MR. GORBACHEV, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL
With five trash bags in my right hand and whistling “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” I walked toward the six-foot-high, ten-foot-long wall my dad built on our lawn. Every Saturday for the last two years, I filled five bags, sometimes more and sometimes less, with burned-out candles, dead flowers, stuffed animals, beer cans, and broken beer bottles people left at the base of the memorial or threw at it and spray-painted over the bright-red letters, Fight’em With Us, and the flyers somebody pasted on the wall.
Dad used concrete blocks and slathered concrete over them to give the memorial wall a uniform appearance. Our house is on a corner lot so Dad set his wall at an angle so people coming down either street can see the chunk of the Berlin Wall in the middle of his wall. It’s not really a wall that keeps anybody off our lawn. It’s kinda like the Viet Nam Memorial Wall. It looks like a wall, but it’s a memorial.
It’s a mystery to me why some people leave things, some people throw beer cans and beer bottles at the wall, and some people spray-paint graffiti and paste flyers. Who knows? All I know is that every Saturday, I cram everything into trash bags and paint over the graffiti and flyers.
Horst, the trash ain’t gonna pick itself up, I said to myself. The sooner started, the sooner finished. I hitched up my pants and opened the first trash bag. I had filled three of them when I realized Mr. Handerly from across the street was standing beside me.
“It’s an eyesore. I told your dad that wall’d be a trash collector.”
“Hey! It’s not that bad. With all that paint in different colors, it looks like modern art. I bet I could hang it in the Dallas Art Museum,” I said.
Handerly looked at me like I was crazy and walked back across the street.
I was picking up the last of the trash and thinking about my dad when I realized he was back. “You again. You were just here. Your wife kick you out of the house?”
Handerly did not answer but stood there, looking at the wall. After about two minutes, he said, “It’s an eyesore. What do you think it’d cost to take it down?”
“That wall’s not coming down. My dad built it. It stays.”
Handerly did not say anything, just turned around and walked back to his house.
I was three, and we were living in East Berlin. My parents and four of their friends decided to tunnel under the Berlin Wall. The night before they escaped to West Berlin, the other four told my parents they could not bring me. I would cry and alert the guards, they said. My mom told them she was not coming without me. She bundled me in five or six blankets for the crossing. As she likes to say, not even my nose was sticking out. With my dad carrying me, we crossed to freedom without a problem.
Two years later, we immigrated to Texas and settled in Arlington, just outside Dallas. Three years later, the Berlin Wall came down. When my dad heard that the Berliners were tearing down the wall, he flew to Berlin, joined in knocking it down, and brought back a chunk of the Berlin Wall that he put in the middle of his wall.
I was sixteen when Dad decided to build his memorial wall to freedom, liberty, and democracy. He thought including the chunk of the Berlin Wall in his wall made it a memorial. I could not understand how that made it a memorial. To me, it was just a wall with a piece of the Berlin Wall in the middle.
Whenever he had a few too many shots of Schnapps, Dad stood at the window, looked athis wall, lifted his glass of Schnapps, and shouted, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”* One day, he said to me, “Horst, you can build a wall to keep people in or keep people out. In or out, it keeps people from following their dreams, from finding the life they want.”
After Handerly left, I stood there, looking at the wall with its flyers and graffiti. I said to myself, it has to be that nut bunch that calls itself Fight’em With Us that paints the graffiti and pastes the flyers. Maybe it’s that guy who was three years ahead of me in school who did it. He was your typical bully: fat, without many friends. He was a real slob: dirty shirt half unbuttoned, pants cuffs dragging the ground. He called me a Nazi whenever he saw me alone. One day, I told him I’d kick his ass if he called me that again. He never called me that again. Two months ago, I passed a guy on the street who was skinny with a shaved head and nicely dressed: khakis and a nice shirt, buttoned. I was pretty sure it was him and that he’s part of that Fight’em With Us nut bunch.
One time, I passed two guys on the street that I’m sure were from that nut bunch. I heard one of them ask, “Where’d he come from?”
“What’s it matter?” said the other. “They’re all foreigners.”
“My wife says he’s not married. Lives with his mom.”
“Betcha he’s gay. They’re everywhere nowadays. You can’t walk down the street they’re not eyeballin you and hopin.”
There were two of them, so I didn’t say anything.
My friend Mihail drove up just as I finished picking up the trash and shouted, “Hey, Horst. Whatcha doing? Wanna go for a beer?” Mihail’s Russian. His parents moved here the same year my parents did.
“Where we goin?” I asked as we drove off.
“It’s good for me,” I said.
Harry’s is the only bar in town that has an eighty-five-inch television. When we walked in, twenty-five or thirty guys were watching the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros.
Mihail and I are Rangers fans. What else would we be? We live in Arlington, where the Rangers play their home games. We took our beers to a table in the back and watched the game. In the fourth inning, a Ranger hit a home run with bases loaded, and the score was four-zero. As the Rangers continued to score, three or four of the Astros fans started giving Mihail and me the finger and shouting, “Here’s to you and them fucking Rangers.” Mihail began giving it back to them when the Astros scored. Harry stepped in and said, “Cool it or leave.” Two of the Astros fans got up and headed to the door. On their way out, one of them said loud enough for Mihail and me to hear, “Fooking Russkies. They’re everywhere.” Mihail started for him, but I held him back.
The next day, I was mowing the lawn and picking up the trash when Mrs. Sammerson, a friend of my mom’s, walked by on her way to church. She stopped as she always did and said, “You always keep your lawn and your dad’s wall looking so nice.” She always says that if I am in the yard when she walks past.
“Mr. Handerly doesn’t think so,” I said. “He calls it a junk collector.”
“Don’t you pay him no mind. He’s such a grouch. I don’t know how his wife puts up with him.”
As soon as she left, Handerly came over. “What’d that old gossip say? Anything happening I should know about?”
“She’s a nice lady. Why don’t you like her?”
“I’d like her a lot better if she minded her own business.”
“Hiding something, are you?” I asked. He stood there a few minutes, looking at the latest flyers.
“Any idea who stuck those flyers there?” I asked.
He shook his head and said, “Ask your friend. She knows everything that’s goin on.”
Saturday again. I was picking up the trash when Handerly wandered over. “A lot of beer cans and broken beer bottles. Who do you think throws all that trash here and pastes those flyers?” he asked.
“I’ll bet you a hundred dollars it’s that Fight’em With Us nut bunch.”
He stood there, looking at me, and did not say a word. I pointed at a flyer and said, “Look at that. Immigrants are murderers and rapists. Pretty nasty stuff. Who’d write something like that?”
He did not say anything, just stood there and watched me pick up the trash. I wondered why he was still there when I heard horns honking, the deep-throated roar of motorcycles, and people shouting and laughing. When they got to where Handerly and I were, the cars and motorcycles stopped. People piled out of the cars, including a guy with a shaved head, carrying a bullhorn. I was trying to decide if he was the bully from school when he raised the bullhorn and said, “It’s time to take America back from the crooks, rapists, and murders. They don’t belong here. It’s time for them to go back to where they came from.”
I could not believe what I heard. I walked up to him and said, “Stop that. This is my property. You can’t say stuff like that on my property.” He ignored me and kept shouting into the bullhorn. I dropped the trash bag I was holding, grabbed my cell, and dialed 9-1-1. “There’s a demonstration going on at my house. Send the police.”
Sirens screaming, the police arrived in less than five minutes. Two police officers got out of the car. The short, fat one walked up to the guy with the shaved head and said something to him. He ignored the police officer and kept shouting into the bullhorn. The police officer reached up and knocked it out of his hand. Six of the biggest, toughest-looking guys I’ve ever seen came from out of nowhere and gathered around the guy with the shaved head. When the tall police officer saw the six mean-looking giants, she pulled her gun and fired into the air. The crowd, the guy with the shaved head, and the six giants, shouting and shaking their fists, backed up. The fat police officer picked up the bullhorn and said, “All right, folks, break it up. Time to go home. Leave, or we’ll arrest you.” Everyone except Handerly and the two police officers left.
The fat police officer looked at me; I gave him the thumbs-up sign, and they left.
Handerly stood there, looking at me and smiling. He said, “Why’d you call the cops? They were just exercising their constitutional right to free speech. I thought that wall was supposed to be a monument to freedom. Some monument to freedom.” He turned and walked away before I could punch out his lights.
Mihail drove up as I turned to go to the house to check on my mom. He jumped out of his car and yelled, “Horst, I heard shots. Y’all right? What’s going on?”
“I need to check on my mom,” I said. Mihail behind me, we ran to my house. Entering, I shouted, “Mom, where are you?”
“Upstairs! I’ll be right down.”
When she came down, I said, “Didn’t you hear all that noise? Why didn’t you lock the door? What were you doing up there?”
Ignoring me, she said, “Hallo, Mihail. Wie geht es deiner Mutter?”
Mihail smiled and said, “My mother is fine. Thank you for asking, Mrs. Wolff.”
“Möchtest du einen Kaffee?”
“Mom. I keep telling you, speak English.”
Ignoring me, she said in her German-accented English, “I’ve got some apple strudel I took out of the oven an hour ago.”
Mihail smiled at me, turned to my mother, and said, “I would enjoy a cup of coffee and a piece of your excellent strudel, Mrs. Wolff.”
The next morning, I checked the wall. There was trash everywhere. Not just beer cans and broken beer bottles, but banana peels, condoms, pizza boxes, and everything else imaginable. I called the police. In about ten minutes, a police officer Mihail and I hunt pheasants with drove up.
“Hey, Horst. What’s the problem?” he said, getting out of the car.
“Hi, Ray. Someone trashed the place last night,” I said, pointing to the garbage covering the yard.
“Any idea who?”
“I‘d bet it was that Fight’em With Us. They don’t like immigrants or anybody who wasn’t born in America, or who’s the wrong color, or talks with an accent.”
Ray said, “If you wantta file charges, you’ll have to come down to the station.” When I did not say anything, he said, “It might not be a good idea. It’ll only encourage them.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“I’ll talk to Sarge and see if we can have a patrol car drive by a couple of times a night.”
I was cleaning up the garbage when Handerly walked over. “Quite a ruckus yesterday,” he said. “Why do you think they were protesting here?”
I looked at him and said, “I’ve no idea, but I bet you do.”
“Why would I know?”
“Because it was that Fight’em With Us nut bunch you’re a part of.”
“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” His face turned beet red and shaking his finger at me, he said, “Let me tell you something, buddy. I’m sick of seeing all this trash every time I look out my window. And that god-damned wall. It’s an eyesore. You do something about it, and you do it now, or I’m going to Town Hall.” He turned around and went back across the street. I heard the door slam when he went into his house. I’m surprised he didn’t break it; he slammed it so hard.
On Wednesday night, Mihail and I went for a beer. Instead of Harry’s, we went to the Night Out Bar down the street. Over a beer, we discussed Fight’em With Us. “Why do you think they hate us?” asked Mihail. “We haven’t done anything to anybody. We didn’t shoot or rape anybody. Our parents are good citizens. We pay our taxes just like everybody else.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Some people always have to have something to hate. With that nut bunch, it’s immigrants.”
We had another beer, and I said, “Drink up. I’ve got a tough day at work tomorrow.”
Saturday, whistling and with five trash bags, I walked to the wall. There were no candles, no flowers, no soggy stuffed animals. No beer cans or beer bottles. No garbage. Nothing. Handerly was standing in his yard, watching me. I shouted, “Hey, Handerly. Look, no beer cans.” He turned and went into his house.
Mihail pulled up, and we were debating whether to go to the Night Out or drink the beer I had in the fridge when we heard horns honking, the deep-throated roar of motorcycles, and people shouting and laughing. “They’re back,” I shouted and ran to the house. Mihail was right behind me. Mom came running from the kitchen. “What’s happening?”
“They’re back,” I said, jerking open the closet door. The shotgun I hunt pheasants with wasn’t there. “Where’s my gun?” I shouted.
“No!’ said my mom. “No gun.”
I looked at her and said, “Where’s my shotgun?”
“Horst, no gun. Someone’ll get hurt.”
“Where’s my god-damned gun?” I shouted. She started crying. That was the first time I ever yelled at her. “Mom, I’m sorry, but there’s a mob out there. Who knows what they’ll do. Give me my gun.”
No!” She turned to Mihail and said, “Mihail tell him. No gun.”
Mihail said, “Maybe she’s right, Horst.”
I ran out of the house. A guy, about six-foot-six and weighing at least two hundred seventy-five pounds, was helping the skinny guy with a shaved head set up a loudspeaker. Mihail and I ran towards them. I pulled out my cell, dialed 9-1-1, and shouted into the phone, “2711 Avenue C. Send the police—I’m being attacked.”
The giant helping to set up the loudspeaker knocked the cell phone out of my hand and punched me in the face. Mihail hit the guy with the shaved head with a stick he found in the yard, knocking him to his knees.
All hell broke loose. Two guys were punching Mihail. The six-foot-six guy was punching me. The other guys and the women who came with them were screaming, “Get that SOB! Hit’im again.”
I heard sirens, and a few moments later, a police van screeched to a stop. Six police officers in riot gear marched into the middle of the melee, nightsticks swinging. Somebody threw a tear gas bomb—it must’ve been the police. Some of the guys ran down the street. The women followed them. Then the rest of the guys got into the cars and on motorcycles and drove off, stopping to pick up the guys and women on the street.
I turned and, with blood running from my nose and tears running down my face, stumbled to my house. At the door, I tripped, slammed into it, forcing it open, and fell on the floor. Mom came running, crying, “Horst, are you all right?” I stood up. She helped me into the kitchen and handed me a wet cloth.
“Mihail! I’ve got to help him,” I said.
“Stay here,” she said. “I’ll get him.”
“You can’t go out there,” I shouted. She didn’t hear me. She’d gone for Mihail. In a few minutes, she led him into the kitchen, handed him a wet cloth too, and pointed to the sink. “Splash water on your eyes,” she said. And to me, “You too.”
A police office followed my mom into the kitchen. We assured him we were okay, and he left. A few minutes later, the other police left.
It was late when I rolled out of bed the next morning. Mom cut me a piece of strudel and poured me a cup of coffee. She sat there, saying nothing, while I ate the strudel and drank my coffee. After I finished, I said to her, “What’re you thinking, Mom?”
“I think it’s the wall that brought those people here.”
I said, “You mean Dad’s wall?”
After some hesitation, she said, “I think your dad should not have built it.” After a few seconds, she said, “Walls are funny things. Like your dad said, they keep some people in and other people out. They divide communities and sometimes families. More often than not, they create bad feelings. And sometimes, the wall is only in a person’s mind. Locking him in and not letting him see what’s happening around him.” Amazed, I looked at her. “Sometimes, what’s happening is not so good, but even so, you have to deal with it. If you don’t, the problem only gets bigger. But people don’t see that because they’re hiding behind that wall in their mind. If something good’s happening or something’s changing, they don’t see that either.” She looked at me and said, “Horst, I think it’s time to take the wall down.”
I was stunned. I could not believe what I’d heard. “You mean Dad’s memorial wall? Why would we wantta take it down?”
In a clear voice with no hesitation, she said, “Mr. Handerly’s right. It’s an eyesore. I never said anything to your dad because he was so proud of his wall. It’s concrete, not nice stone or marble like most memorials. It’s not a nice-looking memorial, or wall, for that matter.”
I looked at her, trying to decide if she was serious. Puzzled, I said, “But Dad built it. It’s got a piece of the Berlin Wall.”
We sat there looking at each other. After a couple of minutes, she said, “Maybe we can give the chunk of the Berlin Wall to a museum.” She paused before adding, “With a nice plaque and something like: In memory of those who died searching for freedom, liberty, and democracy. This piece of the Berlin Wall was donated by the Wolff Family, Hans, Anna, and Horst.”
I considered her suggestion, realized it made perfect sense, and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
She smiled and said, “I don’t think I ever told you why your dad was always saying that. We were listening to President Reagan’s speech. The minute President Reagan said, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ your dad jumped to his feet, started jumping up and down, and shouting, “Ja! Ja! Reisse diese Mauer ein. Reisse diese Mauer ein.” I am sure the neighbors heard him shouting, ‘Tear down that wall.’ He was jumping up and down so hard that I thought he’d go right through the floor.”
That night as we ate dinner, Mom said, “I think we should apologize to the Handerlys.”
“Apologize to the Handerly’s? He told that bunch of thugs to come here.”
“You don’t know that.”
“No, but I’d bet he’s a member of that Fight’em With Us.”
She said again, “You don’t know that.” Then she laid it on me. “Didn’t you hear what I said about people building walls in their minds and letting troubles grow because they can’t see over the wall in their minds? Get rid of that wall in your mind! If Mr. Handerly is a part of Fight’em With Us, that’s his wall. He has to look over it and do what’s right. You and I, we’re going to be friends with our neighbors. As soon as we finish dinner, we’re going to apologize to the Handerlys for not tearing down that wall before now.”
After dinner, I reluctantly followed Mom to the Handerlys. Mom pointed to the door, and I knocked. Mrs. Handerly opened the door.
“Hello, Anna, Horst,” she said
“We’d like to talk to you and Mr. Handerly,” said Mom.
“Come in,” said Mrs. Handerly. With a puzzled look on her face, she led us to the family room where Handerly was watching TV. “Horst and Anna would like to talk to us,” said Mrs. Handerly, turning off the TV. Frowning, he looked at his wife. She shrugged her shoulders. They gave my mom a questioning look.
“We’ve decided to take down the wall. We’re sorry we didn’t take it down earlier,” said my mom.
“Yeah. We’re sorry we didn’t take it down sooner,” I muttered, not too loud, but loud enough for Handerly to hear me.
Mr. Handerly and I discussed how to tear down the wall and agreed I could probably knock it down with a sledgehammer. Mrs. Handerly, smiling at her husband, said, “Honey, why don’t you help Horst take down the wall?”
His face showed he was not happy with her suggestion, but he said, “When do you wantta take it down?”
“How about tomorrow after I get off work,” I said.
When I arrived at the wall the next day after work with my sledgehammer, Handerly was standing there with his sledgehammer. I said, “You get the honor of the first blow.” He smiled at me, raised his sledgehammer over his shoulder, and swung.
*From a speech by President Ronald Reagan on June 12, 1987, at the Brandenburg Gate, West Berlin, Germany.
Frederick G. Yeager is retired and living in Sarasota, Florida. He was born in Iowa and is a graduate of the University of South Dakota and the George Washington University School of Law. He practiced law in Sioux City, Iowa, worked in a bank in Chicago, and worked as International Consultant on Legal Development in Croatia, Armenia, Nepal, Albania, and Moldova.