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A Disastrous Year, with Summits, Hijackings and a Guilty Guru

December 31, 1985

Undated (AP) _ 1985 was a disastrous year. Floods, earthquakes and hurricanes killed more than 40,000 people around the world. Airplane crashes took nearly 2,000 lives, and hundreds died in South Africa’s strife.

One satisfying strike against terrorism was followed by 60 deaths in a hijacking rescue attempt. Rock Hudson died as the toll from AIDS passed 7,500.

It was the kind of year when TV news could ask, as it did in New York, ″Is God punishing us?″

Yet a Gallup Poll late in the year found that four out of five Americans were contented with their lives, although only half were satisfied with the drift of the world in general.

Disasters missed most people, and the economy purred along with low inflation despite record trade and federal budget deficits. If you were a fan of the Chicago Bears or the Kansas City Royals, it was a satisfying year indeed; if you were the ″Refrigerator,″ the world was your oyster.

1985 also brought a vigorous new leader in the Kremlin; new hope for peace after a round of summitry and summit tea; a defecting defector and a big crop of spies; a guilty guru; a $2 trillion national debt and a resolve in Congress to balance the budget, if not right away.

President Reagan defended ″Star Wars″ against critics at home and abroad, while Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger - embarrassed by $7,000 coffee makers and $640 toilet seats - finally found a weapon he couldn’t afford: Sgt. York, the gun that couldn’t shoot straight.

It was a year to remember: the 40th anniversaries of V-E and V-J days, and 10 years since the fall of Saigon.

Again and again, disaster dominated the news with staggering numbers:

- 25,000 people were smothered in mud which spilled down an erupting volcano in Colombia on Nov. 13.

- 11,069 deaths in a hurricane in Bangladesh in May, which left a quarter of a million people without homes.

- 7,000 or more deaths in the Mexico City earthquake Sept. 19.

- Air accidents killed 1,946 people by Dec. 12, including 520 people aboard one 747 which slammed into a Japanese mountain and 329 on another 747 which went down in the Atlantic. A chartered Arrow Air DC-8 crashed Dec. 12 on takeoff from Gander, Newfoundland, killing 248 members of the 101st Airborne Division and the crew of eight. Samantha Smith, the Maine girl who captured the world’s attention with a letter to the Kremlin, died in a commuter plane crash.

There were 400 dead in Chinese floods, 268 dead when a dam burst in Italy, 186 dead and hundreds more still missing in a mudslide in Puerto Rico. Eleven people died and a whole neighborhood was incinerated in Philadelphia in a showdown between police and cultists.

Famine eased in Africa, but 18 million people were still at risk of starvation by year’s end. In India, grain crops overflowed storage bins while hungry people in some regions gnawed on roots and bark.

With black rage grinding against white intransigence, South Africa suffered through a violent year in which more than 9,000 people were arrested. The death toll in 16 months of rioting climbed past 900.

The Reagan administration’s hopes that President P.W. Botha would take significant steps to dismantle apartheid were dashed in August when Botha dismissed a one-man, one-vote system as ″suicide.″

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, who visited South Africa in August, gave his blessing to Botha and a slap to a black leader, Archbishop Desmond Tutu: ″I think he’s a phony as far as representing the blacks is concerned.″

In September, with Congress about to impose sanctions against the white- minority government, Reagan found it expedient to move first. Sales of gold Kruggerands, exports of computers that could help security forces and most loans to the South African government were banned.

For the first time since Reagan took office in 1981, the Kremlin had a vigorous leader, one who looked less susceptible to colds than his three aged predecessors. Mikhail Gorbachev showed an unaccustomed flair for public relations, including a handsome wife who wasn’t dressed like a sack of potatoes.

Reagan’s summit with Gorbachev in Geneva produced few concrete results, and neither did Nancy Reagan’s ″summit teas″ with Raisa Gorbachev, but it was a high point in a difficult year for the president.

Reagan had surgery for intestinal cancer this summer, and later had a patch of skin cancer snipped from his nose. Republicans in Congress nearly derailed his campaign for a simplified tax code, and his visit to a cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany, where SS veterans were buried only managed to open old wounds.

Nicaragua’s Sandinista government declined Reagan’s invitation to cry ″uncle,″ but President Daniel Ortega’s ill-timed visit to Moscow saved the administration’s military aid program to the Contras, just after Congress voted to kill it.

The president ″pounded a few walls″ in frustration this summer as Shiite militias in Beirut held 39 American hostages from a hijacked TWA plane, but the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro handed Reagan a rare opportunity to strike back at terrorists.

The hijackers murdered one crippled American, then made a deal with Egypt to be turned over to the Palestine Liberation Organization. U.S. jet fighters, however, forced the hijackers’ plane down in Italy.

While Washington exulted, Egyptians protested vehemently. When the Reagan administration criticized Italy for releasing suspected hijack leader Mohammed Abbas, Bettino Craxi’s government collapsed in the uproar.

Egypt was much tougher in November when an Egyptair jet - the same one forced down in Italy - was hijacked. After the hijackers shot four passengers, killing two, Egyptian commandoes stormed the plane; 58 people died in the gunfire and flames.

The year of terrorism ended with a bloody attack on airports in Rome and Vienna on Dec. 27. At least 16 people were killed and more than 100 wounded.

One man was killed as explosives sank the Greenpeace ship ″Rainbow Warrior″ in New Zealand, but that didn’t count as terrorism in some books because it was carried out by the French government.

At home, two families that spied together got caught together, and a big- shot defector defected again.

John A. Walker Jr., 48, a retired Navy communications specialist, pleaded guilty to espionage and conspiracy as a Soviet cat’s-paw for 17 years. He faces a life sentence.

His former wife tipped the FBI - not knowing her son was involved too. ″How can a father do this?″ Barbara Walker said.

Her son, seaman Michael Walker, 22, also pleaded guilty while Uncle Arthur was convicted by a jury. John Walker’s friend, Jerry Whitworth, awaits trial.

Diplomatic ties between devoted allies were strained when Jonathan Pollard, a civilian Naval intelligence analyst, was accused of selling information to Israel. His wife, Anne Henderson-Pollard, was accused of trying to peddle some secrets to China.

In all, 11 spy suspects were arrested in the United States this year, but America’s spooks thought they had evened the score by bagging Vitaly Sergeyevich Yurchenko, a KGB bigwig who defected in Rome.

Yurchenko reportedly exposed the Soviets’ use of ″spy dust″ to track Americans in Moscow, solved the disappearance of a Soviet defector and fingered one spy suspect.

Then Yurchenko defected again, to Moscow. He claimed he had been kidnapped and drugged, even forced to play golf, during ″three horrible months″ in the CIA’s clutches.

Faced with a growing insurgency and political unrest, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos called elections for next year. His opponent, Corazon Aquino, says she might put Marcos on trial for the murder of her husband, Benigno, if she wins.

In December, a court absolved 25 soldiers and a civilian who were charged with conspiracy, thus placing sole blame on an alleged communist agent who was killed at the scene of the 1983 assassination.

Imelda Marcos rejected charges that she and her husband ran a corrupt regime. ″I would not look like this if I am corrupt,″ she told an interviewer. ″Some ugliness would settle down on my system.″

One of the year’s most fascinating stories turned on a lie told by Cathleen Crowell Webb. She had lied, she said, in accusing Gary Dotson of raping her 1977. A judge and the governor of Illinois came away convinced she was lying now.

In March, Mrs. Webb filed an affidavit saying she had made up the rape story because she was afraid her boyfriend had made her pregnant. She had become a Christian, she said, and her conscience tormented her.

Dotson was released on bond in April but was back in prison the next week, because a judge didn’t believe Mrs. Webb.

Old evidence - semen stains, hairs, contradictory alibis - was dredged up and minutely examined. At a three-day clemency hearing in May, Mrs. Webb’s former boyfriend detailed their love life, on live television.

Gov. James Thompson said he believed Mrs. Webb had told the truth eight years ago, not now. Nonetheless, he reduced Dotson’s sentence to time served and released him because of ″the larger quality of mercy - of compassion for one’s fellow man.″

Mrs. Webb and Dotson then made a triumphant tour of the morning chat shows in New York and even kept their dignity as Phyllis George of CBS chirped, ″How about a hug?″

There was bad karma in Oregon, and some good buys on Rolls-Royces. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh copped a guilty plea on federal immigration charges and returned to India, angrily shaking the dust of America from his sandals.

″I never want to return again,″ he declared. Not that he could; that was part of the plea bargain.

There were red faces in Atlanta, as the Coca Cola Co. admitted it goofed in changing its recipe. So old Coke came back as Coke Classic.

Anyone for Yuppy Classic next year?

Not so much dead this year as dismissed, yuppies came to stand for just about anything you disliked: greed, shallowness, a lemming-like fashion sense and a torrid romance with the self.

One defensive trend-setter confessed to the New York Times that he could no longer buy imported cheese or ″a feisty little Beaujolais″ without feeling like a cliche.

There was a new yearning in the land for meatloaf and mashed potatoes, a nostalgia for small-town verities which made Garrison Keillor’s ″Lake Wobegon Days″ a best-seller.

Not that Madison Avenue had abandoned the chablis set. Your better beers, yogurts and vintages still begged to be part of their endless frat parties at work or play.

The big bucks, though, were with the Bud and Miller drinkers who waved the flag in endless TV spots; rugged, reliable folk who shook off each morning’s hangover to Build America.

Even Prince Charles and Princess Di paid tribute to the resurgence of middle-brow America by visiting a Penney’s store in Virginia. Giving the royal once-over to a display of junior wear, Princess Di pronounced, ″It’s very new and different, isn’t it?″ She wasn’t seen buying any.

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