I am sure you, like me, have been asked that question. Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is where you were on the morning of 9/11. That was a date that marked us all, the memory of that day’s activities indelibly imprinted as news of the terror attacks flashed across TV screens. But for those of us fortunate enough to have lived at various places around the world and at key points of history (thanks to frequent Army moves) there are other intersections of place and events that stay crystal clear in the memory. Here is one of my “where were you when” moments.
Eric and I were living in Germany in 1972, an exciting time as Munich prepared to host the Summer Olympics. Thirty-six years after Hitler’s showcase summer games in Berlin, Germany was set to show off its vibrant and prosperous new post-war image.
Welcoming more than 7,000 athletes representing 121 countries, Munich opened the Games on 26 August.
American swimmer Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals and Soviet teen sensation Olga Korbut’s two Gymnastic gold medals became memorable highlights of the Games. Unfortunately, these accomplishments would be eclipsed by other news. Early on the morning of 5 September, the peaceful international atmosphere of the Olympic Village was horribly shattered. Palestinian terrorists known as Black September broke into the rooms of the Israeli Wrestling Team, killing 2 and taking 9 hostages. By early morning 6 September, all 9 hostages and 1 German police officer had been murdered.
Eric was assigned at Herzo Base, a former Luftwaffe base outside the small Bavarian village of Herzogenaurach (115 miles north of Munich). Serving with him was a dear friend, fellow field artilleryman and classmate, Bill Rice, (https://thedaysforward.com/bill-rice/ and another look at the Olympics 1972 https://thedaysforward.com/life-in-germany-1972/) and also Joel Pigott, USMA ‘68 grad and friend from Cadet Company A-2.
Joel’s wife was German and had access to much coveted Olympic tickets as the Executive Secretary to Rudolph Dassler, owner of Puma, an international sporting goods company headquartered in this small village.
Also headquartered in the town was its highly competitive rival Adidas, owned by Rudolph’s estranged brother Adolf (Adi). Family animosity often created friction and division within the town; however, these two billion-dollar giants today maintain a much friendlier rivalry. In fact, a film of this famous rivalry, Adidas vs Puma, was released in 2016. Herzo Base has long since disappeared, its location now upscale housing for Herzogenaurach’s international industries.
Back to our “where were you when” story. Months before the Olympics opened, with tickets all but impossible to get, Joel offered us the ultimate jackpot prize, two tickets for the morning of 7 September, compliments of Puma. We were now among the fortunate few! However, I could never have imagined how marked by tragedy that date would be, following the terrorist attack and a memorial service for the 11 murdered Israelis.
Eric and I had looked forward to the upcoming track and field events, but now a dark shroud hung over Munich and the Olympics. Arriving that morning, we found the Olympic Village and venues somber, only light traffic, and sparse attendance in the stadium. We watched several qualifying races, and various field events but not the one runner we were hoping to see, Jim Ryun, the world record holder in the 1,500-meter (3 minutes, 33.1 seconds). We were to miss him by a day.
Jim Ryun’s now ill-fated run occurred on 8 September, when he tripped, fell, and was knocked unconscious for several seconds in the qualifying heat of the 1,500-meter race and failed to qualify. Although he was obviously fouled, Olympic officials verbally shrugged, “It’s unfortunate what happened to you. Why don’t you come back in four years and try again?” ** By his own admission, he was angry and bitter, but years later wrote, “I can say that Munich really was the beginning of our lives. We had become Christians that spring, and the challenge of Munich forced us to grow up very fast. We developed a whole new understanding of forgiveness.” ** I might add from a vantage point of hindsight; his best run was yet to be. In 1996 he ran successfully for the US Congress and served five terms as a Representative from Kansas. Jim Ryun was awarded the Medal of Freedom on July 24, 2020 by President Trump.
The events of that Olympics not only altered Jim Ryun but they altered in part how Munich and Israel would come to view terrorism and security. Fast forward 14 years to 1986. Eric and I, along with sons Paul and Jed, once again were living in Germany, in the beautiful Bavarian town of Augsburg. We arrived in 1985 during their 2,000th year anniversary celebration! Talk about encountering history!
During that assignment we took a week-long trip to Israel in November 1986. Preparing to board the El Al flight from Munich to Tel Aviv, we experienced the most comprehensive and thorough security checks we have ever witnessed, long before the all-too-familiar protocols instituted following 9/11. We, along with all the other passengers in our tour group, were individually interrogated, luggage was randomly searched, then we were bussed out to our plane located on an isolated section of runway. As we at last began to taxi for take-off Eric looked out the windows on either side of the plane. Two German Polizei armored vehicles with mounted machine guns tracked close by the wingtips and accompanied us all the way down the runway. All access roads to the runway were simultaneously blocked by armored vehicles; the airport virtually shut down to see the flight become airborne! I felt a moment of panic at all the security precautions but my calm husband assured me that it was because of the security measures that I should sit back and relax. Fourteen years after the Munich massacre, it was very obvious Munich had not forgotten the summer of 1972, nor had we. I doubt that the exact same security measures for El Al flights are practiced today but “where we were when” in 1972 dictated our departure experience in 1986. We had slipped in and out of Munich’s tumultuous and tragic summer Olympic games of 1972 and “where we were when” in 1986 brought back a deja vu moment and a reminder how events change people and even nations.
** Quotations from an article in Vox as told to Eleanor Barkhorn