(In a case of independent invention—you will have to trust me on this—Gaw and I were writing about roughly the same thing, and using the same vignette approach, at the same time. However, since my lag between conception and production is typically best measured using continental drift, this is coming in a very distant second. And not just in terms of the calendar.)
The last couple weeks have brought an avalanche of books and articles
(scroll down a fair bit) about the collapse of first the Warsaw Pact, then the Soviet Union. Twenty-one years ago, the ugly, unshaven head of monolithic, hegemonic communism looked like going on forever, crushing souls every step of the way.
Twenty years ago, gone.
My children are 16 and 15. Despite the interval of a mere couple decades, that world, the one that had revolved around two diametrically opposed organizing principles, and under the ever present specter of nuclear war, is to them terra incognita, no more real, and perhaps more perplexing, than a badly plotted vampire novel. Indeed, for anyone on the sunny side of 45, that whole era scarcely registers.
For me, awareness started early, at age 5, in 1960. I was a preternatural reader. Some years afterwards, my dad told me of a time when we had gone to someone else's house for burger-burn. One of the moms there told my dad "Isn't he cute, he acts just like he is reading the newspaper." To which my dad said "Oh, but he is."
From nearly the outset, then, I didn't have the parental filter between me and the daily news. Even to an otherwise garden variety five year old, there was obviously something implacably awful about Communism.
Which put me one up on those who awarded the Pulitzer prize to Duranty, and a largish heap of liberal arts professors.
Throughout my tenure in grade school, we had air raid drills. The local civil defense alert siren would go off on the first Monday of the month at 10:00 am. We were to stop whatever we were doing, and crouch under our desks.
Having just read about the Cuban missile crisis, and nuclear weapons, I knew two things: it was going to happen and nothing, least of all those desks, was going to help.
Ten years later, I was alone at home when there was a sudden, earth splitting, ear shattering, roar. Knowing the war had started, I ran outside, looking in the direction of downtown LA for the mushroom cloud, knowing full well that death was only moments away.
Nothing. And no sign whatsoever of what had caused all that commotion.
Until the newspaper showed up the next day. For reasons I can't remember, some F-4 pilot did some flathatting, which included going right over my house at treetop level.
As an F-111 pilot, I played a walk-on part in the Cold War. It was a dangerous airplane, more inclined than any I have heard of to rip your head off and ram it down your throat. Handing that thing over to competitive young men in the throes of testosterone poisoning didn't help matters. With regularity that would now be appalling, but then routine, the machines and their crews got splattered across the landscape.
I am not proud to admit this, but their deaths accorded to the rest of us unearned glory.
But then, I suppose that is the fuel on which armies run.
My first tour in England started just after Maggie Thatcher became PM. England was then plagued by strikes and the likes of Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill, and Michael Foote, all determined to nationalize the means of production.
I don't recall that troika apologizing for having less of a clue than a five year old.
A couple times a year, the base went on a week long exercise. The scenario was always the same, and mirrored NATO planning: The USSR invented some pretext, which led to the Warsaw Pact coming through the Fulda Gap
, and then the rest of the inner German border, in overwhelming force. In short order, NATO's inferiority in men and materiel proved progressively inadequate to holding off the red horde, and as the exercise reached its end, the only alternative to abject surrender was total war.
Whereupon we would stop flying and do a load-out: two very real nuclear weapons on each airplane, destined for pre-planned targets in the the northwestern USSR.
Some guys joked that they would fly to the Azores instead, and be in charge of the world's only remaining nuclear power.
Me, I figured to roll inverted and take it nose first into the Baltic at 1000 mph.
In 1983, President Reagan was intent on putting nuclear armed Pershing missiles
in Europe to counter the USSR's deployment of SS-20 IRBMs. This aroused no small amount of opposition from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, for whom no amount of moral equivalence was too much.
At one point, they decided they were going to ring RAF Upper Heyford with protestors. They chose carefully: one of the Queen's roads went right through the center of the base, which meant the perimeter they needed to surround was much smaller than other American bases.
Our wing commander had other ideas. We were to report on Sunday evening with enough stuff to get us through a week. The CND might be able to close off the base, but they weren't going to stop us flying.
Our flying orders changed, too. Ordinarily, it was something like free play: takeoff, do stuff, and bring it back in a couple hours in a re-usable condition, and without phone calls. Instead, we were to be gone for just long enough to fill the minimum amount of currency squares, the spend rest of the fuel beating up the pattern.
Good Lord there were a lot of planes; more, really, than approach control, tower and some pilots were prepared to handle. I was flying an instrument approach, and had just been handed off to tower when I heard "Gambler 12, base, gear down, touch and go", which meant some guy had just come off the "perch", and was making a steep descending 180 degree turn towards the runway.
In theory, I had the right of way, and he should have come off the perch so as to roll out on final with sufficient distance behind me.
No harm in looking, though. Whereupon I saw the bottom of a 'vark that was going to hit me if I didn't do something about it. In truth, cleaning up, stroking a little afterburner and taking it around would have sufficed. Somehow, though, merely sufficing just wasn't enough. After all, getting more spacing by altering course to the right and using every bit of afterburner Pratt & Whitney put in the engines could be plausibly explained as, umm, a prudent response to a near mid-air.
As to the low altitude high speed pass right over the Queen's highway, well, that just couldn't be helped. And I insist I was saluting the protestors as I went by.
The CND packed it in on Tuesday. Coincidence? I think not.
Behind the Irony Curtain
In the summer of 1988 I visited East Berlin, the first time I had come into direct contact with communism. So, in a very real sense, until then I had been employed to oppose something read about, but not seen: a phantasm.
Going through Checkpoint Charlie really was like passing through the looking glass, getting a day pass to mingle with the prisoners. Everything was gray and shabby, including the people. Some buildings still showed the spray of machine gun fire from WWII. There was a big department store that had thousands of great deals on items not in stock. I went to the Soviet WWII memorial, and saw about the war from their point of view in the theatre there. The screen looked like it had once been a bed sheet, only grayer. Almost all the seats were broken, and the film had been repaired many times, probably with scotch tape. It needed one more time during my viewing, when the projector jammed. Among many things my kids will never have any direct experience with—slide rules and dial phones being two examples—is what a movie looks like when it stops: a frozen frame, then a slow darkening, then a brown circle becoming a white hole as the film melts.
After the movie, I went to Alexander Platz
(in more shameless ripping off, scroll down for the picture). The most prominent feature there is the television tower. The ball at the top is reflective.
When the sun is out, its reflection looks just like the Christian cross.
The most overwhelming impression from my visit, even more than the pervasive shabbiness, was the sinking feeling that the Cold War would go on for decades.
Fifteen months later, it was essentially game over.
What should have been, in retrospect, extremely obvious was that if the Germans couldn't make communism work, no one could.
In mid-1989, before the wall fell, there was a clear sign the gig was up
. Shortly after takeoff from an airbase in Poland, a Soviet MiG-23 suffered a compressor stall. Being a single engine fighter, the pilot punched out.
Whereupon the engine recovered, and the now pilotless airplane, apparently freedom loving, headed west. NATO's air defense radars spotted the plane while it was still over East Germany, and scrambled a pair of F-15s to intercept while trying to find out through the Berlin Joint Air Control Center (where Russians and Americans worked in the same room) what the heck was going on.
The Soviets had no clue; they thought the thing had crashed into the Baltic.
The Eagles followed the Flogger until it reached France. Ultimately, it ran out of gas and plunged into a French farm house, killing an 18 year old Belgian.
Coincidentally, the following week we got an in-depth intelligence briefing about the Warsaw Pact air defense system that had been months in the making.
The briefing's conclusion? Their air defenses were rated "excellent".
Where I become an international man of mystery.
Our intel briefings were duly warning us about two new and very dangerous Soviet surface-to-air missile systems, the SA-10 and the SA-12. The briefings included artist conceptions, labeled Top Secret, of the missiles and their launchers, which were roughly as detailed as a five year old might manage with crayons.
Which also happened to be around when I visited Prague. It was a warm late spring day, and all the strolling got me thirsty. I stepped into a 7-11sky for a Coke, and noticed on the magazine rack a military enthusiast magazine. On the cover was an up close color picture of an SA-12 on its launcher; inside were photos of the SA-10. I snapped it up for 275 persuaders (about 38 US cents), and proudly gave it to the intel folks when I got home.
The intel briefing the following week still had the top secret crayola drawings.
Then in August 1991 I visited Moscow and Leningrad. The most awful places I have ever been. I had read Hedrick Smith's book The Russians
. Words failed him; they will fail me even more thoroughly.
In Moscow, the hotel for foreigners was the Космос, cryllic for Cosmos. Pronouncing Космос the way it looks like it is spelled gets closer to reality. The lobby, the size of a football field, had dustballs the size of rich ladies' poodles, and more prostitutes per square foot than anyplace else on Earth, including even Congress during the State of the Union address. I changed $20 US for rubles; thank goodness I didn't swap more, as those rubles were no more spendable than broken shoelaces. I noticed all the cars, crappy as they were, had no windshield wipers: to avoid theft, because there were none to be had, they were kept in the gloveboxes unless it was actually raining.
The hotel food was execrable. I soon found that having hard currency was a passport through the looking glass. On one side the Soviet Union: dingy, decrepit, aggressively ugly. On the other, the West, in the form of an Irish Pub, or Pizza Hut. The largest McDonalds in the world at the time was in Moscow: the line to get in the place was 300 yards long.
I wasn't prepared for how beautiful young Russian women are, and appalled by how quickly the workers' paradise ground them down. The human body is not built for standing in endless lines. I saw women in their thirties with varicose veins and open sores on their lower legs.
The coup was the day after I left. Even now I wonder if it was something I said.
Somewhere in my pile of photos awaiting the scanner is one of the last photographs of Dzerzhinsky's
statue in front of the Lubyanka.
Shortly after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, a particularly good editorialist at the Times of London, whose name I wish I could remember, wrote a long piece, which I wish I could find, listing by name, twenty or so prominent intellectuals who were apologists for, and sympathizers with, the soul crushing awfulness of communism.
I don't think one of them apologized for having less sense than a five year old, either.