Thursday, July 28, 2011

Freedom Is A Little Piece of Broken Concrete (Originally published April 2008)

I--Growing up in Cold War Sacramento

I lived just down the street from McClellan Air Force Base; I remember watching from my front yard once as an AWACS came in for a landing, looking like it might touch down right at the end of my street. McClellan was a major logistical base; aircraft were repaired there. It was just north of downtown.

Mather Air Force Base, just east of downtown, was a Strategic Air Command base. There were bombers there, and most assuredly nuclear weapons.

In downtown, and just northeast of downtown in Roseville, were major railroad repair depots. My father worked at the Southern Pacific yard downtown.

East of downtown, in Folsom, was the Folsom Dam, which included a power generation station. Southeast of downtown was the Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Plant.

South Sacramento held the Sacramento Army Depot.

In West Sacramento is a deepwater port, capable of supporting ocean-going vessels. And Sacramento itself is the capital of what was at the time the 7th largest economy in the world.

Sacramento was an inviting target indeed. We went to school every day knowing, in the back of our minds, that there were Soviet nuclear missiles targeted at us.

II--The Soviet wheat harvest

I believe it was during my first trip to Germany, in the summer of 1974, or perhaps it was my second in 75, when I heard on the radio about a bad wheat harvest in the Soviet Union. The President had decided to sell American wheat to the Russians. I remember thinking, at only 9 or 10 years old: "Let them die." Why would we help the enemy? Détenté or not, they were the enemy. Why not finish them off?

III--The Hawk battery tactical site

In the summer of 1985, the summer after my sophomore year at West Point, I was sent to an active duty air defense artillery unit based in Schweinfurt, West Germany. Each day I rode the troop bus from our battery headquarters out to our "tac(tical) site" near Massbach, West Germany.

B Battery was "on the leading edge of freedom's frontier, guarding the skies of NATO Europe." The thought was that before the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact invaded with ground forces, they'd soften us up with air attacks; our battery's mission was to destroy the attacking aircraft with Hawk missiles. There was only one problem, though--we were within range of ground artillery. The Reds would take us out before the first aircraft flew overhead, before we could ever get a shot off.

Germany in the summer can be rainy or hazy, but one day the weather was exceptionally clear. I climbed to the top of one of our radar towers, and in the far distance I could see a thin strip of dirt winding its way through the trees.

It was the East German border. A fence and probably a minefield, not to keep us out, but to keep them in. A thin strip of dirt--freedom on one side, tyranny on the other.


Only a couple months later I was an exchange cadet at the Air Force Academy. The 6 of us from West Point, along with the exchange cadets and midshipmen from the Coast Guard and Naval Academies, were taken on a tour of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex south of Colorado Springs.

Cheyenne Mountain was partially hollowed, and an entire base built inside. In it was housed the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which tracked everything in orbit around earth--down to and including flecks of paint that had come off rockets. They also monitored our satellites which spied on the Communists.

Like the Greenbrier facility in West Virginia, only not a secret, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex could be sealed off from the outside world with a huge steel door--in the event of a nuclear war. I stood in the control room, I saw the phone that connected the commander directly to the President. I touched the phone myself.

If a launch was detected anywhere in the world, the staff in the control room had about 20 seconds to analyze the flight dynamics and determine if it constituted a threat to the United States or its allies. Fortunately, there never was such a threat; if there had been, the commander would have picked up the phone and told the President. This would have put into play a lengthy series of steps culminating in the launch of nuclear missiles from our triad of forces--ground-launched ICBM's, air launched missiles and bombs like those at Mather, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

It was called MAD, mutually-assured destruction. You fire at us, we'll fire back at you. Our missiles will pass each other over the North Pole. You don't fire at me, and I won't fire at you. Deal?

It was an insane policy, but it worked.

V--Tienanman Square

I was on a rotation to the National Training Center, outside of Barstow, CA, when we got the news. There had been rallies and protests in Beijing since April, but by early June the Communist leadership had had enough. The Chinese sent troops into Tienanman Square to end the protest once and for all.

We were very isolated out in the desert, not even having non-military radios. The only news we got was from the observer-controllers who were evaluating us. All we knew was that the Chicoms had sent the army into Beijing. They began shooting. We heard reports, later proven to be inaccurate, that some military units were firing on others in defense of the protesters. We wondered about a civil war in a nuclear power.

Those reports were wrong. No military units mutinied. It was a massacre. Only weeks later, when we finally returned home to Fort Carson, did we see the iconic picture of White Shirt Guy standing in front of a tank. Tanks are very effective anti-personnel weapons. But one man, a man craving liberty, can be brave enough to stop a line of tanks.

For a little while.

VI--The Wall comes down

Late 1989 was a surreal time. All across Eastern Europe, protests against Communist rule occurred. Why then? It's hard to say. The borders were becoming more porous, and more people were escaping to the West. President Reagan was fueling an arms race, one he knew would bankrupt the Soviets--and governments began to collapse under their own weight and that of their citizens who yearned to breathe free. Gorbachev promised even more democratic reforms, more perestroika. All the lines were converging.

It all happened so quickly. First, East German strongman Honecker resigned in October. On November 7th his entire cabinet resigned. The Communist Party dismissed the ruling Politburo in response to huge anti-government protests. Two days later, on November 9th, the East German government opened it's border and The Wall. Other Eastern European governments also faced huge protests, and within weeks they fell.

The entire Warsaw Pact had collapsed without a shot being fired. The world order that had existed since before I was born evaporated in less time than it took to get a visa.

At that time, most people in the world had never heard of Nicolai Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator. Most had no idea how bad life was in Romania. I had only read his name so couldn't pronounce it (it's chow-shes-coo), and I had only the faintest idea how bad it was there. I remember telling a friend of mine, "I'll believe this is real when that Co-ses-co guy in Romania falls." A few days before Christmas I got a phone call early in the morning; my friend said, "Turn on your tv." And there was Ceausescu, under arrest in his own country.

VII--The Baltic Republics

It seemed that in late 1989 the entire Eastern bloc was protesting communist rule. The biggest underdogs, though, were the Baltic Republics.

Unlike the Warsaw Pact countries, which were theoretically independent but in reality answered to Moscow, the formerly independent countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia had been absorbed into the Soviet Union itself. Special attention was paid to these three Soviet republics by the press. While the world marveled at the sight of people from both east and west standing atop the Berlin Wall, or striking it with picks and sledgehammers, news reports continued to show non-violent protests in the streets of these three small lands.

I didn't understand how fast everything was changing, I couldn't believe it was real. I thought I was going far out on a limb when, in the fall of '89, I bravely predicted that "the Baltic Republics will be free within a decade." There might not be a fight, but no way was Moscow going to slice off parts of its own country, not any time soon.

In December, Lithuania abolished the Communist Party. In March of 1990, it declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Latvia and Estonia followed only two months later.

VIII--The Quinones family

A retired sergeant major died, and I was tasked to be the widow's Casualty Assistance Officer. I was to escort her to the funeral, and later help her with the myriad activities that no one wants to plan for--dealing with insurance companies, getting all the household bills put in her name, having the deed to the house placed in her name, getting a new military I.D. card, and meeting with lawyers, among others.

One of her sons was a major in the Berlin Brigade, the US garrison that had been stationed in Berlin since the end of World War II. He appreciated the efforts I'd expended on behalf of his mother and family, and before returning to Berlin after the funeral asked if there was anything he might do for me. I'd already told him that I would be leaving the army soon, so no, there was nothing, but thank you. And then, with my usual sprightly manner and a smile, I said, "You know, sir? I would like a piece of The Wall." That was just me being funny, fending off the discomfort of talking about getting out of the army.

A few weeks later I received one of those bubble-wrap envelopes in the mail. It was from Major Quinones, and inside the envelope, inside the ziplock baggie, and inside the paper towel--was a little piece of broken concrete. The enclosed letter said he'd gone to The Wall himself to get it for me.


I've seen freedom born--in Vilnius, in Riga, in Tallinn, in Moscow and Tirana, and more recently in Kabul and Baghdad. I've seen the looks on the faces of people as they took their first breaths of free air, their first tastes of genuine liberty. It's a wondrous sight, an honor to watch. Because you see, freedom isn't an abstraction, not to me. Freedom is something real, it's concrete--it's that little piece of broken concrete sitting on my shelf.

1 comment:

PeggyU said...

The fall of the wall fascinates me. My husband went to Munich in May 1989 to work on some automation equipment for Radio Free Europe. The company he worked for very kindly offered to send me along, and so of course we took the opportunity (and visited relatives stationed there). One afternoon we had lunch and beer with a bunch of the RFE workers (from Germany, Turkey, and Switzerland), and they talked about the progress they felt they were making. The mood was very optimistic.

I honestly haven't paid attention to whether RFE still operates (I presume that it does) or what the new goals are.