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Chiseling Down the Wall – My Berlin Wall Memories

4 Nov

The first time I saw the Berlin Wall was the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school. We had just moved to West Berlin because my Dad, who had been laid off from Pan American World Airways for 14 years, had unexpectedly been recalled…and sent to Berlin.

I remember when we got the news that we’d be moving. We’d known the assignment was to come through that day, so I’d made Mom promise to leave a message for me at school telling me where we’d be moving to. To my surprise, in the middle of algebra class, my teacher handed me a note. It read simply, “Berlin”.

Suddenly the world opened up for me. Visions of bratwurst, dirndls and Cold War spy movies filled my mind.

Clearly, I had no idea what I was getting in to.

By the time we’d moved into our apartment in the Dahlem district of Berlin, registered me for school in the US Department of Defense-run Berlin American High School, and learned to avert my eyes when walking through city parks where there were clothing-optional volleyball games in progress, I felt like I’d aged about a million years from that day in algebra class. West Berlin was not what I had expected.

It was better.

With the exception, of course, that every aspect of life was controlled by The Wall.

My mom and cousin Eleanor banging out their bits of the wall.

My mom and cousin Eleanor banging out their bits of the wall.

Living in the city, going about my daily life, I didn’t give the wall much thought. But whenever a sports team or, in my case, the Drama Fest team, had to go to another West German city for a competition, we had to climb aboard the Duty Train (the nightly military train that took soldiers and their families across East Germany in the dark) with the window shades pulled, so that no Westerners could see the glory that was the DDR, the Deutsches Democratic Republic of Germany.

It was impossible for civilians to ride this train, except in the case of students like myself, so I’d come with an armload of special papers while my military-dependent friends could pretty much just hop onboard. The Duty Train was really the only way out of the city apart from flying. There were day passes available to military dependents to enter East Berlin, and as civilians we could enter the East through Checkpoint Charlie, but there were many rules and curfews required if you did so.

One of the rules was that you weren’t allowed to take any paper money – East Marks – back into West Germany. My uncle (when he and my aunt visited us one Christmas and we all went into the East) chose to be stubborn rather than spending his leftover marks. He opened an East German bank account with his ten marks…the equivalent of less than five dollars. I suppose the account still exists, though it’s more likely that the bank itself dissolved with the fall of the wall.

The gate that December.  Note the Soviet flag still flying.

The gate that December. Note the Soviet flag still flying.

Another rule about crossing into East Berlin was that civilians couldn’t drive their cars. This meant that whenever we wanted to go there – which was only twice for me – we were required to walk through Checkpoint Charlie and be scrutinized by the East German guards.

This wasn’t too big of a deal, but it took awhile, depending on whether the guards felt like opening the window or not, and on how long the lines were. Both times I visited they glanced at my passport and waved me through. Both times my mother, however, was scrutinized. She must have looked like she’d be easily intimidated. She would stand there, trying to look cross and aloof, but probably the shaking of her hand as she handed over her passport gave her away. I actually wanted to be scrutinized. I thought it would be fun. But no, they picked on Mom instead.

I disliked visiting the East. Oh, it was interesting seeing Alexander Platz and visiting the Russian-run department store, but it was a gloomy place, a gray place. The above-ground subway, the S-Bahn, gave a shrill whistle at every stop which always gave me a headache, and seeing the windows of the houses that faced the wall literally boarded up and seeing the guards with their guns patrolling no-man’s land and their guard towers and their utter disdain for us westerners was a little off-putting.

Of course, never far from one’s mind when visiting East Berlin, was the fact that you could leave…and every single person you saw around you could not. Well, they could go into the rest of East Germany, but they certainly couldn’t go into the west.

(By the way, if you ever get to Berlin today, the Checkpoint Charlie Wall Museum (Mauermuseum) is a must-see. It tells the story – and often preserves the means – of the many escapes and escape attempts that were made in the 27-year existence of the wall. There is little more humbling in life than to realize how you’ve taken your freedom for granted.)

I remember one time going to a fair and riding a Ferris Wheel that was set up right alongside the wall. Every time we reached the apex of the wheel ride we could see over the wall and into the streets and lives of the East Germans on the other side. I felt like a bird must feel. Only birds have the right to fly anywhere they choose. Even they had more freedom than the East Germans.

A hole in the wall...with the "Pope's Revenge" in the background.

A hole in the wall…with the “Pope’s Revenge” in the background.

I visited the wall several times while in my two years in Berlin. Usually we’d take the U-Bahn, the underground, to the Reichstag (now the Bundestag) and get out there, walking the short way to the Brandenburg Gate. My mother and I did that when President Reagan came to speak at the wall, in the spring of 1987. We had signed up for tickets, which we clutched, along with our passports and civilian ID cards, as we joined the line which snaked back and forth for row upon row.

There were three checkpoints along the way, all manned by West German guards. I handed my pile of documents to the first. He glanced down, prepared to wave me forward, then gave a snort. A snort which could only be called a laugh.

He looked up at me. “Gretchen?” He asked.

I nodded, confused.

Then, with another laugh, he handed me my papers and waved me on.

I shuffled forward, uncertain and a little perplexed.

At the next checkpoint, it happened again.

Papers handed over, name read, guard guffawed. Only this time he called over his friends to add a little humor to their day as well. “Gretchen!” he said, lending his German pronunciation to my name. “Ya, ha ha!” his friends agreed.

As I approached the third and final checkpoint, Mom and I prepared ourselves for the laugh fest.

I handed my documents over and, sure enough, the guard smiled and chuckled.

“It’s my name, right?” I asked. “Mein namen?”

“Ya,” the guard replied. “Das ist ein kinder namen.”*

A name for children.

Fine. Whatever. Give me my passport, please.

And then, after taking our place in the standing crowd and seeing East German guards staring down at us from the top of the Brandenburg Gate with rifles slung over their shoulders, the president appeared. When I looked back up, the soldiers were gone.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” President Reagan said. And I laughed a little, inside, at the absurdity of the thought.

Turns out I was the who was absurd. And I’m so glad.

A not-very-good shot of President Reagan speaking at the wall.

A not-very-good shot of President Reagan speaking at the wall.

I was in college back in the States on November 9, 1989 – 25 years ago this month – so I wasn’t there when the wall actually opened up, but I went back several weeks later for Christmas. My parents and my cousin Eleanor (who was visiting for Christmas) and I took the U-Bahn to the Brandenburg Gate, bringing a hammer and chisel with us to claim our small piece of history. The crowds had thinned greatly from the initial days after the opening of the wall, but there were several people there, chiseling and hammering and swigging from bottles of wine.

We approached a large hole in the wall and gazed through into the former No-Man’s Land, the place of such loathing and horror in the past. An East German guard, still patrolling but unarmed, walked up on his side of the wall and smiled at us. He was still wearing his uniform, complete with Russian-style fur hat with the ear flaps folded up.

In broken German, Eleanor struck up a conversation with him and he replied amiably, smiling all the while. We were making friends with a man who, only weeks ago, would have had orders to shoot us.

Eleanor and the guard, in an unprecedented cultural exchange.

Eleanor and the guard, in an unprecedented cultural exchange.

I went back to Berlin a few years ago, walked through the Brandenburg Gate, saw the renamed Reichstag and the US Embassy abutting the Gate itself, stayed in a Hilton hotel in the former East Berlin. Such decadence in the city that had been so dreary!

The Brandenburg Gate from the East, taken in 2012.  The US Embassy is the building to the left.

The Brandenburg Gate from the East, taken in 2012. The US Embassy is the building to the left.

Every moment of my time there was surreal. It was beyond fantastic to see the city I had come to love as it was meant to be. A unified whole.

PS – I know that reunification wasn’t all easy, what with broken Trabants on the autobahn and sales of pornography skyrocketing (blue jeans and bananas rounded out the top three most-bought items by the East Germans). But still, reunification brought about the ultimate end of World War II (the end of the Allied Occupation in the city) and the end of Germany’s split personality, so to speak. And while it might not have been easy, it was, in the end, Sehr Gut.

*My apologies if my German is incorrect!


Mount Saint Helens Exploded 33 Years Ago this Week – My Dad Was There the Next Day – And Here are Some of his Photos

14 May


I remember the boom that Sunday morning, May 18th, 1980 – 33 years ago this week – as we were getting ready for church on Orcas Island, Washington. It was 8:32am – or however long it takes for sound to travel 300 miles. My oldest sister was off at college, my Dad was down in Oregon at work with the Air Force, and my other sister, our Mom, and I were slipping on our Sunday shoes and just about to head out the door when we heard it.

“Oh, they’re dynamiting on Buck Mountain,” Mom said dismissively.

But Jenny and I said, “No! It was Mount Saint Helens!”

“No,” Mom disagreed. “We couldn’t hear it this far away.”

“It was the mountain, Mom,” we said again. “Turn on the radio.”

Sure enough, Mount Saint Helens – which had been steaming and belching and threatening to explode for weeks – had finally blown her top. The mountain – the entire skyline of southern Washington State – was no longer the same. The north face of the mountain was gone.

And so were 57 people with her.

My father, LTC David K. Wendt, was a rescue helicopter pilot for the United States Air Force Reserve, based out of Portland, Oregon. Here’s what Dad had to say about May 18th:

“I was the duty officer that Sunday – in the RCC (Rescue Control Center) which was a madhouse!! We were getting calls from everybody – including the President of the United States (or the White House office, anyway, to set up a visit for President Carter.) I didn’t get to fly until Monday morning – when I found the Moore family. Lienau’s rescue was a week later.” (The following photographs will fill-out the stories of these people a little more.)

These are some of his photographs, taken over the next several days following the event on May 18th.

The cauldron!

The cauldron!

It's like a photo from you-know-where.

It’s like a photo from you-know-where.

These were trees.

These were trees. The explosion – firing at several hundred miles per hour – killed every living thing within a 230 square mile radius. All within a time period of 5-9 minutes. The orange smudge in this photo is a flare. (See links below to verify this information.)

Blasted trees on the surface of Spirit Lake.  Spirit Lake was made famous even before the explosion because of a long-time resident, Harry Truman, who refused to evacuate prior to the explosion they KNEW was coming.  His body was never found.

Blasted trees on the surface of Spirit Lake. Spirit Lake was made famous even before the explosion because of a long-time resident, Harry Truman, who refused to evacuate prior to the explosion they KNEW was coming. His body was never found.

Steam vents - filled with logs from the blast.

Steam vents – filled with logs from the blast.

Steaming waterfall.

Steaming waterfall.

38-StH steam portrait-Dig


Devis Valley

Devis Valley

A 200 foot hover, while a parajumper is hanging on the end of a 200 foot cable as he works to make a rescue.

A 200 foot hover, while a parajumper is hanging on the end of a 200 foot cable as he works to make a rescue.

Flying toward a lake on the mountain.

Flying toward a lake on the mountain.

Micheal Lienau, rescued by Dad and his crew.  They have kept in touch over the years.  He was a photographer for National Geographic.

Micheal Lienau, rescued by Dad and his crew. Several years ago they saw each other again as they were both asked to be a part of an NBC production on “Disaster Survival”. Here’s what Dad had to say about Lienau: “He made a video of the whole ordeal – saying how they looked back up the pass they’d come through and saw a volcano-blasted tree in the shape of a cross – just showing in the narrow slit of overcast volcanic cloud and the pass. He told the others with him – after seeing that cross – that he truly felt they were going to be saved – and a few minutes later we flew over the pass! I was hover-tracking them by their trail left in the ash and mud.” Otto Seiber, another guy rescued by Dad and his crew, was a filmmaker from Seattle, who went with his film crew to document the destruction on May 23rd. Their compasses freaked out in the volcanic atmosphere and they got themselves lost in a hurry. The mountain then erupted again on May 25th, and Dad and his team rescued them. 

Taken from another helicopter.

A helicopter-view of another Huey.

18a-Steam vents-3-Dig

Steam vents

Steam vents

They searched for the Moores - and they found them on the 19th.  Alive.

They searched for the Moores – and they found them. Alive. Mother, father, and two small children.

The Moores.

The Moores.

Heart Lake

Heart Lake

Reid Blackburn's car.  He was a photojournalist for a Washington newspaper as well as for National Geographic magazine.  His body was eventually recovered from his car.

Reid Blackburn’s car. He was a photojournalist for a Washington newspaper as well as for National Geographic magazine. His body was eventually recovered from the car.

Chemically-altered pools.  All sorts of weird stuff in that ash and lava!

Chemically-altered pools. All sorts of weird stuff in that ash and lava!


30-Cold Lake & reflection-Dig


Dad didn't send me this photo - but I wanted to include it!  Details of the rescue of the Moores.  This is the nomination form that was turned in, nominating them for the Helicopter Heroism Award that year.

Dad didn’t send me this photo because he’s not one to brag – but I wanted to include it! Details of the rescue of the Moores. This is the nomination form that was turned in, nominating them for the Helicopter Heroism Award that year.

Amazing what the ash in the air will do to a sunset!

Amazing what the ash in the air will do to a sunset!

Forever changed.

Forever changed.

Here are several interesting links:

A very informative video put out by the USGS – the United States Geological Survey.

The USDA/FS site (United States Department of Agriculture / Forest Service)

Mount Saint

A USGS summary of the event, including right before it and several years after it.

There are many, many more sites – I just choose a few which seemed especially good.

My Dad has had his photos used by the USGS, the Mt. St. Helens Interpretive Center, and this book, Fire Mountain. I have many reasons to be proud of my dad. The things he did during his Mount Saint Helens rescues are definitely some of them.

Copyright Notice: Unauthorized use and/or duplication of any material in this blog without written permission from the blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Copyright May 14, 2013 by Gretchen Anne O’Donnell and Col. David K. Wendt, USAFR

Caves, Colliseums, Indiana Jones…and Me!

15 Nov

This is my second post about my Thanksgiving experience in Tunisia many moons ago. Five American women in Tunisia…made for some interesting moments…

Every morning in Kairouan, Tunisia, we woke at approximately 5:00a.m. as the muezzin’s call to prayer echoed through the neighborhood. Turns out, the minaret in Kairouan is the oldest in the world. I neither knew nor appreciated that then, though the sound of it did add to the feeling that I was living in an Agatha Christie novel. Or a Mrs. Polifax, maybe.

A wee bit of the souk in Kairouan.

Our second day in Tunisia we chose to go to a souk. I didn’t know it at the time, but this bazaar was the exact same bazaar where Indiana Jones up and shoots that overly-zealous, black-clad, scimitar-wielding ninja-esque guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark.* When we were there, there were no ninja guys to be seen. Instead there were pottery merchants and food vendors and carpet sellers, who lured us into their shop with the promise of tea and who were rather cross with me when I chose not to buy a carpet because it would cost me all the money I had and then I wouldn’t be able to buy anything else for the rest of the week. Let me just say: I’d have been better off with the carpet. Far better. I could still be walking on it, or admiring it hanging on my wall. Instead I bought classy things like a clay camel bearing jugs of water and a tiny wall hanging and a tea set (okay, I still like the tea set). Live and learn, eh?

I bought this in Tunisia for my mom way back in 1987. Service for 6!

From the souk we went to El Jem, a Roman coliseum, complete with lion enclosures down beneath the floor of the arena. I shut my eyes and tried to picture the Christian martyrs, to hear their murmured prayers despite the roars of the lions in their ears. Mostly I just smelled hot, dry air and saw sand. In my memory there was hay on the floor of the crumbling lion stalls…but it’s possible that was only in my mind. Unless, of course, they brought some in to stimulate the imagination of gullible Christians like me.

The Roman coliseum at El Jem.

We kicked ourselves a couple days later when we found a brochure for Carthage in the hotel lobby. Apparently none of us had done our homework to realize that Carthage is in Tunisia. Oh, well. At least we saw one Roman ruin, albeit a lesser-known one. Perhaps it was for lesser-known Christians. The non-vocal martyrs of the Roman age. Either that or the ones who would produce less of a spectacle while being eaten by lions.

The next day we saw the fourth most holy Moslem place in the world, the Great Mosque of Kairouan (after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem). This is the oldest Moslem place of worship in Africa. Apparently seven trips to this mosque equals one hajj to Mecca. We walked around the courtyard, but we didn’t go inside. I mostly remember blue mosaics: beautiful color in that dusty land.

Tiles at the mosque.

Courtyard of the Great Mosque

Later we saw a “Camel Drawing Water from a Well” – which, in retrospect, I have no idea why it was a tourist-draw, I just know that it was a “must see” we were told. More like a “must-pay”.  (The picture in this link is an actual camel drawing water from a well in Kairouan!

We took a bus into the Sahara Desert one day for lunch at a Berber hotel. And when I say “hotel” I mean cave. Or, rather, series of caves. We walked through a dark and sloping tunnel to a coutyard, open to the sky. Surrounding us were cave openings, dark and doorless, each entered by way of a ladder propped against the walls of the cavern.**

Similar to the place we ate…

They led us to one of the biggest openings and we climbed the ladder to find a long table waiting for us. Lunch was ready. We ate meat – goat, I think. And flat bread and vegetables in a stew-like dish. I’m an adventurous eater, so I tried everything. I don’t think I left exactly full, but I left satisfied and intensely interested. I mostly remember how dark it was – such a contrast to the incandescent world I lived in. I remember looking out of the unlit cave into the bright, desert light. Everything I saw out that cave entrance was tan-colored. Everything. It was sandy. It was hot. It was far, far away from home.

No, I don’t think I was homesick…but I was intensely aware that the world I lived in, the world I knew and understood, the world I complained about and criticized like any other teenager, was actually far from the norm of all teenagers the world over. I’m not saying I realized I was blessed – for who’s to say that a Bedouin teenager living in a cave isn’t equally blessed (It’s not all about STUFF, right?) – but I’m saying I realized I needed to be more thankful.

And, in the season of Thanksgiving, to a self-centered 17 year old, that was realization indeed.

Next time: The Camel Market, where we learned that “working together” is not necessarily a good thing.

This is the land we drove through. The edge of the Sahara.

*Just to be totally clear: I’m actually not positive if the bazaar in Kairouan was the bazaar used, or if it was the bazaar in Sousse. I found references to both as being used in Raiders’ street scenes. Also, I know that “ninja” is not the right term for that guy in the movie, I just can’t think what the correct term should be!  Here’s one quote I found to be interesting on the topic of filming Raiders: “The Holy City of Kairouan in Tunisia was the Raiders of the Lost Ark filming location for Cairo. Appropriately the town’s name means “little Cairo”. For filming the scenes on Sallah’s terrace, 350 television antennas had to be removed from local buildings to present a 1930s skyline.”  It should also be noted that elsewhere I read that the lovely white and blue houses that are typical in Kairouan were not typical to Cairo, circo 1936.  I’m pretty certain that movie watchers didn’t mind…

**Picture Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle’s home in Star Wars: A New Hope. That’s kind of like the place I ate in, only our place was far more primitive. The actual location of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s house is in Tunisia and can be toured.

For the Love of Vinyl: Part Two

1 Nov

I’ve been spending time listening to my records, as I discussed in Tuesday’s post. It’s so nostalgic, hearing the imperfect playback. Not exactly relaxing, however, not when listening to 45’s that only last for about three minutes.

I had a few old 45’s that were my dad’s. That’s how I learned “Unchained Melody” sung by Les Baxter and accompanied by his orchestra, on a purple, “Capitol Records” label. My sister and I would sing it dramatically to each other, her from her loft in the bedroom we shared, and I on the swing that hung from the rafters in the center of our room. I wish I had a picture of that room; it was so cool.  (By the way, this version I’ve linked is the exact version I have! If you shut your eyes while you listen to it, you can imagine it’s on vinyl. :-))

We even had a National Geographic record. Remember those? They’d be inserted in the magazine and you could tear them out – they were floppy – and then you could listen to real “Sounds of the Space Age”.  Highly educational. I didn’t listen to that one too often.

We found this 45 of The Hobbit a few years ago at a flea market. Had to get it even though we still have the 33 1/3. It’s a perfect example of those Read Aloud records. And how about that National Geographic record? It’s slightly bent and I couldn’t get it to play correctly at all when I tried today!

On Tuesday I mentioned that my kids love to listen to The Rescuers and The Hobbit. Those were my first-ever 33 1/3’s. The Hobbit is “The Complete Original Soundtrack including dialogue, music and songs” from the Rankin/Bass movie production in 1977. And, of course, it has the “special edition book” with it. My husband is phenomenal at knowing lines from movies, but he can’t hold a candle to my ability to quote The Hobbit. (By the way, I have already written “Go see The Hobbit” on December 14th on my calendar. Can’t wait.)

As for The Rescuers, it’s also from 1977, and actually was the first movie I saw in a theater. My sister gave me the “Songs and Dialogue” album for Christmas that year and I loved it. My dad, sadly, did not realize how much I loved it and he got rid of it in one of their cross-the-country-or-world-moves and I was so sad, nevermind that I was in college by then. I told my husband that story years ago and he, bless his heart, went onto E-Bay and bought me the exact same album. How great is he? So, even though it’s not my original album, my kids – and I –can still enjoy it.

A small piece of my childhood.

Occasionally I’d raid Mom and Dad’s 33 1/3 collection of records, but not too often, because all they had was classical. Oh, but he had Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, “Whipped Cream and Other Delights”. Oy, vey, that album cover!

I was a wee bit shocked when I found this in my parent’s record collection, many, many moons ago. Turns out, it was quite the phenomenon!

But my favorite records of my parents’ were The Smothers Brothers. “Curb you tongue, knave!”, “The Two Sides of the Smothers Brothers”, “think ethnic!”, and “…at the Purple Onion” – these are still the stars of my record collection. There weren’t a lot of times I saw my mom wiping her eyes from laughter, but listening to the Smothers Brothers would make her do that. “The Streets of Laredo”, “Chocolate” and “Black is the Colour (of my Love’s True Hair)” – those were probably our favorite cuts from the albums. They were part of our family vocabulary. And – I love this story – it is partly due to The Smothers Brothers that I decided my husband would be a worthy candidate to be my husband. Never, in all my life, had I met anyone who knew who I was talking about if the topic of the Smothers Brothers came up. Then along he came and he knew. It was meant to be.

These are so awesome!

A few years back I found a duplicate album of theirs and bought it because I was into making bowls out of records – you melt them in the oven and have a cute bowl! (Take a look at how to do it! It’s easy!) I thought it would be extra-fun to have a Smothers Brothers bowl to hold candy AND memories. My husband wouldn’t let me melt it. “It’s the Smothers Brothers! That would be sacrilege!” So we have two of that album. Two, nice and flat records.

I made my bowl from an old Amy Grant album. He didn’t care about that one so much.

A little piece of my teen years: made more useful, according to The Sailboat King. It would be perfect in a Rumpus Room. If only I had a Rumpus Room…

I heard the other day that someone was releasing their brand new album on compact disc AND on vinyl. I love that. There’s nothing like having a record on in the background to sooth your soul.

Here’s a sample of The Smothers Brothers from long ago.  Enjoy!

Toilets I Have Known: Part Two

21 Jun

I spent nine weeks during the summer of 1989 in Thailand with a group of about 100 college students. Most of the summer was spent in Bangkok, hanging out at Ramkhamhaeng University. Then, at least, it was the largest university in the world, boasting over 500,000 students. We met with students, debated God vs. Buddha (though most of them knew very little about him) and we talked about America. It was a challenging and sweaty summer, full of pop-in-a-bag (in the interests of reusing their pop bottles the venders poured pop into ice-filled bags and gave you a straw), bargaining over trinkets (actually I’m a horrible bargainer – I’d way rather just pay the money they’re asking and be done with it), and salmonella due to an unpalatable “dessert” of an egg poached in coconut milk complete with tiny rice balls floating around in the bowl. I had two bites and could stomach no more but it was enough to keep me indoors for the next several days…and then led to more fun later on back at home. Oy, vey.

Don’t you just love this? Taken in Krabi – a strong wind blew the umbrella away from the fruit stand and this boy was sent after it. I have loved this photo for 23 years!

We also spent some time in northern Thailand in Chang Mai and Khao Yai National Park, which was a lesson in identifying land leaches and in what not to do when you see a small hole in the ground right outside your cabin door.

We visited a waterfall at some point, driving down a heart-stopping, narrow, curving, hilly road. The fact that I survived that drive is a miracle, as we swerved past busses, trucks, and other wide loads that almost gave us heart-attacks, let alone almost sent us careening over the edge of the road into land-leach-filled tropical jungles.

We also took a train to see the actual bridge at the River Kwai…which broke our hearts and caused me to quote Rupert Brookes “The Soldier”, which famously says, “There is a corner in a foreign field which is forever England” as we saw the rows upon rows of white wooden crosses marking the British cemetery. Still makes my heart ache to think of it.

But then, at the end of the summer, we went to Phuket Island for a few days. (Yes, you’re remembering right: it’s one of the scenes of the Tsunami in 2004. It’s just one of the places I’ve been that afterwards has suffered incredible loss…I need to blog about that whole topic sometime.) We also spent a week in Krabi nearby, which I’m sure also suffered beyond belief from the tidal wave, though I’ve never heard details.

Some of my fellow teammates. I have a feeling all of this was destroyed in the tsunami, though as I don’t know the exact name of the beach I haven’t been able to confirm this.

Krabi is a nice, small, southern city on the coast of Thailand. We spent most of our time there in a jungle village outside of Krabi proper. It was there that I saw my first lightning bugs, incidentally.

While we were there we visited some homes located on the Andaman Sea.

Yes, ON the Andaman sea.

On stilts, over the water, with the tides coming and going not far below their floorboards.

We visited with the familes, talked, ate a little something, and then – SHOOT! – I had to use the facilities.

Now, virtually all of the potties in Thailand were “squatty potties” – non-flushable bowls with a handy water source nearby which, after you “went” you cleaned by filling a pan (or two) with water, pouring the water down the bowl, and hopefully sending all the nastiness far away so as to not offend the next person.

Way better than what I faced. These squatty potties seem to even flush!

Not so with a house-on-stilts over the sea.

I told our interpreter of my need and he, knowing what I would be facing, asked me just how badly I needed it. I told him I was rather desperate. (This memory gives me a little more patience with my children on long car trips.)

He then relayed my need to the man of the house who, with an agreeable smile, motioned for me to follow him. There was another girl who needed the same thing so the two of us followed him into the house. (We had been sitting on the deck outside.) There was, of course, no electricity, no hallway lined with school photos, no recycling bins, couches, or TV guides on over-laden coffee tables.

There was one windowless room, the bare grass-woven walls leaving chinks of light on the smooth floor. There was a cooking corner, some sleeping mats rolled up for the daylight hours, and a walled-off area smack in the center to which he led us. He gestured inside, picked up a door (with both hands) which was leaning against the wall, and, with a few incoherent words, indicated that by strategically placing the door over the opening, we could shut ourselves in. Smiling and unabashed, he turned to go.

My friend and I looked at each other, our eyes wide. The door, which was made of uneven sea-worn boards held together by a board or two nailed across them, was heavy. I entered the room, which is surprisingly large in my memory, and there, in the far corner, was a hole.

Below the hole was the sea…which, at low tide, was simply a beach. I was glad the tide was high just then.

Gotta admit, though, they had a good flushing system!

Yes, this is the actual house – I took this 23 years ago in a slide and my dad has the capability to turn the slide into a digital image – thanks, Dad!

The hole was bordered on both sides by bricks, to elevate the feet (often bare or possibly in flip flops) in case of misses, I suppose.

I heard kids playing outside, and voices floated in from the deck. I shrugged my shoulders and proceeded with the task at hand.

And that, my friends, is why I am so thankful for my life. For the blessings I enjoy. For the bills that get paid and the firm roof over my head. For the food in my cupboards. For my lovely kids and patient husband.

For toilets that flush.

And the tides that wash away our iniquities.

P.S. – I’ve heard, though haven’t been able to confirm, that military cemeteries in foreign lands have been deeded over to that country. So the military cemetery for England, for example, there at the Bridge of the River Kwai, is officially on British land. I think that’s very cool.

Cry Freedom!

12 Jun

Twenty-five years ago today I hopped onto the U-Bahn in West Berlin with my mom and together we made our way over to the Brandenburg Gate…the Brandenburger Tor.

We were heading to a once-in-a-lifetime event. Though at the time we had no idea how historic it really would be.

We got off the U-Bahn and walked past the Reichstag and found ourselves at the end of an enormous line of people, all clutching small pieces of paper as well as passports in their hands, all subject to searches, checks and scrutiny.

And, by the way, we all had guns trained on us from the top of the Brandenburg Gate.

The Quadriga on the top of the Brandenburg Gate. The East German guards stood right beside her with their guns.

Just a typical day in West Berlin? Not quite.

No, it was a special day – the day when a sitting United States president was to give a speech in this divided city, much as JFK did years previously – though, to be sure, no jelly doughnut references were expected.

And so we started though the twisting line – reminiscent of the winding airport security lines we face today. Someone handed us a small paper West German flag as well as a couple small American ones.

There were three check points, three times when our passports and invitations were inspected by orange and brown-clad German guards. At the first checkpoint I handed over my papers. The guard glanced at my invitation and burst out laughing. I looked at my mom, non-plussed. He looked at my passport and renewed his guffaws. He then poked another guard in the ribs and showed him whatever it was that was so funny. He, too, laughed.

“Gretchen!” They chuckled. “Ha!”

(Read with a German accent – it makes it funnier, “Greatchen”!)

He then passed back my papers and waved me on.

The Brandenburger Tor / Brandenburg Gate. I took this a year and a half ago.

We shuffled past, a little bewildered, clutching our identity and our tiny paper flags.

We approached the second checkpoint nervously. True to form, the guard burst out laughing after about half a second and, once again, showed his pal my papers.

“Greatchen! Das ist eine kinder namen.” (Okay, I admit, that may not be exactly what they said or exactly correct Deutsch. It’s the best I can remember right now!)

The truth began to dawn.

“Chen” is a diminutive in German – so, a newborn child would be named “Greta” and, while young, may indeed be called “Gretchen”…but, by the time they’d reached 17 as I was at the time, they’d be “Greta” – and never, on an official passport, would their name be a child’s name.

It would be like naming an American child “Suzikins” rather than “Suzanne”. Yes, she might be called “Suzikins” for a few years, but not by the time she was 17.

My husband took this shot last February.

We approached the third checkpoint with more confidence.

Yes, you guessed it, he laughed.

“It’s my name, right?” I said.

“Ya, ya,” he said, smiling, as he waved us on. “Greatchen! Ha ha!”

We took our place – standing on the Strasse des 17. Juni – towards the back of the enormous crowd. We eyed the East German guards standing on top of the Brandenburg Gate with their guns. We waved our paper flags, we smiled at small children riding on top of their father’s shoulders.

And then President Ronald Reagan came on to the makeshift stage.

Everyone clapped and cheered and waved those tiny flags and he began to speak.

I don’t remember much of what he said. I do remember the weather was warm and I was tired from standing. I remember antsy children. And those nerve-wracking guns. But then, suddenly, our ears perked up as he said these words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

The cheers were deafening.

Our smiles were huge.

But, in my heart, I thought, “Yeah, like that will happen.”

Boy, was I wrong.

“Cry Freedom” – a statue on Strasse des 17. Juni which still stands. My husband took this shot in February.

Two years later, as a freshman in college, I returned home for Christmas, just over a month after the wall had opened on November 9th, 1989. I went with my parents and my cousin who was visiting for the holiday and together we hammered out our pieces of history, even chatted with an East German guard who peered at us through a hole in The Wall.

History had been made.

Now, 23 years after the wall fell (metaphorically, anyway, it took a few years longer for it to be physically torn down), you call follow the course of the wall all through Berlin – there is a bicycle path all along the route.

It is a poignant reminder that nothing lasts forever.

Where Were You?

11 Sep

I was at my desk, doing those last-minute things a teacher does as her students enter the classroom. Annette walked in, slinging her backpack off her back like millions of other high school kids across the globe. I don’t know who spoke first, or if we exchanged greetings, I just remember her pronouncement.

“I heard a plane crashed into the Twin Towers.”

I remember being surprised she knew what the Twin Towers were, though I’m not sure why it surprised me. I said, “Oh, that’s sad. What a terrible accident.” And I kept on with my mundane tasks, preparing for the day.

Right behind her walked another student – I don’t remember who – and they, picking up on Annette’s words, said, “I heard it was two planes.”

Something in my heart lurched. “Two?” I thought. “Surely that can’t be right. Exageration. Confusion. Two?” And even though I knew nothing more about it than the two simple sentences exchanged as morning gossip, something dark in my heart leapt to life and I thought, “One plane is an accident. Two planes is deliberate.”

“But how can that be?” I wondered as I fumbled for my radio. “I drove here not 30 minutes ago, listening to the news and nothing was happening. What’s the truth behind this?” I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.

The bell to begin First Hour rang as I fiddled with the radio’s knobs, striving to get MPR, ABC, something to come in loud and clear. I got garble; I got fear.

I strode to the front of the classroom, finally giving up on the static, and stood before the small crowd of senior English students. I don’t know what I said, but it was nothing profound. We knew nothing yet, had no definite stories; only fuzz, only disjointed whispers and half-heard anchormen, themselves puzzling together the pieces. They didn’t know. They didn’t understand.

The noise in the hallway, louder and later than usual, settled down as I began our morning devotions. The phone rang in the office, the sound of it reaching up to the balcony above where it floated through my open door. I began to teach because what else was I to do? I didn’t know. I didn’t understand. How could we? The story was still unfolding.

Our principal stood suddenly in the door, the telephone in her hand. She held it out, walking towards me. I took it, thinking wildly, “What is so important that she’s interrupting class? And is she going to stay with my students while I talk and must I really take this call NOW?”

“It’s your husband,” she said.

I looked at her in alarm. Colin was in Los Vegas, on a business trip. Why was he calling? Something – something beyond my control – was happening and I didn’t like the feel of my erratic heart. Or was it the baby lurching in my womb? I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.

Right there, in front of the class, I took the phone.

“I’m okay…,” his voice reached me, small and far away. He was hard to hear. Or was it that I was hard of understanding? “…but we can’t fly home. All the planes are grounded. We’re trying to rent a van to take everyone back. I’ll be in touch when I know more.”

Around me the students were filing past, following the principal to a different classroom; a room with a television, where everyone could sit together and experience whatever this was which was happening. I could hear the TV’s sounds, floating down the hallway, though I could not make out the words. I could barely make out my own thoughts.

“What do you mean all planes are grounded?” I asked, gripping the podium as dizziness gripped my head. The baby felt so heavy, like an impossible weight in the pit of my stomach, like a stone dragging me down as the room spun and I leaned for all I was worth on that wooden pedestal, my mouth dry as dust, all the questions of the world spinning through my head. I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.

“All the planes in the country – in Canada, too, I think – are grounded because of what happened.”


“I’ve got to go, Hun,” Colin’s voice said. “I wanted you to know we’re okay and not to worry. I’ll call you when I can. I’m safe. Don’t worry. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I pressed the button to turn off the phone. The room around me shifted; or was it the world? I straightened up and followed the sound of the TV down the hall and into a room full of frightened faces, to a room full of answers; full of questions.

I watched as, within minutes, the second tower fell.

And then I knew. Then I understood, even if through a glass darkly. This is not the same world I woke up in.

“The king is dead. Long live the king.”

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27

QUESTION: Where were you? What were you doing? How did your world shift that day?

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