Today’s a slow news day moving into a Veterans Day weekend so I’m going to take a few minutes to reminisce about one of the most significant events of my life: the fall of the Berlin Wall.
One can nearly say that the Berlin wall disappeared just about as fast as it went up. It started when the East German army and police closed the border between the Russian sector of Berlin and those sectors administered by the United States, British, and French just after mid-night on the night of August 12-13, 1961 in response to an order signed by Walter Ulbricht. Berliners awoke to find their city divided.
It ended in much the same way. At a news conference on the afternoon of November 9, 1989 Guenter Schabowski, spokesman for the East German regime, announced that effective immediately that travel to West Berlin was permitted. It was broadcast at 7:17 pm and within minutes the six crossing points were jammed with hundreds, if not thousands, East Berliners demanding to leave. The border police stood aside and that was it. The Wall was over.
What follows is a story told just for the sake of telling. So proceed at your own risk.
I have a very soft place in my heart for Berlin.
Berlin was my first assignment to a tactical unit as an Army officer. I’d spent a year and a half as a basic training company cadre and had begged and wheedled my way into being “levied”, as it was called, for Germany. I arrived in Frankfurt/Main after about 24 hours of traveling was pointed toward the train station and caught the “duty train” for Berlin. The train had to transit the intra-German frontier after dark. The train left Frankfurt around 8pm and I stayed awake to watch the crossing. Besides, if you’ve ever gone for a prolonged period without sleep you are aware of the that second wind you get, when you suddenly feel as though you aren’t tired. We made the epic crossing at Marienborn around 3am and all I saw of the ENEMY that September morning was a bored border guard under the yellow sodium vapor light standing on a platform. At Marienborn the West German electric locomotives were replaced with diesels for the run to Berlin. We arrived around 6am, I was now on my second day without sleep in a uniform that had been worn for about 30 hours.
A duty driver delivered me to my new home, Fourth Battalion, Sixth United States Infantry and McNair Barracks, aka The Gator Farm (why, you might rightly ask, would a barracks in Berlin, hardly tropical, be called the “The Gator Farm.” During my time there the Berlin Brigade was composed of 2d, 3d, and 4th battalions of the 6th Infantry all billeted at McNair Barracks. The 6th Infantry crest featured an alligator.)
I quickly found myself, and by quickly I mean around noon, assigned to Charlie Company as a rifle platoon leader and was taken by the other officers to the mess hall for lunch. One of them gave me a ride to housing and from their to transient quarters where, about 60 hours into my trip, I was able to shower and change clothes (ever worn nylon socks and corfram shoes for three days and took them off without a breathing apparatus handy? I don’t recommend it).
I had visions of crashing until the next day but that was not to be. Shortly after five there was pounding on my door and I was hauled out, stuffed in a battered VW station wagon, and headed out for a night on Berlin with about a dozen other officers from the battalion. The driver was our intel officer who acquired fleeting notoriety a couple years later for answering the door dressed in a toga and wearing an Afrika Korps helmet much to the surprise of the MPs who had been called because our party was too loud. Food. Beer. The midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the rickety firetrap Tali Kino in Kreutzberg, in what I found out was known as the “Turkish Sector” of Berlin. The crowd was all Germans, fully costumed as only Germans can be when they really throw themselves into something. I’d been to two goat ropes and a county fair and never seen anything like that before. More beer and food at a corner kneipe under the gaze of a sleepy barman who was willing to put up with us as long as we were spending money. Back to transient quarters, shower, change, and catch the shuttle to McNair Barracks to meet my platoon for physical training at 5am. The enlisted guys had a good idea of what I’d experienced as the brigade lieutenants had a reputation for hard living and were interested to take measure of the new el-tee.
And so it went. For over three years. Six week deployments to Major Training Areas at Grafenwoehr, Hohenfels, and Wildflecken. Local training the Grunewald where everyone navigated by the concrete block markers rather than map. Participating patrols along the Berlin Wall. Standing guard mount at Clay Headquarter Compound and Spandau Prison. Promotions to first lieutenant and captain. Moving from a rifle battalion to brigade staff. The occasional bar brawl. Celebrating Pearl Harbor Day at the Officer’s Club Brunch and being braced by some Japanese-American lieutenant colonel who didn’t have the refined sense of humor of a bunch of infantry lieutenants. Girls. Wow. Yeah. Girls.
Berlin was a great place for a young officer. It is hard to explain the intensity of the long days… and long nights… without acknowledging the Wall. We lived less than 400 yards from the Wall, I could see into East Germany from the windows of my platoon bays. We trained in the shadow of the Wall, Parks Range, our major in-city training site, had the Wall as on of its borders. The Wall defined everything we did.
One of the privileges you had in Berlin was being able to visit East Berlin any time you wanted so long as you were 1) in uniform and 2) entered and egressed via Checkpoint Charlie. I made one such trip with my girlfriend, a “local national”, and watch in amazement as to exit Berlin she had to fill out papers, and make cash payments, as series of five different windows in one building. Each of the windows was manned by a uniformed border police woman (imagine Chris Farley — while alive — playing the role of a female prison guard) — the same one. She moved from window to window. It was like a Peter Sellers spoof on a totalitarian state.
I was in the Pentagon when the Wall came down. I have to admit I was surprised. I’d traveled behind the Iron Curtain. You didn’t have to be a genius to figure out that the Poles didn’t fully grok, as they say, the whole concept of communism. I though, however, that the East Germans would be hanging in there long after the Russians had embraced market capitalism. They would be commies until the last dog was dead.
As they said at the time, Poland took 10 years to throw off communism, Hungary 10 months, East Germany 10 weeks, and Czechoslovakia 10 days.
So now more than twenty years after the fact the wall is gone. Pieces are scattered everywhere. I have a small bit that our battalion gave to officers when they departed. And a much larger bit stored inside.