These weren’t toys—they were full-scale, armed Soviet machines, lumbering through town at shift change to patrol the Iron Curtain. I was part of a pack of eleven boys, ages six to sixteen. We were unsupervised, our fathers either dead or prisoners of war in Russia, our mothers working nine hours in the fields for two eggs and a loaf of bread.
People routinely were killed trying to escape to West Germany, and the border patrols evoked a visceral rage. Anton, our leader and surrogate father, came up with the plan. He was only sixteen, so emaciated that even in the desperate last days of World War II the Wehrmacht rejected him, but he was ungodly smart.
The big vehicles ran on diesel; the border guards were fueled by cheap Russian vodka. Anton’s plan was to torch the vehicles, soldiers and all, using Molotov cocktails. He reasoned they were perpetually drunk and therefore sitting ducks. We would attack them at midnight, then slip through a section of the briefly unpatrolled border to freedom.
Anton ordered dry runs, in which we practiced mounting the vehicles as they drove past at maybe fifteen miles an hour. Three of us were killed in various attempts. I was hurt badly. Running for the grab handle on a truck, I tripped on a branch and fell. I was lucky that the rear tires only grazed along my arm and leg, but the damage to my knee was beyond the reach of East German technology.