Something was happening in the east. Borders were being opened,
huge numbers of people were slipping westward. Rumours abounded;
orders rescinded. Finally, one November evening—cool and
breezy in Maryland—the radio announcer confirmed that
the Berlin Wall was unguarded.
hear that?” the dishwasher said. “Berlin Wall’s
coming down.” He had taken a break from the hot, soapy
tubs over which he toiled with one leg. Even with the window
open above the washing machine, his corner of the kitchen was
still a swamp. Sitting on an upturned bucket, he drank ice water
from a glass pitcher, plastic prosthesis tilted against the
wall. His stump was bare.
I asked. He had to have been joking. This was, of course, a
man who delighted in practical jokes. Once, drunk on beer and
painkillers, he played “Great Balls of Fire” on
a two-centuries-old harpsichord in the restaurant lobby.
nodded toward his transistor; “Heard it on the radio.”
rest of my shift at the King’s Contrivance Restaurant
passed in a blur. The Berlin Wall—gone. I listened to
the updates in between clearing tables and helping in the kitchen.
Germans were ecstatic, checkpoints were flooded with cars and
families. There were no fireworks yet—no one, it seemed,
wanted to disrupt the moment with anything percussive (or explosive)—but
according to the announcer, someone had rigged a stereo on a
car and was playing “Ode to Joy” loud. I joined
the dishwasher at the end of my shift and we shared a beer pilfered
from the bar. A veteran of Korea, he too understood on a visceral
level, buzzing through our blood, the import of the news crackling
through the brown Bakelite radio perched on a shelf above.
I grew up in West Germany. Even now, nearly 30 years removed,
I still feel like a participant in the Cold War, one of Smiley’s
people, a resident of West Germany, as opposed to East Germany—from
where the tanks would inevitably roll, through the Fulda Gap,
when (not if) the balloon went up. To be sure, it was exciting,
yes, but I still have dreams of SS-20s, Pershing missiles, C-130s
the size of flying gymnasiums, Vopos, and A-10 tank killers
turning on their afterburners, shaking and shattering windows
as they flew up in formation to warn the Soviets to stay on
their side of the fence. At night my brother and I would listen
to the clandestine stations on an old shortwave (zwei .
. . sieben . . . sieben . . . null . . . acht . . . endless
lists of numbers all read in a flat female voice that betrayed
neither inflection nor purpose). Instructions to spies, of course—‘that’
much we (thought we) knew. But where were those spies, anyway?
In West Germany, they could be anywhere.
many others who grew up at this time, both in the east and west,
in the United States and Europe, I still dream, of course, and
very often, of warning klaxons and mushroom clouds.
the situation to my students, even the curious ones, is difficult:
they were born, grew up, and come of age since the end of the
Cold War. To them it’s not only not ancient history, it’s
barely history at all.
“You’ve been drinking again,” Lisbeth stated,
kissing me hello. The bedroom window was open, and the wind
carried sharp hints of burning leaves and the sweetness of spoiled
apples too long on the tree. She was sitting on the bed, newspaper
in front of her, and I was pleased to see she was only wearing
a long T-shirt. Lisbeth glanced up quickly and studied me through
brown plastic-rimmed glasses. “And you’re late,”
she added, but she wasn’t accusing, wasn’t angry;
she was only pointing out the obvious.
know,” I answered as I lay down on the bed next to her.
she said, “were you cleaning out the grease trap?”
She pushed me away. “At least take off your shirt.”
I did. Probably to kill the smell of the restaurant and kitchen
and dumpsters, Lisbeth lit a cigarette.
asked her, “Did you watch the news tonight?”
Berlin Wall was opened up today. The guards just put down their
guns and walked away. They’re letting everyone cross who
paused, thinking about it as she pulled on the cigarette. “That’s
turned on my radio and found a news station. Just local news
from Baltimore, so I switched it off. Lisbeth took off her brown
glasses, capped her pen, and folded the two into the newspaper.
She was nearly finished with the crossword. “It’s
getting cooler in here. Could you close the window?”
An hour later, we were making love. I had met Lisbeth the previous
summer, a friend of a friend. We were still at the part of our
relationship where physical love, the intimacy of touch and
transgression of penetration were all that were needed to confirm
that yes, 'this' was love, 'this' is what we meant, we two,
when we whispered, or wrote, I love you. Those few months of
novelty, of exploration, made me feel adult. I had had other
lovers, of course—AIDS was hardly the killer then that
it is now—but the ease with which Lisbeth had acquiesced—indeed
initiated—sex made our connection real, permanent, not
stolen away one night at a time.
that night, I was several thousand miles away, lost in my past
and the history of a country I once considered my own. It was
early morning in Berlin, but I was there. Yes, I was topped
by a trembling, beautiful young woman, and of course I noticed
the curve of her breasts illuminated by the silver autumn moonlight,
but the images of crowds kept forcing into my head. "What
must it be like?" I wondered. Such freedom. Such change.
Families reunited. Rifles put away, mines disarmed. Der
Mauer, the Germans called it, was supposed to be impregnable—lasting
until at least the inevitable withering away of the state, and
it crumbled after 28 years. Like a concrete block dropped from
a bridge, the ripples from the splash would radiate outward.
Where would this end? I knew: outward, eastward, westward. This
time, the Domino Effect would work. War itself might even be
Cold War was over. We lived. I would grow up, grow old. Anyone
alive from 1945 until that night knows of what I write. We took
a collective breath. The nuclear sword would stay hilted, the
tanks and soldiers of the communists and capitalists would never
march, and at that moment, everything was right and good.
was now under me, my nose buried in her hair. I felt her back,
her buttocks. I smelled her. And I knew this would last forever.
She. I. We moved together like a machine, but suddenly I thought
of Faust. I pressed deeper into Lisbeth and whispered, “Linger
awhile, thou art so fair.” Whether I addressed her or
the moment didn’t matter. She laughed into the pillow
and sharply arched her back.
Needless to say, nothing lingered. Nothing stayed. I’m
married now, as is Lisbeth. Our love lasted until the next spring
and we moved on. Instead of owning her own restaurant she now
owns her own bookstore. I teach. These are far different plans
than we had in 1989—and not at all unsatisfactory.
know this then, though, I would have been shocked, dismayed.
A teacher? Life without Lisbeth? Despite all the events to come,
a young man believes his life is permanent and changeless. Despite
everything I had to look forward to—a real job, a better
car, growing up and out and moving away—there was a certain
solidity to my life. Nothing could change. History, as Fukuyama
pointed out shortly after the wall no longer existed, was at
a paradox, really. A youth believes in endurance and stability
even though his future is pregnant with trials and new roads
and troubles. Consider the poor teenager who kills herself over
a man or gay teenager who believes that his miserable life is
set in stone and will never improve).
And I scoff at that now—with, of course, the full benefit
of experience and hindsight. I will lay in bed with my wife,
talking about our son, our savings, wars overseas, but I cannot
look for the same knowledge of completion. Try as I might, I
can’t feel that self-assured sense of accomplishment.
I know I can never have it. Life grinds, everything is mutable.
Now I’m middle aged. Half a life after that breezy autumn
night when I first knew for sure I was going to grow old, I’ve
found my life to be fluid, unpredictable. Wishes are useless,
and nothing stays the same. A dream gives way to dawn, which
changes again to a dream in an instant. I know this from over
four decades of living. Through experience, we learn how to
improvise, to invent.
At the end of my street the sidewalk ends and, impressed in
the last slab in neat letters (now eroded), is the name of the
company that laid the concrete. Below that is clearly stamped
1962. The sidewalk is a year younger than the Berlin Wall, but
unlike Der Mauer, it’s still there, being used.
Though pitted and dark grey, it still does what the builders
intended. I walk over that 1962 nearly every day and wonder
what special tool the cement layers used to stamp the year of
their work? Why did they even mark such a quotidian event as
finishing a sidewalk? (One understands the christening of a
ship or the laying of a cornerstone, but a sidewalk in a small
town?). While it’s still here, five decades after it was
laid, large chunks of it are not. A half century from now, that
hundred-yard stretch of concrete will be completely gone. Stamping
the wet concrete goo of a sidewalk in the same way a painter
writers her name on the bottom of a portrait seems vain.
a vanity I share with everyone else. I make the world in my
image through my experiences. At 22, at 46, and—with luck—at
100, I am (and will be) made of my experiences. As I age, I
control more and am controlled less; I become a boss, a teacher,
a parent. I lose my egocentricity and, in its loss, see the
vagaries and threats that hound me and that I hope to dodge
or to win. This gives me the hindsight to laugh at the naïveté
I felt that night making love in the moonlight: The end of war?
Along with several other countries, including the united Germany,
the United States invaded Kuwait less than a year and a half
after the wall started being chipped and sledgehammered to pieces.
Spending the rest of my life with Lisbeth? She and I parted
amicably the following spring, she to New Jersey and I to an
smugly I sit back and say, yes, well, 'now' I have it, 'now'
I understand what this game is all about. There are no rules
and no way to win. Survive each day and hope for the best tomorrow.
And this is the conceit with which I currently judge my life.
isn’t that, too, a facile conceit barely as tolerable
as the one I had in 1989?
with most arguments, the resolution can be found in the middle.
The knowledge of permanence I held in 1989, comically unsophisticated
though it was, is something all young women and men share. Knowing
that permanence isn’t, is an article of faith (however
jaded) of most adults. Then why do we do what we do? If nothing
is going to last, if everything we create will eventually be
torn down, forgotten, eroded—and we know this to be a
fact—then why do we do it? Because we have no choice.
We are driven to create, to make something, to hold something
in our hand, some fetishistic totem that will last beyond our
lives or to remind those yet unborn that we were here. A call
across a valley. We’ll build walls, stamp dates (or our
initials) in wet cement, or teach a child to read because not
to do so goes against our nature. It would be a tacit admission
of nothingness, of pointlessness. It is our chance to say, “This
is mine. I made this.” Whether a source of comfort or
a tiny slice of perdition, it keeps us going. Our hands work
best when they’re making something, doing something. To
what end, however, is immaterial. Whether a Berlin Wall or a
suburban sidewalk does not matter. The deed speaks for itself.
by John Pahle
usa-Red Brick Wall