October 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 5
A Once-In-A-Lifetime Experience
In the Summer of 1978 my wife, Betts, and I drove through Europe. After touring West Berlin, we decided to visit the eastern part of the city. At Checkpoint Charlie we walked through a complicated network of wire cages. At the end we stood and waited until the guard behind a gate chose to unlock it and let us in. I felt like a trained mouse being lured through a maze, and the sensation was not comfortable. The authorities took their good, sweet time processing our papers: one hour.
Once admitted, we walked for hours looking at a city in a state of disrepair. There were trees growing out of the tops of several damaged buildings; as long as the Russians were still around, the East Germans had scant incentive to rebuild. It was a Saturday and the stores were closed, so there was nothing to buy. We picked up a newspaper in a hotel lobby.
All the windows of the buildings facing the Wall had been bricked up. Along the Wall were guard towers with machine guns, tank traps, mines, guard dogs, and barbed wire. There were platforms where families stood to see over into the West and wave to their relatives who were free. They waved and waved; it was heartbreaking to see. We spent the morning watching people, then stopped at a hotel for lunch and visited a museum.
In the afternoon we headed back to the West. When we reached the checkpoint a guard began shouting at Betts in German. We did not know what he was saying, and there was no one to translate. Was he angry that we had failed to spend the required $12 each during our visit? There had been nothing to spend it on. In frustration Betts dumped the contents of her handbag onto the counter so he could see that she was hiding nothing. She was furious, and her expression made it clear. I thought the East Germans might arrest her. When finally the guard indicated that she could go, my wife gathered her belongings and we hurried back through the long corridor of cages. It felt wonderful to get home to the West. It was an interesting experience but not one we would care to repeat.
The following day we drove alongthe perimeter of the Wall, looking at the markers commemorating those who had been killed trying to escape. At one point we stopped the car, got out, and were looking over the Wall into East Berlin. I was holding my camera, and through the telephoto lens I saw a guard in a tower aim a machine gun at me. Before I had time to do anything, a jeep raced up beside us and two British soldiers jumped out, pointing their guns at the guard. They didn’t say anything to us and they didn’t have to. We thanked them, quickly got back in our car, and drove away.
—Jack Marck is a retired history and geography teacher living in Bel Air, Maryland .
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