19 February 2017

Berlin Memoir, Part 5


[In Part 5 of my “Berlin Memoir,” I try to describe some of the unusual—you might even say weird—experiences that occurred daily, or at least weekly, in the West Berlin of the Cold War.  As you’ll see, living in this little island of democracy inside the German Democratic Republic, especially as a Military Intelligence agent, could be . . . well, odd is a moderate way of saying it.  If you haven’t read he first four parts of this series, I suggest you go back and catch up on them before setting out on part 5.  It provides background for much of what follows and I explain and define some things in the earlier sections that come up again in the rest of the series.  (Parts 1 through 4 were posted on 16 and 31 December 2016, and 20 January and 9 February 2017.)]

The city of Berlin is a slightly peculiar entity in itself.  It’s a very old city—something like 750 years now, I think—and, like New York, it grew out and swallowed up other towns which became boroughs of the city.  Unlike New York, with its discreet five boroughs, Berlin had some two dozen (reduced in recent years to about a dozen), and some of the official boroughs had neighborhoods that seemed more like separate boroughs.  When someone asked a Berliner where she lived, she’d usually start with the borough or neighborhood: Tempelhof (where the airport was), Kreuzberg (where a surveillance fiasco in which I was involved happened), Zehlendorf (where the U.S. HQ was), Spandau (where the infamous prison that held Rudolf Hess was), and so on.  The Wall split Berlin in two parts, each with its own boroughs; the Soviet Sector was approximately one-third of the old city (about a million people) and the Allied Sectors about two-thirds.  (The reason that the three Allies shared two-thirds instead of the obvious three-quarters of the city—the same had been true of Germany as a whole—was that at the Yalta and Potsdam wartime conferences, the Soviets rejected an equal share in the Occupation for France, so the U.S. and Britain agreed that the French zone would be ceded from their areas.)  The Wall did not always conform exactly to the border dividing the eastern section from the west; the Soviets built the Wall within its territory and sometimes construction, roads, or the Spree River meant that the Wall was many yards east of the actual border. 

One aggravating result of this formation of the city is that streets with the same name could exist in several boroughs but not be connected at all—like Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn.  But the reverse is also true: the same road might change names as it passes through each borough.  If someone gave you an address to find in Berlin, you needed to know in which borough it was in order to find it.  Driving in Berlin was hard enough—an old city with unplanned street layouts and narrow and crowded streets, not to mention my big, American car.  (I had a red 1970 Ford Torino I got after I graduated from college.  Man, it was a pretty car!  And did it attract attention on the streets of Berlin and the roads of West Germany!  Candy-apple red with airplane bucket seats, a black interior, and a fastback.  Mmm-mmm.)  I’ll never know how I learned to drive around that town—but I did.  (There was a tiny little stretch of Autobahn in Berlin, and I used to take the Torino on it and let ’er loose for a couple of miles to let the engine run after weeks of cramped city driving.  There are—or were in those days—no speed limits on Autobahns, even within Berlin.  I’d get ‘er up to 100+ mph for a few minutes, once up and once back.)

The Wall went up beginning in August 1961 and took about a year to construct—though it was always under alteration and sections were rebuilt and sometimes shifted from time to time.  Mostly, however, the Wall was a constant presence in the city and in the minds of Berliners for 28 years.  It was grey concrete and ugly—a scar across the middle of the city.  I arrived in Berlin just before August 1971, the tenth anniversary of the Wall’s construction, and was immediately added to the Station’s contingent of observers for the massive demonstrations that were planned for the commemoration.  One of the tasks we had was demo coverage—watching political demonstrations to note who was there and what anyone said or did.  I know that this sounds totalitarian, and I suppose in the abstract it is.  But we only observed—we did not disrupt any demonstration, hassle any participants, bug anyone’s office or home in connection with a demonstration (we did for other reasons), or in any way try to prevent a demonstration. 

Remember that Berlin was not only the spy center of Europe, so keeping an eye out at such large political gatherings was no more than watchfulness, but the city attracted large numbers of young anarchists and militant activists who were performing terrorist acts all over Germany.  (Students in Berlin were exempt from the German draft, so many West German young men came to the city for university.)  I mentioned the RAF/Baader-Meinhof Gang; there were other, smaller cells, too, such as the Movement 2 June and SPK (Sozialistisches Patientenkollektiv – Socialist Patients’ Collective).  These folks had a habit of blowing things up and kidnapping people.  And people like Michael “Bommi” Baumann (1947-2016) and Red Rudi Dutschke (1940-79), radical student revolutionaries, were active in Berlin.  Prudence dictated that we keep an eye on them, especially when something as charged as the Wall was the subject of an action.

Those 1971 demos—there were two, one leftist-oriented in favor of the Wall and one rightist, opposing it—were both aimed at the same spot: the saddest place in Cold War Berlin—the Peter Fechter Memorial.  Fechter was a 19-year-old laborer in East Berlin who made an escape attempt with a friend in 1962, one of the first after the Wall was erected.  Fechter and his friend hid in an abandoned building next to the Wall on the eastern side—the Soviets kept the area uninhabited, unlike the FROG which encouraged people to move into the area near the western side—and watched the Vopos (Volkspolizei, ot “people’s police,” the East German police and border guards.).  When they thought there was a gap in the coverage, they made a run for it, scaling the fence that formed the eastern side of the no-man’s strip (sometimes, for obvious reasons, called the death strip) on the eastern side of the Wall.  They made it over the fence and through the death strip, and Fechter’s friend made it over the Wall into West Berlin, but Fechter was shot in the hip as he scaled the Wall and fell back into the no-man’s land.  Western Observers, including journalists and some U.S. military, were prevented from helping Fechter by the Vopos who threatened to shoot anyone entering the strip.  No one from the East went to Fechter’s aid, though he screamed in pain for help for several hours as he bled to death.  When he died, the Vopos did enter the no-man’s land to recover his body.  A memorial plaque was mounted in front of the Wall on the Western side at the spot where Fechter fell and died. 

Both demos, numbering several thousand each—maybe even tens of thousands—were headed for that same spot.  Everyone knew that if they got there together, there’d be a street battle between the leftists and the rightists, and no one wanted that.  (We observers, following along with one or the other march, also knew that we didn’t want to get caught either between the two groups of protestors or between the protestors and the police.  We had a special code word to shout at the police line as we ran toward them for protection—we were not armed, of course—so they’d let us through their ranks and not shoot us in mistake for attacking protestors.) 

This was the most astonishing example of competence, resolve, and steadfastness I have ever witnessed.  When signs of violence broke out—some stones thrown, some sticks that had been holding up protest signs snapped off and swung—the police moved in to clear the streets.  They had been lining the streets—just standing still along the curb, in riot gear, with tall shields, and the biggest German shepherds I have ever seen—until the violence started.  Now they just moved in slowly, walking with their shields in front of them, forming a moving wall.  They simply herded the protestors, from whichever side, down the streets and into the subway entrances.  The message was clear: You can stay in the subway station or you can get on a train and come up somewhere else, but you’re not coming back up here. 

Not one billy club was swung, not one weapon was drawn (much less fired), not one cop shouted an epithet or insult (some of the protestors did, though—but the cops didn’t overreact).  They just calmly and professionally—and evenhandedly—cleared the streets and restored order before things got out of hand.  Bang, it was over.  No riot, no serious injuries, no nothin’.  The protestors got to march, carry their signs, make their statement—and they would have been able to make their speeches or whatever if they hadn’t turned potentially violent—and the police kept order without any excess.  Now, the Berlin police had infantry training—the German army was not permitted to operate in Berlin, so the cops were paramilitary stand-ins if necessary—but I was still impressed with the way they handled this situation.  Think of it: a generation earlier, the predecessors of these cops were the guys who roughed up and killed civilians in the streets.  But these cops were in better control of themselves and their turf than any U.S. force (or the National Guard—Kent State had been just a little over a year earlier) at the time.

One odd thing about the Wall (and old Berlin, too) that has no real counterpart in New York is that, though the Wall did surround the Western Sectors of the divided city, it also had little orphans.  All of Berlin isn’t contiguous: there are little communities that are legally and politically part of the city, but which aren’t attached.  Like little islands—maybe that’s where the parallel to New York lies.  Think of land-locked versions of Governor’s Island, Roosevelt Island, and North and South Brother Islands.  Each of these little satellite communities of the Western Sectors was also surrounded by a wall, since they were still Allied territory in the midst of the DDR.  (Eastern satellites didn’t need this, of course)  Some of these enclaves—they’re not towns, but neighborhoods—were connected to West Berlin by walled corridors so residents could get back and forth and the enclaves could be serviced by Berlin police and firefighters.  I don’t know how many of these little islets there were, but it was at least half a dozen or ten, I’d guess.  I never visited one—I don’t even know if I could have.

Berlin attracted young people, both political and not, because of a couple of very salient reasons.  When I was there, in the early ’70s, West Berlin was a vibrant and active city, with a full social and cultural life—a real city of two-and-a-half million inhabitants.  (East Berlin was a little grey and lifeless, even 25 years after the war.)  In contrast, when my parents visited Berlin in the early ’60s—they were there, by the way, for Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech—they reported that the city seemed artificial, that life was sort of staged and forced, like a Potemkin city. 

I mentioned in passing that Berlin Station had to participate in BB alerts, like any other unit.  I also said that there was an agent on duty all night and over holidays and weekends—like the CQ in ordinary line units.  He spent the night in an office just inside the building entrance and between the building entrance and the second entrance, controlled by an electronic lock which required a numerical combination to open, into the unit’s offices.  The DA office was furnished with a bed, a desk, a TV, a file cabinet (mostly empty)—and a bank of telephones, perhaps a dozen or so.  Some of the phones were ordinary BB lines—one of them “9666,” our public number.  (9666, colloquially known as “Trip-6,” was the Military Occupational Specialty for counterintel officers, which is what we all were.  There were similar or equivalent MOS’s for enlisted personnel.  This was also the license number of the CO’s staff car.) 

Other phones on the Duty Agent’s desk were special lines which were used for sources to call in with information and to arrange meets with their handlers.  Since in most cases, these sources had cover stories, and sometimes so did the handlers, these phones all had to be answered with specific cover phrases, as if they were extensions at some business, say, or some innocuous agency.  (During the time when junior officers pulled this duty, none of those phones ever rang when I was DA.  I suspect some were part of defunct operations.)  One phone was, of course, the red alert phone.  That rang once a night to check the communications system, and the DA had to answer it with a prescribed phrase: the name of the unit and the DA’s initials in phonetic alphabet.  So, when I was DA, I’d have to say, “66th MI.  Romeo-Echo-Kilo.”  It invariably rang when I was sound asleep—which I assume was intentional. 

(There was one other piece of equipment in the DA’s office at night.  Until I handled money, at the end of my tour in Berlin, except for the firing range, this was the only time I went armed.  At the end of the day, the assigned Duty Agent drew his weapon and six rounds of ammo—we carried .38 caliber Police Special revolvers—from the unit armorer.  Standard procedure while on duty was to keep the pistol loaded, but the cylinder open, and stand it on the desk, propped up by the open cylinder.  Since every DA drew the same rounds, I sometimes wondered if they’d even fire if the need ever arose.  Lord knows how old they were!)

I never got an alert call while I was DA, but during the time I was in Berlin, we had three or four full alerts.  Since we wore civvies to work, we kept uniforms at the Station to change into, so we all reported to the locker room when we got the call.  Each unit has an assignment for the outbreak of hostilities, and we are all supposed to go about preparing for that mission in an alert.  The infantry and armor units all gear up and go to the points they are expected to defend, the MP’s get into their positions to guard the compounds and other sites and to control the streets, and so on.  Our mission was to round up potential enemy agents who have been previously identified, secure sensitive personnel and get them on ’copters out of the city, and assist with the security of VIP’s and U.S. facilities. 

Obviously, in an alert, there’s not much of that we can actually do—I can just see us running around Berlin, pretending to arrest suspected commie agents.  That would go over big.  So we ended up sitting around our locker room, after putting on our “unmarked” fatigues—the ones with the U.S. device where the branch and rank insignia ought to go—and making jokes until the alert had ended.  The recurring theme of those jokes is what would probably happen if an actual war did break out in Central Europe.  As I’ve mentioned, Berlin is 110 miles inside East Germany, surrounded by the Soviet 40th Tank Army, a total of about 300,000 Red Army soldiers plus whatever East German units were out there, and any additional Warsaw Pact troops that happened to be in the region.  The Soviets, not being stupid, probably wouldn’t fight for Berlin—why waste the men and time.  We decided what they’d do is simply roll some tanks up to Checkpoints Bravo and Charlie, hang a sign on the boom gates that read “Berlin POW Camp,” and move on to the real war on the border and beyond.  That would be the end of our participation aside from some Warsaw Ghetto-type uprising or a sort of hyper-Great Escape. 

(By the way—those U.S. insignia for our fatigues?  By this time, all insignia on fatigue uniforms were “subdued”—no shiny silver or brass or bright yellow chevrons.  The Vietcong had developed a habit of taking potshots at anything that glittered in the jungle.  But there’s no such thing as a subdued U.S. device—they only came in brass because they’re only officially worn on dress uniforms, not fatigues.  So we each had to get a couple of pair of U.S.’s and turn them in to the unit clerk; he’d get them painted matte black so we could put them on a set of fatigues to stash at the Station for alerts, range-firing, and other activities that required that uniform.  I think I still have mine put away somewhere.  Needless to say, since this uniform configuration didn’t officially exist, we got some stares and wry remarks when anyone saw us dressed in it.  Most people figured we were CIA or something.  Of course, we could neither confirm nor deny . . . .)

I said that aside from the firing range—I think we went out there once officially; I went privately once to fire Dad’s souvenir Luger he brought back from WWII—the only other time I was armed beside DA duty was when I carried Army cash.  When an officer is carrying money, such as a payroll, he must be armed.  When I was reassigned to the spook bank for Intelligence Contingency Funds (ICF) in the Station’s basement, I would periodically have to buy Marks, Francs, and occasionally other currencies.  We bought Marks at the Army Finance Office in another part of the main compound, so I didn’t have to leave the grounds—but I had to wear my sidearm.  Just like the cops on TV, I had a holster on my belt, under my suit jacket.  A .38’s not large, especially the snub-nosed Police Special, but it makes a noticeable lump on your hip beneath the jacket.  So, I walked into the Finance Office the first time I had to buy Marks, feeling pretty self-conscious to start with, and, of course, there were lots of other people in there transacting business.  The FO is where the GI savings accounts are maintained, the credit union is, payments are made for such things as late pay or special disbursements, and all kinds of money business.  And in I walked, packin’ iron.  So what did the NCO behind the counter shout?  “I’ll take the guy with the gun first!”  Well, I felt like Butch Cassidy fixin’ to rob a bank!  Everybody in the place turned to took—no, stare at me.  And my gun!  I felt like I was packin’ a howitzer!  “No, that’s all right.  I’ll just wait.”  Haw-haw!!

The first time I had to get Francs, which we bought at the American Express bank in the PX across the street—where everyone had his personal checking account and what have you—I didn’t know what to expect.  I still had to carry the weapon, but this time I was going out in public.  Thank goodness, nothing happened—but I was very self-conscious.  Very self-conscious.

Needless to add, this was not a job I liked much.  Not that it wasn’t important.  It was extremely important.  But it was booooring.  First of all, it’s nothing but numbers.  Keeping books, checking requests for disbursements (I did get to know about all the really spooky stuff people in my old unit and its sister unit next door were doing, which I didn’t need to know before—but most of it turns out to be routine), reconciling conversion losses and gains (when the dollar amount is different from the amount of Marks or other foreign currency because the exchange rates are never an even ratio), counting up the cash on hand, and such.  The most excitement I had was when we had to prepare for an audit, quarterly by the Class A Agent from Group or semi-annually by the Class B Agent from USAREUR. 

Second, since I’m not a banker or an accountant and I got slammed into this job without any preparation, I couldn’t really run the day-to-day routine until I learned it OTJ.  So I had a Spec 4 clerk who had been there for some time, and he did most of the daily stuff—it was his job anyway.  He was all of 19, by the way—we had lots in common (though he was a nice enough kid).  Third, the job was what it was—I had to wait in my office until someone needed money for an op.  I couldn’t develop ops, I couldn’t make work; I just waited, drank coffee (not a habit I ever really developed except here), and read the newspaper or the Sears catalogue when it came. 

Fourth, I was no longer part of Berlin Station.  The ICF Class A Custodian (that’s what I was) is part of HQ—which, you remember was in Munich.  None of my old colleagues were, well, colleagues anymore.  Fifth, my office was in a vault in the basement.  Even if a former colleague wanted to come by to chat—I was way out of the way, with a big vault door to greet them.  As soon as the Army started riffing people, when the reduction in force began after combat in Vietnam ended, I started asking around if I could get out even though my tour in Berlin still had six months to run and I still had a few years on the obligation I incurred to get Trip-6 and Europe.  (Berlin was a lagniappe, but I worked the system to get Europe.)  Also, my name was on the promotion list for captain, and it used to be that an officer had to stay in for, I think it was a year, in order to accept promotion.  I figured I earned that promotion—it took long enough, I thought—and I was damned if I was going to be cheated out of it if I didn’t have to be. 

I was hoping that the Army, which was paying people who were riffed something like $10K for each year over five, I think, they served (unless they were riffed for incompetence), would jump at the chance to get a freebie.  If you got out at your own request, the Army didn’t pay.  I’d been in just over five years, seven counting senior ROTC—which did count as enlisted reserve—so the Army’d have had to pay me $20K or so if they riffed me.  I found out that I could accept my promotion—the requirement to stay in had been dropped when the time-in-grade for eligibility was extended—and that the Army would release me from the remaining obligation, though I’d still have to be in the inactive reserve for the remainder of my obligation.  I put in my papers.  (I might have stayed in the Army longer if they hadn’t made me an accountant.  Maybe we were both better off in the long run.)

As a parting shot, I recommended that the Class A Custodian, which had to be an officer—it was actually supposed to be a captain—should be redesignated as an extra duty for someone.  It seemed wrong to waste a trained and experienced officer like that for so little activity.  I believe they accepted my suggestion, though, of course, I wasn’t around to see if they implemented it.

I was promoted to captain on 1 December 1973, shortly before I left Berlin.  I had planned a big party at the Officers’ Club, the Harnack House, to celebrate my 26th birthday (“Closer to 30 than to 20”) in ’72, but first Harry Truman died (26 December 1972, the day after my birthday) and then Lyndon Johnson died (22 January 1973), and O-club parties were cancelled or postponed.  So I had a combined belated-birthday/promotion/departure left-over party: we tried to drink up all my remaining booze.  (We did pretty good, as I recall.  And I kept a well-stocked bar in Berlin—it was sooo cheap to get the best stuff.)  At the promotion ceremony in the CO’s office—I wasn’t part of the unit officially, but they were my administrative support since the umbilical didn’t stretch as far as Munich—I used my dad’s WWII railroad tracks.  I had had him send them to me just for that purpose.  I still have them.  (My dad made captain in WWII, and it took him about three years, I think—but he started as an EM.  It took me nearly four years, and I started as a second looie.  I got first looie about 12 months in—while I was at Monterey.)

(Speaking of my dad. there was one very personal peculiarity for me to this assignment in Berlin.  Because there hadn’t been a peace treaty to end WWII, Berlin was still under occupation until 1990 when a formal peace was finally negotiated.  While the Allies had relinquished political responsibility for what became the Federal Republic in 1949, Berlin remained occupied territory for half a century.  That meant that my service in Berlin in the ’70s made me eligible for the Army of Occupation Medal.  That’s the same ribbon my dad was awarded for service in the Occupation of Germany—he was in Cologne after VE Day—30 years earlier.  I always found it a little ironic that my dad and I both wore the same military decoration from the same war, a generation apart.  Maybe I’m the only one to find this an odd comment about the state of our modern world.  I recall there’s a Cold War Recognition Certificate that was authorized a few years back.  I qualify and I think my dad did, too, since it recognizes all Federal service, military and civilian; I had some vague idea of getting us both the same award—there’s no official medal to go along with it, though I think someone has put out an unofficial one—for some sentimental reason.  My mom didn’t feel like I did, so I never followed up on this notion.)

I had decided to go to acting school after leaving the service by this time—I had contacted Lee Kahn, the professor of theater at W&L, my alma mater, for advice and he was going to help me prepare audition pieces and, of course, recommend me to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts where he was a member of the board (and a grad school friend of the director at the time, Charles Raison).  When people asked me what I was going to do when I got out and I told them I was going to acting school, they thought that that was a helluva change from the military.  “Why?” I asked.  “I’ve been playing the part of an Army officer for five years.”  (Mine wasn’t the oddest change in career path by any means.  A friend in Berlin, who had been an infantry officer and part of our theater group—his dad was a general, and was furious about this—got out and went to clown school!  No comment.)

I’ve said that while I was living in Germany when I was a teenager, back in the early ’60s, I knew while it was happening that I was having an adventure.  When I was in Berlin, my feeling was a little different.  I had this sense that I was into something special and edgy.  It wasn’t so much danger—there was some, but, of course, nothing to compare to what was happening in Southeast Asia.  Maybe I was just taken with the romantic notion of the world’s second oldest profession—I had read all the James Bond books and, of course, the movies had already been around for a decade.  Not to mention Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, Mission: Impossible, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and so many other fictionalized renditions.  (I’ve already mentioned our unofficial theme song, “Secret Agent Man.”)  But I had this pervasive sense that I was involved in something special.  The fact that other people with whom I came into contact treated me somehow differently—some with a kind of hostile resentment, some almost with awe—didn’t hurt, that’s certain.  (Flashing our “box tops”—what we called our badges and credentials, also known as “B’s & C’s”—was a lot like being in a neat movie.  Special Agent K*****, Military Intelligence.  I used to watch The FBI and now I was in it!)  But on top of any of this, was the feeling that I was actually doing something fairly important—even the background investigations.  My decisions would affect the security of the country, even if it was at the lowest level.  Drilling with an idiot stick or driving a tank in an exercise just didn’t match that, not in Berlin.  Of course, I was all of 24 when I arrived in Berlin, and my sole Army duties up till then had been going to class: armor school, language school, intel school.  Now I was getting to do something, and something for which I was specially and uniquely qualified—and I’m sure that had a significant effect on my attitude.  But, man, I got to know things—things other people weren’t supposed to know.  How cool was that?

Being back in Germany was also part of my consciousness.  As soon as I got off the plane at Tempelhof and drove off with Chuck through the city—remember, the airport is right downtown: you drive through the city as soon as you leave the arrivals terminal—I felt a surge of nostalgia.  (I had never been to Berlin when I lived in Germany before, but a German town is a German town in many ways.  If nothing else, all the street and store signs were in German.)  It felt like, not being home again, but being someplace very familiar.  I’m sure I was projecting, but nevertheless . . . .

(I remember watching Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, 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.  The movie was released in ’88 and meanders around odd parts of Berlin, including some sites near sections of the Wall.  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.  They were just little shops—bakeries, groceries, tobacconists, and such; 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 the war—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 in those first weeks and months when my brother and I moved there to join my folks.  (See my two-part post, “An American Teen in Germany,” 9 and 12 March 2013.)  It was the oddest kind of nostalgic sense—sort of Proustian, I guess.  I reexperienced a feeling I remember having, but had 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 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, the Germanness of it all, the strangeness, was actually palpable.  That’s the feeling that came back driving away from Tempelhof that first day in Berlin.)

*  *  *  *
From 18 June to 12 July 1981, the New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Public Theater) presented a stage adaptation of  Wie Alles Anfing (How It All Began) by one of the anarchist militants whom I mention above, Michael “Bommi” Baumann.  I saw the show and on 1 July 1981, wrote the following brief report (slightly edited), which I’m appending here as a sidebar to Part 5 of my “Berlin Memoir”:

Based on the 1979 autobiography of former West German terrorist Michael “Bommi” Baumann (1947-2016), How It All Began was developed by the May 1981 graduating class of the Juilliard School’s Theater Division.  It was started as a class project and both dramatically and thematically, that is what it remains in the Dodger Theater production at The Other Stage (later the Susan Stein Shiva Theater) at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theater.  It appeals neither as good theater nor as good socio-history.

Pieced together from excerpts of Baumann’s book Wie Alles Anfing (How It All Began, published in Germany in 1975 and in the U.S. in 1979 as Terror or Love?) and other bits of research from the period of the mid-’60s to the early ’70s in West Germany and West Berlin during the heyday of Baumann, the Red Army Faction (AKA: The Baader-Meinhof Gang), Baumann’s Bewegung 2. Juni, and various other terrorist and anarchist groups, the student actors improvised, rehearsed, and taped the scenes and transcribed them into the collage presented here before a tar-black set resembling a ghostly version of a Feydeaux farce, with several doors, windows, and alcoves which provided access to the myriad characters of Baumann’s terrorist life in Berlin.  Most of the scenes were staged by director Des MacAnuff in the center of the floor with locale-differentiation accomplished by the use of odd pieces of furniture.  Since most of the actors played multiple roles (including several women playing men), it was not always easy to know where we were or whom we were watching.

In the end, though earnest performances were turned in by the young cast (including Val Kilmer as Baumann, Linda Kozlowski as his lover, Benjamin Donenberg as “Red” Rudi Dutschke, Jessica Drake as Ulrike Meinhof, Pamela M. White as Andreas Baader, and Mary Lynn Johnson as Gudrun Ensslin), nothing unique was accomplished, and it all remained a somewhat curious foray into the milieu of the leftist terrorist without having learned much at all that we did not already know.

One thing that I found most disturbing was the (apparently) inadvertent near-romanticization of Baumann and his RAF comrades.  Though passing lip-service was given to the violence these anarchists (their own term) perpetrated on often innocent people (an elderly night watchman in Berlin killed in the bombing of a recreational yacht basin; two sergeants and a captain blown up at the U.S. Army headquarters in Frankfurt), they were allowed to come off as lost little children, searching for vague justice—sort of Robin Hood-cum-Peter Pans.  It was my experience while I was in Berlin between 1971 and 1974 that they were no such things.  I knew that captain in Frankfurt: he had a wife and two little girls.  he was not a threat—or even a symbol; just a man.  Baumann, Baader, and Meinhof were not attractive, romantic outlaws, and they stood for nothing concrete.  They were violent and politically fuzzy-minded.  One important bit of research the young students missed was the reaction of the people for whom the RAF claimed to fight.  There was little support outside their radical student enclaves at Berlin’s Technical and Free Universities.  They were not the German counterparts of our war-protesters or even the radical Weathermen.  This missing element rendered How It All Began a vaguely troubling experience.

[I hope ROTters will return in a few weeks for Part 6 of this memoir, which will continue with my life as a GI in West Berlin and some of my escapades on and off duty.]


14 February 2017

Horsman Dolls


My maternal grandfather, Harry Freedman (1896-1967), made dolls for a living.  It was a pretty good living: he supported my grandmother, my mother, and her sister pretty nicely right through the Great Depression and World War II, and they all came out the other side in good shape and went on to live comfortable lives.  Grandpa Harry—sometimes HF when I was little—eventually got both his sons-in-law and a couple of nieces’ husbands jobs after World War II and supported or subsidized, unbeknownst to the rest of his family until after his death, other relatives and in-laws who had fallen on hard times.  Harry was a good businessman, investing in or starting several other concerns in addition to the doll company—but he was also a soft touch.  I recently learned from a cousin on my dad’s side that after my mother and father were married, my other grandfather, Jack (1890-1963), who was a pharmacist, was in danger of losing his Manhattan drugstore; I believe the landlord had raised the rent—a problem that still frequently occurs today. 

When my mother’s parents met my father’s folks after my future parents were engaged, the family lore is that Harry and my paternal grandmother, Lena, immediately adored each other.  (I never knew Lena—she died when I was about a year old—but my mother always told me that she was the nicest person ever.  She couldn’t cook worth a damn, Mom told me—except one dish: stuffed cabbage—but she never had a bad word to say about anyone, even the worst good-for-nothing in the family circle!  Harry, on the other hand, who was only 5' 4" tall, was known by his business colleagues as “Little Caesar” (no connection to the pizza business, started in 1959, but may have been a reference to the character played by Edward G. Robinson—who was 5' 7"—in the 1931 movie of that title.)  Out of this inter-family affection, Grandpa Harry bought the building in which Grandpa Jack (JL when I was a boy) had his pharmacy.  Jack, and I presume Lena, knew that Harry’d done this, but none of the rest of either family did.  (I learned this from my cousin only about a year ago.  Jack had died in 1963 and Harry in 1967.) 

(In a curious coincidence, my Grandfather Jack’s drugstore was at 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, which is seven blocks north and a block-and-a-half east of where I now live.  I often pass the site where the building stood—though it’s no longer the same structure.  My dad’s family even lived in an apartment in the same building—“over the shop,” if you will—in the ’30s and ’40s, which is when my mom and dad met and became engaged.  Furthermore, Grandpa Harry’s office, the sales offices of Horsman Dolls, was in 200 Fifth Avenue, known as the Toy Center South, at 23rd and Fifth, literally just up the street from my current apartment, and 1½ blocks west of Jack’s drugstore.  When I first moved to New York and Dad, the family representative on the Horsman board, came up from Washington for board meetings, we’d meet for lunch and if he stayed overnight in New York, he’d stay at my apartment down Fifth Avenue from the Toy Center.)

Harry was a World War I vet.  He fought in France and was wounded so that he was sent home prior to Armistice Day (11 November 1918)—before most of the other Doughboys came back.  (The family story was that when Harry’s parents got the telegram informing them that their son had been wounded, it read curtly: “Harry Freedman shot in buttocks.”  My grandfather’s family, not very knowledgeable about European geography—my father’s parents were born abroad, but my mother’s family had been Americans for several generations—and knowing only where Harry’d been fighting, pored over the map of France looking for a place called “Buttocks”!  I have no idea if this anecdote is accurate—or even true—but that’s the story and I’m stickin’ to it.)  And so, Harry came home, invalided out of the service, at loose ends, and, having recovered from his wound, one of few able-bodied young men in the States while the war was winding up in Europe.  He began looking for something to do with his life.

Many years earlier, when Harry was a boy and vehicles on New York City streets were still drawn by horses, he was hit by a city garbage wagon and slightly injured.  As compensation for the accident, the city paid him $10,000, a mighty sum in those days (about $250,000 today, calculating from 1906 when Harry’d have been 10).  The money had been put aside for his future, as people used to say, but now Harry, 22 or 23 (I’m not sure exactly when he got back from France), decided it was time to put it to work and start that future.  The budding businessman started looking for something worthy of his investment and he found a company: the Regal Doll Manufacturing Company of New York City.  Before the war, Regal was known as the German American Doll Company; the reason for the name-change is pretty obvious, I think.  It was a going concern, with plenty of orders and a busy factory on West Houston Street at the southern edge of what is now NoHo, but it needed capital to buy raw materials to fill the orders.  So Harry bought into Regal Dolls and became a partner, eventually taking over leadership of the business.  After a few years, Regal Doll Manufacturing changed its name again, becoming the Regal Doll Corporation.

Before the 20th century, dolls in the U.S. were almost exclusively imported from Europe, most frequently from Germany.  Even when American companies started manufacturing domestic products just after the turn of the century, the materials were brought over from Europe.  World War I disrupted that supply chain and the American doll manufacturers like Regal began making a product based largely on local materials.  So when my grandfather invested his nest egg in Regal Doll, it was ripe for success, and the company prospered, making a good-quality, popular-priced doll.   


In middle of the 19th century, dolls—really the doll’s heads and sometimes the hands and feet—were made of porcelain, either china (shiny and not very realistic-looking) or bisque (matte and much more lifelike).  Homemade dolls could be made of rags, corn husks, carved wood, or any available material, but manufactured dolls were porcelain—and they were highly breakable, a serious drawback for a child’s toy. 

A major improvement came along as early as 1877: the composition doll.  Made of a composite of sawdust, glue, and such additives as cornstarch, resin, and wood flour (finely pulverized wood), composition dolls had the great advantage of being unbreakable, and by the beginning of the 20th century, composition dolls were the most popular kind of doll on the American market.  Horsman (which would be Regal’s successor) secured the rights to the process, which was the principal material for dolls from about 1909 until World War II.  (The two dolls I mention below were composition dolls.)
 
In the ’30s, Regal made a 19-inch-tall doll with composition shoulders and head, composition arms, partial composition legs, cloth stuffed body and stitched hips.  The head had molded, painted hair; blue tin eyes; and a closed painted mouth.  The doll’s name?  The Judy Girl Doll.  My mother’s name was Judith!

Later that same decade, Regal marketed a 12-inch-tall all-composition doll with a jointed body and painted, molded hair; painted blue eyes; and closed painted mouth that came in a cardboard carrying case with a wardrobe and roller skates.  (This doll also came with “sleep” eyes, or “open-and-close” eyes, and a mohair wig over her molded hair.)  This baby’s name?  Bobby Anne.  My mother’s little sister was Roberta Ann, called Bobby.  

By the ’30s, however, Regal’s Manhattan factory was no longer adequate for the growing business and Harry went in search of larger facilities for his burgeoning company.

He found the Horsman Doll Company, the oldest doll-maker in the United States established in New York City in 1865 by Edward Imeson (E. I.) Horsman (1843-1927).  “No other company even comes close to its record of longevity,” says a corporate description on Zoominfo.  E. I. Horsman had retired in the early years of the 20th century and turned the company, one of the pioneers in the manufacture of American dolls, over to his son, but Edward, Jr. (1873-1918), died suddenly at 45 and E.I. returned to the business.  Then E. I. Horsman died in 1927 and the previously greatly successful company fell into serious financial trouble. In the early 1930s, the foundering company had built a large, but under-used factory in the Chambersburg neighborhood of Trenton, New Jersey, so Regal bought it for its new manufacturing base.

Having already purchased Horsman’s newly-built Trenton plant, Regal Doll, now under the direction of my grandfather and his chief salesman, Lawrence Lipson (1896-1959), acquired the nearly bankrupt Horsman Doll in October 1933.  The new leadership and Regal’s solid business position revived the fortunes of Horsman (whose name was pronounced like horse-man and whose logo was a horse’s head) and the new company continued to make dolls under both trade names, Regal and Horsman.  Regal produced a mid-level, less-expensive doll, while Horsman’s product was a higher-quality doll at a slightly higher (but still affordable) price.  By 1937, however, Harry Freedman and Larry Lipson realized that Horsman was the superior brand and in 1940, Regal Doll formally became Horsman Doll and the Regal label disappeared from the market.  (The present-day Regal Toy Company of Toronto, Canada, is a different company unaffiliated with my grandfather’s business.)

At the time of the purchase, my mother’s family moved from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where much of Harry’s family also lived, to Fisher Place on the Delaware River in downtown Trenton so my grandfather could be near his business, a scant three miles away.  (The new company’s business headquarters was still located in Manhattan—in the Toy Center South, which had become a home base for the toy industry during World War I.)  Mom (1923-2015) lived in Trenton from then until she was married (not counting prep school in Pennsylvania and college in upstate New York), and my Aunt Bobby (1927-2006) stayed there after marriage (to a man who became a Horsman VP and its in-house counsel) until she and her husband separated in the ’50s.  My grandparents moved back to New York City after World War II, once both daughters were married (my mother in January 1946 and Aunt Bobby in November 1947), living at 68th and Fifth, across from Central Park.  (I said the doll business provided Mom’s family with a comfortable life, didn’t I?) 

From about 1880 to the end of the 1960s, the State of New Jersey was one of the country’s most productive toy-making states.  With over 50 toy companies with names like Tyco (HO scale toy trains), Lionel (model trains), J. Chein (mechanical toys), Remco (remote control toys), Topper Toys (model cars and inexpensive dolls), Courtland (wind-up toys), and Colorforms (creative toys) operating in the state, Regal and Horsman weren’t alone in the Garden State.  In its heyday, Horsman’s Chambersburg plant was touted as the largest toy factory in the United States.  One block square, at its peak the two-building, three-story brick complex at 350 Grand Street in an otherwise residential neighborhood of South Trenton employed 1,200 workers and manufactured hundreds of thousands of dolls every year, earning the nickname “World’s Largest Doll House.”  “Not many people realize it, but if you purchased a doll from 1930 to 1960 it was probably made here in Trenton,” says Nicholas Ciotola, curator of cultural history at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, where an exhibit called Toy World is running just steps away from the Horsman factory.  (The exhibit, in the Riverside Gallery from 15 October 2016-30 April 2017, focuses on the toys manufactured in New Jersey during the 20th century. I went down to Trenton to see it on 7 February so I could check out the Regal and Horsman displays.) 

By the 1940s, Horsman Doll was a great success on the basis of its moderately priced, good-quality, baby dolls that little girls loved.  (It was my mother’s hard luck that she had two sons and no daughters on whom she could lavish Horsman dolls every Christmas and birthday.  The attic of the house in which my brother and I grew up was half-filled with boxed Horsman dolls for our female cousins and the daughters of my parents’ friends—but none for her own children.  Aunt Bobby, on the other hand, had two daughters—the youngest one named Judith.)  The beautiful baby dolls came without fancy names (the child got to name her dolly whatever she wanted; the box didn’t provide a name) or marketing gimmicks, but dressed in lovely doll clothes.  (My grandfather was color-blind but he could tell fine fabric and excellent workmanship; he just needed employees to help him pick out the colors.  In fact, he had the same problem with his own clothes—and sometimes his socks and trousers or jackets and ties really clashed.  But they were made from top-quality fabrics!) 

During World War II, shortages of raw materials dealt the American toy industry a serious blow.  Some essential supplies were imported from overseas, including Axis territory and occupied countries.  Kapok, for example, a fiber from the silk-cotton tree used for stuffing doll bodies, came principally from the Japanese-occupied Dutch East Indies—and, of course, shipping of any kind was at risk.  Most domestic materials, like the mohair for doll wigs and metal for sleep-eye mechanisms, were diverted to war industries, so little remained available for toy manufacturers.  Some toy companies began making products for the war effort.  Horsman was able to continue making some dolls, but the Chambersburg factory turned part of its manufacturing floor over to soft vinyl prostheses, such as artificial hands for amputee veterans.  After the war, most doll-makers scrambled to return to the production of dolls, but Horsman capitalized on its wartime experience with vinyl.  

For all its advantages as doll-making material, composition was difficult to work with and it was hard to the touch.  Vinyl was a soft, easily-molded, durable, unbreakable plastic that could be sculpted into life-like faces and was pleasing to a little girl’s touch.  It was the perfect doll material and Horsman was a pioneer in its use in the doll industry.  It wasn’t the first doll firm to use plastic, though in 1947 it was the first to do so on a large scale.  From the post-war years until my family relinquished control of Horsman for the final time (I’ll get to this), its dolls were made with vinyl heads.

In the 1950s, Horsman developed an even more flexible material it dubbed Super-Flex, used for the dolls’ bodies, which for the composite dolls had been made of stuffed fabric and for the all-vinyl dolls were soft plastic that allowed for only minimal manipulation.  Super-Flex permitted the dolls’ knees and elbows to be bent so the dolls could be posed in many different ways.  Later in the ’50s, Horsman introduced further advancements in the dolls’ vinyl skin, giving it an even more like-like feel.

In the same decade, the company introduced Polly, an African-American doll.  (A Polly was included in the NJSM exhibit.)  Horsman wasn’t the first doll-manufacturer to market a black doll—there were African-American dolls available in the 19th and early 20th centuries—but most of the earlier African-American dolls were merely models of the companies’ standard dolls from white molds painted dark brown.  Horsman’s Polly was an attempt to create a black doll with more realistic features.  She was sold from the mid-’50s through the 1970s and ’80s (the latter years by a derivative company that had duplicated Horsman’s original products). 

Horsman dolls were seldom sold under the company name in the ’50s  and ’60s.  Horsman made most of its dolls for retailers like Sears, Montgomery Ward, Gimbels, and Macys and packaged them under the stores’ names.  (Occasionally, I’d hear the name Horsman Doll on a TV show which used them as giveaways for game-show contestants or participants.  I recall that Art Linkletter, 1912-2010, gave away Horsman dolls on his variety and kiddie TV shows between 1950 and 1969.  I always had a little twinge of pride when Linkletter would announce that all the girls on the show would receive a Horsman doll as a gift from the show.  I don’t remember what the boys got.) 

By the 1950s, however, Harry Freedman and his now-partner, Larry Lipson, saw that the doll company had grown to its limit.  It had supported the Freedmans and the Lipsons very well, but it wasn’t going to get any bigger.  Horsman made only baby dolls; it didn’t make “action figures” for boys or any other toys (not since the original Horsman family years) and it didn’t diversify its factory to make other plastic items (aside from that wartime foray).  Like most toy businesses, Horsman’s one big sales period, when it made its annual profit, was Christmas; the rest of the year, business dragged until it was time to gear up for the holiday gift season—and that wasn’t going to change.  Larry Lipson’s son, Gerald (1925-88), would take over the business when his father retired, just as Larry had taken over for Harry—but Gerry’s children were disinclined to run the company and Harry’s grandchildren (there were four of us: my brother and me, and Aunt Bobby’s two daughters) were still little kids.  So the shareholders—the Freedman and Lipson families and a few key Horsman employees, made the decision to sell the company.  A conglomerate, Botany Industries, purchased Horsman Dolls in 1957 in a period of expansion. 

I’m no businessman (and I was very young at the time), but as I understood it later, the deal, in  which my father, by then a member of Horsman’s board of directors, was instrumental, was standard.  Botany agreed to pay off the purchase price over several years, a decade I believe, and if at any point during that period the buyer defaulted on the payments, Botany would forfeit all the money it had paid up to that time and the company would revert to the sellers.  And that’s what happened sometime in the early ’60s—1961 or ’62 as I recall.  Botany had decided that it had over-expanded and over-diversified and had to divest of several smaller acquisitions and downsize (though that term wasn’t in general use quite yet).  So after paying off nearly the entire purchase price for Horsman, Botany backed out of the sale and the Freedmans and the Lipsons got the company back.  I tell people that this is the only real-life instance of which I’ve ever heard of someone actually having their cake and eating it, too. 

During the time that Botany owned Horsman, the Trenton factory was deemed outdated and beyond upgrading or retooling.  So in 1960, Botany closed the Chambersburg plant and built a new facility in Columbia, South Carolina, a right-to-work state.  That’s where Horseman dolls were made when we got the company back.  (After I got out of the army in 1974, I went to visit an army buddy with whom I’d served in Berlin who was stationed at Fort Jackson.  I took him and his wife out to see the factory—which I’d never seen myself—and watch them make dolls.)  The plant in Trenton was abandoned and, despite some interest a decade or so ago in converting it to residences, it remains unused.  There’s some discussion of preserving it as an example of industrial architecture of the first decades of the 20th century, but I’m not sure how much traction that idea has—the old brick buildings are hardly worth looking at from an aesthetic point of view.  They’re under threat in a gentrifying neighborhood because a developer who controls the property has proposed to raze the entire complex in order to build townhouses. 

Not long after that trip to Columbia, the families put the company on the block again.  Gerry Lipson was retiring and no one from either the Lipson or Freedman families was qualified (or interested) to assume control.  This time, Drew Industries, another conglomerate, bought Horsman—but the terms of the sale were a little different.  Drew issued promissory notes to the shareholders (which now included my two cousins, my brother, and me as a result of the death of Harry’s widow, our maternal grandmother, Valerie, 1900-74, whose estate, with the Horsman shares she’d inherited from Grandpa Harry, went to her grandchildren) that became due over just a few years.  When the purchase was concluded, Horsman Dolls became Drew Dolls, under which name it produced dolls for a few more years, and then Drew Industries liquidated the company and Horsman Dolls, one of the last companies to manufacture dolls in the United States and never made them abroad, passed out of existence.  The dolls from both Regal (including the Judy Girl, Bobby Anne Dolls, and Polly) are now all collectors’ items and there are books on them and the companies. 

As a coda, in 1986 the Horsman name was sold—I guess by Drew—to Gatabox, Limited, of Hong Hong, which produced dolls, including reproductions of Horsman classics, under the name Horsman, Limited.  The new company has no connection to either the original E. I. Horsman company or to my grandfather’s business—Gata just bought the name.  That company dissolved in 2002 but was succeeded by a new corporation known as Horsman, Limited, headquartered in Great Neck, New York, on Long Island and it continues to market dolls, but they’re made in Hong Kong now. 

*  *  *  *
Aside from a nice inheritance from my grandfather and a comfortable life growing up because Grandpa Harry engineered a good job for my father after World War II, I didn’t derive any direct benefit from Horsman Dolls.  My two cousins, Aunt Bobby’s daughters, may have had plenty of dolls to play with when they were little girls—and, of course, their father had a good job at the company until he and my aunt split up, but the doll company was never a huge presence in my life.  As a kid, I got some fun out of my dad’s job.  I thought it was kind of neat in the 1950s that he ran a movie-theater company and I got to go to the movies for free a lot and treat my friends—all the theater companies in Washington gave passes to their competitors—and that was thanks to Grandpa Harry, although I really didn’t think of it that way back then.  It was just Dad’s work. 

But there was one benny I got from Horsman that I really took advantage of from time to time—and quite a bit when I moved to New York City after the army.  The company had a ticket broker on retainer for the sales staff so they could take buyers to Broadway shows.  The broker could get seats to just about any show, even ones that were otherwise hard to get into and was an effective way to entertain Horsman clients.  The company made this service available to the families, and when we came to New York, my parents would get tix for the big shows like My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Camelot.  (I wrote about this in my post “A Broadway Baby,” 22 September 2010.)  Later, when I was old enough to come to New York on my own, from prep school in New Jersey or college in Virginia, I used the Horsman perk.  One spring break, I took my two college apartmentmates and another frat brother, all New Yorkers, to three plays, two Broadway shows (Man of La Mancha, The Impossible Years) and my first Off-Broadway drama (Ceremonies in Dark Old Men), courtesy of Horsman Dolls.  

When I came her to live in New York, I tried to see as many shows as I could, taking an acting classmate with me whenever I could, until we sold the company for the last time.  (I knew the sale was coming, probably soon rather than later, so I was bound to take advantage of the privilege as much as I could before I lost it.)  I figured I ought to spread the wealth around a little.  After all, I wasn’t paying for the tix out of my pocket (they were coming out of my inheritance, in a manner of speaking), but it wasn’t a freebie.  The producers, and therefore the artists, were getting paid, so everyone was benefitting.  When we sold Horsman to Drew, I lost that perk and had to cut way back on Broadway theatergoing.  Broadway ticket prices had gone way up and for the cost of one Broadway seat I could see two or three Off-Broadway productions or more than a half dozen Off-Off-Broadway shows.  It was a deprivation I sorely lamented—the one thing Horsman Dolls gave me that I really appreciated while I had it. 

09 February 2017

Berlin Memoir, Part 4


[This is the fourth of eight installments of my recollections of serving in West Berlin, Germany, as a Military Intelligence officer during the early 1970s, a high point in the Cold War.  “Berlin Memoir, Part 4” covers some of the small events of my work and the oddities that were part and parcel of that world.  If you haven’t read parts 1 through 3, I recommend going back and catching up on them before starting on part 4, not only for the background, but because some things are explained and defined in the earlier sections and it might be hard to follow what I’m talking about from here forward without that information.  (Part 1 was posted on 16 December 2016, part 2 on 31 December, and part 3 on 20 January 2017.)]

Working in Berlin was different from working anywhere else.  We did things in Berlin that our sister units in the Zone or elsewhere in USAREUR never heard of.  I said that Berlin got the best of everything—it also got the best personnel.  MI was one of the branches that took only the most qualified applicants, and the best of the best were assigned to Berlin.  I had colleagues, NCO’s, with multiple graduate degrees.  One of my own NCO’s, a buck sergeant, had been Phi Bet in college.  The average education level in my unit was five years of college.  That was the average.  Me, with my measly four-year BA, was below average.  Our unit clerk was one of the most articulate guys I ever met—and he was a corporal or something.  (We had mostly hard-stripers in our unit—only a few specialists.) 

Because of this, and the fact that our unit was so small and we were so segregated because of our jobs, we did quite a bit of fraternizing.  We were a little isolated, though.  First of all, we weren’t part of Berlin Brigade, so our chain of command was different.  Second, we wore civilian clothes and that separated us from the other GI’s in Berlin.  Third, and most significantly, we couldn’t talk to outsiders about our work—and Army people almost always talk shop when they’re smokin’ and jokin’.  There’s a certain level of paranoia that goes with doing intel work in Berlin.  (All those spies I mentioned before weren’t there for their health!)  Anything to do with Berlin was automatically classified higher than the same thing would be anywhere else in the Army.  I had clearances so far above TS, I didn’t know what many of them meant.  That’s not a joke.  My clearances had so many acronyms and initials, I couldn’t remember them all (and I can’t remember most of them at all now).  You ever hear of OFCO-RODCA clearance?  I had that.  (Sounds like some dire disease, don’t it?  The acronyms stand for Offensive Counterintelligence Operation and Reporting of Defense Collection Activities.)  In some cases, the acronym itself was classified! 

You work around that stuff, it’s hard to socialize with people outside your field.  And if you do make a friend from outside, especially outside the forces, you have to run a file check on him or her.  (Like that guy in The Big Lift!)  Now that’s the basis for a lasting friendship, much less a romance.  “Listen, honey, before we get too serious, I have to do a background check on you.  Would you mind filling out this personal history form?”  That’s a buzz-kill for sure.  While even wives were kept out of the loop when it came to work, they were at the parties like anywhere else.  But it was so awkward to bring a date that no one ever did.  If the Wall made the city claustrophobic, our own security practices made the unit claustrophobic, too.  (This didn’t mean we couldn’t socialize outside the unit.  Dating or friendships were perfectly fine—they just had to stay outside unit functions, even unofficial ones.  And, of course, you couldn’t say much about what you did OTJ.  And you did have to do that file check.  I did one on a woman I met, a Brit—and she turned out to have a very unsavory record.  Nothing criminal or spooky—just very, very flaky—enough to be in the files.  Had to stop seeing her, but I couldn’t tell her why.  “Sorry, Babe.  I had you checked out, and there are some things in your record that won’t do.  See ya.”  That was awkward.)

Anyway, working MI in Berlin wasn’t just nutsy from our own perspective.  There were nuts beyond our control, too.  (I mean the ones who weren’t wearing green suits!)  Berlin Station wasn’t a covert unit, just low-profile, as I said earlier.  We had offices with our name on them—right at the front of the HQ compound, just inside the gate.  In contrast, our sister unit (the 9668’s), the positive intel outfit of 66th MI in Berlin, was covert and lived in unmarked offices near ours.  The “non-existent” CIA unit in Berlin—they weren’t supposed to be there—were in “mismarked” offices hidden away in “Building 7” at the rear of the compound.  Unless you knew what they were, you’d assume they were some esoteric tech-support unit.  (Something to do with maps, I recall.) 

My friend Rich Gilbert, now a lawyer in D.C., who had been an infantry officer in BB and then was in the Public Information Office, told me that there was one thing about my job that used to aggravate him.  Not that I couldn’t talk about what I did or that occasionally I’d have to run off suddenly because of a phone call.  That was just SOP.  It was a look I got when he started telling me about some crazy thing that he came across at work.  For instance, he’d start to tell me about this odd unit he heard about that he’d never run across before and that he didn’t know what it did.  He said I got this look that said to him, “Oh, yeah?  Well, I know what that unit really is—and I can’t tell you.  But you just go on and talk.”  Sometimes he’d stop in mid-sentence and say, “You know all about this, don’t you?  It’s some spook agency, right—and you can’t say anything?”  I guess I’d just smile and keep my mouth shut.  I mean, he knew I couldn’t say anything.  It wasn’t my fault.  One time he launched into one of these monologues—and he was talking about the CIA’s cover ID.  (Ironically, there’s a TV series, on one of the streaming networks I believe, about the CIA in Berlin today, and it’s called—can you guess?—Berlin Station!)

One night some time back I watched a TV show in which the FBI was a central presence.  At one point in the story, a local cop, despite having been warned off, inserted himself into a federal operation and almost compromised it and nearly got a UC agent killed.  In order to get him to back off, the FBI ultimately had to reveal the existence of the UC agent, but this potentially endangered the operation and the agent, so the cop had to be neutralized.  The feds decided to bring him into the Joint Terrorism Task Force—but he would be assigned to the “Legal Attaché in Sri Lanka.”  The Legal Attaché, or LEGAT, was the cover designation of the FBI overseas.  (You remember that the FBI isn’t supposed to operate in foreign countries, just as the CIA isn’t supposed to operate in the States.  Hence the cover name.)  LEGAT was one of the agencies we commonly queried for a records check in a background investigation.  (I also heard a character on another TV show, an FBI agent, refer to an overseas office of the Bureau this way, but the character pronounced it l-GAT, as if it were related to the Anne Rice vampire, Lestat.  Silly wabbits.)

Well, anyway, we weren’t undercover that way.  We were the contact point for intelligence for the U.S. Forces in Berlin.  If something came to us and it was in the jurisdiction or operational area of another unit or agency, we made the referral and served as go-between for the initial contact if necessary.  Everyone knew where we were—we had a listed phone number (only one, however; our individual office phones were unlisted—and we answered them with the last four digits of the number, not our names or the unit’s name) and even the German Labor Force guards at the gate knew how to reach us.  This was expressly for “walk-ins”—people off the street who came to the HQ compound and said they had something to report.  If they were old enough to remember WWII or the Occupation, they asked for the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime forerunner of the CIA) or the CIC (the Counterintelligence Corps, the forerunner of Military Intelligence Branch); if they were younger, they asked for the CIA.  No one ever asked for MI as far as I know—but that’s whom they got.  When a walk-in came to the gate and told the guard he wanted to talk to the CIA (or CIC), they sent him to a small outbuilding just to the right of the gate, right next to the corner of the main building where our offices were located.  This was our debriefing and interview room for outsiders, before we let someone into our offices proper.  You’ll see why this disconnect was necessary.

As you might imagine, 99% of walk-ins were nonsense.  Many, even a majority I’d say, were nuts.  The following anecdotes are either from my own experience or from stories my colleagues told—but based on my experience, they’re all true.  One guy I talked to came to report that the Soviets had agents on the moon (no shit) and that he was in contact with them by “eye television.”  (By the way, all these interviews were conducted in German, so there was always one agent and one German legman as translator/interviewer.  My German—and I spoke way better than most other GI’s in the unit—would never have been good enough to get through most of this stuff.  I do remember, though, that what this guy said was Augenfernseh—that’s a literal translation for “eye television.”)  What he meant was that he received images in his mind transmitted from the moon by these Soviet agents.  (Schizophrenia, anyone?)  This same guy also wanted us to know that the Russians were leaving poisoned cigarette butts on the streets so GI’s would pick them up and smoke them.  (I used to see GI’s picking up discarded cigarette butts all the time.  I mean, who could afford 35¢ a pack?  Riiight.

As soon as we arrived to interview the walk-in, we’d get his ID documents and all other pertinent info.  The legman, who was an experienced interviewer/interrogator—ours had worked for us longer than any of the GI’s in the unit and probably most of the DAC’s—patted the guy down and we searched any bags he brought.  Meanwhile, before we even started to talk to the guy, the agent called the office and give them the ID info so they could run records checks and search our files.  Some of these walk-ins were frequent fliers: they’d come in before.  Not surprisingly in other instances, we often learned that the walk-in was a mental patient who had walked away from some minimum-security asylum.  When that was true—and I recall that it was in the case of the “eye television” guy—we’d call the hospital and they send someone out to get the guy back.  We’d have to stay with him and talk to him to keep him occupied until the van arrived, never more than a few minutes later.  When there was no such record, we’d talk the guy down—thank him for his help, tell him we’d look into the matter, and say we’d contact him if we needed anything more.  Then we’d escort him back to the gate and see him off the compound.  These were usually guys who’d seen too many James Bond movies.  If we thought the guy was nuts even if he hadn’t come from a hospital to start with, we might get him taken to one.  Rarely, we’d have to call the cops.

Another walk-in was a woman who used to come in every six months or so—had been showing up for a couple of years.  I even remember her name—Hanna Bregemeyer.  Her story was that someone had stolen her identity and was going around being her.  She insisted that we report this to the UN (the UN?) so that they’d make the other person stop being her.  (Are you following this?)  Because her identity had been stolen—we’re not talking stolen ID documents here, by the way (this was long before real identity-theft was ever heard of)—she refused to carry official papers.  She made her own documents.  It turns out that her actual name was Hanna Meyer; B. Reg. stood for bürgerlich registriert, a made-up term she used to mean “registered by the citizen.”  If I recall, she came along one more time while I was in Berlin, then she seemed to disappear.  (Maybe someone finally stole the rest of her.  Who knows?)

One of my friends told me of a young man who came in and reported that spies were poisoning him.  That’s not so weird, as you might guess by now, but what was frightening was what he had brought along as proof.  He had a couple of tote bags with him, and my friend opened one to reveal that it was full of little bottles of the guy’s blood.  When the legman opened the guy’s other bag and found that it was full of handguns, he was summarily bundled off to jail—and probably a hospital after that.

Most walk-ins were just poor souls who wanted some attention.  Some were nuts and some were just lonely.  One I spoke to was a 19-year-old kid who’d run out of money, been thrown out by his girlfriend, and just lost himself.  He was pathetic, but not dangerous.  He even broke down crying as the legman questioned him.  No one I ever saw or heard of had any real information.  Anything like that came from other routes.  These included phone-ins, which were seldom any more productive than walk-ins.  That dork who said he was Red Kappel was a phone-in, you’ll remember.  So was the guy who claimed to know one of the Baader-Meinhof gang. 

But sometimes . . . .  One evening when I was on call, I was called by the DA to come in and take a phone call.  The call was from a German man who worked for the U.S. Forces in Berlin and who said he had been in contact with East German agents.  He was scared for several reasons, not the least of which was that German law made contact with Soviet or East German agents a crime.  (The FROG had political crimes on the books.  Membership in the Nazi or Communist Parties, for instance, was illegal.)  I arranged to meet the guy in one of the remote districts—Tegel, I think it was, in the French Sector—at an U-Bahn station.  I got one of our legmen (they were called this, by the way, because they did a lot of the legwork) and went out after the guy.  No show.  We waited around, checked out the area nearby, but no one was around who fitted the description the guy gave us.  We gave up and went back home. 

A few days or a week later, the guy called again, during the day.  I remember it was February 14, Valentine’s Day.  The legman and I went out after him again, and this time he showed at the meeting place.  We took him out to one of the safe houses we used for serious interviews—not the little building on the compound grounds we used for walk-ins; this was a house in town—and sat him down in the dining room at the big table.  The man was scared shitless—he was shaking and nervous and nearly unable to talk.  But we finally got his story—and it’s pretty typical except that his went further.  He had taken a vacation in Bulgaria and had met a woman.  This, too, was common: trips to the Eastern Bloc were much cheaper than similar trips to Western Europe; Black Sea vacations in Bulgaria were very popular among working Germans.  She was from East Berlin, and they arranged to meet there when they got back home.  (West Berliners weren’t actually permitted to cross into the Eastern Sector, but many got around this by registering as a resident of some West German city, using a friend’s or relative’s address.  This was illegal, of course, but very common.) 

So, the man went over to East Berlin and met his new girlfriend at her apartment.  They started up a romance and this continued for several visits.  One day, the man showed up at the woman’s apartment and found a visitor.  An East German intel agent was waiting for him.  “Here’s the situation,” the agent explained.  “Help us out with a few little things and we won’t report you to the West for this meeting.”  Remember, contact with an agent of EGIS (the U.S. Army term for the East German Intelligence Service; in the DDR, it was known as the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit—Ministry for State Security—or, infamously, the Stasi) was a crime in West Germany.  Of course, if the guy had simply gone back to the West and reported the meeting and the circumstances, nothing would have happened—the West German Kripos (Kriminalpolizei, or criminal police) knew what went on in the East. 

This was a very common scenario.  But the EGIS agent counts on the fear and ignorance of the target, and if it doesn’t work—well, nothing’s lost but a little time.  If it does work, they get someone on the hook for little effort, and they can play it out as long as it lasts.  Again, nothing has been expended but a little time.  If the guy goes for it, they get him to hand over some seemingly innocuous document—a BB phone book, a tank manual—nothing classified or obviously sensitive.  Maybe they do that two or three times, then they move up a notch.  “If you don’t cooperate more, we’ll report everything you’ve done to the West.  You’ve helped us out now, so you’re not innocent.”  Then they’ll tell him to get a job with the U.S. or other Allied forces—any job will do.  This man was an upholsterer so he got a job with the maintenance service for the U.S. facilities in Berlin. 

When he had done that, the EGIS agent gave him a “concealment device.”  That’s spook-speak for a secret pouch for hiding and carrying documents.  And that was the clinching evidence that this man’s story was true—the device wasn’t something you got at the local stationery store.  It looked like a pencil case, but it had a hidden pocket you could only open with a pin and knowledge of where to maneuver it.  Obviously the EGIS agent was going to start getting the man to steal more important papers and smuggle them into East Berlin.  But that’s where the man got too scared to continue.  He stopped going to East Berlin, but then he started to be afraid of the West German police.  That’s when he called us the first time—but he was too scared to follow through.  In addition, he was an alcoholic, and he started drinking so heavily that he was fired for being drunk on the job.  That’s when he called us the second time and met us.  During the interview, by the way, the man got so nervous that he reached for a vial of pills in his jacket pocket.  The legman literally pounced on the man and grabbed the pill vial.  He was afraid they might have been poison—this guy was that scared.  (They weren’t; they were antacids.)

We finished the interview, got the man’s story, arranged to be in contact again.  I wrote up the interview, turned in the report, and briefed the Ops Officer.  A while later, the “guys who aren’t there” inquired if we would get them together with the man.  They had decided that the story was credible enough that it would be worth trying to double the man.  He was turned over to the folks in Building 7, and we were out of it.  (Berlin Station wasn’t an intel-gathering agency; we were a counterintel unit.  Positive intel was the responsibility of other units; we only ran sources—that’s what they were called—if it was a counterespionage operation.)  The “Company” wasn’t very good about sharing info—they didn’t play well with others—so we seldom learned what they were up to.  Some time later, however, we heard about the upholsterer—the Company got him his job back—but his alcoholism had gotten so bad that even the CIA couldn’t keep him in his job.  He was fired again, and without a job with the U.S. forces, he wasn’t much use to EGIS.  He tried to get a job with the French and the Brits, but failed.  EGIS cut him loose, and so did the CIA.  I have no idea what became of him after that.

Most Germans had family on both sides of the border—either in East Berlin or East Germany.  The division of Germany after the war split almost every German family, and even those without relatives in the East had close friends or circumstances like the upholsterer.  Except for West Berliners, West Germans were free to cross into the East to visit, and thousands did regularly.  (Berliners, however, could travel elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc—just not East Berlin until after 1973.)  A typical scenario would go like this:  Hans from Frankfurt would go every month to visit his mother’s elderly sister in East Berlin.  He’d bring cigarettes, wine, food, other small gifts—some of which were considered contraband.  Maybe he’d also give her money, probably in West Marks because the black-market exchange rate was much better than the official one-to-one rate he’d get if he bought East Marks at the border.  Hans’s aunt could get much more for the West Marks than he could—but possessing western currency was illegal in the East.  One day, Hans would arrive at his aunt’s apartment, and there’d be a strange man in the living room—an EGIS agent.  “We’ve been monitoring your visits to your aunt,” he’d tell Hans.  “We know what you’ve been bringing into the DDR.  Would you like us to arrest your aunt?  Take away her identity papers so she can’t buy food?  Have her evicted from her state-owned apartment?”  Of course, Hans couldn’t let that happen.  “The next time you come over, bring a U.S. military phone book.  It’s not even classified—just a little favor.” 

Maybe the EGIS agent would ask Hans to get a job with the Allies or in a Western embassy.  It would always be something easy and relatively innocuous.  It was both a test and a hook.  If Hans bit, EGIS would ask him for increasingly sensitive stuff, plus the threat to reveal his cooperation to the Western authorities.  (Another way of setting the hook they liked to use was to exploit alcohol, gambling, or drug problems, homosexuality, illicit affairs, indebtedness, and petty or trumped-up crimes committed in the East.  The recruitment always involved a threat and coercion—these were not politically-motivated or paid agents.)  If the hook worked, the Soviets and their friends would get a source in the West for almost nothing.  Whatever benefit they got was all gravy.  If Hans didn’t bite, if he reported the contact, or if it wasn’t a family member he was visiting—say, a woman he met (a very common occurrence)—and he just stopped coming East, the Soviets lost nothing in the attempt.  More than likely, they wouldn’t even bother to punish the relatives in the East—too much trouble—or they’d do something petty like harassing them for a few months, just so the word would get back to Hans in the West. 

Another scenario was to approach minor criminals in the East like burglars, bootleggers, pimps, or prostitutes who had been caught.  The KGB or EGIS offers a deal: “Go over to the West, get into some position where you can get useful info, and bring it back to us periodically, and we’ll let you go.”  Who wouldn’t agree to that?  Be a refugee in West Germany versus sitting in an East German jail for some months or a year.  Duh.  So what if the recruit cops out as soon as she gets to the West—what have they lost?  They get rid of an undesirable who is now the problem of the FROG.  If the recruit actually does get info and passes it back . . . well, all the better.  It’s a win-win situation—and no expenses except some phony documents for the “refugee” and transportation to some border location.  (This is, of course, why we had screeners at Marienfelde to interview refugees.  You’d be surprised how often someone would admit right away that they’d been sent over by EGIS or the East German cops.  I’m sure it sounds paranoid, but, take my word for it, it was real and common.  And more often than not, mostly harmless—except perhaps to the psyche of the person who’d been approached by EGIS.  It must have been a very strange existence for people like that, caught between the East and the West that way.  And the Soviets used a shotgun approach: fire as many pellets as you can—a few are bound to hit a target.  For many, many reasons—ethics being only one—we could never get away with that.

(Approaching GI’s and other official U.S. personnel was slightly different.  The Eastern agents still looked for exploitable weaknesses like indebtedness or an addiction, but there had to be money in the bargain as well—often in very large sums.  Seldom were the American sources impelled by ideological commitment, though that happened now and then, but other emotional motivations played a role, such as anger or resentment and family loyalty.  This last was particularly effective with naturalized Americans with family still living in Eastern Bloc countries.  The risks, however, for the Soviets or East Germans in the event of failure was much greater.  They nonetheless tried, and surprisingly often considering how limited our attempts to recruit sources in the East were.  Even when a successful recruitment was unlikely, the Soviets and their surrogates used the same logic: the more attempts, the more the chances of success—and a failed recruitment was a small loss.)

The Cold War was a wondrous time—if you’re Franz Kafka!

The upholsterer case was the closest I ever came to an actual spook operation.  (My brush with real spookery was somewhat reminiscent of a German TV mini-series that aired while I was at the German military intel school in Bad Ems: the three-part TV movie, Der Illegale: Biografie eines Spions—“The illegal [agent]: biography of a spy.”  I blogged about this show and its connection to my stint at the Bundeswehr MAD-Schule in “Der Illegale,” posted on 5 July 2009.)  I did some surveillance, some demo coverage, lots of interviews, and a smattering of other tasks—before they made me an accountant.  I even did a couple of stake-outs from a car—like you see on TV.  Do you know what a cop or an agent does when he’s in a car trying to watch someone and he has to go to the bathroom?  It’s a bit of esoteric lore you don’t often learn, but I did.  In Germany, the law requires bars and restaurants to allow pedestrians to use their bathrooms, so that’s option number one—but you can’t really drop the surveillance and leave the subject unobserved.  What if he or she goes on the move while you’re away from your car?  So, the agent keeps a bottle in the car—it’s much harder for female agents than males for obvious anatomical reasons.  Now you know.  It may sound a little disgusting, but it’s a practical necessity. 

I did one vehicle surveillance that involved a brief car chase—a mini-Bullitt.  (Very mini.)  My partner and I had been watching an apartment for a potential visitor we suspected was an EGIS agent.  He’d been courting a lonely, middle-aged German secretary in an Army office.  No one had actually ever seen the man, but the secretary’s phone was tapped and her mail was monitored, so we knew about his visits from the woman’s conversations with her friends.  But he never communicated with her directly, either by phone or mail; he sent her flowers by Fleuropa (the European counterpart of FTD) and made their dates via the messages accompany the bouquets.  I inherited the case, which had been running for a couple of years or more, and it seemed obvious that nothing was happening anymore.  The woman had retired and there hadn’t been any contact from the mystery man for months. 

I determined that we probably ought to end the eavesdropping and close the case, but then the woman reported a new contact from her beau—more flowers arrived—and reported the he was going to come to her apartment for a date.  I set up the vehicular surveillance to see if we could finally see the guy and try to ID him.  We sat across the street from the woman’s apartment at the time set for the date and waited.  No one showed up.  The woman was on the phone indicating that she still expected her gentleman caller, however, so we hung around until a man did arrive and go into the building.  He stayed a little while and then left, and we took off to follow him in his car.  We did just like the cops do on TV until we were able to get a look at the driver, and when he didn’t match the description we had of the subject, we abandoned the chase.  In the end, I concluded that if there ever had been a real man in the secretary’s life, he had long since vanished and she had kept him “alive” with tales to her friends and flowers she sent herself.  In any case, since no breach of security had ever been detected, and since the woman’s access had ceased when she retired, I closed the case.  But I got to do a car chase!

As I said, running sources wasn’t our job (that’s what the 9668’s were there for), which was to keep the other side from doing to us what we were trying to do to them.  We were basically a security unit.  We had three main sections at Berlin Station, aside from Ops, Files, Tech Services (photography, bugging and miking, lock-picking, polygraphy, and so on), and CCU (which, despite its similarity to a medical abbreviation, stood for the Classified Control Unit—a big vault where all our classified files were kept.  The teams were Counterespionage, Countersurveillance, and Personnel Investigations (usually referred to by their initials: CE, CS, and PI).  CE, as you might guess, was tasked with preventing the Soviets and their crew from planting agents in our midst; CS was responsible for detecting, clearing, and preventing listening devices, bugs, electronic spyware, and so on in the facilities in our jurisdiction; PI was just what the name suggests: conducting background investigations on personnel up for security clearances (including getting higher clearances and renewing clearances).  PI was the bread-and-butter of Berlin Station (and all MI units like it around the world).  It was the largest section, and the busiest.  I was briefly OIC of PI Team—before they made me an accountant!  (Piss me off.  I waited for over a year for my own section, doing stints in both CS and CE as an ordinary Special Agent—the same as the NCO’s on the job, with a boss who was maybe six months my senior.  Then I finally got a section on 1 February 1973 and a few months later, on 25 May, Colonel Collins handed me orders to take over the spook bank in the basement!  Believe me, I am not an accountant.  I can only balance my checkbook because I have a calculator!)

[I hope you’ve found my reminiscences of Cold War Berlin interesting and worthwhile.  As I’ve been saying, this series isn’t being released on a regular schedule, so I can’t say for certain when part 5 will appear, but I’ve been posting the installments every two or three weeks.  So come back sometime later this month to see what comes next.  In “Berlin Memoir, Part 5,”  I will talk about some of the common activities of my daily—or at least weekly—life as an MI officer in West Berlin.  I think you’ll find a lot of it absurd almost to the level of Kafkaesque.  I hope you’ll catch it.]