Wednesday, April 01, 2009

German Democratic Republic


I was stationed with the 298th Army Band of the Berlin Brigade from October 1979 to January 1982 as a tuba player. For an American soldier in his first assignment, it was a most unique one. We couldn't do our duties until we finished School of Standards classes. And those classes filled up quickly. My class wasn't scheduled until a week before Thanksgiving, so the only work I was allowed to do before that time was rake leaves or be a relief guard (charge of quarters) at night.

The band had gone to Moscow (Soviet Union) for a few days. There were only a few people who could work as charge of quarters. I raked leaves from about 8:30 AM to 11:30 AM and 12:30 PM to 3:30 PM. As soon as I raked a pile, the wind blew more down. It wasn't much of a job but it kept me busy. It was steady, predictable, and the weekends were free.

My first weekend, I bought a day ticket on Saturday that was good for all of the U-Bahn trains (subway). I picked up a system map and planned all the places I was going to see. I didn't have a guide book or anything. I've never been to scared to explore a new place. My plan was to get off at every station and get off, exploring the place thoroughly.

Everything went well until I got off at the Friedrichstra├če station. Things looked very strange. The police didn't look like West Berlin police. I saw uniforms I hadn't seen since I had ridden the American Duty Train from Frankfurt am Main. I was now in EAST BERLIN!

Now it wasn't forbidden for me as an American soldier to be in East Berlin. There were certain rules I had to follow: Either I could have a pass and wear my dress uniform (without a name tag) or I could be on leave with leave orders, a passport, and the proper visa and NOT be in a uniform. I didn't have either of those. I was wearing a blue Pendleton wool shirt, Levi's jeans, hiking boots, and a Greek seaman's cap. My identification was my Army ID card.

Shortly after I got to the station, I felt really bad and had to go to the toilet. I looked around and saw those beautiful letters: WC. Once finished, I heard a train going the other direction. I paid the washroom attendant the fee in West German marks (which was allowed) and headed back home.

Looking at the map when I got on the train, I saw the Berlin Wall was well marked but I was too stupid to know what it was. Rather than finish my "tour" I took a train to Kuf├╝rstendamm where I went to Burger King and ate two Whoppers.

Later, I would spend lots of time in East Berlin, but I never told anyone about my first trip until after I was discharged out of the Army, after 1986. I was so scared something would happen to me.

Now that I look back at it, I'm surprised I didn't get in trouble.

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