In addition to the deep inspiration that Noam always provided to us in research and political activism, he had some pretty valuable practical advice as well.
At my thesis defense in the spring of ’69, it was agreed that I should make some revisions and finish up at the end of the summer. When I told Noam that I had a summer job escorting 14 VW busses through the Soviet Union, he strongly urged me to stay and finish up first, warning me with his version of Murphy’s Law that “anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” I rashly ignored Noam’s advice.
Arriving in Berlin, I crossed the Berlin Wall with my friend Jack to visit my girlfriend. On the way back, we were run off the road by the Stasi secret police, surrounded, handcuffed and interrogated for over 24 hours. The Stasi wasn’t amused when I listed my contacts as Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle.
Things took a more serious turn over the next few days of interrogation, when they charged me Paragraph 105—Staatsfeindlicher Menschenhandel (subversive human trafficking), which was described in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine “without doubt one of the worst crimes that you could be charged with in the German Democratic Republic.” In particular, I was described as being a non-weapon-carrying member of a human trafficking ring with no training in parachute jumping or swimming long distances under water (skills not available in Course 24).
What I didn’t know at the time was that unbeknownst to me, Jack’s girlfriend Brigitte had used the key from my VW bug to hide in a US soldier’s VW bus (unknown to him) to escape through Checkpoint Charlie to West Berlin. The fact that Brigitte’s father was a high Stasi official, that a US soldier was involved (as well as my car key) piqued the interest of the Stasi.
At this moment it began to dawn on me that I was not going to get those thesis revisions in any time soon.
After fourteen months (seven in solitary confinement) and a secret trial, Jack and I were sent to Bautzen, formerly run by Hitler and Stalin and now the Stasi.
Fast forwarding, after eight months in Bautzen, Jack and I began a work strike. I was sent as punishment to the “Bunker,” where I began a hunger strike. They retaliated by depriving me of water, slapping me around a little bit and giving me an injection of something. Finally they relented, probably on orders from on high, as, some days later, Jack and I found ourselves in a Mercedes with our lawyer Vogel speeding through the Berlin Wall into freedom.
Back at MIT I was quickly brought back down to earth, as a conversation with Morris (Halle) about your incomplete papers was wont to do.
For obvious reasons, I recommend to today’s generation of students to take Noam’s advice to heart: put all travel plans on hold until you turn in your finished thesis!