Musings of Wired Pig
The Sum of all the Parts
Being a Berlin Brat
Posted by Wired Pig June - 18 - 2010 - Friday
Growing up, I never lived anywhere that was truly safe. The least safe place, looking back, was the place I felt the most secure. I was able to get on my bike and, along with my friends, take bike paths and city streets all over. Not everything I did while I was there am I proud to have done, but its part of who I am. This is a short chronicle of my life in Berlin as a Berlin Brat.
I was a dependent child in the divided city of Berlin. We arrived from Fort Campbell in December 1978 and left for Fort Hood in June 1981. My father was assigned as the Sergent Major at ODCSI(1) at the Clay Headquarters compound(2) and later he moved over to DEH(3) .
We lived in the Duppel housing area, at 9 Lissabonallee(4) Our housing area was within a mile of the border (due south).
When we moved to Berlin I was half way through with the 6th grade. As a result, I was enrolled in TARE (Thomas A Roberts Elementary). This was a fun time for me.. I have two stand out memories of the 6th grade here. The first is that it was February, still the new kid and I was sick. Really sick. I remember wearing knitted gloves. I also remember trying to run to the bathroom to vomit but making it only a few feet at which I promptly threw up into my hands… with mittens on, causing the vomit to come out my nose. The second event was playing on the west side of the school and deciding that throwing a stick at a typical elementary school ball (think kickball or four square) would be fun only to have said stick (about 1″ around and about 12″ long) do an admirable job of hitting said stick and returning, almost exactly to its original launch position – only off by being about 12″ to high and 18″ to far to the left – and striking me in the mouth. Oh, the memories we retain…
In September 1979 I entered the 7th grade at Berlin American High School(5) . I remember a few of my teachers, whom I have fond memories of – Arthur Benson, John Conway(6) and, Kermit Long . The main thing I remember about going to school at BAHS was that the last day of school was hell on the bus drivers and on the interior of the bus(7) . The last day of school entailed a ritual on the bus ride home. It involved shaving cream – lots of shaving cream – and getting it on everyone who happened to be on the bus.. Not just on them.. in them.. hair, clothes, shirts… everywhere At the end of my 8th grade year, the poor diver pulled the bus over on Argentinische Alle and kicked all the kids off. Oh, the fun!
My class mates, Kevin Zimmerman(8) , Mike Lavoie(9) and I used to bum all over the area. As I mentioned earlier, the wall was a short distance south of the housing area. We used to go up to the observation deck and wave at the border guards. At shift changes the DDR soldiers would wave back to us, with their hands down low over the back of the trucks rear gate so no one else would see. We also set off Fireworks (bottle rockets) over the wall on the 4th of July and New Years. I’m sure the border guards were most excited by our antics.
To the west of the Duppel housing area, where Parforceheide street is now, there were some WWII era bunkers. To keep people out, the Germans – or the Americans – piled dirt into the entry portals. This was no real deterrent to a group of 12-13 year old kids. We used to pack sacks and lights and explore the bunkers. The insides were stripped, moldy, with puddles of water and even rooms impassible due to it. It was fun. I found a WWII era 1 Reichspfennig coin next to the bunker closest to the housing area. I have searched all over for information on the complex but have come up with nothing. Anyone know what the purpose was of this bunker complex?
The bunker area is also where we would fire zip guns made out of US Army Fuse Igniters that we would ‘appropriate’ from Rose Range (if we found any laying around). We used 5.56 mm blanks (with all or most of the powder removed) as the charge for our most dangerous toy. Most of the time this worked fine, with the occasional casing expanding to much and splitting the plastic igniter housing. We used to make bike trips down to Rose Range and go onto the grenade/demolition range(10) and see what was there. We would collect used fragmentation and smoke grenade fuses, stray blank and live ammo of various calibers. We would then go over to the pistol and machine gun ranges and dig in the berms for bullets. As we left the Range, anything we didn’t want we would hand over to the gate guard and tell him we ‘found’ it. I still have one grenade pull ring that I use as a keeper for my handcuff key.
Just north of the border – south east of the bunkers, was an old, pre wall, S-Bahn station (it still had structure when we were there, though none are shown in the images on this Google map). It was quite a fun place for 12 year old boys to hang out. No real worries about tearing anything up.
During this time, Berlin was going threw issuea with squatters (as were several other european cities) taking over abandoned buildings, Turkish youths (up to mid 20′s) were also an issue with the Polizi. This is the time when I started seeing Polizi standing on almost every street corner holding MP5 machine guns. Now that was exciting… Being an occupied city, Berlin was not allowed to have German military units in the city – I have no idea why there DDR soldiers were allowed in the East. As a result, with a population of 2 million at the time I was there, Berlin’s Police (Polizi) numbered 20,000 officers. The Polizi used to practice crowd control and formations in a vacant field just to the east of the Duppel housing area.
I and the terrible influences of friends – I hold them very dear- would take the U-Bahn from outside Clay HQ up to Templehof to go bowling at the Air Force facilities (both of their fathers were Air Force). I always thought it weird to be bowling on an upper floor in a multistory building. One of our favorite places to go was to McNair Barracks(11) on Goerzalle to watch movies at the theater. To get to McNair we would either take the Army shuttle bus or ride our bikes. I think we went there more than we went to the Outpost theater by Clay HQ. At the east end of McNair was the 4th of July Plaza where the various units would hold parades.
So it was in this environment, at the age of 12, that I started smoking. Before my parents knew, or told me they knew, I would go to the little store at the corner of Spanisch Alle and Potsdamer Chaussee. After they found out, I used their ration card to buy cigarettes from the commissary. Berlin is also where I was arrested for shoplifting at the Duppel Shopette. Yes, I was busted for stealing a pack of planters peanuts. We also used to camp in the grassy area just to the west of our building. At night we would sneak out and go buy schnapps from the little German store. Yes, my time in Berlin was not spent in the most constructive ways…
Some of my best memories were of taking ITT (Information, Tour, and Travel) Tours of Germany, the UK, Holland, France and Italy. My sister spent her 16th birthday in Italy, so that trip was in early ’81. The trip to Holland was with my Grandmother, Great Aunt, sister and myself. My father was fond of old castles and ruins, so those were always a subject on our trips through Germany.
At the start of the post I mentioned that I felt safe in Berlin. I really did. I felt safer there running around as a kid than I feel about letting my kids run around the Portland area. Sad to say. I knew I was in an occupied city, I knew that there were Russians watching us. It was a simple fact of life. We(12) would joke that, in the event of World War III, the Russians would simply hang signs over the wall saying, “You Are Now Prisoners Of War”, cut the water and electricity(13) and bypass the city completely. I, as a very young child, also lived in Seoul, Korea. But I was far to young to have any apprehension about the place or its history and on going issues with the North.
Each of the occupying powers had the ability to travel in the other powers areas. We would often visit the French exchange and my mother would buy crystal-ware, at the British exchange we would buy woolen goods. I’m not sure what the French and British would buy from our exchange. though, maybe electronics. We would also Russian military cars in the parking lot at our exchange. They were ALWAYS occupied by four Russian military members. The joke was that the two in the front of the car were watching the two in the back and the two in the back were watching the two in the front. They never got out of the car, that I saw, and entered the exchange.
One of the ‘perks’ of living in Berlin was going into East Berlin. This was a treat for me. I’m sure it was a chore for my father who had to don his Class A Uniform to go on the other side of the wall. I think the real purpose of having military members go in uniform was to allow the East German shadows to more easily spot who they were following… Each family member was issued a US Forces ID Card (I still have mine) for travel to East Berlin or through East Germany. Entering the East was like stepping back in time. There were still, in the early 80′s, numerous buildings with scars from the bombing and subsequent fighting in the city as the Russians entered the city. I wanted an East German flag, now long since gone from my possession, and we ended up going into a local shop in East Berlin and buying one. That was an experience. It was just like you thought it would be, bare, few items, and it just felt oppressive. One of the things we western ‘tourists’ did in East Berlin was to take pictures of the Russian or DDR seals on buildings or of the East German soldiers marching. The soldiers had a goose step march that they did, but which the DDR denied. Now, were to have taken a photo, like the one in the link above, and then go to the PX to have your film developed, that particular shot on the negative would not have come out. In most cases it would have ended up being very, very over exposed. The same thing would have happened with photos of the East German seal… Odd, huh?
One of the fun ways to travel to West Germany was via the Duty Train. In order to travel via the duty train, or by car, you needed to have your documents in order. Those were your ID and your Flag Orders. The train left from Lichterfelde-West station in the late evening and arrived in Frankfort in the morning. Your ID and Flag Orders were given to the train commander before departure. I remmeber watching the Soviets, at the train checkpoints, walking the tracks with their AK’s and others with dogs searching around and under the train. I took the train a few times with my family and also with the Berlin DYA football team to play other bases teams in West Germany.
Driving the Autobahn from Checkpoint Bravo to Checkpoint Alpha was intimidating. After leaving the Allied building, and having the Army make sure your ID’s and Flag Orders were in order you were issued a travel packet (14) got into your car and drove across the border to the Soviet checkpoint where the Russian military would check your documents… and make you wait. There were guard posts and barriers you had to drive around. There were also anti-vehicle barriers that would pop out of the ground and, basically, rip your car in two. It was at this checkpoint that my father would trade/barter with the soviet troops, usually for Soviet military belt buckles or Soviet Army decorations(15) . After being cleared, and having a travel packet you were on your way. After arriving at Checkpoint Alpha the reverse happened. I don’t recall my father trading with the soviet troops here. Once you got into the Allied checkpoint, your start time and end times were noted (Bravo would call ahead to Alpha to let them know you were on your way and what time you left. That way they would be looking of r you and search for you if you were late.) and if you arrived to quickly, you were issued a speeding ticket by the US Army PMO working the desk. Yep, a speeding ticket for not staying in the DDR long enough…
That is a basic, semi quick overview of my time as a Berlin Brat. There are more stories and information, though I’m not sure if I’ll post them. If I find my photos that I took while in Berlin I’ll post them.
To learn more about life in the Divided City, take a look at these links. Here are some good links to what it was like to live in Berlin.
Footnotes are for reference only and may have little, if anything to do with the text from the post.
1. Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence.
2. Google Map of Clay HQ here.
3. Directorate of Engineering & Housing
4. Map here (From Berlin-Brigade.com) .
5. You can see the Berlin Brats website here. Lots of good information on BAHS.
6. He had an Apple II in his classroom that he had connected to a Tv as the monitor. He used to watch AFN on with the text streaming over the video. It also held his grades… guess what computer I crashed?
7. Not just any bus mind you, we had Daimler-Benz buses, in the obligatory Army green.
8. I’ve managed to get a hold of Kevin a few times over the years.
9. I’m still looking for Mike.
10. Looking back, another not so smart move… but luckily we all survived our trips to the range.
11. Home of 2/6, 3/6 and 4/6 Infantry
12. Thats me and my friends.
13. it all came from the east anyway… even the photo film we dropped off at the PX was processed by a firm in East Berlin.
14. Travel directions, with photos, flash cards in German and Russian (should you take a wrong turn or break down) .
15. A few of each I still have… somewhere.