I arrived in West Berlin as a somewhat naive 17 year old soldier fresh off the plane from Nebraska. In many ways I “grew up” in Berlin.
While bullets were not flying, the Cold War that was going on there was as real as any war, and there were casualties. The first time I went on “wall patrol,” seeing the memorial crosses and wreaths honoring those who had lost their lives attempting to escape to freedom in the West, was a sobering experience.
The first time I travelled to East Berlin, we were allowed to travel there in dress uniform on an “east pass,” the experience went from sobering to surreal. We were easily identifiable of course, because of our uniforms. As we sat in a small outside cafe, not ten feet away from a table of Russian soldiers, it was obvious that we were the focus of attention. You could see that some of the people there, especially the younger people, wanted to talk to us. It was equally evident that they were afraid to.
Finally a young boy, maybe 14 or 15 years old summoned up the courage to come over to our table. He seemed relieved and surprised that we were so welcoming. At first he had his head on a swivel, casting furtive glances at the Russians seated nearby and at an East German Polizei Officer standing about 20 feet away, but as the conversation went on, some of it in his broken English and some in our broken German, he became increasingly at ease. In short order we were almost surrounded by a group of teenagers, most with smiles on their faces and shooting 20 questions a minute at us about America and life in the West. Of course many of the questions were about things that we take for granted. Movies, music, cars, even McDonalds of all things, it was dizzying!
As we left, I felt a certain sadness about the experience. In a way I was glad that these people, most of them my age or not much younger, had the opportunity to see that we weren’t the “bogeyman”, and that we were weren’t any different than they were, at least as human beings. At the same time though, knowing that I could leave and that they couldn’t, made the reason I was in Berlin very real to me. I think it was really then that I understood how important it was that we were there.
About 2 months after I got there we went on a field exercise to West Germany. We were convoying back and were at the last Russian checkpoint before you re-entered the city. I was the passenger in a Jeep. We were told that while we were in the checkpoint that we needed to keep our M-16 between our legs, muzzle down, and to look straight ahead. The drivers were mostly carrying .45′s on their hips which were to remain holstered. As our unit Commander and the Russian Officer inspecting the convoy reached the Jeep in front of me, I saw the driver unholster his weapon and point it at the Russian Officer. The Russian, a major I believe, jumped back from the vehicle waving his arms and yelling. Immediately a group of Russian soldiers surrounded our vehicles, weapons trained on us. I remember thinking to myself “great, I haven’t been here for 3 months yet and we’re going to die.” Fortunately calm prevailed and after a while we were allowed to proceed into West Berlin. The guy behind this little fiasco was on a duty train back to West Germany not more than a few hours after we returned. From what I was told, they had his bags packed when he walked in the door.
As a footnote to that story, I actually had occasion to engage in a brief email correspondence with the guy who pulled out his pistol that day. We connected through the Berlin Brigade website. He offers a slightly different version of events that is more sympathetic to his point of view as to what did, and what did not occur that day. I didn’t buy it. I had a front row seat.
There is so much I could tell you about. Like the day Jimmy Carter rode through Berlin in a motorcade and how afterwards an elderly lady came up to me and my two companions and handed us each a Kennedy Half-Dollar, patted us on the arm, and simply said “thank you.” I could tell you about a tragic night during an alert when one of our guys was killed in our haste to deploy, or about a postcard perfect, sunny Sunday morning when a bomb went off in one of our barracks. I could tell you about the wonderful night-life offered by Berlin’s club scene, the museums that were awe inspiring, or I could tell you about beautiful German women, unbelievable German beer, great German food, (I still miss the Curry Wurst and the best Pomme Frits ever), or I could tell you about how Berlin was the cleanest urban landscape that I have ever seen, even to this day.