The Berlin Wall Attracts the Sober, the Somber and the Silly
Nigh on to midnight, a hundred yards down from the TV news scaffolds at the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Wall did not sound like the concrete belt that enclasps the Warsaw Pact. It sounded like a coal mine.
In the dark beyond the reach of East German lights, to the singing whang of tempered steel against concrete, the wall was still coming down, one Genuine Authentic Souvenir Chip at a time. With penknives, chisels, crowbars, by moonlight, by flashlight, by--for canny wholesalers--car headlights, six days of trophy-hunting by thousands of people was making a sieve of the Cold War’s most concrete emblem.
A sweaty American student was hard at it, his face lighted only by the sparks his hammer made as it hit the wall. Two young women bent to catch the splinters like coins cascading from a slot machine.
“So where you guys from, man?” He did not stop flailing as he spoke. Los Angeles, University of Southern California, said one of the students I was with. His arm stopped swinging, and he looked up. “USC? (Expletive) you guys!” he said, ardently, easily. One of his companions explained. They went to UCLA, see, and there was a big SC-UCLA football game the next day, so. . . .
So what? I thought. Farther down the wall, another American student chipped doggedly away at the wall, because “I got a friend who’s really into German history and all that crap.” Why then were these young men here, in the white heat of events, if history was “crap” to one and it took a college football game to impassion the other?
Americans--we’re big, we’re rich, we’re here. Daylight along the wall showed just how many of us. The wall has invited graffiti from its first brick; indeed, in places one can flake away almost three decades’ worth of layered messages. If Kilroy had been here before, “Animal House” was here now:
“Byron + Kim.”
“Maui Class of 90 Rules.”
“We Should’ve Crushed ‘Em in ‘45” (at least they got the year right).
“PINK FLOYED” (a rock band, its name misspelled).
“BON SCOTT” (a heavy-metal rocker who, I am told, choked to death on his own vomit by the roadside).
Banalities had defaced several durable graffito works, like the vast skull whose eyes were the skyline of the Wall and East Berlin.
The profound, heartfelt remarks were there, as well--”Don’t Forget Rumania” . . . “Make Love Not Wall” . . . “Papa Ich Liebe Dich” (Papa I love you). But they were rather edged out in the spray-painted jumble; just as everyone wanted to take a piece of the wall away, equally strong was the impulse to leave something of oneself behind.
That student would have been untrue to his credo had he known he was paraphrasing Henry Ford, who said “history is bunk.”
History here was not just bunk. It was an excellent excuse to party, to employ an adjective and a verb much favored by such students, who seem to drift about the world with Daddy’s plastic, rich, mobile, incurious, uninformed, unmoved. Don’t enlighten me, they seem to say--entertain me. They big-footed into Berlin crowing like Super Bowl winners in a game they hadn’t even been playing in. We’re Americans, right? First you win, then you celebrate. They looked on Berlin as both--a victory, and a party.
Hey, Joe College--you’ve just won the Cold War. Whaddya gonna do now? I’m going to Disneyland, dude!
A German-born woman visiting here with her daughter, a teacher, said one of her daughter’s American students had remarked that, you know, this was the best time he’d had all semester. How could he know anything? she said angrily. All he did was sit in a bar and drink Southern Comfort--he didn’t even try the local beer. One of my students cringed so at such behavior that when someone asked where she was from, she said, “Canada.”
Now I must make my disclaimer. Not everyone acted so. Not every student was heedless. Some, drawn by the TV lights, knew vaguely that something of vast and solemn consequence was going on here. My own students were awe-struck and tearful to be at the fulcrum at the moment when the balance of the world tipped.
Not every adult was dignified. The clothes we found exuberantly discarded a few feet from the wall were German-made. (I can’t swear as to the provenance of the condoms). It was a West German who had set up an impromptu shop on an ice chest, selling pieces of the wall, 1, 5 and 10 marks. Anyone with a length of pipe took a satisfying swipe at the wall, like Highland warriors once triumphantly danced over the bodies of their slain enemies. In these days, when everyone expected the Brandenburg Gate to open momentarily, it was feverishly festive.
People handed carnations up to East German border guards, shook their hands through the holes hewn in the wall. Four of them, watching a crowd of us from a barred fourth-floor window, smiled at our smiles, blew kisses to our kisses, and looked regretful when we beckoned.
As East Germans queued to go west (“They came, they saw, they went shopping,” someone wrote on the wall), Western tourists abandoned the fleshpots of the Ku’Damm to stroll the length of the wall, sipping mulled wine, 2 marks a cup ladled out wherever someone had room for a folding table and an eye to a quick bit of money. A father set his little boy on his shoulders to hand a guard some bananas, the party favor of this new politics.
It must have been 1 o’clock one very cold morning, 200 yards from Checkpoint Charlie, when several of us sat atop the wall and talked for half an hour in clumsy phrase-book German and many hand gestures to three young border guards. One of my students dropped a piece of paper down; she wanted his address. He wrote it out, rolling it and sticking it in the barrel of his gun and handed it back up.
An American soldier from Louisville, Ky., had driven out to Potsdamer Platz with some of his family. After 18 months here, he knew the lore already, but now it was becoming as dated as a Greek myth. See that patched-up spot in the wall, where a hole had once been repaired? The West Berliners, he said, used to tell their kids that if they got too close the East German guards would grab them and yank them through, like uniformed gremlins in some updated Brothers Grimm story. Now the lights from the barren eastern stretch shone through the holes made by pickaxes and chisels wielded on the west.
It’s hard to believe that this is the same place, he said. A month ago you’d a been shot for doing stuff like that. He hefted a chunk of wall--a chunk of history--into the trunk of his car. It was a Ford.
Patt Morrison is on leave for a semester’s teaching assignment in London with USC’s School of Journalism.
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