On the Cusp Of History Eye Witness Account To Close of Cold War: Esteban Erik Stipnieks



Forgiveness is better than permission or as I shall say some stories are so important that and the simple fact of the matter is I was an unwilling eyewitness to it all.  The reality was naturally each individual event had an unforeseen outcome.  I tell this story because I feel an obligation.  To the student of history it is easy to look back and see things as inevitable for those participants in those events....the opposite is usually the case.  We had no clue what was going on at the time and the vortex that had been a backdrop of our life would cease in a totally unexpected way. 

In it their is banality the oddity of a wild series of events and probably a different view of the Cold War than is normally seen....a mixture of destruction, boredom and a side of trying to live a somewhat normal life in somewhat crazy circumstances.  Lets face it mail from family of National Guard officers and retired army sergeants is not typically expected to be sent to and from the the USSR.  For those in the US military the Cold War encompassed Careers and outlasted careers (of those who made it through to survive Korea and Vietnam not all did not.)

As a nephew and son of a refugee the start date of the Cold war pre dates US active participation in it by 5 years!  World War II in Europe was a matter of having to chose or having a choice made for you which genocidal maniac you were to side with.  Dec 7-8 1941 Japan and Germany made this choice for the USA.  The molotov ribbentroff pact made the opposite decision for my family.  Timothy Snyder's book entitled the Bloodlands highlights this.  It is my opinion that Stalin's higher body count was a direct result of the fact he remained in power longer.  I begin the story here because when eyes that have seen unspeakable horrors stare into yours with a warning those eyes have priorities over a sibling who neither saw the horror but in his own way was a victim of it.  Generals presidents write history it is usually some other person that pays freight for the greater decisions and sometimes like the fictional Billy Roark the Warrant officer has woefully few decisions they can make.  The baby half brother who was born after World War II well his most graphic war story from Vietnam and most intense grief paled in comparison to the hell his siblings and parents lived through and was weighed against the ghosts of 2 who did not. 

Once you crossed the Elbe during World War II all moral clarity disappeared.  Naturally Hitler and Stalin made their own decisions...a banker and his family in Latvia was compostable (to be shot and buried worm food) under Stalin but useful labor under Hitler (as long as the task was menial and enough food to sustain life nut gurantied).  Not that Hitler was a good guy my father's siblings have and had memories of walking past a pile of dead bodies in the snow on their way to school in Poland.  The Nazi soldiers not so delicately informed them that if they chose not to walk past the uprising remnants their body could be added to the pile relatively cheaply.  They had orders to add bodies for those who chose a different route.  Ironically if you are preteen male in 40 and were forced to walk past the pile of dead  by 43-44 well Hitler would have another offer you can not refuse.  This implied threat did have a silver lining....you could shoot as many soviet bastards....as you wanted.  From the Latvian perspective it was not that Hitler was loved it was just that he was hated LESS!  The Nazi regime near its fall was still evil so the fact that your uncle was an inmate at Aushwitz well is something you do not need to know (Nazis did not take kindly to having Swatzika replaced with Latvian flag even on Latvina Holiday). 

These stories were told me in July 1991.  My father saw it fit to send me to family in Australia his sister in law who chased his brother 2 decades two continents and several thousand miles they were teens trying lead an normal life in world war II they found themselves in Australia.  Gints had made the trip a couple times before the events happened a couple times since.  My father's surviving sister lost her husband in child in World War II. 

The baby on the journey Agris saw around age of 10 the site of American bombs and British fire bombs inflicting carnage white phosphorous burning off the arm of a man and killing him.  This story would be hauntingly similar to a story in Vietnam where a defective WP grenade inflicted similar horror on an American service man. (http://www.amazon.com/Hunter-Killer-Squadron-Aero-weapons-Aero-scouts/dp/0891413944)  Agris Stipnieks saw more war as a child then he would as an enlisted man (he did serve in Vietnam)  Agris told me of seeing willie pete burn off the arm of the man as died.  The event more than likely happened in Wurzburg.  My Uncle was nine years old at the time.  Being in Saigon when Tet happened well might have seemed tame in comparison. 

The mystery  why Maris was conceived in Displaced Person's camp one of three in Wurzburg.  Maris was the baby his eldest brother Latvian legion surviving brother (who narrowly avoided fatal repatriation) his eldest sister (whose child and husband died) going through Poland.   Agris was since the age of about five dealing with a world in a state of peace.    The allies were baffled at why the Eastern Europeans in Germany did not want to go back home.....(unaware of Stalin's body count in their respective countries)

The line between member of Latvian Diaspora born in a DP camp and baby boomer Vietnam vet like many males who wound up in Uniform is hard to draw.  Both elements are part of my father.  The sperm that hit my mothers egg was from a man inevitably was both.  The baggage of World War II and his birth of American promise and his spoilt days in Wilmington helped set him on the path for Vietnam.  In many respects his first stint in college where he probably resembled the character of D day in Animal house.  A commander who he flew for in Vietnam would remark "first man I want with me in war time last man I would want under me in peace."  Maris like many vets found his way into the National Guard and he managed to be come a full timer.  Maris emerged as a prankster on the ground a professional in the air and on several occasions the role of prankster made him more professional  the scout pilot never forgot what to look for.  In a real sense Maris suffered because as baby of the family who survived WWII it is safe to say that Maris kept his mouth shut about Vietnam and what he saw.     

My parents argue my mother a strong willed woman from the barrio of south Texas she got her phd and my sister would later graduate Tufts.  I remember clearly a classic woman v man husband and wife argument raging as we drove from New Braunfels Texas to Houston Intercontinental Airport.  It was December 1988 and now that typical male female argument about packing provides a bit of a comedic start for a journey into the weird.  My sister partially ducked my mom as an exchange student in Denmark...I would later develop my own strategy for dealing with people who had high expectations but lacked the ability to nurture.  My father fiercely professional in the cockpit, a mentor in aviation and the d-day character in animal house a prankster.  My mother well pleased her father and her first degree was teacher certification in math.  So with her being in Denmark off season travel rates made a Christmas vacation in Europe seem nice.  This was December 1988.  Like the fact my dads folks wound up a cross the street from a former Nazi rocket scientist who was a spook and my parents built next door well things go weird.  My Uncle Gints will die believing that Patton was assassinated to keep him from starting World War III.  By fluke we happened to drive on the accident site on a rental car.  We heard of Pan Am flight 103 between Mannheim and Munich.  We got off the autobahn and stayed in a village that had train access to Berchtestagaten.  We had been following my Uncles advice on Germany on the cheap (much to my aspy nerves)

 It was disconcerting to hear my fathers early childhood memories on a train on a bus and on a boat half a world away.  My father was old enough to remember life around the Berchtesgarten DP camp before the family went off to Bremerhaven to sail to the USA.  Those memories were heard from a train passing an alpine stream, a boat on a famous lake and a bus ride by a closed pool with a high dive that....my father jumped off of forgetting he did not know how to swim.  Former Latvian refugee visiting his displaced persons roots December 1988 was we had no idea what would happen next.  A few days ater we wondered lunch time around Wurzburg.  It seems comical the extra questions asked of my father upon entry into the USA considering what 1989 would bring.  It merited more question a US citizen going near his birth place.

A couple things what is now autism spectrum formerly known as aspergers was not known in 1988-1989 and the life of an administrator of secondary ed New Braunfels Independent School District who majored to be a math teacher.   What one has to realize as a pre-teen aspy fishing Hinman Island park at night far from being sinister was remarkably soothing.  Neither Maris who never focused on emotions or Anita who was output driven could comprehend the crying need for fishing or a dog.  Both elements stabilized my life and were vital anchors that were about to be severed with rather severe consequences.  At this point I find it necessary to add that had I been born in the USSR occupied Latvia I would have more than likely been abandoned in a state orphanage or had some other horrible fate my worse times in elementary school were during Cherniko's reign.  My symptoms would have shown up in their most severity after Breshnev's death.  I would have never probably been dead by now. 

When offered the chance to compete US Precision Helicopter Championships my father asked my mom and he agreed he felt obligated to a man who he worked with.  The fishing trips ended.  The relationship between my father and I well was in great peril.  Naturally my mother and him did not grasp the severity of what was going on they would have had to stretch beyond their limited fames of reference.   I also did not know much about my father and lets just say how his coping with Vietnam was a bit different than his peers.  Years later I would find out about a dark day in 1968 that had its own forshadowing.

The Championships occurred at Ft Rucker Alabama March 1989 which had changed somewhat since I had seen it last as Guard brat my parents were trying to improvise a summer vacation around my father's Cobra transition summer 1984.  The TH-55s had been replaced by Hueys and Holiday Inn was established at Ozark (much nicer than where we had stayed for a period of Cobra school) the fixed wing training that had been at Carins Army Airfield bad been moved to Dothan.    My father made the team and while he and the victorious Texas contingent flew back.  My mother and I had a huge battle in a car. 

My mom did not have the benefit of articles about therapy dogs and high function autism she knew very little on the subject she was happy her husband was going to Paris and she would come along a diversion along the Mississippi gulf coast before the Casinos my mother could not seperate recreational car trips and get me home car trips.  I naturally was irate and only wanted to see my dog.  It was ugly it flared up again when we diverted to pick my father up.  He remained unaware of the intense argument for several decades.  It seemed to her I was mocking her dashing hero.  For me it meant a summer without fishing trips with my fahter. 

My sister returned from her Junior year in Denmark summer 1989 and it was time to improvise a summer vacation the Redneck Riveria around July 4th when my father got a break from training the US Precision Helicopter Team was going through.  It was a stock Army Aviation brat with dad in training vacation.  We were between Destin and Panama City Beach.  This included deep sea fishing on a large tour boat, walking on the beach and observing the long line of beach front air traffic while body surfing.  This happened to be when the Warsaw Pact was meeting and the Soviets had decided to allow Eastern Europe communism to commit suicide with Hungary going independent and the very threads that bound the Warsaw pact to dissolve.   

What is weird....the fact my dad's eldest brother fired on Soviet Tanks with a nazi 38mm Anti tank gun rolling into Riga was not on the mind of a Austin National Guard Colonel February of 1989.  Had you told the man who asked my father to be on the team early 1989 that within 90 days of the USA sweeping Soviets the event the Berlin Wall would be metaphorically down frankly you would have been thought a bit of a loon.  The fact that the US team arrived within 100nm of a former POW camp where the Latvian legion was held (my fathers eldest brother) well from the US Army point of view totally irrelavant.  All this irony is like the neighbors who lived across the street from Latvian diaspora grandparents and Uncle and the fact my mom's sister and her husband integrated the neighborhood.  The thaw of the cold war was indicated by some odd ball facts...USSR team was all female and the helicopter while being of Soviet design was powered by an American designed engine built under license.  My father was the last US crew before the Soviets.

On a personal level the AWOL dad and other events spawned a crisis of sorts.  I found Christ on a return to a Christian camp looking for answers (God does answer) the day being May 1 1991.  I remember most clearly walking up a steep gravel road while I was enroute to return main section of camp I was in taking my first steps as a Christian not knowing where I was going only knowing it was better from where I had come from.  I would grow as Christian in Denton but the waves of history had to engulf my family one final time.  It would be as a classmate of Six Pence None The Ricker and my father a pilot out of Austin his siblings Birutha, Agris, Gints who had fled Smiltene alive in both Canberra and New Braunfels that what had been almost unthinkable.   

August 20-21 1991 are for the most part almost after thoughts.  After Desert Storm the Soviets faded from view.  Gints had dealings with Latvians now traveling to Australia....thanks to Gorbachave's eased travel restrictions.  The site of a shopping center Gints remarked while we got food was almost overwhelming.  For a child of the Soviet Union a place where they could look at kilos of beef, fish, bread of good quality neatly displaced and smell the smells of bacon, fresh fish on ice and produce was a bit overwhelming.  Latvia was suffering as all the Soviet Union.  The coup happened. 

My father was on the road doing a National Guard mission flying a lot and the night of the 20th he slept within 200 feet of where his dad had died.  While he slept Smiltene Latvia saw a flag it had not seen since Agris (now living in the house) was a child a free Latvia.  I was a sophomore at New Braunfels high school my mother was assistant superintendent schools Denting swamped with work including looking for a place that husband and son could call home an band controversy.   While I celebrated a free Latvia I slammed an oratory urging a more vocal US position on Latvian independence a trash  Agris was happy....well uhh...the man concerned with flying the move to Denton and hoping my ear infection healed did not quite notice for a couple weeks. 



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