Someone pointed out this week that we are in the midst of the 25th anniversary of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Hard to believe it's been that long. I've been thinking about the remarkable political changes that the 80's brought us: Solidarnosc, Perestroika, Glasnost, even Tiananmen Square. Truly, 25 years later we still see the aftermath of those times being played out in events like the independence declaration by Kosovo this week. I guess we should exercise a bit more patience about the Middle East, eh?
In the midst of all that, I was reminded of a certain day in 1989 that brought a smile to my face:
“August! August, are you in there?”
I rang the bell on the counter to the stockroom. “August, I need some beta-mercaptoethanol. It’s an emergency! My samples are chomping themselves to bits!”
I had stupidly set up a DNA sequencing reaction before I started polymerizing the gel I’d use to separate the reaction when it was done. Now I was hurrying and I’d dropped the bottle of beta-mercap. on the floor. The smell of rotten eggs was working its way down the hallway, like one of the plagues of Egypt. I’d soon be the least popular technician in the Biochemistry department.
Reaching over the counter, I popped the latch. “August! You here?”
The stockroom of the biochemistry department was as old as the medical school itself, its walls lined floor-to-ceiling with boxes and bottles of every shape and size, with names both familiar and bizarre: Butter of Antimony, Aqua Regia and Pink Bismuth sat beside the more common Sodium Chloride and Boric Acid. From the layer of dust atop some of the bottles, I fully believed some of them had not moved from their spots in 50 years.
As far as I could tell, August Gottschalk had been in that stock room nearly as long. August knew everything, from how to calibrate the spectrophotometer to how to mend a grad student’s broken heart. He imparted his wisdom in a thick Bavarian accent, accompanied by a cup of “milk coffee” and a twinkly, blue-eyed wink.
I found August at the back of the stockroom, staring out the window. His eyes were filled with tears. In his hand was a small, worn, black and white picture of a young woman. She stood, framed by a bleak stone building on a cobblestone street, wearing a dark, plain coat and the stern expression that seems to characterize all pictures of a certain age.
I touched his shoulder. “August?”
He turned toward me, and his face burst with joy. He gestured at the small, black and white television in the corner of the room. “The Wall! The Wall is coming down! Look at them!”
On the television were images of students, with hammers and picks, working under the floodlighted glow of dozens of television cameras, tearing out pieces of the Berlin Wall. Hundreds, thousands of people shouted and danced, beers in hand, while armed guards stood silently by.
August grabbed me by the hand and pulled me out of the stockroom and into the hallway.
There, he guided me into a clumsy (on my part) waltz while he sang Das Kufsteiner Lied. A crowd gathered and began to dance along with us, not understanding completely what was happening, but knowing it was something very special. August released me into the arms of one of my lab-mates, turned and waltzed with a confused but happy Chinese post-doc from down the hall. He twirled, in turn, with a dozen others before collapsing into a chair, wheezing, laughing and exuberant.
He held up the photograph. “My sister”, he said. “I have not seen her since 1967. She has been in East Germany, and they would not let her across to visit us. Her husband is considered a dissident.” He spit on the floor. “That bastard Honecker! I hope they hang him now!” He looked at the photograph, his eyes clouded with tears once again. “I will go to see my sister, now. We will be a family again.” He nodded his head with satisfaction.
August didn’t make much money working in the Biochemistry stockroom. But the department took up a collection, and in the spring of 1990, he went back to Germany to see his sister.
He never came back, but I’d like to think his family reunion was a joyous one.