BERLIN WALL MEMORIES
President Ronald Reagan represented America at the The Berlin Wall in 1987. He said, “Mr. Gorbohev, tear down that wall!” The Soviet press agency Tass accused Reagan of giving an "openly provocative, war-mongering speech.” But Reagan being Reagan, he didn’t give one toot what the Soviets thought. In 1989, a mere two years after Reagan’s speech, the wall came tumbling down. I wish America had such leadership today. I wish President Obama had been there to celebrate the 28th anniversary of the fall of the wretched wall. But Obama being Obama, failed to be where he should have been and represent America. Apparently Mr. Obama didn’t want to upset the Russians.
The ugly concrete wall (Die Berliner Mauer) dividing East from West Germany was seven and a half miles long, twelve foot high, gash across the city. Volkspolitizei (East German police) guards shot anyone attempting to escape East Berlin into the free West. Two hundred East Berliners died attempting to escape to freedom. I watched the end-of-the-wall celebration on TV in amazement, wishing I were there to join in the joy. I had a personal experience with the Berlin Wall. I once was there with Marlene and three of our kids.
In 1985, when I was Mayor Pro-Tem of the Moreno Valley City Council (California), our family was in Germany on vacation as well as to visit our daughter Robyn who worked there. We drove our rented VW bus on the autobahn corridor 110 miles from Helmstadt in West Germany through East Germany to the free “island” of West Berlin. Had we exited the guarded Helmstadt-Berlin autobahn we would have been arrested. West Berlin was a beautiful and vibrant impressive city. The Berliner-weisse beer at an outdoor cafe on Kurfurstendamm main street was memorable and, further down the street, so was shopping at the big 100 year old KaDeWe department store.
In West Berlin we stayed in military quarters (I’m USAF retired) located at the historic Templehof Airport, terminus of the Berlin Airlift. We then ventured into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie past the Berlin Wall, and took the Ubahn (underground train) to the Alexanderplatz area for lunch and shopping. Incredible. East Berlin was everything West Berlin was not. What I had thought were Grade B movies that exaggerated the sadness of the communist sector were no exaggeration at all. The Ubahn subway in West Berlin was crowded and bustling. In contrast, the Ubahn in East Berlin was nearly deserted, and little traffic on the streets. There were no souvenirs at a near-empty department store, but we did buy some china.
Returning to the Berlin Wall to exit the Communist zone, we were detained by the East German volkspolitzei (police) for over an hour in a tiny windowless room, searched, and interrogated with a “good cop-bad cop” routine about why we were there, and how we had handled the money exchange rate between West and East German money. It was a frightening experience for me, my wife, and our three kids who accompanied us. They didn’t know (and I didn’t want them to know) I was Air Force Retired Reserve. I had purposely left my military ID card in West Berlin. The situation ended during a shakedown in which I "agreed" to “deposit” leftover money in my wallet at an East Berlin “bank” for “safekeeping.” I'll never see that dough again.
The next day back in West Berlin, I wanted to see the tiny enclave of the Steinstucken community, accessible only through a a narrow three mile road closely bordered by the Berlin Wall and guard towers. Photographer that I am, I had learned from a guidebook that a trail led to a break in the wall guarded by only a guard tower. I trod the trail to its terminus and there was the tower. Zooming my camera lens in on the tower, I found myself looking into the hole of a rifle barrel aimed at me by the guard - more of a photo op than I needed.
That did it. We beat a hasty retreat back to West Berlin proper. I knew the East German Police were watching me, had my name and license plate number, and our family didn’t need any more adventures. So for safety I checked in with my military identification with the American military in West Berlin. They provided official military travel orders for driving back to the safety of West Germany, and loaned us military vehicle license plates for our German rental car (I hid the German plates inside the car). It occurred to me that that travel to Communist Germany should be required for American high school graduation, to help students appreciate the Blessings of our United States.
Had President Obama and his family had my experience with the Berlin Wall, maybe he would have attended the anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down. Hope springs eternal.