As we approach the 60th anniversary of its construction, reflections on the Berlin Wall, excerpted with permission from the forthcoming novel About That Wine I Gave You.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan traveled to Germany’s largest city still very much divided by the still very real Cold War and declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” referring to the notorious Berlin Wall erected in 1961. President Reagan went on to predict, "This wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom." The exact number of people killed crossing from communist East Germany to a better life in capitalist West Germany during its twenty-eight year history is unknown. A memorial at the site lists 140 victims, while statistics gathered at Checkpoint Charlie, the U.S. controlled border outpost where I served, put the total higher.
In the early 1980s as a peace movement gathered momentum in West Germany, I decided to return. You may not regard Berlin an ideal vacation spot, but I enjoyed the night life when I was in the Army and wanted to go back to find an acquaintance. When I walked from West Berlin through Checkpoint C to the other side in March 1982, it was like Alice walking through the mirror into another world, as stark and contrasting a border crossing as Hong Kong to Shenzhen, Kansas to Oz, San Diego to Tijuana. East Berlin was dark, gray, and subdued compared to the bustle and brightness of West Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm – and though I spotted some good-looking food, packaged goods, and delicacies displayed behind a few glass windows in the East, such luxuries were out of reach of most citizens behind the Iron Curtain.
I explored East Berlin, ventured into a bar and drank beer with punks dressed in black leather jackets, one with a purple mohawk, then went to a theater to see a play I couldn’t understand. After the performance, I spoke with some members of the audience. Younger people were eager to talk with an American and here I was, people-to-people with East Germans who were “the enemy,” members of the Warsaw Pact controlled by the Soviet Evil Empire. It was surreal. The conversations were open and you could sense their humanity, but mostly their hopelessness of a future without promise.
After my hardship tour in Vietnam, I was posted to West Berlin where I met an East German soldier my age on the other side. I saw him a couple of times; we exchanged greetings and cautiously extended our conversations. I assumed he was a spy trying to entrap me, but, after several encounters, I could tell he was just a regular guy. One night, he told me he needed to get to our side to see his deathly-ill mother who had fled to the West before the wall was built. He asked me to switch uniforms. I almost can’t believe this happened and wonder what the hell I was thinking but I loaned him my uniform and stayed in his family’s apartment and joined them for stew and bread while Hans visited his mother. I remember the bread was good, thick, sour. His family was like any family back home. We were prepared to fight them, and Berlin was ground zero for the Third World War. We were enemies on paper, but they were just people. When Hans returned a few hours later, he gave me his Lugar as a souvenir and I kept it, using it now to manage the surplus squirrel population.
Hans, of course, was against East Germany’s government and despised the secret police – he knew life on the other side was better – but what could he do to voice opposition? There was no Friedensbewegung peace protest, no March on Wall Street by East Germany’s 99% against the accumulation of wealth and privilege by the 1% communist party elites. For Hans, the dream of America – called Beautiful Country (Mei Guo) by the Chinese and El Dorado by the Spanish where streets were paved with gold – appealed to people on his side.
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Each year, more people in search of a better life die crossing the U.S. border with Mexico than during the entire existence of the Berlin Wall. The U.S. Government tightened our southern border after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and since, more people have died crossing into the U.S. from Mexico than perished in the Twin Towers. Don’t even get me started about Europe’s refugee crisis in the mid-2010s. Desperate people will do anything for a chance at a better life. Nature abhors a vacuum and people are drawn to America like ants to fresh grape juice – even if it means getting sucked up into the hose of a vacuum, the same consequences faced by migrants caught in the whirlwind.
The human carnage along San Diego County’s southern border caused no loss of sleep for Joe the Wino who said illegals have it coming to them. He was all for steps to tighten border security around San Diego, shifting the flow of illegal immigrants from the city into the isolated, harsh desert. And, he put his money where his mouth was funding the local Minute Men, a citizens’ militia that took protecting our border into we the people’s hands since the god-damned government wasn’t keeping illegals out. It was the same with his vineyard. He had a right to defend his grapes and erected a barrier of nets around his vines to protect them. If some birds perished trying to sneak through, that was tough luck. They had it coming, stupid birds. Same with Mexicans, if they’re stupid enough to come here.
Of course, Joe was the largest employer of illegals in the neighborhood – I still chuckle remembering when Obama called him out during the Wine Summit. Joe’s estate employs a cook, a cleaner, a driver and on any given day he might have three of Miguel’s guys working outside caring for his vineyard, orchard, grove, and garden. He didn’t ask for their Green Cards and didn’t tell.