Berlin or Bust
The year was 1990 and the Berlin Wall had just come down a few months earlier. I remembered my first real crush on a boy, he was blonde and handsome and visiting from West Berlin for several weeks. Long enough to be sure I was in love but short enough that I never really got to meet him beyond the occasional playground game. It’s also when I became aware of World events. Even in my youth I understood that the boy from Berlin could only stay for a short time and that he would soon return to an area with limited freedom. On November 9, 1989 that wall came down. Three seats on a nonstop Pan Am flight for myself and two friends with another friend stationed in West Berlin with her military mother, I decided to go for it.
The Wall was originally erected in 1961 by the Eastern Bloc in an attempt to shield their citizens from what they considered to be Fascist elements. It had existed for almost my entire life and now it was gone.
What an amazing time – to be able to visit a city as it literally reinvents itself. The differences between East Berlin and West Berlin can best be described as the day TV went from black and white to color. West Berlin was vibrant, bustling, even hip. East Berlin seemed depressed but even amongst the deeply scarred landscape there was now joy and an urgency as people reunited with lost family members. Many were experiencing the complexities of capitalism for the first time with a myriad of shopping choices offered in the Western malls and open air market places. The Russian presence was still obvious and when one soldier caught me staring at him, startled me when he offered a friendly wave. For so long “they” were the enemy and now the “enemy” was selling off his uniforms and medals to pay for his way home.
The Wall mirrored these differences with almost every inch of the West walls covered in messages to loved ones trapped on the East side, colorful artwork and general graffiti. Political messages were posted as well. The East was eerily blank, devoid of any personal thoughts. It was in an area called No Man’s Zone or the “death strip” where anyone approaching the Wall during the divide would have been shot on sight, that we decided to stake our claim. To us it was a blank canvas. I’d never been destructive before but armed with four cans of spray paint and one sledgehammer, my band of fellow vandals and I attacked the Berlin Wall with the enthusiasm of a local. We spray painted greetings to our family and friends back in the states. We even posted the call letters of a favorite local Poughkeepsie radio station. Ignoring the wisdom of erasing all proof, we photographed our deeds and then proceeded to help bring the Wall down, one small chunk at a time.
I still remember the thud of the bag containing pieces of the Wall as it hit the luggage counter at the airport .The guns in the airport and the physical searches of both people and luggage a preview of what we would regularly come to experience in the States. The joyless woman we dubbed “Bertha” was more concerned with my luggage cart than the pieces of history we were taking home with us.
From time to time, I would give away pieces of the Wall to those who expressed an interest in the events leading up to and following the fall of the Wall. I saved the largest piece for myself. A piece chipped from the top of the Wall with a smooth groove from the re-bar it surrounded, running the length of it. It currently sits on my desk at work. I use it as a pen holder. I like the idea that the concrete that once kept people imprisoned now serves as a conversation starter, a reminder of what we as humans can do to other humans.
The East is now a thriving artist community and sections of the Wall travel around the world as an art and political exhibit.
Berlin or Bust