A Train, Peaches, A Passport, and More – Things That Remind Me of Freedom

1982 (age 8)

Freedom.

Ka – thunk, ka-thunk, went the train

Escape.

Ka – thunk, ka-thunk, went the train

Wall.

Ka – thunk, ka-thunk, went the train

Guns.

Ka-shhhhhhh, went the train as we stopped again.

On the way home from a family trip to West Berlin, we had to make our way through East Germany. That trip included periodic checks to make sure that no one was escaping.

“How many more checks will there be, Daddy?” He shushed me saying that we were almost back in West Germany. There would be no checks in the West. An armed soldier came to the door. Dad handed him our passports. The guard looked at the symbols of America on the front and grunted as he checked each face to its passport picture.

Ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk, the train began to move again, and my brain raced as I imagined an escape story – Someone could fit under this seat, couldn’t they? Maybe a girl my age. My passport would keep her safe, because the guard didn’t check our sleeping car.

Dear President Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev. I started to write a letter in my mind, they would listen to a little girl who had just experienced seeing something unjust, wouldn’t they?

What can I do? I thought as the train meandered on, taking me back to freedom.

***

November 1989 (age 15)

The wall fell!?!?

Hooray went the International celebrations.

“Hey, the Berlin wall fell!”

Listen, I tried to tell my classmates what it meant.

We were Freshman in High School and East Germany was a whole world away for them.

All I could see in my mind’s eye were the armed guards and the little girl I had imagined. I wondered how they were feeling – if they were some of those who were helping to break chunks out of the wall.

What can I do? I thought as I celebrated the burgeoning freedoms of being a teenager in the USA.

I thought of little girls all over the world unable to get an education. Walking 6 miles each way to carry water from an old spring only to turn around at night to do it again. Girls married off at my age. Girls working on farms. Girls getting shot at while they tried to learn to read.

Was there anything I could do to help tear down walls for them, or for my classmates so that they could see how blessed we were?

***

1996 (age 22)

“Do you know what this is?”

“Sure,” I said to the wrinkled man who was holding my passport. I was wondering if this Bulgarian man was going to give it back or make a run with it.

“Do you really know what this is?” I watched his worn and craggy hand as he flipped each page with a sacred awe. I thought of his whole life behind the communistic wall. He would have been young after WWII when the walls went up. To have tasted freedom and then have it taken away, I couldn’t imagine.

“I’m beginning to,” I said as we locked eyes and looked at each other.

“Live well,” he said as he gave it back to me.

The passport would give me a lifetime of the pursuit of happiness.

In Bulgaria I was shushed for talking about religion too loudly in a woman’s apartment.

“Be quiet!” she said with fear in her eyes, “they’ll hear you!”

We were in her own living space, and she was terrified. My passport gave me the ability to live without that fear.

In Bulgaria, I was choosing some peaches from a fruit stand. The owner began throwing bruised peaches in my bucket.

“Hey! What are you doing?” I asked, shocked at his actions.

“What are you doing?” he asked back.

“I’m choosing the peaches I want to buy.” Duh!

“You’re not allowed to choose!” He roared at me and continued to throw rotten fruit into my bucket.

 I poured the peaches back on his pile and handed him the bucket, “then I choose NOT to buy from you!”

Then I bought triple the number of peaches from the woman in the next stand because she said I could choose whichever I wanted.

The passport gave me the right to know that I could choose.

After a year and a half of living and working in a former Eastern European Country in the mid-nineties, my plane landed on the tarmac of JFK. The passengers erupted into spontaneous cheers, clapping, and laughter.

I had never been on an International flight before where we spontaneously broke into applause and cheering when we hit American soil. But, there was something about that plane ride. It was loaded with refugees from war-torn Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia.

I spent time on the flight trying to help translate for the refugees because the Bulgarian language and theirs were similar.

That was something I could do. And I found something else too.

***

1997 (age 23)

“Are you Wilhelm?” 

I turned to look.  A man walked up to me. He was tall and fit in a crisp, clean officer’s uniform.

“Yes?” I lamely muttered, while glancing at the lunch stains on my t-shirt, tugging at my cluttered ponytail, trying to smooth out the grooves in my hair.

I followed him into a beautiful oak paneled room, where he stood in front of me on a small dais, about a foot off of the ground flanked by the American flag on the left and the Utah state flag on the right.

 “Raise your right hand and repeat after me.  I, (insert your full name), do solemnly swear”

As I repeated, I thought of the little girls in East Germany who were not on the train.

“that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic;”

I thought of the old gentleman holding my passport.

“that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same”

I thought of the woman in her own apartment, with fear in her eyes. The peach sellers. The refugees.

There, in front of the flags and the officer, in a quiet, solemn ceremony, I found myself overwhelmed with a sense of patriotism I’d never felt before, a pride and gratitude that I felt both then and now to be a defender of my country. To help bring freedom to the little girls all over the world so that they could read and write and pursue happiness.

***

Modern day (age, er um … older)

What can I do? I think as I look around me.

How do I teach my children? I wonder as I see the immense privilege that we live and breathe daily.

How can I help them understand how free we truly are?  

I write. I teach. I speak. I serve. I donate. I pray.  I work to never forget that freedom is an ideal, a state of mind, a series of great privileges to live without fear, to live without walls, to choose. It has to be taught, and re-taught or it will be lost.

How can we help those around the world to create places of freedom in their nations as well? Can we help our own break out of walls of hate, anger, misunderstanding, and addictions that we create?

What can I do? I think as I drive through my beautiful country, thankful for those who have sacrificed to make us free.

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