Sunday, September 21, 2003

Border Patrol

The stories were gory. They told of many a soldier who met his maker while patrolling the Czech border with West Germany. The same border I found myself guarding for a month at a time, every three months, back in '85.
Today's children grow up unaware of the Cold war, but back then it was something that affected everybody in the western hemisphere.
We spent our border tours gated in a few miles away from the line. We rotated on weekly "Reaction Force" shifts. Reaction Force members had to be on alert 24 hours a day. From the moment the camp alarm went off we had 15 minutes to be fully dressed in field gear with chemical suits on; our weapons clean, loaded and operational, and our tanks rolling out the main gate. We had so little time to do this that we could never afford to be out of our chemical suits. We kept our boots on at all times. Hell, we weren't even supposed to shower!
We would spend all our time studying classified border terminology, proper international procedures, friendly and enemy vehicle (air, land and sea) identification, and, an Army favorite pastime, cleaning.
Those who weren't on Reaction Force spent their time doing regular training exercises and preventive maintenance on their vehicles. Others rotated on guard duty at the line.
Now, being that we're talking about the Iron curtain, you would expect the border line to be fenced off, or walled like in Berlin. But there was nothing like that. There were markers placed every few hundred feet, indicating when you were walking into enemy territory. These were easily missed in the thick of the Bavarian forest.
When going on guard duty, we would rotate around on four hour shifts. Dressed to the gills and armed to the teeth, wearing white snow camouflage over our parkas, a jeep would drop us off a hundred feet or so from the border. We had no radios to keep in touch. Nothing but the late night forest sounds to keep us company.
Every now and then you would see a tiny flickering flame, when the guard on the opposing side of the line would light up a smoke. I would always hide behind a tree before lighting up one of my own.
The bone chilling coldness would never dissipate. I walked around in circles, even did jumping jacks occasionally, but nothing could keep the shivers from climbing up your spine.
Your senses become overly acute there. When it's late at night and you're in a potentially volatile situation, with a handgun and a semi-automatic rifle both cocked and loaded, you hear many things seemingly creeping up on you. The shadows in the darkness take different shapes and the whispers of the forrest sound like human voices.
We'd all heard the tale of the three man crew in a jeep who'd fallen asleep on their post, only to be found with their throats slit the next morning by a search and rescue party. Those events were always kept under wraps for fear of starting an international conflict, as well as to deter an inevitable embarrassment in the diplomatic arena.
It's been years since then and I still hang on to my border certificates with pride. When the Berlin wall fell and the Cold War ended, the U.S. government sent me yet another certificate, testifying to my contribution toward fighting and winning the Cold War. These certificates along with the other awards I received, are a deep source of honor for me. And I draw on them and cling firmly to them each time a surge of patriotism takes over me. But I hesitate to admit we won much.
There will always be an enemy. If there is none, one must be created. Humans simply cannot live in peace with one another. Petty jealousies and blind ambition will always ensure that somebody somewhere will try to get a bigger piece of the pie.
Third world countries will always seek to blame another for their misfortunes. Religious fanatics everywhere will always believe they're right, even though they're passing judgment based on faith rather than reason.
I can't imagine living in peace. It's hard to attain peace in a single household, much less in a planet. Still, I yearn for a world in which we no longer step on each other to make our way. Perhaps someday.

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