Reliving my history

Moammar Gadhafi was killed today. All day long I’ve been reliving the fear he brought to me and my family 25 years ago. And I’m sure that’s small compared to terrors he’s wrought upon people in his own country.

25 years ago, I was a military wife with young children. We lived in Berlin, at that time an occupied territory as it had been since the end of WWII. Berlin was a city where many people came for political asylum, and there were many Libyans in the city, especially on the east side of the Wall.

April 6th is carved in my memory, as the day of the bombing at La Belle discotheque. I’ve never been there, but lots of our soldiers and airmen went there. The bomb was hidden under a table, and when it blew up, U.S. Sergeant Kenneth T. Ford and a Turkish civilian woman were killed instantly. A second American, Sergeant James E. Goins, died from his injuries two months later. 230 people were injured.

37 military members were awarded the purple heart in a ceremony on Memorial Day that year, in accordance with an Executive Order made in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan authorizing the Purple Heart for military members injured as a result of terrorist actions. I was a Cub Scout leader, and we took the pack to the ceremony at Clay Headquarters. It was a sobering event, and one I hope the kids still remember. The online archived Berlin Observer takes me back to that day like it was yesterday. The Observer lists the names of the Purple Heart recipients on page 12.

On April 15th of 1986, I woke to AFN (Armed Forces Network) radio reports that President Reagan had ordered a bombing of Libya in retaliation. What followed was a period of highest security, to protect against potential further Libyan action. Berlin American High School, where I taught, was surrounded by tanks. One of our biggest problems as teachers was keeping the girls from going out and flirting with the 40th Armored tank soldiers.

Each of the school buses that carried the American kids across the city was assigned 2 armored jeeps (front and back). Lining up all those buses and their jeeps (who would NOT leave their bus) was a real challenge.

The elementary school had infantry soldiers guarding all the doors. They inspected every backpack and lunch box that entered – and critiqued the kids’ lunches (to their delight).

It was quite a time. Vehicles were inspected for potential car bombs driving in and out of military installations and housing. And yes, there were a number of bombs. One day I saw one explode in a parking lot.  Whenever we found an unattended parcel anywhere, we called the military police, and they dispatched weapons experts. I still experience paralyzing fear when I find backpacks in the library – and yes, I do take precautions. It’s funny how we become the sum total of all our experiences.

Memorial Plaque
Memorial plaque reading, "In this house on the 5th of April, 1986, young people were murdered by a criminal bomb attack"


4th of July Reflections

Forgive me if I’m a little sentimental today. I always get this way on the 4th of July, as I have ever since my family lived in Berlin. It was in the years just before the Berlin Wall came down – not “fell” as is often said, but was torn down with picks and hammers and bare hands after border crossings were opened on November 9th, 1989.

During the time we were there, there were frequent hints that the way things were would not last forever. My husband and son were at the Brandenburg Gate when President Ronald Reagan said:
General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

I’ve always wished that I would have been at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987; but as a recent military award recipient, I was one of the lucky few to receive a ticket to the reception for President Reagan at a hangar at Tempelhof Airport, the Air Force base during the Cold War years. So, my family constantly reminds me that the speech they heard made history. The only thing I remember about the Tempelhof reception was a quip that President Reagan made when one of thousands of dropped balloons popped “you missed me that time.” (he had earlier in his term survived an assassination attempt.)

It was in the shadow of the Wall that we lived a pretty normal life, with frequent reminders that we were living the life of the privileged free, while a stone’s throw away, East Germans did not have the same privileges. I was a Cub Scout leader, and took the kids on hikes that followed the walking path at the foot of the Wall around the American sector. Once during a winter walk, a snowball hit the back of my legs, and as I turned around to reprimand my charges, I realized that the kids had entered into a snowball fight with the East German border guards from the watch towers above us. They were giving as good as they got, so we all smiled and waived as I hurried the Cubs on our way. It sure left me with a lump in my throat.

Every 4th of July, the Americans threw a huge celebration, and invited the other Occupation Forces (the Russians, the French, and the Brits) as well as all our German neighbors. We had food, and the Army Band playing all the best patriotic music, and fireworks that shone high above the Wall long into the night. What a rush!

I wrote my mother during that time, “I’m learning two things during this time of my life, how great America is sometimes not, but how great it is to be American.” She saved all my letters, and returned them to me as a chronicle of our family’s life in Berlin. I often resurrect that filter to take a step back and look at news items, as they would appear from afar. I think it enables me to be productively objective. Also, on a daily basis I marvel in the debates and challenges that occur in running America’s public libraries that provide unfettered access to the information that equips citizens and communities to reach their full potential.

Happy July 4th!

Lessons from Kofi Annan

From the Washington Post comes this message from Kofi Annan, who will leave his post as secretary general of the United Nations on December 31st. The article is based on an address he gave yesterday at the Truman Presidential Museum & Library in Independence, Mo. He says “All my life since has been a learning experience. Now I want to pass on five lessons I have learned during 10 years as secretary general of the United Nations that I believe the community of nations needs to learn as it confronts the challenges of the 21st century.” The entire article is appropriate reading for this reflective season.

  1. In today’s world we are all responsible for each other’s security.
  2. We are also responsible for each other’s welfare.
  3. Both security and prosperity depend on respect for human rights and the rule of law.
  4. Governments must be accountable for their actions, in the international as well as the domestic arena.
  5. Multilateral institutions through which states hold each other to account must be organized in a fair and democratic way, giving the poor and the weak some influence over the actions of the rich and the strong.

. . . and in the same article he also says that nearly 50 years ago when he arrived in Minnesota as a student fresh from Africa he learned that “there is nothing wimpish about wearing earmuffs when it is 15 degrees below zero.”