Friday, August 10, 2007

Behind The Iron Curtain, Part I

Months ago, I debated with myself whether I should post certain photos to my Flickr Photostream. After doing a bit of research and weighing the good and bad reasons, I decided to go ahead and post those photos.

The photos weren't taken with the latest digital gear, nor were they taken with the finest 35mm color film. They were shot with Tri-X, a black and white Kodak film. And, they were shot 30 years ago. They were shot during another period of time when global tensions were strained, and two giants faced each other across the ring.

They were shot in the then cities of West Berlin and East Berlin.

Today, that beautiful city is known simply as Berlin. A wall, which split the city is no longer a barrier. In November of 1989, the single most oppressive object the world has known, fell. That object was known simply as The Wall. It went up in the early '60s and turned the western portion of Berlin into what was often called "an island of democracy in a sea of communism."

I went to Berlin because the Commander in Chief of US Air Forces, Europe wanted all of the newspaper editors under his command to go there, see what it was all about and tell the people who read their newspapers, what it is all about...why American troops were in Europe at that time. So a Newspaper Editor's Conference was set up for Berlin.

When I was stateside, I had gotten orders assigning me to Templehof Airport in Berlin, but during my processing for that assignment, I was told my assignment was being changed to Aviano AB, Italy. I was a bit disappointed, as Berlin was, in my mind, a magical place. Full of history, I was looking forward to my assignment there. But Italy had its good points and more. After a year and a half in Italy, I was loving the area of Italy I was in and the assignment.

However, when the opportunity came up to go to Berlin, I was very happy. When the date for my departure arrived, I took off in a train headed for Frankfort, West Germany. My train ride took about eight hours to get there and once I arrived, I was told I would have another 12-14 hours on the Troop Train, which would take us through East Germany and finally into West Berlin. It was a long ride, filled with lots of stops at train stations along the way. We were told to keep the curtains closed in our cabins while the train was at a stop.

At each stop, the train filled with Americans, was watched closely by the East German army, or maybe, police. I'm not sure which, but at one stop when I did lift the curtain and peer outside, I saw two uniformed individuals with AK-47s walking by the train car. When they saw me, they raised their weapons and headed towards the window. I dropped the curtain, closed my eyes, shook my head and knew I would soon be dragged out of the car by armed guards who would take me to a dark dungeon, lock me in and turn me into the latest pawn in the international game of the Cold War.

That didn't happen, because moments later, the train started to move. It didn't take me long to realize I was in Indian Country. Our train was riding through a part of the world where I was considered the bad guy. After "beating the system" (so to speak) at that one stop, I figured I knew the game and that I would play by my rules...or at least try. When we finally arrived in West Berlin, one of our first requests was to see Checkpoint Charlie.

While there, myself and another editor there for the conference, decided we were going into East Berlin on our own. Around 2 pm, we casually walked through the gates at Checkpoint Charlie, stopped at the currency exchange on the other side, got some East German marks and headed off for a makeshift tour of one of the most well-known, but secretive cities in the world at the time.

It wasn't long before I began to notice a couple of people following us. I decided I was going to let them know I knew they were there. So when we rounded a corner and were out of sight temporarily, I moved over to a wall of a building between us and waited. When the two came into sight, I smiled, waved at them and watched their reaction. There was a moment of confusion in the faces of the two which brought a bigger smile to my face. I shook my head and walked back to my friend.

Later on, when we became hungry, the two of us decided to get something to eat. As we walked along a row of buildings, the sounds of people enjoying themselves and the smell of food drew our attention and in we went. Prior to us going in the restaurant, we could hear people talking, laughing and having a good time. It was something we had not heard or experienced since crossing through Checkpoint Charlie early that day. But as soon as we went in, the place got so quiet, a person on side of the room could have heard a dropped feather hit the floor on the other side of the room.

When the shock of our appearance wore off, one of the people working in the eatery came over and asked us what we wanted. In our broken German, we managed to tell the person we wanted to eat and we were then escorted to raised table along the back wall of the room. Moments after we sat down, the door opened again, and two men entered the place and took seats near the front. I watched them, and when both were looking my way, I smiled and slowly dipped my head in acknowledgment of their presence. I knew they were probably East German Secret Police (Stasi) assigned to watch us, just like the earlier pair.

As we were being served our food, I saw the pair get up and leave. I figured they knew we had to come out sooner or later and that they would pick us up then. When we finally did finish our meal and walked outside, we realized it was dark and late and we had no idea of where we were. We had to be back at Checkpoint Charlie at midnight or all sorts of things were going to happen which wouldn't be good for us. So we started asking people walking along the sidewalk, the direction Checkpoint Charlie was. Everyone we asked, must have known we were being watched, as they would ignored us and quickly walk away. I was wishing those watching us would show up so I could ask them which direction Checkpoint Charlie was. But after asking a dozen or so people, a party of three came by and we asked them.

The threesome was an elderly gentleman, a young man and a gorgeous woman. When we started to ask in our lousy German, the older man said he spoke English. He then began to tell us how to get back and all involved public transportation of some type which we were not allowed to travel on. And for each mode of transportation he mentioned, I would say, "Can't use it." The first time, he asked me why, and I said, with a smile, "We aren't allowed to use government owned transportation because it supports a government we considered bogus." I guess this guy had gone through this before because he didn't blink an eye, but offered to take us there himself in his automobile. I figured we were safe in traveling that way, and since we had under an hour to go before the clock struck 12, I agreed go in his car.

We went to his house, along with the younger couple, and went inside where we were offered something to drink, which I declined, and where attempts to make small talk were made, which I discourage by asking when he was going to take us to the checkpoint. Finally he said we should go, so we got up and went outside. There, in front of his house was parked his car. In front of his car was also parked three East German green and white police cars and behind his car were another three green and whites of the local police. I began to wonder what was going to happen, but got in the older man's car, along with my friend, and the good looking East German gal and her companion. We then started to move as soon as the police cars started to move. We were getting a police escort to Checkpoint Charlie. I could only imagine what would happen when a small P.O.S. East German car pulled up along the gate at Checkpoint Charlie with six police cars and my friend and I got out and walked back into West Berlin.

Well, it never happened. We got a block away from Checkpoint Charlie and the police cars in front made a right hand turn and headed down a dark street. Now, one thing we were told was to not cross a meter wide white stripe which went around East Berlin, about 50 meters from The Wall. We were told it marked the kill zone. Enter that area, and you are fair game for the armed guards in the watch towers along The Wall. Earlier that day, my friend and I experience the fear the line brought in the face of a young child who accidentally kicked a soccer ball across it. He carefully, and slowly walked across the line, picked up his ball and joined his friends.

Now, were we in a car, surrounded by police, and that line was getting closer and closer in the front window. I was bracing for the bullet impacts the moment we flew across the line. None came. We stopped about 20 feet inside the kill-zone, and got out of the car. I watch the East German policemen get out of their cars and disappear into the shadows around us. When the driver came over to us, I asked where Checkpoint Charlie was. He pointed to a gap between two buildings and said "Right through there." I started to move in that direction when Ernst (that was his first name) began to make small talk. I figured since we weren't dead and since the police still hadn't dragged us off to some gulag somewhere, that he was connected in some way or another with the Stasi.

So with each question he asked, a smart remark of "Can't tell ya." came back from me and my friend. Finally, he said goodbye, pointed us towards the gap and wished us well. I said bye to him and the other two, and then said goodbye to the policemen around us. We then passed through the gap.

Waiting for us on the other side were East German border guards. Their AK-47s were held at their waist and the muzzles were pointed in our direction. I glanced over the barriers which blocked the roadway between the cities and saw we had the attention of the guards on the west side of The Wall. After a few moments, a Soviet officer, a major if I remember correctly, walked towards us. When he arrived, I saluted him sharply and asked him if his goons could let us go back "to the land of the free and the home of McDonalds." He barked something at them, to which they turned and disappeared into the shadows (the East Germans were good at that). He then escorted us to the pedestrian gate and started in with the small talk.

As we arrived at the gate which lead through The Wall and into West Berlin, he asked what we thought of our visit to East Berlin. I offered to tell him all about it at McDonalds (which was right up the road and visible from where we were standing) and even offered to pay for his meal, but wouldn't accept my offer. So, I turned to him and said, "It was fun here, but I will be glad to get back into the good side of The Wall." He nodded slightly, barked something to someone somewhere and a second later, the remote lock on the gate made some noise and it swung open.

My friend and I walked through, then over to the guard shack on the American side of Checkpoint Charlie where we answered a few questions, said we were okay and asked the best way to get to Templehof. Back at the airport, we were bombarded with questions from our fellow editors until the long day finally caught up with all of us and we turned in.

I was happy to be back in West Berlin and away from the oppression of East Berlin. I was also sad I wasn't going to be able to mess with people's minds for a while. But I knew we were going to get a tour of East Berlin and I would get another chance to become an international incident.

But I'll save that for another post in a couple of days.

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