No Man’s Land, by Page Lambert

 No Man’s Land

by Page Lambert

~ excerpted from Lifeblood, a work-in-progress by Page Lambert

Page writing on train leaving Rome March 1965

Page writing on train leaving Rome March 1965

In 1905, Picasso arrived in Paris, Albert Einstein formulated the Theory of Relativity, Germany and Russia signed the Treaty of Bjorko, and during the spring equinox of that same year, Jules Verne – author of Around the World in 80 Days – died at the age of seventy-seven.  Seventy-two years later, also on the spring equinox, my father would die at the age of seventy-nine.  Jules Verne was forty-five when he wrote Around the World in 80 Days.  My father, also a writer, was forty-six when he and my mother took my sister and me on a trip in which we would spend twelve months circling the globe.

During the summer of 1964, after attending the World’s Fair in New York, we boarded a steamship and cruised down the St. Lawrence Seaway into the cold waters of the Atlantic.  We traveled modestly and without fanfare, priding ourselves on being courteous Americans, on smiling first, on learning how to say please and thank you in the language of our host country.  My father’s hand was always extended in friendship, his enthusiasm nearly always contagious.

We visited more than twenty-six countries during that year, spending two weeks of hard winter behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War era.  With his vibrant smile, Dad disarmed the Russian guides.  In Moscow, we waited to file past Lenin’s tomb in a long line at Red Square.  Dad held my hand as we walked within inches of Lenin’s waxen yellow body.  The glass encasement around Lenin seemed to empower death.  I could not imagine life thus drained from my father.

We left Moscow on a train carrying us west, across Russia and into the heartland of Poland.  The landscape was symbolically cold and iron gray, the winter ground covered by lackluster snow soiled with soot.  The few scattered farms that sped by as we gazed out the windows of the sealed train car appeared neglected, their weathered barns the color of dry, faded wood.  The small Polish towns seemed made up of gray buildings whose exteriors fell away in chinks of gray cement.  Factories spewed gray smoke into the gray haze that was the ashen sky.  The hibernating trees were leafless, their bark a naked slate.

It had taken Germany less than two years from the time they invaded Poland to cross the Russian border.  A few years earlier, Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz wrote the poem, “The Encounter.”  We were riding through frozen fields…at dawn…suddenly a hare ran across the road…one of us pointed to it with his hand… that was long ago…today neither of them is alive, not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture…O my love, where are they, where are they going…the flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles…I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

As our train sped west, I pressed my nose to the cold glass and wiped the fog from the window with my sleeve, imagining faint imprints left in the snow by thin gray animals.  Dad was unusually quiet as we sat in the sealed train car, his hands clasped together in stillness.

“Berlin!  Berlin!  Frederickstraus!”  A Russian voice announced the approaching depot station.  East Berlin.  The Third Reich.  The Kaiser.  Adolf Hitler.  History breathing down our necks.  Horrors only decades old rose like ghosts, the screams of Holocaust victims echoing above the screech of wheels on metal as the engineer braked and we pulled into the station.  A wooden platform appeared.  Still peering out the window, my nose still pressed against the glass, I came face to face with an East German guard.  He wore a helmet, carried a machine gun over his shoulder, and wore a pistol on his hip.  His eyes did not flicker as they met mine.  He passed quickly, polished boots hitting the planks in a staccato beat of march, march, march.

The train remained in the station for nearly an hour.  Only minutes from West Berlin, we were allowed to disembark but not allowed to walk any farther than the length of the car. An expanse of ground, fenced by twenty-foot high barbed-wire, stretched the length of the 860-mile border.  This was No Man’s Land – the scene of desperate, fifty-yard dashes, sprints to freedom.  Some were successful.  Most were not.

Standing outside the train was exhilarating, the danger so real we could almost reach out and touch it.  I wanted to smile at the German guard and see if he would smile back.  I wanted my father to reach out in greeting to this stoic man with the implacable face.  I smiled.  The guard did not return my smile, but instead motioned for us to return to our car.  Back inside, I peered out the window again.  The guard marched by, but this time he turned his head ever so slightly and I saw a touch of human warmth in his eyes.  I wondered if, when he laid the gun to rest at night, he perhaps held onto a daughter instead.  But then it occurred to me that the Wall, barely four years old – that gray symbol of the Iron Curtain stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean – might have separated him from his children, as it had thousands of others.

The train groaned into motion and within moments pulled across the border and into the station at West Berlin.  At Checkpoint Charlie we saw barricaded bales of straw stained with fresh blood.  The day before, a young man had been killed trying to get across, dying only a few steps from safety.  In all, eighty people died trying to cross No Man’s Land.

This was raw reality, hard and brutal.

Inside the West Berlin train station, we were greeted by the sound of conversation and laughter.  Rooted to the floor, we looked at each other but could not speak.  Dad set down his suitcase in the middle of the depot and pulled us toward him.  Together, the four of us sat spellbound on our luggage.  In the distance, coming from the west, we heard the ringing of church bells.

We eventually returned to the States via the warm waters of the Pacific.  The last photo taken of our trip around the world is of my mother and father standing on the deck of the ship, their faces to the wind as we sailed under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.  My father’s arm is around my mother’s shoulder, his other hand clasping hers.

In 1989, twenty-five years later, living in Wyoming, I held a piece of the crumbled Berlin Wall in my hand.  The barrier had come down.  In 1993, my father sent my young son a 511-page collection of Jules Verne’s stories.  It was his way of wishing my son bon voyage, of telling him not to be afraid to dive twenty thousand leagues beneath the sea.  Four years later, in a San Francisco hospital, I held my dying father’s hand and remembered all the times his heart had reached out and embraced the world.

The last thing my father gave me was a manuscript – an unfinished story.  I am reminded that our family story is ongoing.  It continues in the stories I tell my children, and in the stories we share with each other.  My sister’s only son is now living in Moscow studying the Russian language, in part so that he can read the original works of Anton Chekov.  He has fallen in love with the Russian people, and with a tall and beautiful blonde Russian woman.

Like the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, I am left with wonder – at the man who was my father, at all the fathers who have gestured with love toward the world.


~                                  ~                                  ~


Page Lambert, Writing for Peace Advisor

Page Lambert

Writing for Peace adviser Page Lambert grew up in the Rocky Mountains and feels at home in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. Author of In Search of Kinship, her essays and poetry are widely anthologized. Owner/founder of Connecting People with Nature~Connecting Writers with Words, she has been leading outdoor adventures, writing seminars and workshops for 17 years.


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2 thoughts on “No Man’s Land, by Page Lambert

  1. Willean

    Thanks for this compelling essay and reminder that our fathers leave indelible impressions on our lives. So beautiful.

  2. Monica Devine

    Thank you for the opportunity to read a most beautiful and poignant essay. It is no wonder you have a wanderlust gene. I especially love the picture of you as a youngster, Page, and look forward to reading Lifeblood in its entirety.


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