacted David Rewitz clubs secretary, found out that they were going to have a club meeting in three months to give out bands and the club invited them to attend. All she shared with Dušan was that there was a function they had to go in three months and got an early commitment from him that he would go. He thought it was some “woman’s function” that he was committing to attending.
Three months later Lorca, excited about her secret mission, reminded him of his promise. At the time Dušan was building their home on a higher interest construction loan and didn’t want to go, but relented – a promise is a promise. They arrived at a local restaurant and he saw a table, surrounded by men who were each holding a string of pigeon bands. Wasn’t that a wonderful coincidence? What a wife! He sat down and one of the members, Jim Miller, untied his string, handed Dušan one green band, number 001, and told him, “Welcome to the club; it is all about winning the 500 mile race.”
Dušan immediately called the bank, which had made the construction loan, and said, “I need more lumber.” He didn’t tell them for what. He worked on both the house and loft at the same time. The club sponsored a youngbird auction but Dušan had a photo assignment and couldn’t attend. Lorca stepped in, bid and got 12 youngbirds from prices of five to ten dollars. The club members let her win every bid. He was given old Digests to read, he ordered books from Europe; he read everything he could find.
As long as he was excited about another dream coming true, he dreamed of winning his first pigeon race. He did – in his very first race! In fact, that first season he won several youngbird races, and many youngbird awards. “I wondered if they let me win to motivate me. Rewitz said, ‘No, we don’t let anyone win, you have to earn it.’” Then he finally realized that the older members were really only interested in the long distance old bird races so it wasn’t that hard to win youngbird races.
“I always remembered what Jim Miller told me – ‘It is all about winning the 500 mile race.’ When I would be mating my birds, I would be wondering if one of them would produce a 500-mile winner. When I would fly a 100-mile race, I would be still thinking, ‘It is all about winning the 500 mile race.’ In my first 500 mile race, the man who said, ‘It is all about winning the 500 mile race’ ended up winning it.” Dusan was 3rd; not bad for a new flyer in his first 500.
The Bozeman club is the Bridger Mountain Racing Pigeon Club. The band letters are BMT. www.bmtpigeon.com At the time he joined, six years ago, there were eight members and they flew from the west. The birds had to cross the Continental Divide as well as two more mountain ranges. Three of the long distance masters, though, aren’t racing now. The club is down to five or six active lofts and they now fly from the south. It is a friendly and helpful club, and a social one.
“The Snake River Valley Club in Idaho Falls helps us enormously. We couldn’t accomplish nearly as many races as we do if they weren’t there for us. They are located 160 miles to the south. We fly our 100 mile race on our own, but after that, we have a combine with them, the Western Open Combine and they take our birds farther south, releasing them with their own. The best races for us are the 300s and 400s because we are flying 150 miles farther. It is great that the clubs work together. In the mountain states, pigeon clubs and pigeon flyers are few and far between; you have to work together to race and to cut costs. SRV club have an agreement with the club from Beaver, UT that flies from their north. They are 400 miles south of Idaho Falls. As the season progresses, we eventually meet in the middle, exchange birds, and they release our birds on the longer stations and we release theirs on their longer races. This way, neither club drives more than 200 miles to ship the birds. There is another club even farther south, which also helps us,” said Dušan.
According to Dušan, the Bozeman birds have to make a decision when they get to the town of West Yellowstone 100 miles before home – they have to choose a valley. “The birds have to pick from three valleys. Some fly Paradise Valley, which goes through Yellowstone National Park, or the Gallatin or Madison Valleys.” The three valleys are parallel with significant mountains among them. But the valleys are high.” There is a rise of maybe 1000 feet elevation between Idaho Falls and Bozeman so the birds have to fight mountains, windy valleys, and climbing. In the wide valleys, birds of prey are less effective but when the valleys narrow, this also affects returns. “If they choose the wrong valley, you lose,” Dušan notes.
Faced with these conditions, Dušan understands that winning 1st isn’t the goal in his flying. It is seldom a fair contest since the two clubs’ birds are facing such different race conditions. “I don’t look at who won the race; I look at the number of birds one puts in the top 20% as the measure of how well a flyer is doing. Congratulations to the guy who won the race, but if I put more birds in the top 20%, I think I flew a great race. I am looking for team performance, even better if the nominated pigeons come in first. That is the ultimate.”
By concentrating on the long distance races, Dusan is satisfied that he is developing a good long distance family. The number of his birds in the top 20% increases every year. “I started with birds from the local long distance flyers, some birds from Drew Lesofski so I had a good start. These birds are bred down from generations of birds that have mastered the Rockies.”
He has had some success with birds from Slovakian friends in the United States Andrej Ciz and Ronald Kociscak, and even imported “some eggs” from the Slovakian champion, Peter Matalik, who happened to live two villages away from his own small village. “I also got very good pigeon from Jim Hewitt from Idaho and we became good friends. I am not just looking for good pigeons but also for good pigeon friends! I have tried other birds from out of the area, but often it seems that they just can’t handle the conditions we fly in. They have to cross huge Rocky Mountains and too many young birds try to fly around them and that’s impossible. By the third race, the young ones you still have are the ones that will stay with you for a while.”
He offered this reflection: “There are plenty of good birds around, but very few special birds, birds that you can count on over and over again and in every kind of condition. I judge these by four years of flying or around 25 races.”
The New Dream
Satisfied with his results from the 500, Dusan began looking for a new and greater challenge. In his combine, all the birds fly the same direction. Dusan thought that a bigger test would be to have birds from other areas make one big release, with birds flying in all different directions. “This would test a bird’s orientation and independence. You don’t get that when they are all flying the same direction in your own club and combine.”
His concept was the “Western Open,” where clubs from Montana, Idaho, Washington, Utah, Oregon and northern California would have a joint release in someplace in Nevada like Winnemucca, Carson City etc. Besides club and combine results, there would be a regional result. “It would give flyers in small clubs a great test, a great opportunity to show what they can do against clubs in other areas, in other states. I’ve already been told that the Digest would welcome an article on the birds and methods of the winners so our flyers could get national recognition. It gives you a chance to compete in a unique competition that only occurs once a year.
“The new race is just trying to raise the bar for both pigeon flyers and the pigeons. You will have the opportunity to see which ones are smart and independent, which ones will pull away and go to their own loft; everybody would find out which are really their best pigeons even if they don’t place well in the overall results. It is the test that is important.”
It was tried this year. The Spokane club, CAMP club, BMT club and the Idaho Falls club were going to have a joint release at a station that Spokane already fly’s, but it didn’t happen. Some flyers thought the race was too late. Some were hesitant about sending their birds from the south race course to a release in a different direction.
“I’m still hoping that we can get the clubs to cooperate for a grand regional race like the New England Open, Midwest and Southeastern Open. It would be a great opportunity for flyers in small and remote clubs. It would give our birds a sterner test so that we could further evaluate them and breed better pigeons. It would give some good flyers and breeders the publicity they deserve. I’m not giving up,” promises Dušan.
Life is Good
Dusan Smetana has come a long way from a communist village in Czechoslovakia. ‘If you can’t make it in America, you can’t make it anywhere. There is so much opportunity. If you lose a job, you look for another one the next day. Find another job, even if it different. You don’t sit around whining and crying about it – that is wasted energy and gets you nowhere. That is why immigrants do so well here – they don’t have family support to fall back on, to take care of them while they are feeling sorry for themselves.
“That is the problem in America for Americans. How do you motivate your children without giving them the money you worked hard for when what you want to do is encourage them? How do you help them move on after a hardship? If you give them money to tide them over, you remove some of the motivation to snap out of it and move on.”
He made it to Montana, just like he wanted. He dreamed of a wife and family, and he and Lorca have two children, Miša and Natalia, whose middle names are both Montana, a tribute to his adopted state. Their first names were arrived at by assigning several favourite name options to pigeons in a race and seeing who came in first. He lives in a house he designed and built, which sits on a little rise in the river basin of the Gallatin River, southwest of Bozeman. His land in Montana is composed of meadows and small groves of trees, including a stand of aspens in which sits a bona fide tepee, courtesy of his first friend Millicent from Florida. It is quite large, large enough to accommodate two double beds, a table and chairs and a fire pit in the center. Visitors are invited to spend the night and gaze upon the stars through the ventilation hole in the center. From their back porch, they have seen bear, mountain lion, moose, deer and elk, but nothing has gone after the pigeons. He says that he doesn’t have the falcon and hawk problems that plague others. “The bald eagles,redtails and ravens chase them out of their territories.” So there you have it—move your home and loft into a bald eagle’s territory to cut down on falcon and hawk attacks.
He makes a living photographing the wildlife of Montana and has achieved accolades for that. And he is flying pigeons, just like he dreamed. And oh, yes, the name of the loft is “Montana Loft.” If he could only achieve his dream of the Western Open, his life would nearly be complete.
What do you say to an immigrant living the American Dream? Easy— “Howdy partner! Win any 500s lately?” One more dream waiting to be realized – and hopefully it will, because pigeon racing in the northwest mountain states will be better for it. www.westernopen.org