Standing on the Brink

When I was in elementary school we took a field trip. I remember the trip and the feeling it left me with to this day. We left Frankfurt am Main early in the morning and boarded a bus that took us along a scenic route, through quiet hamlets and finally stopping on the border of East Germany. It was during the height of the Cold War and our guide for the day took us along the West German side of the border.

East German Guards

Unlike border crossings in other countries, there was no mistaking the line between East and West Germany. Expanded metal barriers topped with barbed wire outlined an area about 50 yards apart. In this ‘no man’s land’ guards patrolled in wool coats with assault rifles on their shoulders and big dogs by their sides. There were tall concrete towers evenly spaced on the far side and looking up, I remember seeing soldiers and guns and thinking to myself, “This is really it. This is the end of the ‘free’ world.”

We stood there awestruck in the grim & overcast day. As our guide talked about the land mines and the 1000 people that had died trying to free from the east to the west, a chilly breeze came up from behind, catching a classmate’s hat and sailing it into the neutral ground. Instinct prevailed and the boy moved quickly towards the fence as the guards all suddenly came to attention. Weapons automatically rose to shoulders and gun sights trained on a little ball cap, a boy & his friends. The world stopped and not a noise could be heard. I remember the sudden realization that these soldiers would really kill us if we crossed the line and standing there, holding my breath, for the first time in my young life I felt mortality.

At that moment, everything that I had heard, about the enemy, about the weapons and the missiles, all the talk that I never really paid attention because it did not have an immediate impact on my kid-world,  was true. There were really bombs that could kill us all and there really were people that were willing to use them. I think we all left a little innocence on the border that day.
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As I grew older, the world changed. Treaties were executed limiting the production of nuclear arms. My friends and I would sneak into an old, abandoned nike missile site and hold parties and bonfires. In 1989, the borders were erased. The wall came down. There was a whole new feeling of hope in the world. I, like so many of my friends, cheered on as Pink Floyd performed at the wreckage of the wall in Berlin. Peace had won.

A piece of the Berlin wall, now on display in Kansas

All of a sudden, there wasn’t a defined enemy. The threat had passed, no one was going to press that little red button and erase us all. People forgot and they forgot about the missiles. Even in 1995 when a Norwegian experiment led us perilously more close to mass destruction that most people realize, the world kept on like the danger did not exist anymore.

I have been researching some local lore regarding the 1980s made for tv movie about a post-nuclear strike America that was based here in Lawrence, KS, called The Day After. While reading  on it, I came across information about current nuclear arms in the world. It is a little troubling to think that now we are not only faced with many countries having nuclear arms, we are also faced with the decaying missiles lost during the collapse of the USSR falling into the hands of terrorists or extremists. The threat of destruction is just as prevalent as it was when I was a child, now it just isn’t cool to talk about it.

The countries with nuclear warheads and the active/total stockpiled each hold are as follows:

The United States             1950/8500
Russia (former USSR)     2430/11,000
France                                   290/300
United Kingdom               160/225
China                                     180/240
Israel                                     n.a./80-200
India                                      n.a./80-100
Pakistan                               n.a./90-110
North Korea                       n.a./>10

South Africa has the unique distinction of having developed nuclear weapons, but has since disassembled them all.

So, it appears as nothing has changed at all except my perception. We are still just one red button away from destroying what has taken thousands of years to build. It seems the more things change, the more they really stay the same.

За любовь! (Here’s to Love!)

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35 responses to “Standing on the Brink

  1. I enjoyed this immensely, and it brought me back to my own experience in Soviet Russia in 1988, a year before the Wall fell. I was fortunate enough to see (or maybe misfortunate enough) to see the truth behind the Iron Curtain, and to meet people who despaired that things would never change; little did they know that within a year’s time the whole world would change.

    • Thank you for your kind words! How neat you got to experience that, who would have thought only a year later that it would all collapse. Life is pretty amazing, isn’t it?

  2. “Good Bye Lenin!” is a very good movie about the fall of the Wall, you should like it. Hope it’s available in the US.

  3. Lovely post Chloe. I can only say that we are blessed. I don’t know what I would have done if I had to live in times of war. It would be really awful!
    Have a great day! 🙂

  4. Just now, its like Jurassic Park. End of URSS, Internet everywhere, 11-09-2001, new phones. This is really amazing.

    • I wonder if people realize what an amazing time it is to be alive, if they see all the changes in the world as they happen, or if they only are attentive to what happens that impacts them. It amazes me to think just over 100 years ago, people did not even have airplanes!

  5. I think Kazakhstan may also have given up nukes (as well as South Africa that is.)
    So far the USA remains the only country to have used them against civilians.

    Your border crossing reminded me of one of mine – walking through fields of sunflowers from Austria in Hungary – fences, guard towers, etc. But the Hungarians guards were so friendly – far friendlier than most people in general in Austria. They spoke no English, or so it seemed – but one knew the word “superb” – which he said a lot. The guards arranged somewhere for us to stay the night in a nearby town.
    It was busy at the checkpoint. Hundreds of East German cars were lined up parked on the Hungarian side of the border. It was when Hungary was one the verge of opening its border and letting the East Ger,mans cross to the West. Later that year the Berlin wall was smashed down.

    • Unfortunately, that is true. I sure hope it stays that way.

      That was really a magical time in that part of the world. I remember the energy most of all when I look back on it; just an overwhelming optimism. I can picture your sunflowers, that would be a great photo composition, sunflowers and barbed wire…:)

  6. Oooops ! Une translation s’impose – je reviens… En attendant gros bisous à notre Chloé de yoyo

  7. It’s a scary world we live in, and I try not to think about it too often. I think the reality of my own mortality hit me on 9/11. Despite how shocking and horrible it was to see on tv, it was frightful to show up at work, and instead of being greeted by the usual smiling faces waving at me, I had to get through a closed fence with armed soldiers who searched my vehicle and scrutinized my identification. That became my morning routine for the remainder of that contract. Since then, it feels a lot like we’ve become a nation motivated by fear. I hope one day that things will change. I hope that change will happen in my lifetime.

  8. Hi my dear Chloe, how are you ? I’m fine thank you.Just a bit busy/lazy at the time but I don’t forget you, don’t worry! Have you seen “Good Bye Lenin” ?

    • Yes, I did! It was really cute, thanks for the tip. I have been lazy, too. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just can’t seem to get motivated about anything lately.

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