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!