Each of us remembers important days differently. Some recall in great detail where they were at the time the Berlin Wall fell or a president lost his life, while others rely on grainy video, old snapshots or history books for understanding. But eyewitnesses to history are all around us. Their first-hand stories add another dimension to the tales and images so ingrained in our minds.
Here are some of their stories.
Lauren Nitschke was a Texas A&M University architecture student, and she studied in Europe for one semester in 1978. She happened to be in Italy on Oct. 15-16 when the Vatican elected the first non-Italian pope since 1522, John Paul II.
“I was part of the architecture school’s inaugural semester abroad program, and we lived in Strasbourg, France. Pope John Paul I had died right after we got there. And in October, they rented a bus so that we could spend two weeks studying architecture in Italy. It was jut a coincidence that we were there.
We got to Rome, and we found out the cardinals were meeting because the Sistine Chapel was closed. You can imagine, a bunch of architecture students would want to see that.
So, when the cardinals are meeting, they send smoke up the Vatican chimney twice a day, which tells you whether they’ve chosen a new pope. If they haven’t elected anyone, they send up black smoke, and then when they’ve chosen, they send up white smoke. They do it at noon and about 6 p.m., I think.
We tried to take little day trips and stay close by so that we could still be in St. Peter’s Square at the times the smoke went up. We probably could’ve seen more of Italy if we hadn’t been doing that, but we were like, “Hey, we might get to witness history.”
The entire plaza and into the street would be completely packed with people. You had to get there kind of early if you wanted to get a spot. I’ve never seen so many people in my life.
But I was there on the hot night when they sent up the white smoke. There were a million people, and my friends and I were cheering like maniacs with everybody when it happened. The whole crowd seemed to be unified in spirit. Not being Catholic, I didn’t expect that.
After the smoke went out, then he comes out on the balcony at St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s very dramatic they way they do it. There’s a whole ceremony and they announce the new pope, and he comes out. The crowd was yelling “Viva papa! Viva papa!”
It was electric and jubilant in a way that I had never experienced.”
Mark A. Polczynski of Oak Cliff is a civilian military employee working for AAFES in Northern Iraq. He was stationed in West Germany in 1989, at the end of the Cold War.
“I was in a city called Nurnberg working for the Department of Defense, and I had just been assigned in November of 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. Even though I was not in Berlin, Nurnberg was just as electrified as any other city getting ready to celebrate the unification of a country that had been split for decades.
Before it happened, many East Germans didn’t even realize was going on.
There were news reports of people crossing the Berlin Wall without repercussions. No one was stopping them. And in the duration of the Berlin Wall, East German guards had killed over 130 people who just wanted their freedom. We found out later that they had been under orders to shoot anyone who tried to cross from East Berlin, including women and children. And of course there are horror stories about people being detained at Checkpoint Charlie. So people didn’t really know what was going on.
Then it seemed like all at once, people realized that the wall no longer stopped you, and you could cross over. That’s when it began to get exciting, and we watched on TV as people started crossing the wall in masses. It was truly an exciting time.
When I went to Berlin, people were tearing down the wall with individual hammers and chiseling away the concrete. But it was like a delayed reaction. I don’t think people really realized the significance of what was transpiring. They were just celebrating their freedom and unification.
It turned out to be an exciting time for Germany, and I feel fortunate to have witnessed those important events in world history.”
As a member of the ‘70s Dallas punk band the Nervebreakers, Barry Kooda of Oak Cliff opened for the Sex Pistols at the Longhorn Ballroom. While his band performed, someone threw a dead fish on stage, and Rolling Stone ran a centerfold picture of Barry biting into it. The concert, considered one of the most infamous gigs in rock-and-roll history, was filmed and now is sold as a DVD called “Sex Pistols Live at the Longhorn”.
“There was no real punk scene in Dallas. We had to rent the VFW hall or the foosball place in Irving. There were maybe 250 people in the whole Metroplex who were into punk at the time. It wasn’t cool or popular. You didn’t have tattoos or piercings and let anyone see them.
We had just opened for the Ramones on their first tour. We had this bass player who had the gumption to call up and book it. We got paid nothing, and the Sex Pistols got paid $500. [Former Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm McLaren decided to book them in the weirdest places so they would get the most publicity possible.
The Sex Pistols are one of my favorite bands of all time, but they were terrible. Steve Jones and Paul Cook — the two who were really musicians — were amazing. But Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten were just there to get attention, and they did. They were so contrived at that point. I had on this leather bracelet that my friend made, and Sid said, ‘Hey man, that’s nice. Can I have it?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He had some kind of dog collar on, and I said something about it, and he said, ‘Yeah, I took it off a dog. You can’t get much lower than that. Stealing from a dog.’ They were just trying to be jerks for the sake of it.
Over the years, thousands of people have told me they were at that show, but only the 250 or so who were really into it at the time stayed for the whole show. There were others who came out just to see what it was about, but they all left.
The Sex Pistols was a good, fun show. I got paid nothing, but I got international publicity for it. Later that year, when the Police came through, Sting knew who I was because of that stupid fish.”