By age 25, she was one of the world's top models. Now, Petra Nemcova is best known for being the woman who, for several hours, desperately clung to a tree, her pelvis broken in four places and her legs unable to move, when the catastrophic tsunami struck South Asia on Dec. 26.
Her boyfriend, British photographer Simon Atlee, was one of 250,000 people forever swept away by the massive waves, as we read in "Love Always, Petra: A Story of Courage and the Discovery of Life's Hidden Gifts." (All proceeds of the book benefit the Give 2 Asia Happy Hearts Fund, a tsunami relief fund.)
But what's also worth noting in this amazing story of hope, faith and survival is how Miss Nemcova has woven into its pages the story of her childhood, spent under the specter of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. She sat down to discuss her book with this columnist late yesterday, and compared her country's 40-year struggle for freedom to what citizens in Iraq are fighting for today.
"I was baptized in the Catholic Church, but I didn't grow up with religion. This isn't surprising, since the communists didn't encourage religion any more than they did humor," she writes. "Every day was a struggle for people like my parents. ... Young as I was, during the first decade of my life, I did have a sense of the heaviness all around. It's difficult for people in the free world to imagine what it was like.
"I can tell you about some of the repression and deprivation, but what's harder to tell you about is the 'grayness,' the sadness, which was in the very air we breathed. The regime had an iron fist, and we were weighed down by rules and regulations."
Communist rulers, she says, worked day and night to ban any Western influence, allowing no independent newspapers, magazines or broadcast news reports. Hollywood movies were considered among the biggest threats - "they simply weren't shown. Control was the key, and it was everywhere."
Even in school.
"Actually, discipline was the most important subject, and it was rigidly enforced," she says. "We had no type of recess; we couldn't run, we couldn't even walk around on our own. During breaks we marched around in a circle in pairs. Every time we passed a teacher, we had to cry out, 'Cest praci,' which means 'Viva work.' We were always saluting work."
Yesterday, it was the large turnout of Iraqis casting votes in their historic parliamentary elections that Miss Nemcova was saluting.
"You have to take a risk for what you believe in," she says. "If you are fearful and never try, then you never achieve anything.
"It may well take many years for stabilization and democracy in Iraq; it will not happen overnight," she says. "But I'm confident it will happen, and I personally wish them the very best."
100 AND COUNTING
In less than a year's time, freshman Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican, has become one of the more familiar faces on Capitol Hill.
We wrote in September about when Price's colleagues crowned him the "gold minuteman," because of his knack for delivering one-minute speeches on the floor of the House drawing attention to the hot-button issue of the day, whether it was Social Security or the war in Iraq.
The congressman - the first state Republican majority leader in the history of Georgia, who was elected to Capitol Hill without opposition in November 2004 - has now delivered his milestone 100th floor speech.
A medical doctor in real life (he speaks from experience when the debate turns to health care), Price was appointed deputy assistant whip by then-House Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri. He also serves on the National Republican Congressional Committee's executive board.
One of the top 10 conservative colleges in the country happens to sit in the shadow of Washington.
Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., has just been ranked one of the top 10 conservative colleges in the United States, judged each year by Young America's Foundation for discovering, maintaining and strengthening the conservative values of their students.
"Most offer coursework and scholarship in conservative thought and emphasize principles of smaller government, strong national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values. A number have a religious affiliation, but some do not," says Tom McFadden, director of admissions and marketing at Christendom, a Roman Catholic liberal-arts college.