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Mr. C’s Moment in China

November 14, 2013

Tank Man in Tienanmen Square in Beijing, China – June 5th, 1989.

There’s a song from the early 1990s that plays in my head whenever I read about that time period.  It was a pretty big hit about the time I was graduating from high school, so most of the kids I teach nowadays have probably heard it at one time or another, but I bet most of their parents could sing along with the chorus…

I was alive and I waited, waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now
There is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now
Watching the world wake up from history

I saw the decade in, when it seemed 
The world could change at the blink of an eye
And if anything
Then there’s your sign… of the times

The band was a British pop group called Jesus Jones, this song, Right Here, Right Nowand the lyrics hit the nail on the head.  At 15, 16, 17 years old, I watched the world change, just like the song said – in the blink of an eye.  My whole life the Cold War, the constant threat of WWIII, with the Soviet Union and America hurling nuclear bombs at another and ending life as we knew it, was always looming over us.

In elementary school I remember bomb drills.  I remember stories of The Cuban Missile Crisis, Russian spies, the Red Scare, threats of acid rain, the never ending threat of Communism taking over the world.  I remember my 5th grade teacher telling us that a war was likely, and, since here in Northern Illinois there are two strategic scientific targets, we were probably pretty high on the list of places that’d be struck by bombs.  Heck, I remember the movie Red Dawn.  No, not the crappy remake – the original one, the one in the 1980s that felt like it could be real at any moment.

Then it all changed in the blink of an eye.  The world really did wake up from history.

November 10th, 1989. The Berlin Wall came down.

The Berlin Wall fell.  The Soviet Union crumbled.  New countries like Belarus, Kosovo, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Ukraine, and forty-seven places that ended in   -ikstan popped up out of nowhere.  Those images – sledgehammers on The Wall, Ronald Reagan pleading with Mikhail Gorbachev, Polish solidarity strikers…  those images are as representative of my teenage years as the ones of me and my friends playing ball, at school dances, and cruising around in my buddy Tom’s Trans Am.

The image that hit me most, the one that had the biggest impact, the one that’s stuck with me embedded in my brain as a symbol of the times for the last 20+ years is one from the other side of the other side of the world.

1989.  June 5th.  China was in an uproar.  As a 15 year old kid in suburban America, I didn’t understand why.  I saw on the news that there were protests, but in the 80s there were angry people everywhere – Poland, Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, Argentina, South Africa, Venezuela, Syria, Israel, Egypt, and even a whole slew of countries that don’t exist anymore – East Germany,  Czechloslovakia, Yugoslavia…

Mr. Curtis in Tienanmen Square in November 2013.  Look in the background for a yellow/silver bus - that's about where Tank Man stood his ground.

Mr. Curtis in Tienanmen Square in November 2013. Look in the background for a yellow/silver bus – that’s the street where Tank Man stood his ground.  The actual encounter was about a block down.

This one somehow caught my attention more than most stories did.   This was a peaceful protest against an oppressive government.  It was led by people my age, or at least pretty close to it.

Tienanmen Square – the center of Beijing, China.  The largest public square in the world.  The middle of one of the planet’s biggest cities.  The day before the Chinese Army had rolled in to end student protests that had lasted nearly 7 weeks.  The army got violent quickly, firing rifles and tanks into the crowd.  Hundreds were killed.  Thousands were injured.

The next day, more tanks rolled into Tienanmen.  One young man became the symbol of the movement that day.  Miles away, safely tucked away in the upper stories of the Beijing Hotel, photographers from around the world trained their cameras on the scene. (You see that picture at the top of this post and you can see video here).  

The mighty, unstoppable tanks symbolized the might of the government.  The power they had to end these protests once and for all.  Nothing could stop them.   But something did.  That one guy.  The guy in the white shirt.  The guy with the shopping bags.  “Tank Man” as he’s come to be known.

Sometimes when you travel the world you get really lucky.  Sometimes you have a moment.  I had a moment right there in Tienanmen Square.  These words came to me:

More tanks roll into the square.  It sounds like the start to a bad joke, but who knew how many more would be hurt or killed.    

Then and unlikely hero, small as can be, a man in a white shirt, a shopping bag in each hand, steps in front of the tanks.                    

The lead tank stopped.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

We can’t hear him.  We can’t see his face.  One wave of his arm says enough.                                                                                                            

There’s force in that wave.  Anger.  Power.  So small, but so strong.                                                                                                                                

He appears to be shouting something.                                                                                                                                                                                            

In front of the tank he looks so small, but his weakness is also the tank’s.                                                                                                                  

The bulky machine can’t outmaneuver Tank Man.                                                                                                                                                                     

A few simple sidestep shuffles and he’s blocking its path again.                                                                                                                                          

Waving the bags.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Probably shouting.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

What is he shouting?  Is it for freedom?  For peace?  For loved ones lost?                                                                                                                          

A line of tanks has power, but                                                                                                                                                                                                  

There’s power in one.                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

They stop again.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

He climbs.  Probably shouting.  Maybe pleading.  Looking for humanity within the machine.                                                                                

For one moment we see that it’s there.  A man emerges.  Just for a moment and he’s gone. 

It’s not man versus machine after all; it’s man versus men.                                                                                                                                                      

We don’t know which is worse.                                                                                                                                                                                                              

We wait for the gunshot.  There’s going to be a gunshot.                                                                                                                                                            

It doesn’t come.  Man versus man doesn’t work.  Man needs to hide within machine.                                                                                                

There’s relief and surprise.  What does this say about the human spirit?                                                                                                                            

He jumps back down to the road, and the tank sees its window.  With a puff of smoke it rolls forward, but tanks aren’t quick.              

A tank could plow through a wall, destroy a city, massacre a crowd, but it seems it can’t plow through heart.                                          

He’s in the way again.  Standing firm.  Standing tall.                                                                                                                                                                  

Two men from the crowd ran out to him.  Rushed him away.  Who were they?  Friends?  The enemy?                                                      

Who was he?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

We’ll never know.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

He was gone in the blink of an eye.  Never heard from again.  What does that mean?

I stood there.  I’ve stood where history happened thousands of times.  I’ve seen the sites, but this time it was my history.                        

This was something I witnessed, something I lived.  This impacted me.  Shaped me.                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

I stood there.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

I didn’t have his strength, his spirit, his heart, but I stood there. Could I have done that then?

My guide pointed out the spot.  He was wrong.  He pointed the wrong direction. What did that mean?                                                            

He didn’t know what happened, because he wasn’t allowed to know.  He was a kid when it happened, but history’s been rewritten.

On the other side of the world, to a 15 year old American boy, Tank Man was a hero.                                                                                                

He was determination.  Spirit.  Freedom.  Hope.  Right in a world that had turned so wrong.                                                                          

There he wasn’t.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

There his story was unknown.  The people he stood up for never knew he was there.  It’s like he wasn’t.                                                      

I found the spot.  We rolled over it on a tour bus.  We walked under it in a pedestrian tunnel.                                                                            

Twenty years later he still represented hope to me, but was he a hope unfulfilled?                                                                                                    

I had a moment.  Then it was gone, just like Tank Man, in the blink of an eye.     

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