Updated: Oct 17, 2022
I started high school fifty years ago… September 6, 1972. My world– and the whole world itself– changed quite drastically that day.
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September, 1972… the 26th Amendment, adopted the year before, meant that 18-year-olds would be voting in the upcoming presidential election, most of them for anti-war Democratic challenger Senator George McGovern (D-SD). But the incumbent, President Richard Nixon, was looking strong– the Vietnam War was winding down, we had established diplomatic relations with China, and we had also signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT 1) earlier that year with the Soviet Union… even if their trustworthiness in complying with its terms was an open question. Oh, and the term “Watergate” had barely entered the public lexicon.
1972 was a noteworthy year for music, having given us great albums from Elton John (Honky Chateau), David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust), Emerson, Lake, & Palmer (Trilogy), The Rolling Stones (Exile on Main St.), and many others that became familiar to us via “album rock” FM stations that were encroaching into AM Top 40’s long dominance of the airwaves. In cinema, “The Godfather” was packing theaters and seemed a lock for Best Picture. This movie broke new ground in that, contrary to the Hays Code that had been operative until the 1960’s, we found ourselves rooting for evil arch-criminals to prevail against even worse bad guys.
Closer to home, Xerox and Kodak– the twin pillars of the Rochester economy and where many of our parents enjoyed lucrative and seemingly secure employment– were each going strong with no end in sight to their dominance in the American manufacturing sector. Xerox was on the verge of inventing the personal computer as we know it, and Kodak would soon thereafter invent digital photography. However, consistent with Rochester’s notoriously stodgy conservatism and yet utterly bewildering in retrospect, both companies shelved their innovations in favor of their existing, tried-and-true technology… leading, at least in part, to Rochester’s transformation over the next few decades into a socio-economic hellhole as Silicon Valley and foreign countries capitalized on what Rochester had so blithely discarded.
Meanwhile, nineteen miles to the east in the town of Ontario, a skinny wise-ass was about to enter the ninth grade and thus begin his first year of high school.
My birthday is in November, so I was actually only 13 when I started high school. (Not only was I still below the upper weight limit, I was also still young enough to play Pop Warner League football with the junior high kids. I loved being a kicker, but it felt a little weird, like straddling two worlds.) I didn’t have any clear expectations of what to expect that Wednesday, other than being in a different building that I already knew quite well from attending basketball games and such. I’d be with classmates I’d known since 2nd grade, so how different, really, would high school be?
As my older sisters and I waited for the bus on that warm and sunny morning, we watched an unusual spectacle on TV– a live broadcast of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra playing Beethoven’s majestic (and dare I say defiant) “Egmont Overture” in a sports stadium. We knew why and what it was for, but we didn’t realize at the time how abruptly the world was shifting right under our feet.
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For me and many others, the Summer of 1972 had been dominated by, of all things, the World Chess Championship Match in Reykjavik, Iceland. That’s because an American was competing for the title… and not just any American– Bobby Fischer’s meteoric rise to fame and success closely paralleled that of boxer Muhammad Ali, and they were similarly inclined to proclaiming their greatness and drawing attention to their accomplishments (like here and here.) And yet each had a vexing nemesis– Ali had lost a unanimous decision to Joe Frazier in 1971’s “Fight of the Century,” and Fischer’s opponent for the title in 1972– the Russian reigning world champion Boris Vasilievich Spassky– had beaten him in 3 of their 5 previous encounters, with the other 2 games drawn. During the match that consumed most of July and all of August, we Americans were witness not only to Fischer’s scintillating victories and fits of juvenile impetuosity, but also to something new and completely unexpected– a sympathetic human face on the Big, Bad Soviet Union.
My classmates and I had grown up in the Cold War, engaging in “duck and cover” drills and regularly seeing Russians portrayed– in films ranging from James Bond installments to this underappreciated Hitchcock opus– as the pure embodiment of Godless evil. But then along came this Spassky character… every bit as dashing and well-dressed as Fischer, but a far more polished gentleman. His was an old soul's countenance, almost as if the collective glory and sorrow of all Russian history were chiseled into his handsome equine features. Upon resigning Game Six in the jaws of Fischer’s sudden and irresistible mating attack, Spassky stunned the world with a poignant display of sportsmanship, rising to applaud his opponent’s brilliant victory along with the audience. And so, with the Cold War and the massive militaries on either side seemingly boiled down to a pair of flesh-and-blood men over a chessboard, might it be that the Soviets were actually decent human beings? And if so, might peace with them actually be possible? The SALT-1 treaty back in May had been a significant step, albeit a pure abstraction encoded in military-diplomatic legalese. But Spassky’s dignified and classy gesture suggested that not only disarmament treaties but actual amity and mutual respect were possible between our peoples.
Fischer went on to crush Spassky for the title, and their match concluded on September 1st. By then the XX Olympiad had been underway in Munich, (West) Germany for a week. It was a big deal that the Olympics were being held in Germany– East OR West– for it was not only just 27 years since the end of World War II, but also just 36 years since Hitler turned the 1936 quadrennial into an odious showcase for Nazism.
The televised presentation of the Olympics was much more widely watched in pre-cable 1972 than it is now. Munich is 6 hours ahead of us on the east coast, and therefore most of what we saw on TV wasn’t live. But it didn’t really matter; most of us just wanted to see two specific athletes, live or taped– an American swimmer, and especially a 4’11”, 82 lb. Soviet gymnast.
Long before Michael Phelps there was this studly hunk–
swimmer Mark Spitz, winner of seven golds at Munich.
Swimmer Mark Spitz was unquestionably spectacular… and yet, great as he was, his legacy and potential future success were somewhat diminished by unfortunate timing way beyond his control. Having swum his way to an unprecedented 7 golds, Spitz’s victories for the United States nonetheless came in the immediate wake of Fischer’s equally dominant yet far more geopolitically significant run to his victory. (Fischer even outshone Spitz as a TV guest comedian when they both appeared on a Bob Hope special later that autumn.)
It was instead little 17-year-old Olga Valentinovna Korbut who ultimately stole the show and our hearts at the Munich Olympics, for she displayed not only artistic and athletic excellence, but also unbridled teen-aged joy in doing so. We Americans, so long accustomed to stern-faced Soviet athletes who looked as though they’d been potty-trained with electricity, suddenly beheld this adorable and talented little pixie as she took obvious delight in the fruits of her preparatory training. If Boris Spassky had managed to put a sympathetic human face on the Soviet Union, then it was Olga Korbut who graced it with a heart-melting smile. And so, in the summer and autumn of 1972, it suddenly seemed a lot less likely that we would ever engage in World War III against the Soviets and meet our ends via Mutual Assured Destruction.
But just as Cold War tensions were finally beginning to ease, a new enemy to world order and tranquility suddenly emerged… which is why that concert was on TV on the morning of Wednesday, September 6th– my first day of high school– instead of the athletic competitions that were originally scheduled for that day’s telecast.
On the night of Tuesday, September 5, a Palestinian terrorist group calling itself “Black September” had kidnapped and then slaughtered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, ensuring that the XX Oympiad would be forever remembered for the “Munich Massacre.” In trying to counter this well-planned act, the (West) Germans were handicapped by several factors– One, their military had been hamstrung and de-fanged (for self-evident reasons) after World War II, and they were legally enjoined from operations on their native soil, leaving this matter to the untrained regular police; Two, in response to the excessively militarized 1968 Games in Mexico City and the Nazi-themed 1936 Berlin spectacle, West German officials promoted this Olympiad as “Heitere Spiele,” i.e., “The Cheerful Games,” in order to show the world a kinder and gentler German face, and they accordingly made their security forces (such as they were) less visible; and Three, the western democracies were new at this sort of thing, and the military science of counter-terrorism was in its infancy (except in Israel, who sent their dreaded and brutally efficient Mossad agents on Operation “Wrath of God” to avenge the massacre with extreme prejudice.)
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As my sisters and I watched the memorial service in Munich Stadium that Wednesday morning, we understood that something really horrible had happened, but little else. Neither we nor many other people, adult or adolescent, fully comprehended that day that we were entering a new era of international conflict, one marked not by massive troop movements or nuclear-armed submarines and supersonic bombers, but rather by small bands of fanatics armed with suicide bombs or even just box-cutters who were willing to martyr themselves or their own children for their cause. Sadly, we would all come to learn more and more about that stuff in the coming months, years, and decades. All this along with the lesson we absorbed from “The Godfather”-- that there are bad guys, and then there really bad guys. After the summer of Boris and Olga and the Munich Massacre, the Russians would never again seem quite as scary as before… especially 29 years and 5 days later, on September 11, 2001.
Meanwhile, it was time for me to start my first day of high school. The bus pulled up in front of our house, and I boarded it and took a seat.