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The Longest Night Of The Year

December 27, 2020 Frontpage No Comments


“Christmas markets closed in Austria and Germany this year.” The headline this week went by quickly, but then a pause. . . . And a memory.
It was December 18, 1988. I had a free afternoon on a business trip to Austria that had brought me to Salzburg, so I naturally gravitated towards the Kristkindlmarkt at the Domplatz. It was heavenly…row upon row of Wurstl stands, hot cider, Gluehwein, music, and, of course, lots of beer.
At the end of one row, near the cathedral, a local duo was singing. Not just singing, but singing American folk music! I hung around for a few minutes — out of nostalgia as much as anything else, since I’d sung on the street all over the world. I support the genre and those who play it.
These two folkies pleased the heart in a special way, because they looked to be father and son.
Then they started singing Puff the Magic Dragon — a far cry from the repertoire of the Salzburger Festspiele, but heartwarming all the same. Suddenly I heard a voice — a beautiful voice — behind me, picking up just the right harmony. I look around as a girl came alongside me, singing as she headed for the Wurstl stand.
“You oughta sign up,” I said, and she laughed. “Yeah, they’re pretty good, aren’t they?”
We got a hot chocolate and she told me about her school in Pennsylvania. Since a small Catholic college like hers couldn’t handle its own semester-abroad program, the students who wanted to go that route hitchhiked onto one from Syracuse University. She was heading home in a couple of days, she told me, after a wonderful term in England.
She was quite a musician, and we discovered that we’d attended the same concert in Vienna the weekend before — I in in the very expensive seat provided by my host, she in the Stehplatze, the “standing room” reserved for students. I realized that my seat had been some twenty feet from her, and probably cost fifty times as much.
Her boyfriend went to Notre Dame, and sang in the Glee Club — a good match for their own future duo, I thought. She told me about her home on a small farm near school (where her parents both taught). She was sightseeing in Salzburg, so we walked together a few blocks to my next meeting. Her name was Elyse, “not Elise,” she said. “My mother changed the spelling when she heard a nurse in the hospital calling me ‘Elsie’.”
Laughs all around. She scribbled her address in my pocket calendar, and we parted.
My next stop was Paris. I had to catch a flight home myself. Gen. Vernon Walters, our ambassador to the UN at the time, had offered me his apartment on the Champs-Élysées for a couple of nights, an offer I was delighted to accept. And on December 21, I boarded Air France, heading for Washington.

“Call Home, Call Home”

It was a long flight. A few of the passengers worked for the government like me. When we landed at Dulles, we got off as a group, hoping that would speed things up in Customs. But when we finally got there, officials waved us through quickly. “Call home, call home,” one said, moving us along. His voice was . . . kind of grave.
So I called mom from the first unoccupied pay phone I could find. She still lived in Indiana. She answered and burst into tears. She didn’t know much more than I did — that a plane had gone down that day shortly after taking off from somewhere in Europe for the States. And she knew was that I was flying back from Europe sometime before Christmas, but that was all mom needed to know. Moms are like that.
A foreign policy friend picked me up at Dulles and, during dinner, he filled me in. Pan Am Flight 103 had been blown up by terrorists somewhere over Scotland. Everyone on board had died.
By the time I got home, I’ve been up for 24 hours so it was only the next morning that I heard about it on the morning news.
“25,000 fans who crowded the Carrier Dome for the game against Western Michigan last night paused for a moment of silence in memory of the 35 Syracuse students who died yesterday in the crash of Pan Am 103.”
I shouted at the TV set. “Paused??” “PAUSED??”
It started to sink in. Still on European time, I got in early at the Foreign Relations Committee and called the State Department. I got through to the area officer and bluntly asked, did he have a flight log?
“Was Elyse on the flight?”
He didn’t want to tell me.
“I handle European affairs for the Committee.”
“Yes, she was on the flight. The family has been informed.”
When I saw Sen. Helms later that morning, I asked his advice. What should I do? After all, he had been on KAL 008 when its sister flight, KAL 007 had been shot down, allegedly over Russia, in 1983. Both flights had made a fuel stop in Alaska, and there, in the lounge, Helms had befriended an Australian family from Flight 007. A grandfather at heart, he had played a little game to amuse their young child until their flight boarded, and that story had somehow made the news.
Months later, he got a letter from that child’s grandparents in Australia, thanking him for being such a good friend in their family’s last hours.
“Senator, I just saw their daughter three days ago,” I remember saying, “should I call them? I don’t want to make them feel bad.” I actually said that. Jet lag.
“Son,” he said, “they’re never going to feel worse than they do now. You call ’em.”
I did. I spoke with Elyse’s dad for quite a while. He thanked me for calling and promised to let me know when funeral arrangements were made.

The Stranger Who Called

Three weeks later I was driving through the hills of central Pennsylvania trying to find the campus. The old, cavernous hall reminded me of Notre Dame’s Administration Building. It was late evening by then. The line was long, and I was last.
A familiar face appeared — a former colleague from Illinois who now taught at the college. I hadn’t seen for him for ten years, and he naturally wondered what had brought me there. I recounted how Elyse and I had met in Salzburg, and he exclaimed, “Oh — you must be the stranger who called.”
Yes, I was. After Elyse died, countless friends had expressed their condolences to Elyse’s family.
Apparently all of them heard how happy she was, how much she had enjoyed Vienna and Salzburg, how she was even singing songs in the Domplatz. “You see,” her family told them, “there was this stranger who called.”
My Illinois friend told me how Elyse’s mother had been so strong. And as I drew near the family, I could tell that she was strong indeed. She had also been through a very long and lonely day.
Finally there was only one mourner left in line — me. I introduced myself.
“What did she look like,” she said.
“She was beautiful, and she was so happy to be coming home,” I told her.
She threw her arms around me and cried, and cried, and cried.

Prayers For A Blessed Christmas

Let us pray that we may someday call Heaven home.

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