Edward Tweedly

Checkpoint Charlie
When the Berlin Wall was still standing, it was a very serious matter. There were a large number of armed guards who were ready to shoot dead anyone who tried to cross it, or the Iron Curtain between East and West Germany.

My first sight of this was on a train from Hamburg to West Berlin. An East German train: the notices read Do Not Lean Out Of The Window in German and Russian. The train travelled through East German territory with no scheduled stop. When we passed through a station, the platforms next to our track would be empty, and there would be soldiers on guard just in case. No-one from the East could get on our train, on pain of death. I mean that: death.

Berlin WallYou have to see this sort of thing to believe it. In Berlin the Wall ran right through the middle of the city. Imagine it in your town: if you live in London, say, from Euston down Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road, skirting round Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall... one side still London, the other side out of reach, with a wall, barbed wire, minefields, dogs, and machine guns in between. Or in New York, across from the Triboro Bridge, down Lexington, across 86th, down Fifth, across 59th (who gets the Park?) and down 8th and Broadway to the Village. OK, I'll take SoHo and you have the Bowery, very funny, but imagine if your aunts, uncles and cousins lived on the wrong side. Imagine if YOU lived on the wrong side, and faced bringing up your family there. I stood watching this wall and damn me if I didn't find myself agreeing with Kennedy that when we defended the freedom of West Berlin, we defended the freedom of Paris, London, and New York.

There were four zones in Berlin: the Soviet zone, which was walled off as East Berlin; and the French, British, and American zones. Each of these 3 western zones had one checkpoint for those crossing to and from the east: the French processed East Germans at their checkpoint, codenamed "A" Able; the British took West Germans at "B" Baker; and the Americans had foreigners at checkpoint "C": Checkpoint Charlie. If you're of my generation, that simple military name will probably still bring you out in goose bumps after all these years.

I made a second visit to Berlin, with two colleagues: Wolfgang, German-born but naturalized Danish (just as well, otherwise he couldn't have come through the same checkpoint), and Phil, from Tennessee. We drove there in Phil's old Renault. Actually it wasn't really old, but it didn't take so well to Phil's American way of thinking that putting gas in the tank was all you needed to do to a car. We drove in to East Berlin for the day. It was great in a way: all the cars were back in the West, and all the parking spaces were in the East. When we came to drive back to the West, we had to go through the famous Checkpoint Charlie exit. One car at a time was allowed through. We stopped at the start of the checkpoint area and got out. The checkpoint was 100 metres long, with a curve in the road and huge gates, machine-gun towers, etc. While we had our passports checked to make sure that we really had the right to leave, soldiers searched the car for stowaways. They looked under the seats, in the back, in the front, and underneath the car with a mirror on a trolley. They opened the fuel cap and inserted a measured rod to make sure that it was a full-size tank, with no secret compartment. Finally they let us go. But we couldn't! Phil's car had stood too long in the open in Berlin's December cold, and it wouldn't start. So while Phil steered, Wolfgang and I PUSHED the car through Checkpoint Charlie in the snow, with all eyes (and gun barrels) in the watchtowers on us, and I suppose the cameras on the West side. That's the longest hundred yards I've ever pushed a car.

There was more to come. We drove across the transit route to West Germany. Looked like a normal road in the real world, but for us there was nothing off the road. We weren't allowed to leave it, or to stop. On a country section we did stop though: pressure of Berlin beer forced it. So we piled out to take a hasty leak at the side of the road, and it must have been then that Phil's wallet dropped out of his pocket. We didn't find out until we had left East Germany. In the East all the blazing electric light was on the border fences; but in the West it was on the Christmas trees and in the bars. We stopped at the first one we came to (bar, not tree), but Phil couldn't pay...no wallet. Oops. We drove the short distance back to the Western checkpoint, to report the loss just in case it was found by a saint, but they said they had no communication with their Eastern counterparts; we'd have to drive back to the Eastern checkpoint, visible less than a kilometre farther on. We did: first we met a soldier with a rifle, who demanded our passports. We're not coming in, we said, we just want to report a loss. No, we did it his way. First we showed all our passports, then he went in to report it. Out came an officer, a major if I'm not mistaken, and listened to our story (we had stopped once on the road because we thought our lights were badly adjusted...). Are you sure you didn't drop it inside the car, he asked. Sure, we said, we've looked everywhere. Let us try, he said, we have more experience (did I see a slight smile?). He called out a couple of privates, and they looked all through the car. Pretty damn well, I have to say. So we completed a form anyway (Wolfgang speculated that the Major would go back to look for it: the US dollars would buy a few pairs of Levi's in the duty-free stores in Berlin). Then we had to turn round and check out of East Germany again, which would mean a long queue: but the Major, seeing that not only had we not really been in the East but that he had just searched our car anyway, kindly gave us a laissez-passer. So we turned on to the exit road and breezed right up to the guards, showed our paper, and were waved through! This must be what it was like for the Politburo. Now that's all gone; at last. You can still find places where people in uniform will point guns at your back (not least in France if you're the wrong color), but the creepy feeling of always being on the edge of real trouble was a feeling that was very wearing.

That was twentieth-century Europe. Welcome to the twenty-first; let's not make those mistakes again. Are you listening, in the Balkans?

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