Thursday, December 22, 2011

Checkpoint Charlie (T 1 - Berlin 1960s)

It’s a grandfather’s privilege, universally acknowledged, to bore his grandchildren with tales of his younger days. I miss out on that, because my granddaughters don’t speak English well enough to get the full benefit. All I can do is wait until they are fluent enough to read my memoirs. In the absence of memoirs, there are my blog postings. So I’m going to start slipping in occasional reports like the one below. Will they enjoy them, when they’re older? Ah well, that’s not my department. I deal in stories, not enjoyment...

It was 1965, at the end of a week’s driving through East Germany from Poland. It was 11.30 p.m., our visas would expire at midnight, and the East German border guards were refusing to let us cross into US-occupied West Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie. With the brashness of youth, and some experience of evading a few minor border formalities elsewhere in the Soviet Empire, I set out to change their minds. My smattering of German had served us well in similar negotiations. A smattering is sometimes much better than fluency; with a smattering, you aren’t expected to understand everything that’s said.

“It is forbidden to enter West Berlin except from West Germany.” (West Berlin was an enclave in East Germany, with access restricted to three long corridors.) I didn’t actually know that, though we had been warned by Westerners we had met along the way. Pitching up so close to midnight was a gamble.

“But two years ago I visited East Berlin for a day and crossed back at this exact place.”

“That was a day visit, sir. This time you want to formally enter the West from East Germany, and it is forbidden to exit East Germany here at this place. You must drive around to some authorised exit, cross into West Germany, and enter West Berlin on the autobahn. Is that clear?”

“Yes, it is clear, and thank you. But the nearest exit is sixty kilometres away, and I don’t have enough petrol to drive that far, and we have spent all our East German currency.”

“Then you must buy some. You cannot cross here. It is forbidden. Do you understand that?”

But no exchange was open at midnight in East Berlin, and no service station, and we were within ten minutes of being in East Germany illegally and subject to arrest. I explained this, and held out my crossed wrists with the most disappointed expression I could manage. Linda watched this pantomime in horror, and in another few seconds she would begin giving serious voice to her concern. The guards could see that as well as I could.

The crossing at that time was a sort of obstacle course of brick walls and sharp corners, with signs in German and English warning us to drive v-e-r-y slowly. We made it to the American checkpoint with two or three minutes to spare – to be greeted with the utmost suspicion. Sunglasses at night on soldiers with guns never indicate a warm welcome.

“Hey, buddy, you can’t enter here! You have to go round to the autobahn.” I shrugged, and let the situation speak for itself. How come they let you through? They never let people cross here. It’s forbidden. Jesus! This is crazy. Look at these passports, guys! Holy crap!

It was a Cold War first, we gathered. Maybe it was unique. Certainly, nobody has ever believed my story. “They could have shot you as you drove through”, the sergeant said. Well, maybe. But they were nice fellows, just doing their job. Maybe, too, they felt a guilty thrill in ignoring the rules and using their initiative for once. That occasionally happens in dictatorships.

The Berlin Wall lasted for another full generation. I’d like to have watched it being torn down, and I’d like to have a small piece of the hut at Checkpoint Charlie, for old times’ sake. I’m told the hut has been moved to a nearby museum now, where there are photos of the old obstacle course. One photo has a little white VW driving the course. The photo was taken in daylight, so I know it’s not my car. All the same...