Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Memories of The Wall

The recent 20th anniversary celebrating the destruction of the Berlin Wall got me to thinking about my own time spent in West Berlin. Yeah, that's right: WEST Berlin. See, I went to Europe with Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp during the summer before my senior year in high school…1985, to be exact. Wow. A lifetime ago, when I really look at it. I went as part of the now-defunct Bavarian Tour, which focused on Germany, Denmark and Switzerland. The other option was the International Tour, which went to a lot more countries, but the band consisted only of U.S. kids, whereas the Bavarian group was about half-&-half U.S. AND European kids…a makeup I found much more culturally appealing. We flew to Germany from Detroit and spent 10 days in the smallish town of Rottenbuch. BLFAC kept a large quasi-hotel there where we stayed & rehearsed before heading out by bus to our various concert sites.

Our very first concert was in West Berlin, meaning of course we had to go through EAST Berlin to get there. Getting INTO East Germany was never the problem; getting back OUT could occasionally be tricky. We were told by the folks running the show that we were to say nothing to the guards who would board the bus and take our passports: no laughing, no conversation, no eye contact. Put your passport in the basket, keep your eyes on the floor in front of you, and we should be fine. Naturally, this kind of forewarning makes not laughing nearly impossible…just like in church or at a funeral, the idea of, say, blasting a fart is almost too good to pass up. But I'll tell ya what: when those guards got on the bus, in their drab green-grey trenchcoats and helmets, fully-loaded submachine guns held at the ready…I never felt less like laughing in my life! (Machine guns stink; in my memory, it's an odd combination of oil and steel, with perhaps a little smoke thrown in.)

A guy named Dave and I stayed with a delightful host family in West Berlin: rich, the guy was a doctor, and I remember he drove like a fucking madman on the autobahn from the bus drop-off to their house. He served us room-temperature beer (which was new to me at the time) and we never wanted for anything. They made us promise to send Christmas cards and the like, which of course I did precisely once. (Sorry, folks! You really were tremendous people!) We had, I think, two concerts over three days in W. Berlin, which left lots of time for sightseeing. As a group we were taken to the Berlin Wall, whose political significance meant little to me at the time…but I'm now glad I had the opportunity to see in person what feels like a very important piece of history.

We actually had a picnic lunch at Checkpoint Charlie, arguably the most famous gate between East and West Berlin. "Our" side of the wall was covered with graffiti, and we could walk right up to the wall, touch it, even pretend to boost a friend over it. There was a platform at Checkpoint Charlie you could climb to see over to the other side, and from that vantage point I saw how utterly clean - and malignant - that cement wall really was. Cold, grey, sturdy and seeming immovable, the Eastern side of the wall was fronted by 25 or 50 feet of "no man's land." A long curlicue of razor wire separated this no-man's land and the Eastern part of the city, and if you were stupid enough to try to navigate that you were shot on sight before you ever had a chance to get close to the wall. THAT'S how serious the communist regime of East Berlin was. The city on the other side of that wall looked lifeless, bloodless…not a person could be seen, just a grim tableau that reminds me of many areas in modern Detroit.

Our scary part of East Germany occurred when we left the city to head to Denmark. We got out of W. Berlin fine, but were stopped once again for passport inspection at the East German border. One of the Dutch kids on the trip had a discrepancy in his paperwork: on the list showing who was on the bus he was "Frank," but on his passport he was "Francis." That's all. And we were kept at the border for six hours. I was a politically-ignorant 17-year old…but that was a scary time, let me tell you. I really got the sense that, "Shit, they could just…refuse to let us pass!"

When I think of the Berlin Wall now, I think of a different time: Cold War politics and James Bond and Spy vs. Spy…and I'm reminded that fences won't keep humanity apart. Not real ones, and certainly not ideological ones. We figure out a way to get through to each other in the end…but sometimes there's bloodshed first.


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