Monday, November 9, 2009

The Day the Wall Fell

Twenty years ago....

Twenty years ago, I was the awkward, geeky 9th grade girl in this yearbook picture

Twenty years ago, my dad was stationed in Berlin, Germany, and we had been living there for about a year.

Twenty years ago, I was at home watching a movie with my family when the phone rang. It was Brandy, a friend of mine in high school. She was calling to say they were going to tear down the Berlin Wall.

Twenty years ago, I told Brandy she was full of it, and ended the phone conversation. I went back into our living room to tell my parents the crazy story that she had cooked up this time. (Brandy was famous for outlandish tales of how she was going to be in the Olympics, about the time she swam with the killer whales, about how rich her parents were, etc). We turned off the movie so my parents could check the news, and we saw the most amazing night of our lives begin to unfold.

I don't know if everyone was as surprised that night as I was, but as a 9th grader, I had no idea that the events were unfolding in that direction. As a military brat, you are pretty aware of world situations and things that can affect your family, your friends, and your country. I don't know if the whole world was as taken by surprise as I was. Sure, freedom was spreading in Eastern Europe at the time, but the Berlin Wall? That was a forever thing.

See, we had lived in Berlin for a year before this came about. We had learned to abide by the rules and regulations that living in those circumstances requires. West Berlin was called the Island of Freedom, because the city of Berlin sat smack dab in the middle of East Germany. To get to the next piece of "free land", we had to drive a 3 hour road called the Corridor. We had to sign out with the army in Berlin and drive one road until we reached West Germany, where we had to sign in again. You had a set amount of time to make the journey. If you took too long, they sent military troops in to find you. If you arrived too quickly, they would ticket you for speeding. If your car broke down, if you got a flat tire, if for some reason, you could go on no further, our instructions were to stay in our car with the doors locked and wait for the military to come get us.

I had seen first hand the difference between East and West Berlin. As Americans, we could receive special passes to go shopping and site seeing in East Berlin. "East Passes" as they were nicknamed, were a piece of paper with your picture, your vital information. When you drove through Checkpoint Charlie to get into East Berlin, you were to hold that pass up to the window of your car. Under no circumstances were you to give that paper to the Russian guards that were allowing you in. That paper was your proof that you were an American, that you were there with the permission and support of the American Military. I remember driving through the checkpoints and being amazed that two so different worlds could exist in the same city.

East Berlin was gray. That is what I remember most. That, and the fact that people didn't smile on the streets. It was gray. It was somber. The buildings all looked the same, there were no advertisements anywhere. The Berlin Wall itself was gray. There was no graffiti on the East side of the Wall. To even approach the Wall from the East side was forbidden, and was a death warrant, carried out by the guards in the towers that were constantly overlooking.

Walking around in East Berlin was a lesson in world politics. East German and Russian military were all over the place, both in professional capacity and on their leisure time. The East Germans and the Russians were required by their own militarys to salute American soldiers that they saw in East Berlin. My father always wore his uniform when we went to the East, as a sign of who we were. At the same time, our government didn't acknowledge the validity of the Russians being in East Berlin. We didn't recognize the East German government as valid either. So my father's instructions? Ignore the salutes received from these soldiers. A salute is a sign of respect, and we don't respect their right to be here, so American soldiers did not salute in return.

There is so much history of the Wall itself that I won't go into here today, although I encourage everyone to read the stories of how people escaped over, under, and through the Wall over the years.

What I will tell you is that in my world, the Wall was a permanent structure. Did you know that the Wall itself surrounded West Berlin only? Did you know that it was built not to keep East Germans in East Berlin, but to keep them out of West Berlin? Did you know that WE were the ones that lived enclosed in a Wall? It was solid, it was menacing, it was forever.

Except.... it wasn't. In one stroke of a pen, in one night, in one official declaration, the Wall lost all its power.

We watched TV for hours that night. The flood of people didn't stop. The East Germans weren't really sure that the open borders would last, so they were pouring across into West Berlin, just in case. There were families that hadn't seen each other in almost 30 years that were reunited that night. There were children and teenagers that had never seen the flash and color of the Free West that learned that night.

I remember that we cried that night. We cried in joy for the people that were now free. We cried in relief that their struggle was coming to an end. We cried in pride that we had done our job.

We had held on. The Island of Freedom had stood strong for so many years. So many men and women from the US, British, and French military had been stationed over the years, each doing their part to stand strong and hold fast to that patch of land, that symbol of freedom surrounded by oppression. I remember the next day, or maybe the day after that, the West Berlin Newspaper ran a full page ad on the back of the paper. In English, French, and German, all it said was "Thank You".

I write these memories so that I may never forget the wonder that I saw that night. I write so that I may always keep that awkward 9th grade girl in my heart, and she may never let me forget. I write so that we can tell our kids what it was like before. I write so that people can know the struggle, the fight, the victory that took place in that city. I write because 20 years ago, I was privileged to sit in my living room, in Berlin, Germany, and watch history unfold before my very eyes. I write because I lived a piece of history.

I felt it, I saw it, I held it in my hands, 20 years ago.

20 years ago, today.


  1. Twenty years ago, I was nine. I was faintly aware there was something important going on, I remember my parents briefly discussing it, but that's about it. But your experiences... that's amazing! This is a wonderful post!

  2. What a cool story. I knew of the Berlin wall and some of its history, but you wrote about things I had never known before. It is amazing you were there and that you now have these memories to share.

    As for the geeky 9th grader, I was right there with you. We would have been friends.

  3. Wow. This was incredibly moving and I found myself tearing up just reading. I was also only nine and didn't really realize the significance of what was happening. Amazing post. Thank you for sharing this story.

  4. Thank you for this. I hope memories like this are never forgotten; it's rare to know the stories people like you who managed to see both sides of the wall.

  5. That was so touching. I actually felt myself tear up and shivers down my spine as I was reading
    I was 8 when the wall came down so only ever knew of it significance through history lessons but reading something like this makes it all seem so... much more real than I could ever have imagine
    Thank you