When I was in elementary school we took a field trip. I remember the trip and the feeling it left me with to this day. We left Frankfurt am Main early in the morning and boarded a bus that took us along a scenic route, through quiet hamlets and finally stopping on the border of East Germany. It was during the height of the Cold War and our guide for the day took us along the West German side of the border.
Unlike border crossings in other countries, there was no mistaking the line between East and West Germany. Expanded metal barriers topped with barbed wire outlined an area about 50 yards apart. In this ‘no man’s land’ guards patrolled in wool coats with assault rifles on their shoulders and big dogs by their sides. There were tall concrete towers evenly spaced on the far side and looking up, I remember seeing soldiers and guns and thinking to myself, “This is really it. This is the end of the ‘free’ world.”
We stood there awestruck in the grim & overcast day. As our guide talked about the land mines and the 1000 people that had died trying to free from the east to the west, a chilly breeze came up from behind, catching a classmate’s hat and sailing it into the neutral ground. Instinct prevailed and the boy moved quickly towards the fence as the guards all suddenly came to attention. Weapons automatically rose to shoulders and gun sights trained on a little ball cap, a boy & his friends. The world stopped and not a noise could be heard. I remember the sudden realization that these soldiers would really kill us if we crossed the line and standing there, holding my breath, for the first time in my young life I felt mortality.
At that moment, everything that I had heard, about the enemy, about the weapons and the missiles, all the talk that I never really paid attention because it did not have an immediate impact on my kid-world, was true. There were really bombs that could kill us all and there really were people that were willing to use them. I think we all left a little innocence on the border that day.
As I grew older, the world changed. Treaties were executed limiting the production of nuclear arms. My friends and I would sneak into an old, abandoned nike missile site and hold parties and bonfires. In 1989, the borders were erased. The wall came down. There was a whole new feeling of hope in the world. I, like so many of my friends, cheered on as Pink Floyd performed at the wreckage of the wall in Berlin. Peace had won.
All of a sudden, there wasn’t a defined enemy. The threat had passed, no one was going to press that little red button and erase us all. People forgot and they forgot about the missiles. Even in 1995 when a Norwegian experiment led us perilously more close to mass destruction that most people realize, the world kept on like the danger did not exist anymore.
I have been researching some local lore regarding the 1980s made for tv movie about a post-nuclear strike America that was based here in Lawrence, KS, called The Day After. While reading on it, I came across information about current nuclear arms in the world. It is a little troubling to think that now we are not only faced with many countries having nuclear arms, we are also faced with the decaying missiles lost during the collapse of the USSR falling into the hands of terrorists or extremists. The threat of destruction is just as prevalent as it was when I was a child, now it just isn’t cool to talk about it.
The countries with nuclear warheads and the active/total stockpiled each hold are as follows:
The United States 1950/8500
Russia (former USSR) 2430/11,000
United Kingdom 160/225
North Korea n.a./>10
South Africa has the unique distinction of having developed nuclear weapons, but has since disassembled them all.
So, it appears as nothing has changed at all except my perception. We are still just one red button away from destroying what has taken thousands of years to build. It seems the more things change, the more they really stay the same.
За любовь! (Here’s to Love!)