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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 — Houston, TX

D. M. McStravick

OPINION 11/26/14 3:42am

Ich bin ein Berliner

25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, professor in the practice in mechanical engineering D. M. McStravick remembers his run-in with the Wall.Returning to my office after a Rice University baseball game last June, I stopped to look at the section of the Berlin Wall outside the Baker Institute. Contemplating the wall section and reading the inscription on the plaque brought back memories of some 50 years ago, when I worked in Germany "als Practicant." I went to Germany on an exchange program sponsored by IAESTE (International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience) and found myself working on a drilling rig, which belonged to a German oil company. I lived in the country, renting a little room in a farmhouse. When I say little, I mean it was more like an oversized closet with a strange V-shaped bed, which I actually found to be quite comfortable.While working on the drilling rig, I frequently read “Das Bild,” which at that time was a four-page newspaper, mainly pictures with short articles — just right for my level of German. In the top right-hand corner of the front page, it had the number of days the Berlin Wall had been up. Each day the number increased by one.About midway through the summer, all the foreign Practikants working in Germany went to Hanover for a meeting. At the conference, five of us decided to rent a VW microbus and drive to Berlin after the conference. We were all foreigners: one Brit, one Fin, two Yanks, a Swede and the Fin's girlfriend, plus one German girl who wanted to see her boyfriend in Berlin.We drove on the autobahn to the East German border, where we had to go through "access control." We then entered one of the three land access routes through East Germany into Berlin. It was a narrow strip of land with autobahn and railroad tracks confined by barbed wire fences on either side. Beyond the fences were minefields, or so they said. It was about 100 miles through this no man's land until we reentered the "West," or West Berlin. At this transfer point guards with submachine guns inspected our car, and we finally got through. We found the youth hostel where we had planned to stay and discovered that there was room only for our female passengers. After a rather miserable night sleeping in a construction lot sitting up, the Brit and I set out on the elevated train with an address and some general directions to a different youth hostel. While riding the elevated train, we noticed in the distance a sawhorse and barbed wire barricade. It seemed to snake along next to us and then go away, only to return. Then it became more substantial, like a wall. I began to wondered if it was “The Wall.” We stopped at several stations and as we continued, the wall was still there. Finally, we made a hard left and crossed over this "thing." I thought this could not be The Wall as we did not go back over it. We came to a station and the train stopped. People began getting off. After a while, the Brit and I noticed that we were the only ones left on the train. We looked at each other and wondered what to do. This was the Friedrich Strasse Station, and we were going on to a stop near "Checkpoint Charlie." No one was getting on the elevated train. Finally, we decided this train wasn’t going on any time soon, so we decided to enter the station. As we walked the platform, we saw the submachine-gun-toting guards like we had seen at the border crossing.Finally, we saw a sign in several languages and, unfortunately, I recognized one as definitely Russian. As unbelievable as it seemed, we were in East Berlin. But you can’t just ride the elevated train into the Russian sector, can you? Although it was a puzzle how we got there, we were more concerned about how we were going to get to our next stop. I was hesitant to admit we were non-Germans that had gotten into East Berlin. But after much wandering through the station, I finally asked someone in my limited German where we were and how do we get to Checkpoint Charlie. After some discussion, we were told that we were indeed in East Berlin and should go down to the Unterbahn (subway) to go back out to Checkpoint Charlie and West Berlin.We were very relieved to be back in the West. We found the youth hostel and signed up to spend the next night in relative comfort. That afternoon, we went to Checkpoint Charlie and crossed "properly" into East Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie was the one place where non-Germans could enter East Berlin.The difference between East and West was dramatic. As we traveled the streets of East Berlin, it looked like WWII had just ended a few years earlier. Many of the buildings were still skeletons with the rubble just tossed into the remains of the structures. If you have seen any of the old newsreels of the Berlin airlift, East Berlin looked like it had not made much progress since then, although the airlift took place almost 17 years earlier. West Berlin, on the other hand, was vibrant and fully restored except for a few landmarks like the Kaiser Wilhelm Church Tower, which were intentionally left in partial ruin.The next day we rejoined the group and spent the day sightseeing and swimming in a lake. Because of our sleeping accommodations we planned an extended night of bar hopping. We went to the Kurfurstendamm and watched the street artists drawing with chalk. We had a special beer of Berlin which was a wheat beer mixed with fruit syrup.After having many beers, we were still not ready to sleep in the van. As we walked "home," we saw an illuminated portion of the Wall. At this point we decided it would be fun to take a night walk along the Wall. The first part of the walk was well lit, but as we got farther along, the lighting diminished. At one point we passed a weathered sign on which we could make out, "You are now leaving the British sector." I vaguely remember wondering what sector we were entering, but we went on undaunted. Our goal was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is in the East, but very near the Brandenberg Gate and visible from the West. We had seen it when we visited the Gate earlier in the day and thought it would be interesting to see at night. We finally ended up heading toward a well-lit area (the Tomb), walking along a narrow path that was overgrown with hedges on both sides. We were joking and having a great time. As we proceeded, we began to make out a figure walking toward us. All we could see was a silhouette, but one thing was clear: He carried a submachine gun. We wanted to walk off the path, but the hedge was so thick that it would have been very awkward and would look like a panicked attempt to avoid the oncomer. We decided to play it cool and just keep walking forward.At this point, the "you are now leaving the British sector" sign loomed heavily in my mind. We all sobered up very quickly and tried to look very casual, really hoping this guy spoke English and was not trigger-happy. When we got within earshot, he shouted, "Halt." We stopped, and I wondered, "How do I explain what we were doing?" Even in English it didn’t sound very sensible. In my best German I tried to explain we were just walking the Wall and wanted to go to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The guard quickly realized I was not German and responded in English. Much to our relief, it turned out that he was a West Berlin wall guard (something I did not realize even existed). He cautioned us that it was unwise to walk the wall at night, and, of course, we heartily agreed at this point. We made our way back to the van and decided to get a few hours sleep and then head back to Hanover.When we started out, it was still the middle of the night. As we pulled out of West Berlin, we again went through the guarded barricade and into the access corridor. I have driven a number of lonely roads in South Texas at night, but this no man's land road seemed the most desolate of all that night. We did not see any other cars on the road, going or coming. After an hour or so, we approached a sign announcing a split in the autobahn. We had slowed to a stop to read the signs, and at this point we were passed by the only car we had seen the whole night. We were apprehensive because we did not want to take the wrong path to the West since there were no crossovers and the other corridor went to southern Germany and was considerably longer. We had not gotten gas in Berlin because it was quite expensive. For sure, we did not want to run out of gas on this road. We approached the split in the road, and the car that passed us was waiting for us on the Hanover exit with its lights blinking. I assume they could tell we were from Hanover by our license plates. We fell in behind them and followed them back to West Germany.We arrived in Hanover, and I caught the train and bus back to the location of the drilling rig. In the “dog house” during break, I saw a copy of the Das Bild, and as usual they had on the front page: “Die Mauer ist 10XX Tage alt” (The Wall is 10XX days old). That brief item in the paper now meant so much more to me than it had before my trip. In fact, with my encounters and misadventures, I felt, as Kennedy had said several years earlier, that I too could say: “ICH BIN EIN BERLINER”.I would never forget the stark contrast between East and West Berlin. The “craziness” of ordinary life in such a divided city was hard to imagine unless you had seen it first hand. This tiny outpost of the West in East Germany was like a besieged island in a sea of Communism.When I got back to Rice and compared my summer work with rest of my fellow MECHs, I realized this had been a special experience that most of my classmates would never have. Some 25 years later, watching TV, I remembered those thoughts while watching the Germans knocking down that same wall on November 1989. I really looked in disbelief as sections of the wall fell. What a wonderful sight, and how happy I was to be witness to its demise.