Friday, August 17, 2007

Behind The Iron Curtain, Part II

I had planned to continue a previous post last night, but I went out on a walking photo safari and, even though I drank plenty of water, still came down with a bit of heat exhaustion. In the end, I couldn't think straight and decided I'd to continue it this evening.

So, in the last amazing chapter of my time behind the Iron Curtain, myself and a friend had just returned from a rather interesting self-guided tour of East Berlin. Our first day in Berlin had turned into a really interesting time. But it wasn't to end with that first day.

For the next week or so, we attended conference activities and even put out the local newspaper for Templehof Airport when the regular editor went on leave. We also visited a variety of places in West Berlin, from the offices of the largest newspaper to the offices of magazines published in West Berlin. The tours were interesting and added a lot to our knowledge of the job we did.

But the day came when the group of editors from the southern reaches of the U.S. Air Force in Europe were to travel into East Berlin on a bus tour of the Soviet portion of the divided city. This time, instead of walking through the gate at Checkpoint Charlie, we rode through it in a blue bus. I don't remember the exact route we took, or the order in which we arrived at the places we went, but I am sure our first stop was at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Inside the tomb is a monument to the unknown soldiers who died fighting fascism. There was some really nice tile mosaics and an eternal flame inside the building. After we had looked it over, we went back outside to await the changing of the guard. At that time, the tomb had two East German soldiers standing on either side of the entrance. The soldiers held their weapons in the palm of their hands, with their hands placed against their side about two thirds of the way down from their shoulder to their waist. I knew it was a difficult way to hold the rifle.

Under the foot of each guard was a switch. When their arm tired, the pressed on the switch and a bell would ring. One second after the bell finished ringing, the guards would, in unison, switch the weapon to their other arm. A sensible way to do things to keep the guards from dropping their rifles.

Now, the guards faced outward towards the people in the street in front of them. Behind them was a walkway which was similar to a porch. When I left the inside part of the tomb, I walked along the porch area and stopped directly behind the guard who was on the left side of the building as you looked at it. I was several feet behind him, but still visible to those on the street. I soon realized people were taking our photo. For most, it was probably a "Good Guy, Bad Guy" photo with me being the bad guy. But I didn't care...I knew where I was.

Then the guard began to realize something was going on also, what with all these people taking his photo. As I stood behind this young man, I stood tall with a large smile and my chin held high. And then I noticed very slight movements in the head of the guard. I could only imagine him trying to glance behind his back to see what was so photogenic back there (not that I am photogenic, I was the bad guy remember?). So as his head made slight twitches to his right, I took one giant step forward and to my right, and into his peripheral vision.

Well, he lost it. His weapon started to waiver, his head shook, and his bell rang. Figuring he already blew it, he turned looking right at me and scowled, then switched the arm holding his weapon. I'm sure if it had been loaded, he probably would have emptied it into me. I walked off the walkway and joined my fellow editors in the crowds waiting to watch the changing of the guards. When it was finished, I am sure there was one East German glad he wasn't on duty anymore.

I got a kick out of that and figured I had gotten the troop in trouble. But I wasn't finished. As our bus moved along the roads of East Berlin, we came upon a four lane road. Not long after we got on that road, a military truck pulled up along side of us. I need to set the stage right now with a description of our bus load of people. All but one of us, were men. The woman was a stunning redhead named Deb. She was sitting several seats in front of me looking out the window on the side where the military truck pulled along of us. I was in the back of the bus.

This military truck was a Soviet truck. I could tell by the markings it belonged to the Russians. In the back of the truck, on both sides, sat Soviet troops, most likely conscripted soldiers of the USSR. In the middle, in the front of the back bed, sat a large, nasty looking NCO.

It didn't take the troops in the truck to notice Deb. They started stealing glances towards her and those whose backs were to our bus, began turning around to see for themselves. When I noticed Deb was the object of attention, I said, "Deb, start blowing them kisses or something." And she did. She no more than got started when the troops on the far side of the truck moved over to our side and those whose backs had been facing us were now turned around. They were reaching out for Deb's kisses and smiling and saying something in Russian I didn't understand.

But it all ended as soon as the NCO in the front of the truck bed barked something. They all immediately returned to their seats, their eyes staring straight ahead. Deb had stopped what she had been doing, but I was in the back of the bus laughing. And then I locked my gaze on the large NCO in the front of the truck bed. His gaze was directly on me. I guess he knew I instigated the performance and his stare on me was one that would have killed if it could have. I stared back and the two of us didn't break our stare until the truck turned off onto another street. Again, I felt good and I knew I showed that Soviet NCO that this particular US Air Force NCO wasn't afraid of him or his troops at all.

We continued on with our tour. At one point we passed Hitler's Bunker, or what was left of it. It sat in an open field surrounded by nothing, giving no indication what it was to anyone who didn't know. And then the tour continued.

Soon, we entered an area which looked important and moments later, our tour guide told us how important the area was. The building we were soon to pass on right was the equivalent to our White House. It was the home of the chancellor of East Germany. As I looked forward in the direction we were travelling I noticed the road we were on was a single lane, winding road which cut its way through what would have been a park setting anywhere else. In East Berlin, it was just one more open area surrounding a large, important building. As we passed the building, I looked towards it and saw a black sedan heading our way from the building. When it got to the road we were on, it turned left and headed towards us.

With me sitting in the back of the bus, I had a nice view of what happened next. The driver of the car sped up, got right on our tail and tried to go around us. The road being a single lane road also had curbing on it which was maybe 10 inches high. In the back of the car, I could see someone lean forward, look at me, say something to the driver and then lean back. At that point, the driver unsuccessfully tried to go over the curbing and around us. It was then I noticed the license plate on the car. It read, "DDR 1." It was the car of the chancellor and it was probably him the in the backseat. At this point, the driver started blowing his horn.

When our tour guide heard the racket, our he asked me what was going on back there and I told him some guy in a black sedan with plate number DDR 1 is trying to get around us. He laughed and said let him try. I then asked if he was who I thought he was and was told he probably was. I then looked back at the driver who now was trying to wave us to the side so him could get by.

If our bus driver had hugged either side of the road we were on, there may have been enough room for the car to pass, but our driver was hogging the road and as I watched the driver frantically wave, and the man in the back lean forward and look at me, I shrugged my shoulders and flipped them the bird. I then flashed a large smile and watched as the car began falling behind. By this time I was laughing so hard, I was rolling around in my seat. The look on the face of the driver said everything. Total confusion.

A few minutes later, we arrived at the Soviet Military Cemetery in East Berlin. It is a beautiful cemetery and in respect for the men and women who lost their life fighting Hitler's Germany, I showed proper respect for the fallen. I took a number of photos there, and even got into a conversation with a gentleman and his family from Romania.

When the tour was over, we headed for Checkpoint Charlie. We were heading back to West Berlin. I must admit I enjoyed our tour of East Berlin and I know there are a number of people who probably still wonder who that asshole American was on that day.

But what made all of what I did so special for me, was the fact the day we decided to tour East Berlin, was the 60th anniversary of the October Revolution and I am sure the troops I got in trouble in the back of that truck were going to do something for the celebration. And the chancellor guy I flipped off was probably trying to get to some celebration with his Soviet puppeteers, thinking they would never believe his excuse for being late. And that guard at the tomb probably still has nightmares about that split second moment he caught sight of me moving behind him.

Even today, I laugh at what I did that day. We were in the middle of the Cold War and what better way is there to fight a Cold War, than to confront the enemy on their home field. That, I am proud of.

But if anyone reading this remembers me from that day, today I say, "I am sorry if I caused you any trouble." And to the NCO in the back of that truck, I know you know what I was doing. I hope you didn't take it out on our troops too badly.

Berlin was a temporary assignment I will never forget. Those two weeks there were better than any three years I could have lived there had my assignment there gone through.

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