Saturday, November 04, 2006

Checkpoint Charlie and all that

In my continuing effort to add eyewitness accounts to the Content sections, herewith my visit to Berlin in the summer of 1957:

Ryan and I left Orleans by train, went to Paris, then Hamburg, where somehow or other we caught a plane to West Berlin. It was a commercial flight and cost something on the order of $20 round-trip, a big chunk out of our corporals' salary of $80 a month. It was night by this time, and all I remember of the flight was how black East Germany was. The frontier was obvious, because the lights went out. In the German Democratic Republic there were no streetlamps, no houselights, and no automobile headlamps. The only thing to break the night was a single dim bulb at each train station along the railroad track to Berlin.

Ah, but once we got there! West Berlin was a glistening city, and the Ku'dam was a great place for two soldiers on leave to go walking. (West Germany had recovered from obvious war damage much better than Britain had, though life in both countries was about equally dreary--the food especially--twelve years after the war ended.) We struck up a conversation with two girls who were sweeping the walkways in a park, using my German Without Toil book as a pointee-talkee aid. They wore cotton print shifts--a uniform, I suppose--cut off at the shoulders. As a hygienic American, I was startled that they hadn't shaved under their arms. I'd never seen powderpuff armpits before.

We walked to the burned-out Reichstag parliament building, which was in the American sector but had a Russian soldier with a Tommy gun walking sentry duty. He foiled our attempts to take his picture, by wheeling about and walking away whenever we pointed our cameras.

The first thing that greeted us after Checkpoint Charlie ("You Are Leaving the American Sector") was a double rank of propaganda posters, showing fat American capitalists in top hats, large atomic bombs marked with the dollar sign, and the like, which we duly photographed. There wasn't much else to be seen in East Berlin. Here and there, on the ironically named Karl Marx Alee, there was a middle-aged woman with a shawl and a hammer, down on her knees, chipping away at chunks of rubble in order to salvage the bricks for future construction. The same was true on Lenin Platz, where a fine statue of the first Soviet dictator watched the women at work.

Meanwhile the Vopos goose-stepped about and did their best to look menacing, but when you are in your twenties (and American!) you aren't troubled by coppers. They wouldn't stamp my passport, which annoyed me; I was collecting visas and always used the passport rather than leave papers when traveling about Europe.

Next day we flew back to Hamburg and took a train to Copenhagen, which was a lot more fun. On the Gedser Ferry we met two more girls, Swedes this time, and got on so famously that Ryan decided that nothing would do but we must rent a car and drive them home--to Sweden. Which we did.


At 9:15 AM, Blogger David J. Betz said...

These are fascinating stories Dan. Are they from a journal? Makes me wish I was more diligent about keeping my own.

I can say with confidence that I am amongst the last hundred or so people to cross through Checkpoint Charlie before the Wall came down. I was in Berlin on 9 November. Throughout the day there were crowds forming on the eastern side. We decided to cross over from the West. Easy to do, the major irritation being that the East Germans were compellling all visitors to exchange 50 deutschmarks for 50 Ostmarks--not exactly a fair rate of exchange. So we went across and wandered around watching this building excitement on the eastern side. Finally, it being cold and us being hungry, we found a 'Vietnamese'-German restaurant near the wall where we spent our 50 Ostmarks on peppermint schnapps and lychees in syrup from a can (absolutely foul combo--don't try it). That was all they had. Then we crossed back over and went to a bar. Later that night the East Germans opened the gates and the rest was history.

At 5:54 PM, Blogger Dan Ford said...

Helas, no journal extant, but I did write it up at the time, and I have a very good memory for words that I once put on paper.

I don't think that Ryan and I bought *anything* in East Berlin. Evidently the Vopos weren't as sophisticated then as in 1989.


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