Archive for Thursday, November 20, 2008

Vacation coincided with Berlin Wall’s fall

November 20, 2008

The 19th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall quietly passed by without much notice. My desktop calendar, given to me for a Christmas present a few years ago by our youngest daughter, Heidi, contained a reminder of the event on the page for Nov. 9. “Berlin Wall Opening Day 1989: We witnessed it! We were staying at a friend’s house in West Berlin (watching “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) when we heard the announcement on the radio. We were planning to go home the next day but decided to stay and see the new, free, East Berlin.” Our daughter was 10 years old at the time and had recorded the event in her journal.

Still on active duty in the Air Force, our family was stationed at Rammstein Air Base, Kaiserslautern, Germany, where I was assigned as a pilot with the 67th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, and had planned the vacation trip to Berlin to go sightseeing and shopping. We had been warned about large demonstrations occurring in East Berlin, as crowds of 200,000 had formed in the big square with the clock tower. Little did we know that our trip would result in such a memorable event!

My ancestors were from Germany, left around 1750 from the Frankfurt area, and sailed to the United States, arriving at ports in Philadelphia. We enjoyed the six and one half years we lived in my ancestral home on two different assignments. There were a lot of things to do and see: castles, skiing, volksmarsches, and crystal shopping trips. The most memorable of all, however, was the experience of being in East Berlin the day the wall came down in 1989. Thinking about the experience still gives me a special feeling that is hard to describe.

Yes, there were long lines of traffic, the worst traffic backups I have ever been in, but no one complained. It took three hours to go five blocks to exit East Berlin though Checkpoint Charlie and from there eight hours, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., to travel the 108 miles from West Berlin to Checkpoint Alpha at the West German border. We witnessed a lot of happy people celebrating their first opportunity to visit the west since the Berlin Wall went up in 1961.

As we exited Checkpoint Charlie, we were swarmed by people on all sides. I handed the movie camera to our oldest son, Joseph, sitting in the front passenger seat of our full-size Chevy van and asked him to take some pictures. Without thinking he rolled down the window and raised the camera above the crowd to shoot some pictures. I thought for sure someone would grab the camera since the crowds were leaning and pushing against the van on all sides, but no one did. Thousands of people were leaving both on foot and in vehicles.

On a previous trip to East Berlin we observed a people that were without emotion. They did not display the joy of life we were used to seeing, very few laughed or smiled it seemed, except the young children. Leaving Berlin on Nov. 10 was an entirely different matter, with a lot of reveling, hooting, and jubilation.

The first backup on the Helmstedt Autobahn with 10 miles of stop-and-go traffic just happened to be at the first service station. The little East German Trabant cars had small gasoline tanks, so everyone must have stopped for a fill-up. At each pause in traffic movement, many occupants would jump out and take a whiz on the side of the road, drink some champagne, run around the car and get back in. If a car died, the occupants would push it off the road and crowd into someone else’s car.

The backup approaching Checkpoint Alpha at Helmstedt-Marienborn was about 30 miles of stop-and-go. We were listening to some German radio stations, then switching to the American or British stations to get updates on what was going on.

Still today I have very vivid memories of that trip. It is hard now as it was then to imagine what the feeling must have been like for those people who were allowed to exit East Berlin without the usual papers and travel unrestricted to the West.

How priceless is freedom and how quickly we tend to forget what has been preserved by many who served willingly and many soldiers who gave their lives. On this Veterans Day, I think about those currently serving in foreign countries to preserve the freedom of others. I hope I will be able to pass on my appreciation for those who serve to my children and grandchildren, that the love of freedom will not fade away.

— Carl Slaugh is city administrator in Basehor.

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