November 9, 1989

Each anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a bit embarrassing for me. Everyone is supposed to remember where they were when the Wall came down, but I don’t. Thousands of East Germans came streaming into the West, and I didn’t notice. I didn’t realize anything had happened until two weeks later, when I saw it mentioned in passing in the Daily Universe.

In my defense, let me add that I was a freshman at BYU that fall. The Internet at the time was kept inside a closet in the engineering building, I didn’t have a TV, and I was dependent on the campus newspaper for national and international news. (“I clipped dozens of articles about the Wall from the Daily Universe,” my wife tells me now, so I can’t blame it for my ignorance.)

Also, while the Iron Curtain crumbled, I was preoccupied with a tempestuous relationship. I won’t kiss and tell, mostly because there was no kissing involved. But the tempestuousness of this relationship should not be underestimated! The tempest had to be all the stronger to compensate for its limitation to my side of the relationship. And let me tell you, it was tempestuous indeed! The whole affair played out in plain sight of my future wife, who found it quite amusing. (She promised herself at the time that whatever happened, she would never, ever get involved with me.)

So I just wasn’t paying attention when the Wall came down, even though I thought of myself as a well-read and informed person. Besides, when would I ever need to worry about Germany? (About eight months later, actually.) And even if I did, I already spoke German. (I didn’t.) And it’s not like distant events had any relevance to my future life as a mechanical engineer. (Oops.)

But mostly I missed the Fall of the Wall because I was a freshman too busy trying to figure out life as a university student to take any notice of the world beyond campus. Suddenly I found myself invested in people and activities whose existence was unknown to me just a few months previously, and watching intellectual vistas open up at the same time that an imminent mission made it unnecessary to think about their consequences. While college is often a time apart for students to re-invent themselves without obligation of continuity to their past life or allegiance to a future career, a BYU freshman year before leaving on a mission can resemble a bad collision between the monastic life and MMORPG aesthetics. (Also, fashion choices are questionable, and clerics can only use blunt weapons.)

November 9 is not a bad day, I think, to remember all the people who were distracted while history was happening, and ultimately surprised by the course it took.

20 comments for “November 9, 1989

  1. Dan
    November 9, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    Born in Romania and coming over in 1982 when I was seven, I had only a slight interest in the revolutions of 1989. That’s because I was a 9th grader in high school and had to deal with my parents divorcing. I certainly didn’t want to hear much about what happened “over there.” I remember the news reports though and thought it was interesting. I was, of course, more fascinated by what was happening in Romania during the week before Christmas in 1989 when an actual revolution took place. I didn’t know what to think beyond “that’s interesting” though. I wanted little to do with Romania or Romanians at that time.

  2. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    November 9, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    Those in the San Francisco Bay Area were still coping with the effects of the World Series earthquake a month earlier, including cramming an extra 100,000 commuter son the BART trains into San Francisco because the Bay Bridge had been broken, facing the wreck of the Nimitz Freeway that killed 60 people, the closure of other elevated roads, and the destruction of a large swath of the Marina District. I noticed the Berlin Wall came down, but didn’t have a lot of time to think about it.

  3. queuno
    November 9, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    I completely missed the news of the Bay area earthquake because I was engaged in my three-day trip from the MTC to the mission field. And I was still in my first month in the field when the wall came down. I wouldn’t have had any time to focus on it.

  4. dangermom
    November 9, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    I was in Denmark at the time, age 15/16, and my Danish was not yet fluent. So while I was fascinated, at the same time it was all kind of fuzzy, especially since I wasn’t all that clear on the exact details of the West/East Berlin thing. It was easy to get it mixed up with the Romanian revolution as well, so I was not always sure which situation I was watching and the two are mingled together in my memory. My host dad was German and of course was glued to the TV, but I found it odd how uninterested everyone else seemed to be.

  5. Megan
    November 9, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    I was two and half. While I can remember *some* things that happened before I was three, my two-year-old self was not nearly sophisticated enough to grasp the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall :).

  6. badmissionary
    November 9, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    I was on a mission in western Europe, and we saw it on a TV in an investigator’s house. My native companion said, ‘We should go to Berlin.’ So we did. It was surprisingly easy, and West Berlin was like a giant party. Amazing days I would never trade for anything.

  7. Johnna Cornett
    November 10, 2009 at 12:08 am

    I was married, I was attending UCLA, and I was working full time. I was amazed, it was to me as unexpected as the sun rising again at night. I couldn’t get enough news, and it went on and on. But I didn’t have much time as I wanted to look into it. working fully time, attending school, and all that.

    I went to Berlin (first time) last year for my 20th anniversary.

  8. Ryan
    November 10, 2009 at 12:16 am

    Bwahahaha — Megan just made you all look old.


  9. jks
    November 10, 2009 at 12:57 am

    I also was a freshman at BYU. I didn’t hear about it right away because I didn’t have a TV and my roommates and I never, ever watched the only available TV. I remember being quite shocked and surprised when I visited my grandparents and heard about it (or maybe that is the only place I actually discussed it much…..being there is the only memory I have about it) but I was still pretty young. Did they have cable news back then? I had never seen cable news so I didn’t know anyone could sit in front of a TV and soak up the drama. I was young enough that I couldn’t really imagine the scope of difficult practicalities of reuniting a country. If there were tons of interesting articles to read, I was unaware that they existed or that they would be interesting to me or that I would understand them so it didn’t occur to me to look for them.
    I was lucky to have parents who raised me with dinner table discussions about history and politics, but I was unaccustomed to having them with friends.

  10. Patrick
    November 10, 2009 at 9:25 am

    I was ten years home from Berlin and the Germany Hamburg Mission. I sat up late into the night watching events unfold on the television, wishing I could just jump on a plane and be there. But the responsibilities (and expenses) of fatherhood and a nascent career intervened…;).

    Happily, just a couple of years later my work took us overseas, and I got to take my wife and three young daughters to Berlin and show them around my old stomping grounds. I got to visit what had been East Berlin for the very first time, and marvel at being able to walk through the Brandenburg Gate. The displays at the museum at Checkpoint Charlie already started to seem like ancient history….

  11. blueagleranch
    November 10, 2009 at 11:21 am

    The night the wall came down stands out starkly in my memory due to a serendipitous bit of irony. My husband and I had spent the evening at the home of some acquaintences of the World War II generation. They had recently returned from a trip to eastern Europe where they had contacts during the Cold War and where the husband had worked as an occasional agent for the US military and the CIA in his specialty of biological warfare. While showing us their slides and relating their adventures, a slide of the Berlin Wall appeared and the husband declared with authority, “That wall will never come down.”

    Later that evening after returning home, we flipped on the television to catch the news while we were getting ready for bed. There they were by the hundreds, probably thousands–streaming over the wall! What a stunning sight. We sat mesmerized for quite some time, before turning off the television and going to bed, only to wake up in a whole new world.

  12. Phoebe
    November 10, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    We were another family in the Bay Area working on putting our house back together and repairing water leaks that November. I was aware of events in Europe, but more concerned with whether we were going to have heat and hot water for the winter. I wish I could have paid more attention to these stunning events. I had majored in Poly Sci (UCLA 1970) and didn’t think the wall would come down in my lifetime.

  13. Ben H
    November 10, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    As an Air Force ROTC cadet in the fall of 1989, I had quite personal reasons to notice these developments in the Warsaw Pact and USSR! All my life, that region had lurked like Mordor, mysterious and dangerous. Though I had traveled around the world, I could never imagine being able to go there. I memorized MiGs for war games as a teenager, and then as a cadet. Then the wall came down, and the whole empire seemed to just evaporate. I remember sitting in class one day when an officer came in to tell us that the whole orientation of the military would probably be changing as a result. Like Johnna, I felt a bit like the sun had just risen in the middle of the night. I, too, had enough other things on my plate (heavy course load, reevaluating my major) that I missed a lot of the details, so I appreciate the commemorations, such as this series on the BBC.

  14. Crick
    November 10, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Whether we were aware of the events’ importance at the time or not, we should be aware of it now. Anne Applebaum wrote on this topic in the Washington Post–some people today can only think of what good things have still not happened without realizing how big of a deal it was and still is–that totalatarian governments finally caved to the will of the people and the knowledge that the Soviets would not back them up if they didn’t.

    But Jonathan…I think we want a post on what happened to you and why your future wife said she would have nothing to do with you!

  15. November 10, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    I was on my mission in South Korea. I saw something about it on a news broadcast, I think, or perhaps a photo in a newspaper. I proceded to buy, borrow, or steal every English-language news source I could find, and followed the events as best I could. The Tianmanmen Square protests and massacre had taken place that April, and everyone in Korea had been talking about it, and I didn’t know what was going on and couldn’t follow the news and felt like a complete idiot. I swore I wouldn’t let that happen to me again.

  16. November 10, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    That is too funny — I was a freshman at BYU, too, and I remember it perfectly! I remember watching news about it on the TV of one of my dorm-mates at Budge Hall.

    The event that’s embarrassing for me is the “September 6” incident. I’d never even heard of this famous group excommunication until about fifteen years after it happened. I was highly motivated to get out of BYU ASAP, so I graduated after only three years, and promptly stopped paying attention to anything Mormon. I’ve gotten interested in Mormonism again within the past few years, and it was just at this past Sunstone Symposium that I realized that my BYU classmates were still there when that happened!

  17. Jonathan Green
    November 10, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    Well, Chanson, if you were in Budge Hall at the time, then you might have seen even more than the Berlin Wall falling, but we are Not. Going. There.

  18. November 13, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    I was 11 when it happened and I do remember a fair bit about it, probably because I had a paper route and was a precocious child that read the newspapers every morning as I folded them.

    The one I’m embarrassed about is Sept 11 (I probably shouldn’t even confess this to the internet). I was living by myself in an apartment with no television, radio, or internet. I was also working 30 hours a week, taking classes full-time at BYU, and planning my wedding that was going to happen in two months. Yes I heard about it, but didn’t really watch any news coverage of it or anything. I still feel embarrassed that it didn’t have a big impact on me at the time.

    I was more shaken by the LA riots, because I lived 40 miles away at the time and several of my classmates came from families that owned businesses in the area that were affected by them. My junior high was also already fairly tense with gang/racial issues so that just made things worse. Anyways, it’s interesting how sometimes some of the more newsworthy things affect us in different ways. Many people I know who are around my age barely remember Desert Storm, but my dad spent six months over there and we spent that entire time watching CNN pretty much non-stop.

  19. Pam W.
    November 15, 2009 at 1:37 am

    I was a senior at BYU and editor of the Daily Universe — so my co-workers and I were printing all those stories about the fall of the Wall. I was amazed, having visited Eastern Europe the year before, and yet — I never turned on the TV to see any of that famous footage. I guess I was busy with classes, the breakup of my parents’ marriage, etc.

    Generally I consider keeping the TV off to be a virtue, but in this case I wish I’d spent a few hours watching history being made. I can watch some of it on YouTube now, but I wish I’d seen it THEN!

  20. November 15, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    I found out about it about two years later.


    I find out about a lot of things years later, and it seems nothing would be different with me, had I known.

    Most world events affect us much less than private events do.

    (9/11 was a little different.)

    What happened? Perhaps one gamebook plan stopped, one came into effect, there was a big relief, and… (Read about the recent psychological research about what’s possible after “the big relief” from moments of threat and fear, which in fact I used to start relationships at Ricks. Scare them, release them, slip under the radar… This post is a little about relationships, right? ;) )

    Also, a rising and threatening economy got slammed (once more), and another part of America the Great celebrated for other reasons.

    Sure, the gospel could now be taught, families were reunited, etc. Are the people all better off, now that democracy (wait, why is it never “constitutionalism”, or “republicanism”??) is available?

    I guess the good thing is, there are often blessings and opportunities that come with other events.

    It’s hard, with a limited human view, to really understand the difference between a blessing and a curse…

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