SAN DIEGO – This past two weeks of watching the Winter Olympics has brought back memories, both happy and sad.
My recall was triggered by last Monday’s U.S. upset of Canada in men’s hockey, wonderfully introduced by NBC’s Al Michaels revisiting the monumental upset of the USSR in the 1980 Lake Placid games. I had just returned to the Southwest corner from a “West Pac” deployment.
I had become friends with the UDT advisor on our amphibious squadron staff. Pete Toennies remains one of my closest friends. As a result of his friendship, I became an add-on to Navy SEALS who played volleyball on San Diego’s Mission Beach. Most of the SEALS were tall physical specimens. But one, Al Schaufelberger, was close to my height. We always played on opposite sides for that reason.
We became friends and enjoyed ridiculing each other. Al, a Naval Academy graduate, was an incredible photographer, especially in underwater photography. He was witty, warm, and had an ironic sense of humor, a trait which brought him, Pete, and me even closer together.
Watch it like it’s live
As those 1980 Olympics progressed, we complained about delayed televised replays of events actually occurring earlier. Al invited us and Pete’s wife Nancy to his home to the semi-final match between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. We agreed to not listen to the live radio broadcast or any scores in order to watch the replay as if it was live.
Greeting us at the door, Al asked Nancy if she would like to bet him on the game. He volunteered to take the Russians. Pete and I immediately knew Al had listened to the earlier broadcast or heard the score. We beseeched Nancy not to bet. Watching the entire hockey game, we refused to believe the U.S. would win until the last half-minute, about when Michaels made his legendary, “Do you believe in miracles?” play-by-play call.
We laughed a lot about that night until we all left the Southwest corner. Pete and Nancy went to Korea a few months later. Al was ordered to duty as the senior Navy representative at the U.S. Military Group, El Salvador, advising the Salvadorian military on counter insurgency and weapons traffic interdiction.
In May two years later, I headed east to see my daughter and rendezvous with Maureen, my fiancé, in Austin en route to my school in Newport, RI before our wedding and my subsequent reporting as executive officer to the “U.S.S. Yosemite” in Mayport, FL.
To miss afternoon and morning commutes in El Paso, I stopped overnight in Las Cruces, NM. The next morning, May 26, 1983, I checked out and sat down for breakfast.
After ordering, I picked up the Las Cruces newspaper. On the front page was a one-column headline reporting my friend and jokester, Lieutenant Commander Schaufelberger, had been assassinated.
He had parked his armored vehicle to pick up his fiancé after her classes at the university in El Salvador. The bullet proof windshield was down due to the broken air conditioner.
Four men in a van pulled up; two armed men took security positions, one keeping Al’s fiancé from the car. The third man ran to the driver’s side of Al’s vehicle and fired four bullets point blank into Al’s head.
A Sad Loss
At my age, I have lost many good friends and relatives. As I age, I recognize this experience will increase with greater frequency. All of those departures have made me sad. But I don’t recall any having quite the impact on me as losing Al.
I spent my 600-mile drive to Austin that day thinking about Al. The image of him laughing with unrepentant joy as Pete and I realized he had successfully yanked our chain at one of the greatest events in U.S. athletic history kept coming into my mind.
One of the U.S. hockey players interviewed on the pre-game show Monday night pointed out there are a number of historic events we clearly remember where we were and what we were doing when they occurred. Nearly all of them were tragic in nature: JFK’s assassination and 911, for example. But one, the U.S. upsetting the Russians in the 1980 Olympics, was incredibly positive.
For me, even though I too clearly remember my whereabouts, this is no longer quite true. There is a hugely sad aspect to that Olympics historic moment.