For Southerners, it’s been a snowy winter. A few December flakes teased us, just hominy snow, no accumulation, but then a February blanket of white cloaked the land. And many of us watched the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, where it snows most nights.
Against that splendid wintry backdrop in a place called Whistler, I saw a Georgian (the far away version) die. Snow and death, what a mix.
Coming out of turn 16, Nodar Kumaritashvili flew off the sledding track at nearly 90 mph, striking a metal pole. And so the people of Georgia, that Georgia in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, mourned when they had hoped to celebrate.
Suddenly, it was September 1972. How well I remember the events of September 4 through 6, 1972. My firstborn daughter, Beth, was on the way. Her mother was having contractions even as the “Munich Massacre” was about to burst onto the world stage. “Black September,” a Palestinian militant group, took over the Olympics with their black, hooded faces and upgraded AK-47 assault rifles.
As evil terrorists (redundant by design) practiced treachery, my first daughter entered this world in the little clinic attached to the doctor’s house on the outskirts of my small hometown. The doctor, his wife, and I watched and waited as Elizabeth Walker Poland made her debut in this crazed world. Family members stood just beyond the clinic’s door waiting outside. A boy or girl? Suddenly some crying, a glance. A girl!
The night Beth entered this life, my sister celebrated her birthday as well by welcoming her new niece into the family. Thousands of miles away in Munich, terrorists were kidnapping sleeping Israeli athletes.
We took Beth to my mom’s and there, I watched on TV, as the world did, the gut-wrenching standoff as the terrorists made demands. In a protracted, botched showdown, police officers killed five of the eight members of Black September.
It ended in complete tragedy when a terrorist tossed a hand grenade into a hostage-filled helicopter at Fürstenfeldbruck. Sheer madness. Terrorists had killed eleven Israeli athletes and coaches and one West German police officer. The surviving terrorists were taken into custody and held for trial.
On October 29, six weeks later, hijackers of a Lufthansa airliner demanded the release of the surviving terrorists arrested after the gunfight at Fürstenfeldbruck. They were released but nonetheless marked for death. Over the years, the long arm of retribution reached out. One died of a heart attack. The Mossad tracked down and killed the planners and participants responsible for the Munich massacre. One hostage-taker remains alive, living underground, looking over his shoulder a way of life. Good. While we wring our hands and call for summits, the Israelis let their actions do the talking.
Memories of Munich … I have them and more. With a friend, Bavarian born who spent her first seven years in Bogen, I flew into Munich 28 years after the ’72 Summer Olympics. As the plane banked steeply bringing the city into view, I saw red tile roofs and green forests. The red tiles surprised me, seeming more Mediterranean. Turns out they handle snow quite well.
Soon we were speeding down the autobahn. We passed a monstrous BMW factory where a car I once owned, black and sleek, made its debut into this fevered world. Seeing the factory brought a rush of memories. Sometimes I get an otherworldly feeling when I travel and this was such a time. Moments played in my head like a finely edited film montage … select life scenes. There come moments when we relive our lives in a matter of seconds, retracing events, unraveling the whys and whatnots of our lives. Growing up in Lincolnton, my firstborn’s first night in the world, a black BMW, and images of terrorists on red tile rooftops played in my mind as I rode along the autobahn, that highway of legend. I had a feeling that, well, that I did not belong here. Like many Southern fellows from a small town or some far-flung rural outpost, I always get a mixed feeling of joy and homesickness when I venture far from home. Such was the case in Germany. An elated homesickness gripped me.
But there I was. I spent two memorable weeks in Deutschland, living amidst Germans, running each morning along the banks of the Danube, buying crystal at a village near the Austrian border, and seeing cathedrals older than our country. It was an indelible adventure for many reasons, not the least of which was the horsemeat sausage I ate unknowingly at a German beer fest in a hamlet named Bogen. My friend who speaks fluent German, caught a word, “pferd,” and grabbed me, saying something like, “Das pferd,” horsemeat. “Don’t eat that.” A German fellow stared at me to see what this Georgia boy would do. I took three more bites, but that was it.
Moments of humor keep us sane. My sister, her husband, and daughter had an adventure of their own in Munich a few years back: the Munich Luggage Disaster. Their daughter had lived in Italy that summer and thus had ample luggage. And then my sister added her luggage to the total. The girls had way too much luggage in her husband’s opinion. I’m not taking sides, but I recall being her pack mule for a two-week tour through Spain and Italy in 2001.
On the day they were to leave Munich to fly to London, her husband told her, “I’m not fooling with getting all this luggage on the train to the airport.” He called a taxi and a big gruff-looking guy arrived. This no-nonsense fellow loaded the suitcases in his taxi’s trunk. As all three walked out to the cab, the guy struggled with his trunk. My sister’s husband, thinking the guy couldn’t close his trunk, turned and said. “See! I knew you brought too much damn luggage.”
“It doesn’t have a thing to do with how much luggage we have,” she said. “Your taxi driver just locked his keys in the trunk with our luggage.”
“Our plane leaves in two hours,” she told the driver.
“No problem, ladee, I get you there. No problem. I drive fast,” adding that someone from his company was on the way to open the trunk.
An hour later, nobody had come. Hotel staff tried to pull the back seat out. It didn’t work. Meanwhile, Mr. Gruff Taxi Guy stands around smoking, doing nothing.
They missed their flight. Only then did a hotel worker come out with something resembling a small breast suction pump. He stuck it on the keyhole, and the trunk popped open. The taxi driver, elated, thought he would still drive them to the airport and snag some euros.
My sister stood her ground. “No. In America, we tell people (Donald Trump style) you’re fired.” Then she informed him that his cab company owed them $225 for having to rebook flights. All this time he had spoken pretty decent English.
Suddenly, “Ladee, I no understand. I speak little English.”
Ten hours late, their trip resumed and they saw things they wouldn’t have seen otherwise and we all had a good laugh over their misadventure in Munich. And let me add that through her grit, determination, and persistence, the taxi company wired her $225 a month later.
Madness, misadventures, and memorable moments … Yes, I remember Munich and more for many reasons and I doubt I ever will go back, though I’d love the chance. But who knows what life has in store for you. Sadly, the Israeli athletes knew. During hostage negotiations, the mayor of the Olympic Village, allowed briefly into their apartments, was moved by their dignity. They were, he said, resigned to their fate. They knew too well their destiny.
The world’s a crazy place. The birth of a child, the death of Olympic athletes … it happened in a matter of hours. A trip to Munich … BMWs, horsemeat and luggage … Some 38 years later it all came rushing back to me when a young man, a different kind of Georgian, died in a place called Whistler.