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My moment with Vaclav Havel and his 'unbelievable dream'

In this file photo taken Feb. 3, 2011, former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel answers questions about anti-government protests in Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East during an interview with The Associated Press in Prague, Czech Republic.

Petr David Josek/AP/Petr David Josek/AP

At the time, it didn't feel much like fairytale history being made.

Rather, it felt like the police would burst through the door any second and haul everyone off to prison.

In November, 1989, more than a dozen people, including a couple of foreign journalists, were packed into the overheated apartment home of the Czech dissident and often-imprisoned playwright. It was a very tense Monday morning. Some were already drinking potent Czech pilsner.

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Outside, not far away, candles and flowers formed a small makeshift shrine to the student believed killed three nights earlier when riot police viciously smashed a demonstration. Prague's hospitals were filled with broken bodies and smashed heads.

And a very, very, nervous Vaclav Havel announced that pro-democracy dissidents were defying then-Czechoslovakia's Communist rulers and forming something vaguely called 'Civic Forum.' He called for the entire Communist leadership to quit.

Ten days earlier the Berlin Wall had fallen. The communist empire was reeling.

Over the next tumultuous weeks, the first tiny, violently suppressed, demonstrations in Prague would swell into hundreds of thousands, a vast unstoppable, peaceful, popular uprising eventually called the 'Velvet Revolution.' But nothing seemed smooth in those chaotic first days of furtive meetings, police charges, wild rumours and pervasive fear.

In the wake of Mr. Havel's death this week, the remembrances and obituaries paid tribute to the brave, intellectual, music-loving man.

His literary legacy and his place in history are secure. He became the first democratically-elected president of post-Communist Czechoslovakia, famous, among other things, for inviting rock bands to the palace and releasing political prisoners. He championed human rights and was lionized internationally.

But in the heady, whirlwind weeks of revolution in the fall of 1989, I had a second, poignant, encounter with Mr. Havel.

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Very late one night, after a long, alcohol-fueled evening that began as dinner hosted by the Italian embassy, I saw Mr. Havel sitting alone at a table. He was tired, wan, worn out, from the tumultuous pace of unfolding events that had transformed him from an enemy of the Communist state and its frequent prisoner to a national hero on the verge of the presidency.

For a few minutes, we talked over coffee and I asked him if he believed the revolution could still be reversed.

"I keep thinking that I will wake up in my cell and say to the other prisoners that I've just had the most unbelievable dream," Mr. Havel, who had woken many mornings in prisons, said with a wry, unassuming smile.

So I asked how he would feel if he were to wake up in Hradčany Castle, official home of the nation's presidents. "That will be even more unbelievable," he said.

Ten days later it happened.

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