Meister: A warm day in Berlin

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Dick Meister describes the tense scene at the Berlin Wall shortly after it went up in 196l

By Dick Meister

It was 20 years ago this month that the Berlin Wall finally fell, one of the last vestiges of the Cold War. But though it's long gone, I and I'm sure many others, have not forgotten that Soviet-erected barrier which had stood for 28 years as a nearly impenetrable divider between the Soviet East and the West.

I especially remember the first time I saw the wall, just after it went up in 1961. The atmosphere was incredibly tense, a tension I and other reporters had found almost too acute to describe.

West Berliners sat at sidewalk cafes downtown, chatting amiably but without gaiety. Genuine relaxation seemed impossible because of the newly-constructed wall that stood just a few miles away. Out there the crowds were greater, but almost no one was talking.

It was a warm day in October.

The night before, an East Berliner had tried to get beyond the wall. Police chased him from rooftop to rooftop, but he reached a drainpipe on a building fronting on West Berlin.

West Berlin police fired across the wall, hoping to give the young man the chance to reach the sidewalk and the freedom he had shouted for. But he lost his grip and fell to his death.

Wreaths lay on the spot that fall afternoon, placed there by some of the West Berliners who stood in the large, quiet crowds lining the streets that bordered the wall. Twice before, their vigil had been broken. That had come earlier in the day, when the East Berlin police had fired across the wall, though without doing damage.

What would be next? Would it be just pistol fire? The crowd didn't know, so it waited. Here was the East-West confrontation in a single frightening capsule.

Rows and rows of red flags and the flags of the East's German Democratic Republic waved overhead. The wall below was a crude structure hurriedly constructed of used brick, but sturdy and topped with wicked-looking barbed wire and jagged chunks of broken glass.

Above the wall, caps of the East Berlin police standing guard were everywhere evident. Here and there a guard in bright green uniform showed himself -- always with at least two comrades. Their grimness contrasted sharply with the outward ease of the gray-uniformed West Berlin police standing across the street from them. They smiled as they chatted with the curious onlookers.

At one spot, East Berlin workmen were heightening the wall, placidly gazing now and then at the intently staring West Berliners. A young woman on the West Berlin side sauntered to within a few feet of the spot and casually pointed a camera into the face of a guard peering over. For what must have been the thousandth time, he allowed his photo to be taken. Then, for just a moment, the crisis was forgotten.

Other guards popped up to catch a glimpse of the woman, and one bantered with her suggestively. A nervous titter started through the crowd, but no one laughed out loud. The onlookers seemed embarrassed. The titter died away quickly and nerves were once more drawn taut. A West Berliner shouted insults at the East Berlin guards. His dog barked at them.

Then it was quiet again, save for the occasional roar of military jeeps as they sped through the city's western sector, constantly patrolling the wall.

On some street corners, West Berliners stood on ladders, looking across and above the wall through binoculars, waving at East Berliners in far-off buildings. In the upper floors of buildings on either side, people leaned from windows to view the scene below.

On both sides, the buildings mirrored desolation. Most showed heavy scars from the bombs of World War II, and piles of rubble lay near them. In the West, however, there were some new apartment houses, and laden fruit stands and bright shops. But there was a great difference, far beyond shops, buildings and the attitude of police. Whatever else was felt on the western side of the wall, it was not the helplessness and desolation that hovered on the eastern side.

Just beyond the wall in East Berlin stood a church, with a figure of Christ out front, beckoning. But close by the church stood armed men in bright green uniforms, there to keep people from the simple act of crossing from one side of a street to another.