Oh shit! I don’t want to die! played on an eternal loop in my head when the floor shook.
My instinct yelled Earthquake! but when my other hand fell over the gas mask pouch slung over my shoulder, I was reminded I wasn’t home in California.
I parted the thick curtains to peer into the night. The sniper threat required we keep the curtains closed but the approaching menace was far more dangerous. Despite the risk, a childhood promise compelled me to see the enemy with my own eyes.
I touched the glass vibrating in its window frame to ensure I wasn’t dreaming. The blue eyes staring back at me in the window’s reflection were no longer recognizable.
A teenager wearing crisp military greens burst into the office shouting, “Lights out! Get on the floor!” He flipped the switch and disappeared.
I intended to obey, but my limbs didn’t cooperate. The realization these might be the last minutes of my life prevented me from tearing myself away from the fourth-floor window. Outside, several thousand unarmed citizens gathered to physically shield us from the approaching threat with nothing but their bodies.
On the other side of the river, quaint yellow wooden homes that survived centuries of wars played with my imagination. In this strange land history had forgotten, lost stories emerged and played out in my mind during the oddest moments. I half expected old-world peasants dressed in colorful homespun wool garments to partake in an evening stroll along gardens blooming with tulips on this drizzly summer night.
Instead, tanks, tanks and more tanks filled my vision.
Rows of massive Soviet armor lumbered in the distance. Passing under the street lamps, the military steel glistened in the light rain, creating a surreal scene resurrecting a childhood memory of the Disneyland Main Street Electrical parade.
This isn’t the Magic Kingdom, I reminded myself.
More than a year ago, on March 11, 1990, Lithuanians revolted and voted to break away from the USSR and end fifty years of Soviet rule. Moscow reacted with an economic blockade and ongoing military violence. Lithuanians faced the Kremlin’s aggression with the principles of non-violent resistance based on Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence from the British Empire. Lithuanians have fallen on the losing side of history time and time again. What made us think we could stand up to the Russian bear now and accomplish in three years what took the iconic Gandhi four decades to achieve?
I counted thirty tanks headed toward the bridge. Earlier reports had the count at one hundred. I assumed the rest were surrounding us, attempting to breach our barricades on the streets and alleyways. The rumble of their engine pistons reverberated along the earth across the bridge to the foundations of the Supreme Council building. The thunder reached the fourth floor and the thumping shot through the soles of my feet to my fingertips on the glass, jolting me back to reality and into the present moment.
I took a measured, deep breath to settle my nerves but an uncontrollable cough caused me to choke instead. When I arrived for work earlier, my sinuses were singed from the fumes of the Molotov cocktails in chipped Coca-Cola bottles lined up below the windows in the stairwell where an unsteady maze of sandbags and office furniture forced me to crawl to the fourth floor.
This is insane.
Our entire arsenal consisted of a few machine guns and antique hunting rifles but we weren’t going to use them unless the Red Army shot first. What good would they be against tanks? Besides, Lithuanians didn’t have a trained army, only teenage volunteers.
What did I believe I could do? I’m a twenty-five-year-old rocker chick. My entire professional skill set comprised of DJ-ing and working at record stores. My only weapon was the telephone to inform Western journalists about the Red Army’s aggression but Moscow cut the lines.
This wasn’t my plan. Back in my hometown of Los Angeles, the voices of my ancestral spirits provided direction in my life. I followed signs from the Universe rather than use common sense to make decisions. My goals were to learn about the land my family escaped from and to reconcile my identity crisis. Somehow my ethereal guides led me to Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, to a barricaded building wrapped in barbed wire working for the leaders of the revolution confronting the Soviet army. But only now while facing tank cannons I accepted I may be delusional and this may not have been a good idea.
These long minutes waiting for the Red Army to fire the first shot transformed into an eternal moment of reluctant acceptance.
Not how I envisioned my life would end.
Am I going to get a quick bullet to the head? Or die in the fire and rubble when the building collapses?
The Red Army military column was stopped by a mound of concrete construction blocks dumped months earlier at the foot of the bridge. However, our blockade wasn’t going to stop their mission—to close the Iron Curtain on Lithuania once and for all. The steel tank cannons jolted back and forth, taking aim. The men and women protecting us outside scrambled over the barricades and surrounded the tanks, shaking their fists.
We’re all going to die. But I’m an American. I’m already free. Why am I here?
Earlier, Rita instructed me to keep my passport on me. I’d assumed we’d escape to Poland if the Red Army attacked. But when I heard voices in the hallways yelling, “On the floor,” clearly, no one was running away. When the floor’s shaking increased, I wondered if Moscow’s army were going to rain shells and the true reason for Rita’s suggestion revealed itself.
So my dead body could be identified.
My hand released my death grip from the gas mask. I removed my blue American passport from my back Levi’s pocket and placed it more securely in my front pocket.