Looking back I realize that sometimes events wholly unrelated to your career can have a huge influence on the path your life takes. For me it was the summer of 1968. During the spring of1968Vietnam War protests had grown to a fever pitch. Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy were challenging the leadership of Lyndon Johnson, running against him in the primaries. On March 31, Johnson announced that he would not run for a second full term as President. Then came a real shock: Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4in Memphis, Tennessee. In less than five years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, another American leader had fallen to assassin’s bullets. The country was in turmoil.
As a geologist or paleontologist and, I suspect, in many other academic fields in the middle of the20th century, the development of a career followed a simple plan. You were intended to become an expert in something. Preferably, the world’s leading expert in something. In my field there were a lot of micropaleontologist, and each had to find some group of fossils they could specialize in. Planktonic foraminifera were very important to industry, so there were lots of people working on them. Since industry people don’t publish they were safe. But those in the academic world were expected to publish papers with the results of new investigations. It was, and still is, important to produce and publish new data. In a crowded field these often turned into polemics against your colleagues, something still popular today.
But once you had selected your field of specialization you didn’t leave it. Paleontologists were expected to describe new species. Geologist colleagues often described this as stamp collecting. I was really lucky to have changed my research during my postdoctoral year to specialize in calcareous nannofossils, because the field was new. Lots of new species to describe and most were useful in determining the age of rocks.
For me, that special summer started in Paris in May. I had spent the academic year 1967–1968 on sabbatical at the Institute of Marine Sciences and had no teaching obligations. There was a meeting, the ‘Colloque sur l’Éocéne’ on the geology of the Paris Basin. This is a very classic area, a nursery of geology. It had become a standard reference for geologists everywhere, but was in need of re-examination after a hundred years of neglect. We were meeting to report on new studies, trying to separate fact from fiction. France was in turmoil, and a general strike was threatened. The students of the Sorbonne had shut down the University. The Metro was not running. Getting a taxi was hopeless. You went everywhere by walking. Nevertheless, the geological field trips before the colloquium worked very well.
One of the sites we visited outside Paris had spectacular fossil oyster beds, looking good enough to eat. It was there that I learned about the fine points of consuming live oysters from a paleontologist who knew all about them—fossil and recent. Henryk Stenzyl worked for a petroleum company, and oysters were his thing. As we looked at the beautiful fossil specimens being dug out by our colleagues, he asked me “Do you know why there are so many different types of oysters on the French menus?” I didn’t. If you have been to France and gone to a seafood specialty restaurant you have seen that there may be two or more pages of oysters listed, with greatly varying prices. Belons, Claires, Speciales, Fines de Claires, Portugaises and so on, with numbers after each ranging from 5, for the smallest size through 1 for a medium size to the large oysters in sizes 0, 00, 000, 000, 0000, and finally ‘pied de cheval’, meaning as big as a horse’s hoof. The prices range from reasonable to astronomical. There are also indications of where the oysters grew. There are “Crus” of oysters, just as there are for wine. And believe it or not, all of those different oysters have subtly different taste. The position in an estuary or bay where the oysters were grown determines how salty the water was, and that affects the taste of the oyster. Some years later, on a geological excursion to the shores of Normandy to see the sediments there, I also saw some of the oyster farms in the Bay of Mont Saint Michel. The oyster spat, the young larvae, settle on solid objects, and the French make sure that at this stage of their life the only solid object they can find is a piece of rope. Once the spat have started to grow the ropes are wrapped around posts, and there they grow up. When it comes time to go to market, the ropes with their oysters are unwrapped and taken to be sold to the restaurants. They are opened just before you eat them, and a few drops of lemon juice on them will elicit an contraction so you know they are still alive. If you ask for the red hot sauce we use here as a dip for raw oysters, you will receive a sometimes courteous visit from the manager of the restaurant who will show you how to use the very delicate clear sauces made of vinegar and shallots to enhance the flavor.
In the US our oysters are dredged from muddy sea bottoms. Our Crassostrea virginica is what it’s name sounds like, a powerfully flavored cousin of its French counterpart.
After the field trips we were expecting to hold our meetings in one of the big, formal lecture halls in the Sorbonne. However, I got word to come instead to the side entrance of the Geological Institute at 9 a.m. on the first day of the conference. I showed up and was promptly ushered inside by a student waiting at the door, and shown to a classroom. Our French hosts explained that we could meet here as long as the other students didn’t find out about it. Also, the bridges over the Seine were going to be closed at 2p.m. each day until further notice, so we had to be finished by 1p.m. each day so those of us with hotels on the Right Bank cold get across.
Almost all of us had hotels on the right bank, across the river. I was staying at the Regina, on the Place des Pyramides. I had discovered the Regina with help from some friends a few years earlier, and always stayed there. It was a truly classic hotel. At the end of your stay the Desk Clerk would ask if you had enjoyed your room. The first time I was there I had a room overlooking the Rue de Rivoli. The Rivoli is a racetrack for cars, trucks and every other form of motorized transportation. There is a stoplight where if crosses the Place des Pyramides. So on the Rivoli side you got treated to the noise of braking cars stopping for the traffic light and then the noise as they all started off again. You have to remember that in those days the main food markets for all of France were at Les Halles in the city center. There was an endless progression of trucks carrying everything edible to Les Halles starting about midnight and an endless progression carrying them away starting about 3 a.m. I told the Desk Clerk the room was noisy. He said “Next time you might prefer the room opposite”. I didn’t even know then that there would be a next time, but sure enough I was back at the Regina the following summer. When I walked in the same Desk Clerk greeted me by name, told me I didn’t need to register, and handed me the key to the room opposite. It had a pleasant view out over the rooftops of Paris, and was absolutely quiet.
This was long before the days of computers. At the Regina they kept a record of every guest, what room they had occupied, what they had had to drink at the bar. When you made a reservation, they looked you up, and they were waiting for you when you arrived. When you went to the bar the waiter would ask if you wanted a Hennessy, like you had had last time. That is class. Today, all hotels keep track of their guests with computers, but over the years I know of only two that see to it you always have the same room, the Regina in Paris, and more recently my ‘Stammhotel’ in Munich, the Leopold.
After a couple of days of meeting it was becoming obvious that the half day sessions were not enough for us to get our work done. So we decided to break into small groups and find a nice restaurant where we could meet in the afternoon, work and continue our discussions through dinner. On May 24 the micropaleontologists were going to meet at the Restaurant Chartier, in the Rue de Faubourg Montmartre, just off the Boulevard Montmartre, an address easy to remember. One of our group Maria Bianca Cita from the University of Milan, had a room in a hotel in the Boulevard Poissonniére, not far from the restaurant. The Boulevard Poissonniére is the eastward extension of the Boulevard Montmartre, which is the eastward extension of the Boulevard Haussmann. Together they form a major east -west thoroughfare.
In case you didn’t know, the Grandes Boulevards of Paris were designed by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to open up the city. Carried out in the 1850s and 1860sunder the reign of Napoleon III, they had another purpose—to permit the authorities to control the sometimes unruly population. The Parisians had developed a nasty habit of coercing the government by means of riots and popular uprisings from time to time. The Boulevards were laid out in straight lines cutting right through the neighborhoods to connect strategic points. The demolition destroyed most of medieval Paris, and required new facades be built along the streets. The Mansard roofs, which had been designed by François Mansart in the 1600s set the universal style. That is why Paris today has such a homogenous ‘Parisian’ look. Facades the same, roofs the same. The effort at crowd control gave the city it’s special character. But Haussmann hadn’t counted on the invention of the chain saw which, as you will see, has made a mess of the grand plan for crowd control.
Maria had suggested we meet at her hotel at about 3p.m. to get started. We were having vigorous discussions when a roaring noise came from the street. The room was on the fourth floor and had a balcony overlooking the Boulevard. A convoy of police vans was racing down the Boulevard headed east, off to control some crowd. The vans were heavily armored and had only tiny slits, wide enough for a gun barrel, for windows. People who had been on the sidewalks were running into the side streets. We didn’t know for sure what was going on, but moved our chairs onto the balcony to watch. After the police vans disappeared several workers in blue coveralls appeared with chain saws. They calmly proceeded to cut down the tress lining the boulevard, felling them into the roadway and blocking it. There would be no more police vans racing along this street. In half an hour it was a mess of fallen trees. We saw the police vans reappear some distance down the Poissonniére, and the police came running up the street firing tear gas canisters. We discovered that tear gas is heavier than air, and so we had ringside seats for the action below, with the police chasing anyone who appeared. By 6p.m. the Boulevard was empty of people and police, and some of the trees had been pushed to the sides. We decided the time was ripe for a dash to the restaurant.
The restaurant Chartier was just around the corner, and we were shown to our large table as though nothing at all had happened. We were well into the dinner and had consumed liberal amounts of wine when rioters and police appeared in the street just outside the restaurant. Here we were, eating dinner and watching a riot just outside, where people were getting hit with billy clubs. One of the waiters had locked the door, but was standing by just in case more guests should arrive through the mayhem. The street filled with tear gas, and this time it worked its way into the restaurant just as our dessert was arriving. The management graciously suggested that we might be more comfortable in a private dining room in the basement. We moved downstairs along with our desserts, and were served brandy. The tear gas, being heavier than air, followed us down and accumulated there. One of our party went up to check on how things were going, and came back to report that the street outside seemed to be clear. It was agreed that we should all try to make it back to our hotels ‘par les petites rues’ (by way of little streets). I crossed the street outside and turned left the few steps to the Boulevard Montmartre. I had gone about a half a block before I looked up. There seemed to be some smoke in the air, and through the haze down the street I saw a phalanx of police marching slowly toward me. I turned around and saw a phalanx of people in blue overalls carrying large red flags, marching slowly toward me. I decided that this was not a good place to be, crossed the Boulevard and slipped into a side street, the rue Vivienne, where several cars were ablaze.
Going past the cars I came to a large square with a magnificent building. Smoke was coming out of it. I soon realized it was the Bourse (the Paris Stock Exchange). It was very strange, no one was around, no spectators, no police, no firemen. I just stood and watched the smoke coming out of the building. Then I noticed a group of police running into the square from one of the side streets. I reached into my jacket pocket and took out my passport for identification and started to walk to the policeman in the lead. About fifty yards away, he was looked at me, raised his baton and started running toward me. He didn’t look at all friendly, and I ducked around a corner as fast as I could. There was a construction site there, and an arm waved me into a gap in the fencing. Someone had been watching me from inside the site. When the policeman rounded the corner he didn’t see where I had gone, and decided the fire in the Bourse was more important. The man who had waved me in never spoke a word; we were as quiet as we could be and communicated by hand gestures. By now lots of police had arrived, and cordoned off the square. With gesturing we made a deal that he would watch one street and I another for an opening where we might be able to get away. I often wondered since then if this was the person who set fire to the Bourse. It was at least an hour before an avenue of escape opened up. We were able to work our way through the construction and go out behind the police cordon. It was now about 11p.m., and my next problem was getting across the Rue de 4September, another of the broad Boulevards. The streets were now deserted, but the occasional police van would go racing by. It seemed as though a curfew had been imposed. Choosing the proper moment I dashed across the broad street and worked my way through the ‘petites rues’ to the Boulevard de l’Opera. Here it was not so quiet, there was a fracas going on in the direction of the Opera; I got across the Boulevard and ran the rest of the way down the Rue de Pyramides to the Hotel. The doorman was waiting for me, unlocked the door, handed me my key, and wished me a good night.
I went up to my room. Ordinarily the maid would have turned down the bed early in the evening when I would have been at dinner. Instead I found a note and a nice piece of chocolate. The note simple read “en gréve” (on strike).The Regina had more class than I had realized. I felt lucky to be alive and in one piece. It had taken me over three hours to get from the restaurant to the hotel. I got into bed and was finally dozing off, when there was a huge explosion outside. I didn’t know what it was, but I pulled on my pants, threw on a shirt and went downstairs. Others had gathered there. The concierge was explaining it was nothing to worry about, just the police firing off concussion grenades to clear the streets. Another went off nearby. Concussion grenades are designed to make a huge noise but do no damage. I went back to my room. The grenades kept going off until morning.
The next day I learned from the newspaper that the Sûreté believed that the fire at the Bourse was started by American agents, probably the CIA. Running from the police that night was one of the luckiest things I ever did. I went out to look around. The French are meticulous rioters. Government buildings had broken windows, but I did not see a single broken shop window. Gasoline had not been available for weeks and there were very few cars still running.
A day later we had a post-conference field trip to other geological localities outside Paris. I have no idea how it was arranged since all the gas stations in France had been closed for weeks. It was eerie to drive across railways and see the rusted rails. No trains had run for a couple of weeks. We visited the geological localities as promised, and then deviated from the schedule to go to a reception at the home of the conference organizer, Charles Pomerol, outside Paris. Charles apologized for the inconveniences, and we ended the conference appropriately, consuming many bottles of wine. He wished us a good voyage home. The bus took us back and dropped all of us off near the Arc de Triomphe. It was a long walk back to the Regina, and there was a musty odor in the streets. Since the metro was not running and the garbage collection had stopped, the citizens were using the underground stations as garbage dumps. They were getting full. Leaving France was not as easy as it might sound. There were no trains, no planes, no busses, no taxis, no gasoline. The only possibility was busses that would drive in from Belgium and take a load of passengers out. They could refuel in Belgium. They would come to the Champs Elysees and, when they had a full load of passengers, leave for Brussels. It sounded like a dubious plan, but I trundled my suitcase the mile or so to the Champs Elysees, and lo and behold there were busses waiting. A few hours later I was in Belgium. From there I got across the Channel, and on May 30 flew from London back to Chicago.
I had returned to the US just in time to witness the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy on June 5. Although it was 2:15a.m. in Urbana, I had awakened from my jet-lag nap and was watching the results of the California Primary. Bobby Kennedy has just given his brief victory speech and I was about to turn off the TV and go to sleep when the news came that he had been shot wile leaving the ballroom through the kitchen. Another assassination barely 5 months after Martin Luther King. It seemed that assassination had become a routine part of the American Way of Life. The best hope for a successful successor to Lyndon Johnson and for an honorable end to the Vietnam War died a few hours later.
On the 9th of June I was on my way back across the Atlantic, changing planes in London before going on to Israel. The El Al flight landed at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv in the early evening. I was met by my host Zeev Reiss. We drove up to Jerusalem, passing first through the towns of Lod and Ramla. Shortly after leaving Ramla it became very dark, no lights anywhere. Zeev explained that we were skirting a salient in the 1949 Armistice Line where there had been a Jordanian fortress known as Latrun. We came around a curve and there was the fort, darkened except for a very few lights. The road had been in no-man’s-land, and for years sniper fire from the fortress had made it impossible to use. Capture of Latrun had been one of the major objectives in the 1967 war.
We arrived in Jerusalem late at night. I was welcomed into the Reiss’s home where I would spend the next six weeks. My first impression of Jerusalem was that it had a wonderful climate. It was midsummer and it had been hot and humid at the airport. In Jerusalem, located on the crest of the ridge that borders the Dead Sea Rift valley on the west, it was cool and dry. The ridge is made of Cretaceous limestone, which is quarried as the major building stone for the city. The cool white of the limestone gives the city much of its uniquely homogenous character.
Zeev Reiss was one of the world’s leading micropaleontologists and his wife Pnina was a wonderful cook. You can imagine my surprise when she served me my first breakfast in their home: ham and eggs. Of course they didn’t eat pork, but she thought Americans had it every day for breakfast. I explained that I was grateful for her trouble, but I usually ate a very simple breakfast and after that we had more typical Israeli food. Zeev had immigrated to Israel from a village in Moldavia. Actually the area where he had grown up had originally been in Romania, but after the war it became part of the Soviet Republic of Moldavia. Zeev had played a very important role in the early development of Israel—he had developed the understanding of the groundwater geology of the country and his studies had been critical in ensuring a stable water supply for Israel’s development.
Over the next six weeks I taught a course at the Hebrew University. It had been a year since the six-day 1967 war, and Jerusalem was calm except for the occasional explosion of land mines left over from the war. One day we drove down to Jericho and the Dead Sea, and stopped along the way to take pictures. I wandered off the roadway to get a better view. Zeev turned around and saw me. “Bill, don’t move. Now walk back putting your feet exactly where they were when you walked over there”. I did. “Land mines, they still haven’t all been cleared, and you never know where they might be”. I learned to stay on the pavement. I was able to visit many sites in the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Kibbutzim in northernmost Israel.
We also set up a laboratory in the Geological Institute for cultivation of live foraminifera. To get everything ready we needed to sterilize them aquaria. I had already set up a facility like this at the University of Illinois, and had learned that the best way to sterilize the aquaria was to fill them with a brine solution using Kosher salt. I asked Zeev for Kosher salt. Zeev was not particularly religious, and he had never heard of it. He couldn’t even imagine how salt could be kosher. After some inquiries of religious authorities who were equally mystified, we got in contact with a Professor Katz who had spent time in the United States. He explained that in the US most salt is actually a mixture of salt and clay. The clay coats the salt crystals, so that they are not affected by moisture. You have seen the motto ‘When it rains it pours’. In fact, if you take ordinary US salt and try to dissolve it in water you will get a cloudy suspension of clay in water. Kosher salt is simply salt without the clay; only available the United States. In Israel ordinary salt would do just fine. The Katz’s very kindly invited us to dine on the Sabbath (Friday evening). They were sufficiently religious that they did no work on the Sabbath, which included flipping on the light switches. I, as a gentile, was able to perform these duties.
To collect live foraminifera we drove from Jerusalem to Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba (or Gulf of Eilat) on the Red Sea. The Marine Biology Laboratory in Eilat was close to the former border with Egypt (the Sinai was occupied territory), and was just getting refurbished. We were able to swim out far enough from shore to get some clean samples of the vegetation and sediment, and take them back to the lab to see if we had gotten any live foraminifera. After a few hours we found we had lots of them crawling up the wall to the aquaria. Zeev was delighted. Imagine having spent much of your life using the shells of these little protozoans the determine the age of rocks and their environment of deposition, but never having seen the live animal. We celebrated at a sea-food restaurant near the beach in Eilat where both shellfish and fish were available, but of course those of our party who observed Jewish dietary laws could not eat anything that did not have fins.
In Israel in 1968there was a lot of optimism about the future. There was a general feeling that now a lasting peace would come, and Zeev looked forward to a time when the Israelis and Arabs would work together to turn the Middle East into an industrial/agricultural society that would be the envy of postwar Europe.
From Jerusalem, I went to Prague. Pavel Čepek had returned from the US in March, and we were meeting in late July and August, 1968, to outline new projects. That was the year of the Prague Spring, with reformer Alexander Dubček in charge. It was fascinating. At least once a day, someone would show up at my desk in the Micropaleontological Institute of the Czech Academy of Siciences in Spálená and ask me (along with everyone else) to vote on questions being considered by the Parliament. We were always asked because we were very handy; the Parliament Building was only a few blocks away. The first time I was asked for my opinion I explained that I was an American and US citizens were not allowed to vote in foreign elections. The answer was quick: Its not an election, everyone in the country must express their opinion so the Parliament will know the will of the people. It was participatory democracy, Swiss style. A few days after I arrived we had a party at Pavel’s tiny apartment. His wife Jiřina had prepared a buffet, and there was lots to drink, beer, wine, and Slivovitz. It was July29th and Leonid Brezhnev and Alexander Dubček were meeting at Čierná nad Tisou on the Czechoslovak/Soviet (Ukrainian) border. There was some concern that the Soviets might kidnap Dubček, so there was continuous news reporting. However, at the time their conference seemed to go reasonably well. Nevertheless, during the party someone went out on the balcony of the apartment and rushed back in shouting ‘the Russians have invaded, tanks are in the streets’. We all went out to look. It was just a joke. Little did any of us realize that a few weeks later that was exactly what would happen.
The Internationail Geological Congress was to start in Prague on August 21, but I couldn’t stay for it. After my sabbatical year I had teaching duties at the University of Illinois and needed to get back.
I flew back to the US from Amsterdam on August 20, landing in Chicago. My father had flown up from Dallas to meet me, since I needed to go directly to the University for the start of the semester. We had a great dinner at Don the Beachcomber’s, and I filled him in on all that had happened. He was fascinated to hear about all the changes Dubček was bringing to Czechoslovakia. I told him that I expected Dubček’s revolution to sweep through Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and would fit in well with the changes being demanded in France. I expected that in six months the world was going to look a lot different. We went back to our hotel room, turned on the TV and learned that the Russians were invading Czechoslovakia. The 4,000+ geologists who had arrived in Prague for the Congress were witnesses to the invasion. It was a summer to remember.
When I look back on it, the events of that summer made me realize that progress is made by exploring new ideas and breaking out of the old wiays of thinking. Today we call it ‘thinking outside the box’.
My friend Pavel was caught off guard by the invasion. On that day he was to give a talk in a session of the International Congress on our work using coccoliths to determine the age of Cretaceous rocks. He had set his clock radio for 6a.m. to be sure he was up in plenty of time. He awakened to the news that the Soviets were invading Czechoslovakia and that Prague was being occupied. A few moments later he heard one of the huge Antonov transport planes from the USSR flying overhead, headed for the airport. There was another plane every four minutes.
One of the Swiss students I had mentored, Peter Roth, was staying with him. They walked toward the city center, to the office in Spálená. It was a complicated business, with Soviet troops blocking many streets. On the way Pavel tried to talk with a Russian Major, who simply took off the safety on his Kalishnikov and aimed it at him. Pavel retreated, and eventually succeeded in reaching the office. There he gathered together the Secret Police files and then took them to the apartment of Jiřjina’s parents, where he spent three days burning them page by page. He was also able to meet with Hans Joachim Martini, the Director of the Bundesanstalt für Bodenforschung in Hannover, who was in Prague for the International Congress. Martini invited him to return to Hannover to continue his work at the Bundeanstalt.
Peter Roth had his own exciting adventures as he eventually found his way to a place where he could catch a ride on one of the transports taking foreigners to the border.
In the US, I made inquiry through the FBI whether we could accept Pavel and his family here. A few days later I got a negative reply. I was starting to think about other options when I got news that Pavel was already in Germany, back at the Bundesanstalt in Hannover, and would be joined by Jiřjina and their young son, Martin.
In 1974Pavel was tried in absentia for unnamed crimes against the state and sentenced to 1 year in prison. In a real-life re-enactment of Kafka’s The Trial, neither he nor his family were able to determine the nature of the charges against him. He returned, as a German citizen, to visit the other members of his family in 1982. He would not return again until after the ‘velvet revolution’ of 1989. His father had passed away, and it became necessary to settle the matter of the trial and sentence against him in order for him to be able to accept his inheritance. After the inquiry into the nature of the trial, the judgement against him was annulled.
Two decades later I came to wonder why the US had not been interested in someone who knew in detail what had been happening during the Dubček era. During the 1980s something very similar happened in the Soviet Union. Substitute the name Gorbachev for Dubček. The sequence of events was not exactly the same, but so close it should have been obvious to anyone who knew both countries what was happening. In the1980s I became painfully aware that my contacts in the CIA knew almost nothing about that phase of Czechoslovak history, and were unable to understand the parallels to the developments in the Soviet Union.