Remembering Charlie

November 2, 2009

Not many people, least of all Germans, will have shared my sentiment; but when the Berlin Wall fell and Checkpoint Charlie, that fortress of barriers, steel gates and watchtowers, was swept away with it, I felt almost as if I was losing old friends.
As a young Reuters correspondent based in East Berlin in the 1980s, I passed almost daily through that conduit between two mutually hostile worlds. Those green-uniformed guardians of world communism may have unnerved Western tourists with their stony mien and intrusive searches. Over three years, though, I got to know them with the superficial familiarity that develops almost inevitably between people whose lives brush so routinely against each other, however lightly. I even gave them secret names; those I liked and those I didn’t.
I remember the middle-aged, rather matronly woman I dubbed “Oma” (Gran), who would inquire with a friendly, indulgent smile after my girlfriend in West Berlin. I might tell her about my mother’s visit to the “DDR”. Did she have a nice time, Herr Boulton? Was the Baltic coast beautiful? When my girl friend’s visits became less frequent and then stopped altogether, she was gently solicitous. “Haven’t seen Fraeulein K here for a while, Herr Boulton. Doesn’t she like us any more?” Doesn’t she like you any more was of course the true question; and I answered it, of course. There was something about those 50 second confessionals.
Reading my stasi file a few years later, I saw my comments cooly committed to official paper. Well, I don’t hold it against her. It was all very charming; and anyway, I found they had had their own secret name for me. I was “Lupus”. As for my mysterious 72-year-old mother, she basked in the code name “Bluete” (“Blossom”).

It was the rituals that forged bonds. Driving through the slalom of concrete barriers, surrendering my border pass, waiting to get it back, I would chat with the guards about some football match, the weather, the loud screeching noise emanating from my car. They would raise the barrier, salute crisply and I would be swallowed up into the other world.
The Wall was of course a tragedy. It split families and destroyed lives. Over 130 people were shot dead trying to flee across the Berlin Wall. Would these, my occasional acquaintances, shoot if it came to that? It was a question I asked myself more than once and which I could never really answer. Nor, I suppose, did I want to.
There was the less sympathetic blond haired youth who never smiled, never showed a glimmer of human warmth. I named him, with unashamed malice, “Hitler-Youth”. I fancied he would draw his sidearm without hesitation, but maybe I misjudged him. My favourite, though, was always the dark-haired young woman with the comely gap between her front teeth and a flirtatious manner that must surely have violated some regulation or another.
“Gap-tooth” and I had a game. Leaving of an evening, I would slap my passport into her outheld hand and we might spend 10 seconds or so discussing where i was going; to the theatre, to a bar, to a restaurant in a half of the city she would never in her life see; or so we both believed. I might ask her if she wanted to come along, show her two tickets folded in my pass. She would smile and say she would love to but she had to work through the night. Maybe another time. I wonder sometimes what became of her. She presumably had a life beyond Charlie, though I could never imagine it.
What became of some of the others, I found out, to my surprise, a few years later.
I was flying into Berlin from Moscow, where I was working, and arrived at Schoenefeld Airport — once the main airport of Communist East Germany and now an entry point to the newly-united Germany.
The set-up there was much as I remembered it from the ‘Olden Days’. Passengers were channelled towards a narrow, brightly lit passageway where they stood before a cabin with a glass window; behind it a faceless uniformed official. I slipped my passport into the cabin through the gap and waited, looking straight ahead, for the guard to scan my face for a resemblance.
I sensed him look up at me, then back at the passport; then back to me and then to the passport. Why this hesitation? He coughed and leaned towards me.
“Herr Boulton?”
As I looked, he tipped the peak of his cap up to reveal his face. I remember the words exactly.
“Herr Boulton, Ich glaube wir kennen uns schon…” I think we’ve met before.
Dressed now splendidly in the uniform of the West German Federal Border Guard, sat someone I had last seen in the green uniform and winter shapka fur hat of the East German border guard. I think my astonished reply must have been something like “what are you doing here?”
He smiled mysteriously and signalled me to pass on into the baggage hall. As I waited for my bags, he emerged with two other familiar faces; both, like him, alumni of Charlie, both wearing the uniform of what had not so long ago been the enemy.
It was a brief encounter and one of the strangest of my life. The circumstances in which we had known each other were so peculiar and those of our reunion so utterly unexpected. We shook hands warmly, laughing at the absurdity of it all. Like old frontline soldiers in a phoney war, we had discovered we were old friends


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Eine sehr schöne Geschichte, Herr Boulton! … :)

Posted by Paritosh | Report as abusive

Remembering Berlin
I was born and raised in West-Berlin, in Zehlendorf actually. Shortly after my first birthday we went to visit one of my aunts. My Mom told me that it got late and we were invited to stay for the night, but my folks preferred to be back in their own home for the night. This was the night the Wall went up. From then on, we lived in the West and my aunt in the East.
When we would go and visit her, we would take a basket of goodies along, treasures they rarely saw: bananas, oranges, coffee and pineapple marmalade. We always had to have an extra pound of coffee along, the guard would confiscate it. I guess he liked real coffee, too.
My folks went traveling a lot, we had a VW camping bus. One time, the bored kid that I was, I stuck my tongue out at one of the border patrols in their tall towers when they pointed their guns at us. Our vehicle got pulled out and we were detained and searched for 2 hrs. After that, I avoided any eye contact with the guards.
Later, during my study years at the Technical University, three (male) friends and I went for an outing. It was June 17, a holiday in West Berlin due to a bloody uprising in East Berlin in 1953. When we young people came to the border, only male guards were available, which was my salvation. Because my friends were stripped search – I guess the guards payback that we had a holiday and they had to work.
In 1982, I immigrated to the US. It took many years for my nightmare to go away: I am arriving at the US border and they refuse to let me in. Many Americans born here do not understand and appreciate the freedom we have. I still remember how it was….

Posted by Kirsten Meier | Report as abusive

People are just people :)

Posted by Jack Eason | Report as abusive

Great tales and well told!

Posted by Bill Trott | Report as abusive

When the Wall fell down I was a senior in high school in California. Our whole school watched the newsreels over and over, celebrating their new-found freedom. It was clear that this transformation changed Europe and freed the human spirit.

Years later, I got to visit Berlin and headed straight for Checkpoint Charlie. Nearby is the “Checkpoint Charlie/Wall” museum. The strategies and difficulties the East Germans went through to execute their escape plans are of such magnitude that I stand in awe. I have the highest respect for their cleverness and fortitude. That museum’s teachings might be the cause I became an activist for human & civil rights.

Even twenty years later, I am so proud of the Berliners for having the courage to walk through the checkpoints and for the West Berliners to receive them as brothers and sisters.

Ich bin ein Berliner.

Posted by Puneet Pasrich | Report as abusive