President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev, Hofdi House, Reykjavík (Oct. 11, 1986). White House photo, via Wikimedia Commons.

Every time I fly through Reykjavík (okay, technically Keflavik, but you get the idea), I think of these two guys.

When this picture was taken, I was well on my way to majoring in Political Science and, eventually, a career in international law.  Mostly because of The Old Man (my grandfather, Clyde*), but also because some of my earliest childhood memories were of the Cold War.  See, my dad was a career Army NCO, and we were stationed in Belgium for three years at the height of the Brezhnev era (late 1970s).  A whole bunch of tank tubes, not to mention nuclear missiles, were pointed at us, and we knew it– though to be fair, I was an extreme nerd even at the tender age of six.  To be even more fair, we were 500 miles from Berlin and would have been evacuated with a quickness had the balloon gone up, so I was never truly in imminent danger of a conventional attack.

By 1986, Dad had retired from the Army and we were back home in Sioux City, where The Old Man was shepherding my transition from just a kid/nerd to an odd high schooler who paid attention to geopolitics for real.  Sioux City happens to be 90 miles north of Offutt Air Force Base, home of Strategic Air Command (now just Strategic Command, STRATCOM), which was #2 on the USSR’s nuclear target list, just behind Washington and ahead of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado.  Funny how the missiles were still pointed at our heads, and boy, did we know it.

We weren’t big fans of the fellow from Eureka, Illinois, but I have to admit… Reagan had style, and “Mister Gorbachev, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL” was something that Democrats and Republicans could get behind together (wow, haven’t times changed?).

And then a funny thing happened: Gorbachev started dismantling The Wall.  It happened slowly at first, but in the middle of my first semester of college (Fall 1989), it crashed down under the weight of thousands of East Berliners who desperately wanted to breathe free air.  Two years after The Wall fell, the USSR didn’t exist anymore.

Without him that wouldn’t have happened.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev died today.  He was the same age as Clyde, and he got to live two decades longer.  His doctrine of Perestroika (restructuring of the Soviet economic model), laid the foundation for real people in the Soviet bloc to taste freedom.  His policy of Glasnost (openness) set a new tone for international relations and the end of Soviet domination in eastern Europe.

We’ll not see the likes of him again.

It’s amazing when you can actually touch the history that you could only watch on TV. Panels of the Berlin Wall, just yards behind the Deutsches Eck, Koblenz.  (Photo by the author.)

* Clyde was a a die-hard labor advocate who led the UFCW Local at the Sioux City Stockyards for a couple of decades.  He signed a union card and registered as a Democrat the day he met a dapper, wealthy young fellow from Massachusetts who was running for president.  Clyde’s job was literally to shovel shit– and he hesitated when the candidate extended his hand.  “Um, well, my hand’s a little dirty, Senator.”  Jack Kennedy shook it anyway, and The Old Man was duly impressed.