I was 17-years-old when the Berlin Wall fell. It was my senior year of high school, a year, during which, I had hoped to study abroad, largely to escape the bullying and awkwardness I felt at school and the secrets I was beginning to understand the need to keep at home. But, when I had broached the subject with my parents the year before, it was a subject that had gotten squashed quickly.
My mother, who is Jewish, was uncomfortable with my desire to study in Germany or Austria, places that fascinated me because of her own love of their art — I grew up looking at women painted by Gustav Klimpt and Egon Shiele, women who looked like me and seemed like home.
In truth, looking back on it all, it may just have been the first thing that it sprung to her mind to say; my parents’ objections were probably more likely about money or my being off somewhere far away from their rules. But with my mother’s reaction being what it was, I didn’t ask a second time. Like all things I longed for, I merely stared at it from afar, lingering on travel ads in the newspapers I was raised to read daily as civic duty, hoping my desire would be obvious and, somehow, magical.
So I didn’t study abroad, and a month after my seventeenth birthday I wasn’t in Germany. I watched the Berlin Wall fall from our dining room table during that surprising week where I was allowed to have the television on during dinner. And each night, as I watched those events, I thought of two things: David Bowie’s “Heroes” (a song which kept me going in high school and that is deeply and complicatedly enmeshed with Berlin Wall mythology) and how I could just get up at 4am, take the can of cash I was hoarding out of the bottom of my closet, steal my mother’s credit card, grab my passport out of the second drawer on the left of her roll-top desk, take a cab to the airport, and run away, to Berlin, so I could be there as the Wall kept coming down.
But I had no nerve. And while I don’t know if it would have worked, I have always regretted that I never tried. 21 years later, I have still never been to Berlin.
Patty is too young to have particularly strong feelings or recollections about the fall of the Berlin Wall. She did not grow up afraid of nuclear war. In terms of scale, her Berlin Wall moment was, probably, sadly, 9/11. And here is this moment in Egypt, and she’s in India, doing what she loves, living without television and without radio she can understand. The news she gets comes on her mobile phone, from me, from friends, from the calls the other people on the dig get.
My academic degree is in journalism, a profession I selected for a host of foolish reasons: needing a respectable job-possible major to get parental assistance (and permission, I was 17) to go to college and wanting to be a war reporter because of fictions (V, the original version) I had loved as a young teen.
I was never a war reporter, but I did work for the AP for a few years in their Computer Assisted Reporting unit back in the mid-90s. When I write non-fiction now it’s scholarship, criticism, analysis, personal essays, or, in the hey-it’s-a-paycheck category, light lifestyle pieces for various online media.
But when I call Patty tomorrow, it’s my job to be a reporter, even if I’m just reporting all the news I watch both because it is my nature and because it is a requirement of my analysis work. I’ve been doing it since the beginning, starting with the Giffords shooting and then since the time I paged her in the middle of the night about Tunisia and Yemen and the beginnings of Egypt. The page didn’t go through right, and she, puzzled as to why I was frantically texting her about Yemen, called me on her lunch break, and I ran everything out as fast as I could.
Since then, it’s been hard to keep up the excitement and intensity and confusion and fear and hope of what’s been going on in Egypt. I’m just one person, without video or images to show her, without direct information, and with a great deal of fatigue from how much these events have upended my own working life. But it’s so important to me that I do a good job, that when she plays Where Were You When games she’ll have more for this than “I was in India, so I sort of missed it.”
I’m a news junkie. Maddeningly so. It’s not just work. It’s a compulsion. Sometimes, she has to tell me to change the damn channel because I’m about to watch the same episode of Rachel Maddow twice in the same evening. She puts up with this with a great deal of amusement, and she’s certainly into current events herself, just in a way that’s a bit less odd. So I hope I’m doing okay. That I’ll do well tomorrow. That she’ll be able to say in response to this entry in the Where Were You When game, “I was in India, and my girlfriend had to tell me about it on this crappy mobile I bought, and we kept getting disconnected and it was like two tin cans on a string and it seemed so strange.”
To me, who has the news on all the time, often on multiple screens and channels, it doesn’t seem like enough. But it sure does seem like something, like paying a debt for the way I once did, and still do, dream of Berlin.
7 thoughts on “reporting for an audience of one”
I was in high school in the early ’80s. I remember having panic attacks when the firehouse siren would go off late at night thinking this was it, they’ve dropped the bomb. I remember the Berlin Wall coming down. My husband and friends bought Soviet pins, things, even a pocket watch from army surplus mail order companies and joked about the “going out of country” sales. (He still has the pocket watch and many of the pins.) My mom listened to the news all the time. I was young but I also remember Nixon and Watergate.
I went to Berlin twice (both supervised school trips from Kiel in the West), the last one in September 1989 – I was 16 – the atmosphere in East Berlin was odd – bigger police presence than a year earlier and the youth was rehearsing a parade, I’d never seen so many people in blue overalls and yellow neckerchiefs. But as a teenager I didn’t know what that meant and it took a few years to get to grips with the politics behind the changes. I remember taking a photo of the Wall and then see that part being one of the first ones that they dismantled officially, but yeah, it didn’t affect me beyond that… tbh, I managed to live a large part of my life in a cocoon (hindsight is a interesting)
My other memory of Berlin is the museum in the East with the Babylonian wall – I’d seen it in a book and it started my interest in archaeology – so there’s something Patty might be interested in.
You write about this so beautifully.
I can’t make the thoughts come together in a way worth posting.
But no, I don’t remember when the wall fell. I was two months and ten days old.
You should go to Berlin. Germany is a beautiful country.
Well, of course you wouldn’t remember it, being that young.
Are you into Stargate:SG1? There’s an interesting fanfic about one of the minor characters, Mini-Jack. Mini-Jack, as he is called in fandom, is an alien-created clone of a nearly 50 year old career soldier. There’s a scene in the fanfic where someone points out to Mini-Jack that the assassination of Kennedy has as much meaning to this modern generation as the previous assassinations of Garfield and Lincoln. Mini-Jack is wondering how he’s supposed to forget that day.
Of course, to me the Kennedy assassination is merely something I read about in history class. I had seen a picture of a “small boy in a coat saluting Kennedy’s coffin” associated with the funeral parade, but I had no idea who the kid was. I thought it was some random kid on the street.
Then one day my mom and I were watching the same show on PBS on our TVs in our rooms. (Yes, we’ll watch the same show on two different TVs.) When the clip of the kid saluting the coffin came up, my mom nearly teared up, and made a comment about poor Jr (insert kid’s nickname) saying goodbye to his dad.
Until that point, I hadn’t known it was Kennedy’s boy, nor I had known the boy had a nickname.
Of course, my mom and dad’s generation remembered that.
I remember when the Berlin Wall was knocked down. I was in my senior year of high school.
In the late 90s I was trying to explain the Cold War to a co-worker who was 5 years younger than me. She had no memory of the Cold War or the arms race, or the worry that the a nuclear war could be started in a heartbeat. It surprised me, and I wish she could have known it, and yet I’m glad she grew up without it.
Oops sorry, not my senior year, but two years after. It was 1989, right? Ergh. How could I mistake that?