November 2, 2004 at 1:20 am (Uncategorized)

This morning on my way to work after having voted (Excellent turnout in my precinct! They said peeps were in line at 6:00 a.m. There were seven people in front of me, seven behind me and seven at the voting booths!!!) I heard a morning talk show called “Bob and Sherry’s Chatroom.” They pose a different question of the day and people call in. It’s borderline Jerry Springer some days. Today though, they asked people to call in who did not have the right to vote because they had come from another country.

It was pretty sobering to listen to a man from Poland explain how important it was to him that his son had been born in America. How easily we forget…

I’d like to share some stories with you. (Yes, it will be long but I think its worth it)

Über die Mauer (Over the Wall)

The first is about a man, I have forgotten his name, but I can still see his face. I’ll call him Jürgen. (That’s Yergen). I met Jürgen when I was an exchange student in Germany. At the half-year mark, my exchange group met in Berlin. It was January 1989. The Berlin Wall would not fall for another 11 months. We met Jürgen at Checkpoint Charlie. Here we would be able to cross into East Berlin via Friedrichstrasse.

The crossing into East Berlin was a compulsory 12 hour trip. A member of our exchange organization would be watching if we came back earlier. Why? Because they really wanted us to have the East Berlin/German experience. They gave us 20 DM (German Marks) to exchange. Why? Because when you exchanged at the border, it was 1:1. Even though the actual rate was 2:1. Didn’t like it? Oh well, don’t come in. So, we lost 20 East German Marks just by stepping into the country. Oh, and on your way out? You got the regular exchange rate. Meaning, now you were given less money. Crafty Communists huh?

Back to Jürgen. Jürgen told us his story and his hands shook a little as he did so. He was serving his compulsory time in the East German military and was stationed to a guard tower. He told us that you never had guard duty with the same person twice. Orders were to shoot first, never ask questions. He explained the structure of the fences, the trenches and the dogs. He said there was never a time that people did not think about going over the wall. It was different in some areas. Some didn’t have dogs and only one set of fences because it was a low escape area or the terrain was not conducive to going over.

He went on to say the guards did not know each other, were not allowed to speak to one another, play cards or otherwise do anything other than watch the border. That was all they did. He said he was frightened to even talk to the other guard, even though he thought maybe they felt the same that he did. One night, after the other guard fell asleep (no talking, no cards etc. = sleepy), he removed the magazine from his gun. When the guard woke up, Jürgen told him he was going to the toilet. Once at the bottom of the tower, he laid his gun down and ran for it. He said he heard the guard shout but he kept running. I don’t really remember… but I think he said he may have had a pair of wire cutters that he had smuggled in, but don’t hold me to that.

Regardless, he made it across, dropping onto West German land, with only the clothes on his back. His family did not know. He had nothing. He went to the nearest police station and turned himself in. They took his uniform and gave him some western clothes. That was all they did. No housing, no food, no nothing. He was on his own.

Naturally, this had quite an affect on a bunch of 16-19 year olds. He was so emotional about it. It was though he couldn’t even find the words to express his gratitude to be standing there that day. I saw his picture in Time magazine when the Wall came down. He was waiting to go across the border because he was still afraid he would be arrested.

A bit about East Berlin/Germany in the late 80’s…

The majority of the exchange group met at Hbf Hannover (Hbf – Hauptbahnhof – Central Train Station). Berlin was almost exactly due East from Hannover. Having not seen each other for six months, the hour and a half trip to Berlin was full of new German accents, until we reached the border. We were instructed to not take pictures of the border, of the guards or to speak to the guards.

See, the guards would enter the train at the East German border and then exit the train at the West Berlin border. They would issue transit visas as they made they’re way through the railcars. Why? I have no idea. It was just their thing. We dropped the windows at the border and hung out of them to get our first glimpse of East Germany. It could be described in one word: brown. Everything was brown and dead. The grass immediately over the barbed wire fence in West Germany was green, the grass on the East German side was brown. Strangest thing I’ve ever seen.

As the train began moving again, there would be no further stops until the border with West Berlin. But that didn’t stop the people from sitting at the train stations to watch us go past. Ghost stations. Just like the subway stations. The subway still went passed them, but they were empty. Yes, when we rode the subway in West Berlin, it took you underground to the East side, there were just no stops. Same with the train. Empty platforms.

We took pictures of the border anyway, we talked to the guards, who even sat down and talked to us and some even posed for pictures. So, we didn’t listen, neither did they. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the border myself. I do have some from East Berlin though. Perhaps if I ever get a scanner I will scan them.

Anyway, when we crossed into East Berlin it was a 12 hour sentence in a cold, brown hell. Five or more guards stood on every other corner. It was blue fucking cold. The wind seemed twice as cold in the East, I shit you not. And everything was BROWN. People didn’t talk on the streets, unless you were a guard. People huddled and bustled along the streets, in their brown garb with brown scarves wrapped around their heads. It was like sepia in motion. East Berlin at that time had one million inhabitants. I don’t know where they were.

It was as though we stood out like pieces of rainbow against the backdrop of oppression. So, what to do? We went to the Stadt Museum where they charged us 10 pfennig to hold our backpacks. Did I mention you couldn’t take them in with you? Then we were hungry so we went to the grocery store to pool our money for bread and cheese. We stood in line because there was not a buggy/basket available. No buggy/basket, no shopping.

We decided to see if we could find any gems of Communism in the bookstore. We stood in line. No basket/no shopping. The line stretched out the door and we waited in the blue cold for over 45 minutes. We tried striking up a conversation with peeps in front of us but 1) its just not a German thing and 2) they pegged us for Westerners and looked as though if they spoke to us they would be immediately deported to Siberia. I don’t blame them.

Once inside the bookstore I found a lot of interesting books which I never had any intention of reading. I brought them home, they’re in my attic. Might be worth something some day. We walked around a took pictures of the Trabbies, the horrible box-like cars that East Germans drove. Most looked like they had been around since the border closed in 1961. We steered clear of the corner guards and eventually ended up in a small café, once again just to escape the frigid wind.

There were four of us together that day, but there were only three chairs at the table so Vonnie started to pull one over to sit with us when the waitress, sort of panicky, stopped her and told her, only three to table. But there’s four in our group. Only three to a table. So, Vonnie and I sat down with an older woman at a separate table. That’s not uncommon if other seats are not available. I ordered hot chocolate. The woman watched us over the rim of her tea cup.
The waitress brought the hot chocolate which tasted like hot water mixed with chocolate flavored sand. The woman finally asked us where we were from (unusual). Vonnie and I told her we were exchange students from the US living in West Germany. She nodded, put her cup down and left. Wow, making friends and influencing people.

One of our last stops was at the bathroom. The bathrooms were located in subway station like areas. It was 10 pfennig to use the bathroom and they had a bathroom attendant who gave you your toilet paper. Yes, actually unrolled the paper FOR YOU! I paid her 20 pfennig and stuck half of it in my pocket. I do have a nice collection of toilet paper from my travels. It was like… hmmm… the thinnest paper imaginable pressed with sand crystals. Ouch.

I’ll never forget that trip. I shouldn’t forget that trip. If twelve hours was depressing… what about a lifetime?

Halt – es gibt doch Begegnungen mit Amerikanern (Stop – yet there were encounters with Americans)

I’ll attempt to translate in my host father’s own words, his first encounter with Americans.

Papa O.

– My mother and I came to my Oma’s in Taunus (west of Frankfurt) in April. Shortly thereafter, the Americans came and searched the entire village for soldiers. A couple of men for whom the war was already lost, had hidden themselves. They were given up by women whose men were still fighting in the war. The soldiers were placed in jail. They were next seen about two years later. (I will leave out the part where he talks of his father, which I have posted in my “OMA!” post)

My first contact with Americans was in Frankfurt. There is the vicinity of the central train station, my Uncle Alfred had a chess café. Most of the time we were in Frankfurt as my mother was trying to find something to eat. It was a hungry year. This is where I saw, for the very first time, a black man sitting in a truck. Obviously I was a pretty boy with blond hair!! The soldier tried to talk to us and promised in a few days to return and he would bring me something.

And truly, after two days he returned and gave me an entire paper bag full of wonderful things: Chocolate, powdered milk, peanuts and more. Proud, I went home and showed it to my mother. Where did you get this? – was her first question. I took her by the hand and pulled her outside and pointed to the black man. He waved and indicated it was all in order. That was – as far as I know, our first contact with Americans.

I may not agree with everything that happens in my country. I may not agree with our foreign policy. As a matter of fact, I disagree with a whole lot! But that is what we have fought for – the right to disagree. The right to speak our minds without fear of deportation to Siberia. The right to walk on our streets without interference, fear and intimidation by our military. The right to sit two to a 100 at a table, the right to buy the books we want and to travel freely to visit our friends and relatives. The right to chose our leaders through free elections and the right to protest them.

We have fought for others to have these same rights. Whether we agree with the course of action or not, this is what we have done.

This is why I love America. This is why I am proud to be a citizen of the United States of America.

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