Twenty-five years ago today I hopped onto the U-Bahn in West Berlin with my mom and together we made our way over to the Brandenburg Gate…the Brandenburger Tor.
We were heading to a once-in-a-lifetime event. Though at the time we had no idea how historic it really would be.
We got off the U-Bahn and walked past the Reichstag and found ourselves at the end of an enormous line of people, all clutching small pieces of paper as well as passports in their hands, all subject to searches, checks and scrutiny.
And, by the way, we all had guns trained on us from the top of the Brandenburg Gate.
Just a typical day in West Berlin? Not quite.
No, it was a special day – the day when a sitting United States president was to give a speech in this divided city, much as JFK did years previously – though, to be sure, no jelly doughnut references were expected.
And so we started though the twisting line – reminiscent of the winding airport security lines we face today. Someone handed us a small paper West German flag as well as a couple small American ones.
There were three check points, three times when our passports and invitations were inspected by orange and brown-clad German guards. At the first checkpoint I handed over my papers. The guard glanced at my invitation and burst out laughing. I looked at my mom, non-plussed. He looked at my passport and renewed his guffaws. He then poked another guard in the ribs and showed him whatever it was that was so funny. He, too, laughed.
“Gretchen!” They chuckled. “Ha!”
(Read with a German accent – it makes it funnier, “Greatchen”!)
He then passed back my papers and waved me on.
We shuffled past, a little bewildered, clutching our identity and our tiny paper flags.
We approached the second checkpoint nervously. True to form, the guard burst out laughing after about half a second and, once again, showed his pal my papers.
“Greatchen! Das ist eine kinder namen.” (Okay, I admit, that may not be exactly what they said or exactly correct Deutsch. It’s the best I can remember right now!)
The truth began to dawn.
“Chen” is a diminutive in German – so, a newborn child would be named “Greta” and, while young, may indeed be called “Gretchen”…but, by the time they’d reached 17 as I was at the time, they’d be “Greta” – and never, on an official passport, would their name be a child’s name.
It would be like naming an American child “Suzikins” rather than “Suzanne”. Yes, she might be called “Suzikins” for a few years, but not by the time she was 17.
We approached the third checkpoint with more confidence.
Yes, you guessed it, he laughed.
“It’s my name, right?” I said.
“Ya, ya,” he said, smiling, as he waved us on. “Greatchen! Ha ha!”
We took our place – standing on the Strasse des 17. Juni – towards the back of the enormous crowd. We eyed the East German guards standing on top of the Brandenburg Gate with their guns. We waved our paper flags, we smiled at small children riding on top of their father’s shoulders.
And then President Ronald Reagan came on to the makeshift stage.
Everyone clapped and cheered and waved those tiny flags and he began to speak.
I don’t remember much of what he said. I do remember the weather was warm and I was tired from standing. I remember antsy children. And those nerve-wracking guns. But then, suddenly, our ears perked up as he said these words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
The cheers were deafening.
Our smiles were huge.
But, in my heart, I thought, “Yeah, like that will happen.”
Boy, was I wrong.
Two years later, as a freshman in college, I returned home for Christmas, just over a month after the wall had opened on November 9th, 1989. I went with my parents and my cousin who was visiting for the holiday and together we hammered out our pieces of history, even chatted with an East German guard who peered at us through a hole in The Wall.
History had been made.
Now, 23 years after the wall fell (metaphorically, anyway, it took a few years longer for it to be physically torn down), you call follow the course of the wall all through Berlin – there is a bicycle path all along the route.
It is a poignant reminder that nothing lasts forever.