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History Buffs: Checkpoint Charlie (very long)

Discussion in 'Open Discussion (Work-safe)' started by Saw31, Feb 19, 2005.

  1. Saw31

    Saw31 High Seas Rogue

    Awhile back there was a thread where many of you proclaimed your love for the History Channel. I thought that some of you might be interested in a story of a young Saw31’s experience with history. I will try to narrate the story as if it were taking place now to hopefully give some insight to what I was thinking and feeling at the time. This will obviously be a mix of my youthful memories and the impressions of a much older Saw31. I will also say that the details are true to the best of my recollection, but this is not meant to be a historical document, but rather a fun story from what I can piece together from my memory some 20+ years later. I use some license when quoting “Hanz” or was it “Franz”? I hope you history buffs enjoy.

    <O:p></O:p>

    It is sometime in March, 1984 and this is our third day in West Berlin. As we toured the city yesterday, I was struck by how modern this city is. The same streets that were completely destroyed during Hitler’s war are now the picture of a modern city. It is nothing like the rest of Germany that I have seen this last week, where you can almost feel the weight of centuries riding down each narrow, cobble-stoned street. This city could be any city in America. The contrast from what I’ve seen to this point is quite amazing. Anyway, today is the day. Today we will be one of the first groups of western tourists allowed to travel through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin. As if going through the Berlin Wall into communist East Germany wasn’t enough, everyone’s nerves are seriously frayed from last night. The police came to our hotel at around midnight to wake us and let us know there was a terrorist attack on American servicemen at a local West Berlin nightclub. My father was up half the night making sure all his students were present and accounted for. Many of us our wondering how safe it is to go out today, but I guess the show must go on.

    <O:p></O:p>

    We are up at 6:30am, much to my dismay, to catch the tour bus waiting for us outside the hotel. After we all board, our tour guide, Hanz, boards the bus and takes his seat at the front. Hanz has been great. A man in his late fifties with gray hair, he’s a funny guy who obviously loves his job. But today, he doesn’t have that same joyful look. He looks worried. He stands up and grabs the microphone and begins spelling out the day’s schedule. We will go through Checkpoint Charlie and then tour East Berlin, stopping somewhere for lunch and then coming back to the hotel in the late afternoon. Then he begins to tell us what we are expected to do at the checkpoint. “Stay seated. No talking. No taking pictures and it would be better to just leave your camera here because it may be confiscated. If you do bring your camera and they take it, you will not be getting it back. Get your passport out so it’s at the ready. Do not try and engage in conversation with the border police. Answer any questions they may have quickly, without small talk.” This certainly isn’t easing our already frayed nerves, but it is time to go.

    [​IMG]
    We reach the checkpoint somewhere around 8:00am. Our bus sits in a line with several other vehicles. You can see the border police up ahead searching the vehicles in front of us and checking their papers. I look around and can see that I’m not the only one who is getting nervous. Hanz reminds us of the rules once again before it is our turn. The bus pulls up next to the guard shacks and two border police enter the bus. Both are carrying machine guns and are obviously not very excited to see us. I’ve never seen a machine gun before and it is very intimidating. Are there real bullets in there? I’m sure there are after seeing the videos of the people who have tried escaping from these men. My stomach has turned upside down with fear and I can see I’m not alone. One of the men stays up front, keeping a watchful eye on us, while the other begins by asking Hanz and the bus driver some questions in German. I’m sitting near the back of the bus and am watching as the man starts down the aisle. He’s checking passports and asking some to remove their hats and then searches their bags and purses. Her camera is gone. Why didn’t I just leave my camera at the hotel?! I can’t believe it, he’s searching everybody! Oh no, my turn! Please don’t ask me anything; I don’t know German and I can’t understand your English. Oh, Thank you, seeing how young I am, he only wants me to remove my hat and see my passport and then moves on. My camera made it. After they leave the bus, we sit there for a little while longer. I feel much safer now that they have left the bus and take the time to look around. I am sitting at the exact place where so many times Soviet and American tanks faced off, staring down the barrels of their guns at each other. The epicenter of this decades old Cold War! The place where the world nearly ended several times! Where it could still end! The giants of history and all of mankind have looked to this small piece of land on which I sit, just waiting for one side to flinch! My god, I am straddling the Iron Curtain! Me, a 12 year old boy from Ohio; I sit at the center of 20<SUP>th</SUP> century history and on the fault line of tyranny and freedom! What would Churchill or Kennedy say to me if they could see me now?! What would President Reagan say?! Maybe the President even knows I’m here right now! This is incredible!

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]
    <O:p></O:p>
    We are finally allowed to proceed through the checkpoint, and as we cross into East Berlin, I look out the windows to the left and right. I see the fifty or so yards of the “killing zone” where so many have lost their lives trying to escape to the west. The area is a neat and precisely laid out killing area. The ground is layered with what looks like river stone and is perfectly flat. It looks like a giant baseball warning track, running right up to the Berlin Wall, that someone has spent weeks raking to perfection. Barbed wire and tanks obstacles run as far as I can see, lined up in perfect rows. Though I can’t see them, I know there are thousands of land mines buried just below the surface. Behind the “killing zone” are several towers where armed men look down on the area and across the wall into West Berlin. There is nowhere to hide in this “killing zone”.

    [​IMG]
    <O:p></O:p>

    With the “killing zone” behind us, we enter East Berlin. This can’t be the same city we just left. After seeing all the modern buildings with their mirrored glass and beautiful colors, we now enter a city of drab grays and browns. It is as if the sun has hidden behind the clouds when we crossed the checkpoint. Where are all the people? West Berlin was a bustling metropolis, with people everywhere. Now all I see are nearly empty streets and armed troops on the corners. The few people I do see walk briskly with their heads down. They wear plain colored overcoats, the women all but covering their faces with scarves and shawls. Nothing like the west where you may see someone in an expensive suit next to someone with a green or pink mohawk and a Harley jacket. There are no billboards, no signs other than street signs, and again, no color. The difference is truly amazing and shocking.

    <O:p></O:p>

    As we move through the city, Hanz tells us why we see so few cars. Most people are either walking or riding bicycles. “It takes seven years for someone to get a drivers license. And then, most cannot afford cars anyway. So as you can see, most people ride bicycles or ride the buses.” The cars we do see are very small and appear to be decades old. The cars’ shapes and colors are reminiscent of American cars from the fifties, but without the size, style or class. They are loud and very dirty looking with black smoke pouring out of the tailpipes. Quite a contrast to the west where it was not unusual to see a BMW taxicab. As we pull in to a small restaurant for lunch, I see the very first color I’ve seen since entering the east. A bright red coca-cola vending machine! Where did this come from? After nearly four hours of nothing but brown and gray brick buildings, this is certainly a strange site. We finish our lunch and head back to Checkpoint Charlie. The guards again board the bus and check our passports. They also have the driver get out of the bus and open the luggage compartment underneath the bus. The search is thorough and they do not get off the bus until the entire bus is searched, but again, my camera makes it through. I am not as nervous as the first time because Hanz has informed us that the guards know the bus only stopped one time during the visit. I assume this means we were followed throughout the day, but I can’t be sure. Once back in the west, the mood lightens on the bus. We are all thankful to be back at the hotel. We all feel as if we have been through some kind of “Rite of Passage” and that we are back in a place where we can be free again.


    [​IMG]

    It’s been over twenty years since I took my historical trip and while some of the memories have faded, the impressions remain as strong as ever. While only a small taste, this is what tyranny is. This is the difference between “Us” and “Them”. The 30 or 40 minutes I spent at Checkpoint Charlie going into East Berlin has made a lasting impression on me and is what I remember the most about this trip. The fear I felt sitting there waiting to be searched is a fear that millions lived with every day for decades. I have never been quite the same.
     
    BUCKYLE likes this.
  2. BB73

    BB73 Loves Buckeye History Staff Member Bookie '16 & '17 Upset Contest Winner

    I was at Checkpoint Charlie in 2001. Obviously there's no tension like there was before the wall came down on Nov. 9, 1989, but it's still a very interesting place. They still have the sandbags around the guardhouse in the middle of the street.

    There's a great museum right by the actual Checkpoint. It has numerous stories of those who escaped into West Berlin and some who tried but failed. There are some grim pictures of bodies in the barb-wire.

    One of the more memorable escapes to me was the person who cut the sides out of two suitcases, placed them next to each other on a train and laid down with part of himself in each suitcase. He made it.

    At the end of the path through the museum they have a VW beetle, with a sign saying 'Can you find where the person hid in this car?' It can take quite a while, and some folks give up searching. The person hid inside the passenger seat of the VW Bug, by hollowing it out and having the body inside the seatback and the legs inside the seat cushion.

    Necessity truly is the mother of invention. Anyway, if you get to Berlin I recommend the Checkpoint Charlie museum.
     

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