Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Guest Post: The Greatest Souvenir I’ve Ever Seen

In 1976, my college had an athlete in the Winter Olympics at Innsbrook, Austria.

Lisa Porter* came from a very competitive family.  Her brother Hank* was a defensive lineman* in football and her other brother Ken* was a point guard* in basketball.  But Lisa was the best athlete in the family, good enough to qualify as a speed skater* in the Olympics.  Her brothers may not have been as good athletes as Lisa but they were every bit as competitive.

(*An asterisk indicates the name or term has been changed to protect the guilty.)

When Lisa went to Innsbruck to compete, the entire family went along.  Understandably it was quite exciting. 

Lisa focused on being prepared for her race and in fact for one very short period of time she held the world record. 

But the others in the family did all of the things that spectators do.  They attended various competitions.  They wandered through Innsbrook, looking at all the things that tourists look at.  And as they were there, they became involved in one of those things that takes place at Olympics; they started to collect souvenirs. 

Now there are all kinds of souvenirs.  There are pins from various nations, knick-knacks about Austria, sweaters and shirts and hats and sweatshirts and coats. 

Hank’s competitive instincts kicked in.  He decided that he was going to get the best souvenir at the Winter Olympics.  When he thought about it, he concluded the best souvenir would be the Olympic Flag.

Though the city of Innsbruck is in the Alps, it is in a valley.  The flag was flying on a poll up a hill from the city in a location where everyone could see it.  It was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and had guard posts at the corners.  At night, the flag was lit up so people could see it, even from the city.

Hank was undeterred.  One night, he climbed up the hill, carefully avoiding being seen by the guards.  He climbed the fence without being noticed.  They were probably bored and spent their time looking out towards the town or reading a book. 

After Hank was over the fence, he managed to lower the flag without any of the guards noticing.  To keep the flag from view, he took off his coat, rolled the flag, wrapped it several times around his body and then put his coat back on to conceal it from view. 

Through all of this, none of the guards seemed to have noticed him, but when he attempted to climb back over the fence he was observed.  He saw a guard come out of his little booth.  Hank jumped down from the fence and ran straight down the hill, into the darkness towards the city of Innsbruck.  Along the way he blindly stumbled into several switchbacks, smearing his coat with mud.

But the darkness prevented the guards from catching Hank.  So, he kept moving and in a few minutes he was in Innsbruck, late at night, hurrying through the empty back streets of that town. 

And then, a police car drove by.  Hank knew they were probably looking for him, so he quickly took his coat off, pulled the flag off, and buried it under the snow, under a trash can on the side of the ally. 

He pulled his coat back on and started hurrying through the streets but only moments after starting the police pulled up behind him.

They could not find the flag on him but they were very suspicious.  He was out at 3:00 a.m. in the morning and his coat was smeared with mud. 

The guards had never seen his face and had barely seen him.  They could not positively identify him. 

Without the flag the Austrian police had no justification to hold him so they brought him back to the apartment where his family was staying. 

Hank’s mother was a shrewd judge of character.  Upon seeing her son being accompanied by Austrian police the first words out of her mouth were “Don’t say ANYTHING Hank.”  And he didn’t.

At least Hank didn’t for a day. 

In the meantime, the fact that the Olympic Flag was stolen made the news.  It wasn’t just news in Austria.  I personally read it in the newspaper in Chicago.  At the time, I had no idea that a guy I knew was the perpetrator. 

The fact that the police didn’t find the flag on Hank didn’t mean they weren’t suspicious.  When he went out the next day, he noticed that he was being followed at a distance by what he assumed were plain clothes police.  He couldn’t get near that flag without being caught.  So, he needed an accomplice. 

He finally decided his best bet was his mother.  He suspected his brother was being followed as well. 

So, Hank told his mother and she agreed to be a party to the crime.

By now, Lisa was done competing at Innsbruck.  It is hard to believe, but as soon as the Olympics were over, she was going to Sweden to compete.  Hank decided to leave a few days early to go to Sweden and help set up for the family there. 

The plan was standard spy craft.  Mom got two identical pieces of luggage.  They put some of his clothes in each.  Mom left with one suitcase and went to the flag and placed it in her suitcase.  Then she went to the train station and seated herself at an obscure location right by the door. 

Hank was going to leave by the train.  It was to travel through Switzerland then turn north into Germany and he would get off at Frankfurt and fly to Stockholm. 

Hank went to the train station and seated himself on a bench outside in the sun and waited for his train.  Just minutes before it arrived, the Austrian police checked his passport once more and asked to look through his luggage.  (He actually had several bags).  No problem. 

When the train pulled in, he grabbed his luggage, walked in the door, made a quick switch while the police who were following him were still outside and went onto the train. 

This did not mean that Hank’s concerns were through.  He suspected that he would be checked again at the border.  He knew that his name had been flagged.

While he was sitting in his car on the train he struck up a conversation with his cabin mate-a young man of about the same age.  Fearing he might be searched again, Hank took a gamble and told his cabin mate the whole story.

It turned out that his cabin mate made this train run regularly and was known by the conductors.  He told Hank to give him the one suitcase- assuring Hank they never checked him. 

And they didn’t.  When they crossed the border into Switzerland, Hank was thoroughly checked but his cabin mate wasn’t.  When they crossed the border into Germany, Hank was checked again, but his cabin mate wasn’t. 

By the time they got to Frankfurt, Hank and his luggage had been thoroughly inspected three times in one day.  His nerves were on end and he had no idea how long he could be lucky.  So he changed his plans and decided to fly back to Minneapolis rather than keep taking risks. 

When he got to Minneapolis, he had only one more obstacle.  He would have to go through customs.  He didn’t know if the American police had been notified but there were still the news accounts so he was nervous. 

When he finally got up to the customs agent it was a very young lady.  She looked at the passport, and recognized the last name.

“I went to high school with a girl named Lisa Porter. 

“She's my sister.  She just got done competing in the Olympics in speed skating.”

“Oh, that's so neat! Go on through!

And that is how Hank got the best Olympic souvenir ever into the United States.  It is huge.  I saw it at a friend’s apartment, and it wasn’t quite as wide as the apartment living room but it was longer. 

Hank keeps it in his attic.

Eight years later, Lisa competed at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.  As I mentioned, she comes from a very competitive family.  Her brother Ken stole the Sarajevo Olympic Flag. 

I don’t know how.

A guest post by Scandacelt.


  1. This is going to sound like one of Ringo and Taylor's Chief the Boat stories, I guess, but it does remind me something I put my foot into by accident while in college. It seems that a female acquaintance of mine in a nearby dorm was gifted with a three foot long statue of a Holstein that had been "liberated" from the Animal Science Club by another guy she knew (not me, as will become apparent). I dropped in to see her and her roommate just to pass the time and saw the statue, and she told me a guy had given it to her. The president of the Animal Science Club lived on my hall. I sorta blurted out to him that I heard he was missing a cow. He responded with something along the lines of "What do you know about that?" The details are lost in the mists of the decades that have past, but the result was that she and I did a sort of Checkpoint Charlie exchange in the middle of a bridge between our dorms, and the Animal Science club got their Holstein back.

  2. My Google-fu is weak or some information is missing. My guess as to the speed skater involved is probably wrong.