It was a sunny spring day in 1976. I was crossing from West Berlin to East Berlin to visit that part of the famous metropolis ruled at the time by the Soviet Union. The East German border police at Checkpoint Charlie singled me out for special treatment.
I was taken from the line of tourists and brought into a small room where an older officer, holding my American passport, made me sit at a small white table and empty the contents of my pockets onto it. The officer began to interrogate me while a young soldier watched dutifully.
The officer noticed my West German visa. "What do you do?" he asked in a friendly enough manner.
"I am a student at the University of Hamburg," I told him.
"Why aren't you carrying any money?" It was a fair question, and I really can't remember how that situation had come about, except that I was traveling with my girlfriend and she was holding whatever meager vacation funds we had pooled together for the trip by car from Hamburg.
"My girl has money, and if I'm good she buys me things," I smart-alecked.
Confident that totalitarian hijinks could not touch me, I quipped further, "Looking for drugs?" I figured they must have pegged me as a hippie because of my shaggy hair and beard and the bell-bottoms and colorful shirt I was wearing. There was nothing colorful about East Germany, a sad world of browns and greys to anyone coming there from the West.
"Not drugs. We are searching for explosives," the officer said and I immediately realized this was no game.
A harsh look darkened the East German's countenance. His eyes narrowed. He asked me where I was going.
"East Berlin," I said.
"No," he corrected me with the sternness of a proverbial Prussian schoolmaster. "It is called Berlin, capital of the German Democratic Republic."
"Yeah, well, I'm just going to East Berlin for the day," I repeated.
"You are in college," he appealed to me, even as his voice became hard-edged. "You want to be an educated man. It is called Berlin, capital of the German Democratic Republic. Now repeat that," he snapped.
There I was, free to travel back and forth across the Iron Curtain, relying for protection on that talismanic travel document that was the U.S. passport in the 1970s. But the people of Eastern Europe were denied such basic freedom. The conditions were so lousy in East Berlin that the Soviets built the wall — beginning 51 years ago today — to keep the people from fleeing. And before it was finally torn down in 1989, eager East German border guards killed well over 100 persons who tried to scale it.
The young guard who stood in the room with us that day looked on silently wearing a poker face. He was closer to my age, but I would get no sympathy from him. The officer still held my passport. Everything else I had brought with me lay on the tabletop. I was on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall in the back room of a police station in a totalitarian nation.
Now the officer was ordering me again, "Say it! Berlin, capital of the German Democratic Republic." It was a bum rush attempt at minor indoctrination, and I was not about to capitulate.
"Where I come from, we call it East Berlin," I told him in no-nonsense tones, any shred of flippancy gone from my voice. When it came down to it, I was every bit as serious as he was. I knew the score and I detested it viscerally. And I was damned sure no East German border guard was going to bully me.
"Take your belongings and leave," he said, slapping my passport on the table.
That staggered me. I had been quite certain my refusal would only provoke real unpleasantness.
"That's it?" I said unable to keep from expressing my surprise.
"Oh, you want more?" He sounded pleased at the prospect.
But I was already putting stuff back in my pockets and had grabbed my passport.
"No. No more," I allowed. The officer took that as his victory, nodded to the soldier and turned away. I was escorted out of the room through some narrow hall and pushed out a back door, down a few steps onto a stone pavement. I saw my girlfriend standing in the sunlight, which like the birds that flew around Berlin didn't care the least about West and East. I had been detained for half an hour.
"What happened to you?" she asked. I held her tight. "Wait'll I tell you."