Title blurb

"From one LIGHT come many colors." ~GJ Dürrschmidt

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Narrow Sidewalks - A Cold War Healing

The early morning Missouri air feels cool and crisp as I step onto the deck at the military guest quarters. The cloudless sky comes as a welcomed surprise. The last two weeks back in Washington D.C. had been steadily overcast and depressing. The warmth of sunshine upon my face lifts my spirits even higher than they already are on this special day of days. Full of excitement and anticipation I decide to brave the April frost and walk the mile to the ceremony.

There’s an exaggerated quickness to my step this morning. I first attribute it to the chilling cold, but realize it may be due to the adrenaline coursing through my veins. Off in the distance come the voices of hundreds of soldiers shouting marching cadences in unison. Competing cadences echo out of the red brick buildings, making it difficult for this old soldier to keep in step. I should’ve worn a warmer jacket, but there’s no going back now.

Being on a military post once again has a sense of home in an odd sort of way. I never thought I would miss it, but the connected way I feel says otherwise. God knows I’ve walked many military installations back in the day. Except for a few topographical differences, they all look about the same. Fort Leonard Wood differs in that its open spaces consist of barren, rolling hills, strewn with jagged rock. To facilitate walking its great spans, raised sidewalks had been laid. They’re narrow and I find I must look down often not to step too near the edge and risk a twisted ankle -- the last thing I need on a morning as important as this. Moments from now, I’ll see my son for the first time since he enlisted in the army. Suddenly I’m covered in goose bumps on top of goose bumps. Perhaps it’s colder than I first imagined.

Cresting yet another hill, I see that the sidewalk goes slightly out of the way toward the Post Exchange, but I’ve no choice. I stop for a moment to catch my breath. My pace, despite the rhythm of the cadence, is a disappointment to me. I used to cross open spaces like this as if they didn’t exist. Hell, I was only nineteen then. Good lord, my little boy will soon be twenty. How did that happen? How did that cute little toe-head in Pampers grow up so soon? My, how far we both seem to have come along life’s pathway. With the theater still a good distance away, I try to quicken my step. My thoughts drift back to when I was my son’s age. 

 I was in the military assigned to Tempelhof Central Airport (above) in the divided, island city of Berlin, Germany. As one Cold War memory after another returns to me, an anger wells up inside that I burn off by walking even faster. Rounding the corner at the Post Exchange, all the horrid memories suddenly become concrete. Towering right before me are remnants of the icon of death. I have trouble accepting the reality of this bizarre encounter. I stand once again in the shadow of the Berlin Wall! Is this some kind of cruel joke? I’ve traveled a long way to have a joyful reunion, certainly not for this! 

(Pictured are similar slabs displayed at CIA Headquarters. I can't seem to locate the Ft. Leonard Wood photos)

I don’t wish to be late for the ceremony, but can’t seem to pull myself away from the three stone monoliths arranged in an open “Z” formation. The gray concrete slabs now bear colorful graffiti: “Freiheit...PEACE...Freedom...TEAR DOWN THE WALL,” and a bright yellow smiley face. I remember nothing of the sort when I last stood in its evil shadow -- only drab shades of gray, as dismal as the colorless skies above the city and peoples it divided -- a sinister wedge driven deep between two diametrically opposed ideologies.

I spent hours upon observation decks in the West staring into the Garden of Death in the East with its miles of mine fields, tank traps, heavily armed guard towers, floodlights, barbed wire, and vicious dogs. Standing here now, I see it all again. I hear it. I smell it. 

Despite the new art, they still represent death -- death to democratic ideals, and death to the desperate souls who courageously risked life for a chance at freedom.

These very concrete slabs challenged the ideals of my youth. Like the razor sharp wire that surrounded them, they twisted the image of the world in which I wished to live and raise children. I never understood the killing. Surely those who guarded the Garden of Death had families. How could they be so intent on killing, even their own children, for nothing more than wanting to come to freedom, a distance less than one hundred yards from where I stood?

I met the enemy face-to-face for the first time crossing through Check Point Charlie, along with three other soldiers, into the heart of communism’s official show place -- East Berlin. The absence of color is striking. People are dressed in grays, blues, browns, and blacks. What few cars there are look the same. There are road crews everywhere, their jackhammers pounding - nothing unusual, if ignoring the fact that many are women. There are no billboards, marquees, or neon lights anywhere. No matter where we walk, all eyes seem fixed upon on us. The stares are uncomfortable and make me wonder what thoughts lurk behind them. By orders, we’re forbidden to communicate with anyone during our visit, so we may never know. 

The streets are wide and the sidewalks narrow. I find this extremely odd since there are so few cars and so many people walking about. We venture down a side street taking us to a rusted, iron bridge. There are repairs underway on it as well, with only one side open for passage. At the top of bridge, we spot four Russian soldiers approaching us. They’re young like us. I remind my buddies that many people are watching the pending confrontation with great curiosity. As envoys of the United States of America, it’s crucial that we not yield an inch of sidewalk to the enemy. From the gestures we see the Russians making, it appears that they’re arriving at the same conclusion.

Conversation ceases as each military force sizes up the other. Nearing impact, nervous tension spontaneously breaks into wide nervous grins. The grins almost immediately erupt into laughter as three Americans and four Russians recognize the rules of the game, and are about to get real up close and personal.

Contact! The heavy wool uniforms of two opposing cold war super powers press tightly against one another. The coarse fabrics rustle and metal buttons clack as our bodies rub together. The ultimate fate of two world powers hangs delicately in the balance, or so it seems to all of us at the time. Each force gallantly struggles, grabbing and tugging at the other to insure that no one steps onto the roadway, and that we all walk away from the encounter saving face.

In one brief moment the Cold War changes forever. I smell my enemy’s strong, cheap cologne. I feel his hot breath on my face. I see his big, broad smile, rosy red cheeks, and the sparkle in his eyes. Above it all, I hear his laughter. I can never forget his laughter. He’s just like me!

I’m snapped back to the present by the loud Jody calls coming from the graduating platoons passing nearby. The big event is about to start. Families and friends crowd onto the narrow sidewalk eagerly searching for a first glimpse of their special someone. Today, they all look special. Their gleaming brass out-shined only by the look of pride in their eyes. I feel my eyes begin to tear as I see my special soldier marching by. 

If asked, I would try to blame it on the frosty morning. But, the growing lump in my throat would probably prevent me from speaking. The frantic aiming and clicking of cameras reminds me that I had left mine behind. Pictures would’ve been nice, but somehow I don’t think I’m ever going to forget the images and events of today. 

I take a moment from the jubilation, and walk up to the remnants of the Berlin Wall. I realized that I had been harboring a deep bitterness and hatred ever since that time in my life. What purpose could it possibly serve now? I touch my hands to the lifeless, cold slabs. I feel no evil within them. The chilling touch of the stone brings a strange sense of warmth...of inner peace. I wonder what became of those young Russian soldiers from that day on the bridge. With any luck, they too are now proud fathers with sons of their own. With that thought, I step away from this ghost from the past, render a sharp salute, then hustle the last hundred yards to the graduation ceremony at the theater. 

~GJ Duerrschmidt

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