Ken Leighton 7:59 a.m., May 22
The German language is often almost cute in its simple logic. Decade is Jahrzehn or "year-ten" and century is "year-hundred." A thimble is a "finger-hat," a racoon is a "wash-bear," and a telephone is a "far-talker."
Now I'm at the end of a stay in Munich, after a month-long intensive language course. I´d already learned a bit as a soldier here 35 years ago, and got a good introduction this time to how much of the language I still don´t know. Just the same, the lady I´m renting the room from converses with me easily and yesterday invited me to stay an extra day to rest up before setting out on a two-week trip with a Eurailpass. Thus am I here in the lab at the institute on my last official day as a student, reflecting on The Meaning of it All.
My room is on the edge of Olympiapark, site of the ´72 Olympics which are this summer being somewhat wistfully celebrated with a weeks-long festival called "Tollwood." Just about anytime I go anywhere I pass by the plaque at one end of the uniquely styled Olympiahalle, with the names of the eleven Israeli athletes and one German police officer who died in the terrorist attack during the 1972 games.
Anton Fliegerbauer was that German police officer, and with some research I know a little of him. He was probably typical of the times, with longish hair and sideburns and a neaty trimmed mustache. He was trained as a SWAT officer, but gives the appearance, with the passage of time, of being somewhat self-consciously eager to show that he was hip to the seventies version of "cool," and--most important of all--not a power-tripping Nazi. I saw many of that type in Frankfurt in the late ´70s, police officers who looked more like well-groomed hippies dressed up as police officers.
His death, in the very Big Picture, perhaps made the tragedy less damaging to international relations than it otherwise might have been, to the extent that it had to happen at all. The Germans lost a good man as well, in a terriby botched but well-intentioned effort to save the Israeli hostages.
On another edge of the park stands the old Olympic Village that housed the athletes. It is now a rather up-scale apartment complex. Another plaque there also marks the site of the apartment where the Israeli athletes were taken hostage. Like the memorial at the entrance to the Olympiahalle, it almost always has a lingering visitor or two. I asked a fellow in my politest German, as he stood there hesitantly with his camera, whether he wanted me to take a picture of the plaque with him beside it. He gave me an emphatically negative reply, of the type a man only gives when embarrassed at being on the verge of tears.
Last night I sat until late on the balcony of my room, drinking the discount supermarket beer and falling deep into one of those funks that usually results in the creation of one of these stories. At times, through the wonders of the developments of the past 40 years, it seems like I never left San Diego. I´ve done online banking, paid bills back home, and used the local ATMs without mishap. My sister had a question about a matter relating to dad´s estate. I sent her a quick email reply, remembering what a BFD it was to try to get in contact with someone back home or take care of any kind of business when I was stationed here in the ´70s. One of my best buddies has a look at my condo every week or so to make sure all is well. We´d never communicated much in writing before, and though it´s almost as if we were sitting in his yard talking as we often do it´s also kind of different.
My classmates in the course were young; in some cases their parents are probaby as much as a decade younger than myself. They were polite and even quite pleasant to me, but I tried to give them space and not hang out too long when we´d hang out together, knowing that I´m not really one of them and never could be even if I wanted to. This becomes apparent especially when we´d discuss--what is to me at least--recent history. We all chose a German song from YouTube to play during the end of term party, and my choice of "99 Luftballoon" seemed as ancient to them as a Vaudeville number.
The ´72 Olympics I remember vividly though, and this trip has just seemed so odd. As a kid getting ready to start my last year of high school that summer, I´d never have believed that 40 years later so much is--technology aside--not really that different in my life. The good buddy of mine who checks on my condo was a good buddy of mine in ´72. The gal I realized over that summer ´72 that I had feelings for is the reason why I stopped over in Miami on the way here in 2012. I walked by the convention center in Miami Beach on one of those days there just a month ago, and found it odd to think about the events of that same summer that gave us Nixon and McGovern as the presidential choices during the last presidential election in which I was still too young to vote.
I took care of a neighbor´s yard that summer, and remember the old lady who was housesitting for them at the corner of Acorn and Seminole Drive. Out of sheer loneliness, I guess, she´d invite me in some of those summer evenings to watch TV. I´d never travelled much at that point in my life, but remember the conventions and the Olympic Games and the utter shock as that old lady and I sat before the TV and learned that the Israeli hostages all had died.
Life went on just the same, as I believe one Olympic official crudely put it at the time, and my friends and I enjoyed those last pleasant weeks before school started again. One was a couple of years older and already out of high school, with a car his folks had given him as a graduation present and a job at a supermarket in Del Mar. He´d cruise the rest of us around to the beach and such, and in the evenings we´d listen sometimes to records on the nice stereo system in his room at his folks´house.
In that clueless teenager´s way, I´d failed to get the gal´s number or walk her home during the school year to know where she lived, so I´d sometimes just walk around at dusk wondering if maybe I´d run into her. She studied a lot and was learning English as a second language, so a couple of times I´d walk up to the library at SDSU, which had been a favorite place of my own since junior high years. I remember the McGovern-Eagleton signs around the campus, which soon had to be changed to McGovern-Shriver, and in smaller numbers signs printed by the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Then I´d stop by the neighbor´s house, where the old lady would tell me that Mark Spitz had won yet another Gold Medal. For a pleasant couple of weeks, that was the biggest news to come out of the Munich Olympics.
Same best friends, same gal still driving me to male tears when I think too much about things--just like that guy at the site of the hostage taking--same places... except now I´ve actually visited them. They´re no longer just images on a ´70s era color TV, but places where important things have happened in my life. Whoever said the best times are when you are young obviously never did anything after age 30.
The Frauenkirche, symbol of Munich and prominent on any number of German-themed souvenirs, is a short walk from the institute. One of the twin spires has been covered in cloth since my arrival here, as they do some kind of maintenance on it. It´s been around since before Europeans re-discovered the New World. If properly maintained it will probably be around for just as long yet, and still relevant to people´s daily lives. I hope to be like that old church.