The Shine Journal

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Handheld History


Carolyn T Johnson

During a recent tour of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Museum, I stood before a perfectly-preserved, graffiti-sprayed panel of the Berlin wall on public display. The docent said she overheard a group of high school kids say it was all a hoax, that the wall never existed.
I exited the U-Bahn subway many times during the frigid winter of 1975 along with my fellow college exchange students. We’d surrender our passports to a steely-eyed East German border guard and wait in a holding pen for clearance into East Berlin. They might deny us entrance altogether, might detain us for two or three hours or they might wave us through in fifteen minutes. It was all very arbitrary. If we got through quickly, we’d have time to visit a nearby pub before attending the Berthold Brecht Theater but sometimes we’d have to run to make curtain call.

Rules were strict when crossing from West to East. Before entering, we had to exchange 7.5 West German Marks for 7.5 East German Marks. If caught bringing discounted, black market East German Marks into the East, we’d be arrested. If we attempted to bring any unspent East German marks back into the West, we’d be arrested. If we were caught casually chatting with a good looking off-duty East German soldier in uniform, we’d be arrested. If we were not back at the U-Bahn checkpoint before midnight, we’d be arrested.

Life was bleak in East Berlin. On sunny days, neighborhood streets were vacant of kids playing ball. Adults didn’t make eye contact. People scurried. Grocery stores shelves were half-stocked with day-old bread. Restaurant’s used cheap aluminum silverware. Cooked cabbage was a staple with every meal. Room-temp beer was cheap even for an eighteen-year-old freshman on a tight budget.

My home in West Berlin, along with my host family, was situated a mile from the southern wall. At night, I’d occasionally awake to the sound of a machine gun going off in the distance. I’d imagine the poor soul attempting an escape to the West then meeting his demise. If he was lucky, the bullet would kill him instantly rather than leave him bleeding to death in No Man’s Land located between the East and West, reputed home to Hitler’s bunker. I’d have nightmares.

Sometimes we’d take binoculars up to the observation platform near the Brandenburg Gate to look over the wall at bricked-over windows of apartments positioned adjacent to the wall. We’d envision jumpers, underground tunnels, secret meetings, Gestapo. We’d sometimes catch steel-blue eyes staring through binoculars right back at us from the guard towers.
Upon arriving back home from the Presidential Museum, I opened the lid to my jewelry box. There in the corner, no bigger than a marble with jagged edges and one smooth spot smeared with black graffiti, sat my own tiny remnant of the Berlin Wall. I carefully picked it up, rolled it around in my hand. The amazing stories this chip of history could tell if only it could talk.



Motivation: A comment made by a docent during a recent visit to a Presidential Museum astounded me. and brought back vivid memories of my experience as an exchange student in Berlin.

BIO: Carolyn, a former banker and now freelance writer from Houston, Texas, draws on her colorful life experiences in the US, Europe and South Africa as sustenance for her poetry and essays. Her subject matter comes from the heart, the hurt, the heavenly and sometimes the hilarious. She has been published in the HOPE WHISPERS anthology, the AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN newspaper, ZYGOTE IN MY COFFEE e-zine and TOWER NOTES newsletter and has received a preliminary acceptance from June Cotner for her upcoming EARTH BLESSINGS anthology.

Email TSJ: Editor: Pamela Tyree Griffin

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