Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Freedom Is A Little Piece of Broken Concrete

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.


Anonymous said...

Oh my.

Thank you. That was... moving. amazing. astounding. thought provoking.

Thank you.

Law and Order Teacher said...

Nicely done. I am a lot older than you and I remember the Cold War very well culminating in my Vietnam service, a Cold War war. My dad was in the Navy during Korea, a Cold War war. As you so aptly point out, the Cold War wasn't so cold. Freedom isn't free and it is real, especially to those who don't have it. Some of us who do have it have forgotten how important it is. It was honor for those of us who served wasn't it? I envy your possession. Nice job.

Darren said...

Thank you.

nebraska girl said...

As someone who remembers the Wall coming down, but wasn't around for much of the Cold War leading up to it, I really appreciate the insights you've given. I try not to take my freedom for granted although I know I do, and I try to teach my kids to respect our soldiers and flag and to understand that not all people have what we have. This was truly an amazing post.

Dan Edwards said...

Great Post. Show me your piece of the wall next time I'm in Sac. How cool!

Erica said...

Beautiful post.

Like Nebraska Girl I was around to see the wall come down, but not really cognizant of the meaning of the event.

I wonder what changes she and I will be reporting on after we see more history pass by...

Anonymous said...

A great post - and a great retrospective, especially your predictions and the outcomes!! I've never been to Sacramento, but I remember all the rest. It was a dizzying time and spurred me to get over there (Eastern Europe) and see what was going on for myself. I had a great time talking to Czech soldiers about our common time on the border, to Hungarians about the Russian presence, and being amazed at how welcome Americans - their opponents just months before - were in Eastern Europe. I arrived in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia just after the commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the US liberation of Bohemia - complete with US flags all over and a huge monument to the 2nd Infantry Division. Through all that time of Soviet domination (and supposed alliance in the Warsaw Pact) the Czechs had remember Americans from 1945 and kept that memory and regard for us alive through the Cold War. It attests to the power of small acts.

Anonymous said...

Most excellent. It's interesting to take the idea of freedom from personal experiences and chronicle what you have seen. Having my first memories consisting mostly of Vanilla Ice on cassette tape, it is nice to hear something that isn’t from the textbook. I would be curious about experiences with freedom after the end of the cold war, and perhaps a prediction or two on what the future may hold based on you have seen in life. Maybe the next post?

I enjoyed reading the essay and it does make one stop and think. Goodonya (that’s Russian for “good job”).

Dempsey Darrow said...

Great post, Darren. It serves as a reminder of that which we so easily take for granted.

Darren said...

In just my last 100 visitors, I've had hits on this post from Estonia and Latvia, and several from different parts of Romania.

Anonymous said...



Unknown said...

That may be your best yet.

We didn't have nukes aimed at us, but we lived as if we did. Fallout shelters, drills. Rocky and Bullwinkle (perhaps the most effective anti-communist tool ever devised). It's hard to describe how I reacted to the fall of the USSR, after my whole world was shaped around opposing it.

Matthew K. Tabor said...

I'm not the slightest bit ashamed to say that I had tears in my eyes at the end.

Anonymous said...

My parents, being born in eastern Europe, had an opportunity to see the reality of communism, up close and personal, so I grew up with their view of the philosophy.

When the wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed it was the first day of spring for about two months over at their place.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for a long time, Darren, and this is easily the best post you've done. I hope you communicate this story to your students in some way.

I was a teenager in the 80s, literally having recurring nightmares about seeing a multi-megaton strike on the big city 50 miles away from my home and waking up in the middle of the night from them. I was in college when the USSR collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down. I was so into my studies that I didn't even hear about it until months after it happened. But I remember the sheer, liberating disbelief that the source of my nightmares was finally through.

And later on, in 2004, I stood right there in Tiannenmen Square in Beijing and wondered at the events that transpired there, and also wondered at the fact that you still can't Google "Tiannenmen Square" on a computer connected to a Chinese server. (I tried it.)

The thing that makes me the most sick? The fact that there are Americans -- at least that's what their legal status says -- who look at the same kinds of threats today from terrorists and wring their hands, capitulate, and wonder what we must have done wrong to make them hate us so much.

bernie said...

Sadly our new enemies will not be dissuaded from nuclear attack by mutually assured destruction. In fact, MAD is an inducement, an invitation to attack for they seek the end of the world for infidels.

Death here on Earth means nothing to someone who has 72 virgins waiting in paradise.

Anonymous said...

I was born in 1949--I am a child of the Cold War and getting under our wooden desks to protect us from an atom bomb. I never thought I'd see the wall come down and I watched the TV and wept when I saw the people tearing it down. Thank you for all of the thoughtful posts, and here's to lots more!