It all started while I was writing a story about Vern Gibson.
In the early 1960s, the Fremont man was in the U.S. Army, serving in Berlin during the Cold War. Back then, the city was divided into Communist East Berlin and the democratic West Berlin with a huge wall in between. The Communists were determined to keep East Berliners in place.
Many people in East Berlin wanted to escape to freedom in the west, but that wall, along with soldiers, barbed wire and mines kept them from doing so.
Vern and some of his fellow American soldiers did an incredibly brave and dangerous thing when they smuggled two teenage East Berliners through the lone access of Checkpoint Charlie into West Berlin.
I loved writing that story and while doing so, I was looking up other facts about those years when I came across an account of two East German men — Peter Strelzyk and Gunter Wetzel - and their families who escaped by hot air balloon in 1979.
There are news accounts and Gunter has a website. On his website, Gunter tells how his wife’s sister, who’d been able to leave East Berlin before the wall was erected, brought a newspaper when she came to visit.
The newspaper had an article about an international balloon festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gunter thought he and his friend might be able to fly a hot air balloon over the fortified wall. Their wives, Petra and Doris, agreed to try it and bring the families’ four children.
They gathered fabric and other supplies. The men would build three balloons before they found one that could carry them to safety.
The families made their escape at night. It was an exceptionally risky move. Gunter tells about a hole that was torn in the balloon and how the burner, which is the engine, went out. Search lights were directed toward them, but didn’t expose their mission.
How they made it over the wall and past trees _ and out of the balloon’s basket — to safety in the west fascinates me.
It also reminds me of a couple of basket escapes in the Bible.
The first is in the Old Testament book of Exodus, starting with Chapter 2.
At this point, the Israelites are slaves in Egypt where the Pharaoh has decided that all the male babies are to be killed. One Israelite woman hides her infant for three months. When she can’t hide him anymore, she makes a basket out of a type of water plant. She coats it with tar (made from decaying plants). She puts her little son in the basket and floats it among reeds in the river bank. Her daughter stays at a distance to watch the child.
Pharaoh’s daughter is bathing in the river, when she sees the basket and has her servants bring it to her. She opens the basket, where she sees the baby, who is crying, and takes pity on him. She realizes he’s one of the Israelites’ babies.
The baby’s sister comes and asks if she could find a nurse for the infant and the Pharaoh’s daughter ends up paying the family to take care of their own child. When the child is older, he’s brought to Pharaoh’s daughter and becomes her son.
She will call her child, Moses. Decades later, Moses will lead the Israelites out of slavery.
We can read about another basket escape in the New Testament book of Acts, Chapter 9, starting with verse 23.
Here we learn that people are planning to kill a man named, Saul, who’s had a dramatic conversion to Christianity. Saul is in Damascus, where enemies are watching the city gate night and day.
Some of Saul’s disciples decide to help him escape at night. So they lower him down in a basket through an opening in the city wall.
He will go on to have an amazing ministry.
And we will come to know this escapee as the Apostle Paul, who will write much of the New Testament.
God obviously had plans for both of these men and helped people find creative ways to help them escape.
I can’t imagine being a mom and trying save my baby by putting him in a basket. Moses’ Israelite mother must have been so scared.
And for someone, like me, who’s afraid of heights, the thought of being in a basket — whether it’s being lowered over a wall or flying high above one in a hot air balloon seems quite unnerving.
On his website, Gunter tells how he and Peter had a falling out (not from the basket) after their extraordinary escape. They parted company and I don’t know if they ever reconciled before Peter’s death in March. He was 74 years old.
Disney turned the story of the families’ escape into a movie called “Night Crossing” in 1982. Various stories about the brave escape can be found on the Internet.
The Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, something that amazed Vern, who said he didn’t think that would ever happen.
Vern never learned what happened to the East Germans, who he and his fellow soldiers helped escape to freedom — not via a balloon, but in the trunk of a car.
I’m so glad we can learn about these escape-to-freedom stories through people like Vern and news or website accounts.
But I’m most glad that we can read about how our Lord could use something as simple as a basket to save the lives of people — whether they’re a baby who’d become a great leader or an apostle-in-the-making.
That said, I believe the greatest escape story ever told has nothing to do with a basket, but with our Savior Jesus Christ — who through his death on the cross – enables us to escape an eternity in hell.
God can bring us to places of abundant life here on earth and into the peace of heaven.
And you don’t have to be in a hot air balloon to have the joy and freedom of Christ take you to new heights.