11 November 2011

Short Takes II


I ran an errand over on 6th Avenue late one afternoon and while I was walking back, I saw a dog do the oddest thing. (Okay, it wasn't as funny as a dog walking on his front paws, but that’s a trick; this was just the dog's natural—not to say normal—behavior. I think.) This guy was walking his black-and-white pug in front of me as I came east on one of the cross streets back to 5th. All of a sudden, the dog just stopped and I figured it was going to poop or pee or something. But it just lay down in the middle of the sidewalk—for no observable reason I could detect—but not in any usual canine prone position. It went down straight—with its front paws stretched out straight forward and its rear paws straight back and its head on the pavement between his front legs. I used to call this "The Bear Rug" when my own dog did it (but he did it at home, not when were out walking, and when he was already lying down, not directly from a standing position.) Can you picture this? Boom—and its flat out on the sidewalk! I actually burst out laughing aloud—and I commented as I passed the guy that I hadn't ever seen a dog do that.


When I went home from the library, taking the bus as I usually do, I discovered that I had no more fares on my MetroCard. I usually check when I get on the subway up to the library, but I just forgot to look this time. Of course, on the bus you can't recharge the card and you can't pay the fare with bills, and I didn't have exact amount in coins. I was about to get off the bus—I'd have gone down the 5th Avenue entrance to the subway on the same corner and refilled my card, then either taken the subway home or gotten on another bus—when a young woman behind me offered to treat me to the ride. I accepted the "loan" of her card, but I reimbursed her the cost of the fare. She nearly refused, but I didn't think it was right since I wasn't without the fare—just without the right form of payment. Now 'n' then, people are just nice for no reason at all—a random act of kindness. How 'bout that!


I watched Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire on TV one night, a decidedly odd movie to start with. (It's Wenders, so I guess that's a given.) It's about two angels who hang around Berlin and watch as the humans live their lives until one of them decides he wants to become human and experience life himself. (Nicholas Cage's City of Angels is a remake/adaptation of Wenders's movie.) One of the oddest bits is that one of the human characters is Peter Falk—as himself; there are several references to his TV role as Columbo. He's making a Nazi-era movie in Berlin, and the angels hang around the set for a while. (It turns out that Falk himself is a former angel. In the movie; I don't know about real life—though I guess he is now.) None of this, however, is relevant to this reminiscence. The movie was released in '88 and meanders around odd parts of Berlin, including some sites near sections of the wall (which didn’t come down until the next year). I'm not sure I can make this make sense—I've never articulated it before—but at one point, one of the angels crosses a street and passes in front of a row of buildings that all looked as if they dated from the immediate post-war period—'50s and '60s or thereabouts. It was only a few seconds of film, and it wasn't in the least significant to the movie, but it made an odd connection for me. For those few seconds, the scene could have been anywhere in West Germany where those kinds of buildings were ubiquitous in the early days of my family’s time there in the early ‘60s. They were just little shops—bakeries, groceries, tobacconists, and so on; I don't even know what they were, but it could have been any street in any West German town where new buildings had been erected to replace older ones that had been destroyed in World War II—they went up fast as Germany was recovering, and they all looked alike. All of a sudden, and just for a second or two, I was right back there in '63 in Koblenz, the Rhine River town where my family first lived in Germany, in those first weeks and months when my brother and I moved there to join my folks. It was the oddest kind of nostalgic sense—sort of Proustian, I guess. I reexperienced a feeling I remember having, but never tried to describe or even, really, recognized until much, much later. It was this absolutely certain feeling that here I was, doing this extraordinary thing—living in a foreign country—that I knew was both unique and special and exciting.

I was just 16 and had never been anywhere off the East Coast of the United States and one skiing trip to Quebec, and we were living not in an American enclave or a housing compound, but right among the Koblenzers, shopping in their stores—no PX or commissary—and so on. And, this was 1963—how many American teenagers lived in Europe back then? I never said this to myself in words, but I knew I was on an adventure. Now, I know I'd thought this before—especially when I went back to Germany in the army in the ‘70s, and most clearly when I went back to Koblenz ten years after I first arrived there—but I know I've never tried to put this into words of any kind—not even in my head. As I said, at the time, I had this sense, but it wasn't remotely verbal and I never recognized it except maybe subliminally until years later. (What 16-year-old is that introspective, I guess.) I'd be out in town for whatever reason—shopping, exploring, meeting Dad at his office, wandering with a friend (who more than likely would have been the French kid I got to know there, which made it all the odder: an American foreign service brat and a French army brat hanging out in a small German city)—and I'd take notice of the German shops with German signs, the German people on the streets, the German kids. Everything was alien—but fascinating. And this feeling would come over me—"I live here. This is now my home. I'm actually doing this." None of those words occurred to me—I'm putting those in now—but the feeling was there. This only happened in the first months or a year—after that I got very blasé about living in foreign parts, and later, when my dad was transferred to Bonn, we lived in an embassy compound where all our neighbors were Americans and our surroundings were an approximation of an American suburb. But those first months in Koblenz, the Germanness of it all, the newness, the strangeness, was actually palpable. I was doing this really, really, different thing—and I knew it. All this came back to me in that brief piece of movie, just because the setting looked vaguely familiar. (Ironically, the rest of the movie didn't remind me of my days in Berlin at all—even though I consciously looked for things I might recognize. Only the monuments were familiar, not the streets or neighborhoods.) Very strange.


I watched another old flick I taped off TV one night. It wasn't a terribly remarkable movie as far as cinema goes, but it had some startling, small moments of reflected reality. Not Realism—reality. The movie was The Big Lift with Montgomery Clift, made in 1950 about the '48-'49 Berlin Airlift. It was made on location in Berlin (using both local German actors for the German roles and actual military personnel for all the army and air force characters except Clift and Paul Douglas). Most of the little things that hit me were about life in post-war Germany and occupied Berlin. As odd as it may seem from a chronological perspective, life in Germany was not very different in the early '60s when I was there as a kid than it was right after the war when the movie was made. Less rubble, more prosperity (just beginning), but otherwise, it was still "post-war." (Of course, it was also the Federal Republic of Germany by then—no longer Allied occupied territory.) Berlin, even in the '70s, when I was there ten years further on, was still occupied and, except for new uniforms (and still less rubble), plus the addition of the Wall (built starting in 1961), things were much the same in many ways as they were right after the war ended. It was a time warp, in both instances. For example, one character says he checked someone, a German, out in "the Document Center" and found a record of her from the war years. The Berlin Document Center was, in fact, the records repository of the Third Reich's official files, and it was in the American Sector of Berlin so we kept it as a resource. (I was an intelligence officer in the army: a Special Agent, just like they say on TV.) It was one of the agencies we always checked when we did background investigations of a German native who was old enough to have lived in the Third Reich. (Mind you, this was all the official records, so a file might reveal only that someone was an old-age pensioner, had been a dues-paying member of the musicians guild, or had held a job as a school teacher in Frankfurt. Only occasionally did a file check of the BDC reveal a criminal record or service in the SS or something nefarious.)

Anyway, it was just a passing mention of something actual, like the brief description the pilot of Clift's plane gave of flying into Tempelhof Air Force Base on their first flight in from Frankfurt. ( I suppose only someone like me who'd been over there would have known whether those details were made up or not, but that's kind of the point: who’d really care about that kind if accuracy—and yet, there it was). The Soviets controlled the airspace over what was then their occupation zone of Germany (later East Germany) and restricted Allied flights to a very narrow corridor. Plus, Tempelhof, which closed in 2008, was actually in downtown Berlin—you land over city buildings, and the movie showed this, both from the air as the planes landed, and from the city as planes landed or took off practically outside apartment windows. (In my day, only specially certified pilots were allowed to fly in and out of Berlin. One of them was the newly-appointed CO of the air base, Colonel Gail Halvorsen. In 1948-'49, he became a hero to the children of Berlin—in the '70s, the adults running the city—he was known as the Candy Bomber because he dropped Hershey bars from his plane whenever he flew over the city on his landing approach. I knew Colonel Halvorsen—his daughter was a member of our theater group, which met at Tempelhof—and once when I took an Air Force hop into Berlin from Wiesbaden, he piloted the plane. My little brush with actual history.)

But what most often caught me in Big Lift were the little bits of German culture and custom that were incorporated in the movie. In one scene, set in the apartment of one of the German characters, a group of people are sitting and standing around late in the evening, drinking and nibbling—a kind of impromptu celebration. A neighbor comes in, a woman who lives in another apartment in the building. She's just arriving from work, and stops in to say hello. When she arrives, she makes the rounds of all the people, stopping at each person and shaking his or her hand and saying, "Guten Abend." When she reaches the last person, she says she's tired and off home to bed and immediately reverses her route, shaking all the same hands in reverse order, saying. "Gute Nacht," as she works her way back out the door. That's so German—the formal, hand-shaking greeting of each and every person present, even though you don't plan to stay, and then doing the exact same thing to say good night. In Germany, at least back then—they may have caught the American casualness disease since my day—you can't just stick your head in the door, wave, and say to everyone at once, "Hi. And good night," and then leave. It couldn't have been realer if it had been a documentary! And there were other, briefer bits, too—like the vendor in the subway who sells loose cigarettes. You could still buy individual cigarettes in much of Europe when I was in school there—a pack was relatively pricey even in the '60s.

There was one other real note the movie struck—more in line with my old job in Berlin. While he's visiting a woman he had met, Clift meets a neighbor who stops in at the woman's apartment. They introduce themselves to one another and chit-chat briefly, then the man takes a seat by the window and takes out a pad and makes notes as planes land at the airport. (I told you, the planes flew right by the windows!) Clift asks the man what he's doing. "I'm a Russian spy," he answers matter-of-factly. Clift is taken aback slightly, as you might expect. He asks if the man's not afraid that Clift might report him. "The Americans know I do this," he states. "And the Russians know that the Americans know." He also explains that because the Russians don't believe the newspaper announcements of the airlift's progress—since the Russians lie, they assume everyone else does, too—they insist on getting their own statistics. Since the official reports are accurate—the U.S. wants everyone to know what they're doing; it's good propaganda—he tells Clift that he leaves out one or two flights, just so the Russians feel they're getting "real" figures. Later in the movie, he has stepped out of the living room briefly just as a plane comes in to land. He sticks his head around the corner, then smiles at Clift and says, "That one was just American propaganda!"

Anyway, the man tells Clift that the Russians are spying on the Americans with 20,000 agents in Berlin, and the Americans are spying on the Russians, only with just 10,000 agents. Both sides know that the other side is spying, and that each side also knows that the other side knows. It's all very absurd, sort of Kafkaesque—but not inaccurate. When I was an intel officer in Berlin in the '70s, not only were the Russians (and the East Germans, of course) spying on us and we on them, but, obviously, the French and British were also spying on the Russians and vice versa. But the Allies were also spying on each other. And there were spies in Berlin from Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Soviet Bloc countries, all spying on everyone else—including each other. There were even Chinese spies operating in Berlin—countries with no obvious need to be in Berlin. Berlin was espionage-central in that era—the counterpart of, say, Lisbon in WWII. With the possible exception of Saigon, Berlin in the early ‘70s may have had more spies per capita than any other place on Earth. It certainly had spies from more countries and agencies than anywhere else. (I'm sure there's a comedy of errors in this somewhere!)

The first day I reported to our offices, which were in the headquarters compound which also housed both the Brigade command (one-star general), the military governor's office (two-star general), and the Minister's office (the highest-ranking diplomatic officer in Berlin, just below an ambassador), I noticed two black Russian sedans parked, one by each exit from the compound. (Russian Moskviches or Volgas were easy to spot: even in the early ‘70s, they looked like something preserved from the late ‘40s.) I asked about them, and my sponsor told me that they were almost always there, just watching, taking notes and probably photos—and that within an hour of my arrival, the Soviets knew my name, rank, and assignment. (Military Intel personnel wore civilian clothes on duty and were all addressed as "Mr." or "Miss" outside the office. When we had to wear fatigues—for the firing range, say, or during an alert—we wore no branch or rank insignia, only the "US" device. Our addresses and phone numbers were unlisted, and our cars were all registered in Munich, 66th MI HQ, not Berlin. We weren't clandestine, but low profile.) By the same token, I got info copies of the transcripts of the wiretaps from Potsdam, the Soviet military HQ in East Germany. The Cold War was mighty crowded in Berlin!


By the way, at the start of The Big Lift, there’s a voice over that explains how the Soviets started the blockade. The VO describes how the crossing points (the famous Checkpoint Charlie, for instance) were all closed, the trains halted at the border of the Soviet Zone, and the Autobahns connecting Berlin to the Allied zones were denied to Allied traffic. The airlift defeated this action and the Soviets never tried it again—but they did keep up the same tactics on a sporadic and short-term basis. Every few months, they’d stop the supply trains from West Germany (we called it The Zone, left over from days of the occupation; in the days before the U.S. recognized East Germany, that was officially called the Soviet Zone of Occupied Germany, or SZOG) and keep them on a siding for hours, maybe a day. On another occasion, they'd stop all the traffic on the Autobahn—official Allied traffic was restricted to one designated route through East Germany between Berlin and Helmstedt on the border, a 110-mile drive—and back cars and trucks up at one or another of the checkpoints. (Another thing the Soviets loved to do on the Autobahn was to make us deal with the East German guards instead of the Soviet ones. They knew we weren't supposed to do that before recognition—we were supposed to demand to see a Soviet official. They knew there wasn't anything we could really do out on the highway. When they did that, we'd have to report the incident when we got to our destination, either in Berlin or Helmstedt.) There were also occasional "incidents" at Checkpoints Alpha, Bravo, or Charlie, engineered as an excuse to close them for several hours. (These were not the same as real incidents that also occurred at the checkpoints every few weeks. People were still trying to escape from the East even as late as the '70s. Every month or so, there were shots fired at one of the checkpoints; then everyone would scramble.)

In the movie, there are several scenes of Berliners shoveling debris into wheelbarrows. The wartime destruction, still in evidence both in the early ‘60s when I lived in West Germany and in the early ‘70s when I was in Berlin, had to be cleared by hand becaude the deprivations of Germany after the war, especially in Berlin, made gasoline-powered machinery unavailable. In addition, the post-war unemployment was so great until the Wirkschaftswunder—the Economic Miracle—of the 1960s that hiring out-of-work Berliners to clear the rubble served a benefit. (The woman with whom Clift falls in love in the film works clearing debris.) What the movie doesn’t tell is that most of that debris was taken to a site in Wilmersdorf near the Grunewald, Berlin’s forested “Central Park.” The rubble was piled into a mountain named Teufelsberg (“Devil’s Mountain”), the highest spot in the city at about 365 feet. On top of that mountain the Army Security Agency, the military counterpart to the NSA, built an elaborate spy site called Field Station Berlin, the most secret place in Berlin. Usually just called Teufelsberg—the facility was known to insiders simply as "The Hill"—was located in the British Sector even though it was a U.S. site. (The Brits had a small section on the site, but essentially we just shared whatever poop we got with them and the French.) Everyone knew it was there—you could see the bulbous towers and antennas, looking like some futuristic city, from many parts of Berlin—but very few who didn’t work there knew what went on. (One of my classmates from the Russian language program was assigned to the companion listening station in Helmstedt and despite my clearances as an intel officer, he couldn’t tell me what he did, aside from the obvious: listening in on Russian transmissions. The transcripts I got from Potsdam, which I mentioned in passing above, came from FSB.) I don’t know when Teufelsberg was competed or when FSB was built, but I suspect that when the airlift was going on and even in 1950 when The Big Lift was filmed, it didn’t exist yet. Even if it did, the film probably wouldn’t have been allowed to mention that that’s where all the rubble was heading. Now, of course, it’s all over the ‘Net!

No comments:

Post a Comment