50°59’0″ N 11°2’0″ E
My father, a US diplomat, was stationed in East Berlin from 1979 to 1982 and during that time my brother and I would fly back from college during the holidays and for the summers. What we saw then and the stories we ‘collected’ seemed ordinary, that is, until we shared them with our friends back stateside. Here is one:
In August, the son of one of my dad’s diplomatic colleagues invited me along for a train ride to the medieval town of Erfurt; still within the communist-controlled Russian sector, about 300+ km SW of Berlin. The plan was simple. Throw a change of clothes into our rucksacks and carry a full case of fine, Budvar Lager to the train’s platform for the three hour ride south. Burgess assured me that we’d enjoy our tour of the quaint, old town, one that had largely escaped the allies’ bombing campaigns of World War Two.
And so it was that hot, August day as we awaited our train, the only two Americans in a sea of sad and grey East Germans huddled on the old rail platform. The Wall would imprison these people for another nine years, though at the time it seemed that it would stand forever.
When we boarded the old passenger car, we found one of the worn, wooden benches and placed our prized case of beer between us. I can still see the others, all quiet and afraid to make contact with the Westerners for fear of being questioned by their internal police (the Stasi). Come to find out years later, after the fall of the Wall, that our family’s dossier had grown to an impressive 500 pages! I’m half-curious to read it someday, maybe…
Lurching off abruptly, the train slowly gathered speed along the old tracks as it began its southwesterly course, the passengers each beginning to lower their windows for circulation.
“Want one?”, Burgess asked handing over one of the almost liter-sized Czech beers.
“Heck yeah!” and the drinking began. Something about a beer from a place that’s been in business for over 700 years.
My friend was a Sophomore at Princeton when a careless driver hit him on the Key Bridge in Washington, D.C. early that year. He’d come to East Berlin in a half body cast and was now down to just one arm cast and naturally in great spirits. A gentle giant, I really enjoyed my two months with that guy.
Suddenly and without warning, the emergency brakes press the train to an abrupt stop and he and I land in the laps of the East German sitting across from us.
“What the hell…?”, I asked.
Wiping off our spilled beers, we saw nothing for a few minutes then, a wave of military helicopters buzzed us overhead! And more came. We peered out our window to try to get a better view when one of the older passengers cautioned us back to sit down. Curiosity now peaked, we wondered what was happening.
We’d exited the thick forests a few minutes earlier and had come into wide open fields and over to the north, we could see a massive cloud of dust, almost akin to Oklahoma in the Dust Bowl. What on earth was going on?
“Looks like we’re stuck for a while. Want another?”
Then they came; first the T-72 tanks and then behind them, artillery being towed by troop carriers and then thousands and thousands of infantry. Absolutely incredible. Funny helmets, almost looked like those worn by the Brits in WWI, but flatter and wider. And they continued to come in this ever increasing dust storm.
We looked at each other in disbelief, drinking our Budvars, amidst the local people on this hot summer day, dust now coming through the windows. The thunderous noise was overwhelming and the ground shook as the tanks came over the tracks in a crescendo of coordinated military activity.
Then the last ones made their way across, the dust settled, and we could see them heading over the bridge, crossing the Elbe River. And as soon as the chaos had begun, it seemed to have died down just as quickly and the engine noise quieted to an eerie stillness as we all waited.
The older couple sitting across from us barely made eye contact. In their early sixties, they must have been just a bit older than us when the war ended. The woman had a distant look to her. Lord only knows what they had seen in their lives.
Without warning, the train lurched suddenly back to life and we were off to Erfurt once again. Who knows now who the tail assigned to us was that day? It would be interesting to read the entry into our dossier, something buried deep within the old Stasi vaults in Germany gathering dust.
It was only recently that I’d put the pieces together. Lech Wałęsa, the now-famous Polish labor leader, had jumped the fence into the shipyard in Gdansk a few days prior, instigating a massive strike. For a few, tense days, it looked like his revolution would prevail, a repeat of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. When I recounted that story to the full-bird USAF colonel later in 1996, while touring the Krunichev Rocket Plant outside of Moscow, he leaned over and shared that we had gone to DEFCON ___ for just a short while that day.
Strange how we can be in the bullseye and not even have a clue. Sometimes youthful ignorance really is bliss.
[Featured image from pixabay.com; no attribution required by photographer (tpsdave/971)]