Stories Told

It happened at the Wall

Germany was still divided in 1984. We could not know that in five years the Cold War would end, marked dramatically on our televisions by video of East Germans spilling over the Berlin Wall and through its checkpoints. We had all seen photos of it in our history books, of course, and maybe even in our German texts. We had heard the story of how the Wall went up “virtually overnight” to keep East Germans from escaping to the West. The whole concept of keeping the East Germans in seemed sad and silly, yet it happened half a world away and seemed remote. So I was unprepared for the Wall when I saw it that summer.

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The Wall was at least twice my height, effectively blocking the view into the East except for tall structures near the border. Its rounded top made it hard to scale.

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It stood several feet behind a railing, which marked the actual border between east and west. Step over the railing and you were on shaky ground. The sign says, “Attention, you are now leaving West Berlin.”

You are now leaving West Berlin

The railing made a wide strip around West Berlin into a no-man’s land. These shots are of the Brandenburg Gate, finished in 1791. It teemed with people until 1962, when the Wall was built.

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We crossed into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie and saw the Gate’s other side from behind a fence. Nobody could get close to this grand symbol of Berlin from either side.

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Back in West Berlin, the wall stopped next to the Reichstag where the Spree River flowed by.

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It was a popular place for East Berliners to try to swim to freedom, at least until the East German government lined the river with barbed wire. These eight people were either caught up in it or were shot by border guards as they tried to cross. Here we were told that the no-man’s land behind the Wall was heavily mined and, in some places, lined with weapons that fired automatically.

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This is where I fully grasped the Wall’s reality. At first, I had felt frustrated by it, as the roaming American in me was not used to being prevented from going where I pleased. Then I felt saddened that it kept historic sites off limits to everybody. But when I saw these crosses, and the watchtower that loomed near them, I finally understood the real power and control being exerted over an entire people.

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I spent but a few hours in East Berlin. Every building was old, gray, and dilapidated, compared with the many gleaming new structures in the West. I saw few cars on the roads in East Berlin, but most of the ones I did see were tiny, noisy, smoke-belching, plastic-resin-bodied Trabants; the roads in West Berlin were choked with traffic, with cars of every make and model produced across Europe and Japan. I watched people in the Alexanderplatz, noticing the downcast silence with the average East German went about his business, especially compared with the exuberance I had experienced in the nightlife on the hot Ku’damm in West Berlin the night before. And then, as my group passed by the Neue Wache building, a military procession began. Everybody stopped to watch the goose-stepping soldiers in their show of miltary strength; the onlookers’ faces showed dull acceptance.

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Nature called while I stood on the Alexanderplatz. A sign pointed to a public toilet; it turned out to be a fetid underground pit into which men peed in plain view of each other. Unable to abide the stench, I sought out a restaurant, hoping to find facilities. A hunched-over old man was stationed in the tiny restroom, requiring a 10-pfennig coin to access the stalls and doling out short strips of toilet paper. Such is the nature of communism’s promise of full employment. I lacked coins, and the man would not change a bill, and so I held it until I returned to the West.

It was in experiencing the Wall, and spending those few hours in the East, that I first appreciated the great gifts of freedom I had always enjoyed.

One November morning five years later, I had just started to make my breakfast before dressing and going to work when the radio told me the news of the Wall’s end. I sat at my kitchen table and cried, simultaneously recalling my feelings of shock and sadness from my brief glimpses into East German life, and feeling joy for those people and the hope of better lives for them all.

Originally posted in October, 2009.

Stories Told

Gleich aus Deutschland zurück, 30 Jahre her

I spent my 16th summer in Germany. I was in an intensive language-immersion program through Indiana University that gave me a stunning command of the German language. I came away so fluent that even though I’ve had little call to speak German in 25 years and have forgotten a lot of vocabulary, when I encounter a native German speaker I can still make myself understood.

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Me drinking beer in Krefeld

This was also an exchange program. I lived with a kind and patient family in Krefeld, a town in western Germany near the border with the Netherlands.

It wasn’t all language instruction; we did touristy things too. We visited cities all over western Germany and spent a week in Berlin. We toured castles, churches, and breweries, and took a boat trip down the Rhine River.

The trip was a defining time in my life. It gave me perspectives on the world that I would never have gotten otherwise. I had a lot of freedom there and learned both how to handle it and that I was inherently trustworthy with it.

This summer is the 30th anniversary of my trip. This is about the time I returned home, and so I’ve been reflecting on my time in Germany lately. I’ve written about the trip many times before, and all week I’ll be sharing the best of those posts again. I’ll also tell some stories I haven’t told before.

To whet your appetite, here’s a gallery of some of the best scenes from my trip.

I wasn’t much of a photographer in 1984, but I’m sure glad I have these photos now.

Film Photography, Travel

Captured: Kölner Dom

Kölner Dom

I spent the summer of 1984 in Germany on an exchange program with other Indiana high-school students. We spent a lot of our time in intensive language instruction, but we also traveled the country. One of our trips was to Cologne, where we toured the great Cologne Cathedral. The locals call it der Kölner Dom.

The cathedral is enormous; I couldn’t back up far enough to get it all in the viewfinder of my crappy little 110 camera. So I took a series of shots, left to right, bottom to top, hoping I had lined them up well and had captured it all. The cathedral is wider than this, but the shots lined up well enough. 29 years later, I can properly stitch them together with software.

I’ve written about my trip to Germany before, here and here.

Film Photography

Captured: You are now leaving West Berlin

Sie verlassen jetzt West-Berlin

It was hard to go far in Berlin in 1984 without the Wall hemming you in or blocking your way. My tour group followed it across the heart of the city to the Brandenburg Gate, which in those days stood just inside East Berlin. The white railing was the actual border between east and west; the space between it and the wall was kind of a no-man’s land. The sign reads, ominously, “Attention: You are now leaving West Berlin.”

The wall was covered with graffiti no matter where I saw it, meaning many brave or crazy souls were willing to walk into no-man’s land to leave their mark. The graffiti is gone because the Wall is gone. Thank God.

I spent a week in Berlin; I was but 16. It left an indelible mark on me. Read about it.

Stories Told

Wanted by the FBI

I’m kicking off 2012 with a blatant rerun from May of 2007. It’s a funny story. Enjoy, and happy new year!

When I was 16, I spent a summer on an exchange program in Krefeld, Germany with 30 other teenaged Hoosiers. On the flight over, engine trouble forced us to land in Düsseldorf rather than in Frankfurt as planned. Because Düsseldorf expected no international flights that day, nobody was working in customs. My passport went unstamped, and I waltzed into Germany uncounted. How very un-German.

Several weeks later, my group visited Berlin. The Wall would not fall for five more years. At Checkpoint Alpha on the East German border, grave, armed border police in fitted olive uniforms boarded our bus and, without looking at or speaking to anyone, collected all of our passports and exited. They made us wait more than an hour, our anxiety growing, before they returned with our passports (all tossed into a box) and waved us through. Each passport had received an East German stamp. The road from there to Berlin was bounded by walls so tall that we couldn’t see over them even from our bus seats way up high. I guess the communists didn’t want you to see the glorious living conditions on the inside, or everybody would want to move there. Several hours later down that road we were easily waved through the checkpoint at the West Berlin border.

Checkpoint Alpha

A few days later we crossed into East Berlin to see the sights. At the famous Checkpoint Charlie, stone-faced border police once again boarded our bus, collected our passports, and made us wait for a long time before they returned them all stamped.

Sign at Checkpoint Charlie

In East Berlin I walked in the Alexanderplatz, stood in line to buy a communist propaganda rag, er, newspaper (the top story that day was essentially how President Reagan was an idiot), drank beer and laughed with teenaged East Berliners, and tried to use a fetid underground open-pit public restroom. Shudder. I held it until we got back to the west.

In West Berlin, I bought a book called Durchschaut die Uniform, or See Through the Uniform, telling stories of border guards — not only about the distasteful jobs they did, but about the people they were. The last page showed two pictures of four border guards, the first with their stony faces and the second with wide smiles. The second photo seemed so strange! But I got the book’s point, which was to have a heart because these guards were real people. So I decided to put on a pleasant face for them on the way home. As we left, we passed back through Checkpoint Alpha. Dour border police boarded our bus and collected passports. When they took mine, I looked them in the eye and smiled. It was met with indifference. They just took our passports and inspected our bus for things we were not allowed to take out. Inspection successful, they left and we were free to pass through. We made our way back across free Germany to Krefeld.

A few years later I renewed my passport when it expired. I wondered if anybody at the passport agency noticed that my old passport contained stamps only from communist East Germany.

Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States rode in on its white horse ostensibly to save the day. It was war, and I was draftable, so I was nervous about what might come.

At work the next day my co-workers were subdued and serious. I worked as best I could while I listened to news reports on the radio. Midafternoon, the receptionist called from the main building. “Uh, Jim?” she said. I could hear concern in her voice. She paused. “Uh… Jim, there’s a man from the FBI here to see you.”

My mind reeled for several seconds. My passport! They must have a file with my name on it! They think I’m red! They’ve come to carry away the commies!


“Um. Yes. Tell him to drive across the street to this building.”

I stepped outside to await my doom. I paced under the gray sky, wondering what the internment camp would be like. Before long, a gray Chevrolet sedan turned in and parked. Out stepped a doughy man in a gray suit. He approached, showed me his ID, identified himself, and asked, “Are you James Grey?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Is there a place where we can talk privately?”

I thought, “Talk privately? Aren’t you here to purge the land of communists in the name of national security?” I was growing dizzy, but I said, “Sure, come inside.” I led him to an empty room and we sat down.

“Mr. Grey, do you know a man named Robert Woolf?”

I’ve heard stories about what happens to cars that are accidentally shifted into reverse while going 40 miles per hour. Namely, the car’s transmission suddenly disintegrates, distributing its pieces along the road. This is what happened to my brain at that moment.

In shock, I managed to say, “Yes, I know Bobby.” Where the heck was this going?

“I need to ask you some questions about Mr. Woolf.”

Bobby, a college friend and roommate, was a sharp, smart guy who majored in computer science and is now well-respected in his field. His senior year, as he looked for his first job, he applied at the National Security Agency. He was pretty jazzed about the job, but he never heard back from them. He applied for other jobs and eventually accepted one in Silicon Valley. He used to e-mail me complaints about the traffic out there.

“Is this about the NSA job? Don’t you know that Bobby accepted another position?”

The agent paused. He may have swallowed. He said, deliberately, “Yes, every person I talk to tells me that. But I have to do these interviews anyway.”

So for twenty dull minutes he asked me questions about Bobby’s associations and character. I told him what I knew and he went on his way. I felt sorry for the guy having to drive all over the place talking with Bobby’s friends and family, needlessly looking for skeletons since Bobby no longer wanted that job. I tried to empathize with the guy, but he’d have none of it. He stuck to his questions until he had no more to ask, and then he got back into his gray sedan and drove away.

I learned that it’s fruitless to try to connect with a government official doing a distasteful or useless job. They just want to get it over with.

But at least there was no internment camp for me!

Originally posted in May, 2007. Revised and reposted in January, 2012.

Film Photography

Captured: Inside the Olympic stadium

Inside the Olympic Stadium

I spent the summer of 1984 in Germany on an exchange trip with other Hoosier high-school German students. While the trip’s purpose was to immerse us in the German language and culture, we did travel around Germany a little. We spent most of a week in Berlin seeing the sights, including a stop at the Olympic stadium. In 1931, Berlin was chosen to host the 1936 Summer Olympics. An existing stadium was going to be used for the Games, but when the Nazis came to power in 1933, they saw the excellent propaganda opportunity the Games offered them. Wanting everything associated with the Games to be tip top, Adolf Hitler ordered this grand new stadium built. Amazingly, it survived World War II almost entirely unscathed.

This image from inside the stadium is actually three photographs. My lousy 110 camera made fuzzy images, but it was the best I could afford and I made the most of it. I made a habit of shooting large scenes as sequential overlapping photos so that I could lay the prints out in the same order to see the whole. It worked, but the results were a bit wonky. I could not have imagined that 25 years later I’d be able to digitize them and use sophisticated software to make seamless panoramic images of them.

This image is best viewed large.

You might also like to see my photos of the Berlin Wall and East Berlin.