May 29, 2012: Lichterfelde West
Andrews Barracks, the home of ASA Field Station Berlin, was founded as a training academy for cadets in the Prussian Army sometime back in the 18th century, in a suburb of Berlin called Lichterfelde West. Even in the 21st century, this part of Germany’s capital city has a charm seldom found in other districts. You can still feel this appeal if you take a short stroll down Kadetten Weg from Ringstrasse to its deadend at Finckenstein Allee, where the main entrance to Andrews Barracks once stood.
You will pass huge grandfather oaks and splendidly branched elms looming over cobblestoned sidewalks and streets. Sprawling two and three-story gingerbread houses rise from behind wrought iron fences. Narrow gables jut into the sky from the upper levels, their eye-like curtained windows peering down at passing pedestrians. If you’re lucky enough to be there in October, the streets and sidewalks will be brilliantly covered by red, yellow, orange, and brown leaves.
Life was always much more relaxed here than in the swarming hive of the city’s center. But for over forty years, while the city was divided, the district was definitely noisier, as intoxicated GI’s poured out from local bars at all hours of the day and night. Twenty years after their departure, the district has healed itself and gone back to being a quiet Berlin suburb. Andrews Barracks has become a branch of the German National Archives and all the soldiers of the past have been replaced by books.
May 22, 2012: A Quarrelsome Quagmire of my own Creation
After my first trip back to Berlin, which I took with two of my old Cold War buddies, I wrote a journal called “Pendejos and Ghosts.” Pendejos is a Spanish word for “fools” and refers to how long it took the three of us to get back together at the same time and place. “Ghosts” is an allusion to the phenomenon of finding the spirits of our former comrades roaming the narrow, cobble-stoned streets of Berlin. The next year, I returned to Berlin by myself.
During my second trip to this Cold War city, I had a couple of adventures that I turned into fictional tales about ghosts from the past. I soon chained myself to my word processor and began churning out more stories. But I knew little about the craft of writing, so I enrolled in a creative writing class to see if I was on the right track. “Pile ‘em High” tells the history of that class and how it led to my “waking up in a heavy sweat of my own clichés.”
I doubt if I could have prevented the fallout from that class, but the attitude of my characters must have been my fault. After all, I had created them. You’d think they’d be happy with the life I plotted out for them, but I must not have made them grateful. Too bad.
“Pile ‘em High” is now available from Kindle and Nook. I have to admit I used a few bad words in writing it, or rather my characters did. I like to think I have higher standards than they do.
Schlachtensee, a lake in Berlin
May 15, 2012: Return to Berlin
I was totally amazed at how many recollections a city can store. If one small object, like a garden gnome, can be filled with poignant memories, then think how many more you might find in a large city where you once lived.
I was overwhelmed with visions of the past when I finally returned to Berlin. There was the corner where Bob drew a picture of Snoopy in the snow. That’s the spot where we played Little John and Robin Hood on a log over a creek. Neeto read his poem about leaves right in front of that tree. That’s where the bakery shop was where I got cakes and rolls one beautiful Christmas morning. There’s the same rhino exhibit where Tim thought his life would end.
Memories that had faded with the years suddenly brightened back into a vivid reality when I saw the building, the street, the lake, or the bar where they were created. Some slipped back into my consciousness like a will o’ the wisp from a foggy swamp, while others exploded in my mind in a burst of color.
When I came back to the States fresh from seeing Berlin again after so many years, my head was literally spinning from so many many old/new memories. I found I had to sit down and put them on paper. The result was a series of stories about the old days in Berlin, mixed in with a few about the new Berlin and rediscovering the past.
A Berlin Bear
May 8, 2012: The Power of Objects
Take a good look at the objects that surround you every day. I mean the ones in your living room, bedroom, den, office cubicle, on your desk, hanging from your rear view mirror, and so on. Many of them probably have a special meaning for you because objects have the power to store a memory.
I have a garden gnome sitting on a shelf in my living room. It always reminds me of my long-time girlfriend who died of breast cancer. I used to spend Friday nights at her place, get up early on Saturday morning and drive to the nearest gourmet coffee shop to pick up lattés so we could start the day.
Once we saw a popular French movie we both loved. In it, the young heroine tried to get her father interested in travel. She gave his garden gnome to a stewardess who sent him photos of the gnome from tourist destinations all over the world.
One Saturday morning after seeing this movie, I went to fetch lattés and found a passenger. It was a garden gnome strapped into the passenger seat of my car. My girlfriend had the biggest smile on her face when I returned with our coffee. And that’s how I discovered we were going to Buenos Aires.
I am certain readers have many objects around them with similar stored memories. This little garden gnome made me wonder what might happen if I traveled to a city where I once lived, but hadn’t visited for many, many years. I found out when I finally returned to Berlin.
May 1, 2012: The Colors of Teufelsberg
At the time I worked on Teufelsberg, the various rooms for different operations were color-coded. The area where Russian communications were intercepted and recorded was called Silver. The room for scanning these tapes was Blue. The section for the interception of East German communications was called Orange. The teletype center was Violet, and the mysterious section where ordinary troopers were not admitted was named Black. The ASA and NSA believed in a “need to know” policy and most workers on the Hill were not told about operations where they personally did not work, so most of us did not know what went on in Black. However, the rumor was that this was the location of machines used for decoding Russian crypto transmissions.
Other stations around Berlin intercepted Morse Code and various sigint signals. One of the most important signals we intercepted was the Moscow Line, which connected USSR East German operations with the Soviet capital. The Russians used some voice on this line, but mainly they sent coded sigint communications. One of these was called “Liana” by the Russians and sounded like noises made in a tropical forest.
We were constantly warned by Security to be on the lookout for spies. The Army warned us not to tell Germans that we spoke Russian. Even the German linguists were advised to say they had learned German in college, not the Army.
However, the U.S. Army was also spying on us. There was a blind man with a German Shepherd guide dog who hung out at local GI bars. We never heard him speak anything but German, but I happened to find out that he actually worked for Military Intelligence, saw perfectly well, and spoke English with an American accent.