Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Piece by Piece

When I was a kid my dad gave me a hammer.  I still have it.  I had it twenty-five years ago when the Berlin Wall was opened, and I took it with me when a friend and I flew to Berlin to be a part of its destruction.

One of the first things I did when I arrived in Germany was to purchase a chisel -- a meißel, I learned -- and I took my new meißel and my old hammer and headed off to Berlin.

What I saw there absolutely amazed me, and I know that I comprehended only a fraction of its true import.  All along the wall there were people chipping away at what was once an impenetrable barrier.  Families had once been separated by this wall, and people who tried to cross over it -- in either direction -- risked being shot.  Getting too close to the wall was to take ones life in ones hands.

Yet here were people as far as the eye could see, not only near the wall but actually breaking it apart with their own hands.  One of my German friends said that she had never imagined she would ever see something like this.

One of the things that astonished her was the reaction of the guards who were still patrolling the wall.  As they walked along people would back away from the wall and put their tools to their sides or under their coats.  And the guards would walk past without a word.  If someone didn't do this, if they kept on chipping at the wall -- which was technically illegal -- the guards would confiscate their tools and throw them over the wall.  But if people made the slightest semblance of following the law, the guards did nothing.  Even when people immediately began to strike at the wall again as soon as the guards had passed.  It was clear that they didn't want this wall there either, and although it was their job to prevent people from doing just what it was that we were doing, it was also clear that they were going to let it happen.

At one point a man came up to me.  If someone had been casting a cold war thriller and wanted to hire someone to play "typical East German man" they would have cast this guy.  Long black coat.  Black fur hat.  Beard.  Stiff, formal, and somewhat wary bearing.  He came up to me and asked if I would be willing to chip off a piece of the wall for him.  I proceeded to try to get him a good sized chunk.  When I finally did he asked how much I wanted for it.  When I looked confused he said, "Well ... you're American, aren't you?"  To which I replied, "Well ... it's your wall, isn't it?"  He then asked if he could borrow my tools so that he could do his part to break the wall down.  The mixture of pride, delight, and awe that I saw in his face as he did so will always stay with me.

Not too long after that the heavy machinery came in and began to take the wall down in big sections.  There are two here at the University of Virginia near where I'm writing this.  Those in power took over the project of dismantling the wall, but for a while ... for a while it was something that dozens, hundreds of average citizens had taken upon themselves to do for themselves.  Piece by piece.

Something to think about -- and remember.

Pax tecum,


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