Susan Ryder remembers The Day The Wall Came Down.
I’d initially decided to elaborate upon a disagreement I had recently with someone for whom I have respect, even if I don’t always see eye to eye. Then along came Hone Harawira who, as if we needed more proof, showed once again what a fat-head he is. My fingers itched to give him the printed smack he’s never going to receive from the self-neutered, mainstream media, so option one went by the wayside.
And then I was reminded of something much more important. Something that shows the Hone Harawiras to be the trivialities, the sideshows, the non-entities they are. I remembered the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
People always say that they remember exactly where they were when they heard the news about President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. In 1997 I was driving across the Auckland Harbour Bridge when I heard that Princess Diana was dead. And in 1989 I was in downtown San Francisco when the first crack appeared in the Berlin Wall.
The Wall was built the year before I was born. For me, nothing symbolised the Cold War greater than that bleak, barbed-wire monstrosity, fortified with soldiers, sirens and searchlights.
I never saw it for myself. I never went to Berlin. But I saw Eastern bloc communism first-hand during a short visit to Bulgaria in 1983, which made for pretty grim viewing.
The whole situation was farcical. Travel visas to the Eastern bloc were always short-term because they had to be. You see, the communists knew their system was crap, but they desperately needed hard currency to help keep the whole shebang going. Infuriatingly, westerners showed little interest in wanting to migrate to Eastern Europe with their dollars and D-marks, so the communists had to begrudgingly permit entry to tourists.
However, the longer the touring westerners were in their countries, the greater the expense of having to monitor them – and yes, we were monitored – and the greater their likelihood of fraternising with the locals, who in turn, might just hear about dangerous things like freedom, prosperity and plenty of food! Joseph Heller had a name for that sort of scenario.
Back to San Francisco. There had been reports of public disquiet behind the Iron Curtain for some time. Standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate two years earlier, US President Reagan had urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” whilst Gorbachev himself had been busy implementing his radical domestic twin-plan of perestroika (restructuring) and glastnost (openness).
I’d gone into town after work to meet friends. I came out of the parking building and turned into Market Street to find a vast crowd gathered outside a large store selling electronic goods. The crowd took up the whole sidewalk and spilled out into the street where traffic was also stopping. They were all watching the TV’s displayed in the store windows.
“What’s going on?” I asked nobody in particular. Then my blood ran cold. “Oh my God,” I said. “Has someone shot the President?!”
“No!” said a man in front of me. “The Berlin Wall’s coming down!”
I gazed at him blankly. I couldn’t seem to process what he’d just said.
“Here,” he said, “have a look for yourself! Hey you guys, let this lady through!” And the crowd generously made room for me towards the front where a dozen televisions were all tuned to the same channel, transmitting scenes of cheering Germans attacking the wall from both sides, with many more clambering over it, drinking, dancing and celebrating its long-awaited destruction.
We watched in stark disbelief. I turned to face the people behind me.
“Can anybody else believe this?” I asked. Everybody just shook their heads. It was completely unreal.
One man finally broke the spell. “This is amazing!” he yelled. “This is friggin’ FANTASTIC!” And then everybody was jumping up and down and hugging each other and yelling out to slowing traffic to spread the news. People were whooping and cars were tooting.
The bar to which I was heading was just down the road. I flew in and spotted Janna waiting for me.
“I know, I know!!” she yelled before I even opened my mouth. “Where the hell have you been? We’ve been watching in here!! Isn’t it amazing?! I can’t believe it!” The packed bar, in its entirety, was glued to the screen in the corner, while raising glasses to the brave Germans relishing their first moments of freedom that very instant.
That whole evening was like a New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh. It was one big party to which everyone turned up with total strangers expressing disbelief and excitement, but all saying the same thing that needed no further explanation.
“The Wall’s coming down.”
* * Read Susan Ryder’s column every Tuesday here at NOT PC * *