Road Trips, Stories Told

I hate what domestic terrorism has done to our country

The first time I visited Washington, DC, was in 1993. It was an unexpected visit: I was in Maryland on business, and a schedule change left me with a free day. I was in a town at the end of the Metro train line, so I bought a pass and rode right into the National Mall.

I had no idea what to expect. I was surprised and delighted to find Capitol at one end, the Washington Monument in the middle, and the Lincoln Memorial at the other end, all separated by grass and pools.

US Capitol, 1993

Before I left Maryland I stepped into a drug store and bought a disposable camera. I’m so happy I did, because with it I recorded scenes that aren’t there anymore. Like this one.

US Capitol, 1993

Of course these steps are still there. What’s not there is the ability to walk up them. They are barricaded and a guard is posted. It’s been that way since sometime after that terrible day in September of 2001. But in 1993 I walked right up them. When I reached the top, I stood on the terrace and made this photograph.

US Capitol, 1993

You can’t make that photograph anymore because you can’t reach that terrace.

Here’s something else you can’t do anymore: on impulse, waltz right into the United States Capitol. I did just that on this August, 1993 day. I followed the yellow rope line up the steps (humming to myself, “I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill…“) and walked in the door. Much of the Capitol was open to anyone. Only the House and Senate chambers were closed to the public.

US Capitol, 1993

It was thrilling to simply walk into and experience this hall of American government. But it was as I had always been taught: this government and, by extension, its buildings belonged to the people. We were therefore free to experience public spaces within them whenever we wanted.

You can’t enter the Capitol this way anymore. For that matter, you can’t enter the Capitol at all without having prearranged it (which you do online here). And you don’t walk up those steps. Instead, you enter through a bunker-like underground visitor’s center (completed in 2008) that’s about 150 feet behind where I stood to make the photo above. On the way in you have to empty your pockets into trays and walk through a metal detector.

We all know that drill. We’ve experienced it for many, many years now. We all probably expect it on some level. You don’t want someone walking in armed and shooting Senators.

In 1993 that idea was so far-fetched as to be ridiculous. Today we can all fully imagine it happening. It’s a national tragedy.

But screening us all creates a second, and in my opinion greater, tragedy. Formerly our government belonged to us. Now our government can’t trust us. Formerly each of us was presumed harmless. Now as any of us enters a government building there is that one moment where the guard at the metal detector just can’t be sure.

It changes how we view our government. We used to believe we were all in it together, that our government, while not perfect, was of us and for us. Now the government feels separate from us, and we don’t feel welcome in it.

Stories Told

It happened at the Wall

Germany was still divided in 1984. We could not know that in five years the Cold War would end, marked dramatically on our televisions by video of East Germans spilling over the Berlin Wall and through its checkpoints. We had all seen photos of it in our history books, of course, and maybe even in our German texts. We had heard the story of how the Wall went up “virtually overnight” to keep East Germans from escaping to the West. The whole concept of keeping the East Germans in seemed sad and silly, yet it happened half a world away and seemed remote. So I was unprepared for the Wall when I saw it that summer.

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The Wall was at least twice my height, effectively blocking the view into the East except for tall structures near the border. Its rounded top made it hard to scale.

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It stood several feet behind a railing, which marked the actual border between east and west. Step over the railing and you were on shaky ground. The sign says, “Attention, you are now leaving West Berlin.”

You are now leaving West Berlin

The railing made a wide strip around West Berlin into a no-man’s land. These shots are of the Brandenburg Gate, finished in 1791. It teemed with people until 1962, when the Wall was built.

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We crossed into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie and saw the Gate’s other side from behind a fence. Nobody could get close to this grand symbol of Berlin from either side.

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Back in West Berlin, the wall stopped next to the Reichstag where the Spree River flowed by.

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It was a popular place for East Berliners to try to swim to freedom, at least until the East German government lined the river with barbed wire. These eight people were either caught up in it or were shot by border guards as they tried to cross. Here we were told that the no-man’s land behind the Wall was heavily mined and, in some places, lined with weapons that fired automatically.

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This is where I fully grasped the Wall’s reality. At first, I had felt frustrated by it, as the roaming American in me was not used to being prevented from going where I pleased. Then I felt saddened that it kept historic sites off limits to everybody. But when I saw these crosses, and the watchtower that loomed near them, I finally understood the real power and control being exerted over an entire people.

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I spent but a few hours in East Berlin. Every building was old, gray, and dilapidated, compared with the many gleaming new structures in the West. I saw few cars on the roads in East Berlin, but most of the ones I did see were tiny, noisy, smoke-belching, plastic-resin-bodied Trabants; the roads in West Berlin were choked with traffic, with cars of every make and model produced across Europe and Japan. I watched people in the Alexanderplatz, noticing the downcast silence with the average East German went about his business, especially compared with the exuberance I had experienced in the nightlife on the hot Ku’damm in West Berlin the night before. And then, as my group passed by the Neue Wache building, a military procession began. Everybody stopped to watch the goose-stepping soldiers in their show of miltary strength; the onlookers’ faces showed dull acceptance.

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Nature called while I stood on the Alexanderplatz. A sign pointed to a public toilet; it turned out to be a fetid underground pit into which men peed in plain view of each other. Unable to abide the stench, I sought out a restaurant, hoping to find facilities. A hunched-over old man was stationed in the tiny restroom, requiring a 10-pfennig coin to access the stalls and doling out short strips of toilet paper. Such is the nature of communism’s promise of full employment. I lacked coins, and the man would not change a bill, and so I held it until I returned to the West.

It was in experiencing the Wall, and spending those few hours in the East, that I first appreciated the great gifts of freedom I had always enjoyed.

One November morning five years later, I had just started to make my breakfast before dressing and going to work when the radio told me the news of the Wall’s end. I sat at my kitchen table and cried, simultaneously recalling my feelings of shock and sadness from my brief glimpses into East German life, and feeling joy for those people and the hope of better lives for them all.

Originally posted in October, 2009.


How a used Ford means freedom

In my first post of the year I laid out my themes for 2013, one of which is freedom. Here’s one way I’m playing out that theme: I bought a 2006 Ford Focus.


This car fosters freedom because I paid cash for it. (I do realize that having enough cash on hand to buy a car means I’m fortunate to begin with.) This had been my dad’s car, and he upgraded recently. A Focus isn’t the car of my dreams, but it’s been reliable, Dad took good care of it, and the boys and the dog all fit inside.


You know what I’d love to own? A new 3-series BMW coupe in black. I’ve wanted one for 20 years. Siiiiiiiigh. Just look at it. Isn’t it dreeeeeeeeeamy? There is no doubt in my mind that driving it would bring me immense, intense pleasure every day.

I just optioned a BMW 328i coupe at I didn’t even dream all that big and the price tag still swelled to $41,595. If I trade in my Toyota as a down payment and take a five-year loan, I could swing the payments – well, as long as absolutely nothing goes wrong in my life.

I am not going to be bound to that.

My older son turned 16 yesterday. My old Toyota seems like a perfect first car for him. And an unsexy hatchback will get me from A to B just fine. Meanwhile, I can save my money for a rainy day. All kinds of rain can fall on me and I can just keep driving my paid-for car! And the Focus is surprisingly fun to drive – it has good acceleration and handling for an economy car. It’s no BMW, but I’m looking forward to taking it out on a twisty highway and seeing what it can do.

Costly things do happen, course. Read my story about when several happened to me at once.