My father came of age during World War II and raised his family during the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 50s. Usually, our family conversation focused on the fortunes of the San Francisco Giants and 49ers, but depending on the events of the day, anti-Communist dogma occasionally crept into the dinnertime dialogue.
In 1970, my parents planned a trip to Europe. My mother had become enamored of traveling while her interest in child-rearing waned. As the last of six children, I ironically benefitted from this mid-life change as she reconciled her interests and obligations by bringing me on her and my father’s European vacation.
My mother planned the itinerary, which included stopovers in Dublin, London, Berlin (west and east), Rome and Paris. As soon as my mother announced our plans, my father became hysterical. He talked endlessly about the dangers of visiting Berlin and repeatedly questioned my mother, “Are you sure, Pat?” She was sure.
My mother had arranged for us to journey to the other side of the Berlin Wall and seemed thrilled to be doing so. Fifty years ago this month, Communist authorities erected the Berlin Wall to prevent freedom-seeking Eastern Europeans from crossing into the capitalist zone of West Berlin. Prior to the wall’s construction, more than 2.5 million “easterners” had left their homeland for greener pastures, also known as money. The Communists built the Berlin Wall to halt the national brain drain. Apparently, no one could leave anymore, but we could still visit.
The first part of our European odyssey went off without a hitch. We toured Dublin, southern Ireland and London. The dollar had risen to unprecedented levels and my parents lived it up. Then the appointed day arrived when we were to leave London and fly from Heathrow to Berlin’s historic Tempelhof aiport, site of the 1948 Berlin airlift. Western allies famously flew food and supplies into Tempelhof over an 11-month period to save West Berliners from starving while the Soviets attempted to cut off all supply routes and ultimately failed.
As we waited to board the plane in London, my father asked my mother again if she felt certain she wanted to travel to Berlin. She remained resolute as he resigned himself to joining her.
Our plane featured one aisle with two seats on either side. I sat with my mother while my father became acquainted with a young German woman. To calm his nerves, I believe my father had a few cocktails, which had the desired effect. His seatmate also gave him a short history lesson on the Cold War’s memorable moments recalling when President Kennedy had visited Berlin in June of 1963 and proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner) as a show of solidarity with the Berlin residents who were trapped behind the wall.
“Ich bin ein Berliner” became my father’s mantra for the rest of our journey.
We spent our first day in West Berlin viewing the sites and eating dinner in the heart of the city at Zlata Praha, where no one spoke English and the food offered little appeal to a 10-year-old and her suspicious father. My mother loved it.
The next day, we rose early for our bus trip into East Berlin. We joined other curious Americans and talked excitedly about our impending adventure with them. We entered Checkpoint Charlie, the well-known intersection for western/eastern crossings and were organized into different groups to have our passports reviewed. As I wrote in my trip diary, my parents were placed in Group D while I was separated from them and placed in Group C. Even my mother appeared frightened.
Fortunately, my parents had befriended another American couple who agreed to watch over me while the authorities inspected my documents. I noted in my diary that the female guard who approved my visit to the Eastern bloc did not shave her legs. I found this “revolting” and considered it another mark of disgrace against the Communists.
Our visit to East Berlin proved anti-climactic. I recall seeing a lot of bombed-out buildings from World War II, which the tour director assured us were about to be redeveloped. My father appeared jubilant at the site of the destruction, rationalizing that the Communists would probably not be attacking us anytime soon, given the state of their infrastructure.
We returned to Checkpoint Charlie where the East Berlin guards boarded our bus to search for escapees. I remember this as being terribly exciting and wondered what would happen if someone had hitched a ride. The guards also rolled mirrors under the vehicle as an extra precaution.
Soon after, we were ensconced safely in our room at the Berlin Hilton, ordering room service and dining on a poor rendition of an American hamburger. The next day we escaped to Rome where the women didn’t shave their legs either, but since they served pasta and pizza, I overlooked their transgression.