David C. Henley: Celebrating 55 years of marriage
This month marks two “double nickel” or 55th anniversaries for my wife and I.
On Flag Day, June 14, 1963, Ludie and I were married at Wilshire Methodist Church in Los Angeles.
Twelve days later, we were among hundreds of others assembled at Tegel Airport in West Berlin to meet President John F. Kennedy who had flown to the besieged outpost that was surrounded by communist East Germany during the dark days of the Cold War.
I had met Ludie in early 1959 at a wedding of mutual friends, and after dating for four years, I popped the question and she agreed to marry me. She was 25 and a third grade teacher at a public school in Culver City, a Los Angeles suburb. I was 27 and a Los Angeles newspaperman and foreign correspondent.
We had initially planned to marry in late June 1963, and honeymoon in Europe where I also had writing assignments. But, fortunately, the U.S. Army intervened, requesting that I, an Army reservist and public affairs officer, travel to West Berlin on special active duty to serve as a press officer during the Kennedy visit. The Army knew that I had covered the Cold War in West and East Berlin as well as the Soviet Union, had also covered the 1961 erection of the Berlin Wall, and thought I’d be a good candidate for the Kennedy assignment. So I accepted the offer, we rescheduled our marriage to mid-June and the following day flew off to West Berlin and our first big adventure as man and wife.
My job during Kennedy’s visit was to help corral about 50 members of the U.S. and foreign press accompanying Kennedy and accompany them throughout West Berlin during the presidential day-long, city-wide tour. At Tegel Airport, which was in West Berlin’s French Sector, Ludie and I were allowed on the tarmac when Air Force One landed that morning. Kennedy emerged and shook hands with the welcoming party, which included West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt and the commanding generals of the U.S., French and British brigades in West Berlin. As he entered his car, a convertible, Ludie and I walked over and shook his hand.
Wow! What a great way to begin our honeymoon!
Accompanied in the automobile by Adenauer and Brandt, Kennedy was driven through the city, stopping often to greet many of the estimated 1 million-plus West Berliners who had gathered along the route to witness his historic visit. Kennedy’s automobile was followed by a large flat-bed truck chock-full of newspaper, wire service and television cameramen. Following the truck was a U.S. Army bus occupied by American and foreign reporters. I was in charge of the bus, and stood next to the driver, advising the newspapermen (and newspaperwomen) as to where Kennedy’s car would stop so they could rush out and cover his remarks. Ludie wasn’t permitted on the press bus, but managed to join some other Army wives who had arranged for a van to carry them along the presidential motorcade.
Kennedy’s West Berlin visit provided a melee I had never before witnessed. His motorcade frequently was forced to stop to avoid frantic, hysterical and adoring female West Berliners from throwing themselves upon the car. Many of them were in tears, screaming out, “I love you, Mr. Kennedy.”
The president’s itinerary called for him to make seven stops during his West Berlin tour. At these stops, he delivered speeches lauding the U.S., French and British forces stationed in the city, lunched with local officials at the city hall, spoke to U.S. Army troops at their garrison in West Berlin, visited the infamous Checkpoint Charlie and portions of the 96-mile-long Berlin Wall which encircled the city.
Schools were closed that day, thousands of West Berliners took the day off and onlookers jammed sidewalks, rooftops and apartment balconies to get a fleeting look of the charismatic, 46-year-old president who would be assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas five months later after serving only two years and 10 months in office.
Kennedy’s best-known speech that day was given at the open-air Rudolph Wilde Platz, or Plaza. Considered one of the best ever given during the 20th century, it said, in part:
“I am proud to come to this city, which symbolizes to the world the fighting spirit of West Berlin. There are many people in the world who don’t really understand the great issues between the free world and the communist world. Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all men are not free.
“All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I can take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner),’” he said.
In the late afternoon, Kennedy and his entourage, which included my press contingent, returned to Tegel Airport. From there, Air Force One flew to Dublin, where the president flew by helicopter to an isolated Irish village to visit and drink with Kennedy family relatives at the local pub. The following day, he returned to Washington, D.C.
Ludie and I stayed on in West Berlin, also visiting dreary communist East Berlin, the capital of East Germany. Ten days after Kennedy’s visit, another world leader descended upon the divided city.
He was Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who had come to East Berlin to counter Kennedy’s remarks about the evil ramifications of the Berlin Wall and to preside over the summit meeting of leaders of the Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellite nations. Ludie and I were at East Berlin’s Schoenfeld Airport when Khrushchev arrived aboard a turboprop Ilyushin-18 to be greeted with hugs and kisses by East German Premier Walter Ulbricht, who had turned 70 that day.
When Khrushchev flew into East Berlin, it was warm and sunny. By the time he was driven to the city’s massive sports stadium to give an address in which he excoriated the U.S. and the West, the skies turned dark and heavy rain began falling. Ludie and I huddled together in the stadium, a neighboring East German who spoke fairly good English translating Khrushchev’s speech for us.
“Did you agree with the Soviet leader?” I asked our volunteer translator.
“Not much. He is a buffoon. Most East Germans laugh at him. And most of us like your President Kennedy,” he said.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.