Tag Archives: Ronald Regan

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.

The Moments We Never Forget…aka Have You Hugged your Colon Today?

8 May

Mom, reading to our oldest daughter a few years back. This is the stuff of memories. The stuff I hold dear.

You know those moments in your life when you can remember exactly what you were doing when momentous news came your way?

Like when the Twin Towers were bombed in New York. I was getting ready for a typical school day teaching English at a tiny private high school when my students began trickling in with news of a plane crashing into the first tower and soon, “I heard it was two planes,” another student said and I knew that it wasn’t an accident. Or when President Regan was shot, I was in 5th grade, and they broadcast the news over the brand-new school intercom. Or when the space shuttle Challenger blew up, I was in 10th grade and they wheeled televisions out into the locker area of my school and we stood with open mouths and I got in trouble for being late to social studies class – SOCIAL STUDIES! That teacher clearly had no perspective.

Just as those earth-shattering occasions are seared into my memory, so is the time, five years ago this week, when I first heard that my mother had been diagnosed with colon cancer.**

The phone rang and it was my sister, who clearly was upset. I’d had a phone call like this before from her – when Pan American Airlines went bankrupt and our dad, a pilot, suddenly had no job anymore. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong this time and then she told me about Mom and I sat down where I stood and my two oldest kids still remember, “that time when Mom was sitting on the stairs and crying.”

Yes, such things are seared into our memories because we don’t know what’s coming next. We don’t know the who, what, where, when, or why of it, and our nice comfortable lives are suddenly twisted – possibly even beyond recognition – and we stand as if on the edge of a precipice, dizzy, confused, unsure.

My sisters with Mom in our pool when we lived in Miami. I was born during their Miami years, but we moved soon after. Perhaps, if we’d stayed, I’d have learned how to swim?!


After the vertigo passes it’s time for action – quite possibly fog-ridden action, but action nonetheless. We make decisions, we make more phone calls, we look at our loved ones and can’t look away. And we want, more than anything, for life to be normal again. We promise ourselves that we’ll never complain about the pick-up line at the elementary school again. We swear that we’ll be better people, that we’ll cherish every moment and take out the garbage and do the dishes faithfully just so that life can feel normal again.

We want, desperately, to reverse time, to re-claim that rote feeling of normalcy we didn’t even know we had five minutes ago.

And we pray. I pray often anyway, but suddenly that connection with God is vital, real, palpable. Though in those times I often don’t know how to pray or what to say. I remember weeping before God in the days following my mother’s diagnosis, just saying, “Please help”. I knew He’d know how to take it from there.

Mom giving our son a squeeze several years ago. He’s 12 now…and taller than her!


The irony of these moments – these times when we don’t think we can take anymore – is that, sometimes, the trauma is just beginning.

As September 11, 2001 went on, we learned that added to the Twin Towers was the Pentagon crash and the crash in a field in Pennsylvania as well. The tragedies just kept piling up. For my mother, the cancer and proceeding surgery turned into a stroke three weeks later. That phone call was, actually, even harder than the first one. The pain in my father’s voice, the uncertainties piled upon uncertainties, the knowledge that, though we’d traveled out to see Mom after her diagnosis in a whirlwind trip of 1.5 days driving out to Eugene, Oregon, 1.5 days with her and then 1.5 days driving back to Minnesota, we wouldn’t be able to join her again, to lend a hand, to comfort and support.

We were alone.

And, of course, when you’re alone and sad you desperately want your mama to be there with you.

Mom and Dad’s wedding – almost 55 years ago!


There is so much more that could be said about those days and, perhaps, I’ll say them someday. Write them down.

Mom was an excellent seamstress! She made Raggedy Anne or Raggedy Andy – depending on the baby’s gender! – for every grandchild, neice, nephew, great niece or great nephew that was born in our family for years – as well as many friend’s children, too. Sewing has been hard for her since the stroke, so we cherish our raggedies!


But for now, a few images:

Biscuits with Sawmill gravy, the dish I was making for the first time ever on the day my sister called and which turned out greasy and separated and which stuck in my throat like paste. I never, never, see, hear of, or eat biscuits and gravy now without thinking of that day.

Or this picture: our three-month old wee girl, lying on the hospital bed beside Mom. It was the first time Mom had seen her, and we wondered if it would be the last.

Mom in the hospital – the first time she saw her youngest granddaughter, our youngest child. Even after cancer surgery, it made her smile!


Or this: me, sitting in the passenger seat as we drove home, unable to stop crying, desperately trying to capture in words my roiling emotions. The tear-pocked spiral notebook with my scribbled writing that held all the words I managed to get out.

And this: the Columbia River, rolling alongside the highway; the miles and miles of Oregon flying past my window in a benediction of beauty.

Last Christmas we went out to spend the holiday in Washington State with my entire family. It was so great seeing Mom and Dad – and everyone!


And, the image that is above all else, the image that came to me several years before this event, but which always returns in times of crisis:

Me, a wee brown-haired girl, walking along the dirt road by my house where I grew up, holding the hand of a man far larger than I, a man whose face I could not see, but whose love I did not doubt. A man who is far more than a man, who loves me far more than any man ever could.

A man who understands me when all I can say is, “Please help.”

And so, in light of Mother’s Day this Sunday, I say thanks to God for my Mama! I’m so thankful we have her with us still, with her laugher and her sense of humor and her theological discussions and her encouraging words.

I love you, Mom.

**Click on this link for important Colon Cancer information or on this link for colonoscopy information.  Now that it’s been five years since mom’s diagnosis and my colonoscopy that followed, I’m due for another this year!  Aren’t I lucky!  (People without a family history of colon cancer do not have to have colonoscopies as often or as young as I am.  Yes, I’m young, thank you very much!)  Colonoscopies are the best way to keep yourself from suffering from colon cancer.  Just go out and get one if you haven’t yet and you’re over the age of 50.  DO IT.  No, it’s not the most fun thing you’ll ever do.  But it doesn’t compare to getting cancer.

I figured Dad should have a picture, too! This is Mom and Dad last Christmas. Dad is a fantastic and tireless care-giver for Mom. “…In sickness and in health…” Dad took most of these photos – he’s fantastic with a camera!

50 Years Ago Today: An Overnight Atrocity

13 Aug

Our apartment building in Berlin! We were the top two floors, right-hand side.

Imagine waking up one day only to discover that an impenetrable wall had gone up in your city overnight and you lived, not in a vibrant, whole metropolis, but rather in a divided, frightened island of a land; your grandparents, perhaps, were unreachable, your girlfriend separated from you forever because of the arrogance of her nation’s Communist ideology. It was August 13th, 1961: 50 years ago today.

"My" U-Bahn station - Dahlem Dorf. The prettiest station in Berlin!

I called that city home for my last two years of high school. West Berlin, Germany, was an amazing place to live. Since I had grown up on an island, with access only by ferry or private boat or plane, somehow living in the isolation of Berlin wasn’t a big deal to me. My father was a pilot for Pan American Airlines, so we had that life-line to the western world if we needed it, but there was so much to do in Berlin that really, we rarely left. I had never lived in a CITY before and, though I couldn’t speak the language beyond “Wo ist die toiletten?” when we moved there, it didn’t really matter. (Right before we moved to Berlin, the principal of my high school on Orcas Island asked me, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” and I wondered why he was asking me if I spoke Dutch.)

A beloved East German "Ampelmann" pedestrian stop light...now to be found all over the reunited city.


I wish I had learned the language better, wish that I had the gift that certain people have of grasping the verb genders, the inflections of a foreign tongue. I learned a little, most of which I’ve now forgotten, though I was able, in an amazing trip last February, to converse with a store keeper in Berlin, both of us smiling, both of us laughing at our mutual struggles – his in English, mine in Deutsch. It was a pleasant experience, despite my terrible accent, and I returned to his shop 3 times because he made it fun.

The Ampelmann says "go"!


It was amazing being back in Berlin, after 21 years of being away. In a normal city, 21 years may or may not reveal much change. In Berlin, even the name was different…the “West” had disappeared…though in metaphorical terms, the “West” had actually taken over the “East”, and it was really the “East” which was gone. Now, the former West Berlin looks much the same: I found my house, my school, the military base where we shopped and hung out (though it is nothing but an abandoned field now). But the “East” part of Berlin…it’s like another war happened and everything had to be torn down and rebuilt to replace the ruined city. And, really, that is what happened. The Cold War was won…and the Communists backed off, leaving Deutschland united, returning Berlin to its glory days as capital of Germany.

Truman Plaza...no longer the bustling base that it was.


I guess you don't have to show your id card at the gate anymore.


"8 o'clock at Oskar"...a good place to meet! The subway station looks much as it did 20 years ago.


My parents were still living in Berlin when the wall came down on November 9, 1989, and I came home for Christmas that year and hammered out my obligatory bits of history from that hideous monstrosity of a wall: 96 miles of repression. They built it ostensibly to “Keep out Western Capitalism” though really it was built to keep IN the eastern people who were moving out in a steady stream of freedom-seekers. The freedom-seekers continued to seek ways out of East Berlin, sending more than 170 people to their deaths…and over 5,000 to freedom…in the 26 years of its existence. The Berlin Wall Museum, located at the former site of Checkpoint Charlie, is an amazing (albeit dusty) conglomeration of artifacts and stories and pictures of the history of the wall, complete with suitcases and empty car engines that were actually used to smuggle people over Die Mauer. My husband and I HAD to eat at a McDonalds which is located directly across from the museum…smack dab in the center of the former barricade against such brazen western ideals. How could we resist?

The former Berlin American High School...now a German oberschule.


Our football field...now, I suppose, a "football" field...ie, soccer!


Because my parents returned stateside less than a year after the wall opened, I had never seen the actual wall be gone. I had never seen Berlin whole…never been able to take an U-Bahn subway ride from the Kufurstendamm (West Berlin’s main shopping street) straight to Alexander Platz (a famous East Berlin square)…had never been able to shop in the amazing Gendarmenmarkt (because it wasn’t amazing then)…or been able, best of all, to walk through the Brandenburger Tor…because it was in no-man’s land, walk-here-and-be-killed-land. I love that now the Embassy to the United States is actually touching the Brandenburg Gate…love that the French Embassy is close by, the British Embassy…all right there, taking their rightful place in history as the protectors of Berlin back in the days when it needed protecting. The Russian Embassy is up the road a little…nearby, but not right there. It too, has a place in Berlin’s history…but a place that might rather be forgotten.

The Brandenburg Gate - now fully accessable!

“Ich bin ein Berliner,” JFK said in his famous speech declaring the stance of the United States in Berlin’s defense. Nevermind the joke that he accidentally called himself a jelly donut, he stood up for freedom…no less than President Regan did many years later when he stood before the Brandenburg Gate and declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I was there when he made that speech. My mother and I stood there in the cheering crowd, thinking, “Yeah, right, like that will happen any time soon.” It happened two years later. Freedom has a way of coming to the fore.

I, too, am a Berliner. Even though I was not there for long. I think that we are part of everything that we have ever been. The naughty little children, the rebellious teenagers, the idealistic college students, the clueless new parents, the resigned adults. All of that is in me to this day. And so, on this anniversary of such a terrible oppression, I claim my place as a proud Berliner.

Even though I cannot speak the language.

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