Mr. Trump, Tear Down this Wall!

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A little story about walls.

I was stationed in West Germany in 1986, working for the Department of the Army as a civilian. My wife and I, along with our son, decided to take a trip to West/East Berlin in our new car.

We had just purchased a brand new 1986 Plymouth Caravan, a new "minivan" type vehicle in only it's third year of existence. We bought it from an Armed Forces auto dealer and had it shipped to where we lived. A nice dark blue with faux wood panels, it was pretty cool for the time and very few in West Germany had seen anything like it. Got lots of looks and comments like, "heh, look at those stupid Americans driving that weak ass van", only in German.

We had to get official permission to drive to West/East Berlin because it was in the middle of communist East Germany. We had to apply months in advance of our planned vacation to ensure we'd get approval on time. We got our permission and our instructions on how to drive to our destination.

Most older folks have heard of Checkpoint Charlie, the notorious militarized checkpoint between West Berlin and East Berlin. There were also Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo.

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Checkpoint Alpha was where you crossed the East/West Germany border. That was located at Helmstedt, West Germany. We lived in Stuttgart so we had to travel on the autobahn about 350 miles to get there. We had to "show our papers" and listen to a briefing on traveling through East Germany to Checkpoint Bravo. The distance between Checkpoint Alpha or Helmstedt, to Checkpoint Bravo, or West Berlin, was about 170 kilometers (110 miles) along a walled or fenced highway through East Germany. You were not able to take any exits and were given a time limit for arriving at Checkpoint Bravo. I think it was around two hours. If you didn't show up in the allotted time, they would go out and find you, which was something certainly to be avoided.

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So our small American family in our brand new dark blue Dodge Caravan, after making sure we visited the bathroom, took off on our journey through communist East Germany. It would probably make a good plot for a new Vacation movie. I remember us towering above the tiny East German made cars and getting incredulous (or?) stares from the East German citizens as they watched this new minivan thing with obvious (oblivious?) Americans travel through their country with official U.S. government license plates. It was pretty weird. I don't think we were supposed to interact with the East German citizens, wave at them, whatever. I don't recall many smiles.

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We got to Checkpoint Bravo without any problems, waited the appropriate time to get approved for crossing, and entered West Berlin as free people once again. What an exhilarating feeling when you've realized you've been freed from the grip of communist tyranny! Except when you remember you have to drive back.

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Once in West Berlin, we checked into our Armed Forces Recreation Center Hotel, a "to the victors go the spoils" former Hitler favorite that we could rent for dirt cheap. From there it was up to us when or whether we visited East Berlin. We did, going through Checkpoint Charlie, which was kind of like what we do in airports now, except without the electronics and scanners and brain wave detectors and, well, maybe it wasn't that bad.

The best way I can describe East Berlin, like communist Bratislava, Czechoslovakia which I also visited, is it was like walking into a black and white movie directed by George Orwell. The walls, the police, the military, the guns, the propaganda, the symbols, the looks, it was pretty creepy for naive Americans in a blue minivan.

Of course, now we're all used to that.

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One thing about walls. It seems like eventually they all come down one way or another.

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frontman for the band Steppenwolf lived it at age 4. Then wrote about it in a song from Steppenwolf 7:

I wore the grooves off of that album.

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Big Al's picture

@JtC "I did not know that". Ya, always a fan of Kay and Steppenwolf though. He's led an interesting life.

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mimi's picture

@Big Al
that's what it is today. FUBAR.

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Big Al's picture

@mimi They have Elton John on the piano.

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CS in AZ's picture

@JtC

I too did not know that. I’ve always liked steppenwolf but really only heard (or remembered) their big hits like born to be wild.

I read the lyrics to Renagade. Powerful. Here’s just the last part...

Then the border guide took us by the hand
And led us through the hole into the promise land beyond
And I can hear him now
Whispering soft and low
"When you get to the other side
Just run like hell"

I thought I had a quiet place
Where I could learn how to catch my childhood dreams
But on my left and to my right they keep on shouting
While I'm stuck in between
Lord! I'm tired of running and I don't believe I can
I can hear them calling time and time again
And it's "Hey you, keep your head down
Don't look around, please, don't make a sound
If they should find you now
The Man will shoot you down"

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CS in AZ's picture

Thanks for sharing that. It all sounds nerve wracking to me.

Growing up in Tucson, my family traveled to Mexico often, Nogales especially. It’s a day trip and we went to shop and eat, and the adults had drinks. I remember it being totally relaxed, and crossing the border was not a problem. People flowed back and forth. People from Mexico came here to shop too.

I never imagined a day we’d have a wall there like in Berlin, and military troops, or being afraid to travel across, never imagined people across the whole country wanting to come in and take over and make it into a war zone, because they are afraid of scary Mexicans now.

This is really the thing I despise most about this whole “wall” fiasco. It’s creating an atmosphere of hatred and fear with a neighboring country, which happens to be less than 70 miles from my home. And it’s based on lies, and politics.

I don’t really travel anywhere these days, for many reasons. But I’m still sad for the loss of the easy relationship with Mexico we had back then. I’m sure someone will set me straight on how the memories of my childhood are not accurate to the whole of the situation. I’m sure that’s true. My memories are nothing but a snippet. You just got me thinking about it.

Cool Dodge van, by the way. Smile Is the one in the pic yours from the time?

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Big Al's picture

@CS in AZ Took me awhile to find a pic.
I made the comment the other day about how we used to travel to Mexico and Canada and you didn't even need an ID. My brother lives about 15 miles from B.C in NW Wash St, and when I visit I can't even go into Canada now because I don't have a passport. They've got us right where they want us at this point.

Funny thing about the MAGA cult of Trump. The things that supposedly made America great were freedom, liberty and democracy, all bullshit of course but neverthe less, and here they are wanting a wall around the country and the police state that comes with it. Ironic. I think that's a good example of cognitive dissonance, which is rampant in Amerika.

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Seriously. John Le Carre and so forth. It increases my already sky high respect for you. Very interesting.

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Big Al's picture

@Linda Wood I've been fortunate to be able to visit and live in a good number of different cultures and countries. For me, it's taught me, or reinforced to me, that we're all the same, no matter where you go. Which in turn has colored my perspective regarding politics.

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dystopian's picture

Awesome story man, I LOVE it. WOW! Great perspective. Great respect. Travel is sure good at doing that for us. I always loved Twains 'Nothing cures bigotry like travel' or somesuch. I think it is a big part of the racist problem here. Most of them haven't even been around their own states, much less their own country, much less somewhere else. Self-created echo chambers of sameness, with politicians telling them which group they are in. If you took most of them to a few foreign countries they would be very different afterward.

JtC, GREAT call on that John Kay! They were really a good band with lots of great songs that were only hearable on the albums (no airplay). I sorta consider 7 the last of the great original run.

CSinAZ, you are right about how casual crossing was in Mexico in 'the good old days'. I have been in probably all of the AZ and CA border towns when I was a kid in the 60's and 70's. Usually on the way camping/birding in Mexico. I have also done most of the TX ones. It is a warzone down there now and horrible to see. It bears no resemblance to the spirit of friendship and neighborliness before. They took the fun out of it. I don't like getting too close now. I live a hundred miles from the Rio Grande in TX. They haven't really stopped anything either, but spent a lot of money on nothing. Except as you say, demonizing a boogey man to scare and control racists with. The only ones that want the wall or the way it is now don't live there.

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We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
both - Albert Einstein

mimi's picture

just 15 years earlier in between 1967 to 1978. Brings back all the memories. Big Al's description is heads on. Remember Helmstedt, remember the scary feeling one had from having done or said something that the 'Volkspolizei' didn't like.

As CS in AZ said, IT WAS NERVE WRECKING, a lot.

Well, that wall came down. Although today it often feels, just the bricks came down, but the division in the minds and souls of the people lives on. It is all so sad.

Thanks for telling us the story from the perspective of an American living in Germany as a civilian for the US Army. BTW, you are way too young... Wink /s

Which Hilton Hotel was it? You still have a picture? May be it all comes back. And you got that cheap? Damn victors... lol... I enjoyed reading your story a lot.

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Big Al's picture

@mimi It was a bit nerve wracking driving that route. I was about 30 at the time. I don't remember what hotel or building it was. I do remember it was previously a favorite place for Hitler to stay in when he was in Berlin. Like the one we stayed at in Berchtesgaden, the General Walker Hotel, which was a former Nazi retreat turned into a U.S. Armed Forces recreation hotel. So we got cheap rates to stay at what were pretty nice places. Same as in Italy along the Italian Riviera. Ya, pretty amazing. That's the way it was, not like that now.

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mimi's picture

@Big Al
Hilton Hotel

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Big Al's picture

@mimi I'm foggy on that. I remember something more earthy, traditional German. Can't be sure, I probably was in a daze the entire 3-4 days we were there.

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mimi's picture

@Big Al @Big Al
you were in the real elitist traditional one... Wink
And it's not important.

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edg's picture

@mimi

today it often feels, just the bricks came down, but the division in the minds and souls of the people lives on

A wall is merely a reflection of the state of the human minds contained within it. Until the conditions underlying the state of the human mind are corrected (if they ever can be), wall or no wall makes little difference.

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edg's picture

My last assignment for the US Army (1973 - 1976) was to be Berlin. But then good old President Ford delayed all military deployments for 90 days and I was too "short" to go.

Of course, the fly in the ointment is that the German wall's purpose was to keep people in. Few if any tried to illegally immigrate into East Germany seeking jobs or Federal benefits.

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