saturday night i was honored to participate in Lit Up at St. Michael's church in the valley. it's a monthly event where folks from theatre, comedy, music et. al. come together and share some musings on a theme. the proceeds went to the Evan Ashcraft Memorial Foundation. this month's theme was "government issue" and i had a few folks ask if they could read it so i'm posting it below. it contains themes and stories that i've touched on before in this blog and it's long so i'm not sure i'll leave it up forever, so enjoy:
I miss the Berlin wall. I know that’s not a particularly PC thing to say and if given the opportunity I certainly wouldn’t advocate building it again – or building our own facsimile on our southern border for that matter – but I don’t think I’ll ever choose to return to the now reunited city of Berlin.
See, I’m a military brat. I am government issue. I was issued forth in an army base hospital in Bremerhaven, Germany to my father, who was then in the Air Force and to my mother who was an army brat who had met him a year earlier on that same base.
I spent the rest of my childhood shuttling back and forth between Texas and Germany every two to three years. In retrospect this sounds a little interesting but in reality it was pretty painful.
Imagine growing up, and every two or three years everyone dies. Not your family, but everyone else. Your teachers, your best friends, your pets. Poof. Gone. Kinda like puppets that get folded up and put away never to be seen again. Well, not exactly, the sets may come out but not the puppets. You can go back and visit a town you grew up in but none of the people you grew up with will be there, they’ve been stationed somewhere else. You’ll never see that cast of characters again. And now, as an adult and a civilian you can’t even get back on the base to see your old house or the pool where you spent all your summers. Nothing to go back to. That’s how I grew up.
I spent second, third and fourth grades in Berlin. That’s where I left some of my earliest memories. We lived within a mile of the wall. Or the border that surrounded West Berlin. It wasn’t always a wall. There were places where apartment buildings that sat on the border had balconies that hung over into the east. Those balconies had been simply crammed with barbed wire so that no one could escape out the back – as if someone was going to risk their lives jumping off a balcony to "escape" into East Germany.
The entire experience of Berlin from an American child’s perspective was filled with contradiction and questions. As an army brat I was spoon-fed propaganda along with the rest of the troops. And I call it propaganda because even if it was originally nuanced and complex information, by the time you boil it down so that an eight-year-old can understand it, you have propaganda. The people in the east were the bad guys. We, the Americans, were in Berlin to protect the good Germans from the bad Germans.
Only that didn’t really make sense, even to an eight-year-old. The Berlin wall had guard towers on the east and observation decks on the west. Western tourists could climb the wooden stairs up a story or two to look over the wall and see the "bad guys" in the east and their armed guards in towers looking back at us.
I remember one Easter when we went to the wall – don’t ask me why we spent Easter there, my family doesn’t really do holidays. But it was a pretty crowded day and the decks were crammed with folks. There was one man that was wearing the reddest of red shirts I’ve ever seen. In my memory it’s like the scene in Shindler’s List where everything else is gray and bleak and there’s one bright spot of color that you can’t not follow with your eyes. You could have picked him out of the crowd from miles away. And that was exactly his purpose. My father, whose job as a Russian linguist was to spy on Russian radio transmissions in East Germany, could also speak a little German. He started chatting the red-shirted guy up and learned his story.
The man, like so many other Berliners, had been working in West Berlin on the night of August 13, 1961, the night the wall went up. He simply couldn’t get back to his family. Now, nine years later, he was there to see them on Easter.
East Berlin was the bleakest vision I had ever seen. It was probably its proximity to West Berlin, by comparison, that made it seem even more dismal. Now, in hindsight, I realize that it was the lack of advertising. There was simply no advertising, no billboards, neon signs, banners. Just cobblestones and monotonous architecture. But the east side was always empty. I don’t know what that’s about. I don’t know if it’s faulty memory or what, but I do remember how remarkable it was to even see a car drive by in the distance.
But on this Easter morning, as our redshirted German neighbor peered through big binoculars, two women on the east side came down the street toward us pushing baby carriages. They were far away and I could see that they stopped, picked the babies up and held them up in the air. The redshirted guy stared through the binoculars at them. My father had learned that the women were his wife and his daughter and the babies were his grandchildren. He had never seen them any other way. They held the squirming children up in the air and then the man saw something move in the distance and he signaled them. The women put the children in the carriages and they were gone. A moment later an East German police car drove by.
And those were the bad guys?
I know that’s a simplification of so many hard facts, but even an eight-year-old knows when something is fishy.
At night, in my bed, in the brand-new government issued apartment building we lived in, I could hear mines exploding. We lived within earshot of the wall. When I got scared and asked who was dying, my parents would tell me not to worry that it was probably only a rabbit or deer, not a human. Yeah, don’t worry. It was probably only Bambi or Thumper. No one important.
And then there was the whole issue of recognition. The united states government didn’t "recognize" the East German government. Didn’t recognize East Berlin? Well, I did! It was right over there!
So I was getting a good healthy dose of authority questioning at an early age. We’re the good people and they are the bad? The bad people don’t get to choose where they live, they can’t choose their job, they can’t quit their job, they don’t get to choose their doctors. The bad people were looking more and more like the sad people to me – and if you know anything about the military, you know that the same went for us. Daddy couldn’t quit his job. We didn’t get to choose where we lived. I never saw the same doctor twice growing up. – hell, I still don’t get to see the same doctor twice now, with my health insurance, or lack of, changing every few months.
And then, after I finished reading my first whole book, Charlotte’s Web, I moved onto the next natural choice for a girl growing up in Germany. I read the diary of Anne frank. It would start me off on a young obsession with the holocaust. Trying to understand the good people and the bad. Only, I was living in Berlin in the 60's. Even at the age of nine I could do the math. I remember when we would go out to the German community looking at the shop owners and the business men and thinking, hey, that guy’s about the age of my grandfather, that means he was here 20 years ago, that means he was here when it happened and he was a grownup even back then. What did he do? Did he know? Why didn’t he try to stop it?
Later, when I was in high school, we lived in Augsburg, Germany, close to Munich and close to the death camp, Dachau. When people would come to visit us from the states we would take them there. It was kind of our own perverted Disney trip. The tourists are coming, have to go to Dachau. Only it wasn’t as easy to find as Disneyland. There weren’t a lot of signs that said Dachau death camp! Next exit! And when daddy would stop to ask for directions it was amazing how many Germans didn’t know. "Dachau? You’re in Dachau. What do you mean, ‘death camp’ I don’t understand." Again, I would do the math. That guy looks about 45, he must have been here then... He doesn’t know?
One thing that I did get from growing up in a divided city is a divided perspective. And for me that led to compassion for my "enemies." When you have a wall running down the middle of your perspective, you tend to look on both sides. You tend to question. If I lived in a town called puppy killers and folks drove in from all around the world to ask where the puppy killers were, where the puppy killer factory memorial is, implying that I might be a puppy killer myself, I might also play dumb as a way to cope.
But then again, honestly, I don’t think I would. Because of my divided perspective, I can have compassion for the good Germans, but I don’t know that I can join them. Our own country has been looking vaguely reminiscent lately. My own mother, a military wife and daughter, a gung ho Texan American who prides herself on never voting a straight party ticket but instead, weighing each candidate before pulling a lever, told me, after the Abu Graihb photos came out that even she is reminded of the good Germans. And when the question of building a wall between Mexico and the US came up, she said she can’t believe she might live on the side of a wall with the guard towers. Neither of us could understand why folks were going along with this crap. As a people, we’ve had our own wall running through our nation for years now, and it seemed like it was getting more and more concrete until just four days ago.
The Berlin wall taught me to try to understand the other. And that is something I still try to nourish. I’m not always successful but I try. Now that our country is reuniting, I’m looking for common ground. I don’t think that the folks on the other side were bad guys. I don’t think we’re the good guys. I think we all just want to wake up tomorrow and feel better about things. It must have been really painful to be on the side of the issues where you had to deny truth for the sake of loyalty and patriotism. For the folks who believed in their leaders, both in the government and the media, it has to be painful to admit that those leaders were liars and cheats and bullies. I am not going to say I told you so, because I didn’t really want to be right. I know what it’s like to be disillusioned by my country, it hurts like a mofo.
And part of my journey to question the war authorities in the past years took me to a new home. I joined Cindy Sheehan and thousands of others last year in Crawford Texas to protest the president. I wasn’t sure what to expect after years of protest marches and leftist politics, but I sure didn’t expect to find so many military folks. There were Gi s and wives and mothers and fathers and sons of GI s. There were vets and brats. I had forgotten what it was like to be in the company of so many traditional people. People who understood what it meant to be in "the service." Who are prepared to give up some basic American rights for a greater good. And our greater good in Crawford was to question the civilian authorities who were in command of the Gis. It’s our job to speak out for them because they gave up that right when they volunteered to serve us. We gathered in Crawford in the service of the GI. And it felt like home.
And, of course, once again, it’s a home that I can’t go back to. A place and time inhabited so briefly by a community that will never be the same again. I’ll forever be able to go back and visit a parcel of land, the set, but the cast of characters will never be the same.
I miss the Berlin wall because it surrounded my childhood home. As an army brat you can return to your old neighborhood but none of the people will be there, just the buildings. I get emotionally attached to architecture and a huge piece of architecture, the iron curtain, both literal and figurative, is gone. I can’t go home again. All I can do, is try to make this home better.