Born Feet First

The Iron Curtain

Posted by BornFeetFirst on November 6, 2011

“Mom,” I called to the kitchen where she was washing the dinner dishes. “What’s the Iron Curtain?” I stood in the middle of the family room captured by the grainy, black and white images on the television of men and women in drab wool coats and thick, furry hats trudging through snow-covered streets and standing in line to buy bread. The news reporter ended his story about food shortages in Poland by commenting on the difficulty of life in general “behind the iron curtain.”

Though I was only in first grade, I knew about shortages and rationing. It was 1975, and I could still remember the hours my family had spent waiting to buy gas for our cars. But I didn’t know that people somewhere else in the world were waiting in similar lines to buy bread, or why those people lived behind a curtain made of iron.

My mom was used to answering my questions about world events and geography. At four, enthralled by the folk song “Waltzing Matilda” I had scoured the encyclopedia and the atlas to learn about Australia. I played that song over and over on the little plastic record player in our family room, until my mom pleaded, “Why don’t you listen to one of your other records?” But the other songs didn’t have the allure of Matilda, adventurously waltzing in the dessert with a grubby wanderer while kangaroos bounded off in the distance. I pictured her in a flowing yellow ball gown like the ones the dancers wore on Lawrence Welk, and wondered how she kept it clean in the dusty outback.

“The Iron Curtain?” my mom asked as she dried her hands on a kitchen towel. She looked at the television for clues, but the station had already cut to a commercial.

“They said on the news that Poland is behind the Iron Curtain. Why is Poland behind a curtain? And why didn’t they show it on the news?”

“Well, there are countries in Europe that are all under one kind of government called Communism. People who live in those countries can’t leave and other people can’t go in, so they call it ‘Living Behind the Iron Curtain’. Poland is one of those countries.”

People can’t leave? No one could visit? The curtain must be enormous! I thought, trying to picture it in my mind.

“What do they hang it on?” I asked trying to imagine how a curtain made of iron could be drawn across a whole country. I already knew about the Berlin Wall; it made sense. A wall of concrete could stand on its own, but a curtain needed a curtain rod. And a curtain rod needed walls. And, how could iron be made into a curtain?

“How do they hang what?”
“The Iron Curtain. How tall is it? What do they hang it on?”

“It’s not really a curtain. It’s just a border – like the border between Washington and Oregon. You can’t see it.”

“Why do they call it a curtain if it’s not a curtain? And why don’t people just drive across it like we drive across the river to Portland?” We occasionally drove the 15 or so miles from our rural home in Battle Ground, Washington, across the Columbia River into Portland, Oregon. It seemed simple enough. And while I loved the thrill of crossing into another state on those occasions when we did so, I was always slightly disappointed that there was no exact line that I could see. The thought of a massive curtain border held some measure of adventure and excitement.

The borders of the Iron Curtain were guarded and roads were blocked, my mother explained. I insisted that if the roads were blocked people could just walk up and over the mountains like they did at the end of The Sound of Music. But it wasn’t that simple, she explained. For every barrier she posed, I provided a solution. As a natural problem-solver, I felt a growing frustration at the thought of being trapped behind an imaginary curtain.

She pulled the globe down from the shelf that held our well-used Encyclopedia Britannica set. With her finger, she traced a line from north to south through Europe, roughly showing the location of the Iron Curtain and explaining that it was the government that kept its citizens in and foreigners out, rather than just the lines on the map. I was shocked at the number of countries closed off to the rest of the world and saddened for the people behind it. I longed to travel – to see the world. I couldn’t imagine being trapped by an imaginary curtain drawn closed by the government.

I pondered what I had just learned: that a government could close its people in; that an imaginary barrier could be so effective; that behind it people lived with little food and much despair.

“I’m going to go to Poland someday to see the Iron Curtain,” I proclaimed.

“I’m sure you will,” my mother replied.

Fourteen years later, in 1989, I did exactly that. I slipped behind the Iron Curtain into Poland for the first time.

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One Response to “The Iron Curtain”

  1. Robin Stefan said

    Love this, Leslie!

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