|Teufelsberg - she ain't what she used to be|
I blogged yesterday on the demise of the listening station on top of Teufelsberg in Berlin where I celebrated my 24th and 25th birthdays in combat boots, sitting at a desk wearing out the replay button on a giant tape recorder listening to East Germans talking about broken water mains and their grandchildren’s birthday parties.
I left out the water mains and birthday parties and focused on the graffiti on the collapsed installations. Not because I’m still keeping secrets. But because I thought that if I ever started talking about that chapter in my life I might just go on talking forever. So much of who I am today began in those days.
When I consider the trouble Edward Snowdon is in, for revealing to the world the immense spying apparatus he once was part of, I have to laugh at the thought some of my friends have that I was in the same business. He worked for the NSA and at the macro level. I worked for the ASA at a micro level. He saw the whole picture, or at least a much bigger chunk of it. Snowdon is on the run for revealing what he found out about America’s spy activities. I’m inclined to think he did us all a favor by revealing how much of what the United States does today is illegal. But that’s not a judgment. It’s only an inclination. I don’t have enough information.
In any case, my insignificant role in the Cold War is distantly connected in that I actually was part of the world of an estimated 40,000 people engaged in some sort of espionage work in Berlin in the 1960s. I was one of the Americans listening first to Russian soldiers in the field talking to each other on short wave radios. And later to communist party officials in the German Democratic Republic, the DDR. I have no secrets to reveal. I doubt if I had revealed what I knew was going on even back then any harm would have come from my revelations. I didn’t. I bought into the work we were doing and liked the idea, at least initially, that I was doing my part in the Cold War.
Compared to Snowdon’s activities, mine were trivial indeed. And there was little doubt the Russians and the East Germans knew what we were doing. Friends of mine from Monterey who got sent to do the same work on the Black Sea in Turkey told me when they arrived they got messages from the Soviet bases across the water welcoming them and hoping they had a nice flight from California. A Wikipedia article on the ASA informs me the information we dealt with has been “partially declassified” and I’m pretty certain anything I say here will pale in comparison what can be found in the many books and articles on those Cold War years. There was even a novel by somebody using the pen name of David Von Norden, entitled Death On Devil's Mountain, which came out in 2009.
More relevant, probably, to the Teufelsberg experience are books by other “Monterey Marys” as we were called, but I have not read them. I list a few here without endorsement, for that reason, just in case you want to pursue them. There is Voices Under Berlin: The Tale Of A Monterey Mary, by T.H.E. Hill, which deals, I believe not so much with Teufelsberg as with an escape tunnel. There is also C Trick by Donald M. Cooper, which I’ve just ordered and suspect may be more directly parallel to my experience. And Soldier Boy: At Play in the ASA by Timothy James Bazzett, who might be able to confirm or deny that story of welcome in Turkey. Bazzett, I understand, is one of the few who went on and made a career in the NSA. And no doubt many more. To say nothing of the dozens upon dozens of spy novels and memoirs of the many Cold Warriors who followed their need to tell their tales.
|Teufelsberg as I knew it|
Just to backtrack a bit, Teufelsberg, literally “Devil’s Mountain” was a rubbish pile. But Berlin had been so severely bombed that the pile created the largest mountain in the city. I always thought the term “Devil’s Mountain” referred to the evil of the Third Reich. The name apparently comes from the nearby Teufelsee - “Devil’s Lake,” a name which goes back considerably before 1933. The water is famously clean and there’s nothing devilish about the place, unless you are bothered by the habitual nude bathing. I note that in later years many who worked there called it the “field station” or the FSB, Field Station Berlin. We simply called it Teufelsberg.
|Teufelsberg as it became in later years|
Memories are flying around now like exploding firecrackers, not necessarily connected, or of any apparent import. Like my roommate’s fascination with his prize Tandberg tape recorder, for example, and his argument that its superiority lay in the fact that it had all mechanical parts, unlike the complex machinery we worked with on the job. And the time we found one member of our company sitting on top of a wall locker playing a flute in the nude. My memory may be faulty on this, but I believe there were on the average three suicides a year in the unit and it was not unusual for guys to be shipped out for medical or disciplinary reasons. Mostly though the attitude was that we had a job to do and we followed the military rule of keeping your head down and not making waves. There were simply too many ways of getting into serious trouble.
The surface cool belied all the churning within. We lived four to a room and there was no privacy to speak of. Tom, one of my roommates, was fighting demons regularly in his sleep and keeping us awake. He would drink till he got falling-down drunk, but many people drank heavily and we were too young to know or care about something called alcoholism. You drank. You got sick. You got over it and drank some more. Tom’s problem (he’s no longer with us) was that he got belligerent. One night at about three in the morning I happened to be alone in the room when the MPs burst in and shouted at me, “Where does this guy sleep?” I pointed to his bunk and they dropped him there, unconscious. He was a bloody pulp. I learned later that he had kicked in the door of the police car and they decided to beat him up for making them fill out all that paper work. I spent the rest of the night wiping the blood off his face with cold towels and trying to clean him up and not gag at the stink. He woke up at one point briefly, kissed me in a stupor and fell back on the pillow. The next day he went to the hospital and we never talked about it again. I’m pretty sure he had no memory of that event after the beating.
I was dealing with my own demons at the time. I too was having nightmares, night after night, until in desperation I forced myself to stay conscious as I fell asleep so I could confront this ugly face that was appearing to me in a dream and demand it tell me who it was. “I am a lie,” it answered, and left me to figure out what it meant.
In the days that followed I came to the realization that I was gay and that I had had a gay experience when I was eighteen that I had completely suppressed. The coming out process took several more years, but the burden I was carrying was largely lifted that night, in Andrews Barracks, some time in 1964.
We worked in shifts. Tricks, they were called. A Trick, B Trick, C Trick. A trick went to work at something like 7 a.m. if I remember right. The bus would bring in B trick to relieve them eight hours later, at 3, and bring A trick home, and then repeat the drill, bringing C trick to work at 11 and B trick back through the Grunewald so that the listening in went on uninterrupted. The ride took between twenty minutes and half an hour, and we often rode in silence, I remember. We couldn’t talk about work, and after eight of the dullest hours imaginable, somehow I don’t remember ever feeling very chatty.
Most of us sat in front of a radio, turning the dial endlessly, looking for something that might sound like it ought to be recorded. Most of the people in the pit doing that job were in no position to make a decent assessment. They twisted dials, drank coffee, told jokes and exchanged information about alternate bars to “The Golden Scum,” the bar just outside the entrance where one could get a blow job under the table if you timed things right. The real name of the place was “Zur Goldenen Sonne” (In the Golden Sun), but the one most people used seemed like a more accurate description.
|Defense Language Institute|
(originally the Army Language School)
in a 1967 photo
I had enlisted to avoid the draft and was assured I’d be admitted to the Army Language School in Monterey. I ended up in the School of Russian. For a year I sat in classes eight hours a day, did homework for an hour or two beyond that, and got to know a dozen or more native Russians up close. It wasn’t heaven, exactly, but it also wasn’t the Bay of Pigs or Vietnam. I had taken two years of Russian in college and started the program with an advantage which enabled me to graduate at the top of the class, and I loved the feeling of accomplishment. By the end of the year I was attending lectures in Russian by people like Shaky Jake, whom some of the old folks would bow to as he passed, because he was a Romanoff. He was also a drunk. Or so we assumed. It is possible his tremors had another explanation. He loved Tchaikovsky and would talk endlessly of the delights of Russian classical composers. And we ate it up. We were also regaled by tales by General Markov of going on patrol in places so primitive that the locals would put out the headlights on the jeeps thinking they were eyes. And Minnie Mouse, as we called her, the wife of the priest who would go on and on about how happy they all were before that awful revolution and why did they have to kill the tsar’s whole family?
We were already cleared with a top secret clearance. Which was useful, because our Russian-English dictionaries were stamped “CONFIDENTIAL” since they contained Russian words. Because of this we were instructed not to “fraternize,” an us-and-them holdover concept from the occupation of Germany and Japan, where it was easier to make the people “off limits” than fuss with the details.
The order was unworkable, though. We spent all day every day with these people and warm friendships grew, even between aging ex-Bolsheviks and naïve American kids from the boonies, and there were even tears when it was all over.
I had amassed a collection of Russian literature in the original, purchased mostly from the Znanie Bookstore on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, where I would spend many a weekend, eating borscht and piroshki and seeking opportunities to meet Russians who still lived in the Clement Street area at that time, well before it became the second Chinatown it is today. We went to services at the Russian Orthodox cathedral or one of the smaller Russian churches, and did what a language learner should do, approach language and culture as two faces of the same phenomenon.
When that year, 1963, came to an end, and I flew first to Frankfurt, then to Berlin to actually work as a Russian “linguist,” I was full of anticipation. Excited to be back in Germany again – I had spent my junior year in college in Munich – and anxious to save the world from communism.
My job was to listen to Russian soldiers in the field talk to each other. Apparently their radio lines needed to be kept open around the clock and since they had to speak the entire time and obviously ran out of things to say, they spent almost the entire time simply counting to ten and then back down again. We were supposed to write down everything they said, so our pages were filled with lines that said 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – 2 – 3, etc. Line after line, page after page.
After about a month of this, I began to feel something slipping. It was all too unreal, and I was far too earnest a 24-year-old to let it all wash over me, as most people did. Only years later did a friend say to me, “Your trouble is you’ve never developed an appreciation of the absurd.”
At some point one of my colleagues, bored beyond endurance, crumpled up a page of numbers and tossed it over his head into a burn bag against the opposite wall. It landed in a bag labeled “Unclassified Trash”. At just that moment, a sergeant came in – we were two classes of folk: “Monterey Marys” with college degrees and Specialist 3 or 4 or 5 rank, and career non-commissioned officers, almost none of whom had any advanced schooling or interest in the actual work being done at the site. Their job was strictly to keep us, an undisciplined lot by nature, in line. We referred to them sometimes as orang-utans, sometimes as cannon fodder. The sergeant went over to the burn bag, picked out the paper and hauled the guy off to be court martialed. Whether he was actually court martialed or not, I don’t know, but he never came back and word came down he had been shipped home.
A sense of doom already existed in that place. This event added to it a sense of paranoia. We would never know when something would happen to make our world fall apart. “Random fuck” was the expression. You never knew where it was going to come from and who it was going to hit next.
Some time later I was assigned to “burn bag duty.” It was my job to go around the site, staple all the burn bags shut, put them on a dolly and take them out to the furnace where all the trash was burned. When I got out there I immediately noticed that the bags labeled “classified trash” were going in the same furnace as the bags labeled “unclassified trash.” There was only one furnace.
My blood ran cold. I had had quite a few examples of the random fuck phenomenon by this time, but this was beyond the pale. That guy had disappeared for absolutely no reason I could see that made sense. I went to the captain to register my disgust. He looked me in the eye and said, “This is a good opportunity for you to learn that the rules don’t need to make sense. The only thing you need to know is that you are to obey the rules.”
In principle, blind obedience made sense to me. I could see how in a combat situation it was probably the lesser evil. But I had also been raised in a post war age and was familiar with the Nuremburg trials and the fact that my country had told the Germans they could not use blind obedience as an excuse. And perhaps more importantly, here in this situation, I had seen one of my own mistreated by a mindset which was not merely wrong-headed, but pernicious. I snapped. I took off my headphones and announced I was done with writing numbers on a piece of paper that made no sense.
They told me I could expect a court martial. Bring it on. By this time I had talked myself into thinking I’d do better sitting in a jail cell then here in this place going out of my fucking mind.
Apparently my resolve persuaded them I needed to see a psychiatrist. I can’t be sure, but I think people had become aware by this time of how much self-destructive behavior was going around, the suicides being only the extreme form. In any case, I was removed from duty and told there would be a three-month wait till I could get to see the shrink in Frankfurt. Apparently there was only this one guy in the entire European theater who they would trust me to talk with. I had a top secret crypto clearance, you see. Never mind the only thing I had ever heard in all the time on the hill was Russians counting to ten.
Instead of getting up before first light and driving through the woods to the cave with no windows, I got to spend my days reading or watching television in the day room. I had things I had to do, like rake leaves and mop floors, but I could get those jobs done in short order and get back to watching television. German television was a trip. It amused me no end, I remember, to discover that in the early sixties they still put all their commercials together in one piece, fifteen or twenty minutes long, and people would watch them as they watched television programs. And German television was still very highbrow and instructional.
The best part of the confinement to the day room, though, was the presence of three other misfits. One was a guy who spoke with such a drawn-out southern drawl I first thought he was retarded (to use the politically incorrect concept of the day.) I soon realized, though, that he had a rich knowledge of American literature. I imagine he went into teaching eventually. I hope he did. He was able to make Faulkner interesting in a way my college American Lit classes never could. And he knew the plots of all of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. I told him how literature had come alive for me when I read Catch 22 while at Monterey and how what probably came across as satire to most people seemed like objective description to me. He insisted I read Thomas Pynchon’s V, which had just come out. When I asked him what he was doing among the misfits, he said, “I honestly don’t know. Maybe because I can’t keep my tie on.”
Another one of the guys – Jeff, I think his name was – was a flamenco guitarist. Very accomplished. The music was new to me but I never tired of hearing him practice. He had gone to Monterey to study German and was now working in Violet Section, a name I heard for the first time. He had not sergeants over him but civilian bosses and they worked on German political issues. He told me they were having difficulty with some of the Saxon dialect speakers, and six months of German, it turned out, was not sufficient. “They could use a guy like you,” he told me, planting an idea in my head I was later to use as a way out of a bad situation. Matthew, a friend of his from Monterey days, who also worked in Violet Section, came to visit on his days off, and we used to sit around playing vocabulary games, to see if we could come up with the German and English equivalent of tree names, automobile parts, flowers, and religious terms like justification (Rechtfertigung) and Purgatory (Fegfeuer) and the Ascension of Mary (Mariä Himmelfahrt). I still get a lot of mileage dropping that last one at parties.
When the time came for my appointment with the shrink, I boarded the “duty train”, as it was called, that ran for the American military between Berlin and Frankfurt. Each of the occupation forces had one that connected their zone in Berlin with their headquarters in in the West. The American train ran between Berlin and Frankfurt. The British had their own train, and if you’re interested, have a look at a video of the celebration of the end of British occupation of Berlin here.
|Helmstedt border crossing|
From the edge of the city, when the train entered the territory of the DDR to the crossing into West Germany at Helmstedt, the doors were sealed, and nobody was allowed in or out. The trip was like something out of The Spy Who Came in out of the Cold, the way we inched our way past rows and rows of Volkspolizei carrying automatic weapons and scowling at our faces pressed against the windows like kids staring out of a locked car when Daddy drives nervously through the inner city. At the border crossings, Russian soldiers would enter the train (but not the cars we were in) and get a roster of the names of all the people on the train. They were making it plain who was in charge of the territory. We may be a fellow occupying force in Berlin, but within the confines of the German Democratic Republic we were reminded with each journey that we were not in charge.
|Gutleut Kaserne, Frankfurt|
I was happy to be back in Frankfurt. I had made friends there during the three months of training before being sent to Berlin. The army had lost my records, so they couldn’t pay me. That meant I had to borrow money if I wanted to do anything off base. On base, the Gutleut Kaserne, I had free room and board, but for anything of real interest, one obviously had to get out and about. Movies were about $1.50 in those days but soldiers could get into the opera for seventy-five cents. One of my friends there, Dennis Wakeling, who later became director of an opera company in Texas and professor of music, had majored in opera at the University of Southern California. We would have dinner together and he would tell me the plot line of the opera we were going to see and regale me with opera lore – like the midget they got at the Met to play Madame Butterfly’s kid who bit her on the breast and stopped the show. (I may be misremembering, but I’m almost sure that’s the story I heard.) The result was a virtual introductory course to opera. Dennis, I remember, thought the sun rose and set on Richard Strauss. I, on the other hand, thought his music was the equivalent of sugar on honey cubes and walked out of Rosenkavalier once to Dennis’ great chagrin. In the end, though, he was generous. “Some day your taste in music will grow beyond Grieg,” he said to me once. I went to a performance of Rosenkavalier last year that brought tears to my eyes. From the beauty of the performance, for the most part, but there was also considerable sadness that Dennis was no longer around so I could tell him how well he had predicted my future.
I didn’t have time to go to the opera this visit. I had one night in Frankfurt before my appointment with the shrink and got on the train back to Berlin the very next day. After three months away, they wanted me back at work.
I found my way to the psychiatrist’s office, found him sitting at his desk and asked him whether I should sit in the chair or lie on the couch. “Suit yourself,” he said, and I sat down. “How old were you when you first masturbated?” he asked me. “I don’t remember,” I answered truthfully. “Do you masturbate now?” “Sometimes.” Do you have any brothers or sisters?” “I have a sister.” “Have you ever had sex with your sister?” “No.” “Have you ever wanted to?” “No.” “How about your mother?” “No.” “Your father?” “No.” “Thank you. That will be all.”
I was in his office for less than ten minutes.
I went to the train in a state of shock. I had suspected I was losing my mind. Now I was almost convinced of it.
|Andrews Barracks to HQ|
Back in Berlin I asked about the results of the interview and was told, “That’s classified.” There was no way I would be allowed to know what the doctor had to say about me. By this time, however, I knew my way around the Berlin Brigade and knew that if I made an appointment with the dentist, they would give me my records to hand-carry on the bus trip across the city to headquarters where the dental clinic was. Somebody has posted a YouTube video of the place as it looks today, suggesting some of the buildings will look familiar, but nothing, absolutely nothing sticks with me from those days. American Army Headquarters was in Clay Allee. The bus ride took only ten or fifteen minutes, but that was long enough to sneak a look at my records. There it was, right on top.
“This well-adjusted soldier speaks coherently about…”
I didn’t need to read another word. My goose was cooked. I had this image of a giant rubber stamp coming down and stamping “arbeitsfähig” on my forehead. “Capable of work,” the Nazi designation for Jews who could be worked to death rather than gassed straight away. If I’d given the metaphor its due I would have realized I had come away lucky. They were not going to jail me. They were going to put me back to work.
I had had three months to think things over and came to realize how much I didn’t want to sit my time out in a jail cell and then be dishonorably discharged. I went back to work.
For about an hour. When the counting started up again, and I looked around at the zombie-like faces, I took my headphones off a second time. This time more somberly, because I was much more aware of what likely lay in store for me.
I had a sergeant in charge at Teufelsberg I had gotten to know and like. He was an African-American and I had had little contact with black people before this, growing up in what was then still very white New England. He was handsome and soft-spoken. Not one of the grunts who thought politeness meant not spitting on the floor but in the wastebasket. There was a campaign going on to get soldiers to re-enlist and any of our superiors who got us to sign up got a considerable financial reward, so he went to work on me as well as everybody else in sight. When we were on night shift we’d often talk for hours over coffee when nothing much was happening and we were all caught up. As we talked I learned what the army meant to him. It was a way out of poverty and ignorance, an escape from limitations that were handicapping everyone he ever knew before the army took him to Europe where he could walk the streets as an American soldier, and not just as a Negro.
Ever since the Berlin Airlift, which began in the summer of 1948 when the Russians decided to get tough and close the borders in and out of the city, Berliners had come to see Americans less as an occupying army and more as the people saving them from the Russians. For almost a year planes flew in and out of Tempelhof Airport, staying only long enough to unload and refuel, before flying back for another load of supplies. Thirty-nine Britons and thirty-one Americans lost their lives keeping Berliners from freezing and starvation, and the Berliners were grateful. There was no place in the world an American in uniform got a warmer welcome.
I tried to explain to the good sergeant that while he saw limitations everywhere I was “free, white, male and twenty-one.” The point was I had the illusion the whole world was open to me. The thought I would spend thirty seconds more in an organization characterized by stupidity and random fuck than I absolutely had to was beyond absurd. He finally stopped pitching. He would be what we called a re-tread. I would not.
In this tug of war, though, a friendship developed as we reached the point where we could see how our backgrounds determined our opinions, rather than blindness or thick-headedness. When I took my headphones off that second time, I could see in his eyes that I was in trouble. I also saw that he cared what happened to me and was going to do what he could to protect me from my own pattern of self-destruction. He escorted me personally to the new captain’s office back at Andrews.
The captain had just taken command. He was a young man, not much older than me. He came across like some kind of missionary, a blond baby-faced Norwegian-American kid from Minnesota, fresh off the farm and officer training school. I was in luck. “What am I supposed to do with you?” he asked me.
I had been preparing for the worst. A tirade of invective probably, followed by a big show of calling the MPs to haul my ass off to the brig. But this guy was actually solicitous. He was asking me a real question.
“I’d like to work as an interpreter on the troop train,” I told him.
He knew that would never happen. The Russian interpreters could not come from those people who had worked as a spy. The Russians might actually have ways of spotting me if I took that position and haul me off for questioning. No matter that the only information I could give them was which of the soldiers spoke with a Moscow accent, and which with a Leningrad accent on those rare occasions when they said more than the numbers from one to ten.
“No,” he said. “You can’t work on the duty train.”
“What about working in Violet Section?”
“You know about Violet Section?” Here it was, the idea that secrets could be kept and that people living and working together around the clock would not see who went where once we entered the Listening Station.
“Of course. It’s a small place and everybody knows what goes on inside.”
“But you’re a Russian linguist!” He had the party line.
“But my mother is German and I grew up with the language,” I said. “And I happen to know they need somebody like me who can handle the dialects,” I told him. I was bluffing. I didn’t know Saxon any better than anybody else working there, but I figured I could fake it.
And that’s what happened. I went with my misfit friends, the flamenco guitarist and his friend of the words for all the plants and animals, to meet the civilian employees. Two weeks later they put me in charge of the section, and people were coming to me with bits and pieces they couldn’t quite make out. I got real good, real fast, at guessing at things from context and fortunately I didn’t make too many mistakes (actually, who would ever know?) And, to everybody’s relief, my little trouble-making stint blew over and things went back to normal.
If the party members had used the regular telephones, we probably would not have known what they were up to. But there was a special network set up for party members which circled the country in a narrow beam – not broadcast, in other words – from Berlin to places that became as familiar to us as our home towns – Erfurt, Halle, Magdeburg, Schwerin, Rostock, Leipzig, Dresden, Karl-Marx-Stadt and the rest of the state capitals. Because the line went through Berlin we were able to tap into it, and because things were so centralized that gave us access to the entire country. The number of people we listened to was limited, so we got used to their voices and could wow the bosses who dropped in from time to time with our ability to identify people quickly and often give some personal history. Gertraud has an unmarried daughter and her granddaughter’s birthday is coming up. Manfred hates going to the airport to pick up Russians, but he pretends he doesn’t mind. In some cases, I learned where people lived and found their addresses on a Berlin street map. I used to fantasize about going over, knocking on the door, and offering “a little something for the three-year-old on her birthday.”
We read Neues Deutschland, the official state newspaper because it helped us contextualize things, and we were aware of how many times a world event would be interpreted differently. There were times we got wind of things that did not appear in the Western press, and times when we knew we were not getting accurate information. It was not a stretch that there would be people who might actually want to “escape” from the West to the East. We kept a lid on such thoughts, because we understood what could happen if they were overheard and misinterpreted. Nobody I worked with, even though we joked about it from time to time, seriously entertained the idea. The kids getting shot or tried for the crime of “Republikflucht” (flight from the [East German] Republic) kept us in check. But the idea at least entered the realm of the conceivable. The more so when the orang-utans got abusive and the “bad guys” turned out to be loving grandmothers or giggly gossips indistinguishable from our own sisters – people we knew we would want to get to know if circumstances were different.
The months went by and my time came for having my necktie cut off. When you “got short” – got close to leaving, somebody would get a pair of scissors and slice through the middle of your tie to mark the approach of the great day.
What followed was a series of rapid changes in my life. I went back to Connecticut, registered for unemployement - a mistake – I should have waited till I got to California where the rate was much higher, bought a car and drove with one of my friends from Andrews/Teufelsberg days to San Francisco where I stayed for a while with a spook – one of the guys who used to spy on us at Monterey to try to weed out troublemakers early on. I rented an apartment first with one of my friends from Berlin, then a second, then a third. I took a year off till my $3000 savings was used up and I had to find a job. Most of that year I spent with others from the 78th USASA SOU, the Berlin Brigade, playing bridge, learning to cook, to manage a checkbook, and to keep house. I began to have a sex life, to know what it felt like to be on my own as an adult for the first time, and moved away from the Cold War and into the Age of Aquarius. The flower children had begun to show up and I would march next to them in anti-Vietnam war protests and join them in trying to persuade men in uniform they were little better than paid killers.
I missed my Aunt Frieda and the friends I got to know through her, her neighbors and other friendships I had formed. But I wanted more than anything to establish myself in San Francisco, and get a life I could call my own. Then, I thought, I would go back to Berlin, find a teaching job, and become a German citizen. I had come to feel a close connection to Germany during my junior year in Munich, and Berlin had taken me the rest of the way. No place on earth was more exciting. I couldn’t image a better place to live than Berlin. It was the center of the universe, where Communism and the Western World were lined up nose to nose. You lived with the here and now, knowing a spark could ignite the fire that would bring on the end of the world. Where things were consequential. Where you swept away the trivial and got to the essence of what made the world go around.
So, at least, it appeared to my young mind. How are you going to keep this kid tied down anywhere, now that he has seen Berlin?
I went back to school to get a master’s degree in teaching English as a Second Language, hoping it might lead to a teaching job at the bilingual school in Berlin. One of the requirements was to take a non-European language, to experience what it felt like for students to be challenged by what you would be teaching them. I chose Japanese because I had made friends with a Japanese woman in one of my classes.
Two and a half years later, when I finished my degree program she got me a job in Japan. Might as well go, I thought. When will I get another chance like this. I can go back to Berlin anytime.
Fast forward to today, seven years after retiring from my teaching job at Keio University, where I taught for eighteen years, and forty-three years after going to Japan for that first stint, and it’s clear to me what people mean when they say, “Life is what happens to you when you’re waiting for life to happen.”
Tante Frieda died back in the 80s. So did my friend Achim. Achim’s wife died last year, well into her 90s. Their daughter, Barbara, now in her 50s, was eight years old when I first met her. She and her husband and I are still close.
Barbara e-mailed me from Berlin last week:
Anytime I run across Teufelsberg it makes me think of you...
There's even a book about it now, are you interested or does it put you off?
There's even a book about it now, are you interested or does it put you off?
This is my answer to Barbara.
Gutleut Kaserne by Glenn Randall
Helmstedt border crossing