Because the U.S. government did not recognize the East German government as legitimate and held that East Germany was occupied by the Soviet Union, no military personnel could go through the civilian checkpoints. We had to go through checkpoints policed by Soviet troops and we required special, more complex paperwork. At the time, I worked for the federal Civil Service in Security, Plans & Operations (SPO) and I drafted those documents for anyone traveling from West Germany through East German to West Berlin. While you could take a special train to West Berlin, it was generally a lot more convenient and faster to drive so that’s what most people did.
The Soviet guards had a real history of being very nit-picky with the security documents—they’d reject them for things like an extra space or comma. And if your documents were rejected, then you needed to get them replaced at a nearby American post. So I was extra nervous about the documents as we approached the checkpoint.
Picture the scene:
We had to clear the American security checkpoint first. Our documents were examined and redone; there was some new protocol that hadn’t yet made it out to the rest of the SPO offices but still I was embarrassed. We were to have a full tank of gas (we did), and then the security officer told us that we would have two hours (I think, maybe three) to get to Berlin. If we got there a certain amount faster, we would get a speeding ticket. If we were over 30 minutes late, they would come looking for us. On no account were we to leave the highway.
Then we drove the short distance to the Soviet checkpoint. It was a late December afternoon so it was already dark. The weather was pretty cold and it had snowed recently. Jordan was just a baby, only nine months old, and he and I stayed in the car (as we were supposed to) while Rick took the paperwork and our IDs to the guard house. While he did that, two Soviet guards armed with rifles patrolled in circles around our car, staring at me the entire time. It seemed to take forever before Rick came back out although I’m sure it was only about five minutes. Then we drove to Berlin.
I was struck by the complete absence of any lights—no houses were lit up, no street lights, not even in the distance, no commercial signs, nothing. Plus the road was not in good shape. The pavement was uneven and there were a lot of potholes. But we made it to Berlin within the prescribed time and then went through Checkpoint Bravo. That was almost anticlimactic after having gone through Checkpoint Alpha.
We did visit East Berlin, which meant we went through Checkpoint Charlie. I don’t recall that that checkpoint was nearly so intimidating. I do recall being struck by how gray everything seemed in East Berlin—the walls, the cars, the people’s clothing and even their faces.
In 1989, I was a freshman at KU and was taking my second or third semester of German from a grad student who was herself German. I remember that she managed to get a TV brought into our class and she cried as we watched the Wall come down.