Before the Wall Came Tumbling Down
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
Before the Wall Came Tumbling Down
In 1965, when the Vietnam War was escalating the Vietnam War, I joined the United States Army with hopes of becoming a real soldier, jumping out of planes and fighting for my country, only to be told I wasn't big or old enough. Here I was, 17 years old, but I still needed my parents' permission to go to war, and being only 119 pounds, I was informed I was too light to jump out of airplanes. They'd say, "Littlebit, if you jump out of an airplane you're so small you'll hit the tail; you just better stay on the ground where you belong."
When basic and advanced training were over, many soldiers I had just spent months with headed off to war. I'll never forget the look on my friends' faces and in their eyes when they got orders for Vietnam. I really can't recall how many went out in the next week, but it was in the hundreds. As for myself, I was on my way to Germany, and I'm sure it was because of my age. After a couple of days in Frankfurt, I was given orders to Berlin, where I'd be residing the next two years.
Shortly after arriving there, I met a demolition expert called Spinner, who had just finished his second tour in Vietnam. He would get drunk and talk to me about his duties there. He was a small guy like me, and he said they used us small guys as Tunnel Rats. He described in detail what it was like finding these tunnels and clearing them out. It wasn't anything nice, that's for sure. He'd always end it with, "That's what you'll end up doing if you go there, because you're so small." The crazy thing was he would say he wanted to go back. It was like it was in his blood, or as I reflect on it now, maybe it was a death wish. It must have been a terrible thing to have to kill another man. But more horrifying than that was he had to kill women and children also because he couldn't recognize who his enemy was.
Grateful that I wasn't following Spinner into those Viet Cong tunnels, I became a wrecker operator in Berlin, and it was my job to go through Check Point Charlie by myself. It would be comparable to going into Mexico or Canada, but past some of the meanest looking and most heavily armed guards ever, in towers and on foot checking every inch of my vehicles. It didn't matter if they were from the British, French, or American sector. Whether I was leaving or coming back, this was very serious business because East Germany was a communist country controlled by the Soviets, and at this time they were very powerful. After a while of being on the job, like anything else in life, it became pretty much second nature. No matter how many dirty looks they gave me, or how mean they looked, I just did my job.
One image has stuck in my mind through the years: as I would be traveling down the autobahn, men and women were working in the fields side by side. Back in those days women didn't work in the fields here in the Central Valley (at least I had never seen it when I was growing up), but that is not what really got to me. What moved me was that these people would drop on their knees and clasp their hands into a praying gesture as I drove by. It felt as if someone were reaching down inside of me, ripping my heart out, which left me feeling powerless in being unable to help them. I just don't have the words to describe how I felt as I had to drive past them, when I wished I had a big bus to load them all up and take them home with me to freedom.
Another sight proved to be even more memorable. One day Specialist Radcliff, a friend of mine in armory division, said, "Hey, Layne, I have the keys to the basement across the road below us and you'll never guess what's down there. Do you want to go check it out?" I'd been with him down in another area close by, shooting machine guns, and it was a blast, so I agreed to go along, not having a clue what I was getting myself into. As he led me down inside a dark gloomy dungeon, nothing was very visible--that was until he turned on the main light. I couldn't believe what I was seeing while he was telling me how Hitler had ordered people to be hanged on the walls by bolts and chains and then torched. My God, how could anyone do this! It was as if I could almost hear their screaming and see them jerking, trying to pull themselves free, but to no avail as they sank to their death. I can still see their silhouettes, which have left such a vivid memory in my mind. Going through Check Point Charlie was no joke, but after that day, I started questioning if I would ever return or if I would be a charred silhouette in someone else's mind in the future.
These were some very frightening times for me as a young man. I was on a lot of alerts during that time in Berlin, but it was one dark night that stood out. In 1967 as a colonel's driver it was my duty to chauffeur him everywhere, and one night something different was in the air, like a thick mysterious cloud, and even though it couldn't be seen, we knew it was there. The Russian Army called us out! That night after leaving headquarters we went and changed vehicles, fully geared up and headed to the front lines. The Wall! War! Could this really be the U.S. and Russia? They started it, but when we pulled our tanks out of the ground where they were hidden, Russia had a change of mind. Yeah, I know; I was there. Can I prove it? I wear the medal. I have it on my DD214 (military records) that I was in combat. A one-day war! Most Russians never knew it at the time, and as a matter of fact most Americans never even knew it either. If you try to find it on the Internet now, you can't, but if you try again in five years, the records will have been declassified.
I look back at my military experience. After giving our government three years of my life, at twenty years old, I couldn't vote in the upcoming elections. Here I was a father of one with another on the way. I had a chest full of medals, and I couldn't vote and I couldn't even have a legal beer because I wasn't old enough. In 1968, I came back to another world! Had I changed? Oh I'm sure I had and in more ways than I choose to talk about here. But since that time I have learned that many of us joined the ranks of our military here in the The Land of the Brave, The Land of the Free, and for the most part never really understood what we were getting ourselves into until it was too late. Now, in 2008, I often find myself in college classrooms with students who don't get it. They are more concerned about getting high than about learning history. When I make a reference to Check Point Charlie and not one other student in the room knows what I'm talking about, it makes me wish they could have seen with their own eyes what I saw in Berlin. Maybe then they would understand.