Wednesday, April 24, 2013

My Friend the Fulbright Terrorist

Patricio Arguello, an American terrorist
Living long enough means that you acquire perspective. (Which is why some people like the term "elders.")
The 26-year-old linked to the Boston Marathon bombings reminds me of  another 26-year-old who became a terrorist.
Forty-six years have past since I knew Patrick (Patricio) Arguello, a gentle, considerate young man, I thought, who proved to be one of the first modern-day terrorists. You’ve likely forgotten his name, but you may well remember the incident.
On September 6, 1970, Arguello --  an American with roots in Nicaragua  -- partnered with a Palestinian woman to try to hijack an El Al plane flying from Amsterdam to New York, one of four planes hijacked that day.  Arguello, was killed by Israeli security agents on board. Leila Khaled, 26, who had already made a name for herself hijacking a TWA flight to Damascus in 1969, was wounded.
Today, investigators in the Boston Marathon bombings are asking the same questions about the Tsaranev brothers that I asked so many years ago about Arguello:
How is it that an educated American student would turn to terrorism? Why did he pick the target that he did, one seemingly unrelated to his own background? And why did he seem incapable of such violence?
Patricio and I met in 1967 in Santiago, Chile. We were both Fulbright Scholars there, right out of college.
Patricio struck me and the other members of our small Fulbright group as a quiet, considerate student, an old-fashioned type who would hold doors for women and go  out of his way to help people in need.
Over our year-long stay, we learned the outline of his story.  He was born in 1943 in San Francisco; his mother was Irish-American, his father Nicaraguan. When he was about three,  the family moved to Managua, Nicaragua, where Patricio attended elementary school. But in his mid-teens, he decided to return to the United States with an older sister. He worked his way through high school and college, graduated magna cum laude from UCLA and won a Fulbright grant to study politics in Chile.
On hearing about Patricio’s death so many years ago, my fellow Fulbrighters –  shocked, as I was -- talked with each other about the young, freckle-faced man with reddish hair that they had known.
Leila Khaled
Two women in our group recalled a memorable Christmas Eve with Patricio. They were spending the holiday in a quaint village in Chile’s lake region. While having afternoon tea, they saw “Pat” trudging past their cafĂ© with a pack on his back. He joined them as they explored the town and then they all decided to splurge on a steak dinner. Pat insisted on paying the bill  -- and as a result spent a rainy night sleeping under an overturned boat on the edge of the lake. “I think he enjoyed going without a hotel room to do his friends a favor,” one of the women said.
Patricio’s sensitivity inevitably made him irresistible to women. Frequently he dated several at the same time. Once he was so plagued by phone calls from enamoured females that he fixed his telephone so he could call out but no one could call him.

I remember the parties he would have with his erudite British and Latino friends, where we’d discuss books and politics. After all, a war was being fought in Vietnam and the CIA had not kept its hand out of Latin America. In fact, my attempt to spend the summer working on a construction project in southern Chile was thwarted by the student organizers who said that, much as they’d like my help, I might, as an American, be seen as a CIA operative.
Patricio had had his own “radicalizing” experience in Latin America, according to a member of our group. She remembers him telling a chilling story about demonstrating as a teenager against Nicaragua’s Somoza family dictatorship. Marching in the front row as the protestors approached a rank of soldiers with fixed bayonets, he stumbled on a rock, fell and blacked out. When he came to, he felt blood trickling down his face. Feeling no pain, he realized the blood came from the fellow next to him. Everyone around him had been shot.
It wasn’t a story many of us knew. What we did know, though, was that Patricio would mysteriously disappear from Santiago for long stretches of time. Rumor had it he was traveling to Paraguay or somewhere in the jungles of the Amazon, to meet with “third world socialists,” perhaps even Che Guevara before he was killed in Bolivia that year. (Even then international revolutionaries were connecting.)

By June of 1968, Patricio had won a scholarship to the London School of Economics. And we lost touch. He never went. Instead, he returned to Nicaragua to work with students in the Sandinista movement (FSLN) against the government, according to, a website set up to honor heroes of the Sandinista revolution. He was soon ordered to leave the country and ended up in Jordan with other FSLN members receiving military training in Palestinian camps, the website reports.
There he decided to join with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to bring its cause to the world’s attention by hijacking planes.
According to passengers on the El Al flight, he was elegantly dressed, accompanied  by an attractive brunette carrying a basket of fruit. Before the "Fasten Your Seat Belt" sign had gone off, Patricio rose from his seat and, shouting, the two  rushed the cockpit. Patricio carried a small silver pistol; Khaled held a grenade in each hand. The steward pounced on Patricio and after several shots were fired, fell back holding his stomach. Hearing the commotion, the pilot took the plane into a dive, concerned that a bullet might pierce the pressurized cabin. The dive knocked the hijackers off balance and one of two armed security guards shot Patricio, mortally. In his last act, he took a grenade from his pocket and threw it on the floor. It was a dud. Khaled, traveling on a Honduran passport, was overcome by a passenger.
More than four decades later, how is it that we are still asking the same questions? 
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Monday, April 22, 2013

Steve Shutt -- No End to His Game

Steve Shutt coached team to victory (courtesy Inquirer/Ed Hille)
He's been "retired" a year, but not really. Earlier this month, Steve Shutt, 71, helped coach a Philadelphia school chess team to a national first place in the K-8 category.
"I just saw how good these kids were. I couldn't leave them," Shutt told Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Karen Heller.
There's more to it than that. Shutt has been coaching young chess players to stardom since 1970 in Philadelphia. How could he just let it all go?

Shutt was the guy who led the city's Vaux Junior High School to seven consecutive national titles between 1977 and 1983,  a feat that inspired the movie, "The Mighty Pawns." More importantly, it inspired inner city schools around the country to launch chess teams as a way of engaging students and developing critical thinking.  Thanks, in part, to Shutt, in Philadelphia about 4,000 students at 69 city schools are now involved in the Chess Challenge, under the umbrella of ASAP, the After School Activities Program.

Shutt officially retired last year from  Julia R. Masterman Middle School, where he'd taught since 1990. But he was back working with the students during lunch and after school -- about seven hours a day, twice a week, to help prepare them for the U.S. Chess Federation's SuperNationals V.  More than 5,000 kids showed up in Opryland for the event, which takes place every four years.
Heller calls Shutt's first year post-career his "nonretirement retirement."
Next year? He's keeping his options open, but for now, "I won't quit on them," Shutt said.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Marathon Man: Bill Iffrig

Screen Grab,
If you were watching the blast videos of the Boston Marathon, you might have seen -- over and over -- a man in a reddish-orange tank-top falling to the ground as smoke rose behind him.
That was Bill Iffrig, a resident of Lake Stevens, Wash. He's 78 and this was his third Boston Marathon. He took up the sport in the 1970s after years of mountain climbing.
He got to his feet and finished the race.
He's another of those folks of a certain age who just keeps on running.
See this ESPN interview with him.
Also, a fine article about him from back home.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Lest We Forget: Creating Legacy

Rescued in 1939 by Eleanor and Gilbert Kraus (center): 50 children/courtesy HBO
Part of "unretiring," is working on legacy -- making sure you pass along to others memory, history, experience, knowledge --whatever it is you have of yourself to give.
This week, I had a chance to do a little of that in stories I wrote for both the Foward and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
I was drawn to the story of Philadelphia lawyer Gilbert Kraus and his wife Eleanor and how they rescued 50 Jewish children from Vienna in 1939 because, coincidentally, my own father escaped Vienna and arrived in New York just 18 days before these children.
I wrote a year ago about a documentary that was previewed in Philadelphia (see link here) which brought up for me my father's own experience.
It has been reworked and will air April 8, 2013 on HBO at 9 p.m. and is called "50 Children: the Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus."

Here are links to the stories I wrote for the Inquirer and the Forward. Each is written differently.

How did this story come to light? Eleanor Kraus wrote a memoir of their extraordinary mission. Decades later, when her granddaughter married a journalist, Steve Pressman, he was blown away by the detail, the danger, the daring.

 It's worth watching the film, narrated by Alan Alda and Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep's daughter.) And I am so glad I got to know at least one of those rescued, Kurt Herman, whose sense of humor and optimism -- and simultaneously his ice cold view of who you can really count on in life -- remind me so much of my father.