Friday, March 31, 2006

Over the Border

As soon as the wall came down a new industry was born. The people in Kirk's unit had spent a year learning Russian - what was more obvious than to head into East Germany and use it to good effect.

We always went at night of course. The border was only a few kilometers from Wildflecken and was a graphic commentary on 50 years of cold war. On the East German side the forest had been cleared back at least 200 yards along the length of the fence while the West Germans allowed trees to grow up as close as possible to give cover. A huge concrete tower, topped with a mirror-glass sided room and bristling with antenna sulked a few yards past the fence, and the road was guarded by several thoroughly armed soldiers. A couple of small crosses on the Western side of no-man's land spoke to the efficiency of the guards.

The progress of unification was played out here as well. After a few months the guards were gone, the small buildings deserted. Within a year the mirrored glass of the tower had all been broken out with rocks, and an Imbiss stand was doing steady business in the former guard shack.

There was an unmistakable smell to the air of East Germany. The Trabants driven by the vast majority of people used a small two-stroke engine that spewed horrible black smoke, and there was a thick brown haze everywhere. The small town that housed the Russian kaserne was grim and depressing. Many of the buildings showed what seemed to be bullet scars from WWII, and several still had bomb damage.

All trading was done over the back wall. It wasn't exactly secret - the Russian authorities must have known what was happening, but by keeping things around the corner they could more believably play blind, deaf and dumb. The Americans, at least from Kirk's unit, wanted particular items - tall leather boots, the heavy wool Russian great coat, and most prized of all, tank helmets. On their side the Russians wanted Levi jeans, Nike shoes, and American cigarettes.

We still have a lot of it. The tank helmet - not hard and solid, but black cloth and still smelling of diesel fuel - is one child's prized possession. There is an officer's uniform, looking like a marching band outfit in a doubtful green, and a pair of boots that look like they were made by someone with no concept of left or right. These last were particularly funny. Kirk was trading a nearly-new pair of Nikes for them and the soldier he was talking to was very keen. The boy rushed away and came back after several minutes. "Can you come back in about an hour? There's no one in your size that's gone right now that I want to steal from."

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