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September 1961. We were at my grandmother’s apartment in Brooklyn. But something wasn’t right. For one thing, my father hadn’t finished dinner with us. He had to rush off to a special meeting of his army reserve unit at nearby Fort Hamilton. This was unusual - not planned and predictable like all the other countless visits with my grandparents. Also, the grownups seemed tense and as the hours went by, my mother told me to take a nap on my grandparent’s bed. I never had to do this before. What was going on?
But I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t nap. I would just listen to the voices of the grown-ups quietly speaking in the other room and the dull sounds of the TV. Finally, I heard my father enter the apartment and greet my mother. This was how it all began. He was being called up from the army reserves to active duty. Something was going on in a place called Berlin.
In short order my dad told my sister and me that he would be going away for a while. To the army and to Germany – they needed him there. I can’t quite remember my feelings - they were an inexact mixture of surprise, excitement and sadness. I don’t think I could settle on one emotion, that’s how new this thing was.
The events unfolding in Berlin were probably the first adult invasion of my kid-centric world. But as I suspected, it was very important as it was on the TV news a lot.
Here then, is the double condensed version of what had taken place in Berlin:
- By 1961 4 ½ million East Germans had fled East Berlin to West Berlin – their portal to the West. Most of them were professionals and thus a huge brain drain for the East.
- This drove Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev nuts and he demanded that all Western armed forces leave West Berlin. The U.S., the United Kingdom and France completely rejected this notion.
- In the spring of 1961 President Kennedy and Khrushchev met in Vienna to discuss the situation and try to reach a solution to the Berlin problem. They were unsuccessful.
- On August 13, 1961 the East German army began to close the border between East and West Berlin, laying barbed wire and fences. Shortly thereafter actual construction of the wall began.
- On August 30, in response to the Soviet actions, President Kennedy ordered 148,000 National Guard and reservists to active duty. He also asked congress for an additional three billion dollars to expand the U. S. military.
This unexpected wall was a provocation, especially at the height of the cold war. Kennedy felt the Soviet’s building a wall separating East and West Berlin was a threat to our national security and violated the post-war agreement the four nations had followed since the end of the war. There was speculation that this might be the beginning of a Soviet advance into West Germany. Who knew what they were up to?
And so, my dad and our little family got personally swept up in the drama of superpower posturing.
The 33rd Artillery Company
Before this crisis, Dad’s role as an army reservist was one of curiosity and pride for me. He was in an artillery company comprised of local New Yorkers - teachers, lawyers, accountants, various professionals and tradesmen. Most, like my father, had served in WWII. When the Organized Reserve Corps was established in 1948, he and other like-minded veterans signed on.
In the course of everyday life, being in the reserves wasn’t a big commitment, at least not during peacetime. Maybe one night a month Dad attended a meeting at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn and then two weeks in the summer he would go up to Watertown, N.Y. to a military base called Camp Drum for two weeks of training and exercises.
I think for these men, fighting overseas to defeat the Third Reich was the most profound experience of their lives. Perhaps they felt joining the reserves was a way to rekindle that sense of extreme purpose. Plus, there was the shared camaraderie of other military men. And of course, the extra pay and bonuses came in handy.
But those were the peacetime dividends. In the event of war everything got turned upside down. It was like the duffel bag of your life got overturned and emptied on the floor. Suddenly, you had to leave your job and your suburban family and enter a new reality. One that was quite serious. Even dangerous. Perhaps lethal.
Although none of that was even remotely appreciated by my nine-year-old self.
Dad’s unit was slated to go to Berlin to face down the Soviets. But first they were detailed to go to North Carolina, to Fort Bragg.
This was exciting to nine-year-old me. My dad said that Fort Bragg was a very big army base, one of the biggest in the world. I envisioned a place even bigger than the shopping mall near us with its enormous parking lot, department stores and fountains. That was pretty much my metric for enormous.
There, dad’s artillery unit would be tasked with training extensively for several months. I later learned they would be educated in the care, handling and feeding of…. tactical nuclear weapons. What’s a tactical nuclear weapon? Basically, it’s a small (small?!) nuclear bomb that can be fired from artillery howitzers. These are the big guns they had been utilized in beating back the Nazis less than a generation before.
Progress… now in addition to firing regular shells, these howitzers could project smallish battlefield nuclear weapons. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure how effective these tactical nuclear shells would be if the other guys had the same weapons.
It seems that each side would quickly cancel each other out in the first few minutes of a nuclear exchange. Maybe the side with the best bunkers would prevail.
But again, I knew none of this. I just was told that Dad was going to North Carolina for a while. I don’t think I even knew he was slated to go overseas… and possibly fight a war.
Master of the House
Within a matter of weeks my mother, my sister and I saw him off at Grand Central Station. Saying our goodbyes, he got down on one knee and told me that I was now going to be the man of the house. I’m not sure what that meant as I was well under five feet and probably weighed about 70 pounds. Plus, I was skinny to the point of scrawny. So, if “man of the house” meant any heavy lifting probably my big sister would have been better suited.
Nevertheless, I soon learned that my new “man of the house” responsibility was that I had to bring the garbage cans around to the street on collection day twice a week. As I began the 4th grade and became more familiar with the concept of neighborhood waste removal, dad was learning the finer points of tactical nuclear war.
Besides the garbage can thing there wasn’t much else for me to do in my new role, but I tried. If something broke I’d get my dad’s tools and take a stab at trying to fix, patch or glue it back together. I also attempted to leverage my new title for some imagined perks, such as staying up later to watch one of my sit-coms. I’d argue as “man of the house” I should be able stay up to watch the Dick Van Dyck Show or the Luci-Desi Comedy Hour.
But the woman of the house, mom, ultimately decided the viewing schedule. She dictated but I would still negotiate. “I’ll brush my teeth and wash up and as soon as Luci-Desi is over I’ll jump right into bed!” Sometimes this worked. It was my own “Art of the Deal”. 4th Grade Edition.
Every few weeks we’d get a long-distance call from dad. Long distance was a very big occasion in those days. There were special AT&T Long Lines operators who routed these precious and expensive phone calls to our family phone.
I never knew what to say on these quick and costly calls…. They were exciting, but I also felt a little on the spot. I wanted to talk about fun things, but I missed my dad and there didn’t seem to be time or emotional space with the three of us huddled around the phone to find a way to express that. In truth, I was sad he was still away. But things were about to get a little better.
Back in Berlin, our tanks stood facing the Soviet tanks at a crossing point called Checkpoint Charlie. Although I suspect, the Soviets gave this iconic gateway of the cold war their own name - Checkpoint… Misha? The East Germans of course, referred to it as Grenzübergangsstelle or "Border Crossing Point". No wonder everyone was fleeing the place.
But thanks to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who engaged with the Soviets behind-the-scenes, the situation soon de-escalated and the tanks on both sides withdrew.
President Kennedy ultimately accepted the wall, with the logic that if the Soviets were building a wall right across the city, they didn’t intend to invade West Berlin. In the meantime, the Wall could be used to great propaganda effect for the West, which it was for the next 28 years.
So, President Kennedy’s decision had a direct effect for world geo-politics and for our family. Dad’s deployment to Germany was cancelled. That was the good news. But that didn’t mean he was coming home. After all the money spent calling up these 150,000 reservists, the government planned to keep them right where they were for a while… just in case.
But, with nuclear war no longer hanging in the balance… it was time for a family vacation!
Dad took the train home. After three months away, it was exciting to see him again, all dressed up in his officer’s uniform. Now I too could stand down… from my “man of the house” responsibilities. And Dad brought some big news - we were all going to visit North Carolina, down to Fort Bragg. We would get to stay on an army base!
It was the holiday season and we all piled into our Rambler station wagon and headed south. My sister and I even had sleeping bags in the back of the wagon, so we could doze off as Dad drove hour after hour into the evening.
Fort Bragg is the largest military base in the world housing over 50,000 personnel stationed there. It’s home to the 82nd Airborne, the 3rd Special Forces Group and Delta Force. It’s also home to the army reserves.
It’s a pretty cool place. But if you’re nine, it is amazing. As far as I was concerned it had everything – movie theaters, a bowling alley, a giant PX to buy toys, and even a couple of golf courses. The army gave us a little 2-bedroom cottage while we stayed there.
Everything was within easy reach living on an army base. I really didn’t want to go back home. For me, life in the military was sweet. We ate at the officer’s club, which was the fanciest restaurant I had ever seen, and I had my usual hamburger every night. I saw other families and other kids doing the same.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time but looking back it felt like we were part of an elite, special group. Something other people wouldn’t get to experience. I wouldn’t exactly call it a Band of Brothers… more like a Band of Families.
Walking the base’s busy streets with its jeeps, trucks and squads of marching troops I saw several young soldiers wearing green berets. Dad told us they were special forces and had just started wearing the distinctive headwear.
Once again, we had crossed paths with our new President. Just two months earlier, President Kennedy had ridden these same streets in his iconic Lincoln convertible. He had visited Fort Bragg to review the troops and watch military exercises.
It was at that time he authorized the wearing of the “Green Beret” for the Army Special Forces. And they were thereafter known as “The Green Berets”.
Everything I took in on this trip brought new dimensions to my nine-year-old world. Expectations were exceeded, assumptions were blown apart.
We took a little family trip off the base to visit nearby Fayetteville. This was a cute, charming southern town with brick facades and tree-lined streets.
And there was something else:
My mom pointed to a sign as we passed a restaurant. It read: “Whites Only”.
This was different… unexpected. What did it mean? My parents explained how things worked down here.
And in that instant, I felt as though part of my brain exploded. My view of the world suddenly widened with a new awareness of other signals and intentions. Now I saw water fountains with “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs. Same with bathrooms.
This may have been my first exposure to cognitive dissonance. Because on the base I saw young white and black soldiers marching together, mixing together, going through army life together.
But a short drive away in town, reality spun in a different direction.
There was just so much to figure out for a little kid. This thing in Berlin. Dad being away. The military life. Now these scary signs at restaurants and bathrooms. Bathrooms!
None of the dots connected. I only knew one thing: I definitely wasn’t ready for the grown-up world. I just wanted to go back to the base and have a hamburger at the Officer’s Club with my family. And then maybe I could figure it all out.
Now these many decades later, I’m still eating hamburgers. And still trying to put it all together….
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