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Saturday, 26 May 2012

1987 - A Very Good Year?


In her latest post, my fellow blogger, Lisa Golden, asks the question, “Imagine 1987 as the future and not the shrinking image in the rearview mirror. What do you see?”

At first I thought I’d do the usual thing and post a comment. But as I started thinking about it, I realised that the question was just too good for that. And then I discovered that I didn’t really want to imagine that year, a quarter of a century ago, as the future, but rather remember it as it was then. And, instead of replying on Lisa’s blog, writing something about it here.

Although, when I think about it, I suppose I can remember it as the future if I just place myself in the me that was then, seeing in the New Year for the first time in Western Germany, watching the fireworks rising into the sky above the Rhine and Cologne Cathedral illuminating a snowy city, wondering what the year would bring, still marvelling at the amazing new life I had begun, only a few months earlier, to lead.

For in the previous year, fuelled by the irresistible, all-devouring power of falling head over heels, completely, totally in love, I had trashed all the certainties and goals of my life up till then, abandoning my life and existence as a Catholic priest to start a new life in a new country. We had dared to take the words of Bowie’s Absolute Beginners (one of the big hits of 1986 and one of the songs we used as the soundtrack for the perfect microcosm of our dramatic love story) literally, “As long as we’re together / the rest can go to hell,” and set up our love-nest in Heidelberg. We were visiting the Rhineland where Eva’s family lived for the holidays, which was why we were greeting the New Year 1987 in Cologne.

At the beginning of any year, nothing is fixed. Anything can happen – and most certainly will. Billions of stories, great and small, public and private, will begin, end, continue. Out of all this we each construct our own realities, our own stories, future flowing into present before becoming immutable past before the background of everything else which is happening.

What was the background of 1987? Musically, Madonna is travelling the world with the Who’s That Girl tour, Michael Jackson releases the album Bad, Whitney Houston is warbling that she wants to dance with somebody (who loves her)[i] and the film Dirty Dancing will be released, turning Patrick Swayze into an idol for untold millions of adolescent girls even beyond his death twenty two years later. Joss Stone and Kate Nash are born. Liberace dies (of AIDS). And, for me as well as millions of others, the music which still fills the role as soundtrack for that year is that of U2’s The Joshua Tree; “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Where the Streets Have no Name.” Like me, they too came from Ireland, I had seen them live years before when they were still learning to play. They had achieved heights on the Olympus of rock previously unimaginable for an Irish band. A symbol for me that year of the attainability of all kinds of unimaginable dreams.

But a year which also taught me about how reality can bite. An immediate, fundamental change happens. The few months of just enjoying freedom from all the constraints of my previous priestly church-bound existence, a time of idle meditation on what I might best do with the rest of my life comes to a sudden end. On New Years Day Eva tells me of her suspicion that she is pregnant. I am faced with the immediate reality of having to take on responsibility – for a child, and a wife, for we also decide to marry. Life becomes challenging, in some ways even threatening. Less than a year earlier, Chernobyl has exploded, spewing radioactive waste all over Europe, and there are lingering worries about the consequences for women who are becoming pregnant. Unfounded, as it happens, for most (apart from thousands in the vicinity of the reactor in the Ukraine) but the worry is there. And I’ve got to find a job, any job. There will be mouths to feed, and bills to pay. I’m in a foreign country, my command of the language is rudimentary, and employers aren’t exactly lining up to offer interesting, fulfilling, well-paid jobs to young ex-priests. The little bit of money I had has almost run out. Eva’s family will help us, but the luxury of taking time to find and orient myself has abruptly run out for me.

Luckily, Heidelberg is a major centre for the US Forces in Europe and they’re always looking for civilian employees who can speak and write English fluently. As a native of a European Community country, I have the same employment rights as a German in Germany, so there is no trouble there. And so, in March I start work as a Voucher Examiner at the 266th Theater Finance Company of the US Army.

It is strange how practical circumstances can change your attitude to things. Three years earlier, back in Ireland, I’d been marching in a huge demonstration, proudly carrying a Sandinista flag, against US foreign policy and militarism generally on the occasion of Ronald Reagan’s visit to Dublin. Now I was working for the man, and glad to have the job.

The Cold War was still – officially – going on, and my job was processing a tiny amount of the tonnes of paperwork involved in paying the bills caused by the thousands of US servicemen and women who were in Europe to protect us from the Evil Soviet Empire. But the thaw was on. Gorbachev had come to power in the USSR and he was a man, as Margaret Thatcher famously said, with whom one could do business. Reagan came to Berlin in 1987 and urged Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” but later that year the two of them amicably made history by signing the INF Treaty. In the near but as yet unimagined future the Wall would come down, the Soviet Union disappear, and in the wake of the huge realignment in world politics, most US and NATO troops would leave Germany. But in 1987 it was still business as usual in divided Germany.

The work itself was soul-destroying – taking a pile of paper which had already been worked on by someone else, doing some more work on it, and then passing it on to the next person to process it further. At some stage, a little farther down the line, the bills actually got paid. The work environment was fascinating. We were three distinct groups; soldiers, US civilian employees (mostly relatives of soldiers) and German/European employees. You got used to having two currencies in your pocket, for the Coke machine only functioned with quarters, nickels and dimes. The Americans were paid in dollars, we got our wages in deutschmarks. Our conditions and duties at work were governed by German labour law, the Americans followed army rules. They worked on German public holidays, we had to turn up on the Fourth of July. They paid less taxes, we could send our kids to college without it beggaring us.

I got to know an amazing world; that of the US forces in Germany – a little bit of America, completely sealed off (for those who wanted it so) from the host country. In places like Patrick Henry Village you could live for years, shopping at the Commissary or the PX Store, buying your (American) car from an American import dealer, going to an American movie theatre or McDonalds, sending your kids to an American school, worshipping in an American church, without any contact with the wider world around you. I worked with people who had been in Germany for ten years and had never learned a word of German.

The radio was on in our office all the time, and it was US stations we listened to. That year, the major theme was Oliver North and the Iran-Contra Affair (given increasing rumours of Reagan’s Alzheimer, one joke going around at the time took Howard Baker’s famous Watergate question and amended it to, “What did the president forget and when did he forget it?”).

But outside Thompson Barracks where I worked, my life was becoming increasingly German. My command of the language was slowly improving and I was making new friends. In the course of all this I was also making a discovery which astounded me. As an Irishman, I had grown up speaking English and I would always have claimed that, behind my particular Irish conscious identity, my default cultural conditioning was that of the English-speaking, American-dominated cultural world; literature, music, film, TV. Yet the more I worked for and with Americans, the more I found myself identifying myself as a European. On some sort of profound level I felt that I had more in common with the Germans, to whose country I had come less than a year earlier and whose language I still spoke very badly, than with the Americans, with whom I shared a language and whose popular culture I felt completely familiar with, and at home in.

In retrospect, it probably had much to do with the fact that, in that year of 1987, I was finding and developing a new identity for myself, an identity built on my exciting new role as lover and husband and – most fundamentally – father. A real one this time, as opposed to the pointless honorific conventionally offered to Catholic priests, something I had never felt comfortable with.

Many famous people died that year; Andy Warhol, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, John Huston and James Baldwin, to mention just a few. And, on a wonderfully sunny August morning, the last of the top Nazi elite, the sole inhabitant of Spandau prison in East Berlin, the sad, evil old bastard, Rudolf Hess, ended his sorry life by his own hand. On that day my daughter was born and I remember thinking, in the midst of my swirling, astounded joy and wonder, that this was a sign of some kind, the end of one ghastly chapter and the beginning of a new one, full of hope and endless possibility.

On that day in August 1987 I knew that my life had changed irrevocably. The future was, as always, unknown, but now it would contain this marvellous new life, completely dependent on my wife and me. That she would be joined by a sister was something I might perhaps have suspected then. That the love which had made me toss my life on its head and give rise to her very existence would prove unequal to the everyday challenges of life and time was something I could not have imagined. Yet that happened too.

All in the future then, the past now. Time is a river and it only goes in one direction. What an adventure! Or, in one of the best phrases The Grateful Dead ever coined, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

1987 … it was a very good year.




[i] Coincidence is sometimes frightening. The radio is playing in the background as I write this. Thirty seconds after typing this phrase, I hear the introduction to I wanna dance with somebody (who loves me) begin. Honestly! Life is strange indeed.



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