Monday, April 03, 2006

It was amazing trading with Soviet soldiers. We were both children of the Cold War. We had been raised with nuclear fear. As a child I remember a strange dual vision of the future; while I would plan future careers for myself, I also simply assumed the world would end before 2000. In high school we comforted ourselves by saying confidently that our city was 'third on the list' for nuclear attack, so we wouldn't have to deal with the horrors of survival in a post-apocalypse world. Why we believed that the inner strategies of the Soviet war machine were common knowledge to a bunch of teenagers I'm not sure. Still, the image of the Red Menace was all pervasive. Grim, Slavs armed to the teeth were, we knew, coldly committed to our destruction.

So one of the first things Kirk did was tell a soldier this - that we were told they were massed on the border practically salivating at the thought of pouring over and annihilating us. The guy laughed and said that was exactly what they were told we were doing. 'You didn't want to invade?' 'Are you kidding? We were terrified!' Kirk said that of all the foreign soldiers he met in Germany, the Soviets were those he felt the closest to, those he had the most in common with.

I didn't speak Russian, didn't meet most of them, so to me these men are a series of vignettes. There was the guy who, on being asked if he wanted to trade a uniform, threw a duffel bag over the wall stuffed with his entire issue - down to the underwear - for 20 mark. He was Ukrainian and hated everything Russian. He would be heading home the following day and wanted to keep nothing of his time in the Soviet army. He wanted to marry and was saving everything he could. Kirk gave him 50 mark - more than we could afford at the time. There was the security officer who stopped Kirk at the front gate (I was waiting in the car - terrified as the time ticked by) only to give him some pot-metal decorations and offer to trade a tank for our car.

One of my favorites happened while Kirk was on maneuvers. They were near the border - by this time quite open - and a Soviet listening station was only a few kilometers away. Kirk posed as a German student and took a tour of the place, making friends with one of the guards. The man talked a lot about his family, his girlfriend back home, the guard dog who had to be bribed with bread to put on a vicious act for visiting officers. Then he grew expansive and gestured at the American station just visible on the horizon. 'You see that there? That's an American place. They think we think it's just a water tower, but we know it's really a munitions dump.' Actually, Kirk said, it was a listening station.

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