The border between West and East Berlin was literally shut down overnight when East German troops moved in during the night of August 12, 1961. Before day break, they had torn up streets entering West Berlin, put up concrete posts and strung barbed wire to prevent anyone from crossing what had been an open border. This was the beginning of what would become the notorious Berlin Wall. To those of us who lived or worked there during that period, it was just The Wall.
Whichever side of the border a person woke up on that morning in August, they were stuck there for what turned out to be decades. Some 255 people died trying to cross the border from East to West Berlin and another 371 lost their lives trying to cross the border between West Berlin and East Germany.
November 9 of this year, 2014, will mark the 25th anniversary of the Wall coming down. An entire generation has grown up in a world in which Germany has been one country. Many of this generation is probably hearing the term “Cold War” for the first time in relation to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine. Sitting like an island in the midst of communist East Germany, known then as the German Democratic Republic, Berlin’s story during the period before the reunification of Germany is a unique one, one filled with intrigue and one whose impact is still being felt today by the people whose countries, like Ukraine, were once part of the former Soviet Union.
Periodically over the next few months leading up to the 25th anniversary of the Wall’s destruction, I will discuss what living in the shadow of that wall was like, its impact on citizens on both sides and some of the factors that led to its demise. Hope you’ll stop by and add some comments of your own,
The Great Burn Shack Incident
When McCurry arrived on the Hill to begin his midnight shift, he was in no mood to deal with any more treads. That afternoon, he had pulled into the Andrews parking lot to visit the PX for some personal items he needed. It was a beautiful day. McCurry, in a good mood, thought he might take a stroll through the neighborhood surrounding the Andrews compound after his visit to the PX. He missed the long walks he had often taken before recently purchasing his Volkswagen microbus with the brightly colored flowers he had added to cover the rust spots.
As he was about to head over to the PX, he noticed a second lieutenant from the military police approaching him. Uh oh, he thought, this doesn’t look good.
“What’s your name, soldier?” the lieutenant asked.
“Mike McCurry,” McCurry responded.
“Mike McCurry, sir,” the military policeman barked.
“Mike McCurry, sir,” McCurry said, thinking, Okay, I’ll play your game.
“Is that your vehicle?” he asked, pointing at the VW.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? Don’t you have any respect for the military, driving something like that?”
“I’m trying to get by on an enlisted man’s salary, sir. What kind of car would you expect me to have?” McCurry responded.
“I’m not talking about what kind of vehicle it is, moron. I’m talking about those flowers painted all over it. It’s an affront to the military.”
“Flowers. An affront to the military?”
“Fucking A. Nothing but some goddamned hippie would do something like that to their automobile and we don’t need no hippies in the Army. If you were in my unit, I’d have you busted for something like that.”
“Well, sir, I guess it’s a good thing I’m not in your unit.”
“What unit are you in, soldier? I think I need to speak with your commander.”
“I’m not permitted to say what unit I’m in,” McCurry said. “All I can tell you is my name and rank.”
“Are you trying to piss me off? You realize, if I want, I can arrest you right now for being out of uniform.”
“How am I out of uniform?” McCurry asked.
“You don’t have any unit patch, for one thing.”
“Now, sir, I know the Army can get a little twisted in its reasoning sometimes. But, if I’m not permitted to say what unit I’m in, why in the world would I be permitted to wear a patch that identified that unit?”
McCurry could feel that the lieutenant was beginning to realize he should never have initiated this confrontation. Although sometimes it seemed too easy, he enjoyed tying these treads up in knots. Often they couldn’t even remember what had started the encounter. It wasn’t difficult to undermine their self-confidence by raising the specter of stepping on the wrong toes. McCurry decided that this skirmish had already lasted too long.
“Sir, if you will just write down your name, rank and how you can be reached, I will be happy to have my commanding officer contact you,” McCurry said.
“That won’t be necessary soldier. Carry on then.” The lieutenant turned and beat a quick retreat.
Now, with eight slow hours on the midnight shift ahead of him, McCurry pulled off his boots, pulled his headset down around his neck, propped his stockinged feet up on the console and laid back with his hands clasped behind his head.
McCurry hoped the treads he worked with here on the Hill would have the sense to leave him alone. He was pretty sure that those who had been around long enough knew the dangers of starting a battle with him. He was having enough problems with the Germans he had to deal with in businesses he and Wachter operated. During the development of their friendship, the pair discovered they had a lot in common. Both were apolitical, though they were vehemently opposed to war for any reason. Both snubbed their noses at senseless regulations, whether they were part of the American military or the German’s dedication to dogma. Wachter had been repulsed by the rigidity of his countrymen in the East and surprised to find them no less committed to authority in the West.
“I’ll tell you, Horst, I think these guys need instructions on how to take a leak,” McCurry remarked during one of their many nights on the town.
“Tell me about it. You wouldn’t believe all the complaints I get when you visit my flat and park your car on the wrong side of the street. ‘What kind of people do you associate with?’ they ask.”
McCurry knew the East German refugee hoped one day to emigrate to America. Wachter felt the more Americanized he became the better his chances would be. McCurry was often amazed at the grasp Wachter had on the language, including idioms and slang. He knew Military Intelligence often kept ASA personnel under surveillance and wondered what they thought of his friendship with Wachter.
“That’s why I make it a rule to park there. I love to see them give you a hard time. Notice how they never say anything to me? They can’t stand it when I act as if I can’t understand German.”
The two of them had developed a number of acts they employed when out drinking. One was to pretend they didn’t understand German so they could frustrate the help at the mostly German establishments they frequented. They both got a kick out of listening to the disparaging remarks made by those who assumed the pair couldn’t understand the language. Another was to tell any barmaid that approached one of them for a drink that the other had the money and she would have to convince him to cough it up. They knew the “buy me a drink” approach in some of the raunchier places they visited was usually a scam. If the charge a patron paid for a beer was, say, 2 marks 50, he might feel the cost of a drink for one of the girls who approached him was a small price to pay for the company. Later, when he received his bill, he would discover that the charge for the mixed drinks for the barmaid was 50 marks or more. Usually there were huge bouncers around to make sure a disgruntled drinker paid his bill in full.
Wachter and McCurry figured they would rather be the hustlers than the hustlees. One evening one of the girls came over and sat on McCurry’s lap. She promised to stay there and keep him company if he would buy her a drink. He told her his friend, Horst, who was on the other side of the table, had all the money. When she turned to face Wachter and negotiate with him for a drink, she was straddling McCurry with her rear to him. While talking to Wachter, she reached her hand behind her, unzipped McCurry’s pants and reached her hand inside. Once she had him erect and was stroking him, she squeezed tight and told him he should really convince his friend to buy her a drink. The cajoling and squeezing went on for a few minutes more before, without warning, she stood up and walked away. She apparently realized that her mission with Wachter and McCurry would be fruitless.
“All you had to do was keep her going for another half minute,” McCurry said while trying to get his zipper up.
“I did my best, buddy. You just need to exercise a little less self-control.”
McCurry was dead tired and nearly nodding off when Donny Myers, a new sergeant on the Hill, began to give him a hard time.
“I’ve about had it with you, McCurry. Ya look like a slob. Your boots are a disgrace and ya oughta fuckin’ know better than to put your feet up on the console, not to mention keeping your fuckin’ boots on your feet.”
“Hey Sarge, give me a break. I can concentrate better with my boots off.”
“I’ll give ya something to concentrate on. Get your boots on and come with me. You’re on burn detail for the rest of this shift.”
“You’ve got the wrong guy for this, Sarge. Since you’re new, you probably don’t know that I’m a bus driver and exempt from burn details.”
The newk tread turned on McCurry with a vengeance. “You listen to me, you smart-mouthed motherfucker. I’m your fuckin’ superior and if I fuckin’ say you’re on burn detail, ya’d better fuckin’ believe that you’re on fuckin’ burn detail. Now get your fuckin’ boots on and follow me.”
Treads have such a limited vocabulary, McCurry thought.
“Have it your way, Sarge,” McCurry said calmly as he started to put on his boots.
McCurry relieved the burn-shack guard and started loading up the burner with the bags of shredded material. The prick tread didn’t even give me someone to help out, he thought.
The burn shack was located within the gated area of the compound but set a ways off from the main buildings. Each night, at the end of the four o’clock to midnight swing shift, a detail carried the day’s accumulated bags of discarded documents to the shack. The bags were piled just inside the building. One person was left to guard them as they were being brought out until the burn detail, selected from the midnight to eight o’clock shift, relieved him. Since the hut couldn’t be left untended until all the material was burned, the detail usually consisted of two people so each could take a break from time to time. The fact that McCurry was alone wasn’t the worst of it. The burner, as with most military devices, didn’t function properly. A blower, which helped incinerate the material more quickly and completely, hadn’t worked for some time. This meant fewer bags could be put in at a time and it took longer for them to burn. Additionally, the door to the incinerator had to be left open a little to allow air in. This created a potential fire hazard that also needed to be closely guarded.
Fuck this shit, McCurry thought, stuffing the burner with as many bags as he could get in. He ignited them and, leaving the door open, went outside for a smoke. It didn’t take long for sparks to ignite the other bags in the room, which in turn ignited the wooden structure. The main buildings in the compound were windowless, so some time passed before the MP guarding the main gate saw the flames. He wasn’t permitted in the compound, so he called in to sound the fire alert. By the time the trick commander, Lt. Vincent, and Sgt. Myers got out to investigate, the shack was nearly burned to the ground. Ashes and partially burned material were floating in the breeze creating a scene not unlike early-winter snow flurries. McCurry was sitting nearby smoking a cigarette.
“What the fuck? Get off your ass, McCurry.”
“Take it easy, Sergeant,” Vincent, said. “Let’s just find out what happened.”
Junior officers were somewhat like the specialists on the Hill. Most were products of ROTC in college and just biding their time until they could get out.
McCurry had been offered Officer Candidate School while in Monterey. He was taken aback by the absurdity of the offer. He had joined the Army Security Agency as a way to avoid serving in Vietnam. Once he was safely on his way to Germany, why would he want to go to OCS, which was nothing but a factory to maintain the supply of officers for Vietnam. A second lieutenant fresh out of OCS on his first trip to the bush had a life expectancy of about twenty minutes. McCurry didn’t like the odds. Those who accepted the offer were seen as treads at heart.
“All right, McCurry, what happened?” Vincent asked as Myers slowly boiled next to him.
“The shack burned down,” McCurry replied nonchalantly.
“No shit. How did it happen?”
“I don’t know. The damn burner didn’t work for shit. At least I didn’t know how to make it work. Maybe some bags caught fire and I didn’t notice them. It started up while I was taking a smoke break.”
“Well, when you saw it was on fire, why didn’t you come and get help?”
“Because I was alone. I’m not supposed to leave the site untended.”
“All right, get back inside. There’s nothing we can do now. We’ll talk about what we’re going to do later.”
While there was nothing that could be done about the burn shack, Vincent realized something had to be done about the partially burned top-secret and secret documents that had blown all over the site and the hill around it. The hard-nosed Myers got a new lesson in discipline after spending the rest of the night with a half dozen non-essential personnel scouring the area with flashlights, collecting all the shreds of paper.
The company commander called McCurry into his office the next day and informed him he would be issued an Article 15. McCurry informed him that he would exercise his right to request a general court martial.
“You know, McCurry, you’re on really thin ice this time,” Capt. Hanover lectured him. “For Christ’s sake, man, you burned down the fuckin’ burn shack. Do you really want to request a general court martial? This time your request might be granted.”
“I’ll just have to take my chances, Captain.”
Two days later, Hanover called McCurry to his office once again to inform him that it had been decided that the incident was the result of an accident and didn’t merit punishment. “But just keep it up,” Hanover warned, “and you might not be as lucky next time.”
What do you do with the world’s largest centrifuge when the Cold War is over? Turn it into a corporate event center, of course. If you would like to see a really cool place — and hear an interesting lecture — mark your calendar for March 11 at 7 p.m.Just put 780 Falcon Circle, Warminster, PA 18974 in your GPS and come on out
With my 50th reunion of my high school class, I have been asked for some background, which I thought I would share here:
After two years of college, I joined the Army Security Agency, which is under the jurisdiction of the National Security Agency rather than the Pentagon. With Vietnam in the background, I figured I was better off with civilians. I became a German linguist after training at the Defense Language Institute-West Coast, in Monterey, CA, and then went on to voice intercept school in San Angelo, TX. Then it was off to Berlin where it was my job to listen to conversations within the East German Central Committee. It was really sensitive stuff, like which boss was going to the mountains the next weekend with which secretary. My exploits in Berlin are the background for my novel, McCurry’s War. I returned to the States a little early, due to some of my escapades, but shortly after the entire barracks ended up with me in Fort Meade. Apparently a new CO didn’t like being choked to death on pot smoke while walking through the barracks, so he kicked the whole gang out. We chilled out watching Easy Rider and drinking ripple wine until our time was up.
After the Army, I worked for Hoechst Pharmaceuticals in North Philadelphia, not a particularly friendly place to be as a drug sales representative. I finished up school in the Division of Continuing Education at the former Trenton State College and got out of the US combat zone with my life. I went on to become a reporter for the now defunct Philadelphia Bulletin (not my fault), covering the Jersey Shore. I was part of the team which later won a Pulitzer Prize for the coverage of the Knight murder, although they didn’t include my name on the award. My job was to spend several nights in the gay bars in Atlantic City uncovering the heir to the Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers connections in the gay community. When I realized that the Bulletin wasn’t long for this world (and I wasn’t very popular at Knight-Ridder’s Philadelphia Inquirer), I moved on to The Sentinel-Ledger in Ocean City, where I ultimately became the editor. I spent seven happy years at The Sentinel, but in 1983 my marriage was coming apart and I realized it was time to make a change. I committed the ultimate sin for a journalist by moving into public relations.
During this period of time, I handled sensitive accounts for then NJ Senate President Jim Hurley’s PR firm and wrote position papers and speeches for his political activities. This was the period during which the greatest thing happened to me – I met Chris, who has been my partner and significant other since July 1986. Together we raised my son and her son and daughter (during their teen years). My son, Chip, is a graphic designer. Chris’s son works for the Department of Defense in the digital world. He and his wife have three beautiful children whom Chris and I adore. Chris’s daughter works at a trucking warehouse She has two children whom we also adore. Her significant other drives an 18-wheeler and is a great guy.
Chris and I were recruited in 1989 to develop a public relations and local business division for a large advertising company in Millville, NJ. That firm’s main business was in business aviation, which was taking a beating in the early ’90s. Ultimately, it lost its main $3 million account and we realized that there was no future staying with a sinking ship. At the end of 1996 we started our own marketing firm which specialized in bank marketing. Through the web design work we perform for our banking clients, we began to branch out in Web design only for customers other than bankers. We had moved to a small apartment with minimal maintenance when my father starting having memory problems. Mom was faced with selling the house if she didn’t have some help. So – since we can operate our business from practically anywhere – in the summer of 1997 Chris and I moved back to the old homestead in Levittown where we currently reside and, unfortunately, own a home again with all the hassle that goes with it. I can truly say we are happy, so I guess life has been pretty good to me.
Now, if I could only find a copy of Easy Rider and some Ripple wine.
Courtesy of Jim Bothwell, one of the members of the 78th ASASOU Yahoo group:
This is a phenomenal history lesson, You probably never have, and most likely will never see these photos again….don’t know where they’ve been but some are brilliant …