The true story that inspired
I have been a professional framer for over 20 years. In that time, I estimate that I have framed over 23,000 individual pieces, and without a doubt, this piece and the story behind it rank within the top ten of my favorites.
Introduction by Jeff Norman
Intrigue, confusion, fear, excitement, joy, tears…it was all there, a full spectrum, and oddly enough, the embodiment of those emotions came into the frame shop one day in a small sandwich baggie. Carefully laid out before me on my design table, there they were...so famous…actual pieces of freedom.
As I listened to the captivating story of how Franklin residents James and Margaret Freeman came to possess these items, their experiences seemed to me to be the type of adventure usually reserved for a spy novel or Netflix mini-series. Two small shards of concrete and a document, that’s it. But it was enough to suddenly place them into the front seat of an emotional rollercoaster that they and the world would never forget. The Freeman’s story, so poignant at a time when America is having difficulty catching her breath, is a witnessed account of the first breaths of a nation united and set free. This is their story….
In the summer of 1989, I had been assigned to a new position with the US Army Veterinary Corps as an exchange officer with the British Army of the Rhine in Germany. While there, my primary job was the inspection and training of British military dog units through northern Germany. One of those units was in the British sector of West Berlin and within a month or so of taking my new position I was told that that unit was due a visit.
It was customary for spouses to travel to Berlin for these trips, so I was delighted that Margaret would be joining me. Back then, military travel to Berlin required “Flag Orders” and in this case, passage on the British Military Train – The Berliner. It took several weeks to organize our travel logistics and the final documentation bearing all rubber-stamped approvals for 6-13 November were now in hand. As we left our house that day, little did we know what the fast-paced, heart-pounding events of those next several days in the fall of 1989 would mean to the world at large.
Upon departure, The Berliner and its accommodations were what you might expect from a military transport train, but as we crossed the border into East Germany, it suddenly took on an opulence we previously had not noticed. Sights from our carriage window astutely reminded us that, by comparison, we were indeed traveling in luxury. Almost as if playing roles in a black and white movie, we were profoundly struck by how devoid of color the landscape was as we passed into East Germany. By contrast, as Americans we lived in a Crayola box set of 120, and the East Germans lived in a child’s pack of four - black, white, and two shades of gray.
After our arrival in Berlin and two and a half days of inspections, my work was complete, leaving extra time for Margaret and myself to explore West Berlin. On the 9th, we arranged with our host, the Royal Military Police (RMPs) to be escorted across Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin for a nighttime visit. The East Berliners were accustomed to these brief visits by US service members, so our presence was not at all unusual as we walked down streets and into shops. At about the time we were being seated for a quiet dinner, little did we know that the very earth beneath us was shifting in ways not measured on a Richter scale. In disbelief, news anchors broke into scheduled radio and television programming and stumbled through announcements that they were handed only moments earlier. Seismic shock waves instantly rippled throughout every community. The timing of our visit indicated that nothing of this magnitude would be remotely possible, but defying all imagination, yes, it was true. The German portion of the physical and ideological 28-year-old “Iron Curtain”...had fallen...the East and West would be reunited as one democracy!
As we passed back through Checkpoint Charlie later that evening, it was like stepping into an episode of the Twilight Zone. Only hours before, the inspection of our papers by stoic armed guards, now had the additional element of hastily assembled news crews. A complex spider web of cables, blinding lights, and handheld cameras instantly beamed iconic images around the world. Everyone anxiously awaiting the highly anticipated throngs of East Berliners to step across the border into their new lives, however, proved to be anticlimactic. Nearly three decades of oppression and confinement left most East Berliners confused and suspicious. Some celebrations began that night at other points along the wall, but those were tame compared to what was to come.
On the 10th at dawn, huge crowds of people, both East and West, were converging on hastily opened gaps in the wall, and to capture every detail, camera lenses were quickly switched to wide-angle. The West German government gave every East German citizen 100 Deutschmarks as a welcoming gift, so throughout the city the banks had lines of East Berliners wrapped around numerous city blocks as people queued up to get their cash. Deprived of a democratic economy and thirsty for any taste of the good life, items like boom boxes, fresh fruit, and, of course, Coca-Cola left nothing but dust on retailer’s shelves.
On the evening of the 10th we returned once again to the wall but this time we had an elevated view from the Checkpoint Charlie museum. By now the crowds had become massive. A personal body space sufficient for one was now occupied by three and their compacted press became nearly powerful enough to topple the wall itself. Tiny East German cars, bumper to bumper, freely streamed across the border into West Berlin to a deafening cacophony of joyous noise and celebration. At moments, seeing freedom, equality, and justice defined before us became too much to absorb all at once. Margaret, like many others, was in tears a good bit of the time, no longer able to contain her feelings of joy. For us, history was up close and personal for those days in November 1989. It was and remains the most moving experience of our lives.
- James and Margaret Freeman