Monday, November 09, 2009

I Miss the Berlin Wall

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 know if I’ll ever choose to return to the now reunited city of Berlin.

I’m a military brat. I spent my childhood shuttling back and forth between Texas and Germany every two to three years. This may sound interesting but in reality it was pretty painful.

Imagine growing up, and every three years everyone dies. Not your family, but everyone else. Your teachers, friends, pets. Poof. Gone. Kinda like puppets that get put away never to be seen again. The sets may come out again, but not the puppets. You’ll never see that cast of characters again. 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 - the border that surrounded West Berlin.

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. 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 people from the bad people.

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 going to the wall. It was a pretty crowded day and the decks were crammed with folks. There was a man wearing the reddest shirt I’ve ever seen. You could have picked him out of the crowd from miles away. And that was exactly his purpose. My father 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. And it 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 red-shirted German neighbor peered through binoculars, two women 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 red-shirted guy stared through the binoculars at them. My father learned that the women were his wife and daughter and the babies were his grandchildren. He had never seen them any other way. They held the squirming children up in the air until the man saw something move in the distance and 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. It was 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 choose where they live, can’t choose their job, can’t quit their job, don’t choose their doctors. The bad people looked more like the sad people to me – and in the military, 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.

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 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 going out to the German community looking at the shop owners and the business men and thinking, hey, that man’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? Did he try to stop it?

Later, when I was in high school, we lived close to Munich and the death camp, Dachau. When people came to visit from the states we would take them there. It was 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 lady must have been here then... she 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 puppykillers and folks drove in from around the world to ask where the puppykillers were, where the puppykiller memorial is, implying that I might be a puppykiller myself, I might also play dumb as a way to cope.

But then again, honestly, I don’t think I could. Because of my divided perspective, I 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 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 comes up, she says she can’t believe she might live on the side of a wall with the guard towers. Neither of us can understand why folks are going along with this crap.

And as a people, we’ve had our own wall running through our nation for years now, and it sometimes seems like it’s getting more and more concrete.

The Berlin wall taught me to try to understand the other. I’m not always successful but I try. I’m no longer in the minority when I question the wars we’re waging but I’m still looking for common ground. I don’t think that the folks on the other side are 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 be really painful to be on the side of the issues where you have to deny truths for the sake of loyalty and patriotism. For the folks who believed in leaders, both in the government and media, who led our country into war, it has to be painful to realize that those leaders were liars, 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.

Part of my journey to question the war took me to a new home along the way. Back in 2005 and 2006 I joined Cindy Sheehan and thousands of others in Crawford, Texas to ask the last president to bring the troops home. I wasn’t sure what to expect after years of protest marches and lefty politics, but I sure didn’t expect to find so many military folks. There were active duty troops from Fort Hood. There were wives and mothers and fathers and sons of GIs. There were vets and brats from all over the world.

I had forgotten what it was like to be in the company of so many traditional people. People who understand 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 troops. It’s still our job to speak out for them because they gave up that right when they volunteered to serve us. We gathered in Texas in the service of the troops. And it felt like home.

But, once again, it was 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. We may gather again but now the community, like the troops, has changed. We’re dispersed far and wide. We’re tired, we’re getting disillusioned, we want peace but we are so weary from fighting for it, and we can’t believe that we have to ask this president to bring our troops home too.

So though I’ll forever be able to go back and visit a parcel of land, the set, the place where so many of us discovered common ground, 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.


Blogger Janet Kincaid said...

I found this blog by clicking on "Next Blog" in the header. This is a fine piece of writing.

I didn't grow up moving from place to place, but I did grow up with books and magazines like National Geographic. I also had a grandfather who served in WWII. I was always puzzled by the idea that the Russians / Germans / Japanese / pick-your-country were bad and the Americans were good. (Now it's the Muslims, the immigrants, and the Chinese. Same tune, different generation.) I'm grateful I had a mother who taught us to see beyond the propoganda. I'm trying to do the same thing now.

This piece has given me a great deal to ponder. Thank you!

December 15, 2009 12:32 AM  
Blogger Cassandra Complex said...

thank you, janet, for your kind words. i teach writing but don't consider myself "a writer." your thoughtful comment encourages me.

you remind me of a great quote by george bernard shaw, "patriotism is the belief that your country is superior to all others because you were born in it."

your children are fortunate to have you for a mother.

December 15, 2009 10:52 AM  
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