"The Soviet allied forces have occupied Prague for thirteen hours. It is a day of decision - it is 21 August 1968."
- Lawrence resident Daniel Merriam, in a letter he wrote during the Warsaw Pact invasion of Prague, Czechoslovakia, 40 years ago
It was only a few words.
But the short telegram Annie Merriam received at her 2523 Ark. home on Aug. 24, 1968, gave her a huge sense of relief.
"ARRIVED VIENNA OK=DAN=."
It was a Western Union message from her husband, Daniel, a Kansas University geologist, who was in Prague, Czechoslovakia, for a conference on Aug. 21, 1968.
"When that came, we were thrilled," said Annie Merriam, who recently celebrated her 62nd anniversary with her husband.
Forty years ago today, the Soviet Union's Warsaw Pact allies rolled into the Eastern European country with tanks and planes to squash the movement known as the "Prague Spring," which sought more political and social freedoms during the Cold War years.
Daniel Merriam, now 81 and retired from the Kansas Geological Survey, escaped the country safely on a train to Austria. He recorded his notes in Prague and mailed them back to Lawrence.
Merriam lived through a tense time when more than 100 people were killed and Czechoslovakia's Communist Party leader, Alexander Dubcek, was arrested. Dubcek didn't return to Prague until 1989.
Just before the invasion, geologists from around the world, including the Soviet Union, were there in August attending a session for the International Geological Congress to form a new organization, the International Association for Mathematical Geology.
British colleagues had driven Merriam and Stanford University geologist John Harbaugh, a KU alumnus, into Prague for the conference. They were at a hotel in the eastern part of the city when at 2 a.m. on Aug. 21, low-flying airplanes suddenly woke Merriam.
"For some reason in my mind, I thought the Russians were coming, but it didn't occur to me that's what was happening," he said.
The invasion also shocked the native Czechs and even the Soviet delegates who attended the geology conference. On the eastern side of the city, Merriam didn't witness much destruction.
'Knots of grim'
His notes from those few days mention an eerie sense of calm in the eastern part of the city, apart from airplanes sweeping in and tanks rolling around. He noted "the tears in the eyes of the waitresses and the little knots of grim" in the neighborhood along with several protests.
Much of their news came from rumors on the street because radio stations had been bombed and the spread of information was spotty.
"There wasn't anything they could do. There wasn't anything we could do, either, but just watch and hope nothing happened," Merriam said.
The U.S. Embassy had advised Merriam and his colleagues to stay in the hotel because transport from the city was impossible. Even though several members fled the city, the geological conference continued to meet for one day after the invasion.
The new group, the International Association for Mathematical Geology, even elected its leadership, including president Andrei B. Vistelius, a geologist from the Soviet Union, while the tanks occupied the city, Merriam said.
"It had nothing to do with it, but it was kind of an interesting coincidence anyway," he said.
Making it home
During that week back in Lawrence, Annie Merriam was on edge. She frequently called Harbaugh's wife, Josephine, to see whether there was any word. But she heard nothing.
Finally, Daniel Merriam and John Harbaugh had a chance to leave Prague on a train. It left the city even with tanks nearby, he said.
As it approached the Austrian border, the lights went out, and soldiers came to check passports. The train eventually stopped in Vienna, where Merriam sent the telegram to his wife.
He also mailed home his letter, which didn't arrive in Lawrence until after he returned home the next week.
Now 40 years later, Merriam considers the Warsaw Pact invasion identical to the recent strife in the Republic of Georgia because of how quickly the Russians moved in their military.
"There's not much anybody could do. It's not a good situation at all," he said.
When he did return to Lawrence in 1968, it ended a tense chapter for his family.
"Don't you ever go anywhere again," Annie Merriam said about her thoughts upon her husband's return.
But he did continue his travels. He even returned to Prague in 1993 for the IAMG's 25th anniversary. The association started amid an invasion, but it has now flourished into a successful academic group and publisher.