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A Visit With Endearing, and Enduring, Friends
[Veteran journalist Murray Fromson recently paid a visit to his old friend Horst Faas in Munich. In this "Update" on The DJ's European Editor, Fromson shares memories of the two "exhausting and exciting" days he and his wife spent with Horst—whose indomitable spirit is clearly intact.]
As the train raced across the Bavarian countryside, a 40-minute ride from the Franz-Josef-Strauss Airport to the heart of Munich, our thoughts were less on the scenic beauty that unfolded before us than the friends we had come to see.
After dropping our bags at the Hotel Schlicker, my wife and I walked two doors down to #12 Tal and took the elevator to the fifth floor. Dodi got out first, turned right and smiled. I followed, not sure what I would say at first glance. We had not seen Horst Faas since our last dinner together in London several years ago. In a way, I had not forgiven myself for missing last year's reunion of old friends and colleagues in Saigon that Horst had played such a large role in organizing.
But suddenly what was past gave way to the present. There, filling the frame of the doorway to his apartment, sitting in his electronic wheelchair, flashing a humongous smile, Horst welcomed us into his life in Munich. We hugged and felt the warmth that always characterized this teddy bear of a man from the time we had our first encounter in The Associated Press' Saigon bureau 42 years ago. I'm not sure what Dodi and I expected to say just then. But Horst's wife, Ursula, arrived home at that moment, also full of cheer. Whatever was going through her mind, we came to appreciate how the paralysis that will be Horst's fate for the remainder of his life will most assuredly be hers to share in a different but profound and painful way.
If we were tempted to express pity or regret over the lousy hand Horst had been dealt a year ago in Vietnam, we hesitated, knowing that he would have none of it. He talked openly about the blood clot that had stricken his spinal chord in May 2005, the difficulty of being evacuated from Hanoi to Bangkok and later Munich and the readjustment he and Ursula have had to confront as a consequence. But both also realize how lucky they are. Horst most assuredly is paralyzed from mid-chest down. Nonetheless, he still has his brain, his intellectuality and his will to survive that will give meaning to the rest of his life.
Horst is working with Helene Gedouin, an editor in Paris who has written a book about the AP photographer Henri Huet. She is Huet's grand niece. Huet and three other photographers were killed when their helicopter was shot down over Laos in 1971 during the Vietnam War. Horst is selecting Huet's photos to be included in the book that will be published in Paris in September.
There are other projects in mind, as well. As conditions permit, Horst travels by train to Paris and other parts of Europe for seminars and exhibitions. He refuses to surrender to the limitations that would stifle the energy of most others similarly afflicted.
Horst proudly showed us around his apartment, filled with the antiques (including some left by his mother who died in Munich a couple of years ago), artwork and books he had collected during so many years of his life and times in Asia, now tastefully arranged by Ursula. There even was the shard of a North Vietnamese 132mm rocket lying on the balcony outside his living room. Everything that had been a memory or such a part of their lives in London now decorates their world in Munich. Manipulating his mobile cart from room to room, he showed off his office, his computer and electric-powered bed, describing what his days are like and how he has managed to confront the daily challenges of life. You can use your imagination to know what that means: up quite early, an aide arriving to help him ready for the day, communicating by phone or the Internet with friends all over the world, preparing for each hour of the day and then lunch. The day for Horst ends between 6:30 or 7:30 p.m., when an aide returns to help him into bed for the long night to follow. He watches TV and then sleeps, Ursula said, a full 12-hour night!
Clearly, it is the daytime when friends come to visit and Horst plays tour guide that helps him through his morning-to-evening routine. What quickly becomes apparent was that just as was the case in Vietnam, our friend Faas is one helluva historian. He knows the city he now calls home. With his accumulated knowledge, he managed to offer us an insight of Munich that no tourist guide ever could have offered.
Once he wheeled into a departure mode, Horst grabbed a U.S. Army Air Corps bomber jacket from World War II he had bought in an antique shop after the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. He was about to open our window to his new world. He wrapped a green scarf around his neck, led us out of the apartment to the elevator and then onto the street on a carefree cruise, zigzagging past the crowds and the beer drinkers in the street-side cafes. Finally, we joined the thousands of tourists who had come to Munich to witness the whimsical Glockenspiel just beneath the Tower Clock on the wall of City Hall. After lunch at the Rathskeller, Horst led us on a maneuver in and out of the city's colorful markets, streets, palaces, museums, magnificent gardens and finally the picturesque Café Luitpold for coffee and pastries. We, but not Horst, were pooped. That was Day Two!
Both days with him and Ursula truly were memorable. But keeping up with Horst was both exhausting and exciting. He simply was oblivious to traffic, as if he owned each street and had license to maneuver each block without interruption. Others on foot or in cars had to make room for him.
As we left the Café Luitpold and the hours of our reunion were drawing to a close, I could not help myself. I leaned over and whispered in Horst's ear, "I cannot express in words how much I admire you," I said to him. Tears were in my eyes, but Horst knew, I'd like to think, that it was an expression of love and deep admiration, not pity.
Our friend and yours has seen and recorded enough grief through his various lenses to last a normal lifetime. Horst clearly refuses to believe that his days, months and years are at an end. Quite the contrary. If you need a demonstration of it, all you need do is show your friendship, affection and admiration by performing what we Jews call a mitzvah. If you're in Europe anytime soon, no matter how far off the path it may be for you, route your trip by way of Munich. You will not regret it. Not only will you enjoy yourselves. You also will come to know and appreciate the courage of a special human being, perhaps in a way you have never thought of Horst Faas before.
© Murray Fromson
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